by Greg Lynch Jr.
The hero's journey has been a staple of stories since tales were told around the campfire. Think Homer and his tales of the Trojan War. Think Beowulf. Think of Ivanhoe. Think STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE. All tell of one man's struggles to overcome impossible odds. These tales have enjoyed worldwide popularity because every culture can relate to the thought of one man going forth and defeating the obstacles he faces.
It's no surprise to find these same structures in today's movies. But with familiarity comes a sense of disappointment that you have seen this story before. The challenge for storytellers then becomes one of twisting the known conventions into something fresh.
To that end, Director Gareth Evans is adding a new ingredient into our familiar recipe for martial arts films: Silat.
Silat is the indigenous martial art of Indonesia. Like many martial arts, its origins are hard to come by. The only descriptions are myths and legends. According to one popular tale, a woman was doing laundry down by the river when she spotted monkeys fighting. She spent the day watching the monkeys' unique combat movements. Upon arriving home to a disgruntled husband, she demonstrated these newfound moves to fend off his attacks. The husband was so amazed at her sudden fighting prowess that he wanted to be taught these moves.
Like many Chinese martial arts, the forms are based on animal movements. Silat has its monkey and tiger forms much as the Chinese martial arts have them. As Evans points out, the holds might look the same, but it's how they achieve them that is subtly different.
Like Shaolin kung fu, Silat is also used as a method for spiritual cultivation. The Silat practitioner however uses his practice in a Muslim context rather than a Buddhist one. Part of the opening of the tiger form, for instance, echoes the hand cleansing that Muslims practice before entering a temple for prayer.
Evans spent six months filming a documentary about Silat called LAND OF MOVING SHADOWS: THE MYSTIC ARTS OF INDONESIA. He went from knowing nothing about this martial art to admiring it greatly. The one thing he wanted to do was show his fellow martial arts film aficionados back in England and Wales these incredible moves.
While filming the documentary, Evans was fortunate enough to meet martial arts instructor Iko Uwais. Iko Uwais has been training in the martial arts since he was five years old. In 2005, Iko won Best Single Performer at the Pencak Silat Festival.
Evans made a promise to himself to make a film incorporating Silat into the story. He also made a promise to Iko. Shortly after filming his documentary, Evans returned to Indonesia to make a film with Uwais.
The film MERANTAU is the culmination of those promises. "Merantau" is the word used to describe a young Indonesian's journey out into the world. The film highlights Pencak Silat Harimau or tiger style. Iko not only stars in the film but serves as fight choreographer.
Buoyed by the success of MERANTAU, Evans and Uwais started planning their next film, BERANDAL. BERANDAL was going to be the story of undercover cop Rama in the drug underworld of Jakarta. The scope of this film required much more funding than the modest budget of MERANTAU. When Evans and his production company couldn't raise the money, they decided to tell the story of Rama in three parts. The first film in the trilogy would be a much simpler story about Rama's early days when he was just starting out on the police force.
This first film, titled THE RAID: REDEMPTION, is now complete, and it opens on March 23, 2012 in limited release in New York and Los Angeles.
THE RAID introduces young Rama as the new guy on an elite special forces team. The job for the day is to bring in crime boss Tama. The only problem is, Tama is holed up in a rundown fifteen-story building which he has turned into his own personal fortress.
With the exception of a few shots of Rama starting his day at home, the film takes place around or in Tama's building. It starts with the SWAT team's coordinated assault on the back door and ends a hundred minutes later after a whirlwind of shoot-outs, explosions, tense stand offs and impressive fight sequences.
The SWAT team is under the command of Jaka, played by Judo champion Joe Taslim. For the first several floors, "the raid" seems to be going the way of the SWAT team. The bad guys are taken down with precision and efficiency. But "the raid" becomes a fiasco when the alarm is sounded and Tama's forces fight back. The whole team finds themselves trapped between two forces of bad guys. One group approaching from below and the other descending from above. The situation is made worse by the fact that Tama has placed a bounty on the SWAT team.
In order to set up the phenomenal fight sequences later in the film, both sides need to use up the bullets in their guns. To that end, the first couple of sequences are full of gun battles that will leave you cringing in your seat. The SWAT team's escape routes are continually cut off by an astonishing fusillade of bullets. Every turn they make only leads them into more trouble. Dead bodies pile up on both sides. As their options dwindle, the SWAT team becomes desperate to get out of the trap they find themselves in.
The gun battles eventually end through attrition. The SWAT team now tries to avoid death at the hands of Tama's forces by splitting up. This leads to another series of tense situations.
Finally, the fights begin. The wait is worth it.
Director Evans and fight choreographers Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian spent a tremendous amount of time choreographing the fights. Their method starts with filming the rehearsals with a small camera. Evans then goes and storyboards every single shot using the handi-cam footage. When the time comes to film the action, the film is ninety-nine percent done. If MERANTAU was the college degree in fight choreography, THE RAID must be the masters degree.
The biggest lesson Evans said he learned from MERANTAU was not to exhaust his actors. In MERANTAU, Evans let the camera roll during the entire fight scenes. The takes would be very long. Sometimes he would do thirty takes on a single fight. This would exhaust the actors. Subsequently, the actors would hold back, conserving energy so they could continue to fight through the day. Evans felt he might not be getting the most intensity from his actors for every shot.
For THE RAID, he went with shorter sequences to help his actors stay intense and add more dynamics to the fights. That's not to say the fights are choppy (in the sense of so many action films today, where fast cuts are used to hide lack of martial skill); rather, there is just more cutting compared to the fights seen in MERANTAU.
Another big change is the amount of realistic blood shed in THE RAID. Evans cites Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH as one of his influences, and this film shows it. There is blood everywhere. If somebody gets shot in the head, there will be a fountain of blood. Knife wounds bleed copiously. Machete whacks leave deep wounds. When the machineguns start firing, you better bring a bucket and a mop.
The signature moment for the film has to be Rama's knife and baton sequence. Basically, Rama has to make his way down the hallway and take on all comers. It's a flurry of blocks with the baton and multiple strikes with the knife. People pop out of doorways to assault Rama. They attack him from behind. The action is at a fever pitch. Silat puts much emphasis on knee and elbow strikes. During this sequence, those techniques are on full display. Rama takes a lot of punishment as he traverses the hallway. This one fight took a week to choreograph and a week to film. It seems endless, but probably only lasts a couple of minutes.
The sequence highlights another one of Evans theories about fights. Fights end when someone is unconscious on the floor. Fight participants don't mutually break to breathe and rest. There is no stopping unless someone is not moving. Evans says he learned this from the fights he witnessed firsthand in the pubs in Wales. As rules for fighting go, it should serve him well.
The big fight scenes aren't exclusive to Rama, though. Two other proficient martial artists supply mayhem in the film.
Yayan Ruhian plays "Mad Dog," Tama's right-hand man and enforcer. Yayan also got his start in MERANTAU. He was hired as a specialist to teach Silat Harimau and Silat Minang. When they couldn't find someone to play Eric (which required acting and martial arts skills), they gave the role to Yayan.
Calling the character Mad Dog is somewhat misleading because there doesn't appear to be anything crazy about the character. Mad Dog is a warrior testing himself against other warriors. It would be more appropriate to compare his character to James Coburn as Britt in the Magnificent Seven or Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo in Seven Samurai. This is a man who knows that in order to be the best, you have to beat the best. Throughout THE RAID, that is how Yayan approaches his battles. Sure, he could have shot you, but to him it's best if he takes you on with only his fists.
The other martial stalwart is Joe Taslim who plays Jaka, Sergeant of the Special Forces team. Taslim spent ten years as the National Judo champion of Indonesia from 1999-2009.
Taslim got a role in THE RAID the old-fashioned way. Impressed when he saw MERANTAU, he knew he wanted to work with that production company. So he sent a message to Evans on Facebook and told him he wanted a job. Evans hired him. See how easy it is to get a job in films?;
Taslim was mainly hired to broaden the breadth of the martial arts depicted in the film. Evans didn't want it all to be Silat, which he felt could get boring. For one of the pivotal fights in the movie, it was Taslim's Judo against Yayan's Silat. It also highlights the fight between a big man and a small man.
Another interesting contribution to the film was the addition of Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese to do the score for the North American release. Shinoda is best known for his work with Linkin Park. Trapanese has done composing for many years and most recently worked with Daftpunk on the TRON:LEGACY score. Sony Pictures Classic, who purchased the film, was eager to try out something different for the North American Release despite the fact a score had already been completed for the worldwide release.
This was Shinoda's first time composing a score for a movie. He had been offered movie scoring jobs before, but mostly those amounted to just coming up with pop hits to be added to sell a soundtrack. THE RAID was his first go at composing original music to enhance a film.
About two thirds of the way through the story, after some ferocious action, the film slows down to let the audience catch its breath. Dialogue informs us of various plot points. Surprises about characters are revealed. There is a scene where people in hiding are in danger of being discovered. It goes on for way too long.
It's here that the great film turns into a good film. It's like the filmmakers have goals they need to accomplish to resolve the story but don't necessarily choose the best methods to achieve those goals. There are still two major set pieces of action left, but they seem forced.
In the first one, the depleted SWAT team races to the top of the building in hopes of escaping the madness they are lost in. They enter one room and it seems they only entered the room to stage a fight. You feel this because at the end of the fight, nothing has substantially changed. Nothing in the room helps them achieve their goals. By stopping to fight, they just allow more bad guys to find them. By the fight's end, they pretty much run out the way they came in.
The final fight scene is the most bothersome. It's supposed to be the ultimate fight of the movie. It should top everything that has gone before. But it doesn't. The baton-knife fight was much more creative. The gun battles had more tension. This final fight starts in a very stagey way, and it just seems to be there because, well, an action film should end with some sort of action.
If you buy into the premise that the film is about "The Hero's Journey," then at the end the hero should win. He should overcome overwhelming odds, battle terrible adversaries, and triumph. If you have been identifying with the character, you will feel as if you've won too.
Rama has done all these things. He has beaten hundreds. He's escaped dangerous situations. When the opportunity comes to save us from a deplorable situation and show that he is the hero, he falters. Rama walks away from the final fight alive, but how he survives makes you question if he is the actual hero.
After that, Rama doesn't really assert himself in any of the final scenes. He is a secondary character to the action around him. He hears the denouement dialogue but doesn't participate in the conversation.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION is a worthy follow-up to MERANTAU. A lot of things that were good in MERANTAU are much better in THE RAID. If you like scenes full of fights and gun battles, you are going to want to see this film. If you are a stickler for story structure and plot, you are going to want to see this film, but you might come away a bit disappointed in how turns out.
If you check the calendar, you will see that THE RAID's biggest fight will be at the box office, as the weekend of March 23 will also see the opening of THE HUNGER GAMES. If ever there was a big man-little man fight, this is it. Hopefully, despite all the noise surrounding that film, people will not miss out on seeing a modest but quite good film like THE RAID: REDEMPTION.
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About Greg Lynch Jr.:
Greg Lynch Jr. is a frequent contributor to KungFuMagazine.com. His company, Bad Ass Bunny Productions is working on a documentary of Grandmaster Tu Jin-Sheng. For more information, visit IronCrotchDoc.com.