From B-movies in the 70’s to comic books in the present, blockbusters have always been influenced by the media their creators grew up with. Finally, enough time has passed that the generation that grew up playing video games is sitting behind the camera. Many films have played with flourishes that reference video game aesthetics (see any movie by Neil Blomkamp), but now we have the first film where the main inspiration in every feature, from craft to story, comes from interactive entertainment. Hardcore Henry, directed by Ilya Naishuller, is an action film shot entirely from the first person. Henry wakes up being literally put back together by his wife with no memory of his past. Before he can learn what has happened to him, they are attacked by a cartoonishly evil Kurt Cobain-esque villain who kidnaps Henry’s wife. The rest of the film is Henry trying to kill the bad guy and save his wife, aided by the help of a mysterious man (or men?) named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley; District 9).
And that is everything you need to know about the plot. Actually, it’s more of a setup than anything else. Taking a cue from many video games, Naishuller uses the barest of narratives because the film isn’t about the story, it’s about the spectacle. And that spectacle is fantastic. The first person perspective increases immersion and causes you to wince with each blow directed at the camera. It’s especially effective when Henry is getting thrown from planes, trains, and exploding automobiles. The stunts are always exhilarating even if they stretch believability. How does someone thrown off the roof of a moving van because it was blown up by a grenade fly through the air and land on the end of a motorcycle? Who cares. It looks cool.
This irreverent tone gives the film a winning playfulness except for the moments where it descends into juvenility. The film brands itself as “HARDCORE” and isn’t satisfied with just action in that regard. It has to be about hard guys doing hard guys things and it uses blatant misogyny to break up the adrenaline. Women in the film are relegated to being strippers, hyper-sexualized ninjas, or hollow plot devices sometimes literally used as props or background dressing. These instances aren’t frequent, but their casual nature is appalling. It’s a shame that the gleeful violence is tarnished by these adolescent male tendencies when the stunts are exceptional and deserve to be seen in theaters.
Many of the set pieces could be called direct adaptations of video games or video game trailers. The opening credits are played over a gruesome montage of slow motion kills bathed in red lighting that clearly imitates the initial Killzone 3 teaser. Later scenes pull from famous levels found in popular first person shooters. The sniper scene from the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is recreated here from the abandoned concrete building right down to the ghillie suit. The stunts only falter when rather than introduce a new set piece, the film just throws in more enemy henchmen (which ironically is a common complaint in video games). Even though these stunts are not always novel, the translation to a new medium creates a fresh, frenetic energy and the film happily revels in that chaos.