Man, did I get wicked flashbacks of playing Call of Duty against racist, homophobic Russian teenagers.
After leaving the theater last night, I felt like an angry Russian 13-year-old high on cocaine was cursing at me and saying some homophobic shit as he took a pneumatic drill to my eardrum, during a rave, while forcing me to watch his killstreaks on Call of Duty on a screen somewhere. If this description does not sound appetizing to you, then Hardcore Henry is definitely not for you. But if you’re morbidly curious from that description, strap in.
This is a film told entirely from the perspective of Henry, a literal Hat. The audience is meant to take on Henry’s perspective as their own he wakes up from a horrible accident by his wife (Haley Bennett) who rehabilitates Henry’s mangled body with cybernetic parts. Henry, who’s mute and has no memory of where or who he was before the movie (like a video game), has his wife kidnapped by a telekinetic psychopath (again, like a video game) and is forced to undergo a mission to save her while killing waves and waves of thugs (you guessed it, like a video game). Assisting Henry on this venture is this British fellow named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who keeps meeting up after getting horribly killed each time and coming back to Henry with a new personality (are you seeing a pattern yet?)
The film feels like you’re watching a 96 minute “Let’s Play” of a first person shooter. Popularized on YouTube, “Let’s Plays” are simply videos of people showing off their video game sessions either in silence or offering commentary. The former is employed here as you’re treated to one of the most fun* video games you will never play in your life. I say “fun” but I’m sticking a big, fat, pulsating asterisk next to the word. It’s fun in the sense that you just want to see what ridiculous stunt the movie is going to pull out of its ass next while you have to do your best with grappling with nausea and headaches.
Personally, I didn’t have a problem following the movie; but I saw people bolt straight out of the theater after 30 minutes of this shit and my own party wasn’t exactly thrilled with the camerawork. I was able to follow along just fine, but keep in mind: this shit isn’t for everybody. But if you can hold your lunch, you’re treated to some very clever parkour chase sequences, clever firefights that look much better than the average Call of Duty, and even a few fist fights that are both brutal and interesting to watch. Hell the violence on display here makes Deadpool seem more like a romantic comedy than it actually was two months ago.
It makes sense as the director of this movie gave us “Bad Motherfucker” a few years ago. That was essentially a five minute concept piece for the hour and a half orgy of violence he’s giving to us in Hardcore Henry. If you can stomach that video without a hitch, just imagine watching that only 18 times longer. Like I said, this shit is not for everybody even as I enjoyed quite a few of the scenes in this movie.
But as fun as the action sequences are, I can’t ignore there is piss all story to this. What little plot we have is used as an excuse to take us from one set piece to another. And it’s primarily delivered to us through Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy. The funny thing is, this is the probably the best thing Sharlto Copley has done since his debut in District 9 over seven years ago. As Jimmy, he alternates between various personas like a British spy, a bum, a coked-out prostitute monger, a hippie, a nerd, a 80’s British punk, and even a Sinatra singer. What kept me invested in the movie was discovering how exactly Jimmy kept coming back to Henry despite each persona getting horribly killed some time after Henry meets each one. I won’t spoil it, but even I had to admit it was quite clever, even as I realized Jimmy was a glorified non-playable support character in every shooter game I’ve ever played.
The connections to video games are strong for Hardcore Henry, in all the best and worst ways imaginable. The breakneck pace and stylish action are to be commended, but I’m still not going to forgive the movie for all its sexist and homophobic swagger either. It’s not horrible, but the experience totally reminded me of playing Call of Duty against angry Russian teenagers back in the day who would spout some of the most racist shit while talking about all the blow jobs your mother is giving them. Hell, as a friend of mine pointed out, the way women were portrayed in this movie told her that some girl said no to the director at prom for some effeminate guy and the director hasn’t ever been able to let that shit go. It’s not pleasant and it took away what was otherwise an enjoyable experience.
The story’s conclusion itself reminded me strongly of the first Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line, two excellent video games that pontificated the nature of free will vs choice to varying degrees of success. But the story beat doesn’t really work in this movie because you don’t have a choice. You are someone watching a movie, you have no input into any of the actions Henry takes, awesome as they are; you’re simply a back seat driver. So when the film concludes on the nature of manipulation, you can’t help but shrug your shoulders and wonder what the hell the conclusion has to do with anything. And if you’ve actually played the games I mentioned, you’re simply reminded of playing games with much better stories.
Still when the movie embraces it’s video game nature: with checkpoints, map screens, to even fucking first aid kits, the film truly comes alive. This shit isn’t high art, it’s pure exploitation in the tradition of old Roger Corman flicks like The Toxic Avenger and more recent fare like Crank and Crank: High Voltage. Actually, the Crank films in particular were themselves riff on Grand Theft Auto-style video games that also had fuck-all plot but used the story as an excuse to take you from one adrenaline-pumping set piece to another. I think Crank: High Voltage pulled this effect off better (plus the film lost it’s fucking mind in various parts like a scene involving Jason Statham fighting a rubber suit Godzilla…seriously). But I can still respect Hardcore Henry for what it was trying to do.
This movie is trash. Fun trash, but it’s still trash. It’s sexist as shit and homophobic as fuck, but you can’t help but want to see what stupid ass stunt the movie has in store for you next if you’re not the nauseous kind of person. I’ll admit that a theater is probably not the best avenue to see this, especially since the sound system was penetrating my eardrums, so I think if you’ve grabbed some friends and a lot of booze around a television, you won’t be let down. This is a…