Monday, June 25, 2012

The Object of Chaos

The Raid: Redemption (2011, directed by Gareth Evans) features a title that is both on point and utterly meaningless. It's original title, Serbuan maut, means "Deadly Invasion," which is both more descriptive and less prone to promising some kind of justification for the mayhem the movie includes on screen. "The Raid" is true enough. The movie is about a police raid on a high rise full of gangsters. There's not any redemption in this movie, though. Just a 24-count fridge pack of cans of whoop-ass.

My usual format has me diving into a synopsis in my second paragraph, but I wonder if there's a point to that with this movie. I mean, sure, there's a rudimentary story. There's even some nuance to it. But the story has absolutely nothing to do with the aims and form of the movie. I mean, it hits the cliches like a pro: the hotshot young hero with the pregnant wife, the twinning of the hero and one of the primary bad guys, the corrupt superior officer. This is assembled from elements lying around on the floor of the genre factory. It imposes these elements on a narrative that's pure video game. This movie is very much in the tradition of a first-person shooter, in which the I-guy has to wade through a shitload of goons to get to the big boss at the end. The movie, as I say, is ostensibly about a covert police raid on a high-rise in which an underworld boss houses a private army and a huge drug lab. Unfortunately for the cops, the boss knows they're coming and traps them all in the building like bugs in a killing jar. Except...he doesn't reckon on one man...

But to hell with all that. None of that is what the movie is about. This is a movie about bodies and bullets in motion. The plot? Something to hang action sequences on. For a movie so conceived, it has a surprising feel for the rhythm and cadence of action filmmaking. It knows that the audience needs rest spots, it knows that periods of relative calm--particularly when filmed as suspense sequences--enhance the utterly berserk action sequences when they come. Moreover, the action sequences strike an interesting balance between a run and gun chaos cinema style of action and the more classical Hong Kong style. I caught the filmmakers taking notes from Jackie Chan at some points. There's a preference for full-length shots in which you can tell the geography of the scene, as well as the possibilities of the environment (which the characters on screen exploit). Even though it's choreographed within an inch of its life, it still has a feeling of spontaneity, of being improvised. Part of this is the frenetic ways in which the camera moves, which has not been paired with an equally frenetic editing style. The cuts in this movie are fast, don't get me wrong, but they aren't so fast that you can't follow along. The look of the movie is a kind of grimy murk, but the action that takes place within this look is usually clear as a bell.

This is one of those deranged Asian action films in which one has to grimace at the things that the stuntmen are occasionally asked to do. Some of the mayhem is obviously created by a computer--one stunt in particular that results in an actor with a visibly broken back had to be done in a computer--but great whacks of it are practical stunts that encourages the audience to think, "Ooooh, that had to hurt!" The object of these kinds of movies is kinesis for its own sake. This iteration of the cinema of violence is solely concerned with movement, and surprisingly, not just the movement of the stuntmen on screen. It's also concerned with the movement of the camera. This takes the free camera aesthetic to an extreme. The staging of the fight choreography had to involve choreographing the camera as well as the stuntmen because it moves around the stunt sequences like its another character. It's a bravura performance and gives the film a surface slickness that's really seductive. The staging of the action sequences occasionally provides surprises, too. There's a scene in which the darkness gives way to reveals a line of gunmen on the high ground, for instance, that's a sweet piece of pure style. These sorts of flourishes recast some of this film's sequences as high octane chess matches, particularly the final fight between our hero, his brother, and the mad dog boss at the end.

That relationship--the one between two brothers--should be familiar to anyone who grew  up watching Shaw Brothers movies. The union of two enemies to take down an even worse bad guy is a trope that the Shaws used again and again, particularly in the heroic bloodshed movies of Chang Cheh. It comes down to this film by way of John Woo (who also used it again and again). Writer/director Gareth Evans (who's a Brit), defuses the essential homoeroticism in this trope (especially Chang Cheh's version) by making the two enemies into brothers, which is fine, as far as it goes, I guess. Indonesia, where this film is set, is a Muslim country, after all.

In any case, if you're searching for any deeper meanings than kinesis for its own sake with this movie, then you will search in vain. The bad guys are painted as monsters. The film's crime boss gets a memorable introduction as he's casually executing a line of men in his office (he's spread out some plastic to keep the bloodstains off the carpet), while the main hero is first seen caressing the pregnant belly of his wife. This is not a film characterized by nuance. It's white hats and black hats. The main bad guys are dispatched at the end, the remaining bad guy--our central hero's brother--remains in place, benevolent but unredeemed, and probably in such a place because he's required to provide the film with an out for its hero. The story and characters are a framework, not an object unto themselves. There's an old saying that applies to this film: the object of chaos is chaos.

No comments: