HARDCORE HENRY REVIEW (OR ‘WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST WATCH AND WHY DID I DO IT BUT KINDA SECRETLY LIKED A LOT OF AND DOES THAT MAKE ME MAD?’)
How does one review a film like HARDCORE HENRY? There is no plot of any coherence. There are very few actors involved and some of the characters portrayed belong in bad student films, circa 2000 when digital had just been discovered. The violence is graphic, distasteful and matches a pervasively prurient aura of adolescent level emotion and immoral sleaze.
So by that rationale: bad film..bad review, right? No. Not QUITE. Because this DOES have MOMENTS of genius, innovation and technical excellence that make it worth watching at least three quarters of this movie, before it burns out and outlives the curiosity /novelty values.
The pitch? SHARLTO COPLEY is Jimmy: a sort of tough guy who has been defeated and wounded, mortally. Except he is resurrected with new technology and inspiration from his beautiful wife (HALEY BENNETT). He is then sent on an odyssey to retain his own consciousness and ensure that his newly rejigged body can survive on a sequence of makeshift energy cell devices. The problem? He is being stalked by an army of villains, all of whom are determined to at best test and worst destroy our hero’s new-found and miraculous abilities.
Or something like that. Truth is, there are a NUMBER of twists and turns within a movie that lacks a plot on which to have any pivotal twists in the first place. It’s as though the whole thing were made up as they went along. Bad film, right? No. Again..not really. Something just KEEPS you CURIOUS, until just about 3/4 of the way through. Ergo, this film cannot be a fail, despite its deficits.
The main, unique selling point? This is a FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW movie. It FEELS like watching an advanced form of shoot’em up computer game. One has frequent flashbacks to playing something like DOOM or even GOLDENEYE 007 N64. Has this been done before with such a visceral and distinctive vision? I can think of no stand out competing example. This IS daring film-making, no question. And there is something to be said for its marriage of simple premise to complex execution and vice versa, depending on which scene you watch at a given time.
The action here is excellent. Some of the most involving and striking I have seen since 2008’s WANTED in the realm of experimental imagery within an otherwise mainstream genre. There is also the outrageous orgy of extreme bodily torture somehow cloaked in harmless comic book ‘guilty pleasure’ fun that defined the JASON STATHAM franchise, CRANK.
Truly, your senses are engaged to the limit, on a number of occasions. One chase through a subway via a kind of improvised take on Parkour had me mesmerized with its technical proficiency. It is at once original and familiar. Just as the feel can remind one of game-play, so individual action beats and edits echo the best of LUC BESSON.
I was reminded a lot of LUCY and the FIFTH ELEMENT (high stakes real time action meets high camp theatrical visuals). Even ths music (by DARYA CHARUSHA) has a kind of ERIC SERRA feel to it. Sing along with me..Whhhooop..Tish..Tish..(fans of film scores will just ‘get’ what I mean there..difficult to ‘sing’ this sound in print!).
There is a surrealism to the piece but merged with a brutal physicality. You are tested, like the hero: forced to take in multiple bouts of exposition, only to have that torn down by the next shocking set-piece. In that sense, though this is not a literate film by any means, the writer IS subverting the expectations of a thriller genre, whilst cleverly providing one with the requisite adrenaline fueled wish fulfillment and escapism. Well done: ILYA NAISHULLER (who also directs) and WILL STEWART. It’s a shame that you sort of overcook things though? The twists within twists within twists do not add either style or substance.
The clever hook here was a simple visual twist: first person, visual thrill ride. With mystery to solve. Against the clock. Plus sci-fi tech – hero as his own mcguffin spin – . Enough to be going on with, fellas! Throwing in philosophical meanderings and red herrings is a luxury the premise simply cannot afford and does not need. It distracts and detracts from the quality of the film-making, takes one out of the basic fantasy ride being offered and frankly burns the piece out before the end credits roll.
As with so many movies today, across the spectrum of genres and budgets etc: they KEEP forgetting that frequently, LESS IS MORE and especially when your ‘pitch’ is a novelty, rather than substantial artwork (Cough cough..BATMAN V SUPERMAN).
There is of course, room for ALL kinds of film and as HARDCORE HENRY shows, there are merits to visual innovation in itself (the credit sequence is a thing of beauty: think an R rated JAMES BOND opening). But that is all for nothing if it’s at the expense of basic clarity and a discipline in refining some of the script’s edges and superfluous filler and especially with a piece as extreme as this.
So: worth a watch? A casual viewer on a Friday night will have fun, yes. Just make sure you have something else to do in case you cannot endure the whole thing. Maybe watch it post-Pub? Or pre? But pub a must. Any true student of film should watch this as a lesson in what to do well as well as what can be done quite badly at risk of undoing a movie’s merits.
And fans of SHARLTO COPLEY will enjoy his range here, though some characters work better than others and he is best when playing calm and composed which is ironic for an actor who otherwise excels at the ‘mad’. One wonders why TIM ROTH bothers turning up in the film: Copley could have played his part easily, too!
2.5/5: By no means unmissable as art or truly satisfying piece of entertainment. But it IS a curiosity and a noble attempt at technical and narrative innovation, that simply does not quite pay off. A SOUND PROTOTYPE BUT REQUIRES FURTHER MODIFICATION BACK AT BASE.