The biggest surprise in Hardcore Henry arrives during the credits.
By that, I don’t mean it has one of those post-credit stingers we’ve come to expect from virtually all geek-tailored cinema these days. I mean an actual line in the credits, noting the legal licensor of a film poster which appears in the background in one of the shots: 1947’s Lady in the Lake. This is the smartest the movie ever gets.
Because Lady in the Lake is a first-person film, shot from the perspective of its protagonist, private detective Philip Marlowe. It is one of the only first-person films of classic cinema, and thus is routinely cited for two reasons: 1) why first-person films don’t work, and 2) as a precursor to the first-person shooter, with its gunman’s eye view (left).
So Hardcore Henry displaying an awareness of this lineage is a welcome touch. The thing is, I can’t tell you where in the film this poster appears, because I only learned of it from the credit scroll. The preceding 90 minutes are spent behind the camera of a not-especially-good Youtube streamer, minus the teabagging and endless reload animations. There’s the obligatory brothel level. There’s the on-rails level, where Henry mows down anonymous baddies with a minigun from a motorcycle sidecar, while his chatty (and seemingly immortal) companion Jimmy does the driving. There’s a sniper section, an elevator defense section, and — somewhat inexplicably — a zombie horde survival mode section. We have a damsel in apparent distress, played by Haley Bennett doing her best low-rent Jennifer Lawrence. We even have a poorly-explained menacing Big Bad with unlimited paramilitary resources and freaking telekinesis, yet somehow Henry with his at-best middling combat technique and poor battery life is the most sought-after piece of technology in all of Russia.
If you’re going into this expecting anything of a coherent story, you’ll leave disappointed. “But I’m not!” you cry. “I just want some guts-splattering ultra-violence filmed on a GoPro camera!” Well, then you’ll still leave disappointed. The most gruesome fatalities take place in slow-motion behind the film’s opening credits, after which most of the deaths are pretty much a blur in both form and content. There are a few good spine crackings and exploded skulls, I’ll grant you — but for the most part, you will have seen better gore porn elsewhere.
“So the story’s a mess, and the violence isn’t quite ultra,” you say. “Does it have any redeeming qualities?” I must admit that, as far as pulling off the look and feel of a shooter, Hardcore Henry does manage this to a certain extent. The way the camera dips out of cover to sight around corners, for example, is note-perfect. I’d have preferred a single, continuous shot running the length of the film — a la Russian Ark — to really capture the flow of gameplay, but you can at least pretend that every time-saving jumpcut in fact represents a moment where the streamer fucked up and started over.
Unfortunately, apart from that it’s just… bland. Even if you’re the type to skip past cutscenes in your games (and I have to assume the filmmakers fall into that category), an FPS’s level design has its own narrative going on, with setup and payoff, that just does not translate here. There’s no time spent on Henry casing or making use of the layout of a place, observing enemy movements, experimenting or discovering things — stuff that serves a real purpose for a player, giving them a sense of catharsis when yes, they finally get it right. If you want to see an example of this pulled off in the language of film, check out Real Life Hitman or, hell, even Run Lola Run or Groundhog Day. Hardcore Henry is more akin to watching the playthrough of someone who has already more or less memorized the game on low difficulty, but doesn’t quite understand why that isn’t immediately appealing to someone else watching.
When Hardcore Henry is at its best, it isn’t mimicking high-speed shooters but Mirror’s Edge, with its vertigo-inducing parkour sequences. Once Henry has a gun in his hand, however, the film’s dynamism drops almost to zero. And unfortunately, guns make up the bulk of the film. Even the trailer can’t quite disguise that this a movie that spends almost its entire runtime doing exactly one thing. While Lady in the Lake (and even Mirror’s Edge) uses firearms as punctuation, here it’s just the only verb the movie knows.
There is one point where the film gets astonishingly close to self-aware, which is when (spoiler) companion Jimmy reveals he’s actually a series of disposable cloned bodies, piloted by an eccentric genius. The word “avatar” is actually invoked, as is Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” in a momentum-destroying musical number (sorry guys, but Michael C. Hall did it first). Henry might be our point-of-view character, but in a way, Jimmy is the closest thing to a gamer in the film, experiencing multiple lives and dropping in and out of whatever perspective he chooses.
In the end, though, Jimmy’s true identity just becomes one more MacGuffin to propel the action setpieces, and the time spent lingering on his character seems like a consolation prize for trying to care about literally anything unfolding onscreen. Henry doesn’t matter, the distressed damsel doesn’t matter, the telekinetic bad guy certainly doesn’t matter — the only one I left the theater feeling remotely sorry for was the bystander Henry clotheslines while fighting down an escalator early in the movie, and even she appears only mildly distressed by the whole thing.
If your goal is to watch first-person sprays of gore and viscera set against a cheerful soundtrack, you might as well stay home and watch something on Twitch. There is nothing Hardcore Henry does to either reinterpret or pay homage to the first-person shooter genre which isn’t handled phenomenally better elsewhere. And if your goal is to watch something with a vaguely coherent story, Lady in the Lake is a cheap rental on Youtube. Or watch Gamer, which among its many qualities features Gerard Butler peeing into a gas tank. A+ cinema, that one.
Kris Ligman is the News Editor for ZAM.