PLOT: When a man on his death bed is suddenly brought back as a mechanized android - a bionic killing machine - the mad Russian scientist who created him coordinates a nationwide manhunt for the man known as Hardcore Henry.
REVIEW: With only a single 5-minute short to his name until now, Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller brashly barks his international arrival via HARDCORE HENRY, a vertiginous first-person shoot-em up that at times functions as a nauseating drill, but mostly amounts to a riotous slam-bang action bonanza that can really only be likened to RUN LOLA RUN meeting a game of Quake. Or if, you'd like, the autistic little brother of THE RAID franchise. And by autistic, we mean slightly underdeveloped. It's RAID MAN! The movie is all style with little to no substance, one that, without the humorous exploits of one Sharlto Copley, would likely grow far more tricksome and tiresome than it does. As an outright action flick though, there's nary a dull moment here. On the contra, there's an immersive kineticism and dynamic forward thrust that goes a long way in terms of sheer entertainment value. Where the film falls short however is its attempt to make the viewer fully complicit, to in essence place us in the perspective of the main character. It doesn't quite jive. There's an unintentional detachment to that design, and in the end the action doesn't feel like it's happening to us personally as much as it plays like we're watching a friend play a videogame. A pretty badass one, but a hollow game nonetheless.
Henry is all but a dead man. As we open, our titular hero's so called wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) is reconstructing the poor moribund bastard by attaching bionic limbs and mechanical wires - arms, legs, etc. - before whisking him away to backroom compound. In short order a full-fledged assault takes hold - which we witness in first-person POV - that puts Henry under relentless attack, and soon the movie becomes a shaky-cam (GoPro) zero-coverage blitz of unencumbered action. All we know is Henry is wanted dead or alive, and to be brought back to his maniacal-albino-Kurt-Cobain-looking maker Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) intent on world domination. Turns out the bond villain acolyte plans on assembling an entire army of these bionic killing machines and allocating them toward his lofty, power-hungry goal. It's he that puts on a full-court press to find and retrieve Henry, even co-opting Estelle to help along the way. Can Henry evade the assault? Can he turn the tables an waylay Akan's advancing army?
We also meet an odd little fellow named Jimmy (Copley), who claims to be an ally of Henry's, even explaining how his newfangled circuitry only permits a lifespan of 15 minute intervals. Once that amount of time lapses, a reboot of sorts must occur in order to press on. This gives way to one of the films unquestionable strong suits, the self-aware sense of humor of Sharlto Copley and his many iterations as Jimmy. In various disguises, he portrays: a Russian soldier, a punk rocker, a normal everyman, a coked-up sex maniac, a camouflaged hunter adorned in bushes, and a few others. The running gag of Jimmy dying every 15 minutes, only to call Henry moments later and return under a totally new visage is absolutely hilarious. Without this playfully knowing sense of absurd comedy - the lewd language and non-PC barbs - if the movie tried to play it straight and remained deathly serious the whole time, the overall experience would suffer greatly. The humor no doubt makes the movie more of a blast than it would otherwise be. Copley steals the show!
There's also some pretty remarkable set-pieces and impressively choreographed action sequences. We're talking about jumping out of planes, darting across bridges, foot-to-the-floor car chases, the works. There's even an hysterical bit where Henry lands in a barren field, only to try to mount a horse bareback as the theme of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN kicks up. All highly amusing stuff, no doubt about it. The problem is, as designed to mirror a first-person shooter game, it retains the emotional impact of such. Which is to say, none. We can't possibly care about Henry because we know close to nothing about him, even down to what his face looks like. It's here where we're supposed to be fully immersed in a way that we're meant to feel like Henry himself, but even then, there's no real substantive pull to make us sympathize or empathize with anything that happens him, and proxy us, during the course of the film. To wit, the repetitive shaky-cam aesthetic of the POV really does tend to wear on you as the film unfolds, almost ad nauseam. Thankfully, as antidote to the sore eyes, is the always lovely presence of Haley Bennett doing her best to lend a little pathos to the proceedings. Unfortunately, it's too little to atone for what's ultimately an emotionally vacuous visual whirlwind.
All told, HENRY HARDCORE is a pretty damn unique experience. Despite being a bit bereft of an emotionally resonant story, despite its at times headache inducing visual gimmickry, the sheer balls-to-the-wall indefatigability is quite a sight to behold. As a dynamic, supercharged jacked action joint of steroids, yes, the film succeeds in spades. However, the film has all the emotive heft of what it patterns itself after, a visually arresting but ultimately fallow first-person videogame. If you aren't a teenager, who cares? If you're okay with that, and the potential to feel a bit queasy throughout the film, I'd say run out and give this bad boy a peek. If you're one who detests the shaky-cam barrage (a la CLOVERFIELD), or if you need an empathetic anchor to weigh your action films down, as I do, you might want to skip it. One thing is bound to remain true regardless of which side of the fence you reside...HENRY HARDCORE isn't for a second a boring time at the movies. It's 96 minutes of unremitting marvel, peppered with humorous stints of absurdity that's bound to keep you entertained throughout. I just wish it had more of a statement to make.