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A review of "Hardcore Henry" (2015)

I'm still not sure if I liked Hardcore Henry.  It's... it's an experience, I'll say that much.

I have no idea how or when I first heard about the movie.  It's one of those Netflix discs that showed up in my mailbox one day without any fanfare or expectations, then left just as quietly.  That's somehow appropriate; the entire movie feels like something you aren't totally sure actually happened.  I can see this one fading from memory and then twelve years from now I'll be like, "Wait, that was a movie and not just a weird dream?"

Henry is a gimmick film inasmuch as it is entirely told from first-person perspective.  Now, before I get into the plot - or what smattering of forward action there is that can reasonably approximate a plot - I should mention that part of me is seething with petty jealousy.  Back when I was in college and thought I might make movies some day, I was obsessed with the idea of making a movie shot entirely in first-person perspective.  I knew in my bones that it would revolutionize the industry and propel me to super stardom.  (Kids always think they're going to revolutionize everything, huh?)  Now, obviously, I'm not a filmmaker and I'm as far from a superstar as you can get.  Plus, Hardcore Henry delivers on the premise quite a bit more than my podunk production possibly could have.  So, I guess I should finally let it go.

Anyway, so, this movie is about a guy named Henry, whose perspective the film takes, who wakes up in a weird lab with no memory.  His wife, a doctor / inventor / scientist of some sort, fits his body with a couple of robotic appendages and explains that she more or less brought him back from the dead.  Then the lab is raided by a generic villain named Akan, and soon Henry / the audience is off and running through a series of fistfights, murders, stunts, and other misadventures.

Very little of Henry relies on story-telling; it's much more of a visceral film than a narrative one.  You simply know that Akan is the head of an army of villainous mercenaries who want to use the technology that revived Henry for nefarious purposes, so he needs to be stopped.  There's almost no context and very little exposition.

The one character who offers any sort of anchor is Jimmy, a secret agent (?) / handler (?) played by Sharlto Copley who shows up every seven minutes or so to give Henry some nebulous instructions of nebulous consequence, after which he gets seemingly killed by some horrible act of violence.  But Jimmy is a pretty shitty anchor.  He gives only enough detail to push the movie along; not enough to make it mean anything.

Thanks to the camera work, the mute protagonist, and the almost nonexistent story structure, the immediate comparison that comes to mind is video games.  Everything about this movie is modeled after first-person shooters.  Henry goes through level after level dispatching bad guys with only a tenuous connection to take him from one map to the next.

But all I've done so far is describe what the movie is.  The question is: does it work?  Is the sum of all these parts worth watching?  And the answer is... I really have no clue.

I admire the movie for what it tried to do.  There are some spectacular stunts and action scenes.  There are moments where the movie sneaks in some truly great surprises and makes good use of its primary gimmick.  So, from a purely aesthetic, experiential perspective, I'd say this is an absolute recommendation.  There have not been any other movies like it.

However... you can also kinda make the argument that it's not a movie.  It certainly doesn't feel like one.

On top of that, there's a strange, disturbing feeling I got while watching it.  It's a little hard to describe, but it's kinda like what I imagine watching a snuff film must feel like.  There's a pervasive indifference to life throughout, and while that's generally true of any action movie, it felt a lot creepier here.  Normally I'm not the one killing people, you know?

So... yeah, color me ambivalent.  I think action movie fans owe it to themselves to give it a try, but maybe get something less upsetting to watch afterward.  Like The Raid.