** Raid:Redemption (2011)
Reviewing genre films can confound even the most accomplished critics. A case in point might be Roger Ebert’s critique of writer/director Gareth Evans’ The Raid (also know as Raid: Redemption). Ebert didn’t like the film, calling it among other things, “a visualized video game that spares the audience the inconvenience of playing it”. He further opines that the audience for The Raid “…requires no dialogue, no plot, no characters, no humanity. Have you noticed how cats and dogs will look at a TV screen on which there are things jumping around? It is to that level of the brain’s reptilian complex that the film appeals.”
Not surprisingly, the movie’s rabid fans (of which there seem to be millions) responded by descending on him like bad-ass gangsters on a Thai SWAT team trapped in a building controlled by a crazed drug czar. The sneering catcalls from his readership might have had a lessor man questioning his chosen vocation and yet, despite the near-unanimous praise fan boys have heaped on The Raid, nearly everything Ebert said about the film is accurate. The film is most definitely structured after a first person shooter video game. There are levels and bosses and endless bad guy fodder to dispatch along the way. The dialogue, plot and characterizations are minimal and there isn’t a lot of humanity in sight here either, just 101 minutes of relentless violence. The problem with Ebert’s commentary about the film is this… I don’t think you can easily apply the same cinema yardstick used to measure other action films because The Raid might just be on to something entirely new.
Regardless of the high ratings The Raid chalked up on sites like RottenTomatoes and Metacritic, by virtually any reasonable criteria, this film simply isn’t an example of great cinema, but it was also never intended to be, a point seemingly lost on Roger Ebert. On any number of levels (pun thoroughly intended), The Raid works in almost the same way a bizarro modern video art installation might. Evans is so singularly focused on one thing – carnage - that he almost manages to morph The Raid into a near-existential ballet of mayhem, a dissertation on the many ways one man can kill another in a hallway. If you’ve ever driven in a car at excessive speeds, there comes a point where everything smooths out and almost seems to slow down. About 30 minutes into The Raid something similar happens – it becomes strangely hypnotic and hard to ignore.
Perhaps it took a transplanted Welshman at the helm of a Thai actioner to bring it about, but I would go as far as to suggest that The Raid might be the first post post-modern film. In a way, it reminded me of this year’s Oscar-winning The Artist, if only in terms of the near-universal access both films granted their respective audiences by eliminating the messiness of dialogue. Where director Michel Hazanavicius stripped spoken word out of The Artist’s narrative, Evans went a step further by stripping the narrative itself out of the final cut, leaving in its place frame after frame of near-constant motion and momentum. If ever a film could be described as a “moving picture”, The Raid is it.
The few voices, like Ebert’s, brave enough to point out that The Raid isn’t really a work of cinema, but rather the natural extension of a first person shooter video game, tend to see movies from a particular vantage point and within cinema’s historical context and, without a doubt, The Raid doesn’t easily fit into that mold. You could argue that a movie that takes its cues from the world of video game narcissism, where maximizing kill shot efficiency is the highest honour and loftiest goal, isn’t necessarily a step forward for humanity, but what you can’t argue is just how entrenched this particular brand of entertainment has become across a huge swath of our society. The Raid creates an visual experience that speaks to the same R-complex neurons that games like Mortal Combat and Gears of War do – aggression, dominance and territoriality. It represents the distillation of the form down to its most primal elements and denying the appeal of this film experiment (as traditionalists like Ebert are want to do) is to ignore the obvious chord it struck with a significant portion of a declining audience demographic (cats, dogs and man-child basement dwellers). It’s understandable to lament the slow passing of articulate and complex human-driven narratives from cinema, but truth be told, hardly anyone wants to see them anymore. Our collective interest in compassionate storytelling has been on the wane for decades and a film like The Raid plays like gladiatorial blood-lust candy to a generation who have grown up on a steady diet of intensely-violent imagery. Like it or not, this is the modern equivalent to lions eating Christians in the Roman Colosseum and it doesn’t sound like they had too much trouble selling tickets to that show either.
As you can likely tell, I’m fascinated (and, to be honest, a little horrified) by what a film like The Raid represents – a possible glimpse into the future of cinema. I can almost guarantee you that the big 6 studios are taking a hard look at how a movie that cost just over a $1M to make, managed to generate $4M in box office sales and, almost more importantly, a ton of buzz. Now, if they could just find a way to make money on a film like this one, things would be coming up roses. For the 11 fanboys who haven’t already downloaded it because their internet accounts are in arrears, The Raid releases to DVD and Blu-Ray on August 14th.