The film Hardcore Henry opens Friday, and many critics will doubtless describe it as a “video game,” which is typically a term critics use to show just how contemptuous they are of an action film. (Particularly one directed by Michael Bay.)
Yes, the video game comparison is traditionally the mic drop of criticism: It announces a movie is so beneath a critic that he or she can only discuss it in terms of those stupid games those damned kids are wasting their lives on when they should be watching some of the films Jean-Luc Godard directed after Breathless but before Soigne ta droite blah blah blah later works of Orson Welles yadda yadda yadda Terrence Malick before he got commercial.
Most of the films we see in theaters are dumb. And this is perfectly fine, because a quality dumb movie is perfect for the theater experience. May there always be a place in our hearts/multiplexes for a movie that’s pure adrenaline and requires less than two hours.
Ignoring that video games have evolved well beyond Pong—witness a father making a “game” about his son’s struggle with brain cancer—this approach implies that dumb movies should be smarter.
But that is totally wrong. After all, there is nothing worse than a dumb movie insisting on its intelligence.
Most of the films we see in theaters are dumb. And this is perfectly fine, because a quality dumb movie is perfect for the theater experience: When the idiot behind you makes noise so you miss dialogue, it doesn’t really matter, and when Tony Jaa does a flying knee smash to the head of a ridiculously large man you get the collective rush of the crowd yelling, “DAMN!!!”
Whereas with Best Picture winner Spotlight, little is added to the viewing experience by a patron randomly screaming, “Oh hell yeah: Mark Ruffalo’s busting this Archdiocese wide open, son!” (I apologize again to my fellow moviegoers for that outburst.)
For the record, Tony Jaa’s The Protector is awesomely dumb—sample line: “You killed my father! And you stole my elephant!”—but when you see the collision at 30 seconds of this clip, who cares?
Sadly, many dumb movies fail to appreciate their essential dumb-ness.
Example: Pretty much every superhero movie. They invariably start from a dopey place, because your protagonist has to make the decision:
“I went through [INSERT TRAUMATIC EVENT HERE] and I shall cope with it like anyone else would: by making a costume.”
But as a viewer I’ll roll with it, just as I’ll overlook that a pair of clear glasses instantly renders a person unrecognizable. (In the DC Comics universe, LensCrafters is a source of endless disguises.)
But in exchange, I want people running around in tights and capes to spend the vast majority of their time beating the crap out of other people wearing tights and capes.
I do not want them to talk at length about how society fluctuates between the extremes of anarchy and fascism. (We get it, Mr. Nolan.)
Indeed, I don’t want them to talk at length, end of sentence. Or do anything at length—if the runtime for a movie with “Versus” in the title exceeds two hours, something has gone horrifically awry.
And above all, I do not want them to make finger guns at people—dammit, groovy Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3!
This brings us back to Hardcore Henry, described as the first action movie filmed entirely from the hero’s first-person viewpoint. This means everyone interacts directly with the camera, resulting in lots of moments where someone asks a question and the camera goes up-and-down to show the nod or back-and-forth in a shake of disapproval.
With its first-person shooter setup, it seems as much video game as film and clearly owes more to Halo than How Green Was My Valley.
The trailer captures the good and the bad of the technique.
The bad: It’s damn near impossible for an actor to give a decent performance while “acting” against a character played by a camera. (As the actress in the trailer’s first minute shows.)
The good: If watching a fight scene is fun, feeling like you’re actually doing the fighting is even more so. (As the rest of the trailer shows.)
STX Entertainment believes in Henry in a big way, taking a film directed by a member of a Russian punk band, where the top-billed star is Sharlto Copley— Murdock in the A-Team movie—and plunking it in 3,000 theaters, nearly as many as Melissa McCarthy (The Boss opens on just over 3,200) and far more than poor Jake Gyllenhaal (Demolition claims 550).
Will audiences embrace it?
I hope so: May there always be a place in our hearts/multiplexes for a movie that’s pure adrenaline and requires less than two hours. Henry runtime: 96 minutes. Just enough you don’t feel ripped off… not so much you have time to actually think about it… perfect.
This is not to say there isn’t room for smart action films. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is a profound meditation on how a person finds meaning in life… and it’s also a source of some really kick-ass battle scenes with people on horses attacking each other with swords in the rain and mud that demand to be seen on the big screen. It runs way over three hours and deserves every minute of it. Even the solid American remake The Magnificent Seven runs over two.
There is no reason our action flicks can’t be so superbly made they force us to re-think the very possibilities of film genres and film itself.
But you can’t transform a dumb movie into a classic merely by making it long and humorless. (Please stop trying, Mr. Snyder.)
That’s why we need films like Hardcore Henry—which has actually received some surprisingly strong reviews—short, stupid, sublime. And to the critics who denounce it as a mere video game: Angry Birds arrives this May.