Writer-director Ilya Naishuller modestly called Hardcore Henry “a little Russian indie experimental movie” at its US premiere last night at SXSW, but the truth is it’s the most visually impressive, batshit film we’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road. One look at the new trailer, released a little over a week ago, and you’ll see it offers a similar mix of gonzo stunts, raw adrenaline, Tarantino-esque humor, and a throbbing rock/techno soundtrack – except that it’s filmed almost entirely with a GoPro, so you feel like you’re the one hurtling down Fury Road (or in this case, Moscow highways that weren’t even blocked off).
The film, made with a largely Russian cast (though Tim Roth makes an appearance), has been compared to a first-person shooter video game, and that’s no mistake. “I’ve been playing games all my life and I think strategies and FPSs were always my favorite,” Naishuller told a full house at the Paramount Theatre in Austin. Aside from a set-design nod to Mercy Hospital from Left 4 Dead, “it was never a question of let’s copy a game, let’s put in an Easter egg,” Naishuller said. But the film plays exactly like a live-action version of shooters like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (not the director’s favorite, but he admits there are similarities).
If you were one of the 40-million-plus people who saw the POV shooter video Naishuller made for his rock band’s song, “Bad Motherfucker” (their music is also featured in Hardcore Henry) then you might be asking yourself how his latest protagonist managed to live through an entire 90 minutes of similar car crashes, rooftop parkour, death-defying falls, tank hijackings, and coke-dusted brothel raids (Naishuller’s wife plays a dominatrix and also composed music for the film). The answer is simple: the eponymous Henry is a cyborg who can take bullet after bullet as he tries to save his wife (Jennifer Lawrence lookalike Haley Bennett) from a warlord with supernatural powers. (Henry is played collaboratively by Andrey Dementyev, Sergey Shnurov, various stuntmen and even the director himself—all of them wearing custom headgear with GoPro technology built in.)
Henry survives some insane crashes and spills (as in, driving a motorcycle through a van while blasting away with a machine gun), and at one point gets singed with a flamethrower. “The guy who was burning in the trolley bus, that was a guy who knows how to burn,” Naishuller explained matter-of-factly of the stunt work.
In all, about 45 stuntmen are credited. You can see behind-the-scenes footage of their work in the crowdfunding video that raised over $250,000 for special effects:
It’s clear some of these “literally crazy Russian stuntmen,” as star Sharlto Copley calls them, are lucky to be alive. During the q&a, Copley recalled the most harrowing smash-up he participated in. “That’s a three-lane highway in Moscow and there’s no road closure and it’s raining and I have to really drive and I have to really hit the police cars in the way, which I’ve never really done. And I have to yell in Russian and look back and the back window is going to get blown out.” In the midst of all this, he also had to elbow a man out of the vehicle without running him over. That part didn’t go exactly as planned. “We both just feel katunk katunk and we just blow the whole take. Ilya looks at me and I look at him and I’m like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ … And the guy’s just lying in the road and I was completely convinced— totally, in my brain—that I’d driven over him. I just didn’t know whether he was alive or dead because he wasn’t moving.”
Naishuller, who was also in the car, recalled the long drive back to the stuntman: “For two and a half minutes, we’re like, ‘What do you think, man? Did we kill him?’ ‘I don’t know, maybe.’”
When they got back to the scene of the incident, the guy was just fine and wondering if they got the take. “No, sorry, I blew the take,” Copley recalled saying. “I thought I killed you.”
Another dicey moment came during an scene where Henry slides down an escalator railing to take out a villain who’s running down the steps. Starting at the 1:58 mark of the trailer, you can see how he accidentally knocks a woman facedown into the treads of the elevator steps. The completely unintended face-plant was all the more disturbing to Naishuller, when he first saw it, because the scene was one last reshoot that may or may not have been necessary. “I’m sitting in playback, my heart stops, slows down, and I’m like, ‘Fuck. You had to make a fucking reshoot. The scene was fine and now you’ve just killed a woman, you fucking idiot,” Naishuller recalled.
But “she’s actually fine. I’m surprised,” Naishuller said.
Hardcore Henry will be released widely April 8. Sadly, it won’t be in 4DX.