Last year, the action genre was taken to a whole new level by George Miller's high-octane post-apocalyptic fever dream, "Mad Max: Fury Road," a much-needed detour from the genre's current route. "Hardcore Henry" seems to have the same determination as Miller's film, to be a genre game-changer. Not surprisingly, newbie director Ilya Naishuller (frontman for Russian indie rock band Biting Elbows) fails to bring anything new to the table, save for the visual gimmick that is the film's main selling point. All 90 minutes of "Hardcore Henry" are shot from the first-person perspective of the titular hero, charging the film with a kinetic energy that never depletes until the credits roll. On a technical level, Naishuller's debut feature is essentially a long, ultra-violent GoPro commercial, but there is little to marvel at when it comes to character and plot, leaving "Hardcore Henry" limp long before its blood-soaked climax.
After waking up to discover that he has been brought back from the dead as a cyborg, Henry is quickly plunged into chaos after a woman named Estelle (Haley Bennett), who claims to be his wife, is kidnapped by armed thugs, led by the telekinetic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky). Not long after Estelle is taken, Henry meets Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a mysterious rogue warrior who aids Henry in his bloody rampage through Moscow in pursuit of Akan and the captive Estelle.
No one should go in expecting much substance here, and the film makes this abundantly clear in its red-tinted opening credits sequence: a series of slow motion shooting, stabbing, slicing and what have you in the spirit of James Bond (minus all the girls). Violence is both the star and the story of "Hardcore Henry," and Naishuller is clearly happy to pollute nearly every frame with it. The stunt work here is certainly admirable, particularly from whoever had to have cameras strapped to his head as Henry. Nevertheless, everything we see is so nonsensical and over-the-top that the POV gimmick quickly grows tiresome, since it seems to play second banana to the action, eliminating any sense of true immersion for the audience.
Other than its visual aesthetic, which resembles countless first-person shooters, "Hardcore Henry" offers nothing new to the genre, throwing in characters and subplots that have been recycled over and over for nearly 30 years. This leaves the actors with very little to make their characters even the least bit interesting. Bennett is frustratingly nothing more than the damsel-in-distress, an archetype that really should be extinct by now. Kozlovsky is cheesy but not chilling, turning in a horrendous performance as the film's Sith-eyed albino super-villain. Copley, who made a remarkable debut in "District 9," does what he does best by overdoing it. Jimmy is no more compelling than the other characters who come into Henry's view, but Copley has a fairly unique presence that brings the effort enough levity to distract viewers from the increasingly mind-numbing action set pieces.
Perhaps video game buffs and roller coaster fanatics will appreciate whatever this film tries to accomplish. It might have fared better as a 4D movie featured at a theme park for adults only. Surprisingly, the first-person format leaves "Hardcore Henry" cinematically inert. Even though we see the world through Henry's eyes, he is just as distant as the other characters are from us. We are left to simply watch events unfold rather than participate in them to some degree. We may as well be like John Cusack at the end of "Being John Malkovich," trapped inside someone's head and torturously forced to see everything he sees until it's all over.