Director/Screenplay – Ilya Naishuller, Producers – Timur Bekmambetov, Ekaterina Konomenko, Ilya Naishuller & Inga Vainshtein, Photography – Pasha Kapinos, Vsevolod Kaptur & Feodor Lyass, Music – Darya Charusha, Visual Effects Supervisor – S. Scott Farrar, Visual Effects – CGF, Cyborg Ant (Supervisor – Arastao Maree), Giant Propeller (Supervisor – Marek Jezo), [Hy*drau*lx] (Supervisors – Kirill Kemnits & John Pierce), Mad Old Nuts Productions, Mammal Studio (Supervisor – Gregory Oehler), Mighty Coconut LLC, Mr Wolf (Supervisor – One Danny Yoon), Muravives, Silo Enterprises Inc, VFX Legion (Supervisor – James David Hattin), Zero VFX (Supervisor – Dan Cayer), Production Design – Margarita Ablaeva. Production Company – Bazlevs/Versus Pictures
Sharlto Copley (Jimmy), Danila Kozlovsky (Akan), Haley Bennett (Estelle), Svetlana Ustinova (Olga), Darya Charusha (Katya), Tim Roth (Henry’s Father)
Henry is brought back to life and fitted with cyborg attachments. The scientist tending him tells him that his memory has been blanked and that she is his wife Estelle. The facility is then broken into by Akan, a crimelord with psychic powers. Henry makes an escape from what he discovers is a plane. On the ground, he is ferociously pursued through the city by Akan’s forces. He receives aid from the mysterious Jimmy who reappears in different forms despite being killed. As the attempts made to apprehend Henry become more ferocious and violent, killing masses of bystanders, Henry comes to realise that Akan is seeking to obtain the tech that has been successfully used in him for the first time but also that he is not being told the truth about what is happening.
Hardcore Henry comes from Bazlevs, the Russian production company of Timur Bekmambetov. Bekmambetov made waves with the Russian-language Night Watch (2004) and its sequel Day Watch (2006) then came to the West to make a number of works in the US mainstream, including Wanted (2008), Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012) and the remake of Ben Hur (2016). At the same time, Bekmambetov has been prolific as a producer with the animated 9 (2009), the NASA Moon landing/alien possession Found Footage film Apollo 18 (2011) and Russian-shot efforts made for English-language audiences such as the alien invasion film The Darkest Hour (2011), The Snow Queen (2012) and the social media horror film Unfriended/Cybernatural (2014).
Hardcore Henry, which premiered at the 2015 TIFF known simply as Hardcore, is a directorial debut for Russian director Ilya Naishuller. Prior to this, Naishuller was a guitarist in the Russian punk band Biting Elbows and directed their music videos. In particular, Naishuller had a viral sensation with his video for the Biting Elbows song Bad Motherfucker (2013), a five-minute long series of ultra-violent fist and gun fight scenes, car chases and dizzying parkour scenes all shot in first-person by someone wearing a camera mounted on their head. Hardcore Henry is essentially a feature-length expansion of the idea. For the film, Naishuller had a series of GoPro cameras built into a harness that fits over the stunt/camera person’s face (apparently, if you bought into the film’s Kickstarter campaign, you could have one of the twenty odd cameras that were smashed during shooting sent to you in return for a donation). After great word of mouth in its festival play, Hardcore Henry received a wide theatrical release in April 2016.
Bazlevs seem to like creating films that engage in unique cinematic experiments. Unfriended/Cybernatural was all shot in a single take and took place with the film screen acting as a computer screen and all the action occurring between video and messenger windows. The unique thing about Hardcore Henry is that it is all shot in first person point-of-view ie. where the camera lens is standing in for the protagonist’s eyes. This is a conceptual challenge that not many filmmakers have taken up – there are a few other examples you could look to such as Russian Ark (2002), Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2009) and the remake of Maniac (2012). The very first film to do, the film noir Lady in the Lake (1947), is homaged with a poster on the wall of an apartment that Henry crashes through at one point.
Hardcore Henry plays out as what you could almost call a Found Footage version of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-8) – one where the camera’s eye we usually get in Found Footage has been replaced by the lenses of a cyborg (which even end up being knocked out at a couple of points, resulting in the bi-optic vision being split and coming from two different angles). Added to that, the point-of-view camera feels like it is being wielded by crazed hyper-adrenalised parkour aficionados who seem determined to race through dizzying and death-defying scenes with a frenetic pace not seen since Crank (2006).
The action scenes come with an extraordinary ferocity. I have rarely experienced such a hyper-adrenalised kick of pure kinesis while sitting in a theatre. Ilya Naishuller and his team of camera-people/stuntmen plunge us through a dizzying range of sequences all shot from first-person perspective – running along the struts of bridges, through crowded subways and malls, diving down escalators, jumping to the ground from multi-story buildings, engaged in fights around the outside of moving vehicles, opening exit doors to find one is in an airplane, facing flamethrowers. Frequently, especially during the scenes near the end, the film has clearly been intended to resemble a First Person Shooter videogame like Doom (1993) with Henry fighting an entire army of assailants with multiple weapons. In all of this, there is a ferocious and wholly unsentimental level of bloodshed and a bodycount that approaches that of a major civil war.
On the minus side, Hardcore Henry works far less satisfyingly as a story. It is confusing for much of the film trying to work out why all the parties are pursuing Henry and even who is on which side. At the end, you have to sit and strain to think why Henry’s mind was blanked and it was necessary to create the impression he and the others had a wife. For that matter, villain of the show Danila Kozlovsky displays psychic powers without any explanation offered as to these (apparently an entire comic-book, Hardcore Akan (2016), exists to tell his story – as with Star Wars prequels and their tying into the Expanded Universe, I am not in favour of films that expect answers to issues in material that lies outside the frame the viewer has before them).
One of the better elements of the film is the multiple characters played by Sharlto Copley, who keeps popping up playing everything from a homeless man, a pompous British military officer to a coked-up drug fiend and others, even after the previous selves are killed. Exactly what is going on proves highly confusing until we get an ingenious explanation towards the end. Copley has an absolute field day in the role(s), none more so than when he gets to do a choreographed version of Frank Sinatra’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin (1956), flipping back and forward between avatars, letting one collapse to the floor and instantly leaping on to the next.
(Nominee for Best Director (Ilya Naishuller) at this site’s Best of 2015 Awards).