Short Ends and Leader

Lights! Camera! (Nothing But) Action! - 'The Raid: Redemption'

(T)he entire movie plays like a pair of defibrillator paddles, jolting us out of our typical genre malaise.


The Raid: Redemption

Director: Gareth Huw Evans
Cast: Iko Uwais, Doni Alamsyah, Ananda George, Pierre Gruno, Yayan Ruhian, Ray Sahetapy, Tegar Satrya, Verdi Solaiman, Joe Taslim
Rated: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-03-23 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-05-18 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Like all film genres, the action movie goes through phases. Originally, it was wrapped up in the pageantry and precision of the past...and the sword. Then it went to war. Then Western. Eventually, it moved into areas of espionage and intrigue before finally becoming a high concept catch-all for anything with some stunts. Along the way, various dynamics were abandoned (the precisely choreographed car chase) while others became overused gimmicks (Hello, shaky-cam. We're talking to you...). The result has been a redefinition of what makes for viable thrills.

Two decades ago, it was beefy men with big weapons. Then wire-fu won the day. Now, thanks to films like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and the new effort The Raid: Redemption, we're getting a return to good old fashioned edge of your seat fun. Sure, the sleeper surprise from Indonesia is brutal and basic in its narrative, but it's also explosive in its flashy fisticuffs.

A rookie SWAT Team member (Iko Uwais) is joined by several members of his police squad, their objective to take down a despotic drug lord (Ray Sahetapy). Standing between them is a 15 story apartment building loaded with like-minded criminals, including a pair of right hand men (Donny Alamsyah and Yayan Ruhian) who will do anything for their boss. On the side of right (?) is a corrupt senior officer (Pierre Gruno) who has a history with the thugs. With the initial assault a complete failure, there are just a few law enforcers left. Our reluctant hero, desperate to get back to his pregnant wife, therefore must literally work his way to the top, defeating floor after floor of bad guys, before the head honcho figures out how to kill him off once and for all.

Based around the Indonesian martial arts form known as Silat and set-up to be nothing more than 90 minutes of mind-blowing beat-downs, The Raid: Redemption is amazing. It's not deep, and dwells in subject and storyline superficiality in ways that would make even the most brain dead Hollywood effort appear complex, but it still bests the West without question. While there is some clear character motivation (our lead wants to return home to his concerned spouse and there's a family oriented plot twist toward the end) and some locational subtext, this is really nothing more than a clothesline production, the narrative only existing to hang some insanely impressive action scenes upon.

Yes, this is a movie where many will be discussing the brilliantly choreographed confronts, each one delivering intense, in your face ferocity - and it deserves the attention. Like John Woo, or perhaps more appropriately, Yuen Woo-ping, brutality is turned into a ballet, the balance of power shifting from fighter to fighter until a crescendo of death has been reached. There is inherent drama in these knock down drag outs, as well as a great level of directing skill. Transplant filmmaker Gareth Evans (he was born in Wales but now lives in Indonesia) understands the beauty in leaving the camera be. While there are a few instances where the lens goes loopy, the overall feel is a watchful eye keeping track of some creative chaos.

Of course, the lack of clear cut characterization and narrative complexity will bother a few motion picture purists. They will ridicule the message, and not the means. There is something pleasantly cathartic about watching well trained athletes doing the damnedest to entertain us, and the cast definitely does this. Uwais - a major league star in his home country - comes across as both vulnerable and invincible. We keep waiting for the moment when he finally breaks, when his 20 against 1 odds fall ostentatiously out of his favor. More importantly, he commands the screen, captivating us with his determination and his derring-do.

The bigger find here is fellow Silat expert and onscreen psycho villain Yayan Ruhian. Looking like an Asian leprechaun gone to horrific seed and never without a sinister scowl on his face, this wiry whirling dervish destroys everything in his path. He's a constant presence during the first few fights, but during the finale, where he takes on Uwais and his fellow fall guy, Alamsyah, the intensity is electric. The entire last scuffle represents what has to be one of the best three man brawls ever committed to screen. The skill is spine tingling, the aggressiveness startling. As a matter of fact, the entire movie plays like a pair of defibrillator paddles, jolting us out of our typical genre malaise.

So if all you care about is nonstop mayhem, linear, goal oriented plotting, and a healthy dose of local color, The Raid: Redemption will be the perfect antidote to the West's anemic action. It springs forth fully formed and reminds one of the moment they first discovered The Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li. While it's all about the bloodshed and letting, there is something almost beautiful about how the fracases fall into place. It's like a video game, except without all the goals and instant gratification. By walking the fine line between post-modern aesthetics and old world techniques, Evans and his formidable cast create a new kind of approach, one that will soon become a given in more mainstream cinema, guaranteed. Like any other changes in the genre, someone had to come along and slap the malaise out of the action movie. The Raid: Redemption does that - and a lot more

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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