Hardcore Henry is like watching a video game

Russian- American first-person live-action shooter Hardcore Henry's (from far left) actor Sharlto Copley, director Ilya Naishuller and producer Timur Bekmambetov.
Russian- American first-person live-action shooter Hardcore Henry's (from left) actor Sharlto Copley, director Ilya Naishuller and producer Timur Bekmambetov.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • The first-person live-action shooter Hardcore Henry hit movies last weekend in a blaze of buzz hailing the film as a new cinematic genre for Generation Xbox - but sharply dividing critics.

Audiences see the entire Russian- American film through the protagonist's eyes, a perspective most prevalent in video games such as Halo and Call Of Duty.

"Action cinema has always thrived when it captured the sensation of participating in dangerous situations that most people would much rather avoid in real life," said first-time director Ilya Naishuller.

"The goal with Hardcore Henry was to push it a step further, to put the audience right into the body of the protagonist, to have them experience the primal, exhilarating feeling that we usually view from a much safer distance."

The first-person device is not new. Audiences have seen from the perspective of characters in all manner of action and horror movies, including Predator (1987) and Jaws (1975).

What is new is that the movie uses almost no other kind of camera angle, from its violent opening to its blood-spattered conclusion.

It is the logical conclusion of a decade that has seen Hollywood flirt with gaming franchises such as Tomb Raider and Resident Evil to attract "Generation Xbox", a term popularised by British screenwriter Jamie Russell.

In his 2012 book Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood, Russell argues that Hollywood has been losing the prime movie-going demographic of 18- to 24-year-olds, who are increasingly thinking: "Why watch a movie, when you can live inside one?"

Hardcore Henry, which has been praised for its technical style, first screened at last September's Toronto Film Festival and began its theatrical roll-out worldwide from last Wednesday. It opened on 3,000 screens in the United States over the weekend.

Shot mainly in Moscow, the film opens with its protagonist, Henry, waking up in a laboratory run by his wife Estelle and remembering nothing about who he is.

When the laboratory is broken into and Estelle is kidnapped, Henry and the audience go on a frenzied 90 minutes of first-person action, stunts and gore to get her back.

Henry's face is not shown, apart from one fleeting half-glance near the end, and the character is not assigned to an actor in the credits.

Hardcore Henry grew from a first-person music video made by Naishuller for his punk band Biting Elbows that became a viral sensation, attracting more than 120 million views on video-sharing sites.

Film-maker Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, 2008; and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 2012), persuaded Naishuller to turn his concept into a feature film.

"I admired Ilya's daring, creative spirit. There are three major factors that draw me to a project - originality, boldness and an interesting concept," said Bekmambetov.

In front of the GoPro camera for much of the running time is South African actor Sharlto Copley - who played lead roles in a string of hits including District 9 (2009) and Maleficent (2014) - as Henry's mentor who guides him through a series of increasingly deadly assignments.

Haley Bennett appears as Henry's wife, while Tim Roth makes a brief appearance as his father.

The movie has been touted as a potential game-changer to rival CGI (introduced in Westworld, 1973), the "steadicam" (1980's The Shining) or slow-mo Bullet Time (the 1990s The Matrix trilogy).

"If Hardcore Henry succeeds, then Naishuller's technique could go from being greeted as a gimmick to zeitgeist transformative film- making that disrupts traditional notions of the movie-going experience," said Mr Ross Lincoln, a critic for film website Deadline Hollywood.

The New York Post made the wry observation in its one-star review that the film had "precisely replicated the experience of watching someone else play a video game".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline 'Hardcore Henry is like watching a video game'. Subscribe