Review: Hardcore Henry Reinvents the Action Flick

4 minute read

Ilya Naishuller, the lead singer of the Russian punk band Biting Elbows, wanted a music video that would win his songs international attention. So in 2011 he directed one himself, strapping a GoPro camera onto a stuntman’s head to create a stylized, Tarantino-esque, live-action first-person-shooter game–hands reaching in front of the camera to pick up weapons and pop off sunglassed, black-suited enemies.

The 2013 video for the song “Bad Motherf-cker” got more than 32 million hits on YouTube and a Facebook message from Timur Bekmambetov, the director of Night Watch and Wanted, who wanted to finance a film-length version. “I said, ‘No. It’s a terrible idea. It’s a gimmick,'” remembers Naishuller, 30. A few days later he reconsidered: “It clicked that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a pioneer.” Especially since directing was what he really wanted to do, far more than being a rock star.

Naishuller had been devouring movies since he was 5, when his father ran an illegal business in the Soviet Union selling VHS tapes. In 2007 he landed a job assisting director Roland Joffé when he shot two movies in Russia. Naishuller had also written a script for a slow-burner spy movie he was hoping to send to actor Tim Roth. Still, he wasn’t sure a first-person perspective would work for a feature film, so he demanded a clause in his director’s contract in case he couldn’t pull it off. “We said if he made it [only to] 60 minutes, then he should put the helmet camera on his head and run around the block for the next 30 minutes,” says Bekmambetov. “But I knew there would be enough material.”

In the 95-minute film, which opens on April 8, the main character is a bionic soldier who doesn’t talk (his voice chip is about to be inserted when he is attacked) with no backstory (his memory has been erased). Those were two rules Naishuller adopted after watching 1947’s Lady in the Lake, the awkward first-person Raymond Chandler movie in which Robert Montgomery talks but is hardly ever seen, unless the room has a mirror. In Naishuller’s movie, there isn’t need for talk. Hardcore Henry begins with running and shooting, builds to faster running and shooting, and ends with a massive amount of running and shooting. It’s all captured without standard film cameras; instead, GoPros were attached to a very uncomfortable mask worn by the 12 stuntmen who play Henry at various points in the film. Their double duty as cameramen is impressive, since they were shooting reaction shots of the other actors while, for instance, they were on fire and jumping out of a bus or driving a motorcycle onto a moving van that was having its front blown off so the bike could ride out the front. They wound up with a cross between a film, a video game, a theme-park ride and a virtual-reality experience. Watching the film can cause motion sickness.

“Half the time I’m saying, ‘Dude, can you just slow it down so I can follow it?'” says Sharlto Copley, who plays Henry’s sidekick Jimmy. “It’s like the early days of music videos.” When Copley (District 9, Maleficent), 42, told people he had taken the role, no one his age or older approved. “People were like, ‘Why would people want to watch people play a video game?’ One of the biggest YouTube channels is people watching people play video games. If you ask that question, you don’t understand this whole media culture that’s coming.”

Filming began in Moscow without “an absolutely definite script,” Copley says. “The focus was on the action set pieces.” When Copley left to shoot Chappie, Naishuller simply killed off the Jimmy character, in keeping with his scorched-earth solutions to the many problems that cropped up while making a movie that would likely be impossible in the U.S., since we have safety laws. At one point, Copley was sure he had killed a stuntman when he pushed him off a moving car onto a highway that hadn’t been blocked off to traffic. Somehow, the only two injuries the stuntman sustained were a chipped tooth and a cut that needed five stitches.

Naishuller hopes to direct his slow, third-person, nonaction spy script next, especially now that he knows Tim Roth after getting him to play a small part in Hardcore Henry. He’s also hoping other directors will employ his new techniques. “There were words and letters in this language already, and I think we wrote a really good book,” he says. “Someone is going to come along and write a much better book using the lessons learned from what we did.” They might even use a script.

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