Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Raid: A Much Needed Man From Nowhere

About 30 minutes into The Raid (or The Raid Redemption as it has been dubbed in the US) I realized that its protagonist just may be the perfect representation of a new type of hero for these times -- one that has perhaps been around, but is deserving of far more attention.  The team of ‘good guy’ honest cops have been getting their heads handed to them by a seemingly endless supply of thugs, when Rama, played by Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais,manages to somehow fight back.  It is far from a victory; more like a roughly hewn tourniquet becoming fast soaked in blood.  The team is still disfigured, shocked, and quickly dropping in numbers.  But it’s enough to get the attention of the drug overlord and controller of the rundown tenement that serves as a safe haven for hordes of criminals and lowlives, as he watches from an undisclosed level of the building.  “Who is this guy?” or something to that effect, he wonders aloud.  He is dealing with a ‘man from nowhere,’ just another member of the special forces team (which after spending just a few minutes in the movie’s nightmarish setting, does not seem all that special) assigned to a thankless job.  Uncelebrated, unheralded, the villain never sees him coming.  

This marks a major shift from the days of super men with near unlimited power and an incorruptible moral compass.  They were followed by dark knights and vigilantes, whom I would argue are fading from relevance as well.  They marked a move towards greater realism, with super powers being replaced by vast resources, self training, and a darker attitude better to match wits with the savageness that the enemy possesses.  While these crusaders have remained on the screen or in the pages of comics, the darker aspects of real life have, as some would put it, come to imitate art.  More and more violent acts taking on elements of the fantastic, are becoming commonplace headlines, seeping into our collective conscious and being experienced and perceived at a far closer proximity than ever before.  Along with the notion that shocking violent incidents could potentially occur anywhere and anytime comes a new sense of powerlessness. One that is less easily assuaged by those fantastical heroes that have come before.

A more meaningful onscreen hope, even if it’s only slightly more conceivable, is that in the midst of one of these real life nightmares, someone with the ability and will to step up could emerge from the panicked masses.  Not special, but capable of looking horrifying reality straight in the face and leading the way through to the other side of an impossibly hopeless fate.  

And this is where Iko Uwais’ modern day hero, at once an everyman and a nobody, comes in.  In the film's opening scenes, we know only that he is a cop living in a modest apartment, kissing his pregnant wife goodbye before heading to another day of a law enforcement agent’s job.  Not a decorated hero cop or a man with a mystical journey of enlightenment hidden in his past (at least not yet - there is the dreaded threat of the oftentimes past rewriting sequel), he is just another member of the team about to participate in an operation being orchestrated at a rank and pay grade far above his own.  

I lifted the phrase ‘man from nowhere’ from the title of a recent Korean action movie, it also being an achievement of intense storytelling coupled with strong action choreography.  Reflecting on that film, it had me most captivated in its first act when the protagonist was still shrouded in complete mystery.  While the added backstory of secret agent gone underground gave an explanation to his feats of violent prowess, it also made him somehow more distant, and shattered that appealing premise of heroism lurking somewhere within the realm of common every day existence.  
Besides sticking faithfully to this compelling modern vision of heroism , Evans does so many other things right to make The Raid a cut above the rest.  There is the direness of the setup, portraying the uphill battle of those that play by the books against complete and utter ruthlessness. A nerve wracking sequence involving the drug lord and several captured cops shows the enemy's complete disregard for human life and its snug embrace of cruel brutality, as if it were a second skin.  

The Raid is also a fantastic case of filmmaking in which the enemy is not only the hordes of attackers, but the environment itself.  Every doorway and darkened landing of the hostile high rise trips up the squadron and poses a lethal threat.  Around corners and underneath floorboards lay traps ready to be sprung. It is a claustrophobic construct reminiscent of, if not inspired by, the dizzying black market internment space for hire in Korea's also infamous Old Boy film.

While all comers will no doubt be riveted, this is an action lover’s movie at heart, and the action itself is treated with the highest regard. Dreamed up by Evans and choreographed by Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, the actor portraying Mad Dog, lead skull smasher in service to the boss.  It involves furiously fast movements, throws, and fights that often end with somebody’s head or torso connecting bone crunching-ly with a wall, pillar, or some other unfortunate furnishing.  Yet,
Evans also knows how to balance the hand to hand combat with plenty of shootouts and knife fights, ensuring the tension of life or death stakes stays disconcertingly close at hand. This is a nice change of pace from a film like, say, Chocolate, in which all semblance of suspense eventually falls to the way side and it all becomes for the most part one big martial arts exhibition.   

While changes from a country of origin’s release are always dubious, the addition of music composed by Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park) and Joseph Trapanese (Tron) to US version is a definite positive. It is a propulsive mix of bruised and battered beat-oriented themes.  Stunning throughout, but actually working best in the moments of relative calm leading up to a conflict.  The standout track is made up of rising tones, suggesting a seemingly impossible heavenward escape from the crumbling confines in which the two hour plus battle takes place.   
The screening I got to was put together by the good folks at Fangoria, attended by the likes of a few Unseen heads and low culture documentarians from Planet Chocko (whose reportage on the movie is here).  Between us and the other action film fanatics in the packed house, hardly a scene flickered by without ecstatic applause and awestruck expressions of disbelief.  This is the way the movie is meant to be seen: with a crowd of fellow enthusiastic spectators.

The evening also included a Q & A with a gracious and enlightening Evans on hand.  He discussed the use of the traditional Indonesian martial arts form, Pencak Silat, or rather just one strain from amongst a vast number of variations.  He also shared the inner workings of his mental process behind one of the film’s more explosive action sequences.
Also discussed was a bit on the business end of things.  The reasoning behind lengthening the film’s name from simply The Raid to include the extraneous ‘Redemption,’ a decision he was not a fan of.  It came from a desire to get the film out there sooner than later, with copyright issues keeping the original name out of play, and ‘redemption’ being applicable to one of the movie’s threads.  

And yes, there was talk of a future English remake and an Evans-helmed sequel...threatening the sacredness of this one of a kind movie, yes, but with this fresh and idealistic director somewhere prominently in the mix, here is optimism that some more quality action will come out of whatever’s in store.

So, if you find yourself assembling an fantasy action team, you can take the established ones: Statham, Diesel, even Li.  I’ll go with Iko Uwais.  It’s early still, they'll never see him coming.  

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