When history’s first filmmakers ran film through a camera at 24 frames per second, they weren’t concerned with story. They were just wowed by what they’d achieved, which was considerable. Hardcore Henry, history’s first first person POV action movie, feels like that. It’s groundbreaking and visually impressive, but simply not very good at telling a story.
Written and directed by Ilya Naishuller, Hardcore Henry tells the story of a man named Henry who wakes up as he’s being turned into a cyborg by his wife. His wife is then kidnapped and he has to try and get her back. The hook of the movie is, from frame one, the entire movie unfolds in first person point of view. The audience is the main character. (You can read about how the effect was achieved here.)
At the start, Hardcore Henry grabs you by setting up a slew of interesting, tantalising character and story strands. How did Henry get into this position? Where did this technology come from? Who is this bad man who keeps coming after him? And then, the setting itself gets turned on its head, and you can feel the electricity on your skin. I was instantly hooked.
Unfortunately, things go downhill considerably from there, as the mysterious mythology gets jettisoned until the film’s final ten minutes. The bulk of the movie is Henry running from place to place, dispatching bad guys, trying different weapons, jumping onto and out of various things, and just generally being a menace. For a while, this is amazing. You can’t believe what you’re seeing.
The effects are almost all done practically, and the movie is edited to feel like a long single take, so the images we see are jaw-dropping. But after 20 or 30 minutes, the non-stop action starts to feel very repetitive. A few of the action scenes later in the movie are so beyond over the top, you get drawn back in for a second, but mostly any sense of engagement in the film’s story fades away.
A welcome respite is Sharlto Copley’s character Jimmy, who pops up throughout the film, in various different ways. He’s funny, weird, but incredibly confusing as a presence in the movie — until about halfway through, when Naishuller gives you only the second narrative-building sequence of the film.
You’d think that would be boring, but in fact, the scene is one of the best moments in the film. Naishuller does a masterful job surprising his audience by editing around Copley’s performance as multiple personalities. It’s fun and funny, and provides a much needed respite from the non-stop insanity of the rest of the movie. However, you guessed it, after that we go back into Call of Duty, video game killer mode.
When you realise Hardcore Henry was made by a first time filmmaker pioneering not just a technology, but almost a new language in film, everything about it makes sense. For a movie with that much ambition to not only work technically, but narratively, is a huge ask. It’s admirable for its ambition and at times watchable for its action but, ultimately, story and character should trump everything.
In Hardcore Henry, those two elements get beat up more than the bad guys. And that’s saying something. Basically, watching Hardcore Henry is like going to a concert where you don’t know the band, and every song sounds exactly the same.