An experiential grenade tossed into the action genre, "Hardcore Henry" locks you in to 90 minutes of first-person mayhem that, while signaling an impressive aesthetic breakthrough as subjective moviemaking, is too stuck in the swamp of empty machismo to be anything more than the feature equivalent of a soar-and-crash overdose.
Russian writer-director Ilya Naishuller, expanding on a viral music video that caught the eye of spurt-and-polish action filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (who produced), strapped GoPro cameras to operators and rigs to simulate the experience of Henry, a voiceless cyborg who was once human, now resurrected and rebuilt by his beautiful scientist wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett). But before our bionic hero can fully grasp his purpose (or identity), he's thrust into an avenging-android scenario when Estelle is kidnapped by a crazed warlord named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky, suggesting a Russian Julian Sands).
Across Moscow's skies, through its streets and forests, and into and out of its buildings, Henry's run-and-gun mission — and our virtual adventure — is as breathlessly accomplished as it is deliriously violent.
What's quickly startling about Naishuller's you-are-he stunt, until now mostly the province of found-footage horror filmmakers, is how certain action tropes — dropping from heights, scaling walls, midcar-chase skirmishes, a building siege — become newly bracing in their immediacy. A foot chase with elements of parkour especially dazzles without ever tipping into motion sickness territory.
But an adrenaline surge with a video game body count is really all it is. In wake of last year's "Mad Max: Fury Road," a monumental leap forward in richly imaginative, artful action catharsis, "Hardcore Henry" is a single-gear novelty that never achieves real liftoff. Zeroing in on writing and acting might be viewed as nitpicking when Naishuller's primary motivation is to elicit an extended "WHEEEE!!"
Still, there is a story, and it's pretty standard fantasy-vengeance fare — an army being amassed for world domination, what else? — while the words people say (mostly yell) rarely rise above the level of explanatory video game narration. Though Naishuller relishes his occasional tongue-in-cheek attitude, the humor is mostly cartoon-brutal, adolescent and coolly misogynist.
And yet, perhaps understanding how essential a lively personality would be to offset a mute hero and wall-to-wall kineticism, Naishuller wisely cast "District 9" star Sharlto Copley as Henry's guide-taskmaster-ally Jimmy, who acts as an expository whack-a-mole. Sporting an assortment of disguises and vocal effects, Copley certainly serves as the most spirited human figure between bursts of jittery havoc; his multiple-persona rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin" (clones are part of the story line) is even surreally amusing enough to qualify as semi "Python"-esque. Mostly, though, this oddball scene represents this movie's version of an ocean of calm before the final-act storm of gore against the villain's bio-engineered mercenary horde, the kind of check-your-watch mowdown that suggests Naishuller didn't realize his movie had already gone to 11.
Whether you find "Hardcore Henry" the rocket ride of your POV dreams or a diverting glimpse into the future of stunt cinema, it is an indelible fanboy marker in the tug of war between the imperiled theatrical experience and the ever more influential one you'd have with a home console. There's even a blink-and-you'll-miss-it nod to the gimmick's history in a poster, spotted on a bystander's wall, for Robert Montgomery's groundbreaking 1947 camera-as-protagonist noir "Lady in the Lake." Technology and sensibility have come a long way since that film's steadied storytelling gaze. Whether movies can survive relinquishing varied visual perspective and artful editing in the quest for the latest in virtual thrills, however, remains to be seen.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
MPAA rating: R, for nonstop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use
Playing: In general release