JUNE 4, 2016
THE FIRST-PERSON SHOOTER spectacle that is Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry certainly comes at a strange time. Amid US-EU sanctions against Russia, escalating international tensions (Ukraine, Syria, Armenia), and resurgent Cold War rhetoric on all sides, explodes a Russian-American film collaboration claiming to be the first of its POV-stunt-camera kind. While “you,” as the eponymous cyborg Henry, combat the minions of an albino Russian warlord in an attempt to rescue the princess (that is, “your” sex-kitten scientist wife, a painfully embarrassing role executed here by pop sugar Haley Bennett), the vivid Moscow backdrop affords the opportunity for a wild pastiche of overlapping clichés and embraced appropriations. Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans have long been the preferred landscapes for ultraviolence and prostitution in the Western imagination (cf. Slavoj Žižek). Sometimes “the West” projects its brutal fantasies onto Russia; sometimes a willing Russia gleefully seizes on those fantasies and runs parkour with them.
As threadbare as Hardcore Henry’s plot may be, it misses few of the requisite Cold War–era anxieties. An effeminate, if unimaginably powerful, tyrant seeks to take over the world. Akan — whose name is uncomfortably close to Arkan, the real-life Serbian paramilitary warlord indicted by the UN for crimes against humanity during the Bosnian wars — is a bleached and unrecognizable Danila Kozlovsky, an otherwise lovely Russian theater and film actor with several dozen films to his name. For some reason, he is an albino with telekinetic powers, but no matter; he commands inexhaustible armies of Russian fighters, brainwashed cyborg mercenaries, and the equally interchangeable bodies of writhing white-wigged sex workers who afford the usual visual distraction. (The cast credits include Girl in Brothel 1 through 29; no joke.) The film’s sole hope and hero is the invisible Henry, whose eyes we inhabit. An American cowboy 2.0, Henry is so much the strong silent type that he doesn’t have a voice box. Or memories.
Where the Russian and American imaginations come together particular well, it seems, is in gleeful misogyny. The punch line of the entire 90-minute visual stimulation tornado (spoiler alert) is that “you” get to throw “your” lying whore of a wife off a helicopter. (First-time writer and director Naishuller cast his own wife, actress and singer Darya Charusha, in the presumably more enjoyable role of “Katya the Dominatrix,” one of two women who briefly join the orgy of ultraviolence as participants rather than as victims or décor.) The night that I saw the film, some members of the theater audience howled in pleasure at this climactic conjugal finale. Others, blessedly including my own husband, had long ago fallen asleep.
What makes Henry so hardcore is that his resurrection and conversion to cyborgdom has left behind little in the way of human parts; the reimagining of the action film by way of video game likewise retains less of the former than we might expect. The scorn heaped on the movie in the Western press has been notably virulent — if fairly justified — and suggests another kind of distancing projection. Critic after critic has called Hardcore Henry a movie for folks too lazy to play their own video games. (Watching other people play is a thing, and some even make a living from it: the YouTube genre “Let’s Play,” or LP, is comprised mostly of video playthroughs with added player commentary.) For many if not most viewers, however, the first-person perspective gimmick works for about the length of a music video, but not much longer.
As for the claims to technological and cinematic innovation central to the film’s marketing campaign, critics have rightly pointed out that the subjective camera has a long history in 20th-century film. Not least among Hardcore Henry’s precursors is the 1947 American film noir Lady in the Lake, Robert Montgomery’s directorial debut based on Raymond Chandler’s novel with the same name, which was shot entirely from the protagonist’s perspective. (Most viewers miss Hardcore Henry’s explicit nod to Lady in the Lake by way of a conspicuous film poster incongruously decorating a Moscow apartment interior.) Sustained for feature length, the subjective camera appears to be at once visually familiar and emotionally distancing to anyone not an adolescent male.
Therein, I would argue, lies one explanation for the critical virulence in the United States. Just as the Twilight films phenomenon forced us to acknowledge both the appetites of preteen girls and our own resulting distaste, Hardcore Henry’s first-person enforces a subjectivity that leaves many moviegoers anxious and angry. “But I don’t want to torture him with pliers” is not an option here — nor is it possible to forget that many, many audiences do. Why are we so afraid of teenage boys these days? From Gamergate to school shootings, the answer is as glaring as Hardcore Henry’s narrative flaws or lack of character development. What strikes me in review after wittily scathing review is that, at least in the aesthetic realm, adult elites can have their revenge: “your” fantasies are puerile, if frightening, “Henry.”
Naishuller’s cinematic debut met with a dramatically different reception in Russia, where Hardcore (released sans the protagonist’s name) was a popular and critical success. One tempting reading of the difference in reception is that contemporary Russian media culture is less repressed in its misogyny — or, to put it another way, more tolerant and comfortable with Hardcore’s masculinist bender. The single scene sliced by the censors before the film’s Russian theatrical release was one in which Henry prevents three Russian policemen from committing rape. The fact that Naishuller thought to include it at all already suggests that he might be more interesting than reviewers abroad assume.
For all the American and international presences among the cast and production crew, the film is on some level thoroughly Russian. Hardcore has native roots in Moscow and a home audience to whom the sly allusions, from the casting’s inside jokes to the lovingly specific city locales, are profoundly pleasurable. The ensemble of Russian rock, pop, film, and theater stars cast in hilariously atypical roles includes Charusha, who also wrote the music; Naishuller himself; Sergey Shnurov, the lead singer of the rock group Leningrad; and even a cameo by the very highbrow experimental theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov as a tank driver.
Naishuller and company were in turn so dedicated to getting their shots that they took real physical risks and sustained injuries during the filming. Legendary stuntman Sergey Valyaev and actor Andrei Dementiev reputedly shot the spectacular chase scene on Pushkin Bridge without safety cables, feeling that nets and cables ruined the effect. More than one Russian reviewer read the film as an extreme tribute to the city — Moscow as it has certainly never been filmed before.
In his other life, 32-year-old Naishuller is the front man of the indie-punk band Biting Elbows. He caught the eye of Kazakh-Russian mega-producer Timur Bekmambetov with the music video that he directed for the band’s songs “The Stampede” and “Bad Motherfucker.” In one month alone, the video’s stylized POV violence and dark kinetics collected more than 12 million views on YouTube. Bekmambetov, the director and producer of the popular 2004 Russian urban fantasy Night Watch (credited with reviving the ravaged Russian film industry after the breakup of the Soviet Union) as well as crossover Hollywood hits like the 2012 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, reached out to Naishuller to ask if he could pull off the same trick for a feature-length action film. As the story goes, Naishuller initially said no, thought about it, and changed his mind. He didn’t pull it off, dramatically speaking, but it doesn’t matter. Mercenary decision or not, the release of a 90-minute reel of constant choreographic directorial ingenuity has made Naishuller a real name overnight.
It’s all too easy to conjecture that Hardcore speaks particularly well to a generation that grew up with the troubled talent of filmmaker Aleksei Balabanov, the post–Soviet Russian answer to Quentin Tarantino, as well as with Tarantino’s own stylish revenge fantasy films. (When frequent Tarantino actor Tim Roth appears in a flashback as Henry’s father in the only bit of Hardcore filmed in the United States, it’s both disconcerting and not surprising at all.) This is a film for — and by — the generation that came of age either during or just after the economic free-for-all of the 1990s. The disillusionment and cynicism that followed Russia’s “transition to democracy” is too familiar and depressing a story to warrant repeating here; recent statistics on decreasing life expectancy, extreme poverty, and rising suicide rates reflect just how much worse life has become for average, non-elite Russians since the end of state socialism.
As in previous centuries, misery breeds nationalism and its attendant gender politics. Orgies of masculinism abound across all manner of post–Soviet cultural productions, from highbrow literature to video games of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. variety. (Like Hardcore, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a first-person shooter in the survival horror genre. The game was developed by the Ukrainian GSC Game World, and is based loosely on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 novella Roadside Picnic, Andrei Tarkovsky’s monumental 1979 film adaptation Stalker, and the real Chernobyl nuclear disaster.) The same attitude is arguably reflected in Russia’s recent anti-homosexual propaganda laws: homophobia is the flip side of the masculinist cult. Henry’s sole sidekick Jimmy, a manic shape-shifting role written especially for South African actor Sharlto Copley, has to protest loudly that he is “straight as an arrow” and brag of his frequent intercourse with the blanched Russian Barbies — because so much manliness (and the occasional Sinatra number) might make us suspect otherwise.
The production history confirms that the film’s virile display extends well off-screen. The invisible role of Henry’s perspective demands that an unlucky cameraman run parkour wearing Valyaev’s specially designed GoPro “Adventure Mask.” But not even extreme-operator Valyaev (a co-producer of the film) could bear the load for long. After his neck pains became excessively hardcore, Valyaev ceded the camera to the actor Dementiev, who, unsurprisingly, had also trained in parkour. Dementiev, too, eventually buckled and reputedly lost a tooth during one of the fight numbers; he shot the rest of his scenes sedated on painkillers. In the end, it took a small army of stuntsmen and Naishuller himself donning the fearsome Adventure Mask before they could capture all the shots necessary to create Henry.
Mind you, all of this is hardly “political culture” or a purely Russian phenomenon, though it is richly culturally decorated here. Hardcore Henry is but one of many signs of the international rise of reactionary postmodernism. After all, the American publics that rushed to the theaters for Hardcore Henry are hardly the same as those writing the reviews. We’ll never understand any of it if we don’t admit that, for its participants, reactionary postmodernism is tremendously fun.
In the United States, the name Hardcore was already taken, and so Hardcore Henry came to its overseas audience a tad more personalized. But while Hollywood has seen its own rise of parkour heroics in recent years, not least with Daniel Craig’s James Bond (again the direct descendent of Cold War precedents), the action genre film as such doesn’t appear to work without a hard body to look at. Despite the camera perspective, if anything, Hardcore Henry fails to be immersive enough. For audiences less clued into or amused by the distancing irony, the jokes fall flat — or worse yet, strike a nerve.
For if we do allow that Naishuller is mocking the clichés that he employs rather than hanging onto them for dear life, we might wonder next who is laughing at whom. Whose ludicrous, brutalist fantasy Russia is this? Whose cultural perspective do we really inhabit through Hardcore Henry’s subjective camera? Even the bizarre leitmotif of extreme whiteness (the Brothel Girls; the villain Akan — who has been compared physically to Kurt Cobain, Klaus Kinski, Julian Assange, Andy Warhol, Crispin Glover playing Andy Warhol, and Magneto) suggests a racializing gaze leveled at grotesque, visually foreign Russian villains.
To be sure, Henry’s very inhumanity and superior technology make him the better fighter, but he’s having a lot less fun than anyone else. The “hero” simply isn’t there. We are laughing at ourselves.