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.
Finally, it may be a feat of technical prowess and a kick for gamers, but making a feature film that precisely mimics (instead of just referencing) an interactive experience is a total mismatch of form and function, like performing Duke Ellington covers on a Moog synthesizer. The first-person filmmaking that really rattles you, as in the opening of Strange Days or parts of the the 1947 noir curio Lady in the Lake, lets you assume the fears, hopes and dreams of whoever’s behind the camera, because they actually become characters. Hardcore Henry makes you feel like you have a broken controller in your hand while watching a Best Buy demo.
But we must still respect the craft on display, even if it’s emotionless. Hardcore Henry was filmed for a paltry $10 million, and pulls off some impeccable action scenes with real, flesh-and-blood (and blood, and blood) people. Of particular note is a POV car chase that begins on the back of a motorcycle and ends inside the Villain Van, during which the hero dispatches countless baddies on the road seemingly at top speed. We also get to watch Henry scale the side of a crumbling building before ziplining back down again, and one pursuit sequence is truly an adrenaline jolt: they tightrope-walk across bridges, barrel through scuzzy subways, and plow into tourists. The film’s most charming effects scene doesn’t even involve any limb-snapping: It’s a single-take dance number where many different iterations of Sharlto Copley sing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
Copley plays a weirdo sidekick of Henry’s who pops up from time to time while he’s busy outrunning seemingly every Russian authority. Henry also has a scientist wife (Haley Bennett) and a father-in-flashbacks (Tim Roth), and on his tail is a nasty villain named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky, playing the bad kind of hammy). Akan has Jean Grey’s telekinetic abilities and Julian Assange’s hair and mumbles through his mealy-mouthed accent something about unleashing an army of Henries on the world. But our guy, built from spare parts in a lab, doesn’t recognize any of these people because his memory has been wiped clean, all the better for guilt-free bloodletting.
With camerawork straddling the line between breathtaking and nauseating, any longer than these 96 minutes would be way, way too long. But it’s an impressive feat, when it isn’t too physically painful to watch, and those stuntmen playing Henry would deserve Oscars if the Academy ever got around to creating that category. Naishuller will surely up the ante for the inevitable Hardcore sequels — maybe the next cyborg will do some go-karting — but he shouldn’t be afraid to embrace more of the conventions of old-hat filmmaking, like the basic concept of humanity. Otherwise, you may as well just stick a Twitch live chat in the corner and call it a day.