Video games and films have never really gotten along. Ever since the 1980s, adaptations between mediums have been mostly reviled, from the infamous Atari game based on E.T. to the failed attempt at films based on Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and countless other popular franchises. However, it seems that the two have grown even less compatible as time goes on. Film, as a medium, has started to ignore anything related to video games, having learned from their mistakes, and video games have begun trying to be more like movies, marketing themselves as "cinematic."
Hardcore Henry might be the first attempt I've seen of a film trying to be like a video game, however. It is shot entirely from the title character's perspective, emulating the first-person shooter genre. It thematically explores the same concepts of character-audience connections that video games have been going over for years, the narrative structure is ripped straight from Half-Life 2, an early sequence of Henry being rebuilt seems identical to countless expository video game openings, and there's even a tutorial when a character outright tells Henry how to throw a grenade. Everything about this movie should work brilliantly as an homage, and, for the most part, it does, but there is a consistent issue that lies underneath: it approaches video games with a critical attitude.
That's not to say I am against deconstruction. I am a fan of Watchmen, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and, indeed, Spec Ops: The Line, all of which serve as critiques and subversions of the very genres and mediums within which they exist. However, in Hardcore Henry, there is a fundamental disconnect between the message it's telling through its critical depiction of the damsel in distress as a narrative device, high degree of gore and disturbing violence, and blind obedience to an exposition-spouting side character and the sheer joy it expresses in reveling in the juvenile, framing the aforementioned gore in ridiculous action sequences that seemed designed to feel "cool," placing an important sequence in the middle of a strip club that serves as a stereotypical depiction of the male gaze circa age-12, and letting the tone of the film consistently be that of a high-energy action movie in a way that fails to comment on the message it is clearly trying to convey. Hardcore Henry may be the first film to suffer from ludonarrative dissonance.
As much as this annoys me, however, I can't claim to totally oppose the film. In fact, I kind of love it. Maybe the arthouse attempts at depth fell flat, and the narrative was thinly-written allegory more than an actual motivation for its characters, but the action sequences, which compose the vast majority of this movie, are legitimately spectacular. It's meta-narrative is absolutely fascinating to think about considering its relevance to both films and video games. It makes constant use of the kind of ultra-stylized direction and sheer imagination that I absolutely love in any film. It's incredibly childish and immature, but then so am I.
The impossible thing about Hardcore Henry is recommending it. It is so clearly designed to fit a very specific niche of millennials who have experience playing video games from a young age, have a clear understanding of the medium, at least concerning first-person shooters, and also have a stomach for esoteric arthouse films and deconstructive stories that aim primarily to make the audience feel terrible. If you fit that audience, go watch Hardcore Henry. If not, you should definitely never watch Hardcore Henry.