Groundbreaking movies aren't always good. Take 1927's The Jazz Singer, celebrated as a technical milestone for its use of recorded dialogue, but almost unwatchable to modern audiences because of its use of blackface. Or Avatar, a gorgeous CGI achievement I’ll never bother watching again.
Welcome Hardcore Henry to those esteemed-ish ranks. Director Ilya Naishuller's action gorefest is a teaser of Hollywood 2036, a filmscape conquered by virtual reality and a generation of directors born playing first-person shooters. The camera never shows our hero Henry's face. The camera is his face – we are his eyes – and it stares at the hundred Russian thugs he's going to kill.
To make the film, Naishuller rigged a GoPro to a shoulder-supported mask and bought three swimming pools' worth of fake blood. The mayhem starts when Henry, a silent, mind-erased, reanimated corpse, wakes up in a water tank and watches, uncomprehendingly, as his babelicious scientist wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) screws on his left arm and left leg and slips on his wedding ring. Then psychokinetic villain Akan (the bleached-blond Danila Kozlovsky, one part Kurt Cobain to two parts Klaus Kinski) bursts into the lab. Akan grabs Estelle, calls Henry a "pussy," and the body count begins.
Henry isn't a character. He's a device, arms and legs that take us from falling out of an airplane to falling out of a helicopter to punching an asshole in the face. If Estelle hadn't told him, Henry wouldn't know his own name. The movie is so plotless, he doesn't even have a goal. Instead, the script is structured around five-minute missions — Go here! Grab this! Kill that dude! — barked by his sidekick/guru Jimmy (Sharlto Copley, hilarious), a doomed maniac who gets murdered 10 times and resurrected with a new personality. Suave Jimmy gets shot. Homeless Jimmy gets barbecued. Copley plays Hippie Jimmy, Sniper Jimmy, Punk Jimmy, and Coke Fiend Jimmy like the Microsoft paper clip reimagined as a shape-shifting, violent god. He doesn't shut up. But when the main character is mute, someone has to do all the talking, and Copley keys into the manic, high-pitched comedy the film needs to work.
Unfortunately, he's the only thing that gets a laugh. Hardcore Henry treats death like a joke — "Ha! That dude just got the top of his head blown off inches from our face!" — but the punch lines aren't funny. There's no pacing, no wit, no jaw-dropping astonishment at what the human body can and can't endure. It's just fast shocks that made my brain want a shower, the equivalent of watching a man get fatally kicked in the nuts and laughing through the funeral.
Hardcore Henry is nauseating, twice over. First, because life is cheap. That's forgivable in video games, when we're just slaying pixels. It's morally ickier when we're looking at real corpses, no matter that (or maybe especially because) Naishuller strips their humanity by dressing all the goons in white suits and the ill-fated strippers in identical white wigs. (Its certainty that most women are scheming slutbags makes this Gamergate: The Movie.)
Second, like The Jazz Singer, which had only two minutes of dialogue, technology hasn't caught up. Decades from now, when a POV virtual reality film wins Best Picture, Hardcore Henry will seem like that first clumsy fish to crawl from the ocean. The camera can run and jump, but it can't keep focus. Chase scenes are a blur. When Henry spins his head, we squint. During a parking lot shootout, I was grateful when Henry hid behind a car. A close-up of a bumper! Soothing.
In fact, the less Hardcore Henry tries to dazzle with spastic splatter porn, the better it is. A sequence where Henry climbs a building like King Kong has masterful vertigo. I'll never leap between windowsills, but for 60 seconds, I felt like I could. Naishuller thinks we want to see a real-world video game — he even sticks Henry's gun arm in the center of the screen — but I savored the glitches: Henry's fingers fumbling to pull out a grenade ring, the annoying bang of pushing open a dozen heavy doors, a failed attempt to leap onto a horse that was not having it. That's where Hardcore Henry feels real — when it reminds us that no human is a flawless action hero.