I took a turn away from the spooky to wrack my brain, trying to think of some of my favourite action films that I’ve seen throughout the years. The new highly-anticipated John Wick 3: Parabellum is coming out in May, after all, so I thought it might be fun to brush up on my action films. I took the opportunity to re-watch one that really captured my interest when it landed on Netflix Canada a couple of years ago- Hardcore Henry.
Directed and written by Ilya Naishuller, with additional writing credits to Will Stewart, Hardcore Henry is a Russian action film also referred to simply as “Hardcore” in Russia and a few other countries. Filmed in Russia by Naishuller, on an Indiegogo campaign, it had a budget of $2 million. It actually grossed $14.3 million worldwide at the box office, with $9.3 million of that grossed in North America. I wouldn’t normally talk about this but thought I would this time. Given that Hardcore Henry has become one of the most well-known and influential films to come out of Russia, Russian-made, since 1991.
The premise of Hardcore Henry is simple-you are Henry. Henry, the actor, was played by a variety of stuntmen, notable credits being Sergey Valyaev, Andrei Dementiev, Ilya Naishuller himself and others uncredited). You’re in a state-of-the-art laboratory in a big blimp high in the sky above Moscow, getting all patched up and put back together by a mysterious blonde woman in a white lab coat. You look to be a cyborg of sorts. These are all seat-of-the-pants assumptions you make as you get strapped in for your adventure. The woman taking care of you tells you that she is your wife and that you and she were together before…whatever it was that happened that brought you to this moment. Because you can’t access your memories, they’re blocked.
The experience is initially all more than a little disorienting. The movie was filmed by a GoPro camera mounted on a guy’s head, on a mask of Sergey Valyaev(one of Henry’s own stuntmen)’s own design. All of the action happens in front of you, and characters talk directly to the camera, which is you when interacting with you or having a conversation with you.
But you haven’t even had your voice chip installed, and all hell is breaking loose. The lab is under attack. There is a psychokinetic man who is attacking the lab and wreaking havoc with his guns and soldiers. He is your nemesis. Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) is the name of the man who will stop at nothing to see you dead.
You will need to fight your way out if you want to live. The woman, Estelle (Haley Bennett, The Magnificent Seven, The Haunting of Molly Hartley) wants to see you to safety, and so she guides you to an escape pod on the blimp. You accept the use of the escape pod but insist that she join you. She accepts. In a terrifying free fall, you two are certain to be in for a crash landing. Your parachute does not deploy, and you come in for a rough landing on a freeway in Moscow. Estelle, who for a moment looks like she didn’t survive, is soon revived and ready to escape. But she is immediately kidnapped by the same pursuers that Akan had on the ground already, corrupt cops he bought out looking for you. You meet a nondescript man who introduces himself as Jimmy (Sharlto Copley, District 9).
Jimmy tries to get you to safety, explaining as he drives you in his car through Moscow that you need to recharge your heart, and how. But you two get waylaid by more crooked cops. They kill Jimmy, whose life, it seems, is over before it barely began its purpose. You manage to hotfoot it away in an escape, to board a city transit bus, where you are met with a puzzling reincarnation of Jimmy, Hobo Jimmy. Hobo Jimmy presents you with your next leg of the “quest”, find a guy named Slick Dmitriy (Andrei Dementiev). And, since he’s also a cyborg, steal some of his hardware to keep your ol’ ticker pumping. Kind of like in Crank. There, I said it, so you wouldn’t need to wonder.
(If this is a “first-person-shooter video game” movie, I don’t think I can make a gratuitous reference to Cid coming back in various forms from the Final Fantasy series here…. but he’s the only one who springs to mind when I think of the many faces of Jimmy.)
Some drawbacks of Hardcore Henry were simply that the novelty of the experience, and some amazing, helter-skelter stunts, served to cover what was at times a thin, screwball plot. I’m not kidding, for an Indiegogo campaign-ed movie, the stunts were really good. I’d like to see more fun stunts like the ones I saw in Hardcore Henry pulled off in regular movies more often. At times, it reminded me of a Tom Tykwer film (like Run Lola Run). It’s been a while, for example, since I’ve seen a guy go up against a tank in the middle of the wilderness of Eastern Europe armed only with a katana and still win.
So the stunts enriched the experience for me. But I won’t lie, if a member of the audience wasn’t willing to buy in and play along with the experience, some stuff would feel hammy and rehearsed, not pulled off effortlessly. The good note of that is that as a film, Hardcore Henry doesn’t play. The first-person perspective won’t let you off the hook that easily.
The good news is that in the wake of such excess, we get silent arguments and conversations between our voiceless, first-person hero and a band of scantily-clad prostitutes. Potentially another drawback of the film is the lack of a leading lady. Women in Hardcore Henry had no real role other than to serve as hookers, as pretty set-dressing as motorcycle gals, or to aid the villain. That was mainly my only real gripe of the film. But I took that one in stride, having experienced Eastern Europe first-hand.
All in all, though, a pretty decent film, and definitely the first of its kind. I hadn’t experienced anything like Hardcore Henry ever before I watched it for the first time a couple of years ago. I was impressed, even if the finished product isn’t without its flaws. I would absolutely watch it again. Even if in its presentation, it’s a movie where you love it or you hate it. I’m one of those people who is easily entertained and if they made a sequel, I would show up to that, too, with popcorn. And I would even count Hardcore Henry among my other favourite action flicks since I like a movie that is willing to dare to be different. Timur Bekmambetov had a hand in producing the film, too, and his movies can be pretty love-or-hate. (For example, I loved Nightwatch and Daywatch but hated Wanted.)
Hardcore Henry is still available on Netflix. You can watch it in the comfort of your own home, where no one else will be pestering you when the characters speak Russian, whining, “WHAT ARE THEY SAYING!?!”. Or, telling you to turn it off because they’re your friend and a sucker who chose to watch this movie with you, and the movie “hurts my eyes and my brain, I have a headache, turn it off please”. Ahhhhh. Peace and quiet.