Movie Review: 'Hardcore Henry' a First-Person Thrill Ride

Movie Review: 'Hardcore Henry' a First-Person Thrill Ride

“Hardcore” premiered last year in the Midnight Movies sections at the Toronto Film Fest to some fanfare and a bidding war from distributors, for good reason: this is an entire movie filmed from the first-person POV, emulating a video game FPS shooter. 

Half a year later, the movie – now retitled Hardcore Henry – has been rolled out in cinemas across the globe. But the fanfare has died down, with the film garnering mixed reviews from critics and lackluster tallies at the US box office.

That’s unfortunate: this is a one-of-a-kind roller coaster ride of a film, destined to become a cult item, that is thrilling not only for its unique style but for its madcap storyline. It’s one big nonstop chase throughout the streets of Moscow that recalls a Crank or Run Lola Run.

It might also be overwhelming for some: shot entirely using GoPro cameras, frequently flung across the screen and whip-panning across the room, this is the ultimate shakycam film, though I found it more tolerable than most.

Who is Henry? Well, YOU are. That’s the idea, anyway, as you wake up in laboratory during the film’s opening scenes with no memory, as your wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) attaches a cybernetic arm and leg to your (presumably) battle-torn body.

But as she goes over some of the basics, and just before she can put in your voice module, the lab is raided by commando thugs and telekinetic albino bad guy Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), who is about to end your brief existence until a sudden escape sends you hurtling from the sky.

On the streets of Moscow, you’re ambushed by Akan’s thugs, whose number must be in the hundreds during the film, every time you stop for more than a few seconds. If that’s not enough motivation, the power source pumping your heart is about to run out of juice…

The rules of what you need to do and where you need to go are helpfully explained by the mysterious “Jimmy” (Sharlto Copely), who keep popping up every now and then in various disguises – even after he’s been killed.

And that’s all there is to the film: go here, do that, and fight waves and waves of bad guys. In-between the action, tidbits of story are teasingly doled out. You might as well be watching someone play a first-person shooter, complete with cutscenes. But there’s something exhilarating about it all nonetheless.

The thing is, Hardcore Henry doesn’t really emulate the look or feel of a video game, nor any kind of first-person reality. There’s a stability to our natural vision, and the camera in an FPS game, that means we can see clearly when we run, or jump, or turn our head.

Not here, where every movement seems to disorient us; as Henry runs through city streets and across rooftops, the camera swings wildly and we lose our focus through a flurry of kinetic images. The filmmakers smartly use this opportunity to hide edits and effects work.

What the film does do is showcase a movie filmed on GoPro cameras, complete with some incredible practical stuntwork going on behind the camera. As Henry climbs buildings and does the parkour-style moves, I often wondered if this wouldn’t be more entertaining to watch the stunts from the traditional third person. But it’s a unique and thrilling experience just the same.

Hardcore Henry is not the first movie told in first-person: these things go back as far as 1947’s Lady in the Lake (briefly spotted as a poster on the wall here – wonderful) and as recent as the underrated Elijah Wood Maniac remake.

But it is the craziest, most off-the-wall of these films. Or, for that matter, most others. I can’t say you’ll like this film as much as I did, but you won’t see anything else like it this year. 

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