Hardcore Henry is, in essence, a video game come to life. This is either a compliment or a complaint depending on the perspective of the individual members of the audience. Roger Ebert, who had a thing or two to say about video games as a lower tier art form, would likely balk (or perhaps even puke) at this premise. As someone who hasn’t owned a video game console since the Nintendo 64, I’m almost equally an outsider to the medium, but I still found the film to be a blast. Hardcore Henry‘s central gimmick of mirroring the look of 1st person shooters by mounting GoPros to its camera/stuntmen is a lot to handle for 90 minutes of action cinema & the video game-thin plot & villains that accompany it don’t help much either. Audiences have largely rejected the Russian-American co-production outright based on its marketing & the movie has made back only less than half of its budget on its opening weekend. Still, there’s certainly an audience for this pure-adrenaline macho-hedonism out there and I have no doubt Hardcore Henry will endure as something of a cult classic in the long run whether or not the immediate returns are looking optimistic (they’re not).
Besides being a live action, narrative video game of a movie, Hardcore Henry could also be understood as a sci-fi action thriller, even if it’s as a stubbornly vacuous one. Brought to life as a Robocop-esque “cybersoldier”, the titular hero/audience surrogate Henry is half man/half machine (or “half machine/half pussy” as one of his combatants puts it) who must save his scientist wife & the world at large from an evil sorcerer who looks like a bitter cocktail of Kurt Cobain, Andy Warhol, and Viserys Targaryen. Obviously, the sci-fi plot is mostly present as a delivery system for the film’s true bread & butter of action & gore. Much like in video games, Henry is mostly provided short-term goals & destinations by an in-the-know guide (Sharlto Copley of District 9) that he must achieve by obliterating all human (and inhuman) obstacles in the way with guns, grenades, wine bottles, screwdrivers, windshield wipers, etc. Every now & then the sci-fi element will lead to a hilarious line like “Put down the proto-baby!”, but for the most part this genre marker is pure background filler. Even my favorite aspect of the film, the telekinetic sorcerer video game villain with the terrible hair, is more fantasy than he is sci-fi, so it’s probably best not to think too extensively on why the plot unfolds the way it does. Just try to enjoy it for its own tasteless, disgustingly violent self.
I guess I should be clear about this: there’s far more to hate about Hardcore Henry than just its video game gimmick. Its rampant misogyny, gay panic humor, and constant, gleeful violence & gore are sure to turn off a lot of folks & rightfully so. However, I don’t personally see much of a difference between the misanthropy on display here and the macho-hedonism of any other generic shoot-em-up. Hardcore Henry is loud, obnoxious, one-note, nearly plotless, and entirely over the top in its meat-headed self-indulgence, but so are a lot of my favorite hallmarks of action cinema: Commando, Rambo IV, Invasion U.S.A., etc. I’ll contend that the film’s glaring, perhaps even deplorable faults are all outweighed by its consistently goofy tone (particularly in the scenery-chewing sorcerer villain) & 1st person POV visual experimentation). There are hordes of 13 year olds who’ll latch onto Hardcore Henry‘s naked girls, guns, and cocaine version of masculinity in an unsavory way, I’m sure, but I never really look to my dumb action movies for moral high ground and, truth be told, those kids will grow out of it eventually. Hopefully.
As much as I enjoyed Hardcore Henry as a violently campy good time, a large part of me is somewhat relieved that it’s floundering financially. If the film were a runaway success we might’ve been flooded with an untold number of 1st person shoot-em-up knockoffs for decades, just as The Blair Witch Project spawned a legion of subpar found footage horrors in its wake. Truthfully, I like Hardcore Henry‘s reputation positioned exactly where it is. It’ll be heralded by select fans as an overlooked classic, but never imitated to an extent where the gimmick becomes overbearingly redundant (I hope). I personally enjoyed the film with the same sick fascination a lot of folks have with GoPro videos of Russian teens hanging off of skyscrapers with just one hand & no safety gear (if you haven’t seen it, don’t Google it). I was appalled & more than a little concerned,but also undeniably made giddy by the sheer novelty & audacity on display.