Ilya Naishuller’s celebration and extension of, as well as slight rebellion against, pinball-scripted action cinema storytelling charitably accentuates, and lambasts, the genre it calls home by curdling it down to its most primordial essences devoid of meaningful context or narrative: dude, gun, fire, pandemonium, nonsense, more gun. Smitten with its playfully trivial nature and keen on its own exclusively, even exclusionary, surface-level ambitions, Naishuller’s first-person camera is a little like a Looney Tunes version of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s recent achievements behind the camera, even if it isn’t nearly as full-throated or as perceptive in its utilization of the faux-long-take lexicon as anything Lubezki might have in the works. Hardcore Henry certainly deserves credit for perspiration, occasionally for exhilaration, and once or twice for genuine innovation.
Pointedly reductive in its narrative ambition across a trim 96 minute cannonball run, the film follows sudden wild man Henry, an experimental misfire of sorts, as he rushes to save his wife (Haley Bennett) from the ice grip of Dragon Ball Z leftover and resident telekinetic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), who reigns over the streets of Russia like an adolescent’s dictatorial worship-idol version of Vladimir Putin. Along the way, Henry is abetted by a mysterious British loon named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who develops a peculiar knack for dying and reappearing bearing different visages throughout.
Hardcore Henry is breathless, but that’s to be expected. Where it really shines, however intermittently, is its passive-aggressive mimicry of action cinema to the point where copying coyly doubles as a kind of assassination the genre. Whether it’s the seeming superfluity of lives afforded Jimmy that tacitly invokes the typically consequence-less nature of action cinema or the film’s frequent bouts with seemingly arbitrary, purposeless location-shifting (of course Henry arrives in a brothel), Hardcore Henry approaches the action genre with, if not outright opprobrium or censure, at least a dour, cheeky self-awareness. The absurdism and rote structural mechanics of the genre become playful, rubber-banding fodder for a more gleefully amoral critique of action cinema amorality.
Throughout, Henry’s unmitigated voicelessness also exposes the film’s tentative awareness of the way action cinema, and video games implicitly, eschew character development for a more ribald, from-the-gut style of character-sympathy derived from experiential visuals rather than verbal thematizing. By stripping Henry of a voice, the film turns his physicality into not only a weapon but a personality of sorts. The film uses its first-person perspective to make the audience the collective experience-e (rather than, like most films, having to middleman experience through the feelings of a character).The film then both serves as a critique of character development in action cinema (or the lack thereof) and a new kind of sympathy altogether, one that doesn’t require development in the traditional, diegetic sense of the word.
It’s an effortful film, and occasionally a work of ingenuity, but it also relies on the dormant obnoxiousness of action cinema to produce a cocaine-addled endorsement of, and bastardization of, that obnoxiousness left to grow in the sunlight until it induces whiplash. You could call it “action film”, sans adjectives of clarifying elements, stripped down to its most primal essence of mayhem and destruction and unchained upon the world. The film’s droll willingness to confront the absurdity of its own relentlessness is welcome and refreshing in an age of dour, distressed action cinema , but a little of its pleasure also goes quite a long way; there isn’t much Hardcore Henry is achieving in minute 83 it didn’t already pummel into your eye sockets in minute 11.
And, ultimately, the film –although amiably antithetical to the mild-mannered, self-serious likes of Marvel entertainment – also struggles to commit to its luxuriant self-immolation of the action genre; it might as easily be read as a pedestal-raising effort to elevate the genre to the highest form of cinema, its trashy ambitions aside. Experiential cinema is a valuable and undernourished medium, avoiding directed, keylit character development obviously signaling us to every new revelation afforded a character and instead reveling in the more unsure task of depicting a series of experiences and enshrining the film’s emotions in camera movement and editing rather than a character’s psychology. But engaging though this particular series of herky-jerky experiences may be, the buck stops well before Hardcore Henry ends; eventually, an affectionately intoxicated film becomes indulgent, and an explosion of self-consciously self-critically obnoxious action cinema even implodes into … well, obnoxious action cinema.