I never thought any film would make me feel secure about my masculinity, but Hardcore Henry solidified that my insecurities do not run anywhere near as deep as those of director Ilya Naishuller.
It isn’t as though unquestioned masculinity hasn’t always been a part of the action genre, nor is it as though that’s a bad thing. It’s simply embedded in the genre, especially in American cinema. Action movies often consist of big, manly dudes doing manly things, usually involving rampant murder. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t always kind of into it, especially when it’s creative.
But Hardcore Henry illustrates that tendency to the most excessive degree, taking it wholesale from the action film and combining it with the even more excessively masculine, excessively depersonalized murder-oriented nature of the modern first-person shooter (think Call of Duty) and creating a multiplier effect that seems to make Hardcore Henry into a straight-faced parody of itself, seemingly unaware of its own ridiculousness.
I’ve gotten three paragraphs into this review without mentioning the massive gimmick at the center of this film or the film’s story, and that’s because the presence of the former really leads to the lack of the latter.
Hardcore Henry is an action film that’s shot entirely with a GoPro attached to a stuntman’s head, placing us into the perspective of Henry, a man rebuilt as a cyborg (without a speech module, so he never speaks). He embarks on a quest to rescue his wife (Haley Bennett) from an evil effeminate Russian guy, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky). Henry is helped along on his rampage by his constantly reincarnating buddy Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who gives him clues and weapons like a video game deus ex machina.
That’s about all you need to know. And to be fair, it probably sounds pretty intriguing. An action film that tries to put you right in the middle of the action? What could be better?
But for that to work, Hardcore Henry would have to work as an action film, and it doesn’t. It’s not the action part — there’s plenty of that — and there’s plenty of creativity on display in the action beats unfolding before us. Naishuller clearly sat down and thought through what he wanted his stuntmen to do as Henry, and there’s a certain sort of sick glee in the punishments the director doles out to the poor extras that have the unfortunate pass of crossing Henry.
Of course, all that chaos would work better if I gave a fuck watching it.
While I admit that this is a case of perceived mileage that can vary from person to person, I found the first-person perspective immensely disorienting, and not in the way the filmmakers intended. Rather than using the first-person perspective to make the film feel like you’re in the middle of a shitshow of violence, the filmmakers seem to use the first-person perspective as an excuse to forgo any sense of geography in their action, moving from moment to moment and action beat to action beat without any sense of who you are or of what the absolute hell is happening.
I understand that Hardcore Henry functionally is a live-action video game and that the depersonalization of the main character is part of the video game conventions in which this film engages. But that understanding of how video games work (or how this mechanic worked in the brief music videos the film is based on) is coupled with a lack of understanding of how the medium of narrative film works.
Film requires personalization. We can’t just have an avatar to project onto, we need a character with whom we identify. Even in the deepest power fantasies of film, we want to root for someone to succeed, not to see ourselves succeed.
While I understand the choice of depersonalizing the main character, I can’t say I agree with it. Hardcore Henry needed something, anything, to ground it in the bananas experience playing out in front of us.
Without any personal grounding, we’re just left with a narrative and thematic mess. Hardcore Henry’s message is actually somewhere in the area of “Don’t be a pussy,” or more accurately, “Be willing to prove you’re not a pussy by standing up and being violent.” In a film shockingly (or not so shockingly) devoid of emotion, this kind of message resonates with the hollow and toxic masculinity at the core of this film, the idea that proving your toughness comes through excessive and righteous violence.
This especially leans heavily into the film’s treatment of women. It’s a mild spoiler to say this, but Hardcore Henry has a Madonna and whore complex (except replace Madonna with liar). If a woman does not exist for sexual gratification, then she exists to screw somebody over, to nag or to do something along those lines. Read with the effeminate coding of the main villain (long hair and neat dress sense with a power and a mode of attack that involves pushing away and keeping his distance), and it’s clear that this excessively masculine film has major issues when it comes to women.
The problem is that a better or more clearly nuanced film could have sold this as satire, as a deconstruction. But I don’t think the film ever had that in mind. There’s a very macho, great-man sense of toxic masculinity underlining the film here that turns the film’s conceptions of its world into excess and trash.
I hate to say it, but a traditional filming style could have sold the story better. I admire the ambition, but giving us an actual main character to grapple with could have worked the film’s thematics a little stronger, and giving us a pulled back perspective still could have sold the creativity of the action.
As it is, Hardcore Henry is nothing but the excessive overcompensation for clear masculine insecurities manifested in an experiment better suited for future days when we can all actually afford an Oculus VR headset.