Soundtracks of Significance: “Hardcore Henry”
“Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen has soundtracked two of the most bonkers action scenes of the 21st century so far. The first is in Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. As a phantom jukebox drops the needle, Shaun and company attack a zombified bartender, in unison and hilariously on-beat. It’s glorious.
The second scene is the bombastic climax of Ilya Naishuller’s 2016 love-it-or-hate-it violence fest that is Hardcore Henry, or as it was originally titled, simply Hardcore. This film is at once easy and impossible to describe to the unconverted.
In one sense, it’s simple. It’s a full-throttle non-stop action movie with a lot of violence, and a unique, disorienting, but cinematically commendable ace up its sleeve: it’s entirely shot from the first-person perspective. Cinematographic achievement aside, however, it’s arguably trash.
That being said, it’s the most intense and respectable kind of trash there is. Because in a larger consideration, Hardcore Henry is both a wildly entertaining show and a welcome deconstruction of the insanity and bombast of the action genre in general. Naishuller’s approach anticipates and caters to all those action fanatics who really love and support their action heroes and heroines because, inside, they want to be just like them. With Hardcore Henry, you can almost literally follow the eponymous hero as he punches, kicks, shoots, strangles and burns his way to revenge, right from the driver’s seat. What was previously only the stuff of video games now has a bona fide silver screen presence.
Yes, the plot is dreck, but how many action classics have equally garbage plots? Plenty. At least this film took its visuals to the next level — honestly, up quite a few levels. This film is thrilling, merciless, and unabashedly over-the-top, with doses of the chaotic best of the Fast & Furious franchise, Tarantino-level viscera and snarkiness, John Woo-esque gunplay, and a Bourne-meets-Terminator superhuman protagonist. Yet one of its most enduring elements — along with Sharlto Copley’s clearly-having-fun multifaceted performance — is not the violence or action-film reverie, but the blood-pumping soundtrack.
It is no surprise the vinyl release comes on technicolor blood-red wax. This film delights in its marriage of content and chorus. Before there was Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver — which polished the formula to make an essentially perfect music-driven action bonanza — Hardcore Henry used a soundtrack similarly badass to match its on-screen frenzy. Naishuller himself is the leader of hardcore Russian band Biting Elbows, so music was always going to be a big part of this film. Many of the band’s music videos (including viral hit “Bad Motherf**ker” — though perhaps just as impressive is the “False Alarm” video he made with The Weeknd last year) essentially play as proof-of-concepts for Hardcore Henry, as they employ the same first-person setup and various ludicrous action sequences while a frenetic song soundtracks it all.
This history of music-video filmmaking gives Naishuller and his film some further legitimacy, yet it comes with an expectation of a top notch musical sensibility. No fear; Naishuller’s tracklist delivers. Well-selected artists range from The Temptations to The Drums to Devandra Banhart to Biting Elbows itself, and — in another similarly to Baby Driver and its “Brighton Rock” finale — the climactic cut provided by Queen. The two most impressive choices and uses are The Stranglers’ “Let Me Down Easy” playing over the mercilessly gory/sexy red-tinged opening credits, and, most thrillingly, the seedy club-set sequence of bombastic gunfights set ever-so-perfectly to The Sonics’ “Strychnine”, a song so hardcore it was probably recorded with a seedy Moscow shootout scene from a film literally titled “Hardcore” in mind. Even if it wasn’t, the song really does work perfectly.
The album on its own plays like a faithful take on the well-traversed eclectic-action-soundtrack perfected by Tarantino’s filmography. His soundtracks are most directly echoed in the snippets of dialogue — labeled ‘Interludes’ — that speckle the tracklist, most often offering a helpful signpost as to where the listener is in the film’s progression, and what insanity the upcoming track is meant to flavor. (Preceding “Strychnine” is a clip from just before the bullets start flying titled “This Is Fuckin’ War, Baby.”) The glee of re-listening to the album lies mainly in the tracks’ specific action-related significance, especially the “Strychnine” shootout, “My Woman” and its motorcycle/van/truck/minigun sequence, and the insanity I won’t dare spoil during “Für Hildegard Von Bingen.” This recollection is admittedly what most film soundtracks are meant for, but Hardcore Henry’s music, when revisited in the summer of 2017, takes on new significance given recent developments.
Namely the success of Edgar Wright’s eclectic and inspired soundtrack for Baby Driver, which sat at #1 on the iTunes album charts for a respectable period and is currently on repeat in many a car stereo around the world (playing it while driving is highly recommended, by the way). Those who appreciate Baby Driver’s daring and cheeky pairing of music old and new and calm and crazy will see a kindred spirit in Naishuller’s film — though the heart and soul in Wright’s work is traded for splatter and guts in Naishuller’s. Let it be clear, Hardcore Henry is by no means for ‘everyone.’
If the music-backed actioner trend continues successfully, one could expect that this film could find its audience and ultimately gain respect as a cult slice of cinematic madness — not only for its cinematography and bombast, but for its exemplary soundtrack.