Cinema Dispatch: Hardcore Henry

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Hardcore Henry and all the images you see in this review are owned by STX Entertainment

Directed by Ilya Naishuller

Well it’s about time we got some badass action this year!  Batman v Superman and Gods of Egypt turned out to be duds (admittedly I was a bit more optimistic of the former), and London Has Fallen turned out to be… well London Has Fallen.  Can this unorthodox arthouse piece prove to the be shot in the arm we need in a landscape that only seems to care about action when super heroes do it, or will this experiment prove to be a resounding failure that glommed itself onto a half-baked gimmick?  Let’s find out!!

The movie is all about Henry who is some dude that wakes up in a laboratory with amnesia, robotic limbs, and a hot wife named Estelle (Haley Bennett).  For the most part I would call that a win-win, but of course nothing can go right for too long in a science lab, so the place gets attacked by… some guy.  I’m pretty sure the dude’s name is Akan (Danila Kozolvsky) who has telekinetic powers… for some reason, and wants Henry… for some reason.  No, I don’t know why he’s the ONLY ONE in this entire movie that has magic powers.  In fact, there’s a lot about this movie I don’t know after seeing it, but I guess that’s not as important as the whole KILL EVERYTHING WITH YOUR BAD ASS ROBOT PARTS seems to take precedence over everything else.  And that’s exactly what Henry proceeds to do for an hour and a half.  His wife is kidnapped by the Akan the Black Mage, and he has to kill everyone in his path to get her back.  Aiding him on his journey is the loveable Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who’s pulling off an interesting trick here and has his own reasons for wanting to keep Henry alive and fighting.  Will Henry get his wife back before it’s too late?  Can this new cybernetic body handle all the stress and bullets that Henry is going to put it through?  WHAT THE HELL DID HE JUST DO TO THAT GUY’S FACE!?

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“You ready to see some shit?  I don’t think you’re ready, but fortune favors the bold, right?  No… Not really, but good luck to ya!”

I’m very disappointed in this movie.  The trailers looked great, the idea was promising, and it had a level of manic glee to the action that brought to mind some of the really great 90’s action movies like Demolition Man and Cliffhanger or even some of the later additions to the wacky action genre like Shoot ‘Em Up and Crank: High Voltage.  For the most part, it actually does succeed in making a movie that is entirely in first person.  It can drag a bit and feels somewhat repetitive at points, but it does work as a gimmick for conveying a story and gives us some unique action that we’ve never seen before.  Unfortunately, what they COULDN’T do is tell a story that was worth a damn or put in jokes that were actually funny.  It’s big dumb meathead movie that feels like a straight adaptation of a really bad and offensive video game.  It’s sort of like Duke Nukem where you get the feeling that it’s SUPPOSED to be a satire or parody of over the top machismo, but it either doesn’t have the brains or conviction to make it anything other than straight up glorification.  The first line in this movie is “You little pussy”.  How do YOU think the writing is gonna be in this?

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“Not only did they turn into a robot, but they performed a bitch-ectomy to remove the bitch from you.  This will also prevent you from getting sand in your vagina.”

Let’s start with the positives, as I’d go so far as to say that a majority of this is really solid.  The movie is made of completely disparate pieces that do not gel together in the slightest, BUT I’d say that almost all of those pieces are interesting and when isolated on their own do bring something to the table.  Is there even the slightest explanation for why the bad guy has psychic powers?  Absolutely not, but it’s executed really well in the movie.  Does his plan or any of his actions make any sense in the slightest?  Not really, but his terrible plans do mean that we get a couple of interesting set pieces including a really great chase sequence and what is essentially an FPS melee hoard mode.  It’s a tour de force, not only figuratively but literarily (in French it means “feat of strength”) as there are moments in here where the action is so on point as to become an astonishing accomplishment between filmmakers, cinematographers, stunt men, and digital effects.  The brutality with which he dispatches his enemies does provide plenty of visceral thrills for the gore hounds out there, and the first person perspective does its job of being an effective gimmick throughout the movie.  Now it doesn’t manage to maintain its momentum throughout and there are moments (action moment by the way; not necessarily the plot moments) where it starts to feel a bit monotonous.  This can be due to the lack of characterization for Henry (we’ll get to that when we get into the story) and that it can be a tad disorienting as the first person perspective limits what the audience is able to comprehend about whatever situation he finds himself in.  That works from time to time in the movies favor, but more often than not, I was trying to figure out how much danger Henry was in, whether or not he’s making any progress, and how close he was to finishing the current fight.  Still, this is neigh unprecedented territory for a movie (The Connection is the only other movie I can think of that’s shot entirely in first person though other movies have explored the concept) and I think this movie proves that it can be done.  That’s what makes it so disappointing, as its problems in this are with the stuff that you would find in ANY movie; not with its gimmick.

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“DUDE!  That wasn’t the right truck!”     “God damn it.  I just blew up the script writer, didn’t I?”     “…”     “SHIT!”

So what is it that drags this movie down from being a solid experimental action film into a disappointingly mediocre slog?  Primarily, the story makes no sense to what I believe is an intentionally cynical degree.  I can’t imagine anyone looking at this script and thinking it’s acceptable as film narrative, but being aware of the shitty story doesn’t excuse it, nor makes up for the problems that that can cause.  I’ve already mentioned some of the elements in here that are interesting in their own right (the bad guy with telekinesis, his awful plan, etc.) and the fact that none of it fits together or makes sense does indeed hurt this movie.  There’s no engagement beyond the visceral flashing of violent imagery and trick photography which can work for a shorter format (like a music video which this movie is based on), but feature films have structural requirements that you can’t just ignore without a very good reason for doing so.  You could argue that the reason for the incomprehensible story is to put you in Henry’s shoes as someone confused and disoriented by the situation.  I will give the movie that it starts off well by being a mystery and that that was the right direction to go for this (the amnesia seals the deal), but that’s just the set up.  There is zero payoff here in regards to who Henry is, who the bad guys are, what their plan is, why they are taking these steps to take it, and even a rationale for the twist at the very end of the movie which was actually one of my theories, but I was far from committed to it.  Now you can argue that in something like this that the story is secondary (or tertiary), but that doesn’t mean you should excuse it for being a poorly told one.  Look at something like Crank: High Voltage which is just as absurd and ludicrous as anything that happens in this movie.  It still manages to have a cohesive story with a huge cast of characters and a likable protagonist.  In this movie?  Aside from Sharlto Copley who was the best thing that could have happen to this film (we’ll get to him soon enough) you don’t care about anyone, ESPECIALLY Henry.  So what we’re left with is a gimmick that limits the focus of what kind of story and characters can be told, and a script that barely tries to work with that or compensate for the limitations that the filmmakers have placed on themselves.

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Oh look!  It’s that part in video games that everyone hates where you have to stare at a wall for five minutes instead of just using cutscenes!

The thing is that within the uninteresting chaos that is the plot of this movie, they manage to have a subplot and a character that embraces everything that the main story should have been.  Sharlto Copley plays Jimmy; a guy who keeps coming in and out of the story (usually leaving because he gets killed) and every time we see him, he’s someone else.  Sometimes he’s a generic action hero badass, other times he’s a bum, and he even has one character who’s cocked out and fucking chicks in a strip club (yes, there’s a strip club scene).  It’s an effective and humorous mystery as we have no idea who this guy is, but he’s always a pleasant surprise when he comes into the picture with some interesting task to send Henry on or something to help him on his journey.  The best part is that his subplot ACTUALLY HAS A PAYOFF!!  They explain why he’s showing up as so many different people, they explain his connection to the bad guys (and therefore Henry), and he’s the only character allowed to have an emotional moment.  He’s absolutely brilliant in here and without a doubt the best part of this movie.

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“Stick em up!  Okay, now do jazz hands.  DO IT!!”

Except… that he has a gay joke just RANDOMLY thrown in towards the end, and it’s a really lame one.  Here’s a tip for future filmmakers.  If you’re gonna have a weak ass gay joke in your movie, YOU DON’T GET TO USE QUEEN ON YOUR SOUNDTRACK!  Oh hey!  A perfect opportunity to seamlessly transition into my other major problem with the movie; its brotastic and skeevy sense of humor as well as its treatment of women.  Every woman in this movie is either “titillating” eye candy, a non-existent one dimensional bad ass that doesn’t even get a name or more than four minutes of screen time, or the root of all evil (i.e.  They hurt men’s fragile ego).  Shouldn’t we be past this kind of crap by now?  Why are we still getting movies where women are decoration or only exist to service men, either in the more literal sense or in terms of character building?  The strip club scene in here is just plain weak and has nothing to do with anything in the movie and feels like a cheap jab at titillation which falls flat on its face.  It’s almost as bad as the blurred Lines videos where a bunch of not particularly happy looking women are standing around waiting for the camera to get a good shot of their tits so that they can get their paycheck.  That said, at least the strippers get a reasonable amount of screen time.  There are two ladies in here that I THINK are working for Jimmy but they have zero impact or bearing on the story other than to cut someone’s head off at one point.  Like the cheap jab at titillation, this seems like the movie is trying to pay lip service to those looking for Strong Female CharactersTM, but without any real understanding of what that actually means.  However, no one gets it worse than one particular character in here.  I won’t spoil it because it has to do with the ending, but how one character is portrayed looks like they come straight out of an MRA handbook and it ends the movie on such a sour note.  Really, it was that ending that brought this movie down so far for me.  It’s bad enough to have flaws like this in what otherwise is a decent movie, but to call so much attention to those flaws with the ending of the movie just feels like such an awful capstone to a movie I was really trying to like.

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“We just want to know one thing Henry.  What the fuck are we even doing here?”

The rest of the humor (outside of Charlto Copley for the most part) falls pretty damn flat as well.  People call Henry a pussy several times, everyone talks about their dicks, and the best they can do for a visual gag is to show a dildo.  That’s it.  They showed a dildo.  Truly Oscar Wilde has been reincarnated and punched up the humor here with his rapier wit! Some may argue that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it to, by having a movie about ending hundreds and hundreds of human lives while still being socially conscious and non-misogynistic.  I will grant you that my love of watching action scenes where scores of dudes get killed in creative and over the top ways may not be the most well rounded mindset if that’s all I was looking for in most of the movies I see (only in some of them I see!), but I completely reject the idea that “not hating women” and intense action are inherently incompatible.  For crying out loud, a feminist film about racing against the Patriarchy won six Oscars, and you can’t tell me that Mad Max Fury Road doesn’t have spectacular action scenes!  Words like Politically Incorrect or Edgy are the refuge for idiots and dick bags who don’t know what they’re doing so they go for the lowest common denominator and let themselves feel victimized when people call them out on their shit.  It’s not clever; it just reinforces the status quo which is the LEAST edgy thing you could possibly do.

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Fine.  I’ll give you that, but just barely!

It’s frustrating when good art is wrapped up in an obnoxious package.  There are so many cool moments here from the action set pieces to pretty much any time Sharlto Copley shows up on screen, but it also occupies the same movie where women are disposable and toxic masculinity is lionized.  Even if you take that away though, it has a story too uninspired and half-baked to enjoy and nothing to get you invested in any of the events that’s going on which severely dampens the suspense and impact of the action.  There’s a better first person gonzo action film to be made, but I guess this one is okay as a tentative first step.  It’s something interesting that’s worth seeing for its technical chops, but it’s certainly not a classic.  For a movie that feels so fresh in its action, it feels depressing old in almost every other aspect.

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If you like this review and plan on buying the movie, then use the Amazon link below!  I’ll get a percentage of the order it helps keep things going for me here at The Reviewers Unite!  In fact, you don’t even need to buy the item listed!  Just use the link, shop normally, and when you check out it will still give us that sweet, sweet, percentage!  You can even bookmark the link and use it every time you shop!  HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?

Hardcore Henry (Blu-ray + Digital HD)

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