Every few years, some enterprising filmmaker gets the idea in their head that what the world really needs is a feature-length film shot entirely from a first-person perspective. Then the movie comes out, is mostly ignored, and everyone goes back to treating first-person as a stylistic device best used in more modest doses, like the first half-hour of Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or portions of Gasper Noé’s Enter the Void. That cycle accompanied one of Hollywood’s most famous first-person flops, Robert Montgomery’s 1947 Philip Marlowe mystery Lady in the Lake, and it will almost certainly repeat itself with Hardcore Henry, a frenetic yet joyless Russian action film that takes its inspiration from videogames rather than Raymond Chandler novels. (A case could be made that The Blair Witch Project and found-footage horror films like it qualify as first-person features, but in those movies it’s typically stressed that the camera is functioning as a camera, and not the character’s eyes, which is why it can change hands and capture angles outside the scope of human vision.)
Interestingly, before Hardcore Henry came along, Russia could boast having made the one artistically successful first-person feature: Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 single-take stunt, Russian Ark. In that art-house hit, the audience witnesses three centuries’ worth of Russian history come to life in the luxurious hallways and chambers of Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace through the eyes of an unnamed spectral visitor. Sokurov’s decision to deny our stand-in an identity (apart from the distinctly male voice that provides intermittent narration) sets Russian Ark apart from The Lady in the Lake and Hardcore Henry and may be key to why that film thrives while the others flounder. With Russian Ark, the viewer is allowed to bring their own sense of identity to the proceedings, whereas Lady in the Lake and Hardcore Henry want to make us feel that we are a specific character, but neglect to imbue that character with any remotely interesting characteristics. In other words, they mistakenly assume that perspective is an effective substitute for personality.
Of course, it’s not as if the heroes of the first-person videogames that Hardcore Henry director Ilya Naishuller draws inspiration from are sterling examples of three-dimensional characterizations. In games like Doom and Half-Life, our interest in our avatar mainly centers around what they’re carrying in their arsenal. In the case of Henry, the memory-wiped cyborg warrior who spends all 95 minutes of Hardcore Henry racing from one action sequence to another, his well-stocked reserve of weapons includes guns, barbed wire and, when all else fails, his fists. His ostensible objective is to survive long enough to defeat telekinetic bad guy Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), who is holding his wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), hostage. But in the process, he stumbles upon an elaborately nonsensical plot to engineer an army of super-soldiers using cloning technology originally developed by mysterious scientist Jimmy, played by Sharlto Copley in a loony performance that is perhaps best described as a live-action variation on Mega Man’s longtime nemesis, Dr. Wily.
Fully aware that the ultimate purpose of a first-person shooter is to make the player an active participant in the action, Naishuller goes to great lengths to convince the audience they’re experiencing Henry’s death-defying fights and stunts first-hand. Filmed largely with GoPro cameras, Hardcore Henry is a film that’s constantly in motion; even when the character is standing in place, his disembodied arms and legs are flying forward into the frame. And there are several sequences where Naishuller uses the first-person conceit for some clever staging; at one point, Henry is racing down a hallway to escape Akan and opens what appears to be an exit door. The next thing we see is a gasp-inducing drop that reveals we’ve been aboard an airplane the whole time. Moments like this do replicate the sense of immediacy that videogames provide, with the battle terrain changing in the space of a second and the player having to adjust their tactics accordingly. (Caveat emptor: Even those who don’t regularly struggle with motion sickness might find themselves nursing a serious headache well before Hardcore Henry reaches its halfway point.)
But the film industry has yet to invent the cinematic equivalent for the button-mashing combo moves that are also central to the videogame experience. We’re still only observers when we’re sitting there in the theatre, no matter how much Naishuller would like to convince us otherwise. And for an observer, Hardcore Henry wears out its welcome early on, both as a sensory experience and a story. Cranked up to Crank levels of cartoonish ultra-violence, but lacking Jason Statham’s charismatic presence, the movie literally screams in your face for an hour-and-a-half, insisting that you’re having a good time. That’s not hardcore—that’s just desperate.