The culmination of the first chapter of the Hardcore saga reaches its epic crescendo in Hardcore #5; bullets, explosions, and larger-than-life thrills define this love letter to action movies and the comic book medium. The issue can easily be likened to the final climactic battle of a well-written film, topping off a series of emotional ups and downs with a last act that does not disappoint fans. Writer Andy Diggle and Artist Alessandro Vitti have pulled off the perfect balancing act, satisfyingly closing out the first chapter of a promising new series while laying enough narrative crumbs to have readers returning to discover the next chapter of this emotional rollercoaster. Hardcore #5 reinforces the series as a title that continues to be a must-read month in and month out.
Four immense issues have led to this, the showdown between Agent Drake and Markus. Drake has run the proverbial gauntlet to reach this point: He’s narrowly escaped the clutches of an entire army set on his demise, broke free from the borders of a hazardous country as its most wanted criminal and has brilliantly outsmarted death at every turn. Page one returns readers to a standoff with everything on the line. Image Comics describes the issues as follows:
“Back on American soil, Drake comes face-to-face with the man who betrayed him. He has only minutes before the Hardcore expires–and his life along with it. But Drake only needs a little time to unload a LOT of bullets.”
Without a doubt, the story and pacing of Hardcore stand out as some of the titles most significant aspects. But what’s a good story without characters readers can invest in? Agent Drake is flawed, impetuous, yet surprisingly able to cope with dangerous situations with ease. Drake is equal parts brash and prudent. At a moment’s notice, Drake can break into action, throwing caution to the wind; however, he always formulates a plan (usually on the fly), thinking steps ahead of his enemies. Does a death squad surround him? Drake can handle that. A plane is plummeting to the earth with missiles locked on? Drake can and has escaped that. Only minutes to live and a team of soldiers standing between Drake and his only means of life? I think you know where this is going.
Drake isn’t a paragon of moral excellence but remains assured of his conviction to do what is needed for the “greater good,” giving the character depth. I won’t spoil the issue but suffice to say that Drake has a strategy in mind.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Markus, a conniving, remorseless, weasel of a man with sadistic goals consuming his mind; the destruction of the Hardcore Program and rendering the government to a shell of its former self. Markus is everything Drake isn’t, and the juxtaposition between the two men feeds into the story, lending gravitas to the rivalry. Andy Diggle easily avoids the caricature villain, seeking devastation with little to no motivations fueling his actions. Markus is convinced of his riotousness. He believes — utterly and completely — that the Hardcore Program was stolen from him, now relegated to a tool of wanton destruction and the whims of politically corrupt bureaucrats. There is far more conflict to mine from the character, but in the short time readers have had with him a substantial three-dimensional threat is beginning to take shape.
There is a brilliant combination at work on Hardcore #5 guiding the issue (and the series as a whole) to success; writing that ebbs and flows at a near pitch-perfect pace and artwork that conveys visceral action, lifting the script to new heights. Kicking off from the very first page the tension is palpable, never letting go of the reader’s attention. Time is Drake’s greatest enemy. The majority of the comic spans minutes at best, yet Andy Diggle manages to embed a series of one-upsmanship between Agent Drake and Marcus. Drake has a slight advantage with a bomb vest, Markus knows Drake has minutes to live, Drake hands over the trigger (point Markus), the trigger explodes as the sudden realization that Drake handed over a flashbang set in (point Drake), and so on as the story unfolds. It would be unfair to reveal how this game of cat and mouse set among blood and bullets ends. One moment in particular perfectly expresses the emotional struggle through physicality. For all the weapons, explosions, and gun battles Hardcore #5 has, it is the fist fight between Drake and Markus that best serves the story. An intimate struggle among rivals to end things once and for all. I suggest immersing yourself in the issue for the best experience.
The issue doesn’t tie up every loose end in a neat bow, and the Hardcore series is all the better for it. Hardcore #5 satiates any desire fans may have to see the first chapter of this series resolved but provides pathways to new storytelling. Several questions remain: How does the Hardcore Program recover after this incident, if at all? What became of Markus? Is Drake exempt from his suspicion for the events that transpired? Where does this leave Esteban — is he dead because of Drake? And if he is, how will it affect Lupe and the tumultuous relationship she has with Drake? While it may seem like several points were inexplicably left open, the fact of the matter is all the points of contention leave the door open for more conflict and fan engagement. Want to find out happens? Come back next month and see for yourself.
For all the great work that went into the script, it would be a disservice not to mention artist Alessandro Vitti. The action in Hardcore can be over-the-top, but never reaches levels of absurdity. Granted, one man defies relentless odds in fantastic ways, but Hardcore is never illustrated as if Drake or his opposition are superhumans. Instead, Vitti makes every punch, broken jaw, and gunshot wound feel visceral and grounded.
When Drake smashes his elbow into a merc’s face, the panel feels kinetic, expressing the power and brutality behind the strike. A bomb explodes in the center of the room, and the force practically jumps off the page. Vitti’s work begs to be recreated on film. For every illustration that may present a challenge to an average artist, Vitti steps up and renders the image with exceptional execution. “Hold my beer” doesn’t begin to describe the level of confidence Vitti should have for his work. Whether it’s a high-speed chase, a nuclear explosion, or hand to hand combat, Alessandro Vitti can, and will, do the fans justice.
There is no such thing as a perfect comic book, but Hardcore #5 is the conclusion the first arc needed. Hardcore wears its intentions on its metaphorical sleeve as a comic book meant to pay homage to best and brightest the action film genre has to offer. Mission accomplished.