There are some theoretically cool death-defying stunts going on in Hardcore Henry, an exhaustingly extreme action movie. It’s too bad the production is too committed to its gimmick to take advantage of them. The whole thing is shot in first-person, a gauntlet of gnarly chaos from the unblinking perspective of a silent stuntman protagonist, an uncommunicative amnesiac cyborg soldier. There’s a good reason why, in over a century of cinema, there has very rarely been a feature shot entirely in this style. (This parenthetical is the obligatory reference to Robert Montgomery’s 1947 noir Lady in the Lake, the closest this novelty ever came to working.) Spending the entire time watching bobbling frames with the occasional limb swinging through just doesn’t work, especially when thrown into an ugly, nasty movie of smeary GoPro parkour and vacant characterizations conspiring to create a propulsive narrative of dehumanizing brutality. It’s quickly tiresome, a numbing cacophony of visual noise.
It’s halfway between a virtual reality theme park experience and a first-person shooter, with none of the immersion of the former or the interactivity of the latter. The movie wakes up with its protagonist, some unknown fit guy who has been Robocop-ed before the story began. He doesn’t know who he is or why he’s in this bionic state. All he knows is that his wife (Haley Bennett) is the scientist who saved his life. There’s not much downtime before she’s kidnapped, a snarling Russian villain with telekinetic powers (Danila Kozlovsky) taking her away. Seeing this Princess Peach snatched away by a mean Bowser gives our hero all the motivation he needs to rampage through waves of anonymous henchmen who pop up in a variety of locations: a highway, a subway station, a high rise, a brothel, a forest, a field, a decrepit hotel, and a skyscraper. For a guide he has an endlessly regenerated helper (played in all its guises – a cabbie, a biker, a coked-up nut, and more – by Sharlto Copley) who helpfully remotely updates his smart phone with the latest maps and missions. It’s gamified action taken to its illogical conclusion.
The brutally simple movie becomes essentially a 90-minute stunt show and shooting gallery. It’s repetitive and nasty, rounds of ammunition and grotesque splatter separated only by grindingly bland exposition, flashes of oddball gallows humor, and a few truly nifty chase sequences. Seeing the camera protagonist take off running up the side of a building or across a park is good for some fleeting thrills. More often, though, we’re stuck in the point-of-view of a merciless killer mowing down his prey indiscriminately and with upsettingly gory excess. This is a movie that’s pornographically violent. I don’t mean that as knock against the adverb, but as a description of the film’s explicit imagery. It’s preoccupied with the penetration of bullets and knives into the flesh and viscera of its combatants, eager to watch the plunge of a projectile in the torso of a living, breathing being. To see the film is to be trapped in the viewpoint of a faceless mindless rage-driven killer, stripped of all humanity and characterization as he obliterates random foes, being asked to imagine oneself in his place. It’s queasy-making.
Comprehensively amoral, right down to its gross misogyny – a lengthy sequence finds prostitutes helpless in crossfire, and later a few key twists reveal a woman as the puppeteer of all the man’s pain – and total disregard for human life, it’s a movie catering to its target crowd’s worst impulses. Writer-director Ilya Naishuller, in his feature debut, has clearly marshaled talented, athletic cast and crew to carry out the action, figuring out some complicated staging and pulling it off with precision and skill. And he’s made a far more cinematically palatable vision than you’d expect to see from footage captured on the forehead of a stuntperson. The camerawork is sometimes clever, but the effect isn’t when tied to faulty story and structure. And there’s an overwhelming sense of futility when the stunts are only worth appreciating if you can fill in the surroundings – imagining the car flip you only half see beneath the leaping camera – and ignore the bloody muck of the mean, empty content around them.