film Haley Bennett

HARDCORE HENRY Review: Hyperactive Chaos Can't Register

Monday, April 11, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Hardcore Henry

Director: Ilya Naishuller
Writers: Ilya Niashuller, Will Stewart
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth
Rating: Two stars out of five
Available in theaters now

Movies are a medium that create understanding through the specific experiences their characters are subjected to. Audiences learn to empathize or not based on the stories being told about other people. Seeing how characters react to things, looking into their eyes, getting a feel for their internal decision-making abilities, their hangups and their strengths, is how that empathy is generated.

Hardcore Henry does not have that. Shot entirely from the perspective of the camera, a robotically-enhanced soldier named Henry whose memory has been wiped and, conveniently for the plot, has no ability to speak. Henry's scientist wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), gives him the bare minimum of expository information about their situation as she screws in the last of his cyborg machinery, a new synthetic arm and leg, before their floating science lab – it's about a mile above the ground – gets attacked by a terrorist group intent on building an army of human-robot hybrids using Henry as a prototype. Explosions and chases ensue, with Henry and Estelle hopping into an escape pod and crashing into an unnamed Eastern European and/or Russian city below, where the mayhem continues for another 80 minutes or so of the film's runtime.

So far, so good as far as setups go for high-concept science fiction films. This sets Hardcore Henry on the path of schlocky fun, but its visual gimmick and its supporting cast quickly wear thin. Chappie's Sharlto Copley stars as Henry's guide through the world, who shows up only to give him miniature missions every five to 10 minutes, another holdover from the video-game style the movie refuses to transcend. Copley, who showed a lot of promise in 2009's District 9 as a sympathetic protagonist, has become an annoying presence in the seven years since his breakout. Here, as a deus ex machina plot device, he does a variety of irritating and unconvincing accents and tics as a master of disguise – here's Copley as a pot-smoking hippie killing machine, here's Copley as a nebbish scientist, here's Copley as a coked-out strip club patron – to do nothing but catch Henry (and the audience) up on the plot's mechanics, all of which could have been offered up front.

Bennett and the film's villain, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), don't fare much better than Copley. Akan is a telekinetic loose cannon with white hair and amber eyes. He comes across as more of a hyperactive child whose outbursts are tolerated by exhausted parents than as the mastermind of a robot army. Bennett is given little more to do than look pretty, like someone a heterosexual male would have feelings for. The film expects Henry and the audience to simply go with the flow by saying that Bennett's Estelle loves him, but it never gives a convincing reason for him to care about her.

If Hardcore Henry could pull off its central conceit, those narrative and characterization issues would not be deal-breaking problems. But since this action picture comes off so muddled for most of its set pieces, the shakiness of its other elements become magnified. The movie is so enamored with the relative novelty of its first-person viewpoint that it fails to implement the viewpoint in a coherent way.

There are brief moments in the film where director Ilya Naishuller slows the pace just enough for a viewer's eyes to catch up with the visual information of the frame. There are a couple brilliant slow motion shots in the climax, which features an army of anonymous adversaries doing battle with Henry on a skyscraper's roof. With Anna Kudevich's costume design intentionally referencing the white-wearing Droogs from A Clockwork Orange, things pop. Blood splatters across the white uniforms poetically as Henry mows them down. Naishuller and the three-headed cinematography team of Pasha Kapinos, Vsevolod Kaptur, and Fedor Lyass choreograph this segment with blocking that feels more like a dance than chaos, showing the thought and decision-making such a concept requires.

That's what makes the rest of Hardcore Henry's visual incoherence so disappointing. The same planning that was all over the climax was needed in the earlier sequences – chases through city streets that knock over pedestrians, jumping to and from high-speed vehicles, a multilevel high-rise firefight, and more – but a number of things keep those early moments from working. The biggest is a simple impatience. The camera/Henry whips around, jostles, looks in every direction without taking the time to fully survey anything. This gives the illusion of “layered” visual storytelling without doing any of the necessary work to actually create layered images. There are not multiple planes of action in each shot, only one. But moving away from that one plane so quickly makes it feel like there must be more to it when it's just emptiness.

It's all reaction at 100 miles per hour, leaving nobody a chance to keep up. That gets coupled with the biggest downside of first-person camerawork, the audience's inability to control any actions being performed on the screen as they would in the video games that inspired the technique. Henry does not make decisions amid the overwhelming violence directed at him so much as he ducks out of the way as best he can. Thematically that might carry some weight if a viewer was given a second or more to digest what's happening, but it barrels its way forward with no regard for selling its messages.

At the very least, Henry/camera is an exceptional athlete, able to strategically jump and scale buildings' exteriors like the world's finest parkour practitioners. When he falls from tall heights and takes a moment to breathe, to decide on a course of action, the movie begins to work. It fires on most cylinders when its dubstep-inspired score cedes control to pop songs by artists like Sublime, The Temptations, and Queen, all of which form comedic counterpoints to the havoc happening on the screen.

If Hardcore Henry had been able to snap its working elements into place a little more often – maybe with more pop music accompaniment – it would have been a far more enjoyable piece of entertainment. Instead it furthers the notion that first-person-only viewpoints don't translate from video games to film for many reasons. The technique probably retains promise, but perhaps only in small doses, not over the course of an entire film. 

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