Hardcore Henry underperforms

Director Ilya Naishuller admits that the point-of-view technique makes it a "really weird film"

In Hardcore Henry, stuntmen wearing GoPro cameras stand in for the lead character and filmgoers see everything from their perspectives.
In Hardcore Henry, stuntmen wearing GoPro cameras stand in for the lead character and filmgoers see everything from their perspectives.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

A darling of the festival circuit, Hardcore Henry - a movie shot entirely from the first-person point of view (POV) - is not quite living up to the early buzz hailing this technique as the next big thing in the action genre.

Made to look like a first-person shooter video game such as Call Of Duty or Halo, the movie - which is in Singapore cinemas now - underperformed at the American box office last week, debuting in fifth place and collecting only US$5 million (S$6.7 million) during its opening weekend.

Speaking to The Straits Times recently, its director, Russian film- maker Ilya Naishuller, is the first to admit this is a "really weird film" which may not have the most obvious appeal. And the whole idea behind it is so ground-breaking that he views the project as "research and development" rather than traditional film-making.

Naishuller, 30, a Moscow film- school dropout, cut his teeth making first-person POV music videos for his punk band Biting Elbows, which went viral and caught the attention of Russian film-maker Timur Bekmambetov, who directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012).

"He said, 'Let's do a feature based on this POV concept. I'll produce, you'll direct. And I was like, 'No, it's a gimmick, I love it for five minutes but it's not going to work for a 90-minute film.'"

But Bekmambetov persisted.

For me, this film is a combination of a roller-coaster ride, a movie, a video game and a rock concert.

ACTOR SHARLTO COPLEY who stars in Hardcore Henry

With financing from him and "some really rich people" in their native Russia, Naishuller went on to make the movie about an amnesiac cyborg on a mission to rescue his wife. It stars District 9 (2009) actor Sharlto Copley, and costs a relatively modest US$10 million.

Because few films have been shot this way, he and the crew - including a dozen GoPro-camera-wearing stuntmen who stood in for Henry and filmgoers see everything from their perspectives - had to make it up as they went along, initially with somewhat disastrous results.

"But there were glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel, and some performances and action shots that I liked," says Naishuller.

He must have thought the risk had paid off at the Toronto International Film Festival last September - the movie was a breakout hit, sparking a bidding war before it was acquired for US$10 million by STX Entertainment, a movie studio.

The gamers in the audience at the recent SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, and at a press screening in Los Angeles last month, seemed to embrace and love it - whooping in delight as Henry demonstrates his proficiency as a killing machine.

But as the body count rises, some fans and critics said that they felt bored with the threadbare plot and characters; the shaky camera-work can also make some people feel nauseated.

In response, Naishuller says: "We're nowhere as shaky as 10 Cloverfield Lane or The Blair Witch Project." He was referring to the recent mystery film by director Dan Trachtenberg and the 1999 horror hit.

South African actor Copley, 42, says he knew this was a risky project when he signed on to play Jimmy, who helps Henry in his mission but keeps getting killed and reappearing, just like an avatar in a video game.

But he agreed to do it because he felt "an immediate connection" with Naishuller and the Russian crew, whose guerilla film-making approach and drive reminded him of his own beginnings as a producer and actor in South Africa.

He says: "The actual driving force behind this for me was creating a cinematic experience for an audience. This feels like an opportunity to do some sort of bridge between film and virtual reality.

"For me, this film is a combination of a roller-coaster ride, a movie, a video game and a rock concert. In the audiences we have watched this with, it's been a very social event. This is something you go to see with your friends and have this crazy experience that's going to scare some of you."

Asked if he thinks the POV technique could be deployed to make a movie in a different genre, Naishuller says he was doubtful of this at first, but films such as the 2009 French drama Enter The Void - shot from the first-person perspective - show that it can be done.

Even, perhaps, he adds, "a romantic comedy".

"I think my first instinct was to say no, it's only good for action and not anything else. But my first instinct was that this couldn't be made into a 90-minute action film either. So I think if you gave me a week, I could come back to you with a script outline for something that could be fantastic in that genre."

•Hardcore Henry is showing in Singapore cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Hardcore Henry underperforms'. Subscribe