When I saw the trailer for Hardcore Henry, the first thing I thought was, “What a stupid gimmick.” The second thing I thought was, “Why the hell has it taken Hollywood so long to try this!?!” The feature is a grand experiment in filmmaking. It’s not the first full length movie to ever be filmed entirely in the first person perspective (see the 1947 film Lady in the Lake for that distinction), but it’s certainly the first to use a head strapped GoPro camera to push the technique to its balls-to-the-wall limits. Needless to say, if you’re at all prone to motion sickness, you may want to pop some dramamine before watching.
Henry reads like a mission statement for a videogame production. “We want it to look this photorealistic, have this many fun repeatable moments, and make you feel this badass.” Like most First Person Shooters, the film pays only the most basic lip-service to a plot, instead focusing on killing the fuck out of as many bad guys as possible. What little character motivation exists is serviceable. The standout performance is Sharlto Copley, who seems to be having an absolute blast in the role(s) of Jimmy. As for Henry, without a distinguishable personality or arc, his action triumphs can really only be judged by how cool they are. This is fine. The movie knows what it is, and it doubles down on it. The gimmick is certainly fun, but it would get more mileage if the story had a little more meat on its bones.
As for the technique’s functionality, it’s fascinating how functional it was in some moments, and limiting it was in others. Simple things we take for granted in action movies, like editing to amp up the pacing, were simply left off the table. More than a few times, I thought that a supercool action scene would have been even more fun if the filmmakers allowed themselves to cut to a few different camera angles. That said, there are a lot of moments where the format forces the audience into an interestingly unaware perspective that makes the action feel terrifying and visceral in altogether uncommon ways. For instance, when running away from bad guys, Henry sometimes has almost no feedback about how close he is to being caught. Comparing that to any other film we would almost certainly get a reverse angle to either show their exact proximity, or hamhandedly hide them, only to abruptly cut to a shot where they’re leaping out at the hero. In Hardcore Henry, the confusion feels natural.
Surprisingly, the most impressive thing about the film is how seldom that confusion hits. The film’s cinematographers (aka “Henry”) are incredibly good at capturing exactly what needs to be seen in the moment we need to see them. Considering how much of the film is told in long takes, the choreography on display is astounding. This kind of precision is impressive enough in something like Birdman, but the levels of insanity on display in Hardcore Henry make the former’s one-take gimmick look like child’s play.
Altogether, Hardcore Henry is a purposefully shallow, but above average, action romp, which absolutely earns a “must see” status for fans of the genre based on its gimmick alone. Restrictive as it is, the first person style does things with the genre that no other film has. It will be interesting to see what filmmakers (and videogame producers) take away from this moving forward. The world has stepped into Henry’s shoes, and there’s no going back.