Sunday, 4 December 2016

Movie Review: Hardcore Henry (2016)



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Video game movies are hardly anything new in today’s day and age. We’ve had video game adaptations like Need For Speed and Warcraft, films centred on video games like Pixels and The Wizard, even films that take place within a video game like Wreck-It Ralph and Tron. However, even with that precedent, this film expects to be of a different breed than all of those. This is a film that incorporates video game tropes as a form of cinematic storytelling. Now, the success of any video game-related film is rather sporadic; adaptations are rarely if ever good and films set in and about video games often just translate into watching others do what we would rather be doing ourselves. So, with this step into a new direction, how does it fare? This is Hardcore Henry.

The plot: Henry wakes up in a medical facility, with one of his arms, one of his legs and his memory all missing. After getting fixed up by his attending nurse/wife Estelle (Haley Bennett), the facility is attacked by PMC leader Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) and he is stranded on his own. With the recurring help of mysterious benefactor Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), Henry sets out to get revenge on Akan and rescue his wife, all the while try and remember who exactly he is.

The cast list here is small and, honestly, mostly pretty weak. Numerous actors, including director Ilya Naishuller, depict Henry throughout the film and considering he’s both mute and always shot from first-person, it feels odd even considering him as having a performance. Bennett is extremely bland, coming across as a straight-faced portrayal of the usual Damsel In Distress character that motivates the player-character. However, she isn’t all that entertaining outside of that, making me think that she signed on for The Girl On The Train just so she could redeem the rather sexist character trope she’s been handed. Kozlovsky, even considering the madcap villain he’s been given, is too hammy for his own good. If it weren’t for the fact that he has the tremendous power that he does, this guy would not be intimidating. And there’s Copley, who is given a series of roles during the film’s run time, and he is remarkably solid in all of them. They play along the same lines of the sudden bystander who helps the hero but, from the coke-snorting partygoer to the posh military general, he’s memorable as all of them. Also, I don't care if it's ripped off from Gamer, his musical number is absolutely hilarious.

So, what is a “video game”, according to this film? More specifically, what elements of a video game does it use to highlight the aesthetic? Well, while it mainly builds on the tropes of modern military first-person shooters, it’s basically a Tarantino-esque hodge-podge of a bunch of different aspects of other games. We got the camera work of an FPS, the parkour sequences of Mirror’s Edge, stealth segments that would feel right at home in a Metal Gear Solid installment or Dishonoured, a Russian-tinged love for wacky accents and abrasive characters right out of Grand Theft Auto IV, even some moments where the villain forces the player to watch an important plot beat and not interact with it like in The Darkness. Of course, these are just some of the influences that I was able to spot, and for the more hardcore gamers out there this could make for some nice reading into to find the other obvious influences. With all of these rather disparate elements cobbled together for this film, I definitely have to give credit for how the film manages to homogenize all of them into creating a cohesive whole. The fact that these are borrowed from other media may be noticeable, but the pick-and-mix approach to their usage doesn’t create any jarring effect on the viewer in the process. Rather than feeling like someone skimming through several games, it feels like we’re just playing one.

The Tarantino approach to cinema applies to the overall story as well. As a narrative, while feeling a few shades short of Saints Row IV in terms of balls-to-the-wall crazy, it grips onto violence as an element of filmmaking as tightly as it does translate video games. After being so annoyed by the first-person fight scenes from Grimsby, I’m genuinely surprised that the action beats in this film work as well as they do. While the camera work and the way that each individual fight is framed is pretty intense, I’d give more credit to how much variety there is in the action itself. Most of it involves shooting the bad guys until they stay down, but between the numerous settings used, the weapons afforded our lead, even the more grisly hand-to-hand bouts, I never once found myself being bored. In fact, this films occasionally gets Machete-levels of creative with its violence and gore, creating some undoubtedly memorable encounters. If Henry had a voice during any of these, his dialogue would probably be full of Duke Nukem-brand one-liners about how the eyes have it or some other such thing.

Guess it’s time to answer the obvious question when it comes to this film: If this truly is as much like a video game as I’m depicting it to be, except with no player input, why should people watch it rather than just play a video game themselves? The film itself gets into a bit of commentary about the very nature of control in video games, that being you are literally able to control every move and decision another being makes, which admittedly plays nicely into the overall story. However, that’s not why I think this ultimately has merit. I mean, developers have been toying with those some moral questions for a while now with works like Hotline Miami, The Stanley Parable and even the original Bioshock. Instead, I see this as being worthwhile because it just feels like a natural progression of the modern military shooter. Thanks to the ever-ubiquitous Call Of Duty series and others like Gears Of War, Battlefield and Medal Of Honor, the genre has increasingly become more about visual spectacle and pre-rendered events rather than the gameplay itself. When a lot of triple-A titles are putting more and more emphasis on the cinematics, why not just make it a film? Where this gets more interesting is that this is actually one hell of a lot better than most military shooters nowadays. Going beyond the scope of a corridor shooter, the numerous settings and styles of action brought together in the hodge-podge result in the kind of variety that even the better MMS titles could manage.

All in all, this may either show how much I enjoy plots in video games, or my rather questionable taste when it comes to gaming in general, but I really dug the hell out of this film. Its influences are rather obvious, from video games to music videos to porn to other films, but the resulting cinematic gumbo really hits the spot thanks to Sharlto Copley’s highly entertaining performances, the genuine sense of care-free and somewhat juvenile fun that runs through the action set pieces, and a director who knows enough about both mediums to be able to meld them together rather effectively. Given this film’s place in history already as a rather bold experiment in the art form, it basically took the disposable nature of most military first-person shooters of today and turned it into something indisposable. Have to admit, I like that notion. It’s better than Don’t Breathe which, while somewhat more intelligent than this, didn’t deliver the same dizzying glee that this managed. However, as this film is quite childish in its narrative and definition of ‘entertainment’, it doesn’t hold up as well as The Light Between Oceans.

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