Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With Tomb Raider in theaters Friday, Ready Player One screening at SXSW, and Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle now on home-viewing platforms, we’re looking back on “video game movies.” The catch: None of them are based on real games.
When someone describes a movie as a video game, they’re rarely being complimentary. The comparison has become a pejorative shorthand—for weightless CGI, for the privileging of nonstop action over character and story, for a structure that recalls the obstacle-to-obstacle simplicity of a classic platformer. (Both of those last two criticisms were lobbed at The Raid by those who somehow failed to see how incredible The Raid is.) Thing is, few supposed “live-action video games” actually resemble video games very much, visually or conceptually. For a true translation of joystick ethos to the big screen, you have to look to the simultaneously awesome and idiotic Hardcore Henry. More than just embodying every quality that gets a movie stereotypically slandered as non-playable Xbox fare, the film also legitimately operates like a game brought to flesh-and-blood life, as though someone had painstakingly remade—with real actors and real environments and real pyrotechnics—a full play-through of a particularly violent and crass first-person shooter. It’s a mindless stunt, but one executed with supreme technical bravado, plus a borderline experimental adherence to the mechanics of real shooters.
All but a few seconds of Hardcore Henry unfold from the first-person perspective of its mononymous, eponymous protagonist, a prototype cyborg with no voice box, no memories of his past life, and—effectively, for as much as we see it—no face. He’s RoboCop rebooted into a silent player avatar, and it’s through his eyes that we experience the movie’s endless orgy of gratuitous mayhem, as Henry shoots, punches, and parkours his way across Moscow, indiscriminately obliterating every mercenary in his path. The movie’s fundamental game logic (shoot, kill, survive, repeat) extends beyond the escalating difficulty and extremity of its various “levels.” There’s also the reoccurring presence of Sharlto Copley, who keeps popping up in different non-player character disguises, respawning to provide Henry (which it to say, the player) with tips and new gear and information on where to go next. The narrative, or what passes for one, also climaxes with a boss fight, pitting our hero against a floating psychokinetic heavy and his army of henchmen. Just about every scene could have been ported over from console to multiplex.
Hardcore Henry, in other words, is Crank by way of Duke Nukem: a shoot-em-’up pitched to the blood-lusting lizard brain of 12-year-olds of all ages. Not all of the nods to gaming culture are strictly fun; the female “characters,” another word to be used very loosely, are all strippers, damsels in distress, or duplicitous femme fatales—a sexist triple score! Appreciating the movie requires submitting to the sheer audacity of its elaborately choreographed carnage. Devising a special GoPro mask and innovative magnet-based stabilization system to mimic a first-person vantage, director Ilya Naishuller blurs the line separating practical stunt work and digital spectacle, resulting in sequences of jaw-dropping, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that virtuosity, like a motorcycle chase that finds Henry lobbing grenades and leaping from vehicle to vehicle, all in one seemingly unbroken take. At its excessive best, Hardcore Henry simulates the giddy, lowbrow pleasure of blasting your way to the final level of a particularly relentless shooter in a single caffeinated sitting—a sensation it reproduces even without the actual interactive element of a real game. Set your brain to rampage mode and enjoy.
Availability: Hardcore Henry is available to rent or purchase digitally through Amazon, iTunes, VUDU, and the other major services. It can also be obtained on DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library.