Thursday, April 12, 2012

Quite contrary

Not liking something because it's popular is one of the more annoying ways people choose to show their individuality these days. Whether it's hipster doofuses, counter-culture warriors or professional contrarians, there always seems to be people who will go out of their way not to go with the crowd regardless of the quality of the popular thing in question.

I, for the record, do not count myself among their number. My tastes do tend toward the eclectic, but I won't dismiss something just because it strikes a chord a large group of people. Why am I doing all this preamble? Because tonight I saw "The Raid: Redemption," one of the biggest Indonesian movies to hit theaters in recent years, and my take on the film is apparently well in the minority.

Seeing movies in theaters has never been that high of a priority for me. The only other film I've seen in a theater since coming to Indonesia was the Jason Statham vehicle "Blitz" (and that was during the MPA's boycott of Indonesia), and I've maybe seen 10 or so movies in theaters since high school. Off the top of my head, there's "The Raid," "Blitz," "300," "Up," the J.J. Abrams "Star Trek," "U-571," "Erin Brockovich," "Sicko," "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" and "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence." Not much of a list, really.

Still, I figured "The Raid" was worth seeing on the big screen. It generated a huge response here and was hailed by movie critics both in Indonesia and abroad (I should note that Marcel is no soft touch when it comes to his reviews). The reviews were not totally positive, though -- most notably, Roger Ebert gave it just one star:
I have no prejudice against violence when I find it in a well-made film. But this film is almost brutally cynical in its approach. The Welsh director, Gareth Evans, knows there's a fanboy audience for his formula, in which special effects amp up the mayhem in senseless carnage.

There's obviously an audience for the film, probably a large one. They are content, even eager, to sit in a theater and watch one action figure after another pound and blast one another to death. They require no dialogue, no plot, no characters, no humanity. Have you noticed how cats and dogs will look at a TV screen on which there are things jumping around? It is to that level of the brain's reptilian complex that the film appeals.
He also went on to expound on his thoughts on his blog, acknowledging the wall-to-wall butt-kicking but calling out the utter lack of, well, anything else:
I can't take this much longer. I can't function like a butcher's scale. Is it enough to spend two hours determining if a film "achieves its generic purpose?" Shouldn't it do more than that? Perhaps provide some humor, humanity, romance, suspense, beauty, strategy, poetry. Not all of those qualities, but at least several of them. "The Raid" didn't even supply a single good-looking publicity still.

I've seen some incredibly brutal South Korean films recently, like "The Chaser," that contain enough violence to stun any fan of "The Raid" but also have the advantage of being very good films, with intriguing characters, puzzling plots, and ingenious situations. I watched spellbound. "The Raid: Redemption" is dead in the water. The butcher slams the raw slab on his scale and asks, "How many are you feeding?"
After sitting through "The Raid," I came up with a few observations of my own, not the least of which is I might really be a curmudgeon before my time.

Folks, if you're going to the trouble of making the trip to a movie theater and paying movie theater prices, how about you keep your eyes on the big screen and turn off your damn phone? There were a dozen or so other people at the showing I attended and at least half of them had their smartphones out and operating during the movie. "The Raid" is only 100 minutes -- are you so hopelessly tethered to your social network that you can't survive two hours without texting, tweeting or updating your Facebook status? I know Indonesians are all about being social, but have some common courtesy, please.

Anyway, back to the movie. My Indonesian is fairly shaky and there were no subtitles, but given the heavy emphasis on action I was still able to follow along fairly well. Our Hero is established as such in the first few minutes, when he prays, works out, kisses his pregnant wife and has a chat with his dad. Other roles are laid out fairly quickly (Team Leader, Nervous Nellie, Old Cop Who's Too Old for This Nonsense, etc.), while the Main Villain locks up that role by killing five people execution-style (four with a gun, one with a hammer) early in the film.

Speaking of the body count, that really needs to be addressed. "The Raid" earns every bit of its reputation as a violent film. I kept track of confirmed, on-screen fatalities (not counting knockouts with baddies put down but still breathing/writhing) and came up with an unofficial body count of 64. In contrast, only 37 people popped their clogs throughout the five "Child's Play" movies. The methods of killing vary, too, from the mundane (revolver, hammer, axe, machete, sniper rifle, assault rifle) to the more creative (defenestration, truncheon, jagged piece of wood, florescent bulb).

Special mention must be made of Our Hero's innovative use of a refrigerator as a weapon, a move that harkened back to the cringe-inducing "nuke the fridge" moment in the latest Indiana Jones movie. Badly outnumbered and taking refuge in an apartment, Our Hero rips a natural gas container out from under a stove, plops it in the fridge and pushes the fridge until its front is against the door of the apartment. He then chucks a grenade in the fridge, apparently turning it into a Claymore mine as the blast is solely directed out the door and toward the baddies. When Evans told the Washington Post "I've run out of ways to kill people," he might not have been exaggerating.

So what's my verdict on "The Raid?" In short, I come down closer to Roger Ebert than Marcel Thee. Yes, the film does achieve its primary object of being an unabashed, over-the-top violent martial-arts flick, and for those who come in wanting just that it definitely delivers. I can certainly appreciate well-done martial arts in a movie, but there is a big difference between martial arts being part of a greater overall narrative and it being the entire selling point of the movie. Spending 85 or 90 minutes of a 100-minute movie watching heads being bashed, throats being slit and swashes being buckled eventually gets to be too much. I can't speak to whether it is, in fact, a cynical ploy by Evans or just a joyous celebration of violence, but to me the steady stream of carnage eventually feels akin to Homer Simpson being sentenced to eat all the donuts in the world.

In the end, "The Raid" just didn't do it for me. I couldn't bring myself to care about any of the characters (the vast majority were complete ciphers, so much so that almost two-thirds of the actors in the credits had titles such as Riot Attacker #8, Machete Gang #3 and so on) and the plot was as wafer-thin as an after-dinner mint. I didn't go in expecting a beguiling art film or heady haute cinema, but one or two clever plot twists in an action flick isn't too much to ask, is it? We'll find out soon enough -- Evans is on course to make a sequel, if not two, to "The Raid," so we'll see if he gets a bit more ambitious with his filmmaking or if he stays on the path to becoming Wales' answer to Uwe Boll.


  1. I read this review to see the writer (you) as an independent quality movie critic and yet :

    1. you've only seen that many films in theatres. Are you currently only practicing to be a critic? you still have a long long long way to go, son.

    2. From that list NONE of them were martial arts movies (sigh).

    3. you claim to know about Uwe Boll and yet you don't know that he's not capable at all of making an action-packed movie, in fact in any movie. Comparing Gareth Evans movies, at least the last two, to Uwe Boll really reflect your very little knowledge about movies.

    4. you are using other's critic verdict. Even worse, you copied many of his lines and pasted on your review. Really?

    I read many reviews for the movie, the critics who loved it and the ones who hated it. Most of them were really well written reviews, either they like it or not. But this is certainly the worst review that I've ever read for this movie.

    But it's okay for starter. All you have to do is train more, and one thing for sure watch more.

    1. You came here looking for an independent quality movie critic? Shows what you know, "son." I established off the bat that I wasn't big on seeing movies in theaters -- if you still somehow interpreted this as being written by an actual movie critic, that's on you.

      I certainly hope you're not intimating that only movie critics can have opinions on movies. This is just one casual movie-goer's reaction to the newest, biggest film phenomenon in Indonesia. At no point did I recommend people see it or avoid it, and neither did I cast any aspersions on the intellectual capacity of people who enjoyed "The Raid." That's why I said I came down closer to Ebert's position, not right in line with it. If people go see the movie and enjoy themselves, then by all means indulge -- as I said, it just did nothing for me.

      But your comment is OK for starters. All you have to do is train more, and for sure write more.