Thoughts On: Hardcore Henry
A man is brought to life as a half-human, half-cyborg with a mission of vengeance.
I finally saw this film after a long while of wanting to and… YES!! We all know it as the experimental, full POV, action/game thing. And for that reason alone I was more than interested in seeing it. Some like to disregard these kind of films which have a movement toward more and more action, but I say bring it on. But, we’ll get to why later on with spoilers. So, first, we’ll start with a quick review without major plot details and then warm up to the crux of the essay. All reviews I can remember of this say that there is too much action, not much character and that it gets tiresome. I can kind of see why some would say this, but don’t understand it. I completely disagree with any criticism toward the pacing of action. There is a lot and it is constant, but it rises nicely. Why I think this links back, for me, to watching older films. When you watch the likes of The Kid, Metropolis, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Rear Window, The Apartment, even Psycho, as a person raised on films post-Star Wars you’re liable to get bored. This is because films were paced differently. In my opinion this is a trivial thing to critique. Why? It’s like saying you won’t watch black and white films just because you’re used to colour. Or you don’t watch old films because they talk differently or have a different style of acting. Whilst I suppose these are valid enough reasons to stay away, they aren’t huge things, they don’t stop a good story being told. You get used to them, you acclimatise. And I know it’ll be weird saying this, but because I can sit through older pictures, be lost in the likes of Lynch, Tarkovsky or Polankski’s Repulsion, I was well prepared for this. With those films you are locked into a simple premise. Casablanca does have action, romance, and so on, but it’s mainly a simple drama. You can say the same for most films listed. They stick to one central idea. With Star Wars came masses of action, adventure, comedy, romance, sci-fi, drama… and that’s great, it takes astounding skill to conglomerate multitudinous elements or combine genres, which is what Lucas did perfectly, but that’s just one way of making a film. And that’s my main point. There are many ways of making films. People love to go into them thinking they are suppose to be these set things, that they are just for them: they want to have character arcs work certain ways, they want certain beats, certain scenes (we all know what fan service is, right?). Whilst this is fine, sometimes if we sit back and let a director, writer, creator, just say ‘I’ve got something to show you, just watch’ then we might learn something, experience not just one new film, but give many creators the guts to try something else original. This links into Hollywood and the whole film industry. They are not a big machine that want to ruin our lives, and make us dumb. (For the most part). They are clowns willing to do whatever tricks they have to do for you to give them money. I know that sounds a bit horrible, but I’m a bit of a clown too, we all are, why do you think I’m writing this? The last thing I want to say is to do with Tarantino and The Hateful 8. Many people didn’t like this film, or were surprised by it because it was so confined and so dialogue driven. Many even called the film self-indulgent, especially with the 70mm and so on. In my opinion, the film for a lot of people just wasn’t what they wanted it to be. Again, valid criticism, but at the same time, these people need to calm down. The worst thing about calling a film self-indulgent is that you inherently look self-indulgent and self-important in saying so. Not a terrible thing, we all do it, but… I don’t know. My point merely is that maybe we shouldn’t assume all films are made for us. That’s exactly why I never saw Twilight. It’s not for me. It knows this and it doesn’t need my feedback, let alone my criticism.
Anyway, whilst Hardcore Henry is a great film, that, no matter who you are, you should go see just to experience something new, maybe form some new opinions (which I think is always an exciting process), it’s not perfect. This isn’t a massive critique though as it all comes down to characteristics of action as a genre. What I’m talking about is acting and dialogue. There’s a good performance given by Sharlto Copley, but it’s not indefatigable–not great word choice. His performance isn’t completely solid. There are some great parts, and overall his character really grows on you, but nonetheless I know his performance isn’t to the standard that it was in something like District 9. All other performances, except for Henry’s (who’s O.S), were ranging from ok to substandard. The worst came with the lead bad guy who was just a cartoon. I think the main problems with acting though came with the accents and writing. The accents just don’t play well to the ear and the writing is, in the action genre fashion, quick, quippy, trying to be cool, but quite often just a bit… off. The one liners are much like un-polished jokes. Most of them are just that to be honest. But they also lack a beat to them, they don’t flow (in writing and in recital). To understand what I mean by this just look at Shakespeare. I personally don’t enjoy his work and was bored to sleep by the 1996 version of Hamlet, but Shakespeare made plays out of poetry. To my highly uneducated mind and ear (in respect to the history of literature) Shakespeare’s work, as primarily represented by Hamlet 1996, is so smooth you just have no idea what on Earth who is saying. The poetic beat, rhythm and tone melt in the ear like butter on a hot pan, but to the point of incomprehensibility – for me at least. Bad dialogue however doesn’t work because the butter doesn’t melt. It’s like someone jamming a frozen stick of it into the side of your head, trying to scratch out brain cells and make you sneeze grey matter. Not fun. I don’t know why I’m so fixated with butter in ears, but the point is that there is no musicality, there is no natural rhythm, to the speech patterns, which results in bad dialogue. Ok, so there’s one more point I want to make before flowing into what we can learn and understand from and with this film (with spoilers – probably). So, next we come to the editing. This was clearly an incredibly hard task to pull off, and whilst it was done very well, I have some questions. There are many glitches and blips as Henry fights and acclimatises. This kind of editing is character driven. But, there are also non-character driven jump cuts that I didn’t exactly understand. By this I mean in chase scenes where to keep the action flowing you’d jump forward in time, which for a second made me assume something was going wrong, but ended up just being a sacrifice of sense and continuity to ensure pacing. So, that’s understandable. What is also understandable is the shot lengths. This didn’t try to be Birdman even though it was justified in being so (because of the whole POV thing). But, there were sequences that, like Birdman, were supposed to seem to be done in one shot. Such would be an impossibility to do with the amount of stunt work in play here and so there are cuts, and so it’s the editor’s responsibility to sew everything together and make it seem seamless. There are however quite a few moments in which this doesn’t work that well. This contributes to my next point, but before that, the previous criticisms with editing confuse mostly in terms of story. There are apparent time limits that Henry must keep to (especially in the beginning) which are little ambiguous but become questionable with simple cuts between scenes and places. We have no idea how long it took to travel the distances, despite the time factor being very important, and so we’re left feeling a little duped – not sure whether it’s a sin or not.
The last review-ish thing we’ll talk about is the actual use of POV. This is a brilliant technique, an exciting way to tell a story, but maybe not the best (yet). There were points where I felt a little like: ‘wouldn’t that be great to see in 3rd person?’. However, this is a weak critique because if I wanted to see this I can just watch The Raid. This movie tells us it’s going to be in full POV and so, why not just accept it? That said, there is inherent camera shaking with this technique. You can understand this with the rig they used:
This all was to play homage to games. Now, I know next to nothing about gaming and so on. I used to play Halo quite a bit a long while ago, but not any more. In playing a lot of games you will probably see the film in a different light to others. I came across a Forbes article that made this clear, saying there are many elements, such as the British guy, the sniper, the hippy, the locations, the bad guys, that all come directly from games. I’m not sure if this would be seen as a critique or just something cool, but to me, the gamer elements of the film aren’t entirely cinematic. This is what makes the film very interesting though. It takes a small cinematic technique and exploits it until it’s something alien. You could argue that that’s what Eisenstein and others did with the cut. They created the montage in a way you couldn’t imagine years before. It’s with excess and exploitation that they created a philosophy, a new cinematic technique. It probably started off as something not traditionally cinematic, but it caught on. Just ask Avildsen and Stallone; look at Rocky. In this sense, Hardcore Henry maybe implies a new cinematic future, maybe a new genre of films. But before that can happen a few issues need to be addressed. We haven’t the technology to make this work properly, and this links into why some may feel the concept of the film is tiresome. The main issue with Hardcore Henry is that it is not a game, it is not immersive enough. This means that the shaking of the camera sometimes only confuses. What is happening in our minds here is that we have no idea about NOT what’s going on IN the film, but what’s going on ON the screen. Shaky cam and other camera moves such a swirling, fast pans and cuts when done well confuse the eye, but keep you locked onto the film. Just look at Irreversible here. The camera movement is insane, and whilst you don’t always know where you are, you still question, you are lost in the image and wait for it. With Hardcore Henry because there is POV and a lot of movement we get confused in this manner, but are also taken out of the film. This all comes down to video games. We can play video games for hours on end with the same kind of things on our screens, but follow along, because we are in control. We can build a sense of our surroundings with the controller in our hands. You cannot do this in a film. The control is completely out of your hands and so you don’t have any spatial awareness, moreover, you don’t know what is coming next – and all because you want to control what is coming next.
This is exactly why I had the impulse in the back of my mind of wanting to see some action in 3rd person. You want to have a sense of proxemics and what is going on around you. Without this you are emotionally and pragmatically sucked out of the film. To solves this issue, this possible genre of cinema will have to become a lot more sensory. Technology of this kind sort of exists nowadays with 4D cinema (things like D-BOX) but is not wide spread and is very time consuming for providers, making it quite expensive. I won’t pretend to be an engineer or have any solutions to this problem, but after everyone makes the interactive VR sex dolls, I think better technology will move into the cinemas and then into our homes. This won’t be like 3D though. 3D is a little useless, it wasn’t much of a revolution, but it was cool. If Hardcore Henry is to give birth to a new genre, filmmakers will have to make us spatially aware like we are in games, but also be comfortable with the lack of control we have. This may mean moving seats, it may mean jackets, sensors, lights, water, helmets… I don’t know. But, and this is where you recognise that I write sci-fi (just know I’m not high)… to solve the issue, maybe we don’t need suits, helmets, water and so on. This will be controversial, but maybe the experience could be chemically induced. Yeah, I said it, drugs. I’m not talking about munching on some edibles and then seeing 2001 though. I’m talking about some kind of chemical drink, pill or something that would work with a script. Is that not insane!? If they could take over our sense of balance, of spatial awareness, to make us feel weightless when Henry jumps out of a window, or out of a plane, we would actually feel like we’re flying. Imagine this was all timed perfectly! Actually, forget that! Imagine if the drugs could literally take over ALL of our senses. We could forget VR. IMAGINE WE HAD A MOVIE IN A PILL! It would take over your sense of smell, touch, balance, sound, taste, VISION! We’d be hallucinating a movie. How insane would that be!? Is that not the future? Forget wires, forget waves, go into the mind. Legalise drugs, focus scientific testing on not just pharmaceuticals, but psychedelics and then figure out a way to write a movie with it. Would that not change the world? That’s like 10 steps further than The Matrix though. Damn… I call dibs by the way. That’s my idea. Ok… you can have it, but just remember where it came from. Before moving on, I just want to reinstate that, no, I’m not on drugs as I write this. Believe me or not, it’s true. Anyway…
You saw, it spoilers. What I want to talk about next is the creativity of the action. The ending to me was just insane in the best way possible. I mean… he chopped a guy’s head off with his optic cord! WHAT!? That’s fucking badass. It was well deserved too. This brings up an interesting idea of what separates action from horror. There’s a lot of blood and guts in this movie, but it’s all in good fun. However, if you quantifiably compared this with The Exorcist with the amount of blood spilled, it almost makes no sense that it’s not a horror. I’m pretty sure it even beats out The Shining in terms of blood spilled. But to makes sense of this we have to look at a few things. Action is all about showing all you can. There’s no need to imply. Horror is most effective when you don’t see the monster, when the slashing, blood and guts aren’t fixated on. Also, atmosphere is a huge element. In horror you are supposed to feel bad about seeing blood. It’s ineffectual (especially for the bad guys) in action. This raises further questions though of why our hero, Henry, is an implied figure. Why is good implied in action, but bad implied in horror? I think the answer to this lies in two famous ideas of what a hero and a monster is. They are both us. Monsters represent the worst sides of humanity in terms of cannibalism, murder, rape, violence (a myriad of other psychological intricacies). Heroes represent the best side of us, the self-sacrificing, brave and strong. To make these elements ambiguous allows us to slot ourselves into their position. I’ve talked about this before (as have many others) but action heroes like Keanu Reeves are apparently bad actors, but great heroes because they are shells, skins which we can walk in. This is why, despite back story and the ‘wife’ obviously being a set-up in Hardcore Henry, I still wanted him to win. Granted I didn’t love his character, but I really liked him. And in that, I also have to say that the film really grew on me. The acting and editing choices took me out a little in the beginning, but I soon accepted it and sunk right in, and by the end I really liked Copely’s character(s). But, to return to horror again, there’s another less senical comparison to be made. We’ll look at A Serbian Film here. This isn’t a great film, but I guess it’s not too bad either. What’s wrong with it is that it’s ridiculous, I mean it ends with a literal skull fuck. The main guy jams him rock solid erection through a guy’s eye and into his brain, hence (an quite obviously) killing him. How is this different from Henry using his optic cord to split someone’s head in half? Better still, Stallone breaking arms, necks, heads? Maybe you could say it’s linked to good and bad and having fun, but I’m not too sure. Tell me what you think in the comments. This is all a tangent though, what I want to talk about is the beauty in action. This is an idea that threads backwards throughout the talk. It’s because of the shaky cam, movement, stunt work and so on that this film works on many levels (not all, but, as said, it is a great film). Many people don’t understand why shaky cam and rising action, with insane set-pieces appeals. This is what I want to get into and what Hardcore Henry kind of teaches us.
Action is like music. I’m talking about all action here. All movement has rhythm, all sound, anything that can be recepted by the mind has a pattern: a beat. In a film everything that is caught in the frame amounts to a symphony we call cinema. Instead of guitars, voices, pianos, violins, drums, we get colour, texture, movement, sound, composition, acting… a whole load of things. Each element is like an instrument. In this respect you can see movie genres in the same way you do music genres. In rock there’s emphasis on guitar just like in horror there is a focus on atmosphere as created by camera movement (what it shows and doesn’t). Just like in pop there is a focus on the voice and chorus, there is a focus on acting in dramas. Just like in rap there is a focus on lyrics, there is a focus on world creating in fantasy. Just like there’s a focus on drums in metal, there’s a focus on physical acting (fighting) in action. There are many other examples I could give, but, in short, action is like metal, but on top of this, metal is very similar to classical music. Metal and classical music are linked by the way you listen to it. With someone like Vivaldi you are hearing the layers of violins, other strings that all coalescence, merge, excite one another in a fantastical flurry. This isn’t entertaining to some as it’s too much; they just don’t want to follow it. And thus, kids like to say classical is boring – they just haven’t the patience to listen to the layers. In the exact same respect, metal needs your attention. You have to pick apart the drums, the guitars, the bass, the voice otherwise it all merges into a destructive mess you don’t want to hear, but, when you do listen through the layers, find a line through a song, pin-pointing it’s intricate details, it’s exhilarating. The key difference between metal and classical is the emotions they convey, otherwise they are more or less the same thing. I could talk about that for ages though, so let’s move on. Action is much like classical as it has the same idea of layers, the numerous elements coalescing. It’s more like metal though because of the aggressive emotions it gives off. So, with action’s concentration on movement, both by the camera and in camera, we are seeing a musical performance something like a dance. This is why I like action so much. It has nothing to do with violence, but aggression. You are allowed to feel malicious, whilst revelling in the awe of arts. Like I said, fighting is like dancing, but with contact and consequence. People love to look down on metal fans just like UFC fans because of this concentration on aggression. But metal is just an intensified version of classical, just like UFC is a intensified version of martial arts that are generally thought of as defensive or peaceful. When you are watching films with action elements in them, what you are in awe of is a culmination of intricate movements that are just like intricate notes in a composition, or the big beats like a huge hit or pivotal punch. This is why people love to see fights both on the big screen, small screen and in real life. For me personally, this is a sensory exercise. I love watching action and listening to metal as it fine-tunes my sense of sight, balance and sound. So, I don’t know, maybe it’s not such a base a destructive thing to like…
All in all, Hardcore Henry is a great film with a few flaws. The best way to watch it is searching for the intricacies of its action. In fact, watch all action films this way. Don’t throw popcorn in your face, study movement both of the fighters and of the camera, atmosphere and tone. When you do this you really fall into the film, you immerse yourself – giving reason as to why Jackie Chan is one of the greatest actors of all time and The Raid is one of the greatest films of all time. Whilst there is this awesome element to Hardcore Henry, there isn’t a sensory lock-down, meaning you can’t focus or immerse yourself all the time. But, inside this lies a problem that artists and (maybe) scientist alike may tackle one day to produce something fucking amazing. A future to look forward to, huh?
Pulp Fiction – Immersive Moments
Bridge Of Spies – Show Ya Dick!!