Tuesday, August 16, 2016
The Films of 2016: Hardcore Henry
Everything old is new again.
Or is everything old just all dressed up with a new coat of paint, so it looks pretty?
Case in point: In 1947, the noir production Lady in the Lake, directed by Robert Montgomery, spearheaded the unusual technique of shooting a film entirely from the viewpoint of the drama’s central character.
Viewers saw through the lead character's eyes, but very rarely saw the character himself. Audiences only saw the lead character when he passed by a mirror, or cast a reflection.
Since then, we’ve had the “camera” serve as our "eye" in hundreds of first-person, found footage horror films, but that’s not precisely the same thing.
Hardcore Henry (2016) goes all the way back to the Lady in the Lake approach but attempts to distinguish itself (according to the MPAA rating information) through “non-stop brutal violence.”
In a nod to film history, a poster for Lady in the Lake is even prominently displayed on-screen during the early moments of Hardcore Henry, as our set of eyes -- the titular Henry -- crashes through an exterior window into an apartment living room.
It’s nice that this film, from director Timur Bekmambetov, remembers and honors cinematic history.
Simultaneously, it unfortunate that the film suffers -- nearly seventy years later -- from the same set of deficits that compromised Montgomery’s effort.
What are those deficits?
Basically, in a first-person movie there can be no (significant) cutting or scene shifting, since we are witnessing an “experience" through the eyes of an individual. After all, we don't "cut" in life. Instead, our vision is continuous. When we want to leave one locale and go to another, we have to walk, or drive. In a third person film, we can fade out at the first location, and fade in as characters arrive at the new one.
Similarly, filmmakers utilizing first-person techniques can not avail themselves of third person film grammar conventions (for example, the use of high angle or low angle shots to express visual imagery). Instead, they must commit and dedicate themselves to being one person's eye, for all the limitations of viewpoint and imagery that position entails.
Instead, first person films tend to be stuck with a relatively narrow set of narrative parameters. Such efforts are great at charting time-limited experiences (like an expedition in the woods to learn the truth about a folk legend, for example…)
They are not so great at expressing characterization or emotions.
In a film like Hardcore Henry, for example, we can never see the hero’s expressions or view his emotional responses to the harrowing experiences he endures. Thus we can’t intuit a decision-making process or selection behind his moves and actions.
Accordingly, the character is never more than a cipher.
As a substitute for characterization, Hardcore Henry moves rapidly from stunt sequence to stunt sequence.
At first these stunt sequences engender a sense of real awe and admiration.
By mid-film, they seem familiar and repetitive. In fact, by the second act, Hardcore Henry is Deadly Dull. It pulls things back together for a gonzo, climactic fight sequence, but by then the film can't really recover any sense of momentum or good will.
I was hoping to report here that Hardcore Henry had infused the action film with a new sense of purpose and depth -- much the way Cloverfield (2008) energized the giant monster or kaiju movie with its street-level perspective -- but that’s simply not the case.
Sure, Hardcore Henry shocks (and might even offend) with its graphic violence, and features some truly impressive action scenes. But there’s no humanity, context, or perspective in that action. Without giving anything away, the film involves a major personal betrayal to Henry.
Of course, emotional betrayal is a huge, emotional experience. Yet the audience is robbed of its impact in Hardcore Henry because of the limitations of the first-person perspective. We are encouraged to gawk, but not allowed to feel.
Accordingly, Hardcore Henry would make one hell of a great video game with its nutty dedication to action scenes and gunfights. But as a dramatic movie, it’s a decidedly mediocre affair.
“I love you Henry. I can’t wait to hear you say it.”
A man named Henry awakens in a laboratory without his memory. A scientist, Estelle (Haley Bennett) claims to have brought him back from the dead, and furthermore, that she is his wife. She installs a cybernetic hand and foot on Henry.
Before Estelle and her fellow scientists can install Henry’s voice implant so he can speak, an albino telekinetic madman, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), attacks…killing a number of scientists.
Henry and his wife flee the massacre, and Henry learns that they are aboard an airship in flight.
Leaping into action, Henry helps Estelle board an escape pod, and they ride it down to the surface, where they are confronted by soldiers.
Estelle tells Henry that he was made to fight, and to challenge the soldiers.
Henry and Estelle are separated after that fight, and Henry is soon aided by a mysterious man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who seems to die with alarming regularity, only to return in new guises.
With Jimmy’s help, Henry plans to attack Akan’s headquarters, and rescue Estelle.
“You didn’t make history, Henry. You helped end it.”
The element I enjoyed most about Hardcore Henry is its regard for film and TV history. The film not only gives us a visual call-back to Lady in the Lake, but offers a funny scene in which Henry is nearly installed with the voice of a very recognizable cyborg character: Darth Vader.)
The film’s cheeky humor extends throughout the drama. Jimmy is a character, for instance, who keeps dying in horrible ways, and who keeps coming back in new guises. I couldn't help but think that Jimmy was a science fiction homage to Kenny on South Park (1997 - ).
Additionally, there are times during the movie when the audience will feel the film was put through a 1980s sci-fi blender; one that mixes the styles of David Cronenberg and Paul Verhoeven.
From the former, we get a queasy kind of treatise on biology and technology (think: Videodrome .)
And from the latter, we get a tacky, bloody, blunt approach to violence (think RoboCop .)
You may notice the common element there. Hardcore Henry is all about the human body, and what it can be made to feel or do.
Joined with technology, the body can endure beyond physical death at, least in this universe, and also give new arms and legs to a remote operator. At the same time, the body remains vulnerable to damage, and Hardcore Henry ticks down a veritable checklist of the damage and destruction a put-upon body can suffer.
Human flesh is perforated by bullets, burned to ashes, ripped apart, and subject, even, to whirring propeller blades.
Contextually, these two elements work together well enough. The film concerns a world in which cyborg soldiers will fight our future wars, and because of their machine nature, their pain will not really matter to those they protect. These soldiers are, instead, slaves.
They are built to kill, and to endure. Not to feel. Not to love. Instead, love is a deception, a trick, a phony psychological motivation for murder.
But the sad fact for these soldiers? Most will get immolated, dissected, or otherwise destroyed unmourned.
If Videodrome meets RoboCop sounds like an intriguing film, I may have done too much heavy lifting in the previous paragraphs.
Hardcore Henry mixes these styles and ideas, but resolutely lacks the humanity one would expect to find in a Cronenberg or Verhoeven film. We feel for Murphy in RoboCop, for instance, because we see that he is, despite his cyborg nature, still human. We come to understand, from watching him (as well as his dream-like flashbacks) that he still thinks of himself as a man.
There are a few powerful memory flashbacks (involving actor Tim Roth) in Hardcore Henry, but they relate not to Henry’s longing for humanity, or feelings of family connection. Instead, they form his impetus to keep going, to keep fighting to defeat the bad guys. In other words, these memories are a structural mechanism by which the movie keeps its hero motivated to complete his task. Therefore, they seem a bit hollow.
I suppose there are two pertinent questions a prospective viewer may have of Hardcore Henry, before going in.
I will attempt to address both.
First, you may want to know: will you see incredible things in the film?
The answer is undeniably affirmative.
There is a shock early in the film when Henry swings open a door, and nearly steps off a plane into mid-air, for example.
And then there is the perilous ride down to the Earth’s surface, in the escape pod.
Even later, there’s a chase scene involving a truck caravan that will likely blow your mind. The stunts, and the pure imagination evidenced here are truly admirable.
The film's final battle is nuts too, and one-ups some of the out-of-this-world fisticuffs featured in The Matrix films over a decade ago.
The second question viewers may ask is: do all those incredible moments come together to convey a meaningful and dramatic story?
Here, the answer is negative.
By the film's mid-way point, the viewer feels visually exhausted from the non-stop action, and the constant detachment from the central character's emotional states.
The director has failed to respect a key rule of action films here: when everything is accelerated, all the time, nothing feels accelerated, at any time.
In other words, Hardcore Henry just keeps powering through its running time with that “non-stop brutal violence” and so, after a while, you begin dreading the next gunfight, or the next chase, or the next scene of hand-to-hand combat.
The film possesses no peaks and valleys. It’s just a straight run, without variation, throughout. And boy does that become tiresome.
That approach makes the action feel mechanical, and yet I don’t really think that’s the point, as some may argue (given Henry's cyborg nature). Hardcore Henry is ultimately about a machine reclaiming his humanity, and using the human part of him to survive. I submit that you can’t tell that story if you never see the character’s face, identify with his emotions, or stop for moments of reflection about his journey.
Found footage horror movies are superior in format, because, finally, a Heather Donohue or someone like her can always turn the camera around, on herself, and address us directly. Hardcore Henry doesn’t provide any opportunity for its hero to do that.
Hardcore Henry has been touted as the next iteration of the action cinema, a realistic, “one of a kind experience.”
Actually, it’s just a sort of one-trick pony.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, there’s no inspiration or ingenuity left in Hardcore Henry.
So the movie makes the incredible visuals feel, in the final analysis, utterly routine and mindless. Hardcore Henry is like watching someone else playing a first person shooter video game, while you impatiently wait to get your turn with the controller.