Shot with head-mounted GoPro cameras, the Russian-made action flick Hardcore Henry mimics the experience of watching someone else play a very derivative first-person shooter with sub-Duke Nukem humor. But despite the undeniable “How’d they do that?” factor of the stunt- and pyrotechnics-heavy mayhem, the movie’s slavish reproduction of game design tropes (mute protagonist, last-minute waypoint changes, exposition that only comes when the hero is pinned down or paralyzed, etc.) eventually grows tiresome. Made without a hint of commentary or subversion, Hardcore Henry is a feature-length novelty viral video—literally, given that it was developed from a couple of DIY music videos directed by first-timer Ilya Naishuller.
The title character, played by a team of stuntmen, is an amnesiac super-soldier who wakes up in an airship above Moscow and plummets into the city below in an escape pod so he can rescue his scientist wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), from the clutches of telekinetic albino Akan (Danila Kozlovsky). Tips and objectives come courtesy of the body-hopping Jimmy (Sharlto Copley in a variety of wigs and accents), who leads Henry on a rampage across streets, rooftops, and into one of those red-tinted brothels that games have traditionally used to signify edginess. In short, Hardcore Henry all but begs to be described and judged as a game: in its variety of environments (highway, tourist-packed plaza, skyscraper), weapons (knives, explosives, a century’s worth of firearms), and faceless goons (guys in black suits, guys in camo, guys with flamethrowers).
This is a problem, because said game is uninspired, and only holds interest because it isn’t actually a painfully clichéd first-person shooter, but a live-action movie studiously made to look like one: a simulation of a simulation, presented from a choppy fisheye point-of-view. One can’t help but appreciate Naishuller’s ingenuity and coordination, especially in the early going, when the silent Henry is fighting his way through the streets of Moscow, knocking over sidewalk portrait stands and sliding down escalators. But Hardcore Henry never aspires to rise above its one gimmick. After enough you-are-there stabbings and in-your-face splatters of blood, a viewer begins to value those stray moments when the motion-sickness-inducing video format gets whacked out on rapid movement, producing bands and blotches that bump Hardcore Henry into unintentional abstraction. At least it’s something different.
With the exception of a song-and-dance sequence lifted directly from Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Gamer and a couple of pointless flashbacks, the movie’s only major departure from shoot ’em up aesthetics is a head-spinning rooftop cage match that pits Henry against henchmen in A Clockwork Orange garb. (Even the personal touches are cliché.) It’s probably best not to see from the front row, or maybe even on a big screen; one gets the sense that its ideal venue isn’t the movie theater, but the window of a Twitch stream or a YouTube “Let’s Play,” where it would at least have the benefit of user commentary.