by Patrick Bromley
Is the goal of action cinema to look and function just like a video game? It is a criticism that has become more prevalent over the last 10 or 15 years as more and more action blockbusters are strung together with giant set pieces driven by pre vis and CGI spectacle. The language of games has been steadily creeping into action cinema, from the non-corporeal fight scenes of Van Helsing to the climax of Doom, a movie based on a first-person shooter video game that actually turns into a first-person shooter movie. As narrative storytelling dies off in the interest of easily understood action that can be digested by global audiences regardless of their native language, even Hollywood FX blockbuster plots are degrading into a series of boss levels. Video games generate about $100 billion dollars in revenue each year, which means Hollywood wants to pay attention and borrow what they can to appeal to that all-important 15-year old boy demographic -- the audience for whom seemingly all big movies are made.
But why? Why do we want our movies to resemble video games? I understand trying to make games more like movies, a phenomenon that continues to grow with improvements in graphics, technology and long-form storytelling. I don't play games myself, but I understand the appeal here: it's like a movie in which we get to participate. We become a character, driving the story with our own choices. Turning movies into video games eliminates the major appeal of gaming: the opportunity to participate. The films become the equivalent of watching someone else play a game for 90 minutes. I don't understand the fun in that. What's worse is that what once made movies special -- their ability to tell a story, to engage us on an emotional level -- is sacrificed in the interest of making us spectators during someone else's gameplay. We end up with the worst versions of both art forms.
Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a #HeavyAction column about Crank in which I suggested that the movie pushed the visual language of action films in new directions for better and for worse. Well, here comes Hardcore Henry to call me a gay pussy and take all my lunch money. Here is a movie that reduces the action genre to nothing but speed and violence. It is an incredible technical achievement and almost nothing else. To call it an "assault on the senses" would be like calling a German Shepherd that's high on mescaline and standing on top of you humping your face an "assault on the senses." Hardcore Henry doesn't want to entertain you. Hardcore Henry wants to fuck your face.
There's no denying how impressive the movie is on a technical level. Filmed by multiple cameramen and stuntmen on GoPro rigs attached to their heads, Hardcore Henry pulls off shots that will leave you fucking baffled as to how it was achieved without many, many actual deaths. There is a foot chase about halfway through the movie that seems like one of the most dangerous things ever put on screen. Sure, it's made difficult to watch by virtue of the shaky photography (the AMC theater at which I saw the movie had warning signs posted at the ticket window), but it's impressive all the same. The problem I have with Hardcore Henry is that, to paraphrase the words of Patton Oswalt, it's all about can and not at all about should.
The truth is that while it aggressively made me feel bad about the world and enjoying action movies, I'm glad that Hardcore Henry exists. It was going to happen sooner or later, and if it has to happen I can take solace in the fact that a bunch of truly insane Russians (including producer Timur Bekmambetov) were the ones to pull it off. My hope, however, is that it is an exception and not the rule. In trying to make a movie that closely resembles a video game, the filmmakers have proven that video games make for bad movies. It's also an effective refutation of any critics of action movies who blindly reduce the genre to its most basic elements, because this movie proves that good action films have stories and characters worth caring about, simply as they may be. This one doesn't. It just points guns at things and shoots them. I get what it's going for and everything, but seeing Hardcore Henry made me question if I even like movies anymore.
Got an action movie you'd like to see discussed in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below!