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Put your ear to the ground or wrap a grapevine around your head, and you’ll hear some suggesting that Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry is the future of action cinema. If that’s true, it’s a regressive future where the genre’s devolved, replacing the presumably passé experience of a thrilling narrative stocked with compelling characters, suspense and wit, with a simulacrum of a first person shooter; ninety minutes watching an anonymous gamer in bored silence.
Indeed, there’s nothing remotely innovative about Henry’s adventure if you’re a seasoned console jockey; you’ve seen the scenario, or one like it, many times. The difference is that when you play a game you have something invested, you’re an active participant. Naishuller’s baffling move is to rob his audience of a proxy they can relate to or care about.
Henry’s a mute avatar, devoid of personality – just a point of view keeping his outstretched arms in frame. Thus you’ve got a movie in which the chief protagonist is a gun toting void. Perhaps the idea was that the same psychical process that invests the straw men and women that populate games with life, projection, would work on the big screen. But Naishuller forgot, or never knew, that it’s our ability to make choices and influence events that lends gaming avatars their personality; they’re an extension of ourselves with a few overlaid characteristics. The movies at their best, unable to channel our inputs, instead offer us portraits of human beings that they hope we’ll inhabit. Hardcore Henry asks you to stare at a blank canvas and see yourself. Well, most of us have a slightly more cultivated idealised self than that.
The movie’s problem is not its purported ambition; that amounts to technical gimmickry; rather the total lack. As a cinematic mockup of a game, Henry’s nigh on perfect. Supporting characters, though Sharlto Copley is really the only participant who can claim he’s providing the same, exist to provide direct-to-camera exposition or a prompt to help Henry on his way to his showdown with the big bad, the same function they’d perform in cut scenes or in gameplay. What would have made Henry a MOVIE would have been providing the eponymous bionic soldier with a personality – sardonic wit and wry reactions to the ever more extreme setups. The filmmakers might have pushed the comic possibilities suggested by the concept, having characters comment on Henry’s incrementally nightmarish appearance, or feeding off his facial expressions, forcing the audience’s imagination to work. Instead they’re encouraged to be passive (and are).
We’re invited to sit back, void our brains and enjoy the technically proficient and kinetic setpieces. Okay, we don’t feel anything, not even spikes of adrenaline, but as far as experimentation goes, an attempt to translate the empty world of gaming with great fidelity, Naishuller’s shown a lot of moxie. If he’d had the wit to create a great central character, he might have made a fun variation on Crank. As it stands, a rhyme will have to do.