Some people are dismissive of gimmicks. They think of them as flashy, insubstantial tricks only designed to hold your attention for a brief moment. Sure, plenty of gimmicks are like this, but some can be genuinely evocative and inventive. 3D is a gimmick. All special effects are gimmicks, really. If you think about it, movies themselves started as a gimmick. It’s like a picture, but moving! There is a reason why the first movies were quick shots of horses running or a train coming at the camera. No one had seen that shit before. It hooked people. That gimmick started off flashy and insubstantial, but evolved into something that has held our attention for quite a while now. Then the audience was fainting because the train is coming right at them. Now they're now fighting nausea to get a first person view of the relentlessly crazy, bone crushing, parkour jumping, bullet spewing world of HARDCORE HENRY.
Henry wakes up in a vat of liquid missing his memories and a couple of limbs. Luckily for him, his wife, Estelle, is there to screw on a fancy new robot arm and leg (covered in flesh, so he isn’t all Robocopish). Unluckily for him, a bunch of mercenaries let by telekinetic asshole Akan burst in just before Henry’s voice synthesizer is hooked up. Akan apparently has plans to take over the world (or something) using an army of cybernetic kill-boys, and Henry and Estelle are somehow pawns in this game. Estelle is captured, but Henry manages to escape, with Akan's endless supply of goons tracking his ever move. Henry's only help comes from Jimmy, a mysterious ally who has the odd habit of getting killed only to reappear shortly after as a different person. It’s going to take all of Henry’s new found cybernetic abilities to run, bash, shoot, and explode his way through the mean streets of Moscow if he ever wants to stop Akan, see his wife again, or stay alive more than five minutes.
HARDCORE HENRY is certainly all about the gimmick. It is a breathlessly kinetic action movie filmed entirely in one first person style view. It’s not so ambitious to make everything one continuous shot, there are plenty of cuts and fades and time jumps. It is ambitious with its sheer volume of action, though. The running time is about 20 percent story, 80 percent mayhem. The parkour is practically fetishistic, the violence is excessive and juvenile, and not a lot of time is given to character development. Essentially, it’s a very long, well produced YouTube video. Extending this out to feature length should have ended in disaster. Somehow though, I think it works. The action is amazingly well executed. Even though a lot of the shots are unavoidably shaky and disorienting, I was able to follow the majority of what was happening. The variety of action keeps it interesting. The shit can come at you from any direction and in any form. It’s not entirely relentless, though. Just when I reached the limit of what I could process (and mind you, I have a very high action threshold), it would let up just enough to let me catch my breath. Even the quiet scenes were incredibly tense though, because I knew the shit could go crazy again at any second. Nowhere is safe. Turn around and suddenly there’s a tank in your face. It certainly kept my attention.
I like to gauge my screen violence by the O scale. A particularly inventive, surprising, or resounding bit of bodily harm will elicit an “oh” from me, usually with a wince thrown in for good measure. The more impactful the violence, the more “o”s precede the “h”. For example: “Oh, that looked like it hurt.” “Oooh! That was rough.” “Oooooooh my god, did that just happen?” Usually I can keep it silent, as long as it’s under five Os. The O scale can be measured in both frequency and magnitude. A movie like THE HATEFUL EIGHT will rate low in frequency but high in magnitude. A movie like THE RAID rates high in frequency but medium in magnitude. HARDCORE HENRY topped the charts on both.
If you’ve ever wondered how many Russians a person could possibly kill on screen in 96 minutes, this movie will tell you. The answer is, basically, all of them. The cast is composed of, like, four actors and 300 stunt people. There are a lot of repeated names in the cast credits, partially because the shit happens so fast and often you can’t possibly remember every single victim, and partially because Russia ran out of stunt people. The level of violence is staggering, but it’s the fun kind of excess. It is so cartoonishly over the top that you can’t take it seriously. The kills are quick. There is not a lot of suffering to be seen. When I said it was juvenile, I didn’t mean that as a put down. It has a kind of giddy insanity that tapped into my inner thirteen year old.
The challenge here is how to develop a character when you not only can’t hear his voice, but can’t see his face, either. Well, you don’t. Not that much, at least. There’s a reason Henry doesn’t come up in the credits. He is primarily a surrogate for the audience, your placeholder on the roller-coaster ride. He’s not completely blank, though. You get a little bit of personality in his gestures, thoughtful pauses, and most importantly, his actions. He’s slow to violence, spending the first ten minutes or so primarily as a punching bag. I got the feeling that his self-defense instincts (or killstincts) were more from the cybernetic implants than from him. Once he is up to speed, taking out bad guys becomes second nature. He clearly doesn’t want to hurt innocent people, though. I like that at one point during a narrow escape he turns back to see if a woman he accidentally knocked over is okay. He certainly has strong feelings against rapists (that scene registered a magnitude 10 on the O scale). His one full memory, about his father, played by the outstanding Tim Roth, also generated a lot of sympathy. I wouldn’t call him a hero, but his motivations are simple and identifiable. He’s just trying to stay alive, rescue his wife, and help his friend. I didn’t mind spending an hour and a half inside his head.
Henry might not get much chance to shine dramatically, but Sharlto Copley totally makes up for it. His work in his pal Neill Blomkamp’s movies (DISTRICT 9, ELYSIUM, CHAPPIE) already highlighted his range as an actor, all his characters are radically different. That’s nothing compared to his work here. Jimmy essentially has multiple personality disorder, but it’s embodied physically as well as mentally. There’s Agent Jimmy, Homeless Jimmy, Hippy Jimmy, Cokehead Jimmy (my favorite), Nerd Jimmy, Punk Jimmy, and more. It’s like Eddie Murphy in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, except funny. He’s obviously having an absolute blast in this role(s), giving it his all. Seriously, how could you not love this guy?
Head baddie Akan is perhaps less dimensional that Henry, though. He practically screams “I’m so EVIL!” every time he’s on screen. Actor Danila Kozlovsky certainly puts enough energy into it, and Akan is despicable, but also very one note. However, he does exemplify one of my favorite aspects of HARDCORE HENRY, its absolute disregard for explaining what the fuck is going on. How did Akan become a telekinetic? Why does he want to take over the world? How is that going to work, exactly? What happened to Henry before he woke up all robofied? Your guess is as good as mine. We, the audience, are just as clueless as Henry. It adds one more disorienting layer to an already delirious film. I don’t think the answers are “just because.” There are intriguing little details woven into the chaos, like Akan’s increasingly severe nosebleeds whenever he exerts himself, so I think there is a backstory, but who has time for a backstory when a hundred gun-toting goons are trying to kill you? It does throw you a few bones, like why there are so many Jimmys, and there is a nice little twist at the end. For the most part, though, you have to puzzle things out on your own. Not bad for a “mindless” action flick.
As is usually the case for movies I dig, it isn’t for everyone. Some people will find it literally unwatchable. People prone to motion sickness are going to have a problem. I could barely keep up with the camerawork myself, some times. It's like four regular movies worth of action stuffed into one. There is so much going on that it can become exhausting after a while. If you can stick with it, though, the movie turns out to be a pretty unique experience. I’m not sure if there is enough there to sustain a sequel. If they try, I want to see them ratchet up the crazy, like having Henry do parkour in space. Or a volcano.