Burn it all down, then salt the earth afterwards
dir: Gareth Huw Evans
How bizarre. A Welsh director travels to Indonesia to make a brutal action flick that seems like it’s from Hong Kong in the 1980s.
For his next flick maybe he should make a movie where a one-legged ballerina swordfights with narwhals on Pluto as Gary Numan plays maracas in the background, set during the Victorian era.
Maybe it’s not that bizarre. I guess it’s just a straight-ahead very violent action flick coming from a place I wouldn’t expect to produce such things.
It’s enjoyable if you like brutal flicks where a guy, or a couple of guys, fight against a horde of enemies with the thin sliver of hope of ever surviving. Even though a lot of people get shot, that’s just the hors d’oeuvre. The reason people’s arses are in those theatre seats is, presumably, to watch fist and foot mercilessly meet with face and groin, many, many times.
I caught this at a Friday 11pm ‘cult cravings’ session at Cinema Nova: a time and place that plays other stuff catering to drunken or stoned arthouse crowds and other compliant idiots. As such, the place was packed (despite the ‘cult’ session, the film’s only been out for a month or so in Australia, it’s not like it came out a decade ago) and the audience was of the willing ilk that goes to watch screenings of that diabolically bad and boring flick The Room, or more recently Iron Sky (Nazis on the Moon!). It’s unfair to the film to be classed in such company of ill-repute, but I guess it wasn’t otherwise going to be seen.
It’s not a shame, because despite how entertaining I found it, I can see the general impossibility of convincing people to go see a violent Indonesian action film. I can’t see how to convince people to watch a non-violent Indonesian film either, but then I’ve never been heard to claim to be a genius at marketing.
It’s a very basic set-up: a bunch of SWAT-team like cops are tasked with infiltrating a large residential apartment block in order to take down the violent drug dealer who rules the place with an iron fist, and a blood-spattered hammer. When we are introduced to Tama (Ray Sahetapy), he’s killing a bunch of guys kneeling down like they’re Viet Cong. He’s been shooting a bunch of them, and runs out of bullets for the last guy, who seems relieved. He goes back to his office desk drawer, pulls it open, with sufficient energy to show us the bountiful bullets rolling around the hammer that also appears to be available. Guess which he chooses to despatch the last condemned man with.
Okay, so we get the reasonably accurate impression that Tama is not a gentle-souled man. Tama does control the whole building, with a loyal staff of murderous henchmen and drug makers working amidst the other people who just seem content to live in his shadow. Most of the people living in the building are just general crim scumbags, who came for the view, but stayed for the low rent. Some of the people are just nice people trying to get by. But most are on Tama’s payroll in some way or another.
The cops gently try to slip themselves in without frightening the locals, but things go very pear-shaped very quickly. Not only does Tama have archaic surveillance everywhere (which he peers at, lizard-eyed, scrutinising his dozens of old black and white tvs), but everyone in the building is a lookout, and there are alarms everywhere.
It rapidly descends into a clusterfuck, and gets worse from there. Tama tells the people in the building using the intercom that any residents taking out cops will live rent-free; that they should do the job as bloodily and nastily as they can, and hey, go out there and have some fun, guys. He also calls two chaps outside of the block to perch aloft on an adjacent building to snipe as many of the cops as they can.
It’s not looking good for our hero Rama (Iko Uwais). Like every hero cop and every hero soldier in every movie I’ve ever seen, his wife has a baby on the way, and he’s torn between just wanting to survive, and wanting to save as many of his fellow cops as he can.
Feel free to call bullshit on me for that set-up. This flick doesn’t need set-up. All we need is a reason to put Iko Uwais in a hallway with dozens and dozens of chaps holding machetes and other knives, all coming at him screaming at the top of their Bahasa Indonesian-speaking lungs.
Iko Uwais is apparently a superstar in the martial arts Indonesians and Malays group together under the term silat, which covers all sorts of styles and techniques. What this boils down to is that however good he is at doing his tax returns, making a nice curry, fixing shingles on a roof, playing tiddly-winks – this pales into insignificance compared to what people pay to watch - his extreme ability to kick the shit out of people.
This isn’t the flowery – prancing stuff people sometimes think of when it comes to Asiatic martials arts fest. This is direct, sweaty vicious stuff. What it lacks in elegance it more than makes up for in straight-ahead dedication to putting a guy in an untenable position and having him desperately fight his way out for our entertainment.
If there’s echoes of other flicks there, it’s conscious but not pretentious. We’re meant to think of the flicks of John Carpenter (specifically Assault on Precinct 13, but mostly because of the moody synthesiser like score), or the Hong Kong actioners that reached their pinnacle with Hard Boiled back in the early 90s. There’s even a character called Mad Dog here, perhaps as a call out to the big skills of Mad Dog in Hard Boiled.
And on Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) here, goddamn is he amazing. He’s this tiny chap, tiny, we’re talking jockey tiny, and yet he more than holds his own, he holds everyone else’s as well. When he gets the jump on one of the cops by drawing a bead on his forehead with his gun, he ushers the chap into a room so that they can fight it out the way that men should. Of course, forget any notions of chivalry or nobility in warfare or anything: this pocket-rocket dynamo just prefers killing people with his bare hands.
That brawl with the cop is incredible, but they go further and top that later on, when he inevitably fights the hero (and another chap, Andi (Doni Alamsyah), whose place in the story I won’t spoil), which is so brutally choreographed and vicious looking that it eventually becomes comical that any of these people can still walk around after subjected themselves and each other to such punishing beatings.
This is clearly the most machismo abundant flick released this year, with brawls and punch-ons even more over-the-top than anything in The Avengers, where superheroes and gods (which amounts to the same thing) violently send each other through skyscrapers and roads with their mighty fists / hammers / leather-clad buttocks. The difference here is that, apart from the obvious rating difference, most of the chaps here are never going to play the piano again.
The building Rama and the rest of these scum are trapped in looks like no building I can imagine exists anywhere in Indonesia, but that works perfectly towards sustaining the feeling that they’re trapped in a place that can only exist in an action movie. The look of it is like a diseased hotel gone to seed, with aspects of it convenient to the action as need be. An example of which is one of the cops figuring out the way to escape from a floor of the building they can’t escape from is to go through the floor.
As such this multi-story apartment building with electricity power and elevators and a drug lab has wooden floors. Wooden floors and walls? Huh?
Well, whatever works. As another point, the subtitles aren’t much chop, but it hardly matters. I wouldn’t say they add to the quaint charm of the endeavour, but they hardly matters again, and in some cases provide unintended humour. This isn’t a documentary after all, unless you consider it to be a historical document of what a Welsh director, a pair of Indonesian silat stars, a tiny budget, a building they could demolish at will and a lot of extras willing to have their heads repeatedly smashed into stuff were capable of back in the dim, distant reaches of 2012.
Ultimately, it’s totally a brash (definitely NOT for the weak of heart or stomach) guy flick best seen with a number of beers under one’s belt, but there’s nothing wrong with that. They don’t make many of these flicks anymore, with as much conviction, with as much dedication to momentum and just getting shit done. Sure, it doesn’t have much by way of story and characterisation, but none of that matters in the face of such stylistic yet sheer balls to the wall carnage.
I, for one, was heartily entertained. It’s probably one of the best martial arts flicks I’ve seen since the original Ong Bak.
7 times I wouldn’t want to bump into Mad Dog on a dark night, in an alley, or in the middle of the day, on a sunny street out of 10
“Go to work and have some fun” – what we should all aspire to – The Raid: Redemption