As a technical exercise, this is an interesting film. It has a concept of presentation, and it embraces that wholeheartedly. The film promises to be a first-person perspective endeavor, and it delivers on that. Taken on that level, it’s a film that can be appreciated. It is quite unlike anything that’s come before, except for small sequences here and there. To be so dedicated to a concept is something that can be praised. Oftentimes, a creator will not be fully committed to their concept and will pull back, which delivers weaker experience. Not so, with Hardcore Henry. It is was it is, from start to finish.
The problem, really, is that as a film, it isn’t very good. It has some entertaining parts, but as a whole it’s lackluster, derivative, and threadbare. Except for the gimmick, it has little to stand on that suggests it as a worthy experience.
Really, the problems, are twofold. The first is technical. Or rather, it’s biological. See, our human perspective on how we see and experience the world is not entirely visual. It’s not something that can be broken down into a single sense. If you move about, flicking your view to different things, you aren’t just seeing those things, you’re also getting information from your other senses that affect how you perceive everything. Most importantly, you have an inherent sense of balance which your brain processes along with what you’re seeing. If you look at something straight on, it looks right. If you tilt your head so that it’s sideways, you have all this extra information so that it still looks correct.
Movies are a presentation that’s generally reduced to two senses. You get the visual, you get the audio. And that’s it. THere’s no feeling or smell. There’s no balance. Even if the image on screen shifts so that the view is presented askew, you don’t have that internal adjustment to tell you this. It looks odd. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. An adept filmmaker can use that difference to heighten the effect of the film.
But the filmmaker needs to be adept. They need to understand what the limitations and advantages of their presentation will be when contrasted to the actual human experience of watching the film. If they aren’t doing that, then the experience becomes a burden on the viewer. In many cases, this isn’t so much of an issue. Movies (and other experiences) are pretty culturally embedded. We start seeing moving pictures at a very early age, often before we can even talk. The standard TV viewing is so normal that we have learned and take it as a given about how it will work. So this gives some leeway
But for newer tech, that’s less of the case. We haven’t learned and internalized how to process such things. And so a filmmaker could easily misstep. During the 3D boom you could see this a lot. Some filmmakers took the tech into account. They realized that some things you can do in traditional 2D presentations aren’t always going to work for a 3D presentation and would make adjustments. Others wouldn’t. They would film as they always had and you’d get a jumbled mess of rapid cuts which undermined the depth of field and led to a jarring amount of perspective shifts that left the eyes (and brain) tired from the viewer.
The makes of Hardcore Henry have done the same. They haven’t accounted for the lack of balance. They haven’t really done anything to allow the viewer extra time needed to process the images. As with 3D, it’s somewhat necessary to slow it down. Do away with the rapid cuts. Or at the very least, take into account the perspective lines so that when there is a cut, the viewer’s eye won’t need to rapidly shift to account for what’s being seen. (The latter, of course, what done masterfully in MMFR, which does have many, many rapid cuts, but also isn’t a burden, even in 3D, because they account for where the viewer is looking.)
Because of all this, I didn’t find that the film was something that took a little bit to get used to and then it was fine. In fact, it was the opposite. The early parts of the film were easy enough to take in, but as my eyes and brain became tired and strained, that was less of the case. About halfway through I was more disoriented, and by the end I even felt a bit queasy. Mostly I was struck by how lackluster an effort had been made to account for possible issues. If you need to avoid rapid cuts, for instance, why not tell a story that can mostly be told in the timeframe of your film runtime? (Another gimmick, but also one that’s been done several times before.) Instead what we’re left with is a film that repeatedly cuts out “boring bits” to speed things along, which mostly just gives the viewer visual confusion.
Still, if that was the only sin of Hardcore Henry, it could perhaps be forgiven. New tech and all, so it’s possible that the creators aren’t completely clear on what needs to be accounted for.
But the story. Oh, god, the story. Characters are paper thin. Motivations are absent and unexplained. Plot developments just happen without rhyme or reason. This isn’t to say that the film needs to be layered and complex. Thin, simple stories that exist as the vehicle for the action are perfectly fine, but this is mostly non-sensical. Almost every development raised questions that aren’t answered.
So as the film went on, I began to just wonder about things that were never given an explanation. Why did the bad guy care about making a cyborg army when he had super telekinetic powers? Why did he have telekinetic powers in the first place? When would the love interest backstab Henry, because it was an obvious “twist” from the beginning? Actually, I’ll come back to that last one in a moment.
Mostly, if you are doing a thin story as a vehicle for the action, make sure your action is really top-notch. And other than the FPS gimmick, there isn’t really much here to recommend the action besides the volume of violence. Henry fights guys and kills guys and the ways he does so aren’t particularly novel or interesting, except we’re seeing it from his perspective. After a while, there isn’t a whole lot of wow factor. After more of a while, I was just confused about what was going on? Did Henry start to rip the bad guy’s hand in two? I don’t know, it wasn’t clear enough to tell. But more than that, I just didn’t care anymore.
But going back to an earlier point. The love interest. Or rather, women in general. This film is terrible for its portrayal of women. Beyond the early realization that the love interest would backstab Henry at some point (and that such a twist wouldn’t be a satisfying character development for anyone), there was also a sense of deep misogyny about the film. Women were objects. They exist entirely for the consumption and use of men, both the characters and the assumed viewer. None of them have depth. None of them have agency. (Why is love interest lady really with the big bad guy? We never know.)
One standout moment came in the middle of a car chase sequence. Henry blows up a van with a grenade and is thrown into the air. He lands on the back of a motorcycle being driven by one of the femme fatale characters who just shows up for no explained reason. As he settles down, his hands run along her sides and then rest on her hips. Then he reaches forward and down, between her legs. It’s a moment that purely exists for titillation. And then he grabs a gun that’s there, pulls back and starts shooting. It’s a little twist, but the entire framing was unnecessary. Why is the gun between her legs and not, say, on her hip? Because they wanted that possessive, sexual grab.
Soon after, Henry leaps from the motorcycle. The femme fatale is discarded as a character. Whether she died or just disappeared isn’t really clear, but it makes little difference either way. She existed for the adolescent pleasure of the creators and the viewer in her skintight catsuit. Once she served her purpose, there was no reason to keep her around.
Mostly, the film as a whole felt like a video game. It had a video game plot, video game characters, video game fetch quests with maps and goals. It had a final boss who just exists for no reason except to be a final boss. Hardcore Henry is a low-grade sci-fi first person shooter that you’d expect to find in the bargain bin in three months. The only notable thing about it is it’s a video game that was shot as a movie and projected on a movie screen. And when it did that, it removed the one thing that makes even poor video games palatable: the mechanics. Without the ability to control Henry, the viewer is just a passive observer.
Which isn’t very interesting.
2/5, but mostly because they did try had on the gimmick. And Sharlto Copley is entertaining when he hams it up.