The only surprising thing about an action movie filmed entirely with GoPro cameras is why it took so long. The tiny head-mounted devices have been available in one form or another since 2004, and have ratcheted up the YouTube hits with clips of derring-do: parkour, skydiving, mountain biking and every other action sport you can stuff into a fish-eye lens. Hardcore Henry, a Russian-American co-production by first-time writer-director Ilya Naishuller that blew up last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, just takes that basic idea — stuff filmed from the first person is awesome!!! — and slaps a movie around it. The audience assumes the eyes of the bionic super-soldier lead as he kicks, punches, and shoots his way through swarms of villains and explosive set pieces in a raggedy-looking Moscow.
This sounds like a first-person shooter, and Naishuller (who previously honed the POV-action style in music videos) has been up front about video games serving as his primary influence. But it goes beyond that. Not only does Hardcore Henry look like a video game, but it also mimics games in its story, structure, and aesthetics, often to tongue-in-cheek effect. The opening scene establishes that Henry can’t talk, but one scientist offers him the option to “pick your voice,” which sounds like we’re on the Fallout intro screen customizing our player. Henry rifles through downed enemies’ pockets, grabbing their weapons and keycards to open doors. Every scene establishes the environment, the baddies and a specific task Henry must complete to move on, usually issued by an NPC — sorry, supporting actor. (Also like in many an Xbox man-fantasy, nearly all of the women are busty prostitutes who run screaming from the room.)
What’s the end result? Well, first there’s the irony that a camera invented to showcase outdoor movement and activity is being used to simulate… sitting on your couch playing video games. Secondly, games have already outpaced this film in terms of pure cinematic quality. The opening sequence to Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain sports a nearly identical premise, yet it’s staged far more viscerally, without all the non-diegetic hard rock music. Games are doing movies better than movies are doing games.