Monday, April 14, 2014

Acts of killing, part I

(Serbaun maut)

If you're looking for the beating, vital heart of cinema, you need look no further.

2011 Indonesia/2012 USA
Written and directed by Gareth Evans
With Iko Uwais (Rama), Donny Alamsyah (Andi), Joe Taslim (Jaka), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Pierre Grunyo (Wahyu), and Ray Sahetapy (Tama)

Spoiler alert: severe

A SWAT team with at least two supercops in its ranks is dispatched under the leadership of Lt. Wahyu to effect the arrest of Tama, the undisputed boss of what must be the hardest slum in all Jakarta.  Initially, all goes well, but when they hesitate to gun down a juvenile lookout, the young boy sounds the alarm, and the cops are trapped inside Tama's highrise headquarters with his inexhaustible army of thugs.  Most die in the ensuing firefight, but a few blood-soaked survivors struggle onward to escape a death that appears inevitable.

I highly recommend watching Gareth Evans' action super-classic for the first time just as I did, which is to say "distracted for the first couple of minutes."  Go do it now if you've never seen the film.  I can wait.

Yeah, exactly.

If you, like me, were talking to your girlfriend about something that, in retrospect, is clearly nowhere nearly as important as The Raid, you too would have missed that the featured protagonist is very obviously Rama, the young man in the first shot who has a pregnant wife and recieves a modicum of characterization involving his faith as a Muslim.  Coming into the movie late—once the SWAT team is introduced and you've started paying attention—Rama comes off as naif marked for death and the commander of the SWAT team, Jaka, has almost all of the lines.  This will tend to convince you that he is the lead.

So it's something of shock when Jaka gets his soda popped by Tama's enforcer, Mad Dog, less than forty minutes into the picture.

That's the unintentional surprise The Raid delivered to me.  I've endeavored to separate this supremely effective Psycho moment, which I personally and alone in the world experienced, from the merits of the work.  But, of course, it is hardly a film devoid of far more deliberate narrative surprises.

The very fact that I must append the highest possible spoiler warning to The Raid—or, if you're a marketing major, The Raid: Redemption—suggests that maybe it does have a story worth telling after all, in between all of that punching and kicking.  Reasonable minds can truly differ, for that certainly doesn't seem to be the consensus: reactions to the picture have ranged widely, from head-shaking sadness complete with predictions of a cinematic apocalypse, to perfect- and nearly perfect-score reviews that praise the formal merits of the martial-arts and action-thriller spectacle.  But for most critics, that spectacle was not only the primary attraction, but the only show to see here at all.

Now let that simmer, because no one with eyes to see could possibly be so obtuse as to claim that the signature achievement of The Raid is to be found in its characters, its script or its themes.  But on the other hand, you'd have to be blind, deaf, and really dumb not to find it in its performances.

I am, admittedly, using a somewhat broad definition of the word "performance."

Iko Uwais is actual protagonist Rama, and this man is a true American success story.  Given that this is 2012, then, he must live across the world's widest ocean.

He once made his daily bread as the Indonesian equivalent of those guys who hook up your cable, but in his free time he continued his ceaseless practice of penchak silat, the pragmatic but beautiful martial art with a credited emphasis on kicking testicles and shins, breaking opponents' ankles after they're already down, and, whenever feasible, stabbing them.

Uwais was discovered in a silat school by Gareth Evans during a documentary he was making, and, liking both the cut of his jib and the pointiness of his limb joints, they went and made a movie together, Merantau.  It was successful.  As Michael Fassbender has been to Steve McQueen, so was this young man from Jakarta to the expatriate Welshman, and they have remained inseparable ever since.

And I didn't have to see his urine stream once.  But I would, if it were important to the story.

Their second collaboration was on a smaller scale than Evans would have wanted—that is a story for later—but the movie they did create together defies any sensible definition of what the words "small scale" are supposed to represent.

The rest is history.  Uwais is now a martial arts mashiach, perhaps the best chop-socky star of our era, who has proven himself as one of our species' most accomplished action stars period.  He is a man who combines seemingly unlimited physical capability with that always-elusive quality, pure screen presence.

He is joined by other martial artists: Yayan Ruhian, a fellow silat practicioner, with a real Barkhad Abdi thing going for him; the effortlessly charming Donny Alamsyah, who can clearly move but whose athletic background I cannot ascertain; and Joe Taslim, a judo champion whose competitive career was cut short, I note with some unpleasant irony, by a spinal injury.

That was a bad day at the range.

They're all superb, as are the other hundred fighting extras.  But it's Uwais who is credited with the action choreography of The Raid, welding their varied skills together into one of the most impressive exhibitions of the power and beauty of the human body since Buster Keaton just about killed his fool self jumping around on a moving train.

Indeed, if there's one thing in movies I might love more than production design, it's perilous and punishing stuntwork.  In The Raid, there are too many action scenes to count—or one action scene too long to possibly describe—and every moment of its physical spectacle is to be cherished.  I will simply say that my favorite move was when Uwais leapt backwards with that fellow's head in his hands and pulled his throat down upon the jagged remains of a knocked-down door.  Stunts involving the neck and collar hit me where it hurts, so to speak—it's that they seem so hard to fake, my brain believes they must be real.

A number of exotic anatomical adjectives suggest themselves—heart-stopping, blood-curdling, breath-taking, pulse-pounding, bone-crunching, dopamine-rushing, neuron-rupturing—and all would fail entirely to describe the experience of witnessing The Raid.

I almost used the term "unbelievable," but that was only a reflex; the fact is that it could not be further from the truth.  The nearly-unmatched accomplishment of The Raid is how believably visceral it is, thanks to Uwais' obvious Weapon X enhancements.

There's some irony that the gunplay in the movie, which could have been crafted entirely harmlessly with rifles and blanks, had instead to be done with Airsoft replicas and CGI—due to a lack of enthusiasm on Evans' part to get permits for real guns—while what looks like dozens of incredibly dangerous hand-to-hand sequences are accomplished so bloodily practically.

But it's not just the cast's athleticism and the effects team's gore work that permits the enjoyment of The Raid.  So let's look at the director and editor.  Gareth Evans is a British success story, in that he abandoned that particular Atlantis to fall into the sea, while he moved to the other side of the Earth where something resembling an economy still exists.

Those who know me, my tastes, and my own human body's vulnerabilities know also that the thing I hate most in movies is the penchant possessed by some directors, especially within action and horror, to employ random camera movement in a vain effort to supply the energy they've utterly failed to infuse into their product through more classical methods.  This technique is known to film theorists as "fucking shit"; it is also referred to by non-specialists as "shakycam."  And, to the lazy observer, The Raid is loaded with it.

Except: it is not shakycam as we know it.  Well, not usually.  There are moments, here and there—most egregiously in a scene early on, after the SWAT team has retreated from the stairwell under heavy fire and into an abandoned apartment—where Evans shrugs his shoulders and does what any mean-minded Paul Greengrass would do, and whips his camera to and fro with no intent other than to artlessly represent the chaos of the situation.  But, and I want to emphasize this, when I say "moments" I mean it—all told, it's less than a single minute of The Raid's running time.

Otherwise, Evans has wrought a miracle: hyperkinetic handheld camerawork that retains an understanding of the function of the human eye and the brain it's attached to.  Evans' camera almost never moves for its own sake, emphasizing its own existence (and nauseating the viewer).  It moves because it must—it moves with its ever-moving subjects.  Even when its subjects drop twelve feet through a hole in the floor.

The frame is centered on precisely the action that you yourself would fix upon; there is no vast, vomit-inducing disconnect between the camera and the audience.  In other words, if a defining feature of "shakycam" is its randomness, then The Raid hardly features shakycam at all.  Film theorists of the mid-20th century were prone to unbelievably pretentious pronouncements such as "camera movement has a moral dimension."  I thought it was baloney, and then I saw The Raid.

Godard sez that montage is mise-en-scene.  Is he right?  Let's find out!

Equally as valuable is Evans' precise editing.  Even well-shot and finely-choreographed action can be obliterated almost beyond recognition in the editing room.  The quick-cutting technique, Pain to shakycam's Panic, has been just as much of a disaster for cinema as its counterpart.  But Evans uses takes that are as long as technically and aesthetically feasible, putting them together with a sense of continuity that an editor of old would consider all but obligatory.  The superhumanity on display is thus presented in its fullest possible glory.  While hacks like the Russos subject their action to death by a thousand cuts, and think they've achieved something by bleeding it dry, Evans is working on a level that, in comparison, can fairly be described as genius.

So far I've contented myself to explain what no one in their right mind could possibly deny: The Raid is one of the best-made action films in history, and when someone calls it something like an "adrenaline-soaked thrill-ride," they really do mean it this time.  But, believe it or not, The Raid did have a story.

"So, anyway... how's mom?"

First, but not foremost, The Raid courts real social issues with its merciless take on the fallen nature of crimefighting in Jakarta.  What initially seems like nothing so much as a plot hole is in fact a plot twist.  Why is there no back-up?  Because Wahyu has undertaken this operation on his own authority without the sanction or even the knowledge of his immediate superiors.  If that's not bad enough, this rogue cop isn't even really a rogue cop: he's brought this SWAT team here to kill Tama at the behest of another gang of criminals, reaching him through his own superior officers, whom they have already bought with money earned by God knows what degraded acts.  The feeling of being trapped in this building is compounded by the feeling of being trapped within a recursively corrupt system where law exists only by the leave of power; even if we get out of this building alive, we'll still be in Indonesia, and that's no clear improvement.

Critics in a more genteel society could misconstrue this as a purely cartoonish scenario, but most critics don't live in a country where gangsters and lawful authority are barely distinct, and a military government deployed an army of actual street-hustling criminals to murder several million people only forty years ago.  Indonesia is still ranked amongst one of the most corrupt nations on the planet.  I'm reasonably certain that daily life in Indonesia cannot be reduced entirely to one silat fight after another, but there's a rawness to The Raid's ugly depiction of the country's power structures, as layers of rot one atop the other, that approaches satire—if not outright condemnation.  It is ultimately a more effective political film than another famous movie about Indonesia that I could name; and not least because this movie is fundamentally moral.  But I digress.

Of course, that is not the story of The Raid.  The more compelling plot is the simpler one, the universal one: the tale of two brothers who are torn apart by circumstance and temperament.  Rama entered the highrise with not just his assigned mission, but, secretly, to rescue his gangster brother Andi—from both a life in prison and from his life of sin.

As events play out, though, it's Andi who takes on the role of savior first.  They fight for each other, without ever losing sight of who they are individually: cop and criminal, irrevocably.  Iko Uwais conveys his sibling affection, and all his confusion and impotent anger over his brother's choices.  Donny Alamsyah, whose performance is easily (by conventional metrics that don't involve silat) the best in the film, conveys the rivalry and the loyalty alike, but most importantly, the self-knowledge that Rama cannot redeem him—if that senseless appendage upon the title must mean anything—and he resents that he would even try.

Sealing The Raid are its final shots.  Andi escorts his brother and the other two survivors out of the compound, ensuring their safety, but as he turns a slow smile blossoms across his battered face.  The empire he surveys lies in ruins, but now it's his.

The irony of this anti-resolution is palpable and it is sad: for all of Rama's struggles on behalf of law and order, and for his family, the final victory belongs to the criminal, and to crime itself.  The last shot of them together is of the courtyard gate closing upon his brother.  Subtle it certainly isn't, but I have always said that subtlety and quality are hardly coextensive.  It is bleak; and it strikes as hard emotionally as every physical impact until now has registered upon our poor little reptile brains.

It takes, I think, a truly hard heart to deny the power and potential of these moments.  And it takes, as we'll see, an even harder head to remain as blithely and infuriatingly ignorant of that power and potential as it turns out Gareth Evans ultimately was.  But that's for then; this is now.  This is The Raid, and it is one of the best films of the decade, and—hype entirely aside—one of the best action films of them all.  It hasn't quite changed the game yet; but now we have hope.

Score:  10/10

Other reviews in this series:
Acts of killing, part II: Dredd
Acts of killing, part III: Merantau
Acts of killing, part IV: The Raid 2

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