Maybe it’s the emotional and physical toll that Covid brought my way last year, but the excitement over watching the trailer for the Bob Odenkirk one-man action comedy, Nobody, was the type that I hadn’t experienced in months. A year chock-full of delays and movie theaters becoming temporarily obsolete killed much of the joy that I normally experienced when watching the trailer of an upcoming film that I was looking forward to.
Maybe it’s the stylized presentation of Odenkirk rhythmically striking dudes on a bus to the trailer’s music or the small snippets of John Wick-style action that made me feel a sense of renewed joy, but Nobody became the trailer I kept coming back to on YouTube even with the wealth of shows and movies available on streaming. Maybe it’s the excitement over potentially watching this film in a movie theater, in spite of how things are.
But whatever it was before, that excitement only grew when I decided to look up additional information on Nobody and came across an unexpected surprise in the form of the film’s director, Ilya Naishuller. Ilya, the founder of the Russian indie rock band Biting Elbows, plays double duty as a musician and an action filmmaker, going as far as composing the score for his previous directorial feature, as well as taking over screenwriting duties.
What was his last feature film, to be exact? A little POV action flick called Hardcore Henry.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been just about 6 years since Naishuller took up directorial duties for his feature film debut and helped craft a balls-to-the-wall action flick in a POV presentation. Playing out like a mission from a first-person action game, Hardcore Henry presented itself as a strange amalgamation of a found footage film and Crank: High Voltage.
Much of the promotional material hyped it up as a first-person action adventure told through the character’s eyes, letting us go on a wild goose chase involving a man with artificial limbs trying to save his kidnapped wife. From the first moment of the film to the finale, the story is shown purely through his eyes, including when this mission becomes complicated with hordes of mercenaries attempting to kill him in the process. On its own, Hardcore Henry’s story is painfully cliched, but the unique presentation helps transform the narrative into what is essentially a movie adaptation of a video game that technically doesn’t exist.
It’s such a high concept that the thought of it failing to resonate with audiences seems infallible, especially with a cast of well-known actors like Sharlto Copley, Haley Bennett, Danila Kozlovsky, and Tim Roth rounding out the small-scale, but high impact revenge tale. It’s such an unusual concept to use a literal first-person point of view for a John Wick-style bloodbath that it’s crazy enough to succeed on paper.
But upon release, the results didn’t match expectations, grossing only about $16 million worldwide on a $5 million budget. That doesn’t seem like a damaging loss until the promotional and acquisition costs factored on top of the production budget, officially deeming Hardcore Henry a box-office bomb. Its mixed reception with audiences and critics didn’t help either, promptly killing the chances of word of mouth saving the film’s profit margin.
Criticisms were mainly lobbed at Hardcore Henry’s lack of a compelling story, which isn’t exactly wrong in my eyes. The action set pieces and otherworldly stunt work seemed to be the intended focus for Ilya and the rest of the crew rather than the depth of its simple revenge narrative. A man sees his wife kidnapped and is determined to find her and wreak hell on anyone opposing him. It’s short and simple, to a fault.
But the most interesting criticism came with the POV presentation itself. Much was made about the film’s decision to go down this route when it technically had no reason to. There exists a plot thread involving Henry’s eyes broadcasting to the main villain’s monitors in an effort to track him, but there exists little-to-no reason for the film to give us the story told solely through one character’s eyes other than for the sake of giving the audience a set of neat and wacky visuals.
In short, Hardcore Henry is largely considered a gimmick film.
On purely technical terms, this is correct. The film’s appeal comes down to its POV presentation and seeing an action film play out LITERALLY before your very eyes. It’s not going to win over many audience members on the fence with promises of a tight and complex narrative. But what I ask is why is such a mode of filmmaking considered a gimmick? Hardcore Henry is far from the only film to use this technique. Furthermore, many of the stories that fall under this umbrella have received similar criticisms regarding the POV; it’s all a “gimmick” with no substance to make up for fatal narrative flaws.
If so, this is a gimmick that has survived in the world of filmed stories since the early 1900s. The point-of-view shot, or subjective camera shot as it’s sometimes referred to, has been used as early as 1901 with the famous British comedy short, The Big Swallow. Depicting a photographer inching closer to the subject of his camera before being swallowed whole, the point-of-view shot demonstrated that even early film equipment was capable of blurring the line between reality and fiction.
In many ways, merging reality and fiction is one of the main purposes behind the point-of-view shot. Seeing a film directly through a character’s eyes aims to put the audience in said character’s shoes in a form of heightened voyeurism. The grittiness of film noir becomes ever so closer to our reality in something like the 1947 film, Lady in the Lake, which uses the point-of-view shot for the whole story, save for a couple of scenes.
Strangely enough, Lady in the Lake also flopped at the box office, with critics leveling similar accusations of the perspective shots being nothing more than a cheap gimmick. It’s no shock that Hardcore Henry pays homage to its stylistic ancestor with a poster of the film making a cameo. Even though the two films are radically different in terms of story and tone and era, they both aimed to give audiences a level of immersion unique to film with mixed results.
The point is that perspective shots are in fact nothing new, though they are significantly scarce in comparison to traditional third-person presentation. Audiences have been conditioned to favor the third person in an effort to accustom ourselves to the characters’ faces. Imagination plays a relatively minor part in this compared to our minds running wild in trying to visualize a character we read about in a book.
Even in the examples I mentioned and the various others that followed in their footsteps in their own respective ways, such as Maniac, Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and practically a large majority of found footage films, there was always some way to solidify the line between a full-blown first-person perspective and a third person shot depicting a singular perspective by making sure that we got a look at the actors’ faces.
Hardcore Henry differs in that apart from two faint glimpses, we do not see Henry’s face for the whole film. Everything is seen through Henry’s eyes, whether it’s his banter with Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy or when he’s using the power of a van explosion to propel himself onto a motorbike to chase another van. The only thing left relatively up to our imaginations is what Henry looks like. Henry, in essence, is an example of a stone solid audience character, allowing us to project whatever type of image that pops into our heads as our interpretation of what he looks like.
The film is not unlike that of a video game and the gaming industry as a whole has come a long way into embracing the first-person perspective. The shooters of old and new and the wildly popular first-person horror wave have made perspective shots a priority, allowing players to immerse themselves within the story in a manner that has become distinct from the immersion offered by film and television. The Nintendo Wii being a console based solely on that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Hardcore Henry is a film that seems to want to meld the video game perspective into a feature film and on that alone, the critique of it being too reliant on a “gimmick” misses the point and importance of its placement within the story. Henry’s personality is basically blank save for some brief moments of sass and it is up to us to envision and imagine whatever comes to mind regarding his character traits. It is a case where the character being an empty shell of nothing reinforces the whole point of the film’s presentation.
But the Russian-American action flick ran with this idea at a point where video games and movies/shows had already started to blend in with each other. Ilya Naishuller first came up with the film concept after he decided to use the perspective shot to create first-person music videos for Biting Elbows’ “The Stampede” back in 2011, following that up with the insanely viral “Bad Motherfucker.”
That same year, the Uncharted series was releasing the third game of a franchise gaining widespread popularity for blending film and video game worlds together. By the time that Hardcore Henry premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, we had been three years removed from the massive success of the cinematic zombie drama known as The Last of Us. More than ever, the lines between film and video games were being scrubbed away at a pace that was growing quicker by the day. So when an action film boasts about its revolutionary and game-like presentation at a time when video games have already evolved past its previous form, we get a film that looks like…well, a gimmick on the surface.
Do I think that Hardcore Henry’s extremely first-person structure is a gimmick? Not at all. It is not a gimmick any more than it was in Lady in the Lake or Maniac or Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. It can no doubt be used as a crutch when nothing else about the film works, but Naishuller’s film has shown itself to be more a victim of bad timing than anything else. “Too little, too late”, as the saying goes. A film that is as technically impressive and daring as this stunt show belongs in the conversation of films that have the tools to flip the film world upside down.
But its unfortunately timed release date has caused it to be sandwiched between films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Fallout: action movies that broke the ceiling for what was possible in the movie genre. Hardcore Henry broke the ceiling through its own method, but it did so at the wrong time, forever deeming it a box office disappointment even if it manages to gain a sizable cult following, which wouldn’t surprise me.
Audiences simply couldn’t connect to something that they felt like they’ve experienced before through video games and other daring action barnburners. Would it have done as well as a 2000s release, stepping ahead of the curve and getting the chance to set an example for how action movies COULD be shot? What about releasing in the 2020s, a perpetually online empire dominated by streaming? It’s hard to tell.
I just hope that anybody who reads this keeps the film in mind when they go to check out Naishuller’s Nobody. Despite the film not being in the crazy POV that Hardcore Henry is in, you will still be watching a film from a director that took a massive risk with setting his film debut in an insane video game-like world. We vote for what we receive from film studios with our wallets and I’ve heard more than my fair share of arguments calling for studios to give us original content to chew on.
With Hardcore Henry being a film lucky enough to exist in the first place, the doors for other filmmakers to experiment with a similar style have been opened. In spite of the film’s lackluster box office performance, the prevalence of guerilla internet filmmaking gives me at least a little bit of hope that energetic and creative filmmakers can take what Naishuller crafted and twist it into something never-before-seen.
Growing up, I never envisioned a violent action-comedy being filmed solely through POV shots, yet here we are talking about how that very film has almost faded from the public consciousness. Truly hilarious, isn’t it?