There’s a smug adage in film criticism that there’s no such thing as a “good” video-game adaptation. However, movies like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “The Raid” have employed play aspects of video games that make them uniquely entertaining cinema. Into this zone falls the absolutely insane “Hardcore Henry.”
Written and directed by Ilya Naishuller, “Hardcore Henry” is told entirely from the first-person perspective of the titular hero, a recently resurrected super-soldier who must tear through hundreds of gun-wielding baddies — not to mention a telekinetic albino — to rescue his loving wife. The plot is so paper thin it can be perplexing. It feels like when you skip the cutscenes because you can’t wait to play the next level; you know who needs to die, even if you don’t know why.
Into that fray enters Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) as a bevvy of wacky characters, each an NPC who sends Henry new information to continue his mission. Copley’s camp performance style plays perfectly into “Hardcore Henry”s gonzo aesthetic, whether he’s a hippie biker, a ghillie suit-clad sniper, a sneering punk or a smiling song-and-dance man. Opposite him — and the bevy of stunt men and cinematographers who play Henry — is Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky, bringing cartoon villain menace as the pale and deadly Akan. Haley Bennett also swans in on occasion as Henry’s lovely bride, but only in glances enough to push the “your princess is in another castle” plot points.
The acting gives the film a camp character and the plot gives it a loose structure, even if the point-of-view gimmick wears thin before the final act. But the reason for seizing this cinematic experience is the action, which is breathtaking and gut-churning, causing this critic to battle low-boil nausea for its final hour, not to mention flashes of anxiety-inspiring vertigo. But those are trials gladly endured for the electrifying experience of watching “Hardcore Henry” with a crowd gleefully in its gruesome sway. Naishuller delivers one absolutely mental sequence after another, ranging from sky-high escapes to explosive chase scenes, jaw-dropping parkour stunts and next level mayhem that’ll pitch you back into your seat.
Now, there are those decrying “Hardcore Henry” as essentially anti-cinema for its bombastic approach that rejects so much tradition. Rather than an ego ideal we connect to through closeups that entreat us to stare into a charismatic actor’s eyes, “Hardcore Henry” chucks us violently into the actual point of view of a character we barely get to see, aside from flailing or firing limbs. And yet, we are embedded and invested, perhaps not on a profound emotional level, but certainly on a raw sensational one. “Hardcore Henry” is a jolt to the system and a post-modern pastiche of influences from video games (“Better Off Dead,” “Doom”) and action movies (“Gamer,” “The Raid”) that is sure to prove seminal in its own right for the way it makes its audience a plaything.
In this unrelenting adrenaline rush, we are tossed about with our unkillable avatar, shaken, stirred, exhilarated and, yeah, sometimes nauseated. Maybe “Hardcore Henry” is an affront to cinema as we know it, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. Cinema is at its best when it challenges an audience to meet it on its terms. And “Hardcore Henry” does that with aplomb. While “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” hopes to awe audiences with the immersive 4D experience, this bonkers action flick does it with a dare of an approach that had SXSW audiences bucking in their seats, roaring with laughter and shock, and gasping for air.
“Hardcore Henry” made its U.S. premiere at SXSW. A theatrical release will follow on April 8.