Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Hardcore Henry" Review: Only The Hardcore Need Apply


Despite sharing the same demographic for the most part, videogames and movies have never really gotten along as well as they should. Videogames based off movies are with a few exceptions generally not very good and movies based on videogames have become notorious for their lack of quality (to say the least). But while there have been plenty of attempts to translate existing videogames into a movie, until now we have never had a movie attempt to BE a videogame. That is what Hardcore Henry is, a film that aspires to capture everything we love (and hate) about videogames into a feature length film. Did it succeed? Well in this case success cannot be measured by typical movie standards. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital           
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime:  1 hr 30 min
Studio: STX Entertainment
Release Date: April 8, 2016

Biases:  
Loves: FPS (First Person Shooter) style videogames
Likes: Daring movies that break new ground
Neutral: Most videogames based on movies
Hates: Most movies based on videogames
Ever heard of Serious Sam?: Hardcore Henry is a bit too similar (in name only) not to form a connection.

Meet Estelle, Henry's wife and the person he must save from the evil Akan.

Before we delve into the nuts and bolts of Hardcore Henry it is important to know what it is or what it is trying to be to fully understand it before passing judgement. In the world of videogames there is a genre known as the FPS (First Person Shooter) where the player's view is through the eyes of the character they are playing as. Popular examples of this genre are games like Doom, Call of Duty, Halo and this film's most obvious namesake Serious Sam. Generally all the player sees of the character while playing is their hands, arms, feet and legs. Depending on the game in question the character will either have a voice ala Halo or be what is known as the silent protagonist ala Half-Life with Hardcore Henry choosing the latter.

If you have ever played or even seen someone else play an FPS game before then chances are you will recognize all the similarities found during Hardcore Henry's blessedly brief runtime. It is all but impossible to view the film as anything other than one long extended videogame cutscene (a moment in a videogame where control is taken from the player in order to further the story in a more cinematic way). Is this a bad thing? Well it really depends on your point of view. In truth it doesn't really matter if it is a videogame or in this case a full length feature film, if the story is engaging then the audience shouldn't really care but if you could careless about anything that happens then chances are you will quickly hit that skip button. The problem for the viewer concerning Hardcore Henry though is that there is no skip button, you have to watch the whole thing.

Seasoned videogame veterans will find this perspective all too familiar.

Luckily music band front man turned first time director Ilya Naishuller seems to know what it takes to keep not only the story and characters interesting but more importantly knows to keep the action coming with only a handful of quieter (but necessary) moments to break up said action much in the same way a story is spoon fed to those playing a videogame. While the revolutionary action sequences are likely to be the main draw for audiences (and rightfully so) it is the surprising amount of depth to the story and our hopelessly mute protagonist Henry that hooks us in for the wild ride to come. That's not to say Hardcore Henry is sporting an award worthy script or anything but by videogame story standards it is surprisingly well thought out.

Henry's introduction feels ripped right out of a videogame tutorial sequence (where the player learns how to control the game) but while that may trigger many memories of games past for some it also serves as a rather clever way for the audience to learn quickly and efficiently who Henry is and what his mission is. Just as soon as we meet Henry's beautiful lab assistant/wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) who runs him (and the audience) through the ins and outs of his newly acquired cybernetic appendages the deceptively laid back proceedings are interrupted by what can only be explained as that moment in just about any game (FPS or not) where the player is ripped out of one reality and thrust into a world filled with endless waves of bad guys who will stop at nothing to kill him all the while Henry struggles to locate the big baddie Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) who kidnapped his wife and seems to really want Henry...for something.

Henry must fight off wave after wave of bad guys to save his wife.

At this point we should talk about another well known feature of the FPS genre (especially for the games that feature a mute protagonist like Henry) which is the companion character who generally serves as the sole conduit for the player to learn vital pieces of information as well as assist them from time to time during their adventure together. This caveat is also found in Hardcore Henry and is without a doubt the saving grace of the entire film. You see, while it is great to be able to project yourself into the shoes of the character you are playing/watching it is even more important that the audience has someone to connect with. Translating this into the realm of film could have been disastrous if the companion were annoying or otherwise unpleasant but in the case of Hardcore Henry we are treated to the many talents of Sharlto Copley.

Copley plays Jimmy, a rather mysterious individual(?) who has a knack for showing up just at the right time and place to help Henry along on his journey. Jimmy isn't just Henry's helping hand however, he becomes an integral part of the story and in many ways is the true star of the film. His enigmatic nature aside it is his ridiculous ability to show up unscathed after being killed numerous times in increasingly absurd ways that really steals the show. These almost cartoonish personalities ranging from secret agent, homeless man and my personal favorite a hyped up cokehead sporting nothing but a fancy pair of leopard print speedos and a full blown afro are the true highlight of the film and will undoubtedly be the one thing universally praised outside the many technical feats used to create it.

While all Jimmy's are great, coked up Jimmy is my personal favorite.

Probably the biggest surprise outside the character of Jimmy though has to be the story, something that seems to elude most videogames and just about every single movie based on a videogame. The central story for Hardcore Henry isn't all that impressive, it's about a guy killing his way through goon after goon to rescue his wife, sweet and simple but not exactly original either. Where the story really stands out in comparison to similarly themed action films is in how naturally it flows from one action scene to the next. Again, using the same structure of a videogame with each action scene sectioned off from one another like a series of levels or stages, the story is revealed over the course of the film in such a way that it will keep you guessing from one moment to the next while always retaining enough mystery and intrigue so that you don't ever know the whole picture until the very end.

It is that end though that cements Hardcore Henry in a category all its own. Between the extremely impressive final battle atop Akan's tower and the reveal of what Akan's master plan really is, few films or videogames end on such an explosive note as this. Heck, the entire finale is basically just one giant videogame boss fight where Henry must take down a seemingly indestructible foe using the environment around him and some rather interesting techniques (one of which includes Akan's head and Henry's eyeball). All of this may sound like impossibly positive praise for something that looks to be nothing more than an excuse to revel in the bloody excess of our subconscious need to see things blown up but none of this praise comes without a few extreme exceptions.

Did I mention that this thing is kind of violent?

First of all Hardcore Henry is bloody...very bloody. Few horror films supply this much blood and chaos per second and that is likely to turn off a number of potential viewers. Then there is the fact that most of that blood is accompanied by an inordinate amount of severed body parts, brutally extracted organs and a body count higher than most Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies combined. It doesn't help that most of this blood and gore isn't exactly earned and does feel as though it is there simply for shock value but there is no arguing that the execution isn't effective. But the real question mark is how general audiences will react to a film where the main character is...them.

Videogames get away with it because as the player you are, for the most part, in direct control of the events unfolding. But unlike a videogame except for the occasional cutscene the medium of film doesn't allow the viewer to participate leading to the question, will audiences accept a character who they neither see or hear for the duration of the film? It's hard to say really. While there is no doubt that as an experiment Hardcore Henry succeeds at bridging the gap between videogames and movies and just so happens to be a lot of fun in the process. The real deterrent though is the combination of all these disparate parts. Videogame plotting, no actual main character, lots of mindless bloody action and all done in the format of a FPS videogame, chances are high that Hardcore Henry will likely never see mainstream popularity. However with that being said, the very few select people in the world it was made to appeal to will come away from the experience wishing they had a controller in hand which is exactly the feeling one should have when watching a film like this.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Hardcore Henry was made for a very small group of people but those people will find it to be the best example of the videogame movie genre to date. The only ironic thing is that unlike the plethora of movies based off real videogames it was a movie that wasn't based on any videogame that got it right. For years now filmmakers have wrestled with how to properly translate a videogame into a film, well now they have their example. Unless you go all in like Henry does then perhaps you really shouldn't do it at all.

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