Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
In essence, director Ilya Naishuller has rebuilt the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN with HARDCORE HENRY, an innovative action-adventure/ tightly-formulated adrenaline shot straight to the head. Coherently-shot GoPro action sequences are cohesively assembled into a live-action version of a first-person-shooter video-game, making for an unrelenting, uncompromising, exhilarating cinematic experience. It’s as if TOTAL RECALL met CRANK met your PlayStation console – but better, stronger, faster.
The narrative is told entirely from the point of view of Henry, an amnesiac mercenary brought back to life through the magic of science and technology. We can’t see his face or hear him speak, but by the look of those tattooed arms, we know our avatar isn’t to be trifled with. Soon after being awakened and fitted for new bionic appendages by wife Estelle (Haley Bennett), he and the lab come under attack by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a Julian Assange-looking/ Vincent Cassel-sounding/ telekinesis-sporting baddie. Hell-bent on world domination, Akan’s making a fleet of super-soldiers and has kidnapped Henry’s wife to assist in his evil plan. Stuck in an unfamiliar Russian city, Henry faces an onslaught of Akan’s army as they attempt to assassinate him. However, one soul, a mysterious British chap named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), could be the key to unlocking the truth behind Henry’s identity.
Naishuller cut his teeth on BITING ELBOWS: BAD MOTHERF**KER, the short that birthed this long-form version. It’s amazing that no one had really attempted this before (outside of director Jonas Ackerland’s ingenious music video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My B*tch Up”) as it’s such a clever conceit for a feature film. What really works is that, while things are eventually explained, it’s not overly expository. We don’t need a ton of background to get behind our hero’s quest. The stakes are simple and straight-forward. The extras’ surprised and concerned reactions to the mayhem taking place seem authentic. Maybe he got tips how to do these pranks from Sacha Baron Cohen, whom he thanks in the credits. With the word “hardcore” in the title, the filmmakers prove they don’t use it ironically. They aren’t mucking around.
Naishuller and Will Stewart pack each level with the crazy kills of an FPS video game and the visceral thrills of a deliriously bonkers action film. The best set piece is in the middle of the film, with Jimmy and Henry machine-gunning their way through a moving van, to Henry hopping on a motorbike from atop an SUV he’s just blown up with a grenade, to jumping onto another moving sprinter van, dragging underneath, then climbing his way to the top and muscling his way inside. They also build in tension-release humor – like when THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN theme plays as he attempts to ride a wild horse bareback. There’s even a choreographed dance sequence to “I’ve Got You (Under My Skin).”
The true heroes here are the cameramen, who double as the stuntmen and actors. It’s a gigantic credit to them that the emotional through line comes through the physicality in their performance. Though, a word of warning as the schtick might make the weak-stomached a little queasy, as it did me. But don’t rage quit– just respawn and you’ll be just fine.
HARDCORE HENRY plays SXSW on March 13 and opens everywhere on April 8.