Director: Ilya Naishuller
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky
2 (out of 5) Globes
There are many ridiculous sights in the Russian-American action fest “Hardcore Henry,” but the most out there is blink-and-miss: It’s a poster for the 1947 noir “Lady in the Lake” casually hanging on some kid’s cluttered wall, like it was a one-sheet for “Scarface.” Nevermind that few remember the semi-classic, and that those few would likely not watch a splatterhouse gorefest where someone gets impaled by a windshield wiper. Also nevermind that those who do know it largely consign it to the purgatory of “interesting failures.” In “Lady in the Lake,” actor-director Robert Montgomery tried to make an entire movie from the first-person perspective of the lead character. The result was stiff, ridiculous though twice or thrice thrilling.
Jump nearly 70 years and the problem is solved, sort of. “Hardcore Henry” doesn’t have to worry about bulky old Hollywood cameras trying to duplicate body movement. The makers just strapped GoPro cameras to a bunch of agile stunt guys’ foreheads and let ’em run. Then again, busting first-person out on an action movie only makes “Hardcore Henry” look and feel like a video game you can’t play, and one you might not want to in the first place. It starts with a lunk named Henry (or you!) waking up in a lab, with a woman (Haley Bennett) catching him up to speed: He’s a mandroid soldier whose mind has been wiped, and he must evade the clutches of a Eurotrash baddie (Danila Kozlovsky) with ’90s grunge hair and mysterious telekinetic powers, with a voice that sounds like he’s been dubbed by Tommy Wiseau.
There will be little, usually gross missions, plus endless foes, ammo and makeshift weaponry. There’s even a sidekick whenever Henry/the screenplay runs into trouble: a guy played by super-ham Sharlto Copley who can get killed and come back. Every time he returns he’s another broad stereotype: Homeless Sharlto, Cokehead Sharlto, Hippie Sharlto, ’80s punk Sharlto. It’s just a goofy way to create the illusion of freshness, though “Hardcore Henry” is basically the same thing over 96 minutes: running, stabbing, shooting, Sharlto, repeat. Once you’ve seen 30 randos gooily stabbed in shakycam close-up you’ve seen them all.
It aspires for more. Writer-director Ilya Naishuller is clearly most inspired by “Crank” crazies Neveldine/Taylor, so much that he even airlifts an entire musical sequence from their film “Gamer,” including the same song. Multiple Copley’s busting out “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is a pleasant mid-film respite, and eagle-eyed viewers can catch stray bits of David Cronenberg, Jan Svankmajer, “RoboCop,” maybe even “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” The references betray Naishuller’s good taste but also how far he falls short — that he’s insufficiently clever, that all he has going for him is undying energy. The camerawork is clean enough considering how it was shot, but there’s only a few times Naishuller thinks to do more with his gimmick. A crackerjack parkour sequence is a highlight, and behold cinema’s first first-person headbutt.
Every now and then something punctures the wall-to-wall carnage, and it’s usually not pleasant. More Russian than American, this is profoundly unclean, filthy entertainment. It’s a movie that opens with random cameo star Tim Roth — perhaps paid by the second — looking into the lens and calling Henry/us a “pussy.” From there it’s a descent into macho posturing, a long stint in a brothel and a touch of rape-and-revenge, which ends with our hero squashing the assaulter’s genitals in his metallic fist before treating him to something worse. Later Copley will aver, unprompted, that he’s not gay or nothing. If there’s a deeper subtext — is our power-mad maniac villain Putin? — it’s tough to suss out amidst the chaos. By the end you might forget that you just watched an entire stunt movie through someone else’s eyes and run home for a cold shower.