The latest last word in ADD cinema, “Hardcore” is a headlong subjective-camera dive into fantasy-action peril through the eyes of a newly hatched “cybernetic super-soldier” as he fights off umpteen attackers, rescues his wife and tries to prevent a supervillain from destroying the world or something like. Only the tiniest, most basic elements of character, backstory and even narrative are offered on the run in a movie whose 95% frantic-action composition has no need or breathing space for more. It’s an undeniably impressive display of energy and resourcefulness for firsttime feature writer-director Ilya Naishuller, expanding on ideas in the viral music videos for his Moscow rock band Biting Elbows. Whether you find this vidgame-like testosterone explosion exhilarating or exhausting may largely be a generational matter. But certainly fanboy types are going to make this Russia-U.S. coprod a cult item, with potential for commercial breakout in various formats in numerous territories.
We first meet — or rather become — “Henry” as he awakens in some kind of scientific laboratory in the sky above Moscow, his body recycled “Robocop”-style from a thoroughly mangled human self. Screwing and soldering on his new, improved robotic parts is Estelle (Haley Bennett), who says she’s his spouse. But within moments (and before he’s been voice-activated, making for a mute protagonist) the joint is stormed by albino-blond nemesis Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) and his heavily armed goons. Slaughter ensues (not for the last time), from which Henry and Estelle escape via ejector pod to the city below, where she’s soon abducted (not for the last time).
As Henry gains understanding of his superhuman new strengths/abilities, he’s forever being chased by mercenaries, or abused by everyone else in what feels like a cast of interchangeable thousands — or maybe it’s just the same 20 extras/stunt personnel being killed off over and over again in different costumes and settings.
Popping up repeatedly as his sole reliable if prankish ally is Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who demonstrates a penchant for donning different guises, and whose ubiquity is eventually explained as another product of cybernetic cloning. Amidst all the mayhem, we realize Akan must be stopped from destroying the world, which he wants to do because … well, why not? We also find out (spoiler alert) that all women are duplicitous sluts, not excluding Estelle, let alone the prostitutes who seem unruffled by the mayhem that invades their bordello during one of pic’s back-to-back action setpieces.
As one might guess, there’s nothing beneath “Hardcore’s” frenetic surface but the barest imaginative kernel of a puerile macho fantasy. The explanatory mythology just hinted at here can always be articulated in sequels that already seem inevitable. But to demand substance or even narrative logic would be asking for things “Hardcore” frankly has no interest in. Onstage before one Toronto film festival screenig, Naishuller admitted he worried when approached by producer Timur Bekmambetov (“Night Watch”) whether expanding upon his musicvideos (esp. “Bad Motherf—”) was even a good idea.
No, it wasn’t, in standard feature-film terms of adding “depth” and “complexity” to a short’s original premise. But Naishuller and company don’t try to: They simply pile on more dizzyingly kinetic, ultraviolent, tongue-in-cheek stuff, and in those terms “Hardcore’s” dexterity is remarkable. “Henry’s” 90-odd minutes of initial rebooted life are a nonstop cyberpunk joyride of vigorous stunt work, gore, VFX, hand-to-hand fighting and destruction via a full range of weaponry, not excluding flamethrowers and tanks. This may be just the ticket for people who found the “Raid” films too dawdling. But if your answer to the question, “Should movies be more like videogames?” is anything but “YES!!!,” “Hardcore” was not made for you.
This perpetual motion machine is not recommended for those prone to motion sickness. The rare pause lasts only long enough to allow a brief joke, or to have its moment of calm be a tonal joke in itself. (Elsewhere, the general sonic clamor is accompanied by some rather broadly jokey musical choices, including a Copley rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” that recalls Jerry Lewis, and not in a good way.) Perfs, such as they are, are pitched very large and loud to be heard above the din. Bennett and Kovlovsky hit one emphatic note apiece. Copley is allowed to go gonzo in various sketch-comedy personas, though some might wish for a whole lot less of what way back in “District 9” seemed such a good thing.
A making-of might be just as exciting as watching the film itself, because helmer and his myriad collaborators have put together something that seems at once seamless and DIY, large-scale and claustrophobic, its actual budgetary cost as hard to guess as its tech/design contribs are breathlessly stimulating. “Hardcore” feels like umpteen post-“Star Wars” action blockbusters trash-compacted into one — and whether that fundamentally appeals or not, the ingenuity of effort is undeniably high.