'Hardcore Henry' Is Unlike Anything You've Seen Before, For Better And Worse [SXSW Review]

Hardcore Henry is less of a movie and more of a 95-minute assault on good taste, a bloody theme park ride in filmic clothing, and/or the gruesome collision of the video gaming and cinematic languages. It's a singular experience that's truly unlike any other movie, and for some viewers, it will still be, understandably, one film of its kind too many. But Hardcore Henry isn't lazy and it isn't half-assed and it is in no way derivative – for better and worse, it is an ambitious undertaking that accomplishes exactly what it set out to accomplish and there's something admirable about it.

It's impressively made, but entirely juvenile. Admittedly exciting, but casually cruel. Formally astonishing, but kind of skin-crawling on more than a few issues. Yeah, Hardcore Henry is going to elicit strong reactions and if you'll allow me to break out the dreaded first person, I have no idea what to make of it.

And perhaps going first-person with this review is appropriate. After all, the chief selling point of Hardcore Henry is that it's an action movie told entirely through the first-person perspective. In fact, the making of the film sounds as thrilling any of the finished action scenes, as director Ilya Naishuller and his crew strapped cameras to a bunch of stuntmen who obviously didn't fear the reaper and tossed them into chaotic car chases, death-defying leaps off of buildings, close-quarters combat with flamethrower-wielding henchmen, and even a musical number.

You can say a lot of things about Hardcore Henry, but it's certainly not lazy. In fact, it's technically astonishing. If you buy the aesthetic — if watching a movie that literally looks like a first-person shooter video game come to life sounds the least bit interesting — this film will be worth seeking out. As someone who has been gunning down digital bad guys since GoldenEye on the N64, I understand Naishuller's childlike glee in getting to stage a movie like this. First-person movies are not entirely new (Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void also utilizes the perspective to jaw-dropping effect), but none of them have utilized video game language quite like this before.

Like many of the bloody shoot-'em-up games that obviously provided inspiration for the film, Hardcore Henry deliberately skimps on the story so it can get right to the action. The premise is simple: Henry is a dead man brought back to life via cybernetic implants. His memory is gone, but the scientist who revives him claims to be his wife. Then the bad guys show up and kidnap the girl, forcing Henry (i.e., you) to embark on a mission to get her back, leaving a wake of blown-apart corpses in his wake. Naturally, this means one big action set piece after another, and the princess is always in another castle.

There is a little more story than that, but not too much. Exposition is provided by Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a mysterious soldier/secret agent/scientist with a thing for coming back from the dead. Jimmy is the closest thing the movie has to a well-rounded character and his backstory proves to be the most fascinating aspect of the entire film. Copley himself is perfectly fine – he's still one of our hammiest actors, but his over-the-top scenery-chewing here is a step above what we've seen from him in the recent past.

Hardcore Henry looks and feels more like a video game than any other movie ever made, but there are uncomfortable hiccups in bringing this language to the big screen. Some of the worst aspects of gamer culture are on display here, from cringeworthy comedy that feels like it could be generated by a pimple-faced preteen on the other end of an Xbox headset to the film's rather unfortunate depiction of women (they're dumb strippers at best and a Gamergate talking point at worst). There's little room for nuance in this movie, which goes from zero to one hundred in the first ten minutes before breaking the sound barrier during the all-bets-are-off climax. During its lowest moments, Hardcore Henry stops feeling like Crank and starts feeling (rather appropriately) like Gamer. There are attempts at Paul Verhoeven-esque cheekiness that don't quite land – if RoboCop is a symphony, Hardcore Henry is a grimy punk rock show put on by a guy who hasn't quite mastered his instrument.

To the film's credit, Naishuller has a definite eye for action and he finds ways to keep the gun battles fresh. No action scene feels like another, and each manages to top the previous set piece in scope and ambition. And yet, the limitations of the first-person format make the film an exhausting experience. Hardcore Henry isn't repetitive, but it is one-note. I didn't come out of the film feeling energized – I felt badgered and tired and ready for a long hard nap.

If you're interested in how a new generation of young filmmakers is incorporating the language of video games into feature filmmaking, you should see Hardcore Henry. It is something else. Although the film is uncomfortable and gross and could benefit from an injection of proper wit, it feels like an early arrival in the coming entertainment revolution. Virtual reality is on the way. Video games and movies will soon start to blend and borrow from one another in many ways. And this movie, imperfect and nasty and often astonishing, is a vanguard. Of something.

I'm just not sure if this is a future I'm looking forward to, or a future I'm completely dreading.

/Film rating: ?/!/Gun Emoji out of 10