I think cinema serves its highest role when it brings people together around the world by revealing our common passions. Most of these come to mind easily: music, laughter, children, solidarity. We gather around movies that make us jump for joy, and weep, and notice that we all dream of essentially the same things.
Turns out, violence is another good one. Brutal, gasp-inducing, ear-rattling violence. Such is the strange, discomfiting case of the breakout Welsh-Indonesian movie The Raid, which has been buzzing around the blogosphere since its Toronto premiere last year and careened its way through Sundance and SXSW before opening theatrically on March 23rd. (Note: I will be calling the movie The Raid as that is the title its filmmakers intended; the silly-sounding The Raid: Redemption is the title forced on it by the stick-up-its-ass legal department at 20th Century Fox for its USA release.)
A lot has been said about the film's wall-to-wall violence — a tired pun by now, but yes, many of the action scenes do involve people slamming into one wall, then another, then another — from tremendous praise to a much-ballyhooed lashing by Roger Ebert. Having literally seen the film less than two hours ago, there's no question my head still hurts. There are several moments in the film that violate what I consider perhaps cinema's only do-not-cross line: I do not need to see murder in such a visceral way that I may as well be experiencing an actual murder. (This scene from Fincher's Zodiac comes to mind. Then again why am I linking to this? You shouldn't watch it.) At one point in The Raid, a cop repeatedly stabs a guy in the chest until he dies. The camera is probably about four feet away. Another time, a guy is shot in the head at point blank range – multiple times – and we are probably less than two feet away. This movie is horrific.
And yet, I say that not completely disparagingly, as Ebert does, because... Well, because I am here in Los Angeles watching this movie. Which means it has traveled all the way from Indonesia, and is now showing on 881 screens across the USA. In other words, though no one seems to have really noticed, The Raid is one of the most successful and widely-released foreign films in this country since Pan's Labyrinth made it to more than 1,000 cinemas in 2006. (By comparison, this year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, A Separation, has been released in less than 300 cinemas.)
Which means, The Raid is of a league with films that accomplish a mission most dear to my heart: getting people to see films from other cultures. The fact that there is literally no trace of Indonesian culture in this film drops it down several notches, to be sure; but sometimes just the act of going to a movie with subtitles and finding it A) awesome, and B) made with just as impressive of production values as a Hollywood flick, is all it takes to open the floodgates for one hitherto xenophobic viewer. If The Raid, through all its bone-crunching vapidity, persuades even the smallest number of fanboys to check out, say, Ong-Bak, and then maybe a Stephen Chow movie, and then on to Zhang Yimou, I must sing its praises.
I must, I admit, praise it on the level of sheer spectacle as well. The film is fantastically shot by Matt Flannery (mostly on Panasonic AF-100s) in exactly the way I want action to be shot. The camera is loose, poised, and in perfect step with the performers —in one amazing shot it even leaps through a hole in the floor and lands ten feet below, and then rushes forward into an immediate fistfight down there. In another the camera takes the place of bullets being fired through a window as a character falls backward, and blood spatters on the lens. These may sound like hoky tricks we've seen before, mostly by the likes of Zack Snyder and Timur Bekmambetov (of Wanted fame), but The Raid has the overwhelmingly refreshing thuds and jerks of a film made without CGI; I was actually reminded of Emmanuel Lubezki's landmark work in Children of Men. That is some commendation from a guy who considers that movie the best of its decade.
Also impressive is the gusto of writer-director Gareth Evans — not, one notes, an Indonesian name. To further stoke my admiration for cross-cultural experience, the film was in fact developed (and largely produced) by British filmmakers while working with Indonesian actors, crew, choreographers, and of course traditional fighting techniques. It's all a bit Slumdog Millionaire, which certainly makes it less authentic of an experience than an indigenously-produced film (like Ong-Bak), but very few people persuaded to sit down in a cinema for The Raid will be aware of it as anything other than a fully Indonesian picture. Evans may be Welsh, but he has legitimately brought the Indonesian martial art of silat to the international stage. And he made the film for a mere $1.1 million, which wouldn't even have covered the first 30 minutes if it had been made in the USA.
As for Ebert's lament that the film represents a new level of soullessness, for moviegoers in any country, I think perhaps I have the answer. The Raid just might be one of the most postmodern films of the new millennium. It has almost no plot. Its characters are cardboard cutouts who utter perhaps 20 minutes of dialogue between them. It inspires no empathy, no fear, no release. It inspires only admiration. We watch it and we are appreciative, because what we see looks utterly real; it is tougher, faster, more brutal, more intense than what we are used to seeing. A man beating another man to death is not inherently impressive. It's simply that this movie does it "better" than we have ever seen before, because we have been trained how these things are supposed to look by watching countless movies where men beat each other to death. The Raid is to brainless martial arts and gunfight movies what the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan was to war movies. We are watching something we've seen a million times, but we suddenly feel more present in the scene than we ever thought possible. Meaning, the movie isn't really any more reprehensible than its thousands of predecessors, from Die Hard to the Bourne movies. It's more like the distillation of four decades of action tropes into a synthesis where the peaks and troughs are amplified: the characters, who have always been empty in these kinds of movies, are now completely empty, and the action, which has always been the main focus anyway, is now rendered so vivid it obliterates everything else.