HARDCORE HENRY is the sort of gleefully violent sensory-assault moviemaking that critics sometimes like to say feels “made by a madman,” but in overall execution it’s just a hair too deliberately-structured and well made for that to be a fair assessment. All told, the film is much closer to a (slightly) more polished version of a student film handed in by the class troublemaker; a show-off reel of every wicked, dangerous, inventive, perverse creative impulse they’ve got all in one go-for-broke splatter of imagination – as though they can’t believe someone finally let them play with the camera and they know it has to count because they’ll never be allowed to play with it again.
The results of such work are often tiresome, but at their best they offer a window into a unique, unrestrained vision. Like a lot of present-day art-school anarchists, director Ilya Naishuller’s vision is one thoroughly cluttered with the influence of YouTube parkour and the video-game aesthetic; but also one with an awareness (however nascent) of those influences beyond mere imitation.
Set (I think?) in the near-future, its protagonist is a recently injured (dead?) man named Henry who’s just been Frankensteined back to life by his lovely super-scientist wife Estelle using technology that’s effectively made him a cyborg – complete with a titanium skeleton, onboard battery and a superhuman endurance for pain. It’s also, supposedly temporarily, left him without any memories and unable to speak, allowing the film the cheeky trick of letting its protagonist not only take the audience along for his adventure in video-game inspired First Person view but also to embody modern gaming’s favorite brand of protagonist: The mute, backstory-free, superhuman bullet-sponge cipher.
When Estelle winds up kidnapped (because video games, you see) by Akan, a telekinetic supervillain (because video games, you see) who wants her to make him a whole army of undead cyborgs (because v… you get the idea), Henry sets off to save her – aided in his quest by Sharlto Copley’s mysterious Jimmy, a living parody of NPCs who wanders in and out of the story to hand Henry his mission objectives… even as he’s repeatedly killed off, only to return with a costume change and a new personality.
There’s eventually a suitably high-concept explanation as to what’s going on with Jimmy that adds a welcome note of poignancy to all the gorehound fireworks that make up the rest of the film (in terms of creative bloodshed, HARDCORE HENRY makes DEADPOOL look like the kiddie-pool), but like most of the film’s reaches into science-fiction it feels less driven by narrative than by reverse engineering: “What sci-fi concept do we need to invent to have this bit of common video-game nonsense happen in the real world?” At one point, Henry even “powers up” by ripping a piece of combat-enhancing hardware out of a foes chest and graphically self-installing it into his own body like Mega Man as reimagined by David Cronenberg.
And make no mistake: While fans of extreme action-comedy in general will likely find plenty to enjoy in the film (the sheer number of new ways it finds for Henry to shoot, stab, slice, crush, bludgeon, bisect or even tri-sect the human body is something to behold) the places where Hardcore Henry becomes something like transcendent will land strongest with gamers. They’re the ones who’ll cue in on the specifics when Henry’s mission objective takes him on a wholly gratuitous tour of a strip club a’la Duke Nukem, or when a gaggle of oddly-unperturbed sex-workers reason out a somewhat counter-intuitive method for recharging the weary hero’s energy reserves (well, if it works for Kratos…) and will note the precise moment when the lengthy final confrontation with Akan (who already appears to have leaped, fully-formed, from a METAL GEAR SOLID sequel) switches from being the climax of a movie to a Boss Fight. If you’re looking for the gamers in your screening, they’ll be the ones already cheering when Henry kicks open a luckily-discovered first aid kit (yup!) filled with syringes conveniently-labeled “ADRENALINE” before Freddie Mercury’s vocals come sneaking in on the soundtrack.
It might be a step too far to call it “satire” of modern gaming, but it’s definitely a send-up; bursting at its (admittedly roughly-stitched) seams with the same love/hate exuberance about video games that REN & STIMPY had for classic TV cartoons – or that METALOCALYPSE had for heavy metal. It’s not necessarily a condemnation of the fantasy of inhabiting a video game (or of being a game hero in real life), but it recognizes that either option would be more comic than dramatic – even as it chooses to revel in the “fun parts” anyway: It knows enough to pause for a laugh when a pair of Jimmy’s allies showing up as leggy katana-wielding blondes in black vinyl catsuits, but you’re still getting leggy katana-wielding blondes in black vinyl catsuits.
Fortunately, it’s also got a few things on its mind about the medium beyond just hanging a lampshade on its own inherent silliness as an excuse to just keep doing it (though, yes, that’s most of it – this is a science fair volcano, not a geology thesis.) The aforementioned reveal of what, exactly, the deal is with Jimmy is the start of a string of Act 3 story turns that aren’t exactly unpredictable but arrive welcome all the same; retroactively infusing the preceding story (such as it is) with a vein of self-examination that should be familiar to gaming fans who’ve already taken their swings at the medium’s emerging canon of self-critical works like THE STANLEY PARABLE, PORTAL, BRAID and SPEC OPS: THE LINE. It’s the latter (a seemingly-conventional military shooter than gradually morphs into an apocalyptic denunciation of CALL OF DUTY-era narrative structure) with which Henry’s final denoument has the most in common – though the film is aiming less for condemnation than it is for “a swift kick in the ass” when it comes to the games medium itself.
At the beginning I referred to Henry himself as a kind of Frankenstein monsters, and so it’s appropriate that to the degree that HARDCORE HENRY wants to be “about” anything it’s about what a creation owes its creator and the very idea of identity and one’s choice in their own story. As the film races into its own climax (like any great video game there’s a castle to climb, a last wave of enemies to cut down and a Big Boss whose defeat requires every skill you’ve acquired) its central narrative question ceases to be whether or not Henry will save the princess and instead becomes who (or what) is really in charge of the hero’s destiny: Estelle, who “made” him and now requires the very services she installed? Akan, who started the story and drove the narrative? Jimmy, who set the goals and walked him through the missions? Or is Henry the one with his hand on the (figurative) joystick – and if not, shouldn’t he be?
Granted, it feels dubious to suggest that anything as enthusiastically frivolous as HARDCORE HENRY is really attempting some sort of existential statement. But a self-consciously blunt highlight reel of live-action video game homage turns out to be an amusingly insightful way to tweak narrative convention, even if a wicked final twist that lays all the self-examination bare could just as easily exist solely for Naishuller’s mischievous little boy instincts to indulge in vandalizing gaming’s most sanctified narrative device. But it can’t be avoided that video games – the type being referenced here, at least – live and die by their ability to give the player a cathartic fantasy of omnipotent power and absolute control precisely by limiting their options (“you can interact with anything so long as ‘interact’ means shoot-with-your-gun'”) and locking in their goals: Go to X, kill Y, obtain Z, do it again, the box says you’re the hero and the cutscene says this end goal is very important to you. Nor can it be avoided that applying that kind of setup to live-action humans can’t help but push all of the ever-familiar choice/fate quandaries right back up to the surface of a movie that’s already very proud of almost everything being on the surface.
And so as HARDCORE HENRY’S eponymous protagonist struggles bloodily to his feet at the midpoint of a particularly gruesome climactic battle, suddenly awash in questions about exactly what he’s done (and has been prepared to do) because this or that person handed him a task and told him what an awesome badass he was whenever executed the correct sequence of actions; it’s hard not to reflect (if just for a moment) on how much that same quietly-insidious method of incentive exists outside of video games or their action-movie tributes – whether the “goal” in question is fighting a war, going through the motions of schoolwork (or an office job) or just getting through the day in one piece. As thematic underpinnings go, “who’s pulling your strings?” may not be the most original question for a movie to ask, but it’s certainly something to think about…
…for however long until it’s time to strangle a bad guy to death with the sinews of one’s own detached eyeball, course.