Any action becomes monotonous when it’s repeated too often. Even fist-fighting with drug dealers gets boring, after the hundredth brawl. Yeah, yeah… another bone-crunching blow to the jaw. Blah, blah, blah… another psychotic kick to the ribs. You can’t muster enthusiasm for ass-kicking indefinitely; beyond a certain point, you’re being hectored more than you’re being thrilled. The new action movie, The Raid, suffers from inertia because it doesn’t know when to stop. Like the continual motion of a washing machine, the film’s constant velocity lulls you to sleep. “Oh, they’re fighting again,” is all you can think, as the pummelling goes on. Turns out, it’s a thin line between a bravura fight sequence and flogging a dead horse.
In Jakarta, the killing starts early. Morning has scarcely broken before a SWAT team is rolls into a bad neighbourhood, ready to be shot to pieces. Their mission is to clear out the scum who’ve infested a derelict apartment block. A local crime boss runs his operation from the fifteenth floor. Only one of the policemen has any backstory (his pregnant wife is waiting at home), so no bets on who’s going to be Bruce Willis in this scenario. Every other cop might as well have a sign taped to his back that says: “KICK ME (TO DEATH)”. The motley tenants of Drug Dealer Towers certainly need no encouragement. Once the cops go in, it’s time to knuckle up. Everyone in this crack den seems to have won a Kung-Fu tournament.
The film’s director, Gareth Evans, comes from Wales. Now, I don’t know how much you know about Wales, but I’m Welsh and I can tell you, from personal experience: we are not a nation of experts in martial arts. Oh sure, the Welsh like to fight. But we specialise in the drunken scuffle. It’s more about self-disgrace than self-defence. I’m guessing that Mister Evans’ knowledge of unarmed combat stems more from Bruce Lee movies and video games than it does from real life. The different “levels” of the apartment block wouldn’t look out of place in a game; nor would the homicidal tenants who attack, one by one, and disappear the moment they’re felled. Even the indigenous martial art the film is set-up to showcase (Silat) seems reminiscent of playing a video game, with its emphasis on twitchy repetition, where fighters compete to land the most punches, like gamers frantically pressing the controls.
One of the big attractions of The Raid (if you like that sort of thing) is the amount of thought that’s gone into killing bad guys. There are some spectacular deaths in the film. You’re almost tempted to believe the cops have uncovered a suicide cult from the way tenants’ race to their demise. In a scene that’s bound to make you wince, one bad guy snaps his spine on a brick wall, after being thrown off a staircase. Another bad guy has his neck skewered on the serrated remnants of a front door. The boss’s right hand man has both his arms broken before being stabbed with a strip light. And a lot of people get beaten to death via the wonders of Silat. In keeping with the Die Hard tradition, a one-man-army inflicts most of the damage.
Our hero’s name is Rama (he doesn’t need a surname), and woe betide you if you get in his way. He treats bad guys as if they came to him on a conveyor belt. He’s an ass-kicking machine; invulnerable to pain. Rama doesn’t waste time on wisecracks, or charisma. He dispenses justice with a dreary vigour. Maybe it’s my fault I find the strong and silent routine incredibly boring, but when you cross Gary Cooper with Jackie Chan, the net result is a mannequin who’s good in a fight. All the wit and the charm of Bruce Willis are absent in this guy. I don’t blame the actor entirely. It’s an impossible task to humanise a character in a video game. How can you have an inner life when your heart’s akin to a trigger?
You wouldn’t claim a rom-com had re-invented the genre if it was just a montage of designer shoes and wedding dresses. So why pretend The Raid does anything new? The best part of Die Hard isn’t Bruce’s bloody feet or the leap off Nakatomi Plaza; it’s the part where Bruce confesses: “[My wife] heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times. She never heard me say ‘I’m sorry’.” That line matters because it reveals character; it tells the audience that, while Bruce is a kick-ass sort-of guy, he’s also flawed, and human. In contrast, the guy we’re asked to root for in The Raid has all the personality of a toilet seat. He’s not even a cypher for anything. Be warned: this movie may cause carpal tunnel syndrome in your soul.