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'Hardcore Henry' does something new with action genre

It's a A POV trip.


HUSTLING WITH 'HENRY': There are 90 minutes of mayhem in this Russian action film.
  • HUSTLING WITH 'HENRY': There are 90 minutes of mayhem in this Russian action film.

The streaking comet that is "Hardcore Henry" raises a question: Where have the Russian action films been this whole time? The nation that has given us the greatest dash-camera YouTube moments and that by its very inhabitance radiates a sense of "no half measures" has just inflicted one of the most lunatic, innovative shoot-'em-up romps since the early Bourne flicks, or maybe "The Raid," or, if you want to go back to mid-'90s PC games, "Quake."

Everything about the setup of "Hardcore Henry," in fact, makes it sound like hot garbage in the making: a feature in which the mute protagonist, who's some kind of cyborg experiment in general ass-kickery, films the entire movie from his vantage point. It's the apex of video gaming and cinema merging, fulfilling that longstanding suicide pact that generally produces utterly disposable movies. Instead, it succeeds as exactly the rush that director Ilya Naishuller set out to make. You've got no idea who he is, but you might have logged one of the 33 million views of a 2013 music video he directed for his band Biting Elbows (the song: "Bad Motherfucker"). It featured a similar first-person point-of-view and a madcap action sequence of fighting, shooting, stunts and under-explained tech/magic, as if you were seeing through the eyes of a parkour-runner Jason Statham character.

That laid the groundwork for 90 minutes of that same sort of mayhem in "Hardcore Henry," which was shot with custom facemask-mounted GoPro 3 cameras. A team of quasi-actors, definitely stuntmen, wore this rig to tell the story: Henry (you, seemingly) waking in a lab getting artificial limbs screwed on by a foxy science woman (Haley Bennett) who says she's Henry's (your) wife. Then a bad guy (Danila Kozlovsky) blows into the lab with a telekinetic flourish straight out of "Dragon Ball Z," a one-man lightning storm who can levitate his victims. He does some killing, but Henry and his lady flee to an escape pod (oh, didn't realize we were in some whacked-out lab miles above the earth, eh? Well, get used to this sort of thing) that crash-lands into a city. There the wife is captured by machine-gun thugs and Henry realizes he's a nigh-invulnerable killing machine who's going to die soon but needs revenge.

From there, "Hardcore Henry" hustles you through tunnels, into gun battles, up the sides of buildings (more parkour!), through a brothel, into the woods. It's chaos. There isn't a surplus of plot to keep up with, but as you can imagine, when you're a cyborg whose vocals didn't have time to boot, other people have to do the talking. Most of those people are played by Sharlto Copley (villainous in "Elysium" and "Chappie"). At first it seems like a running gag, an endless series of various dudes named Jimmy, but even that eventually comes to have a bizarre payoff. Most of the surprises of "Hardcore Henry" hit you in the guts and the glands. A few, though, arrive as wry feints, gonzo twists or one-liners. Copley, meanwhile, contains all of these, in one multivarious action/comedic performance. There are, it turns out, a whole lot of Jimmys to play.

Cleverest yet may be the jump-cut editing style that Naishuller uses to propel the action ever forward. There is no down time in "Hardcore Henry" — it's the contra-"Revenant." Instead, it skips forward clippity-clip, stitching all sorts of mayhem in the tiny gaps that, perhaps because we all spend an hour a day with our eyes shut during blinks, we unconsciously smooth out into a single running shot.

In all, it's quite the trip. It's not often that a movie drops you into a first-person view and then dares you, against all odds, to possibly keep up with yourself.

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