One hot summer’s day as a young teen, I casually sauntered into our local computer shop. Sat in the corner was a PC, running a copy of Wolfenstein 3D. Although I’d seen primitive 3D games before, I’d never seen anything like this, and I got stuck in. I killed Nazis. I opened doors. I reluctantly shot dogs. I’m not sure if it was the heat of the shop, motion sickness from the game or the stomach churning animal cruelty, but after about 20 minutes of play, I became gripped with nausea, and threw up all over the keyboard. Whilst it didn’t exactly endear me to the shop’s owner (who exclusively referred to me as ‘Sick Boy’ for every subsequent visit), it certainly made a strong point about the visceral power of the first person point of view. Last night, it almost happened again.
I was at a screening of Hardcore Henry, the first feature film from director Ilya Naishuller, who came to Hollywood’s attention with a music video he shot for his band, Biting Elbows in 2013. ‘Bad Motherf***er’ was a 5-minute mini-action movie filmed entirely in first person, that perfectly mimicked the experience of playing a modern shooter.
But if that video was his proof of concept, then Hardcore Henry is his Gold Master – 96 minutes of hardcore POV insanity. If you can imagine watching a version of Crank directed by Hideo Kojima, filmed entirely on a Go Pro attached to Jason Staham’s head, then you’ve pretty much got the idea.
From the very start, Hardcore Henry plays out like a set-piece heavy Valve shooter; awakening in a tube filled with goop, Henry (played by a handful of different camera/stunt men, all of whom are probably certifiably insane) is given his Y-axis calibration by his wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett). Luckily for him, she’s a research scientist who’s used robotic augmentation to pull him back from the brink of death. Like Portal’s Chell, Henry’s bionic leg lets him fall from 20-storey buildings, whilst his robotic arm gives him a powerful grip, and the ability to destroy an apple with a single squeeze. Which, if nothing else, will at least give him a good shot at a job at Magners. Unfortunately, despite a daring joint escape from her Lab, Estelle is immediately kidnapped by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a bug-eyed psychokinetic warlord who could teach Psycho Mantis a thing or two about mind games. Henry has no choice but to rescue her by running through the streets and rooftops of Moscow at top speed, with a mandate to kill anyone who gets in his way.
A lot of people then get in his way.
As with any good shooter, Henry’s not alone on his quest, as District 9’s Sharlto Copley turns up at frequent checkpoints to yell exposition into the camera, Call of Duty-style. His Jimmy is seemingly a master of disguise, appearing variously as a badass secret agent, a stuffy British army sergeant and an Easy Rider-vintage Dennis Hopper, and Sharlto’s clearly enjoying himself. Henry also manages to snag himself a handful of gory powerups, including (but not limited to) adrenaline injections, fistfuls of cocaine, and a powerful battery located in a rival cyborg’s chest cavity.
There are multiple references to gaming tropes, everything from tense sniping sections (The Prypiat section in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare) to ill-advised platforming sections (Half-Life’s Xen springs to mind), all topped off with a hefty sprinkling of Metal Gear sci-fi madness. Of course, frame-watchers will be disappointed to note that this is locked to a measly 24fps, but you can’t have everything.
What I think Naishuller has managed to do with Hardcore Henry, is marry the set-piece heavy language of the modern shooter to the propensity modern Russians seem to have for performing death defying feats of madness, and the result is a madly kinetic kaleidoscope of a movie.
It’s the kind of flick that only a first-time director would dare to attempt, and while some have already compared Naishuller to Tarantino, to me he’s clearly the new Robert Rodriguez, favouring cool shots over worrying about performances or narrative cohesion. Even aside from all the wonderful stunts (and the stunts are brilliant), there’s a ton of creativity on display here, as the director employs everything from subtitle gags, to ironic soundtrack cues (The Magnificent Seven theme is used to good effect), and even a cleverly choreographed Cole Porter musical number.
The movie culminates in a breathtakingly sustained sequence of violence, with Henry battling 80 henchmen on a rooftop – synced to Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, naturally. It was during this sequence that my stomach almost gave up my lunch, after a particularly vertiginous shot followed a henchman off the side of the building. I don’t like heights at the best of times, but after 90 minutes of camera spinning mayhem, my stomach just went “Nope!”
Fortunately for the patrons sat in front of me (and unlike that incident in the computer shop all those years ago) I managed to choke it back down this time. But it reminded me of my pukey Waterloo, and made me realise how rare it is for a piece of media to cause a physical gut reaction in you. It wasn’t just the nausea either; after exiting the cinema, I became weirdly aware of my limbs, and how they interacted with objects.
My teenage self would have loved this film, filled as it was with ultraviolence, crazy sci-fi ideas and actual naked lady breasts. And so despite its (Sharlto aside) FMV-quality acting, nausea-inducing camera work and a script seemingly written by a horny teenager, for me, Hardcore Henry still has something to recommend about it. But hey – that’s just my perspective.