Watching Hardcore Henry is a lot like watching someone play a first-person shooter for two hours, without the added entertainment value of a Let’s Play video. It’s an interesting test case for other first-person action movies in years to come, but on its own terms, it’s just not very enjoyable to watch.
Hardcore Henry‘s main appeal is its GoPro filmmaking technique, using a camera rig strapped to the head of stunt actors “playing” the main character. The end result intentionally resembles first-person video games: an interesting conceit, let down by weak storytelling. The protagonist, an amnesiac cyborg soldier named Henry, basically doesn’t have a personality, a problem that isn’t helped by the fact that he can’t talk. Most of the dialogue comes from a stereotypical Eastern European villain (Danila Kozlovsky), Henry’s similarly stereotypical sexy wife (Haley Bennett), or Sharlto Copley’s exposition sidekick character.
It quickly becomes clear that there are two major hurdles to deal with when making a first-person GoPro movie. The first is that it’s hard to empathise with a character when you can’t see their face or emotional reactions. Without the interactive satisfaction of completing a mission in a video game, the experience of Hardcore Henry is like being trapped in the viewpoint of an emotionless mass murderer, with the viewer forced to keep watching as Henry shoots and brutalizes his way through hundreds of faceless antagonists.
The second issue—perhaps more important to Hardcore Henry’s target audience of ultraviolent action fans—is fight choreography. When shooting from a first-person perspective, traditional martial arts choreography goes out the window. You can’t show wide shots of hand-to-hand combat, and the head-mounted GoPro camera often moves too fast to follow what’s actually going on. For example, there’s no point in filming a challenging parkour sequence if the only thing you see is a pair of hands moving rapidly up a wall.
Hardcore Henry is the brainchild of Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller, who previously used GoPro cameras to film first-person music videos for his band, Biting Elbows. His work will probably be an interesting source of inspiration for other filmmakers, but he isn’t much of a storyteller. Hardcore Henry doesn’t even achieve the minimal emotional engagement of a film like The Raid, the amnesiac cyborg storyline is cliche even by first-person shooter standards, and there are a couple of scenes that fit the textbook definition for objectifying women.
As an experiment in action filmmaking, Hardcore Henry joins Edge of Tomorrow and Dredd on the list of original films that say more about video games than actual video game adaptations. The first-person perspective (perhaps accidentally) encourages the audience to face up to the moral grotesquery of killing crowds of NPCs, and the constant respawning of Copley’s character was an interesting touch. But in terms of actual entertainment value, you’re better off watching the Jason Statham Crank movies, which have all the gory violence of Hardcore Henry but are a great deal funnier and more self-aware. Or you could just go play Call of Duty.