I have been a fan of first-person shooter style video games for a long time. I remember when my family got our first computer; thanks to Wolfenstein, I became a Nazi-killing machine. The love for this genre of video games has been massive among gamers, fueled over the years by titles like Doom, Quake, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Battlefield and the list goes on and on. It seems funny that only now we get a taste of a fully first-person cinematic story, something that was only explored briefly in the 2005 adaptation of the previously mentioned Doom. That scene was arguably the best part in a pretty bad movie but it did beg the question “could we do this for an entire feature?” Lucky for us, Russian director and rock band frontman Ilya Naishuller rose up to take that challenge.
For those who are unfamiliar with Naishuller’s work, his band Biting Elbows hit some prominence in his home country, opening for Guns N’ Roses shows in Moscow, as well as some other big acts passing through Russia. He caught international attention for the music videos he produced for his band, most notably “Bad Motherfucker” which came out in 2013. The video went viral on YouTube, being shared by millions of people, sitting now at over thirty million views. An incredible and ambitious piece of short film making depicting one man taking on an army of thugs bent on getting a piece of teleporting technology, it was without a doubt that Naishuller would get some studios knocking at his door wanting him to do something bigger.
That “something bigger” would be Hardcore, later to be renamed Hardcore Henry. The film drops you into the character without hesitation as he wakes up in a lab tank before it is drained and he is placed on a lab table. Beautiful scientist Estelle (Haley Bennett) informs Henry that he is part of a rebuild program to make a super soldier by adding robotics to reanimated tissue. His memory has been wiped clean and he hasn’t been provided with a voice but Estelle informs him that she is his wife. Shortly after Henry’s missing limbs are replaced with the robotic prosthetics, the lab is overrun by terrorists led by Akan, the owner of a shadowy company that isn’t quite explained to us, nor is his telekinetic power as he throws people and objects through the air with the flick of a wrist to a deadly result. When Estelle creates a distraction, she and Henry manage to get out of the lab in an escape pod as the lab is coincidentally a sky-bound facility.
Once on the ground, Henry is assaulted by the ground team working for Akan and Estelle is kidnapped by the evil mastermind, who looks a lot like Benedict Cumberbatch playing Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Henry is saved from the soldiers intent on taking him down by Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who, with reckless abandon, guns down the assailants and takes Henry with him. On the ride, we get a little more exposition on what powers Henry and what he is exactly before, shockingly, Jimmy is killed, only to reappear again as a homeless vagrant Henry meets on a bus he escapes to. What does this mean? Why is he alive but as a different person? This is all part of the intrigue in the adrenaline pounding Hardcore Henry.
Seeing the trailers for this film leading up to my screening, I was really already on board with the sheer originality of Naishuller’s vision but there was the nagging of my critical side thinking I was hyping it too much. I am very happy to report that, for myself, I did not over sell this movie. It is an absolute rollercoaster of a thrill ride. Ultra violent and constantly on the run, Hardcore Henry has a tranquil three to five minute opening scene as I described and then throws everything at you as Henry battles for the love of his life. I was hooting and hollering throughout as this insanely ambitious filmmaker pulled out all the stops.
Some viewers may be put off by the lack of explanation of certain elements in the film, most glaringly our head villain who’s gifted powers never get touched on at all. I felt I was easily able to get by it, being that Hardcore Henry is all about Henry’s origin and journey rather than fleshing out any sort of “world building”. ‘How is there a floating laboratory in the sky?’ would have been a fantastic starting question; however, by the time the movie is hitting on all cylinders, who really cares? This is Henry’s story.
Having crushed the Toronto International Film Festival, earning the Midnight Madness award and totally winning over audiences, Hardcore Henry is purely for the adrenaline junkie action fans that loved movies like Crank, Shoot ‘Em Up or even John Wick. Action is an incredibly hard genre to get exactly right and we see films fall victim to some of it’s more thoughtless trappings. Hardcore Henry manages to rise above all this by having a great film original style and titanium balls that can survive any grenade you throw at it. This movie may not become a critic darling but movie fans will love it and I loved it. Hardcore Henry is a five out of five for just being actually fun!