SXSW: “Hardcore Henry” takes viewers on cinematic theme park ride

Charles Liu

We are generally the observers of blood and gut spillage in action movies. In “Hardcore Henry,” we watch everything through the eyes of our hero, a cyborg soldier named Henry, as he murders every bad guy who gets in his way. Predominantly filmed using a GoPro mounted on a stuntman’s head, director Ilya Naishuller’s debut picture is quite the joyride.

Henry doesn’t have any recollection of who he is or where he came from. All he knows is he must rescue Estelle (Haley Bennett), a scientist who claims she is his wife and has supposedly rebuilt him after a traumatic injury. Her captor is Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a telekinetic villain who seeks to build an army of cyborgs just like Henry.

Henry’s only ally is Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a jokey yet effective fighter who repeatedly pops up to aid him in the most unlikely of locations. Jimmy takes upon various guises whenever he appears, donning secret agent, military, hippie and homeless outfits. Absurdly enough, each appearance he makes is also ended by his own gruesome death, making his subsequent resurgences all the more strange and, peculiarly enough, endearing.

Through Jimmy, Copley injects “Hardcore Henry” with an enormous amount of personality. His amicable demeanor and witty lines are constantly on display during the action and during the few breathers Naishuller provides. Copley even gets a laugh-out-loud scene where he sings show tunes as multiple versions of Jimmy. You’ll have to see the movie to find out why there’s more than one.

It’s no surprise that Copley, a talented and versatile performer, steals the show here, but it is a surprise that “Hardcore Henry” succeeds on such a visceral level.  

Thanks to his cyborg augmentations, Henry can swiftly scale the sides of buildings and hop across speeding cars, but that doesn’t stop him from taking punches to the face, getting thrown by explosions and losing lots of his own blood. Each of the action sequences in “Hardcore Henry” is an inventive, intense splash of energy, gore and humor. Henry doesn’t kill his enemies: he destroys them, and experiencing the brutality from up close offers a heart-pounding rush like no other.

Many viewers will compare the first-person footage of “Hardcore Henry” to the experience of playing a first-person video game, and Naishuller is cognizant of the similarities. An avid gamer himself, Naishuller lifts inspiration from a variety of first-person shooters, including “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare,” “Halo 3: ODST,” and “Left 4 Dead.” Jimmy even resembles the “Call of Duty” character Captain Price at one point.

Unfortunately, “Hardcore Henry” doesn’t keep that rush at full strength as it presses onward, and the climax feels less thrilling than obligatory. We sit through Henry mowing down faceless and nameless dudes so many times that the action eventually loses its initial burst of impact. It’s smart that Naishuller promptly closes the movie once the last enemy is dispatched, because anyone who sits through “Hardcore Henry” is going to need a long nap afterward. I suspect, though, that might have been his goal.

There isn’t much substance beneath all the visual gut-punch spectacle (crudely and humorously enough, Henry’s main motivation is to prove he’s not a complete “pussy”), and the violence will certainly be divisive among audiences. However, one can’t deny that “Hardcore Henry” packs a wallop.

Naishuller’s debut picture is a pioneer of first-person filmmaking, and it powerfully demonstrates the potential behind its application.

“Hardcore Henry”

  • Running Time: 90 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Score: 3.5/5 stars