I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if the movies they’re making for 13-year-olds now came out when I was 13. I think part of the reason I became attracted to cinema in the first place was that the films aimed at me were shit like Wild Wild West; they were so obviously terrible that even undiscerning preteens hated them. They forced me to look elsewhere and, while that took me to the most predictable avenues (Scorsese, Kevin Smith, Boondock Saints etc.), I made the move from video games to a much more affordable film obsession.
Most big-budget movies made these days are aimed at teenage boys; hell, many of them appear to be made by teenage boys or at least have been in mental gestation since the director’s teens. I know for a fact that if Hardcore Henry had come out in 1999, I would have lost my shit in a downright embarrassing manner. You see, Hardcore Henry is a film the likes of which have rarely, if ever, been seen before. Sure, there have been first-person movies before, but a first-person action movie is a whole other thing. It’s kind of a monumental undertaking in a lot of ways — it has pretty strict constraints and brings to the fore a litany of issues that don’t necessarily come up in a regular action movie. It feels weird to call a movie where the protagonist is constantly finding new ways to turn his opponents into disparate bits of meat “experimental,” but there you have it.
Henry wakes up in a highly sophisticated plane/laboratory being doted on by a woman (Haley Bennett) who says he’s his wife. She explains that he was terribly mangled at war, but thankfully advances in science have turned him into a half-man, half-robot supersoldier. The relief is short-lived, however, as the ship is attacked by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a psychic brat who seems to have it out for Henry. Before he can fully comprehend what his new lot in life is, Henry is catapulted out of the plane, separated from his wife and forced to fend for himself in a world where seemingly everyone is out to get him. He befriends a shapeshifting, seemingly immortal soldier of fortune named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) and sets about trying to save his wife and get himself out of this carnage-ridden pickle.
The goal of Hardcore Henry is total immersion — much like a video game, the audience here is meant to “be” Henry. Henry does not speak and we never see what he looks like; he’s a blank canvas for us to project our own emotions on, or at least our own reactions to the mile-a-minute carnage he seems incapable of avoiding. It’s a big gamble to take in the film world. While we’ve seen things like this in the recent remake of Maniac starring Elijah Wood or considerably more sedate examples like the 1947 film noir Lady in the Lake or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (which employs the same tactic for a diametrically opposite purpose), it’s never been applied to as ambitious and relentless a purpose. Unfortunately, Hardcore Henry fails for a very simple reason: control — or lack thereof.
Control is the fundamental difference between video games and film. Anyone who has had to wait their turn patiently while their sibling/friend/relative plays a video game and has so much fun knows that the experience loses almost all of its luster if you have to sit there passively. Unfortunately, no amount of gore, explosions and other folderol thrown at us by director Ilya Naishuller will ever replace the experience of actually making the decision to jump over a thing or shoot a dude. Hardcore Henry very faithfully recreates the first-person shooter experience, down to the sometimes wonky physics, generic locations and the way the information is dumped into the player — so faithfully that after about 20 minutes, it feels unmistakably like waiting for your turn.
It’s undeniable that Hardcore Henry represents an ambitious and technically impressive attempt at something — it simply has such a fundamental misunderstanding of what qualities video games and film have in common. Its plot is generic and derivative, just like the plot of a video game; its one relatable character (Jimmy) holds so very little stakes because it becomes obvious that he’s a non-player character who can die an endless amount of times with no repercussions. Hardcore Henry is slickly, emptily cool, so technically impressive that it all washes away and turns into a rainy Sunday afternoon at your neighbour’s house where he’s hogging the controller.
That’s one kind of immersion, I guess. ■
Hardcore Henry opens in theatres on April 8. Watch the trailer here: