I don't play video games. I enjoy their immersive quality, I like putting myself in another character's shoes, but the closest I've got to a platinum trophy is finding all the endings in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive special. I just don't like the pressure of being "good" at things. I just want to have the experience.
While I solved my problems by watching playthroughs of The Last of Us 2 on YouTube, this Russian-American movie took another approach — an action movie told entirely from the point of view of its protagonist.
Hardcore Henry is a 2015 Russian-American movie with an invisible hero. After a strange cold open featuring Tim Roth and a trippy credit sequence, the movie opens with the hero, Henry, being woken up from some sort of hibernation. He's given cybernetic limbs and words of love from Estelle, who informs him he's lost his memory. Then, just as he's about to be given a voice, the lab he woke up in is invaded.
What follows is a point of view shot lasting 90 minutes. This movie is rated R for non-stop violence, and when the MPAA says non-stop, they mean non-stop. Through death-defying drops, public transport, underground fighting rings, bunkers, and musical numbers, Henry navigates a strange sci-fi world like a photorealistic first-person shooter. Many action movies can claim to have a sympathetic hero you root for, but Hardcore Henry literally puts you in the hero's role.
Because he doesn't have a voice, Henry finds other ways to communicate, usually through violence. This eliminates having to cast a voice actor for Henry, which could lessen this immersive quality. While there's no control like in a video game, with a plot like this there's only one good option: shoot up the bad guys and save the girl.
Once you get past the original awe of the filming style, you start to wonder how it's all possible to film. Director Ilya Naishuller used a head-mounted GoPro rig worn by different people as needed by the action, be it cameramen, stuntmen, and even Naishuller himself.
Even though the style is definitely the highlight, the substance lives up to the hype. With limited opportunities for worldbuilding due to the format, Hardcore Henry tells a riveting story of clones, bodymods, and crime. Its sparse dialogue allows for a gorgeous electronic score to pump through scene after scene, making for a hair-raising experience.
Like so many video games before it, this movie uses its in media res approach to establish an unreliable narrator. Everything we learn about Henry, and everything Henry learns about himself, is told by other people. Who is he, really, and who can he trust?
Though it takes some getting used to, Hardcore Henry expands what we thought was possible in movies, especially sci-fi movies. Who knows, maybe we'll see a mainstream blockbuster or video game adaptation use the same method in the future.
Hardcore Henry is now streaming on Netflix in the U.S.