Warning: This article will reveal plot twists in the movie Hardcore Henry. The plot is so flimsy, however, that this may not be a very grievous transgression.
An experimental Russian film as released in theaters last weekend, and while the phrase “experimental Russian film” usually has my oblique-art-loving heart all aflutter (could it be a re-release of a Tarkovsky film? Could it, could it?), this time around, there was little reason to celebrate. The film was Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry, an all-action spectacular saddled with the gimmick of being filmed entirely from the protagonist’s POV; the entire film looked as if it was filmed from within Henry’s eyeballs. This was achieved by strapping GoPro cameras to the heads of stunt people and having them do some pretty spectacular (and spectacularly violent) things.
The visual precedent is, of course, lifted wholesale from a generation of video games. Hardcore Henry is, more or less, a first person shooter, complete with a mute protagonist and no sufficient reason for violence, only without the controller. The amount of dramatic depth to this film wouldn’t fill an Altoids tin, but you won’t notice so much, as your brain will be effectively pummeled and trammeled into a non-thinking stupor pretty early into the proceedings.
The secondary gimmick to Hardcore Henry is that it’s insanely violent. The opening credits are an artful montage of knives being jabbed into necks in slow motion, fists knocking out teeth, and bullets ripping through people’s brains. There is a great deal of extreme violence and gore on display (someone gets their hand ripped in half lengthwise!), which will either repel or thrill you, depending on your disposition.
A tertiary gimmick, however, and perhaps the most distressing element of the film, is its unbearably casual misogyny. The meaningless violence can be handled by those with strong stomachs and a propensity toward blood. The hatred of women, however, may be less easy to stomach. Unless you are the film’s core audience, in which case, we have deeper problems to contend with.
Hardcore Henry, like many of the recent video games it is visually quoting, thinks very little of women. The bulk of the female characters we see are, naturally, prostitutes. And not only prostitutes, but hot-to-trot fantasy vixens who seem a little too eager to grope and fondle our hero. Henry stumbles into the middle of an orgy, and the women – all dressed in identical wigs, ensuring they are indistinguishable – immediately begin cooing over him and pawing at him. This is after Henry has been beaten into a bloody pulp. I’ve never understood the appeal of a hot woman groping at a bloodied mass of a man, but it must be doing something for someone; I’ve seen it in films too often to let it go unacknowledged.
But including fantasy hooker women as a gift for a macho hero is, perhaps sadly to say, par for the course with many action films. The hookers are but a twinge. Something to get the misogyny detector pinging. The real alarm will go off later.
Henry, you see, is motivated to action by his sexy blonde wife Estelle (Haley Bennett). She has recently rebuilt him, in the style of the Six Million Dollar Man, to be a mute, bionic, Frankensteinian killbot. He also has no memory of her; prior to the film, Henry was more or less killed and maimed beyond recognition, and suffers from amnesia as a result. He is now again operational, and she appears from time to time to give him instructions, and to be rescued from the film’s villain.
So Henry is doing it for love, or at least the love he is assured he once felt. That love, we will learn, can easily be flipped to hatred.
It will eventually be revealed that Estelle has actually been in league with the villain this whole time, and that the two of them were manipulating Henry from the start. Henry, in a defiant final act, moves to murder Estelle. “How could you do this to me?” she asks. Henry smears blood on the wall, and then draws the letters “E.Z.” in it with his finger. The he pushes her from a plane. My hero.
There is so much hatred toward women in this final scene, it’s almost amazing. Not only are we treated to the ever-offensive “manipulative shrew” stereotype (remember, fellas: all women are liars and cheaters who use their pretty eyes and rockin’ knockers to get you to do stuff), but Henry’s lack of feeling toward his female victim moves beyond mere hatred into something even more terrifying: casual hatred.
Hardcore Henry, you see, seems to be tapping into – and giving validation to – the deep-seated bro-prositive anti-women mindset seen so often in mainstream video games. Let’s ogle women when they’re naked, and wait for the moment they betray us so that we may kill them. Because, in the mind of Hardcore Henry, that’s all women are good for: masturbation tools and murder victims. Even some of the sex objects are casually offed. If Henry was allowed to speak, we may get some more perspective. We may hear how he feels about the violence he is doing. But nothing doing. Henry’s only motivation is violence for its own sake, and his misogyny is merely a casual byproduct of masculine action.[N.B. There are two women of agency in Hardcore Henry. They are named Katya the Dominatrix, and Olga the Dominatrix. They both wield swords and seem as capable as our hero. I put it to you that women holding weapons – especially phallic ones – are not so much an attempt to make women stronger as they are yet another erotic visual cue for men who like “kick-ass” women.]
We live in a world where giant action films are released regularly, and we, as audience members, have to sit through wave after wave of constant masculine validation. Punches and kicks and machismo. There is a subset of action fans, however, that seem to readily accept misogyny as a part of masculinity. Women are not welcome here. Unless they’re hot or we can kill them. Hardcore Henry doesn’t enrich its women, or even acknowledge them as human. Its gimmicks are meant to be the ultimate in action thrill, but by folding in the casual misogyny of bland, violent, meaningless ultra-action, we’re revealing an ease of hate that should leave us chilled.
To strike a balance, I would posit a sequel called Hardcore Henrietta. Flip the genders. The hatred would suddenly become all the more transparent.