I have clearly aged out of Hardcore Henry’s target demographic. Back in my day, you had to actually purchase movie tickets from a living person, which made the prospect of sneaking into an R-rated film while obviously underage that much more daunting. In this era of automated kiosks, the two unattended 14-year-old boys who sat in the row ahead of me must’ve had a much easier time. And that’s largely as it should be, because this film was tailor-made for the adolescent male psyche.
Hardcore Henry sells itself almost exclusively on its similarity to the first-person-shooter genre of modern video games that the film evokes. Shot entirely from the protagonist’s POV using GoPro cameras, Henry’s gimmick worked well enough in the 5-minute music video on which the film was based, but wears thin at feature length. While some have called this gambit innovative, those of us who remember Bogie and Bacall in Dark Passage or Robert Montgomery’s directorial effort The Lady in the Lake know that such POV schemes are nothing new, and were used to greater effect way back in 1947.
That said, Henry is at least creative in its excess. The title sequence alone is one of the most graphic displays of violence I’ve seen in recent memory, and the film never seems to run out of new and increasingly gruesome forms of anatomical assault. The stunt choreography is truly impressive, at least if you can visually sort out what’s happening on screen with the camera bobbing and weaving like late-period Muhammad Ali. Since I’ve never developed an affinity for parkour or pseudo-vérité shaky cam, however, much of the impact was lost on me, as I found myself preoccupied by my fervent wish that the concession stand sold Dramamine.
There’s not much story to speak of beyond the setup and its inevitable conclusion, and no one could accuse the film of getting bogged down in exposition or character development. Most of the film’s dialogue is presented in the style of video game cut-scenes, with the protagonist remaining mute throughout the film and letting other characters explain things to him in passing. If you find yourself in the small subset of the movie-going populace that finds Michael Bay films too talky, this might be a plus, but the lack of characterization severely hampers the audience’s ability to attach any emotional stakes to the film’s incessant chaos.
It’s difficult to assign qualitative value to the acting in a film this focused on style over substance. Unlike Dark Passage or The Lady in the Lake, we never really get a good look at Henry, so the true lead performance comes from Sharlto Copley in a supporting role (or roles). Copley channels his inner Peter Sellers portraying the same character in a variety of different guises, some of which are highly entertaining. At one point, a stoned hippie variant of Copley’s character offers a goon under enhanced interrogation the choice between his Higher Self (a toke from a joint) and his Ego (a bullet to the kneecap). But as good as Copley proves to be in his various personas, the show is still stolen by Tim Roth in approximately 30 seconds of flashback as Henry’s father.
Despite its best efforts, Hardcore Henry is rife with drawbacks. Any film that credits 30 prostitutes in a brothel scene while only giving two of them names is probably not going to ingratiate itself to feminists, and while there might be some political statement intended in the villain’s resemblance to Julian Assange, this movie is far less interested in making a point than in showing people “get blowed up real good.” And in that limited scope, the film succeeds. I’d struggle to recommend Hardcore Henry to anyone beyond the most ardent gamers, or possibly to sociopaths with severe ADHD, but I also would’ve been willing to suffer the tortures of the damned (to quote Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange) to have seen this movie in a theater when I was 14. Kids these days just don’t know how good they’ve got it. Rated R for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use.