As a device for getting addicted gamers off the couch and into theatres, “Hardcore Henry” might have a reason to exist. As a purely technical exercise, it’s also fairly impressive. As a movie, on the other hand, it’s just an excruciating, exhausting ninety minutes of virtually non-stop slaughter, sex and sadism. For better and worse—mostly the latter—the tiresome orgy of blood and bombast is exactly the sort of thing you might expect from a collaboration between wild Russian producer Timur Bekmambetov (whose movies can be junky fun—think “Wanted” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer”) and a rock music video impresario, Ilya Naishuller, who’s here making his debut as a writer-director (though one has to say that the “writing” part can’t have been too arduous a task).
The plot is about as subtle and refined as that of any first-person, action-oriented video game, the style of which the movie apes by being shot entirely in jerky hand-held style from the title character’s POV. Henry’s been brutally demolished—apparently not for the first time, as a scene with some teens we glimpse in the first shot indicates—and is being reconstructed as a partially human but mostly robotic combo by Estelle (Haley Bennett), who claims to be his wife. But even before she can install his voice module, her lab—apparently some sort of flying-in-the-air cloning enterprise above Moscow (which is frankly depicted as a total hell-hole)—is attacked by the army of mad scientist Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a preening fellow who apparently possesses some sort of Carrie-like telekinetic power but still prefers to have his thugs shoot people or beat them up. His goal is—what else?—world domination (or maybe world destruction). No further explanation is needed.
With Estelle’s help, Henry escapes while she’s captured, but only barely—through the intervention of loquacious Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who’s soon killed by the cops but will reappear in various guises as the chase roars on, at one point passing through a bordello with scads of scantily-clad employees and customers. (There’s an explanation for his many personas later—a plot turn that allows Copley to perform a rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” which seems intended as a homage to the Kubrick of both “Dr. Strangelove” and “A Clockwork Orange.”) More mayhem follows as Akan’s forces pursue Henry to Jimmy’s lair, where a big confrontation occurs, during which Copley, who earlier appeared in a wheelchair like Dr. Strangelove, assumes the part of a British soldier who can’t but recall Col. Mandrake. And that’s not the end: everything winds up atop Akan’s skyscraper, where Henry must do battle with the scientist’s army of super-soldiers and learns something that allows the picture to close with a sour, cynical twist.
But that’s par for the course here. The few times that “Hardcore Henry” pauses from its frantic, vertiginous avalanche of chases, firefights, explosions, and chintzy special-effects, all accompanied by booming music from Dasha Charusha (a pre-screening dose of Dramamine might be in order for those easily afflicted with nausea), it’s usually to offer a moment of puerile sexism or off-handed homophobia—precisely the sort of thing one might expect gamers to revel in. Acting is pretty immaterial in stuff like this, but Copley certainly throws himself into the material with almost insane glee, while Kozlovsky and Bennett basically go the comic-book caricature route. A brief grab at cinematic respectability is attempted in a cameo by Tim Roth, but even his patented sneer lacks its usual conviction.
The one element of the movie that deserves a modicum of respect is the camerawork, credited to Seva Kaptur, Feodor Lyass and Pavel Kapinos. The resultant images may often be messy and distorted, but it’s pretty astonishing that they were caught at all, especially during the chases. And the editing (by Steve Mirokovich and Vlad Kaptur) doesn’t waste a frame.
At least you have to praise “Hardcore Henry” for its honesty about its own scummy character right up front. The titles are set against a montage of lovingly filmed shots of a man being sliced, diced, shot and otherwise terminated, all set to some soothing music. (Perhaps the sequence is intended as a nod to the “Try a Little Tenderness” opening of “Dr. Strangelove.”) Then there’s the information that one of the actors has the surname Dementiev, which offers a pretty good description of the whole ordeal if you just alter the final syllable. In any event, you might end up wishing that, like a video game, the movie was interactive. Then you could turn it off.