Hardcore Henry screened as a midnight movie at last September’s Toronto Film Festival, and was so ecstatically received that a distributor bidding war ensued. Six months later, the film has hit theaters nationwide and fallen flat, thanks to intensely negative reviews from critics upset by its unceasing violence. It didn’t help that audiences took to social media to express confusion over the nutty plotline and even nuttier tilt-a-wheel camerawork. Headaches and nausea were reported, and box office receipts suffered.
This all must baffle Ilya Naishuller, a Russian whose Moscow-based, English-language debut feature is an extension of two wickedly clever music videos he directed for his band, Biting Elbows. (His clip for “Bad Motherfucker” is essential viewing.) Like those YouTube sensations, Hardcore Henry was shot by attaching a GoPro camera to a stuntman’s headgear — his visual perspective becomes our perspective, from the opening frame to the last. If Henry falls face first to the ground, we see the ground rushing up, just as he does. Throw in a bad-guy army that sends Henry on a foot/motorcycle/helicopter chase wild enough to wear down Mad Max, and you have a movie with everything it needs save one crucial element: emotion.
At the start, Henry wakes from a coma to find he’s been turned into a cyborg — part man, part machine, with no memory, no voice and a missing leg and arm. Luckily, the beauty across the room is not only his wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), but a genius. In a flash, she’s outfitted her man with bionic appendages, which immediately grow skin (and tattoos). Before they can fit him out with a voice chip, the lab is attacked by an army of masked, gun-wielding cyborgs led by Askan (Danila Kozlovsky), who aims to conquer the world, of course. Since he has telekinetic powers of awesome might, it’s not completely clear why Askan needs an army.
Things happen. Estelle and Henry escape, but Askan’s mercenaries quickly capture Estelle and take her away. Trying to save his wife, Henry has the first of umpteen gunfights, which typically result in the bad guys aiming wildly while Henry lands kill shots that make his target’s head explode. Blood is forever spurting into Henry’s face and eyes, which, don't forget, are our eyes too. The wise will experience Hardcore Henry from the back row of the movie theater — away from the whirly-twirly camerawork and arterial spray.
Henry is given a ride by Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who is shot dead right after showing Henry how to recharge his robotic battery pack. Minutes later, Jimmy’s back, but this time he’s a boisterous bum on a bus with more key advice for Henry. A hulking silver cyborg with a flamethrower takes out that particular Jimmy, but fear not, the Jimmys keep coming. Copley expertly delineates each, but his gleeful energy never makes up for the fact that this film is built around a non-man we can’t see or truly know, much less care about for 90 minutes.
In the end, there is indeed one true Jimmy, and there is a reason Askan wants to nab Henry and his wife, but it might take a few whiskey shots before I could explain it all coherently. I saw Hardcore Henry twice in three days (long story) and people walked out early both times, but those who stayed kept giggling, which suggests two things: The film critic in me needs to lighten up, and Hardcore Henry is going to end up where it began — as a beloved midnight movie.