Hardcore Henry is likely to mislead and disappoint smut junkies. Very little porno content here, fleeting glimpses of a Russian brothel aside. Oh well, you can’t please everyone. The movie may have been born in Russia, but it seems tailor-made for America, where violence is happy to enter the fray when sex stops selling. Yes, fans of adrenaline-pumping shoot-em’-ups are sure to find this bullet-ejaculating orgasm of a film more stimulating than a good ol’ pump-and-thrust picture ever could be. So intense is the action that even a ceaseless carper about gratuitous thrills like yours truly found himself liking it far more than he should.
That this in-your-face sci-fi flick works as well as it does is a tribute to director Ilya Naishuller‘s apparent belief in the ability of a simple concept to mesmerize. And it’s astonishing how adeptly he succeeds with doing just that. Shot entirely from a first-person POV perspective, Henry places John Q. Moviegoer behind the barrel of a semi-automatic weapon a la the GoldenEye 007 video game on the Nintendo 64. The only real difference is that the carnage inflicted at the hands of this bionically enhanced badass makes Bond look like a boy scout, possibly giving even Stallone’s 2008 Rambo a run for its money in the airborne-chunks-of-flesh department. You’ll feel every ping, bam, and splat as you sit in the driver’s seat of a virtual-reality arcade game, bearing the mechanical trappings of a futuristic commando who darts in and out of narrow passageways and guns down baddies. Behind you and managing to keep pace with your forward momentum, the camera quakes from side to side, seeming to defy gravity in sync with your death-defying leaps.
The film’s realism manages to survive the gory onslaught despite its absurd—or one might even say—nonexistent premise. Naishuller seems to revel in the absence of a coherent storyline. Narrative-wise, it’s little more than a maladroit cobbling-together of elements from some of the usual suspects among modern sci-fi camp classics. For its pretentiously cerebral exploration of memory and identity, Henry owes a debt to Total Recall; the over-the-top kung fu acrobatics and driving, techno-like soundtrack ape The Matrix; and the flesh-sloughing damage inflicted by an oversized, testosterone-laden android is reminiscent of The Terminator. Henry has few qualms about subordinating meaning to experience, sucking its source material dry of tropes while pumping late-night movie vamps full of the blood they crave and depositing pounds of flesh in plain sight in the process.
As for characters, if twerpy British-accented dudes are your thing, you’ve come to the right place. Inexplicably donning various disguises, Henry’s annoyingly loquacious friend Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) keeps popping on screen telling you how to stay alive and giving you senseless pointers. About the “staying alive” thing: I’ll spare the goriest details, but let’s just say that Henry needs to get at the heart of things in Temple of Doom style. Despite refusing to put a zip on his motor mouth, Jimmy at least adds campy humor, churning out so-bad-they’re-funny attempts at witticism as he shape-shifts between a sex-crazed lothario, a weed-smoking hippie, and a World War II officer. He must be another dork who sold his soul to the devil from Bedazzled. As an arch-villain to set against Henry and Jimmy, Naishuller gives us Akan (Danila Kozlofsky), who tries so hard to capture the maniacal psychosis of the Joker from The Dark Knight and couple it with the punk snazziness of Roy from Blade Runner but ends up looking as banal a picture of drug-induced evil as Norman from Leon: The Professional. Let’s not forget about Henry’s wife Estelle (Haley Bennett), a clone of Quaid’s traitorous other half from Total Recall. She’s the first person we see through Henry’s eyes when he awakes from his coma, and a strawberry-blond treat for the eyes she is; too bad her acting is as gooey as maple syrup.
Gooey indeed. To say that jumbled ingredients never coalesce in Henry would be an understatement. Yet it’s also Naishuller’s debut feature film, and it accomplishes that sine qua non that all too many critics have forgotten about amidst their academic exhuming of meaning from the compost heap: it keeps us engaged. It can only be hoped that Naishuller, who also plays in an indie rock band, will develop the powers of script and story that horror hack and fellow rock musician Rob Zombie never did. For the moment, Naishuller seems satisfied to keep us entertained with thrills, spills, and gorgeous, technologically informed fluff. He seems defiantly proud that his film is inspiring little in us except our fight-or-flight instincts. And that commands a certain strange respect. I think I understand what he’s going for: riding the wave is groovier than watching it on TV.
Joe’s Grade: B-