So, this one’s a throwback. And an interesting one at that. He Never Died doesn’t concern itself as much with the plot (though there is one) as it does with following its brooding, strange lead character around as he ambles through his seemingly meaningless life. Exactly who is Jack? Who knows. He spends his days sleeping, playing bingo, and haunting the local diner – but he can’t seem to avoid getting involved, however accidentally and much to his annoyance, with other people’s lives. He’s got a trunk full of money and knives, a strange hearing problem, and can shrug off a gunshot like a mosquito bite. Which comes in handy now that the local mafia happens to be gunning for him. Why? Jack can’t remember and doesn’t especially care. Things only get more complicated with the introduction of a daughter from a long-past fling. It’s a return to the 90s anti-hero with updated one-liners and an appreciation for history’s many and varied boogeyman legends.
He Never Died is a fun experiment of what happens when you drop the archetypal 90s anti hero into a more realistic 2015, a place where Jack’s casual acquaintances try vainly to empathize with him and incorporate him into their lives, and the line between sociopath and boogeyman becomes increasingly thin. Jack doesn’t belong in this era. No one knows it better than he does. Though he calls himself Cain (“I’m in the bible, if that means anything“), Jack’s backstory and powers almost fit better with Beowulf’s monster – better known as Grendel. A lot of the film’s power comes from this ambiguity – Jack doesn’t know what he is and neither does the audience – and how the other characters react to him. He’s accused of being a lot of things, including a sociopath and a vampire, and it’s never made clear exactly where he stands.
Two things are clear. First, Jack is a murderer. And second, the plot desperately wants him to be a hero.
Jack disagrees with the hero bit. The best pieces in the film come from the divide between his cynical worldview and the film’s stubborn insistence on trying to redeem him. There’s a hilarious couple of scenes where Jack staggers around in the middle of the night trying to provoke the local thugs into attacking him, only to discover that none of them are in the mood to fight with an old man. His indignation and shock when he’s treated politely by the people he’s trying – not at all subtlety – to provoke is a testament to Henry Rollins’s wonderful acting skills. Jack would love the world of He Never Died to be as cynical and mean as he is. The fact that it’s filled with characters who – though deeply flawed – are essentially kind, empathetic people proves the film’s best moments.
On the technical end of things, He Never Died is well made, though I’m not fond of the choices made with the sound design. Jack seems to go through life with the soundtrack to an old battle playing in his head at all hours, which might have been interesting if it had some narrative weight backing it up. Instead it’s just…there. The story does falter in a few areas and takes a bit to really figure out what sort of tone it’s going for. But the acting is excellent (Booboo Stewart stole more than a few scenes) and the story goes in interesting, unexpected places. Give it a watch.