[Warning: This article contains heavy spoilers for the film Hardcore Henry]
Filmmakers have tried time and time again to turn video games into cinema, and it often hasn’t worked. But one genius director took it to the next level, with an idea that helped merge the art forms together. Just imagine a film that makes the viewer the player in a first-person shooter. It’s a novel idea.
Ilya Naishuller has recently received well-deserved acclaim for his sophomore feature Nobody, cementing him as a director with his own flair and one to watch out for. But it’s his debut feature, Hardcore Henry, that put him on the map. Hardcore Henry is an Action, Sci-Fi movie shot in the first person and is centred around a revived cyborg who is trying to rescue his wife from the telekinetic villain Akan. It is directed and written by Ilya Naishuller, with additional writing done by Will Stewart, and stars Sharlto Copley, Tim Roth, Haley Bennet, and Danila Kozlovskiy.
The plot of Hardcore Henry is enough to make any videogame fan smile, being the classic princess-in-a-castle trope with Henry’s wife Estelle being kidnapped. It works well as the motivation for our silent protagonist Henry, as we are shown the affection Estelle has for Henry, thus convincing him of his mission. We are immediately thrown into this world with a Halo-esque tutorial segment where Henry is run through diagnostics before being forced into combat. During the opening, we are introduced to the movie’s villain Akan, who wants the research done by Estelle to create his own army of supersoldiers.
The rest of the film follows Henry on his quest to find Estelle. Along the way, he meets Sharlto Copley’s character Jimmy, who appears in different forms throughout the film due to reasons that are later explained. Whilst the plot on paper is very simple, it’s the small hints throughout that build to a bigger revelation that I found very engaging. These reveals work for the film’s 90-minute runtime and help build a larger world. One of the most interesting elements of the story is its Russian setting, which appears to be somewhat futuristic. This setting gives the story more room to breathe and introduce more fantastical elements like Henry’s super strength and agility.
The film has a surprisingly emotional core to it, which is made apparent towards the back half that adds a nice meta-layer to the film. Overall, the story works for the film’s purpose and is far better than it has any right to be. The subtle interplay between Jimmy and Henry elevates the film and feels like having a buddy along for a co-op shooter. I will also mention that whilst strong acting was not something I was particularly concerned about when watching this film, I can’t deny that I was blown away by Sharlto Copley’s performance(s), being able to capture so many character archetypes from across the genre. With several characters heavily inspired by first-person shooters, including a wonderfully charming WW2 British soldier, Copley also plays some more interesting companions like a hippie and a very Far Cry-like coked-out madman. I would also like to give a shout-out to Danila Kozlovskiy as Akan, who absolutely chews the scenery and relishes every scene he is in as an incredibly evil telekinetic killer.
The movie’s soundtrack is a mix of an excellent score and well-chosen licensed music. A highlight of the score is ‘Slick’s Place’ by Dasha Charusha – an excellent base piece that features in one of the best action scenes of the film and builds throughout. Licensed music is used to excellent effect with the highway chase scene using a song by Biting Elbows (who Naishuller has produced music videos for in the past) which is perfectly fitting and suited to the action sequence. The film also features a use of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ that could easily rival Shaun of the Dead‘s classic moment. Other highlights include ‘Hard as Nails’ and ‘Na Zare’, making a very strong soundtrack that adds to an already well-presented film.
I needed to give the action in this movie its own section because it is glorious! This film has hands down some of the best-choreographed action in recent memory, easily rivalling the likes of John Wick. The POV means that we never miss anything: we get to see every single hit, gunshot, and gory impact. However, this film is in no way for the squeamish, with the final fight delivering horror movie levels of wince-inducing gore.
Action sequences are a mix of gun, hand-to-hand, and brutal melee weapon combat, with the final kill of the movie absolutely delivering on the film’s namesake. Despite the first-person camera, it’s very easy to make out what’s happening without the scenes feeling slow or sluggish. The film uses a mix of CGI and practical gore effects to make every bullet hit chunky and bloody, whilst also giving us some surprising body horror towards the latter half of the film. Despite the extremely violent action, the tone always felt right – never becoming too much, and keeping fairly light-hearted despite the carnage onscreen. While there are numerous action sequences throughout the film of varying scale, if I had to give some highlights it would be the highway chase, the elevator escort, and the epic final fight which has to be seen to be believed.
Videogame References Everywhere!
Given the premise of the film, you’d expect to see some videogame references, but Hardcore Henry is surprisingly more subtle than you’d expect, with some instances feeling possibly like unintentional nods. For example, at one point in the film Henry stumbles upon what feels like a random encounter in an open-world game with some police officers about to assault a woman. He of course intervenes the only way he knows how. Other great references include Henry’s phone, which gives him a waypoint to his next objective like every open-world game, and of course the aforementioned opening sequence which feels very much like a Halo opening.
The Ending (Heavy Spoilers)
I’d like to discuss the end of the film and its twist which, for me, helps tie the film together.
Henry and Jimmy reach Akan’s base of operations and fight their way to the top. Along the way, the real Jimmy (whom we meet earlier) is fatally injured. The final conversation between Jimmy and Henry is surprisingly emotional, with Jimmy restoring Henry’s memories of his past life and telling him, ‘It’s bloody nice having a friend’, a line that Sharlto Copley delivers superbly and works with everything we’ve seen of the pair thus far.
Shortly after this comes the film’s major plot twist where it is revealed that Henry’s wife Estelle is actually Akan’s wife, and the entire quest to rescue her is being recorded to be used as “motivation” for all future cyborgs. It’s a crushing blow that only pushes Henry further to take down Akan. After Henry kills pretty much every single soldier Akan has (in glorious, gory fashion I might add), Henry is defeated by Akan’s powers and beaten. It’s here that we get our final bit of development for Henry.
The film has a through-line that appears a handful of times throughout where Tim Roth is seen talking to Henry saying, ‘You little pussy.’ It’s later revealed that this man is his father, or at least a father figure. After Henry has regained his memories, we learn that his father was telling him to stand up for himself, and wasn’t actually referring to him as a ‘little pussy’, but instead talking about his own abusive father. Tim Roth’s screen time is short in this moment, but he makes it worth it and seeing these brief glimpses into Henry’s past reminds us that he is a character (in an almost meta fashion) rather than a vehicle for the viewer.
Hardcore Henry is one of the best action films of the last decade, and the best videogame movie I’ve ever seen. It captures everything I love about the genre, whilst telling an interesting story with very compelling performances. If you can handle gore and aren’t prone to motion sickness, I wholeheartedly recommend this film. The story doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but everything the film aspires towards it superbly achieves. No film is perfect but, for what Ilya Naishuller was trying to achieve, I can’t think how it could be done any better.
Hardcore Henry is available on Amazon.
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