As a formal and technical achievement, “Hardcore Henry” is almost virtuosic. Shot entirely on GoPro cameras attached to the heads of a dozen stuntmen, it delivers its herky-jerky story of a souped-up bionic man on the run – if “story” is even the right word here – using a point of view that’s reminiscent of a first-person-shooter video game, for all the right and wrong reasons.
In other words, it’s like watching a 90-minute YouTube session of “Call of Duty” crossed with the 1970s TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and with a little esprit of the viral “Damn Daniel” video thrown in for good measure. (The titular hero, somewhat oddly, spends an inordinate amount of time looking at his own shoes, apparently as a way of reminding viewers that there’s a real person, albeit a cyborgian one, attached to the camera.)
When we meet Henry, he’s laid out on a gurney in some flying medical lab hovering above Moscow – a man missing both an arm and a leg, and, as we learn later, a head so badly traumatized that his eyes are video cameras. Although he gets two new mechanical limbs, he has no memory or speaking voice, since the laboratory is stormed by evildoers just as his communication module is about to be installed, rendering him as mute as the strong, silent and morally opportunistic antihero of “Grand Theft Auto III.”
The head evildoer, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), wants Henry for his army of half-human, halfmachine cyber-goons, although why he would need him is unclear, seeing as Akan possesses telekinetic powers rivaling those of Magneto, or Voldemort. The rest of the movie consists of Henry trying to rescue the woman he has been told is his wife (Haley Bennett) from Akan’s thugs, who kidnap her after the pair land, with a sickening crash, on a Moscow highway in an escape pod.
Henry is aided in this mission by a mysterious man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley, the film’s greatest nontechnical asset), who keeps getting killed and then reappearing in a variety of guises, for reasons that only gradually become clear. Copley, who at one point shows up looking and sounding like the British soldier John Price in the “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” franchise, is a genuine delight. The sense of goofy, if gory, good humor he brings to “Hardcore Henry” goes a long way toward mitigating the film’s tedious barbarity.
Which brings me to my next point: The film’s graphic violence takes place early and often, with lavish production values. Over the opening credits, we see a slo-mo ballet of objects – brick, bullet, knife, fist, grenade, etc. – making almost pornographic contact with flesh.
Over the course of the film, Henry dispatches myriad malefactors in gruesome and creative ways, with the victims’ blood often spattering the lens of the camera, as in an M-rated video game. I suppose there’s a certain beauty to it all, if your tastes have been corrupted – er, cultivated – by overexposure to “Far Cry,” “Halo,” “Doom” and their sanguinary ilk. Henry seems to have a second pair of eyes installed in the back of his head, too, judging by his ability to see bad guys sneaking up on him before we do.
Director Ilya Naishuller – who based his feature debut on a first-person-P.O.V. music video he shot that went viral – has said that he originally thought a 90-minute feature using the same technique was a bad idea, based on little more than a gimmick. It turns out he was right, but that won’t matter to certain audiences.
“Hardcore Henry” will undoubtedly find partisans among those whose senses of perception have become attuned to the kinetic, if not frenetic, rhythms of gaming and the satisfaction derived from racking up hundreds of kills, while ignoring such traditional values as character and motivation. All others are likely to need a Dramamine for the motion sickness.
starring Sharlto Copley, Tim Roth and Haley Bennett. Directed by Ilya Naishuller. Written by Naishuller and Will Stewart. Rated R for graphic violence throughout, obscenity, nudity, sex and drugs. In English and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 1:30