Friday, March 30, 2012
I said this before and I'll say it again, "The Raid: Redemption" (opening March 30 at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas) is crack cocaine for action junkies like myself. It delivers an intense euphoric high that just makes you want to immediately go out and experience it again.
Sony Pictures Classics
Let me explain something about action. For me an action film is an exquisite thing of beauty when it's done right. I'm not talking about dramas that contain a scene or two of action but rather films fueled by their action -- films like "Hard-Boiled," "The Seven Samurai," "The Matrix," "District B13." The action set pieces in these films are as beautiful and poetic as dance even if the content of the action is violent and bloody. There's a reason people who design fights are called "action choreographers" because they too are choreographing a dance. John Woo, a master of poetic action, was a huge fan of MGM musicals, and stunt man extraordinaire Jackie Chan loved dancer Gene Kelley. Dance and action are all about kinetic energy and the body in motion, and therefore are perfectly suited to motion pictures... emphasize the motion. So for me, a great action film offers not just an adrenaline rush but a breathtaking piece of cinematic poetry. The best of these also understand the action is not merely about speed, shakycam, and fast cuts but about doing what will best convey the action. Sometimes that is handheld camera and fast cuts, sometimes it's a static camera and one long take, and sometimes its slow motion. Whatever it is, a good action film is something that I am addicted to and cannot get enough of.
The director of "The Raid" understands that. In the press notes, director Gareth Huw Evans says, "As I orchestrate a fight sequence it becomes an ever changing, living, breathing piece of work that shifts with the improvisation and creativity of others. Sometimes nature will play a hand making the intention of each movement differ, sometimes for the worse but occasionally for the best. I downplay my abilities in other mediums, and I genuinely would love to be better at each. But the truth is, the most breathtaking landscape paintings, the most amazing still moments captured forever in a photograph and the most touching chord of a piece of poetry in music just doesn't come close to those 24 little frames of perfection when my fighters give it up so that their audience can draw a collective gasp as they witness that all too brief but crystal clear shot of a kick to the head."
Yeah, that's what I'm talking about!
Sony Pictures Classics
"The Raid" is an Indonesian film but it's directed by a Welshman. In 2007, Evans went to Indonesia to make a documentary about Pencak Silat, a style of martial arts not widely known in the West. As he shot, a light bulb went off in his head: this would be great to use in an action film. The idea all came together when he met Iko Uwais, a truck driver and particularly talented student of Silat.
The two collaborated on "Merantau" in 2009. The film introduced Silat to a wider audience and delivered a satisfying genre action film. But the story was strictly formulaic and the plot seemed to get in the way of the action (it called to mind "Ong Bak" in both its story and hero). Evans learned from that experience and his new film, "The Raid: Redemption," not only fixes some of the problems he had in the first film but significantly ups the ante.
One of the key things Evans learned is that a good action film doesn't need much of a plot. It just needs something to set the action in play. "Merantau" had a formulaic but also rather sentimental plot about an honorable and naive lad alone in the big city and getting involved with a bunch of criminal types as he tries to save a young girl from sex traffickers. There were a lot of talky scenes with plot exposition about who was bad and why... wasted time when the action was so amazing. So for "The Raid" he streamlined the plot to perfection: a special forces team arrives at a building to take out a notorious drug lord on the top floor. Done. Now he can spend the entire rest of the film on action and I'm not exaggerating. This is the most intense, non-stop, grueling action film I have seen in recent memory. It is like extending the brutal final battle of "13 Assassins" to almost 2 hours. "13 Assassins" is the only other film I can think of that delivers such intense action that you literally leave the theater exhausted and feeling like the combatants in the films, like you couldn't possibly raise your sword or your fist one more time.
When "The Raid" started and the special forces are moving into the building and handily taking over the floors, I was thinking, "How can this go on for two hours?" But it does and it does so brilliantly. It turns out that the tenants in the building can easily be turned into enemies out for the cops' blood and that slows the raid down considerably. Plus throw in a diminutive but ferocious henchmen (Yayan Ruhian as Mad Dog, the name of a similar styled character in "Hard-Boiled") who's like an evil Energizer Bunny that just can't be stopped, and well you have a pretty tough assignment. The film is elegantly simple in its plot and the pace never lags. I think you get one breather -- that's it. (My teenage son exclaimed, "why doesn't someone give him a glass of water or something, I'd feel a whole lot better if they did.") Otherwise it is a mix of relentless action and tension.
Evans knows how to mix fast and slow to good effect. The fights are rapid fire but they alternate with quieter, slower scenes where there may be no action but the tension is being nail-bitingly ratcheted up, so you simply get no time to rest. Plus, even with the minimal plot and dialogue, we grow to like certain characters and empathize with them. We want to see them all make it through and we care when some of them get hurt or die. It's an action film but one that takes time to make us care because that's the best way to build tension (that's also why there's no tension in most slasher films because we don't care who dies).
A shout out to Yayan Ruhian who plays Mad Dog and serves as fight choreographer. He defines the film in a scene where he has one of the cops at gun point but quietly sets the weapon down because shooting someone is like "ordering take out," there's no real satisfaction. "The Raid" never takes the easy way out when it comes to fights. It delivers knock down, drag out, exhausting fights that leave you absolutely breathless. I think I've run out of adjectives to describe how exhilarating the fights are.
One thing I will note, though, is that the best action films seem to come from whichever country is new at it and hasn't yet set up stunt men unions to protect the people engaged in the fighting. Hong Kong started the action frenzy in the 80s but the action slowed as the film gained international attention and concerns were raised about the stunt people. The focus shifted to Korea and its flurry of action films but a documentary called "Action Boys" called attention to the dangers of an unregulated stunt industry. Dazzling action films have since come from Vietnam ("The Rebel"), Thailand ("Ong Bak," "Chocolate"), and now Indonesia. So while these action films give me an adrenaline rush, I do hope that care is taken to protect the stunt men and fighters.
Sony Pictures Classics
That being said, I have not heard any reports of serious injury to anyone working on "The Raid," so that allows me to enjoy the film more fully. As with Jackie Chan, star Iko Uwais does his own stunts and displays a similar appealing innocence and honor. I'm not sure what defines the fighting style of Pencak Silat but as it is displayed in the film and by Uwais it seems to emphasize attacking over self defense or running away (as Sir Robin would do). In one fabulous scene, a group of attackers, some with swords, appear at the end of long hallway. Rather than wait for his attackers to come at him, Uwais charges them. Seeing this fighting style for the first time in "Merantau," was like seeing the opening of "District B13" with its introduction of parkour (an style of extreme running) -- it make my jaw drop open in awe and I immediately wanted everyone to come take a look.
When I first saw the trailer for the film, the music seemed oddly out of place to me. It sounded too bright and cheery, like it would be better suited to "Glee." But I have to say that after seeing the film as a whole, the score has grown on me. Evans tapped alternative rocker/composers Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Joseph Trapanese, collaborator with Daft Punk, for a score that both propels and supports the action.
"The Raid: Redemption" (rated R for strong brutal bloody violence throughout, and language and in Indonesian with English subtitles) is action manna from heaven. It is feeding my action habit nicely and I am looking forward to seeing it for a third time this week. So please, go support the film so we can have more films like this.
Companion viewing: "13 Assassins," "Merantau," "District B13," "Ong Bak," "Chocolate" (the Thai one)