A truly good video game movie adaptation has been something of a Holy Grail for decades now, but while small amounts of enjoyment can be eked from some — the Resident Evil films, Silent Hill, Hitman — none have managed to deliver greatness on the big screen. (That said, I will go to my grave trying to convince the rest of you to appreciate the pure, magical bliss that is Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.) Instead, the best video game movies we’ve seen so far have been the ones inspired by games rather than based on them — think The Last Starfighter or Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
Hardcore Henry is the latest film to embrace that aesthetic and the first to do so entirely in a first-person POV, but while it may not be one of the best video game movies it’s definitely the most video game movie.
Henry awakes in an operating room under the watchful eye of a co-ed in a lab coat. Her name is Estelle (Haley Bennett), and she’s both his doctor and his wife. She attaches a robotic arm and leg to his prone body, mentions that his memory banks and vocal chords aren’t quite ready yet, and then BAM! They’re under attack, she’s abducted, and Henry is forced on the run with armed mercenaries and a telekinetic albino right behind. His only possible ally is Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a man who seems to know more about Henry than Henry does.
Quick trigger warning for fellow Chappie survivors, Copley has more lines than anyone else in the movie. And he does accents.
The only thing simpler than the setup to Ilya Naishuller‘s feature directorial debut is everything that follows. Henry is being chased by bad guys while he tries to rescue his wife, and while there are small revelations throughout that’s the exact extent of the plot. The script (by Naishuller and Will Stewart) is, by design, nothing more than a framework to hang the 1st-person POV action around with only atrocious dialogue, half-note characters, and a story built on blood squibs, destruction, and lady parts making up the remaining ingredients.
It’s pretty much an accepted norm that most action movies are going to be slight on character and plot although exceptions do exist — the Bourne trilogy, Edge of Tomorrow, the last few Mission: Impossible films — but a lack of depth is easily forgivable when the action is truly spectacular like you find in most of Jackie Chan’s and Tony Jaa’s output. Hardcore Henry knows it’s dumb and instead aims for that something extra in its action to stand apart from the crowd.
The POV action is most certainly a gimmick — technically impressive and occasionally entertaining — but still a gimmick. We see through Henry’s eyes as he shoots at enemy soldiers, falls from great heights, engages in a car chase, and ogles naked ladies, and while the action is fairly constant it varies in effectiveness. Big POV stunts are fun as they give us a view from inside the action we’re so used to seeing from without, but the fights fare less well as the close-quarters and shaky camera blur our enjoyment. The effort to make us feel the action instead has us suspecting there’s some very cool stunts and fights happening around us — if only we could take a step back to truly enjoy them. It’s not long before the gimmick does what most gimmicks do and grows tiresome well before the end credits roll.
As I said above, while not based on a video game it’s easy to see Hardcore Henry as the most video game movie ever. The 1st-person POV gives the superficial feel of any number of games — although the telekinetic baddie has a very specific Paxton Fettel from F.E.A.R. vibe to him — but that feeling goes beyond merely the visual presentation. There are level bosses (of sorts) including an armored guy with a flame thrower, Jimmy’s role — aside from utter annoyance — is essentially that of a scripted NPC who shadows the player to offer guidance through the game, and Henry’s even told repeatedly to go to the next dot on his phone’s map without any real sense or concern of geography.
Hardcore Henry is basically a game of Duke Nukem with the wisecracks turned off and the nude patch turned on. It doesn’t sound too bad on the surface, but you’ll be wanting to switch over to a nice game of chess by the time Jimmy busts out his painful rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
The Upside: Some fun action/POV beats; killer opening credits; subtitle gag
The Downside: Sharlto Copley’s acting; much of the POV action is too jumbled and tight; Sharlto Copley’s singing; sub-sophomoric attempts at humor; Sharlto Copley’s voice; video game-quality characters, dialogue, and narrative; Sharlto Copley