RECAP: Hardcore Henry
Hardcore Henry (2015): Ilya Naishuller
The video game industry has spent the last decade making its games more cinematic. It follows that the film industry would return the favor.
Hardcore Henry is a film shot entirely in first person, using GoPro cameras attached to stunt actors’ heads, with limited editing, to show us the violent route of a cyborg lover to rescue his wife.
The film was released in 2015 in Russia and 2016 in the US.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Henry, newly raised from the dead and part robot, fights through Moscow to reach Akan, the man who kidnapped his wife, Estelle.
The blood-tinged credits open on Henry being savagely beaten and murdered. He wakes up from a silent bath, about the only time the audience is allowed respite from the upcoming carnage.
The first person Henry sees is his wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), who also happens to be the world’s foremost reanimation scientist. Estelle asks Henry if he recalls anything–he doesn’t–as machines scan his reconstituted body.
Henry also can’t speak and is also missing some limbs. He gets a new left arm, and a left leg is screwed on. He had a detached retina, which Estelle helped screw in.
As the audio scientist tries to restore Henry’s speech abilities, an alarm sounds. The door explodes open, and in steps Akan (Danila Kozlovsky).
Estelle and Henry escape through a pod that falls from the airship where Henry first awakened, but the pod crashes on the highway leading toward Moscow. Akan, a man of great power (literally and figuratively) sends a squad of men to kidnap Estelle.
Henry takes his wife’s kidnapping at face value. Akan snatches her, but for no clear reason. And the action moves so quickly that Henry and viewers have little time to think about character motivations.
Instead we watch Henry wail on bad guys. And there are SO MANY. Henry’s skill set is wide, but not limitless. He was not a dead-eye shot. Often he missed a person, at close range, or would use his gun only to cover his retreat.
Henry’s fighting skills are superb, as we’ll see later. The guy is a raging pit bull on the trail of the vicious Akan. A friendly cyborg named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) informs Henry that he will last a while. For Henry, “a while” means 20, 30 minutes tops.
(At least 10 actors played Henry. The stuntmen wore specialized camera rigs on their heads, rigs heavy enough to injure at least two Henrys.)
Perhaps Henry’s short lifespan aided his desire to kill everyone in his path. Perhaps he was a born killer, a natural fighter, and the cyborg technology unlocked his primal state, suppressing his higher cognizant functions and unfettering his rage.
Our only insight to his past comes from a barely remembered childhood moment. Henry recalls seeing a child, probably a bully, throw a robot toy against a wall. The toy shatters. The child knocks Henry into a trash can.
Tim Roth bends down to tell Henry “You’re a pussy.” Suddenly we understand much about Henry’s human life, and why he ended it getting beat down by thugs.
It’s only much later that we learn the truth.
Danila Kozlovsky portrays possible albino Akan, a lithe creeper who can control people through telepathy.
I think. Akan is powerful. Several times he whips his hands out to float humans like he has the Force. His power is never explained, never remarked upon as interesting or unique. We have to take it for granted.
Akan runs an (of course) eponymous corporation. What does it do? We don’t know what it presents to the outside world. Maybe microchips, maybe pet food, maybe fluffy stuffed bears.
For the film’s purposes, Akan is breeding an army of cyborgs, machines surrounded by the flesh of reanimated cadavers, that will help him conquer, uh, everything. As Akan tells Henry later, “You didn’t make history, you helped end it.”
Akan is more hipster Voldemort than petty street criminal or world conquerer. He has no qualms with killing his cyborgs as collateral damage, but if they are reconstituted cadavers, can you blame him?
I didn’t understand anything Akan did in this movie. Henry seemed to be a test subject, to see how far he would go to achieve his goal. Henry went all the way. Akan was willing to use his entire stock of cyborgs to kill Henry.
Akan states that he’ll have “a hundred of you next week.” Is that true? Sounds like bluster to me. A shot to the head would have finished Henry, and Akan could have had his army.
For being a turtleneck-wearing, telepathic weirdo who won’t kill the only person capable of killing him, Akan gets bad points.
Where the movie shines. Director Ilya Naishuller, member of the Russian punk band Biting Elbows, made a music video using a GoPro. The first-person hero chases a gang of Russian mobsters who stole a potent piece of technology.
That video lasted five headache-inducing minutes, but it led to a 90-minute film. For Hardcore Henry Naishuller had to tone down the camera’s joltiness.
According to an interview in The Verge, Henry’s stunt actors wore magnetically stabilized camera rigs to reduce shakiness. They started with metal rigs but switched to 3D-printed ones after a stunt actor got a herniated disc.
Considering that no one had tried this before, the results were terrific. I had to look away a few times during the most frenetic scenes, but sometimes that was a gore-related act and not for feeling nauseated. Yeah, I’m a tough guy.
It’s hard to separate action scenes. The movie constitutes one feature-length action sequence that offers rare chances to catch your breath. I found myself out of breath often.
You can pick about any scene as your favorite and get no argument from me. For my money, the movie hits its highest notes on the road.
After Henry successfully escapes a high-class brothel (remember, dude thinks he’s married), he meets Hippie Jimmy in a parking garage. Two dominatrices join them, enraged at the damage wrought on their establishment. They board their bikes as Henry rides sidecar for Jimmy.
On the highway is a convoy of Akan trucks and vans. That the four people/cyborgs follow. And, oh yeah, Jimmy has a minigun on his bike. You’d never know because it was covered in a canvas bag. Henry picks it up and opens fire on the back of the trailing van. Back, side, and front. We hear screams, and then the van explodes.
Henry shoots off the back door of the next van, and Jimmy drives the three-wheeler into the van and out the front. Awesome stuff. One bad guy grabbed the minigun and nearly knocked Henry from the sidecar, but Jimmy helped him back on.
Jimmy draws an Uzi and shoots someone in the third van. Henry leaps on it, catches a grenade, drops it through the sunroof, watches Jimmy turn the bike over, and flies through the air after the grenade explodes. He lands on the back of one of the dominatrix’s bikes.
Between her legs is a handgun, which Henry uses to shoot the last van, until it rams the bike, probably killing the driver. Henry lands on the back of the huge truck and climbs to the roof. One of the doms died, I guess, but there’s no mention of it or salute to her efforts beyond a brief reduction in the music volume.
Here are some ways in which characters (mostly Henry) maim or kill people: stabbing with the sharp end of a windshield wiper torn from its car, smashing a skull into a concrete wall, at least six shots to the chest of a cop, killing a dirty cop by plunging a shotgun barrel down his throat, stabbing a guy in the neck with a sword, pinning a hand to a screen with a thrown knife, exploding a head with one bullet, using a claymore mine and a bazooka to explode a van, smashing a helicopter door on fingers to send Estelle to her death.
Hardcore Henry offers countless ways to fight. I mean “countless.” I tried and soon quit. The filmmakers emptied the playbook, and almost all the scenes paid off.
Hardcore Henry‘s strongest character is Copley’s Jimmy. He has the most screen time, or, rather, his face has the most screen time of any character.
Jimmy shows up first in a parking lot beneath the highway where Henry saw his wife kidnapped, where Jimmy crashes into a couple of Akan thugs and shoots more. He escorts Henry down the road and, when pulled over, dies from a head shot.
That’s Jimmy for you, always dying. Turns out that Jimmy is actually Jimmys, with a “s”, because the real Jimmy is a crippled scientist living in an abandoned hotel and growing avatars he controls from his wheelchair.
Each Jimmy has a different personality, some more convincing than others, and they offer Copley the chance to play as many characters and caricatures as he wants. (Copley was also an executive producer, so he probably could play whomever he wanted.)
Throughout Hardcore Henry the following Jimmys die: mobster Jimmy, sniper Jimmy, Limey Jimmy, junkie Jimmy, hippie Jimmy, bookish Jimmy, debonair Jimmy, and punk Jimmy.
What’s Jimmy’s deal? Hoping to win the Nobel Prize, he was a cyborg/cadaver researcher forced to flee to Russia when Western governments, as they do, outlawed cadaver research. He partnered with Akan and tried to create a cyborg army, but the first run wasn’t good enough. Akan used his Force powers to shatter Jimmy’s spine.
Jimmy, relegated to a powered chair, designs his avatars as cyborgs and grows them in his hotel lair. “I designed the first few for revenge,” he says. Jimmy runs through the avatars like Swiffer pads, so he must have plenty.
The real Jimmy seems to enjoy his life lived vicariously through his avatars. He’s sure to mention to Henry how often he gets laid, and if his junkie version is any indication, his boasting is true.
Jimmy’s marksmanship and martial skills are terrific. In one scene punk Jimmy, the purple-mohawked one, kills about a dozen of Akan’s top guards by using a machete, grenades, and overwhelming rebellious angst.
When Akan’s men bust into Jimmy’s compound, the real guy is in danger for the first time. He shows no fear though, sending his Limey version into a firefight with Henry as the real version slooooowly descends an ancient elevator to flee Akan’s men.
Real Jimmy joins Limey Jimmy and Henry in Akan’s tower, showing that he wasn’t merely an Oz-like straw man who feared being seen for what he was.
Akan sends hundreds of men to die trying to kill Henry. Although they seem to be cyborgs or faceless goons, so we can’t feel badly about them, their humanity robbed.
Except for one person. Henry’s wife Estelle wakens Henry, gives him a ring and a raison d’être, and aids his escape from the airborne cyborg facility.
Turns out that Estelle is Akan’s wife. Her position in the story was to test Henry’s mental resolve, and Henry passed. The best clue that Estelle was not who she said she was came in the giant truck transporting her from Moscow.
Henry finds Estelle locked in a glass cell in the truck. She is wearing a black ball gown, far different from the withe lab coat in the beginning, after her capture by Akan’s forces.
Seems weird that Akan would take the trouble to dress her so well if she was a common prisoner. And why would she be a prisoner? Henry doesn’t consider that; doesn’t have time to consider it.
Akan’s male goons are as expendable as post-Soviet collapse rubles. Akan seems to have limitless funds and power in Moscow, as the city is practically torn to shreds over the fight to kill Henry.
Akan unleashes his cyborg army on Henry at film’s end, and though they prove stronger fighters than the regular humans Akan pays, a score of them isn’t enough to stop Henry.
Being generally faceless and soulless hurt the henchmen score in this film.
Watch ten minutes of Hardcore Henry and, if you aren’t puking, enjoy more stunts than a bar’s Tuesday night drink menu.
Fantastic stuff here, folks, and if you nausea is preventing your watching, let me tell you, Henry knows how to fight and get around.
It’s hard to know where to start with the stunts because they never seem to stop. One of the better scenes involves free running through Moscow.
Henry chases a Slick Dimitry, and his adjectival name proves prescient. Slick is another cyborg, like Henry, and he has a power unit that Henry needs to live, and that unit is lodged behind Slick’s heart. Both guys know their (new) lives are at stake.
To start the chase, Henry follows Slick by leaping off a multistory building with only a rope attached to his wrist to slow his fall. Like all the scenes, we watch as the stunt actor playing Henry actually falls from the roof to the ground. Yes, it’s that harrowing.
They run around Moscow for a while, never tiring, probably because they are part machine. Some of the film’s few time jumps take place here, to get us to more interesting locales.
Slick climbs up a ladder at one point and kicks it back. No matter to Henry; he runs up a wall to leap onto the platform. Slick later jumps over a fence. Henry kicks the fence, which hits Slick and slows him down, before scaling the fence himself.
Henry chases Slick over the top of the bridge, a metaphor I assume was lost on the director. Slick escapes down an escalator. Henry catches and attacks him, only to hit a woman by accident. Henry checks her to see if she’s OK, and Slick uses the moment to kick Henry and break free.
Free running offered wall to wall, sometimes literally, stunt action. Henry runs more in Jimmy’s hotel. And don’t forget an incredible climb UP the building to find Slick. Driving through a van; hundreds of punches and kicks; stabbings with knives, screwdrivers, and metal rods–it’s a wonder no one died making Hardcore Henry.
Henry arrives at Akan’s tower with a couple of Jimmys, including the real Jimmy. They don’t find a lot of guards, and all the employees have gone home for the night.
Of course they find some guards to kill. World War II Jimmy has his ancient machine gun ready to kill. This guy doesn’t miss, and he doesn’t fear walking into the fire. He also calls Akan a cunt, which was probably what sent Akan over the edge.
They enter the first floor and are attacked. Henry finds a riot shield and a grenade gun, and the latter makes quick work of several guards. Henry and the Jimmys board the elevator.
Limey Jimmy helps Henry with important words. They’ve become friends, and Jimmy unblocks Henry’s memories. The real Jimmy has a piece of glass lodged in his throat. Limey and Real Jimmy die on the elevator, leaving Henry alone in this world.
Henry exits the elevator to a stone lobby with a dozen or so guards. Some grenades make quick work of them. Henry enters a glass-walled reception room, where he watches the movie thus far on fast forward.
Akan’s voice pops in from somewhere. Seems that Henry’s memories of the day are being downloaded into Akan’s next batch of cyborg warriors. All of them will be convinced, like Henry, that Estelle is their wife. They will fight for Akan as Henry.
The warriors are nearly ripe, one especially, which Akan sends to kill Henry. What makes no sense about this plan is that Henry has spent his entire day trying to kill Akan, so why would memories of this help Akan control his warriors?
Akan is hardly a balanced guy, so what does it matter? Anyway, the thick cyborg goon attacks Henry, but remembered experience can’t substitute for real-world practice, and Henry kills the cyborg, taking its power source and trading it for his waning one. Henry sees the rest of the cyborgs on their way to kill him, so he cutely locks the office door to buy time to escape.
On the tower roof, Akan roams around, using his telekinetic powers to repel Henry when the latter gets too near him. The rest of the cyborg army does the dirty work.
Bloody work. Henry’s battle with the cyborg army was the only section of the film that dragged. He wails on them for a few minutes, dispatching them through kicking them off a tower, electrocution, pipe smashing, screwdriver stabbing, bullets, and grenades.
Henry barricades himself in a gun room and dispatches a few goons with a shotgun and machine gun. He bolts from room after pulling the pin on a bunch of grenades.
At this point I thought, “Kickass, Henry. Now go get Akan.” Instead, Queen kicks on, a medical bin flops open to reveal two packs of adrenaline, and we get Round Two of goon bashing.
Henry jabs two needles into his legs as Freddie Mercury croons “Don’t stop me now…” and you can almost hear the Mario power-up sound effects. blup blup Blup BLUP. I was ready to move on, but the movie wasn’t.
We got metal rods stabbing, a face plant into a wall that creates a new definition of “drag and drop,” a guy catches fire, a concrete block smashing a head in, and one man is thrown into a metal fan, spraying his remains into everyone.
Akan’s had enough. He uses his telekinesis to play the “Why are you hitting yourself?” game with Henry. He’s drooling blood for some reason. He knocks out Henry, who wakes up to see his wife making out with Akan.
Yep, Estelle was tricking that fool the whole time. Just like a womens to trick a man, ain’t it? Estelle, Akan’s “brilliant wife,” is the key to Akan’s army. Her cheap brass ring will convince the cyborgs to do anything she asks. (Why skimp on the brass rings handed out to cyborgs, Akan? Cheap jewelry could undermine your lie.)
Out cold again, Henry remembers what his father told him on the day the bully smashed his childhood robot toy. “Are you gonna lay there, swallow that blood in your mouth, or are you gonna stand up, spit it out, and go spill theirs?”
Spill theirs. Henry wraps his hand in barbed wire and chases Akan. The Force can’t override Henry this time, as the hero wails on the villain, once pulling Akan’s hand apart down the middle.
Akan tries one final telepathic float. He rises above the roof, lifting bodies with him. In the move of the film, Henry uses the floating bodies as a staircase to run to Akan and grab his leg.
Henry pulls out his optic nerve, wraps it around Akan’s head and mouth, and decapitates his enemy, sending the body to obliteration in the whirling blades of the helicopter.
Henry boards the chopper with the grieving Estelle, takes her gunshots. “How could you do this to me?” she asks. Henry slaps a bloody palm on the chopper’s metal and draws out “E. Z.”
Estelle takes a final shot and hits the metal wire on Henry’s hand, which deflects the bullet into her shoulder. Estelle tumbles out the door, hanging on. She begs Henry to listen to his heart and save her. Henry slams the door on her fingers.
Copley finds the time to squeeze in the jokes. It’s easy to have joie de vivre when you can live life to the fullest, knowing that if you die, you’ve got another body lined up to live life to the fullest.
Jimmy provides most of the comedy. His hippie version interrogates an Akan goon by offering him two choices–a shot to the knee, called “ego,” or a drag of pot, called “higher self.” Later, that Jimmy makes out with a dominatrix while waiting for Henry to gain consciousness.
Junkie Jimmy proved to be the funniest. He buries his face in cocaine in a brothel and brandishes double machine guns for fun. He carries a molotov cocktail through the building chanting the mantra of every child’s favorite indoor game, “The floor is made of lava.”
Jimmy dies a lot. And when we realize that his deaths are avatar deaths, we understand that they are not emotionally fraught moments. He provides a terrific example of what action characters would do in real life: die quickly.
Even the violence can be funny. Henry hand-crushes the gonads of a would-be rapist cop, then forces that cop to fellate a shotgun. Earlier, Henry fell from a helicopter. He falls toward a pond we’re sure he’ll hit, until he lands in a bush ride beside that pond.
Moscow is a huge city of long and complicated history. Hitler couldn’t enter the capital, but his undead flesh possibly could.
Hardcore Henry paints Moscow as a city equal parts grand and derelict. We first see the city from a highway, and it’s full of skyscrapers. That way we know it’s the future. The cars haven’t changed much, only the people driving them–they used to be dead.
One moment can find Henry running through a beautiful park and the next he’s in an abandoned warehouse. He might find a Jimmy avatar in a brothel or the concrete husk of a Soviet-era hotel. Henry’s Moscow is beautiful on top, ugly just underneath.
Naishuller’s Moscow mimics its cyborg protagonist–it’s shiny and new to onlookers, but it thrives on atomic energy and won’t last long. Am I reading too much into this? Undoubtedly, but that’s my job.
Hardcore Henry takes a bleak view of encroaching technological trends. Soon we might have to deal with cyborgs walking among us, or clones, or both. How will we prosecute them?
Beyond being the primal, prototypical male fantasy in which a man has super fighting powers and kills a lot of bad guys to save a beautiful woman, Hardcore Henry saves its offensiveness for the violence.
This movie is not for everyone. It’s hardly for anyone. Video game fans will love it, as it’s probably the closest live action can get to CGI violence.
- Haley Bennett appeared in two consecutive movies (US release) which played the theme music to The Magnificent Seven.
- According to Akan, Russians buy 100,000 baseball bats each year, but only 50 baseballs. He’s making a point about Russian violence, but I think Russians just don’t get the game.
Summary (40/68): 59%
Rarely do action films make me cringe, but Hardcore Henry was an exception. Henry bursts a man’s balls. He plunges a sword through a man’s neck. Twice he falls from a flying vehicle and crashes.
Each time, and several more, I winced or cringed. The brutality on display–shocking! Hardcore Henry delivers exactly what it promised. The first-person gimmick succeeded. More often than not I turned away from violence than for motion sickness.
Naishuller used about every weapon he could find short of a dildo. There was a dildo in the movie, it just wasn’t used as a weapon. Tells you about everything you should know.