It is no secret that movies based on video games have not fared well. Whether it be the so-so Resident Evil franchise, either of the critically panned Hitman films, or anything Uwe Boll touches, video games have yet to experience the success that comic books have had when it comes to film adaptations. David S. Goyer, who has written for both The Dark Knight and Call of Duty: Black Ops, was asked why he thinks these films haven’t worked in the past:
“I think the reason is actually pretty simple: most good video games are about immersive environments. If it’s a first-person shooter you are the character. Most games, and this is changing, tend not to have strong characters. If you think about video games you think about how cool that level was, I did this or I did that.”
This brings us to Hardcore Henry, a Russian-American action film that takes place exclusively from the point of view of the main character. Simulating the experience of first person games ranging from Goldeneye to Mirror’s Edge, the film acts as a full length video game cut scene. Hardcore Henry leads to the question, even though something looks cool and is aesthetically awesome, do we really need full length films simulating the experience of a video game?
Make no mistake, the film is technically astounding and is a very visceral experience. Being shot almost entirely with a special GoPro camera setup, the film demands your attention from the very beginning. Whether he is showing off his Parkour skills, or taking down a hallway of bad guys with a silenced pistol, the filmmakers definitely had a creative spark and the film’s set pieces are a blast.
There is a successful level of immersion achieved throughout the film. Many times the action will slow down, Henry will look around a corner to see an adversary, tension is successfully built in these scenes. I found myself leaning around the corner with Henry, wanting to see what was coming next. It is a pretty fun, if not straining, experience. This goes beyond found footage (Cloverfield) or Shaky Cam (made famous in the Bourne films), the film is pretty taxing, and some may have hard time making it through the experience.
Though the general concept – a first person action movie – is pretty fun, the filmmakers seemed to go out of their way to make Hardcore Henry a pretty deplorable experience. The film owns its R-rating, there is plenty of violence, profanity, and sexual content to go around. Honestly though, all three of those mature elements are used to the most immature degree.
I’m not one to blame real life violence on the movie industry. But even me (someone who sees 4-5 movies a month in theaters) thought the violence in Hardcore Henry was off putting. Whether it be the gleeful nature of gruesome deaths or scenes where the audience is supposed to enjoy someone getting stabbed in slow motion, it was a bit much. It seems as though every creative choice in Hardcore Henry had the goal of being cool or awesome.
This trend continues through the vulgarity and the nudity. Everything is trying so hard to be badass, but that’s only if your definition of badass came from a 14 year old’s urban dictionary. Deplorable insults are thrown at each other, we spend 20 minutes exploring a brothel, and Henry kills a man after squeezing his genitalia as a form of torture. The film is rated R in the same way a lazy episode of Family Guy tries to be edgy, which ends up being immature at best and offensive at worst.
The problem with Hardcore Henry is not that is features so much immaturity in its depravity, tons of other films go out of there way to be this vulgar. This problem, and this may be exclusive to Hardcore Henry, is that the first person experience means that the audience is forced to go along with every deplorable action Henry experiences. A film like Nightcrawler can have a protagonist that is despicable, but we can separate ourselves from that character and spend the rest of the film examining this crazy character. Hardcore Henry, by its very design, can never allow the audience to separate themselves from the action of its protagonist.
Henry ogles a woman’s cleavage? Sorry, you just participated in the ogling. Henry engages with a character who is extremely off putting in his personality? Sorry, you just participated in that horrible conversation. Henry kills people in an extreme “movie violence” type of way? Sorry, you don’t get to just watch the violence, you have to actively participate in it.
This is the point Goyer was making with video games. A video game designer creates an immersive environment and a compelling looking character, it is the player who gets to move the story forward and do all the cool things. In a video game, if you want to kill all of your enemies by shooting them in the crotch, you are allowed to do that. Sure, that choice may be off putting to others, but you paid the money for an interactive experience, and you are allowed to interact with the world however you would like. With Hardcore Henry, that choice is gone, and the audience is forced to experience an immature psychopath play a video game for two hours.
Again, every creative choice has the sole goal of being awesome, but it is such a specific point of view that the film is torturous by the end. Whether it be the misogynistic portrayal of women (women are either naked prostitutes to be ogled, or scantily-clad fighters…also designed to be ogled) or the bizarre/dark sense of humor, the fun that is to be had with the action cannot overcome the bad in this movie.
Hardcore Henry does not set out to tell a compelling story, and that is perfectly fine. What Hardcore Henry does set out to accomplish is to give the audience an experience, to take the audience on a ride. Unfortunately for the viewer, the experience Hardcore Henry delivers is that of a 14-year old sneaking some Mountain Dew into an R-rated movie.