Although it’s easy to forget, what with my love of Glee, musical theater, and more feminine venues of artistic expression, I am a man. And occasionally, I need visceral, testosterone-fueled outlets for my more masculine urges. That’s likely why I can enjoy stylized, hyper-violent video games. Something in me as a man inherently appreciates a chance to vent that sort of aggression that evolution instilled in me somewhere but that society has more or less made unnecessary. It’s the same with how I can enjoy professional wrestling (and yes I know it’s fake) and also like Terrence Malick or Federico Fellini at the same time. It’s nice to see displays of masculine athleticism. And the visual poetry of well-choreographed martial arts explains why legions of men have loved “kung fu” movies (even when it’s a different school of martial arts) for decades now. It’s machismo with actual talent.
Long-time readers know my love of the burgeoning martial arts scene coming from Southeast Asia over the last decade or so, particularly the film’s involving Thailand’s muay thai master Tony Jaa (Ong Bak). I took martial arts lessons for a long time when I was younger (although I was pretty terrible at it), and I’ve always loved watching bad-ass men prove how athletic and talented they are destruction with just their fists and feet. I’m not sure if it’s possible to watch a well-choreographed martial arts film and not at least get an adrenaline rush from the skill these guys show with their body. It’s a true mastery of mind and body, and it’s a talent that should be celebrated. 2011’s The Raid: Redemption starts out and worries viewers by making you think that it’s just another guns-blazing action film, but when everyone finally runs out of ammo, the movie becomes a martial arts extravaganza that’s a feast for the eyes.
An elite swat team has orders to infiltrate a heavily guarded tenement building in the slums of Indonesia. The building is the home of the operations (and soldiers) of one of Indonesia’s most feared and brutal drug lords. Led by the honorable Jaka (Joe Taslim) and the sketchy/scheming Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), the team of 20 or so rookie swat members storm the drug den unaware of the hell they are walking into. When 75% of the force is wiped out after the group fails to kill a child who is a scout for the drug dealers, it’s up to the four remaining members of the team to fight their way out of the building. And most of the duty for escape falls on the shoulders of rookie Rama (Iko Uwais) whose martial arts skills prove to be the only thing that’s keeping him and his squadmates alive.
The characters in the film are paper thing and almost without definition beyond their ability to be weapons of mass destruction with just their fists. And the story doesn’t provide any twists that you didn’t see coming besides a minor plot point about Rama being the brother of one of the drug lord’s top lieutenants. The acting isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t anything to write home about. But, when you’re watching The Raid: Redemption, you don’t care about any of these things. The sheer spectacle of the film as the silat fighting style is shown off like never before is enough to keep you glued to your seat for the entire running time. Whether Rama is fighting off 30 thugs with just a nightstick and knife or he and his brother attempt to fight against just one superhumanly athletic man, The Raid will serve as a future lesson on how to do gorgeous fight choreography.
I’ll keep this review short. It’s an action film and if you don’t like martial arts movies, you’re not going to like this one. But for anybody who is a fan of the theatrics of martial arts wizardry, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a film more bad-ass than The Raid: Redemption. The film seemed a little disappointing at the beginning when everyone was still using their guns, but that’s because gunplay is almost never as gorgeous as fists of fury. But, when the fighting becomes more brutal and in-your-face, The Raid becomes a literal non-stop fight for survival that displays some of the most innovative and adrenaline-pumping martial arts action this side of Tony Jaa. Watch it now.
Final Score: B
“Kung-fu movies” (often a considerable misnomer) have a considerable cult following among film enthusiasts. As someone with a very slight (emphasis on “very”) background in martial arts, it is incredibly simple to explain this phenomenon. Whereas your traditional Michael Bay style action film relies on pre-fabricated special effects and copious explosions and other digital trickery to elicit its thrills, martial arts films often simply place their resources in the stars whose knowledge of a million ways to kill you with their bare hands and unnatural speed and agility is more than enough to satisfy any audience. There’s a reason that decades after his death, Bruce Lee remains a legend despite making only one film in the United States and only a handful of films in his native China. My film preference will always be high-brow arthouse pieces but there’s a 95% chance I will see whatever Jet Li’s next martial arts epic is because he rarely disappoints. Back in high school, one of my friends recommend a film by Thai up-and-coming martial artist Tony Jaa, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, and it became the very first movie my family ever rented from Netflix. We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the service. While the film’s plot is as paper-thin as you can possibly manage and its first thirty minutes are incredibly slow, once Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior kicks into gear, you really couldn’t ask for a more impressive display of martial arts mastery.
Ong-Bak‘s plot (as meager as it may be) is that of young Thai country peasant, Ting (Tony Jaa) as he goes on a quest to retrieve a sacred religious artifact which has been stolen from his village. A master of the Muay Thai fighting style (which primarily consists of beating your opponents senseless with your knees and elbows in extremely painful and impressive fashion), Ting is chosen by his village elders to go on the quest to receive his village’s stolen Buddha head. Once he reaches the city, he meets up with a former denizen of his village, Hamlae, a gambling addict as well as Hamlae’s female companion, a young student named Muay. Thanks to Hamlae’s connections with the criminal underworld, Ting is able to locate the criminals who stole from his village and he finds himself dragged into a world of underground kickboxing as well as a seemingly endless conflict against waves of seedy thugs who are hellbent on stopping him from receiving justice. Along the way, Ting mows through legions of criminals and fighters while showing off all of the martial arts prowess and sheer stunts craziness that has shot Tony Jaa to international stardom.
I’m not going to devote any time to an in-depth criticism of the acting or storytelling because this is a kung-fu movie and those things aren’t what you came for. Let’s just say that after the 30 minute mark when the film finally has a real action scene, the action doesn’t slow down one drop until the credits rolled. Tony Jaa is one of the most impressive martial artists to come on the scene in ages, and when I put him in the same level of talent as Bruce Lee and Jet Li, that’s really saying a lot. Rather than relying on any of the wire stunts that are in vogue in martial arts films these days, Tony Jaa simply lets his knees and elbows do the talking. He’s lightning quick and ridiculously agile. There’s a foot chase sequence that is as impressive as any of the given fights for how well Tony Jaa is able to jump and flip around the scenery with such precision and finesse. The film will often show some of the most incredible stunts from multiple angles so you can get an even bigger appreciation for just how talented Jaa is. The fight scenes themselves are top notch. Even though I knew it was all choreographed ahead of time and Tony Jaa wasn’t really hitting those people as hard as it looked like he was hitting them, I still found myself seeing “ooooh” and “ouch” a million times through the movie because the choreography was so well done that I was able to momentarily suspend my disbelief.
Even the most cynical of movie fans who either A) aren’t fans of martial arts movies or B ) think they’ve seen everything there is under the sun, need to give this movie a go. Tony Jaa will leave your jaw on the floor. Simply put, he is one of the most bad-ass individuals around and his stunning Muay Thai skillset is pure entertainment. The movie might have virtually no plot and any other time that would bother me. But because Tony Jaa (and not computer graphics or wires) is doing all of this himself, I am able to set that quibble aside and just revel in how talented this man is. It’s not one of the best movies out there, but it’s certainly one of the most fun, and I’m hard pressed to find any one out there who might not walk away without at least a considerable level of respect for the talents of Tony Jaa.
Final Score: B