'Hardcore Henry': TIFF Review

A rampaging rock'n'rollercoater ride that proves to be smarter and funnier than its pulpy premise.

Russian action czar Timur Bekmambetov throws his weight being this high-octane debut, a fast-paced first-person sci-thriller inspired by a music video.

Billed as the first-ever action movie filmed entirely from the hero's first-person viewpoint, Hardcore Henry blasts along like a supercharged computer-game shoot-'em-up, bursting with sick humor and splatterpunk violence. World premiered to a rowdy, rapturous reception in the pulp-friendly Midnight Movie section at the Toronto International Film Festival, this English-language U.S.-Russia co-production is a sense-battering rollercoaster ride with clear crowd-pleasing appeal for genre-loving fanboys, but it also feels witty and original enough for mainstream crossover. Online buzz is already healthy, and should translate into solid commercial prospects on both big and small screen.

The debut feature of Moscow-based musician turned writer-director Illya Naishuller, Hardcore Henry began as a viral-smash music video for his band Biting Elbows. That was viewed online by the Russian action blockbuster mogul Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), who saw potential for a full-length feature. Bekmambetov came on board as producer, and elements of his maximalist comic book-style are clearly discernible here. But there are also echoes of early Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, notably in a brief but knowing cameo by Tim Roth. The cult South African director Neill Blomkamp also gets a thanks in the credits, while the main star here is his District 9 leading man, Sharlto Copley.

Shot almost entirely on body-mounted, wide-angle, GoPro mobile cameras, the pic has a stampeding punk-rock energy amplified by its pounding score and punchy editing. The nominal hero Henry is a cyborg super-soldier whose memory and speech functions have been wiped. Waking up in a high-tech laboratory as his beautiful engineer wife Estelle (Haley Bennet) fits his broken body with new robotic limbs, Henry is immediately plunged into an explosive running battle between rebel scientist Jimmy (Copley) and the evil Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), an albino supervillain with telekinetic powers and obligatory designs on world domination. Why? Because reasons, obviously.

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With Henry on a mission to rescue Estelle from Akan's clutches, the movie's main plot engine is a full-throttle chase from downtown Moscow to a secret laboratory in dense woodland outside the city. This bravura marathon of POV action involves frantic parkour, gunfights, flamethrowers, airships, streetcars, helicopters, tanks, exploding heads, and a predictably massive body count. The constant shaky-camera momentum and adrenalized pace becomes a little wearying in places, but the special affects are superbly executed, while the audacious sight gags come thick and fast.

As he hurtles towards his final showdown with Akan atop a vertiginous skyscraper, the mute Henry picks up some teasing snippets of information about his nightmarish situation, while Jimmy turns out to be an army of cloned doppelgangers. There are nods to Peter Sellers in Doctor Strangelove here as Copley relishes playing multiple cartoonish roles, from a wheelchair-bound scientist to a dope-smoking hippie and an old-school British military man. In one of the film's rare calm moments, several of his avatars appear on screen together to sing Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin." It's a deliriously camp interlude, and a welcome pause between flesh-ripping, skull-bursting bloodbaths.

Hardcore Henry is a seriously silly movie, and by no means perfect. The plot is patently preposterous, but rattles along far too briskly for trifling questions about character motivation or narrative logic. The worldview here is  emphatically the "male gaze," quite literally, with an extra adolescent streak of casual sexism and mild homophobia. Predictably, the female characters are mostly fantasy sex objects who rarely take the trouble to wear many clothes.

Even so, there is ample redeeming tongue-in-cheek humor in the film, plus exhilarating action and high-caliber technical achievement both on screen and behind the camera. As befits a movie that began life as a music video, the soundtrack is also a strong element, mixing an arch selection of rock classics with a propulsive score by Naishuller's wife, Dasha Charusha. A guilty pleasure, perhaps, but still a double-barreled shotgun blast of heavy-metal excess.


Distributor: STX Entertainment
Production companies: Bazelevs, Versus Pictures
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennet, Andrey Dementiev, Tim Roth, Dasha Charusha
Director-screenwriter: Ilya Naishuller
Cinematographers: Seva Kaptur, Feodor Lyass, Pavel Kapinos
Editors: Steve Mirkovich, Vlad Kaptur
Production designer: Margarita Ablaeva
Music: Dasha Charusha

Rated R, 90 minutes