[This is a re-post of my Hardcore Henry review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release this weekend.]
A little over two years ago, the music video for Biting Elbows’ “Bad Motherfucker” started making the rounds. It was directed by the band’s frontman, Ilya Naishuller, and features loads of insanely impressive (and very bloody) first-person perspective camerawork. It’s a wildly entertaining feat that currently has nearly 30 million views on YouTube, but now the question is, can Naishuller turn that short-form prowess and popularity into a worthy full feature?
Naishuller teamed up with producer Timur Bekmambetov to direct his debut film, Hardcore Henry, which is told entirely from the first-person-perspective, just like “Bad Motherfucker.” This time around we experience the story through Henry, a cyborg super-soldier tasked with rescuing his wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) from an especially vivacious telekinetic psychopath (Danila Kozlovsky) named Akan.
As one might expect, Naishuller knocks the visuals out of the park. It does take time to adjust to the POV, shaky cam perspective and those prone to motion sickness might not be able to at all, but hopefully you don’t fall into that category because you’d be missing out on one heck of a violent, midnight romp. Soon after Henry comes to and Estelle attaches a new biomechanical hand and foot, Hardcore forges forward full force and rarely lets up. It’s one action set piece after the next which might sound monotonous, but Naishuller puts a fun, fresh spin on all of them.
There are countless stunts and lengthy shots with complicated blocking and extensive in-camera effects that will leave you in awe of what Naishuller and co. manage to pull off, some favorites being the opening escape, a scene involving a flamethrower and the rooftop-set big finish. It’s impossible to watch the movie without stepping back to marvel at the downright incredible technical achievements, but you only get split seconds here and there to do so because, one, the shooting style truly is deeply immersive and, two, Naishuller actually manages to support it with an engaging narrative.
There are no subplots or side scenarios. Hardcore is entirely about Henry’s mission to rescue his wife from Akan. Henry spends the large majority of the movie taking out nameless thugs, but Naishuller builds a fairly rich world around him with minimal exposition to justify all the violence. As soon as Henry wakes up, we learn that his memory’s been wiped. Estelle doesn’t spend too much time catching him up on what’s happening, but she does explain just enough so that all of Henry’s efforts have purpose.
Along the way he learns more about what happened to him and what he’s capable of, in good part thanks to Sharlto Copley’s characters. Yes, characters. Copley is a scene stealer as Jimmy, a rogue fighter/guide who appears in multiple forms – a hippie, military soldier, wheelchair bound scientist and more. Copley is very clearly reveling in the opportunity to go big in so many different ways, and his enthusiasm is palpable and adds a good deal of energy to the film. And the same goes for Kozlovsky as well. I’ve only ever seen him in Vampire Academy in which he plays a hunk with zero personality, so it was quite the treat to see him do something so drastically different and nail it.
Not only do Jimmy and Akan’s big, bold personalities add some unique flavor to the non-stop combat, but Naishuller also incorporates some much-needed comedic relief using the shooting technique. As seen in the trailer, at one point, Henry falls from a helicopter, barely misses the safety of a nearby lake and winds up crash-landing in a tree instead, and there’s also an especially amusing encounter between Henry and a horse that might be the most clever gag in the entire film.
Hardcore isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but it is a rip-roaring 90 minutes of firepower, action and carnage, and an unprecedented cinematic achievement. Naishuller may have made a name for himself with this GoPro-style action, but you don’t keep a packed theater cheering for an hour and a half by leaning on a gimmick. Naishuller has a firm handle on the visual format but also clearly knows how to bring the best out of his cast and deliver a compelling feature length narrative. Hardcore will likely spark copycats, but they’ve got no chance of transcending the shtick unless they’ve got an all-around talent like Naishuller behind them.