By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.
Hardcore Henry, a proudly R-rated action vehicle from thirty-year old director Ilya Naishuller projected almost entirely from the first person point of view, is an unusually successful cinematic experiment. With practically wall to wall violence from its slightly off commencing sequence to it’s certainly smirk inducing finale, the too often heard comparisons of film to a video are certainly impossible to ignore. As a matter of fact, it seems tailor-made for such tech savvy enthusiasts. Similarly, its general attitude is destruction of everything in sight without taking the time to ask why. It delivers only the most necessary bits of its narrative design to project the story from one jaw-dropping, breathtaking sequence of explosion and gun-fire to the next. Even the general plot, which concerns a robotic being with an unusually well-honed knack for fighting waking up with no recollection of prior events to find out he is a wanted man, seems lifted from the same comparative source.
The result is a spectacularly over the top, endlessly entertaining ninety-six minutes. It astonishes by showing us things we’ve seen far too many times before with a unique angle. This is that we are thrust directly into the sights and perceptions of our lead, Jimmy (Sharlto Copley, who proves he is certainly suited for his role; even if his actual performance is hard to assess). Furthermore, the composition moves at a relentlessly breakneck pace throughout. There is no denying the ground-breaking take on the brutal, yet conventional, exploits Jimmy dabbles in. The whole work, from one amazingly done early sequence atop a plane to the massive brawl incorporated in the completion, seems to be trying to top itself time and again. This is especially true in terms of sheer ravenous spectacle. A dynamic extended sequence inside a brothel and an equally terrific one involving a unique take on a car chase are among the most memorable such incidents herein. There are also several successfully humorous sections sprinkled throughout the bloodshed and ferocity. One such incident, where Jimmy fails to mount a horse near the hour mark, plays like a riotous western parody. It can also be seen, at best, as a hilarious outtake from such a genre offering. It is such unexpected moments amid the modern-day carnage which keeps the proceedings continuously fresh and unpredictable. These portions only heighten the joy at hand.
Yet, it isn’t until we leave this silver screen wonder that we realize we know little more about the individual whose shoes we’ve walked in as we did going into it. We are awed by its brazen, in your face attitude. This fascination continues with its sharp twists (one particular third act reveal is especially surprising) and the pure energy surging from every frame. Yet, it never asks us to peer any deeper. Such makes for a rousing, but, ultimately, hollow experience. Those who are looking for brisk, mindless excitement will more than get their money’s worth. All others may be underwhelmed by its lack of dimension. Those individuals may be just as disappointed with the by the numbers story arc.
Besides wisely avoiding showing the face of our protagonist by having Jimmy cleverly duck out of range of all the mirrors that surround him until one pivotal instant, which heightens the effectiveness of the gimmick Naihsuller engages us in, the screenplay continuously injects inventive ways to keep its rowdy spirit fresh and alive. The picture rarely repeats itself in terms of violence. Likewise, the incorporation of Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), an engaging albino villain with telekinetic powers, adds to both the wow factor. It also greatly enhances the creativity on display. This is noticeable when he is seen psychically picking up anything in his possession and hurling them at Jimmy. These range from tables to actual human beings. Either way, such sights suit the approach remarkably well.
Sadly, none of that conception can be found in the other aspects of the conclusively rote Will Stewart and Naishuller penned screenplay. The duo offer strictly serviceable dialogue. They serve up to spectators’ ears the brand of perfunctory conversation that is just meant to move us from one scene to the next. That is when the feature settles down, as it rarely does, enough to allow such discourse. There isn’t even the expected degree of quips we would find in a classically honed vehicle. For instance, the brand that would’ve typically showcased Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis. Additionally, all of the characters we meet herein are written as thinly as Jimmy.
Moreover, the ploy begins to grow tedious near the climax. There is also a staggeringly unexpected, and rather pointless, musical number in the third act. This weighs down the energy. Such an absurd bit plays as if the tale is suddenly lampooning itself. It throws us out of the account during the minute or two it lasts. What is worse is that the feeling that this segment is pure filler, in a flick where this word otherwise does not apply, is undeniable.
Yet, these detracting elements are saved by composer Darya Charusha’s kinetic, pulse-pounding soundtrack. The cinematography from Chris W. Johnson, Pasha Kapinos, Fedor Lyass and Vsevolod Kaptur, as well as the editing by Steve Mirkovich, are crisp, rugged and grimly beautiful. Such is true of both components. This is even when they mimic the erratic shaky camera movements commonly equated to a found footage effort. Anna Kudevich’s costume design is stylish and appropriate. Igor Byoko, Regan Livingstone and Tanit Phoenix offer terrific make-up. The sound, composed from a department of seventeen individuals, makes the various blows issued throughout all the more immersive and heart-pounding. The massive visual effects and stunt crew only enhance the credibility and the illusion that we are actually a part of what is unfolding.
Haley Bennett paints Jimmy’s wife, Estelle, with equal doses strength and vulnerability. Bennett gives a powerhouse performance in a role that is more layered than her introductory sequences, when Jimmy wakes up, would allow you to believe. Tim Roth is just as convincing as Henry’s Father. Andrei Dementiev as Slick Dimitri, Oleg Poddubnyy as Yuri and Stewart as Robbie are just as wonderful. They are continuously gripping in their respective portrayals.
I was initially put off by the concept of Hardcore Henry. It appeared that, with the found footage sub-genre long past its prime and audiences unafraid to announce their fatigue with such opuses, Naishuller and company were attempting to offer us a new moneymaking alternative to the aforementioned sub-genre. Moreover, the trailer made the actual execution of the idea appear juvenile. I couldn’t be more wrong. This is a well-done, ruthless, fierce and mostly mature endeavor. It should have no problem packing adrenaline junkies of all ages into cinema theaters with the enjoyment afterwards evident all around. Naishuller guides the piece with taut direction and more artistry than one might expect from such an undertaking. This is visible from the moment Jimmy opens his eyes after the initial prologue.
Though the affair can be equated to the likes of the Jason Statham starring Crank ventures, both entries in the Hitman series, James Bond, The Terminator and any given found footage exertion thrown into a blender: the result is, for now, purely original. My only hope is that when the movie’s success at recycling these familiar ingredients brings forth an era of first person vantage movies: that they are injected with the inspired spirit of virtuoso fun that is visible throughout so that this impression will not become tainted. Even though the tactic utilized has been done in cinema before, Naishuller has crafted a film that is still uniquely trailblazing. Though far from a masterpiece, this assuredly dazzles. Such comes as much from the novelty still ingested into its device as it does from its ability to wink at its audience while exhilarating us. The results are undeniable, and highly recommended.