Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Martial Arts Madness

Don't you miss good old fashioned martial arts films? Okay, many of you have no idea what a good old fashioned martial arts film really is. Don't worry, it's not something for which you should be ashamed. Most of us were weaned on the modern adventures of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and other Asian stars who broke records overseas before becoming fully Americanized on our west coast. Quickly, martial arts films changed from difficult-to-find niche titles that only appealed to a small portion of the populace to popular entertainment, often safe for family consumption. Sure, there are still plenty of these films that appeal to adult audiences, but many of those pander to American audiences and often focus more on sidekick humor than real action. There are still viable martial arts films, of course; you just rarely find them produced by Hollywood. Many foreign films have defied the ignorance of the general public to become modest successes; the best known of these is probably the Thai Ong-Bak trilogy, which introduced modern Muay Thai to many Americans. Now Indonesia wants to get in on the act, The Raid: Redemption being the first film released in the US to feature the little known martial art of Pencak Silat. I have absolutely no idea what that particular form of combat entails, but it's been quite a while since I've seen a decent-looking martial arts film, so I was more than a little excited once this title finally hit theaters in my area.

Young, fresh-faces... "Hero" all the way.
In the slums of Jakarta, an elite SWAT team of twenty Indonesian police officers prepare to raid the dilapidated apartment complex owned by ruthless crime lord Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapi). The complex is full of criminal scum who rent from Tama when they want to lay low, and the team has been sent to apprehend the drug king and disrupt his operation. The team has it easy for the first half-dozen floors before they run into a spotter, who manages to warn Tama of their presence. In response, he orders the building secured and pits the building's residents against the now-helpless police. Without any hope of backup and a hundred ways to die between the men and the exit, it's up to rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) to lead the survivors out. But Rama has accepted the mission for another reason as well, unknown to either his fellow officers or the people trying to kill him.

There will be a lot more bodies by the time this is done.
From beginning to end, The Raid: Redemption is an expertly told story that just happens to contain some of the best martial arts fights I've seen in recent years. I couldn't tell you the difference between Pencak Silat and plain old Kung Fu, but each fight it a marvel to witness, full of energy and vigor that demands your attention. Anyone can build an action sequence, but only masters can successfully tell a story through the fights, and the choreography here is simply amazing, not to mention believable. It's heartening to see that when our hero is outnumbered four to one, he doesn't grit his teeth and charge in; he runs away. Never do the people on the screen feel anything other than human, even when they're performing acts that you and I could never hope to mimic. The only character who feels almost superhuman is a madman, so even that fits perfectly within the context of this film. As for the fights themselves, they are full of quick, nasty violence that will catch you off with its brutality. This was definitely a film designed for an adult audience, and any mature enough to accept the content can appreciate every blow struck and bullet fired.

Frankly, I wouldn't trust anyone walking around with a machete anyway.
The film is also filled with interesting characters, though sadly that is not so true for the good guys. Frankly, we learn little of the policemen trapped in this slum before they are all but wiped out, and the few that the film actually focuses on are not gone into with any real depth, from bland team leader Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim) to temperamental veteran Bowo (Tegar Setrya) to cowardly Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno). Even lead Rama is sometimes a bit boring when not actively beating the crap out of people. Fortunately, The Raid covers this by providing no shortage of compelling villains, from a machete-wielding psychotic to a murdering contortionist, as well as one character known as "Mad Dog" (Yayan Ruhian), a brutal man who prefers hand-to-hand combat over firearms. Finally, Andi (Donny Alamsyah) is violent and unpredictable as Tama's intelligent right-hand man. Each of these get their moment in the spotlight to face off against the police, and while the outcomes might be predictable, what is not so easily called is just how they will get to that moment.

Believe it or not, the little dude has the advantage
Whether or not you appreciate the fact that this film's music is scored by Linkin Park member Mike Shinoda, this shouldn't sway you from enjoying the fun theatrical ride that is The Raid: Redemption. Even if that is the silliest name for this movie (is there some redemption that I missed?) this should be considered a success for Welsh director Gareth Evans, who conceived and built the whole project. Sure, it's not a perfect film, as the film uses a minimum of dialogue and special effects en route to a film that is almost nonstop violence and death. If The Raid had not lived up to a very high standard for its production, it could have easily been the next (and similarly titled) The Matrix Reloaded. But thanks to the amazing action more than anything, the film works as planned, and it's the #6 Film of 2012. I know those of you thinking The Hunger Games is this year's best film will have no interest in seeing The Raid. That's too bad, but then again, good old fashioned martial arts films that are done right may never appeal to everyone. Perhaps that's for the best.


Anonymous said...

gareth evans is not danish but welshman.the use of redemption word just because legal issue with fox company

Anonymous said...

It should be twenty Indonesian polices, not Thai.

Mr. Anderson said...

Ah, thanks for those corrections. That'll teach me to triple-check my notes before I post.