Lee takes a look back at 2016’s “Hardcore Henry”, an action film portrayed entirely in the first-person perspective.
Innovation in cinema is often a practice of semantics and derivation. Tit-for-tat changes in technology, visual processing, viewing method, viewing quality, narrative decoration and the form is yet to change substantially. We’re still watching still images shown at high speed, overlaid with as much magic and trickery as money can allow. The introduction of interactive media such as video games has yet to destroy the form, so perhaps the form is indestructible? We still read novels after all, and radio was supposed to destroy that, if not the playwright.
So we garnish with what the latest computer lends us, and we borrow from the wilder forms; the latest camera, the coolest console, whatever can render audio into visual and god forbid we get some new stories someday. In 2016, like in every year, we’ll see something new and we’ll proclaim it the death of so and so and the rise of such and such. 2014 had the film that took twelve years to make, 2015 the film that froze the crew to death and in 2016 we’ve got the film set entirely in the first person perspective, thanks to really good helmet cams.
“Gimmick”, the Pharisees cry. “Revelation”, the Sadducees urge. “Neither”, say the rest. “Hardcore Henry” may be the first in its field, but only if the field exists in a space that touches no other space, which of course it doesn’t. Narratives based in the first person perspective have been popular in video games since probably the mid-90s, if not before, and no one cried “progenitor” then. Introductory videos in theme parks have mastered the art; even cinema has dabbled in the form, and hadn’t we already agreed it was more fun to string along a handheld camera anyway?
The important questions are: does “Hardcore Henry” utilise the form in an interesting way and can it survive without it? To the former, it’s a yes. More than simply tacking a camera to a guy’s head and asking him to run around for an hour and a half, we use the perspective to experience sensations such as running head-first out of a sky fortress, watching a man’s head explode before our very eyes, climbing the underside of a vehicle and climbing into a hotel using ledges and footholds. It creates some harrowing imagery and scenarios that, even if derivative of other scenes from other films, feel fresh here for the perspective.
To the latter, it’s a no, and that’s also something of a positive. Because this is an action movie in the purest of terms, much of what makes the scenes thrilling is simply experiencing them from the eyes of the character. Following a mute cyborg from a third-person perspective as he endures a song-and-dance from his accomplice just wouldn’t have the same punch if the little nods of focus from the camera and the sensation of darting, bewildered eyes didn’t add to the immersion. It’s surprisingly clever in how it handles the quieter moments, allowing some characterisation play from the camerawork in the place of movement.
So, we cement the style as necessary and, indeed, interestingly used. Neither gimmick nor revelation, just well-explored camerawork. Unfortunately, once filmmaking enters the equation, “Hardcore Henry” exposes much of its flawed circuitry.
Even if, on a conceptual level, the creators wanted to explore the nature of cyborgs in an original way with the help of a launch-pad, I don’t think recreating the pivotal first person perspective scene from 1987’s “RoboCop” counts as homage in the case of this movie’s opening. Surely we can imagine other ways of addressing how the main character is now part-robot than watching him fix his robo-vision before checking out his new robo-hand while being comforted by his non-robo-doctor. It feels cheap, and even if we pretend films exist in a vacuum, this opening doesn’t feel earned or interesting as exposition. Could we not have discovered, after a bullet deflects from his arm as it later does, that Henry is now Hardcore some other way?
As for that exploration, what do we learn from this movie? Where’s the intrigue? Supersoldiers? Narrative is clumsy at best, with exposition just told to us rather than earned after reaching the next forced objective. Characterisation isn’t much to look at either: evil woman, evil camp guy, maybe-evil-maybe-not supporting guy who changes accent and costume every five minutes. Jimmy’s switching bodies makes for some exceptionally fun set-pieces near the beginning, but as we slowly stop caring about who Jimmy is (especially after he tells us) and look for a reason to care about all the violence that has befallen ourselves (via ‘Henry’ the surrogate), we fall back on the perspective which, granted, is done to a good degree, but not nearly to that high a standard as to forgo cinematic requirements.
Action is action, and can be as simple or as crazy as it likes, but without a reason to care we’re just watching a stranger on a rollercoaster, waiting for him to get off so we can have our turn. Investment gambles on the perspective, which we have now established as ‘good’, and the tone, which we shall now establish as ‘very bad’.
Playing straight into the lamest demographic of all, the ‘horny blood-thirsty teenage male’, “Hardcore Henry” lets itself down hardest in its subtext. Camp, effeminate evil guy and your ex ruin your supersoldier strip-club night? All these sexy naked ladies sure know how to fix you, you big, sexy, stud-muffin you. It’s fantasy, granted, but by the internal logic of the movie, aren’t we only following along in this plot because we want our wife back? Even if this motivation excludes a huge portion of the audience from immersing themselves as Henry because a wife isn’t something they want back, how can we justify Henry just sitting there letting the ladies get all over him, and then be told that the entire plan is dependent on the power of love?
Mashed with the extreme violence, you begin to see who the filmmakers are: a bunch of guys making a film for a handful of guys who don’t really exist. In doing so, they knock “Hardcore Henry” down into the territory of the true action B-movie, with its penchant for some good ol’ fashioned T&A. It’s a real shame, as up until the half-way point you would have no idea it would spin that direction. It comes right out of left-field and doesn’t match the very few intentions of the narrative.
In summary, “Hardcore Henry” sets a pretty middling bar for the imitators yet to come. The form works, to an extent, and I can imagine a number of ways in which we could see true art shine through. But we all got to start somewhere, right? Let’s start at mediocre then.