Sharlto Copley Saves Dopey "Hardcore Henry"

Sci-fi actioner “Hardcore Henry” made a splash at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (under better title “Hardcore”) with its unbroken first-person perspective and zany bloodletting. Something about vicariously impaling a bad guy with a detached wiper blade struck a chord with TIFF attendees, turning an improbable project into an even more improbable $10 million buy for STX Entertainment. But for first-time Russian director Ilya Naishuller, it was just the next logical step towards an accidental movie career.

Based on a hyper-violent music video Naishuller made for his own rock band in 2013, “Hardcore Henry” spends nearly all of its 95 minutes from the perspective of its title character. We’re Henry. At first baldly aping “The Bourne Identity” and then “Crank,” the movie sees a mute Henry wake up in an airship with no self-knowledge but a penchant for combat and a need to intermittently recharge his heart via battery.

After a scientist (Haley Bennett) informs Henry that she’s actually his wife, Estelle, and lovingly attaches a few bionic limbs to his beat-up body, telekinetic villain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) shows up to impart some ridiculous exposition and unleash a few howlingly funny one-liners (this happens throughout). Then, escape! Henry rides an escape pod from the airship onto terra firma, handily dispatching goon after goon until we meet up with the film’s MVP.

That’s Sharlto Copley (“District 9”), playing multiple versions of the same character. As Jimmy, he’s our guardian angel, inexplicably transforming from secret agent to stoner to punk rocker to wheelchair bound sage, sometimes all in the same scene. When his abilities are finally given an explanation, it’s with a bonkers musical number set to Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

Thankfully, Copley is in more of the film than he isn’t, lending some much needed madness to a loose leaf-thin script. Bottling the same kind of weird energy he brought to Joe Carnahan’s “The A-Team” and Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” remake, the South African actor’s performance helps to break up the monotony of the action and make up for the silence of his partner in crime. If only the story were as much fun.

By the time the novelty of the first-person perspective wears out – recalling that John Carpenter did the same thing nearly 40 years ago in the opening sequence of “Halloween” expedites the process – the chase movie template begins to weigh heavily. Most of the action is missing any obvious spark, akin to a metal band chugging away on the same power chord for an hour and a half.

Even worse is the shakiness inherent in the cinematography.

Since the film was shot on a GoPro Hero 3 camera with a custom-made head mount, at least a dozen scenes serve as mini motion sickness machines. Watching a short music video on YouTube is a very different thing from watching a feature on a big screen. Viewers who had trouble with the unsteady visuals of “Cloverfield” or the aforementioned “Bourne” series might need to grab an extra popcorn bucket at the concession stand (read: for puking).

There are other problem areas, too, like a dull techno soundtrack and a deficiency of long takes (seams abound in the editing). And the bulk of the film doesn’t live up to its gleefully malevolent ‘80s music video opening credits.

But a fun performance from Copley and just enough moments of self-reflexive absurdity (see: a brief visit from Elmer Bernstein’s theme for “The Magnificent Seven”) make “Hardcore Henry” an adequate arcade-style brawler with a few nice tricks up its sleeve. Ticket buyers might not feel like the hero the movie wants so badly to make them, but they certainly won’t end up one of Henry’s hapless victims.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: April 8, 2016
Studio: STX Entertainment
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Screenwriter: Ilya Naishuller
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Andrey Dementiev, Dasha Charusa, Sveta Ustinova
MPAA Rating: R (for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use)