Indonesian Double Feature

It seems that most of this year I’ve had two movies relentlessly hyped to me, and surprisingly, one of them wasn’t The Avengers. Well, Avengers has been relentlessly hyped, but honestly,  something that high-profile hardly even registers on my admittedly off-kilter radar these days. I’m sure I’ll see it, but… well, it’s odd for me to think of a comic book movie as mainstream, y’know? What strange world is this?

No, there were two movies that were pretty much marketed straight to me, that just burrowed under my skin and stayed there until I could see them. One was The Cabin in The Woods, which I wrote and squeed about earlier this week, and the other was the movie that finally came to be known as The Raid: Redemption.

The setup here, as you can see, is very simple: It’s Die Hard with a SWAT team instead of Bruce Willis and a building full of coked-up crackheads and gangsters instead of a crew of mercenaries.  That’s an efficient delivery system for some of the most brutal, intense hand-to-hand fighting scenes I have seen in any movie. The end credits list something like twelve doctors and paramedics and at least half that many massage therapists. They earned their money on this movie, and so did those stuntmen.

The camera work is frequently stunning, but several times, it’s just as annoying. In the fight scenes it follows the frenetic action perfectly – there’s even a time or two that the camera looks around quickly after an opponent is felled, just as any character in the fight would.  Unfortunately, that carries over into the still scenes, as the shaky cam seems to take over arbitrarily, like a prize fighter bouncing on his heels to keep warmed up. Still, frantic as the violence becomes, the viewer is never in doubt as to what is happening, never puzzled about the geography in which all this is taking place, MICHAEL BAY AND EVERYBODY IN HOLLYWOOD WHO FANCIES THEMSELVES AN ACTION FILMMAKER PLEASE TAKE FUCKING NOTE.

Generally, every time I see a movie that proclaims itself to be wall-to-wall action, it becomes wearisome by the final half-hour. The Raid, however, doesn’t do that. The pacing is skillful, and the fights constantly switch the odds. It never get boring, and at a lean 100 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The “Redemption” part of the title was apparently added when it was decided that The Raid would be the first movie of a trilogy. It’s going to be interesting to see where director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais take this from here.

Speaking of Evans and Uwais, I had the evening free and remembered that their first movie together, Merantau (2009) was on Netflix Instant. Fully aware there was no way it could be as frantic as The Raid, I fired it up.

Merantau is a more typical martial arts movie, very firmly in the country-martial-artist-comes-to-the-big-city-and-winds-up-fighting-crime mold, along with The Big Boss and Ong Bak, just a lot grimmer. Uwais is the rural fellow hoping to find a job in Jakarta teaching silat, his martial art of choice, but his country morals and chivalry keep getting him involved in stopping a human trafficking ring led by two white devils. Unlike in Ong Bak, Uwais doesn’t pull out any cutesy Jackie Chan physical stunts, he is too concerned with kicking ass. (This is not to denigrate Chan or Jaa in any way. As I said, this is a fairly humorless movie.)

Relentless or not, things still get pretty intense; it’s rare that Uwais is ever up against only one person – in fact, the movie has the class to let him lose his first major fight. But after that, with a damsel in distress, he gets up and proceeds to lay the field to waste.

The major difference you are going to find between Merantau and The Raid is the camerawork. The handheld shakycam is nowhere to be found here, it’s all smooth dollies and Steadicam. A second major difference is the vibrancy of colors; Jakarta is a very colorful city, even (or perhaps especially) in the lower-income and seedy urban areas where Merantau takes place. That is another major difference from The Raid, where the color scheme is drab, drawn from crushed dreams and urban decay.

A unique thing in Merantau‘s favor is the two main bad guys, the white devils (Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson) can not only fight, they can act as well, and you don’t usually get that combination in Asian film (especially in Chinese movies, my usual flavor). That really adds to the quality of the movie, that this much care is put into its construction; those parts aren’t huge, but they are important.

The best part of seeing Merantau almost immediately after The Raid is seeing the repertory company forming; Doni Alamsyah is still playing Uwais’ brother, and the comparatively small Yayan Ruhian is still playing a badass ready to give the hero a run for his money (as Mad Dog in The Raid he’s absolutely a force of nature).

So that was a day well spent. Indonesian action flicks have come a long way from The Stabilizer and Jaka Sembung and The Devil’s Sword. If there’s a major renaissance in their film industry, I welcome it, and I am definitely looking forward to whatever Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais have for us in the future.