Never again let it be said that an action movie is just like a video game.
Hardcore Henry, a frenetic, dizzying, and ultraviolent actioner from Russian rocker-turned-director Ilya Naishuller is one - a first-person shooter writ large for the big screen.
A dazzling technical achievement shot by a cameraman wearing a GoPro rigged to a face mask, it forces the audience to become the eyes and ears of Henry, a cyborg supersoldier who lurches across Moscow from one blood-soaked, bone-crunching fight to another.
But is it an achievement in moviemaking? Not so much.
For about 90 seconds, the novel first-person-shooter point of view hits our bodies with an unexpected flood of adrenaline, in a heart-pounding rush. Trouble is, the chemical high doesn't last. For the remaining 941/2 minutes, we feel nothing but a radical passivity - in other words, we don't feel a thing. The surprising effect of the gamer POV is to lull us into a fuzzy dream state.
There's a semblance of a plot: A brilliant engineer named Estelle (Haley Bennett) won't accept that her husband, Henry, has been murdered. So she resurrects him using futuristic tech from her robotics lab. Once awakened, Henry has to deal with memory loss and a voice box that doesn't work. (Replace the lead actor with a camera operator, and you don't need to write him any lines.)
Just as Henry and Estelle are getting reacquainted, she's kidnapped by an evil albino gazillionaire oligarch named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), who seems to possess telekinetic powers. Hey, why not?
Akan's dastardly plan is to force Estelle to use her smarts to make a cyborg army for him.
Henry has his video-game mission: rescue his wife and reduce Akan to a bleeding pulp of meat and bones.
Our murderous hero is helped along the way by a wisecracking cyborg-slash-scientist named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who keeps getting killed by the bad guys, only to return a few minutes later wearing a different personality and an outfit to match. Copley gets great one-liners as he transmutes from a gangsta pimp to a reefer-smoking hippy to a British WWII officer.
Hardcore Henry isn't the first big-screen first-person actioner. Naishuller, who developed his camera-as-mask rig while shooting music videos for his Russian alt-rock act Biting Elbows, has advanced and perfected the work of pioneers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, whose 2009 feature Gamer starred Gerard Butler as a man whose body is controlled by a guy playing a video game.
Hardcore Henry's technical wizardry is considerable. But it's no substitute for storytelling or the filmmaker's ability to elicit an emotional reaction. It doesn't touch us in our hearts or our gut. Only in our crocodile brain.
Directed by Ilya Naishuller. With Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, and Tim Roth. Distributed by STX Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
Parent's guide: R (non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity, and drug use)
Playing at: Area theaters.