SXSW Movie Review: THE RAID And The Wonderful World Of Martial Arts Cinema

Hulk dissects SXSW masterpiece THE RAID in the context of what makes martial arts movies work as a whole.

SXSW Movie Review: THE RAID And The Wonderful World Of Martial Arts Cinema

WOULD IT SURPRISE YOU TO KNOW THAT HULK GREW UP ON MARTIAL ARTS MOVIES?

WELL HULK DID. IT WAS A STEADY STREAM OF: BRUCE LEE. JACKIE CHAN. JET LI. DONNIE YEN. AND CLASSICS LIKE 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER. COME DRINK WITH ME. AND PRODIGAL SON. YUP, IT SAFE TO SAY THAT LITTLE HULK WAS OBSESSED. AND EVEN WHILE LITTLE HULK PLAYED A BUNCH OF TRADITIONAL SPORTS, YOU BETTER BELIEVE MARTIAL ARTS WAS IN THERE TOO. THE RESULT OF THIS OBSESSION AND TRAINING? A VAST SERIES OF BACKYARD KUNG FU FILMS ON SUPER 8 AND THEN VHS. SURE, IT WAS JUST LITTLE HULK AND SOME FRIENDS FUCKING AROUND AND DOING STUFF WAAAAAAAAAAAYY TOO DANGEROUS FOR THAT AGE. IN FACT, HULK STILL APOLOGIZE TO [NAME REDACTED] FOR RUNNING AWAY WHEN HIS FOOT GOT STUCK IN A TREE AND FOR LATER TRYING TO PUT HIS HEAD THROUGH A "NOT THAT THICK" PIECE OF PLYWOOD.... SO... YEAH, APOLOGIES. BUT HULK LIKE TO THINK THAT THESE BACKYARD EXPERIMENTS MEANT A GREAT DEAL. NOT JUST IN THE SENSE OF "CUTTING ONE'S TEETH," BUT BECAUSE THESE LITTLE MOVIES WERE AT TIMES ENDEARING, SILLY AND PROVIDED A RARE MOMENT OF GENUINE AWESOME.

BUT THE BEST PART IS THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF KIDS OUT THERE WHO WERE DOING THE SAME EXACT (IRRESPONSIBLE) THING.

AND TOGETHER WE LEARNED THAT MARTIAL ARTS FILMS NOT ONLY HAVE A LONG AND STORIED HISTORY, BUT A WHOLE METHODOLOGY TO THEM IN THE VEIN OF ANY GOOD GENRE. WHETHER THEY SKEW PHILOSOPHICAL AND BEAUTIFUL OR DOWNRIGHT SILLY AND CHEESY, THERE IS STILL A WAY IN WHICH ALL THE GOOD MARTIAL ARTS FILMS ARE WHOLLY FUNCTIONAL. AND THE KEY TO THAT EXECUTION IS UNDERSTANDING THAT THE AUDIENCE WANTS TO SEE THE ACTORS ON SCREEN DO AWESOME THINGS.

NOW REALLY THINK ABOUT THAT. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? HULK ISN'T TALKING ABOUT THE POSTURE OF BEING AWESOME. OR THE FABRICATION OF AWESOME CIRCUMSTANCE. THIS IS ABOUT DOING. WHICH MEANS HULK IS TALKING ABOUT PERFORMANCE.

THE REASON SO MANY MARTIAL ARTS FILMS RESONATE IN A WAY THAT MANY TRADITIONAL ACTION BLOCKBUSTERS CAN'T IS THAT EVERYTHING ON SCREEN IS THOUGHT OF AS A "LIVE PERFORMANCE." OH SURE, WHAT WE'RE SEEING IS AN ABSOLUTE MANIPULATION OF HIDDEN CUTS, CAMERA TRICKS AND STAGING, BUT IT IS STILL THE MANIPULATION OF HUMAN BODIES IN A WAY WHERE WE CAN TANGIBLY SEE THAT ARTISTRY. SO OFTEN WHAT WE SEE IN MARTIAL ARTS IS A DECLARATION AGAINST THE WORLD OF CGI AND ARTIFICIALITY. EVEN WITH THE MORE PHILOSOPHICAL ONES THAT TEND TO USE A GREAT DEAL OF WIREWORK, THERE IS A STUNT-SHOWCASE INVOLVED WHERE WE FEEL THE HUMAN BEING PERFORMING. IT IS STILL THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF "RUNNING AWAY FROM CGI DESTRUCTION" THAT WE FIND SO FAMILIAR NOW. GOOD MARTIAL ARTS ALWAYS SEEMS TO STILL REGISTER AS A PERFORMANCE IN OUR MINDS. IT JUST FEELS ALIVE.

SO WHY IS HULK TALKING ABOUT WHAT MAKES A GOOD MARTIAL ARTS MOVIE? BECAUSE HULK IS CURRENTLY AT SXSW AND HULK MANAGED TO SEE GARETH EVAN'S THE RAID(1).

AND IT IS FUCKING AWESOME.

IT'S THE KIND OF AWESOME WHERE EVERYONE WHO SEES IT TELLS YOU HOW AWESOME IT IS AND THUS IT RAISES YOUR EXPECTATIONS. SO THEN WHEN YOU FINALLY SEE IT YOU'RE ALL SORTS OF DISAPPOINTED AT FIRST THAT IT'S NOT IMMEDIATELY PERFORMING ORAL SEX ON YOU OR SOMETHING, BUT THEN IT STARTS UPPING THE ANTE AND THEN YOU CAN'T HELP BUT BE IN A PERPETUAL STATE OF "HOLY SHIT!"

BUT RATHER THAN JUST SLOBBERING A BUNCH OF SUPERLATIVES ON THE FILM, HULK WANTS TO DO THE HULK THING WHERE WE EXPLORE THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF MARTIAL ARTS AND EXPLAIN HOW THIS FILM PERFECTLY EXECUTES THE CORE STAPLES AND NEEDS OF THE GENRE (WITHOUT SPOILING OF COURSE!). BUT BEFORE THAT, PLEASE CHECK OUT HULK'S GINORMOUS 3-DAY TAKE ON ACTION SCENES, WHICH HULK WROTE WITH THE WONDERFUL TOM TOWNEND (CINEMATOGRAPHER OF ATTACK THE BLOCK) HERE, HERE AND HERE. YOU OBVIOUSLY DON'T NEED TO READ THEM, BUT WITH THAT BACKGROUND HULK THINK IT WILL PROVIDE GREAT FOUNDATION TO THE FOLLOWING MARTIAL ARTS NEEDS/STAPLES, AND THE VARIOUS WAYS THE RAID APPROACHED THEM. ENJOY!

1. HAVE OBVIOUS STAKES

IT IS ONE OF THE SIMPLEST DEVICES THAT SO MANY PEOPLE NEVER EVEN BOTHER WITH THESE DAYS. OR FOR SOME REASON THEY THINK IT'S BETTER TO DOLE OUT ALL THE BACKSTORY IN A LONG SERIES OF REVEALS. ASIDE FROM KEEPING A FEW THINGS MYSTERIOUS, HULK SAYS FUCK THAT. GIVE US CLEAR STAKES AND MOTIVES. THE FILM'S FRESH-FACED MAIN CHARACTER IS INTRODUCED ALONGSIDE HIS PREGNANT WIFE. HE IS GIVEN A SECRETIVE OBJECTIVE BY HIS FATHER. HE SHOWS THAT HE IS A GOOD GUY BY HELPING A STRANGER. AND THEN HE SHOWS HE IS EXTREMELY CAPABLE AND BADASS. BOOM. THE AUDIENCE IS 100% ON HIS SIDE FOREVER. HECK, HULK WOULD LAY DOWN FOR THAT DUDE. HE'S GREAT AND THEY GET US TO LOVE HIM IN WHAT HAS TO AMOUNT TO A COUPLE PAGES OF ACTUAL SCRIPT FOCUS. THAT'S ALL IT TOOK. THE FILM IS SO UPFRONT AND CLEAR, BUT THE REASON IT DOESN'T FEEL TOO MANIPULATIVE IS BECAUSE THEY NEVER TRY TO MILK IT FOR TOO LONG. WHICH REMINDS HULK...

2. ESTABLISH CHARACTERS WITH PERFECT ECONOMY.

THE RAID MAKES USE OF A WHOLE SERIES OF MARTIAL ARTS/ACTION ARCHETYPES. DERANGED AND ALOOF BOSS BAD GUY. KIND AND BY-THE-BOOK LIEUTENANT. HOT-HEADED SERGEANT. SMART BAD GUY WITH CONSCIENCE. RAVING BAD GUY WHO AMAZING AT FIGHTING. THESE ARE ALL HUGE STAPLES OF THE GENRE, BUT THE REASON THEY ALL RESONATE IN THIS FILM IS THAT SAME BALANCING ACT OF CHARACTER ECONOMY. THEY ARE NOT MERELY PRESENTED AS THAT CHARACTER. THE AUDIENCE IS NOT EXPECTED TO SWALLOW THEM ON FIRST SIGHT IN SOME OBLIGATORY NATURE. INSTEAD THEY EACH GET A SERIES OF "MOMENTS" (OR JUST ONE REALLY) WHICH COMPLETELY ESTABLISHES ALL THIS INFORMATION RATHER QUICKLY. THERE'S NO LONG AND DRAWN OUT CHARACTER WORK. IT'S CONCISE AND TO THE POINT. THIS CHARACTER SAYS THIS. THIS CHARACTER SAYS THAT. AND BOOM. WE GET IT. WHICH ULTIMATELY HELPS THE FILM FEEL TRULY PROPULSIVE. THEY MANAGED UTTERLY TO KEEP THE SPEED OF CHARACTER INFORMATION AS PROPULSIVE AND CLEAR AS THE ACTION ITSELF. SPEAKING OF WHICH...

3. HAVE A DISTINCT FIGHTING STYLE

MARTIAL ARTS CINEMA GOES IN CIRCLES OF DISCOVERY. KUNG FU. KARATE. JUDO. WUSHU. MUY THAI. AND NOW THE RAID HAS DONE THE SAME BY SHINING A SPOTLIGHT ON THE NOW LITTLE-KNOWN INDONESIAN MARTIAL ART OF PENCAK SILAT. HULK WOULDN'T SAY THERE IS ANYTHING THAT MAKES THIS FORM UTTERLY DISTINCT, MIND YOU. IT DOESN'T HAVE THE LOOPING MOVEMENTS OF WUSHU FOR INSTANCE. INSTEAD IT PLAYS LIKE A BIT OF A PRACTICAL COMBO OF JUDO AND MUY THAI. BUT FOR AN ACTION FILM TRYING TO THRIVE ON INTENSITY, PROXIMITY AND GUNPLAY, THE CINEMATIC EFFECT IS 100% GOLD. SPECIFICALLY WITH HOW THEY EXECUTE IT.

4. KNOW YOUR CAMERA POSITION

THERE IS A GENERAL RULE OF THUMB THAT MARTIAL ARTS FILMS SHOULD BE SHOT "WIDE" (MEANING FROM FAR BACK AND WITH A LOT OF SPACE IN THE FRAME). A LOT OF THIS THINKING COMES FROM TRADITIONAL KUNG FU, WHICH OFTEN TRIES TO SHOW OFF THE BEAUTY OF THE MOVEMENTS. IT'S LIKE A PROVERBIAL DANCE. THIS TENDS TO WORK WELL WITH MORE POETIC FILMS LIKE ZHANG YIMOU'S HERO. MEANWHILE, AMERICAN ACTION TENDS TO BE SHOT VERY CLOSE UP, WHICH IS OFTEN JUST A WAY TO HIDE THE FACT THAT THE MOVIE STARS CAN'T FIGHT AS WELL (OR HIDE THEIR STUNT DOUBLES). BUT ADMITTEDLY, THERE IS ALSO A WAY THIS PROXIMITY FEEDS A NICE ENERGY AND INTENSITY. WE CONSTANTLY BEMOAN SHAKY-CAM, BUT WHEN USED CORRECTLY AND STAYING AWAY FROM THE DREADED "CHAOS CINEMA," THE EFFECTS CAN BE WONDERFUL. BUT WHAT MAKES THE RAID GREAT IS THAT IT PERFECTLY FALLS INTO A KIND OF MIDDLE ZONE BETWEEN THE TWO ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM. THE CAMERA IS ALWAYS FAR ENOUGH AWAY TO MAKE THE ACTION VISIBLE, FUNCTIONAL AND CLEAR. AND IT IS ALWAYS CLOSE ENOUGH TO GIVE URGENCY TO WHAT WE SEE. WE NEVER FEEL DISTANT OR LIKE WE'RE WATCHING THE DANCE. IT IS INTIMATE. PART OF THEIR SUCCESS STEMS FROM THE FILM'S DECISION TO SHOOT IN STANDARD WIDESCREEN (1:85 : 1) INSTEAD OF THE MORE DISSOCIATIVE SCOPE (2:35 : 1 ). THIS REFLECTS BOTH THE FILM'S VISCERAL NATURE AND THE LOCATIONS VERTICALITY. IT'S FUNCTION BEFORE STYLE. WHICH HULK ADORES. AND IT BRINGS US TO OUR NEXT PART QUITE NICELY...

5. KNOW YOUR EDITING

THE RAID MIGHT BE ONE OF THE BEST EDITED ACTION FILMS HULK'S EVER SEEN. REALLY. GARETH EVANS TALKED EXTENSIVELY ABOUT THE PRE-PLANNED "BEATS" AND RHYTHMS OF THE FIGHTS. THE VIEWER SEES THIS IMMEDIATELY. THE ENTIRE THING PLAYS OUT WITH A RATHER NATURAL-FEELING SEQUENCE THAT FEEDS A PERFECT RHYTHM TO THE EDITING. IT ALWAYS SEEMS TO CUT EXACTLY WHEN IT SHOULD. IT NEVER SEEMS TO HOLD FOR TOO LONG IN AN EFFORT TO BE SHOWY. IT NEVER CUTS TOO QUICKLY TO MANUFACTURE A REACTION. THE FILM IS FLUID AND FUNCTIONAL. SHOW THE ACTION IN THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE. THE FILM IS CUT TO REFLECT WHAT WAS SHOT. NOT CUT TO CREATE AN EFFECT. TO EVERY EDITOR OUT THERE WHO WANTS TO KNOW HOW TO CUT ACTION, EVENTUALLY YOU HAVE TO BUY THIS MOVIE AND STUDY IT. IT'S A MASTERCLASS.

6. BUILD YOUR FIGHTS

ONE OF THE COMMON CONCERNS OF THE MARTIAL ARTS FILM IS HOW TO KEEP UPPING THE ANTE. HOW DO WE ESTABLISH ACTION AND THEN KEEP RAISING STAKES? THE NUMBER ONE KEY IS TO ALWAYS KEEP IT CHARACTER CENTRIC. EMOTION IS WHAT GROUNDS US. BUT THE NEXT BEST OPTION IS: DON'T FALL INTO THE TRAP OF THINKING BIGGER = BETTER AND INSTEAD FOCUS ON THE BASICS OF CAUSE + EFFECT. HULK MEAN SERIOUSLY. ARE YOU LISTENING HOLLYWOOD? HOW MANY THIRD ACT FIGHT SCENES SUCK?(2) THE ANSWER IS MOST OF THEM, AND THAT IS BECAUSE THERE IS AN ASSUMPTION THAT SCALE SOMEHOW BRINGS IN AUDIENCE INVOLVEMENT. THAT IS NONSENSE. GOOD MARTIAL ARTS MOVIES UNDERSTAND THIS. THEY UP STAKES. THEY UP CHARACTER INVOLVEMENT. THEY SAVE THEIR BEST FIGHTING TRICKS FOR LAST, SO TO SPEAK. AND THEN THEY KNOW TO CULMINATE IT ALL IN CHARACTER. HECK, TARANTINO UNDERSTOOD THE LAST FIGHT OF KILL BILL SHOULD REALLY BE A CONVERSATION (DIALOGUE BOSS!) AND HE WAS 100% RIGHT. THE PROGRESSION OF ACTION SHOULD ALWAYS FEEL LIKE AN ORGANIC BUILD AND NOT A SERIES OF OBSTACLES STRUNG TOGETHER WILLY-NILLY. AGAIN, LOOK TO THE RAID. IT BUILDS BEAUTIFULLY AS THEY EMBARK ON ANOTHER MARTIAL ARTS STAPLE: SLOWLY ABANDONING GUNS IN A MARCH TOWARD HAND TO HAND VISCERA. SPEAKING OF WHICH:

7. GET PEOPLE WHO CAN FUCKING FIGHT

ACTING IS ONE THE MOST AMAZINGLY DIFFICULT PROFESSIONS. HULK HAS EXPRESSED THIS MANY TIMES AND HULK HAS ENDLESS RESPECT FOR THEIR CRAFT AND DEVOTION... BUT HULK FEELS THE SAME EXACT WAY ABOUT PEOPLE WHO CAN FIGHT.

EVEN THOUGH HOLLYWOOD HAS GOTTEN REALLY GOOD AT TRAINING ITS ACTORS TO BE SERIOUSLY CONVINCING, WE HAVE TO GO BACK TO THE IDEA OF MARTIAL ARTS FILMS BEING A "PERFORMANCE." HULK AND THE AUDIENCE WANT TO SEE SOMETHING AMAZING. SO IF YOU WANT TO MAKE A SERIOUS ACTION FILM, YOU NEED PROFESSIONALS WHO CAN ACTUALLY FIGHT. HULK THOUGHT SODERBERGH HANDLED THIS WONDERFULLY WITH HAYWIRE, WHERE HE GETS SO MUCH MILEAGE OUT OF SHOWING CARANO KICKING ASS IN A MEDIUM SHOT. AND THEN SODERBERGH WENT ONE BETTER IN INVERTING THE COMMON FORMULA BY LETTING THIS INCREDIBLE FIGHTER GO THROUGH THE RANKS AND BEAT UP HOLLYWOOD'S A-LIST FELLAS. THE RESULTS WERE A RIOT.

BUT EVEN THIS IS NOTHING COMPARED TO THE RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF TALENT ON DISPLAY IN THE RAID. ALMOST EVERY ONE OF THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT ACTORS. THEY ARE WORKING PROFESSIONALS WHO HAPPEN TO TRAIN AND BE EXPERTS IN THE ART OF PENCAK SILAT. EVANS REALLY DID THE GROUNDWORK ON THIS, INVOLVING HIMSELF IN A CULTURE AND GROUP OF INDIVIDUALS WHO COULD REALLY BRING SOMETHING SPECIAL TO THE SCREEN. THEIR EFFORTS ARE NOT WASTED. YOU CAN PRACTICALLY FEEL THE BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS IN THIS ONE. REALLY, THE WORK OF THE CAST, CREW AND STUNT PEOPLE IN THIS FILM IS JUST TREMENDOUS.

AND NEVER FORGET THAT THEY'RE WORKING OFF WHAT HAS TO BE A SHOE-STRING BUDGET. AND DESPITE THIS, THEY COBBLED TOGETHER A MORE THRILLING ACTION FILM THAN ANYTHING HULK HAS SEEN OUT OF HOLLYWOOD IN THE LAST 10+ YEARS.

AND PERHAPS THERE'S NOTHING MORE WONDERFUL THAN THAT.

<3 HULK

ENDNOTES:

(1) POST-COLON TITLE CAN POOP ITSELF.

(2) EVEN THOUGH HULK TOTALLY LOVED MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 4 BUT THERE NO COMING BACK ACTION-WISE AFTER THE INCREDIBLE DUBAI SEQUENCE. NONE AT ALL.

Film Crit Hulk's photo About the Author: FILM CRIT HULK WAS CREATED IN A CHAOTIC LAB EXPERIMENT INVOLVING GAMMA RADIATION, TELEPODS, AND THE GHOST OF PAULINE KAEL. NOW HULK HAVE DEEP AND ABIDING LOVE CINEMA.
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