The Raid: Redemption (fight 1 of 5)

“Be a man and see it. See it and be a man.” Chapel 3929

“Is there a fund we can give to for the families of all these stunt men who clearly died while filming The Raid: Redemption?”Seanbaby

At the very least, you can see it so they didn't die in vain.

At the very least, you can see it so they didn’t die in vain

The Raid: Redemption (gratuitous & inaccurate subtitle added for US release, I will not be using it again in content of posts) aka Serbuan Maut in its native Indonesia, is an action-lover’s dream in all the right ways: it provides consistently entertaining and varied scenes of stylized but gritty violence, puncuated by dramatic sequences that are just enough to make you care while not dragging on so long as to waste your time (how many otherwise spectacular action films have been ruined by “dramatic” beats that were clumsy, pretentious, overlong or all of the above?). It’s confident without being cocky, writer/director Gareth Evans being a true genre auteur rather than a winking fanboy.

Longtime readers may remember that I cited this film as the main reason why it’s sometimes necessary to switch to the “retrospective” format and indeed I planned to do that here; however, upon re-watch I was surprised to learn that, despite remembering the movie being almost non-stop action after it finally revs up (minus a few necessary breathers), there are actually only five sequences amongst all that action that could be reasonably described as fight scenes. But every one a masterpiece.

In an age where cinema is in many ways growing stagnant, The Raid is something truly special, and that’s why I timed it to be the subject of this, the 100th post of the blog. Happy Birthday, Grading Fight Scenes.

1) Hallway Brawl

The Fighters:

  • Rama, the film’s noble hero. A young but extremely capable (and lucky) member of the local police force. Rama is, like the actor who plays him and also like many other characters in the movie, an expert at pencak silat. Being as that’s an umbrella term for all the varied martial arts in Indonesia, it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing that makes it unique, save for perhaps its flowing, constant motion. Played by Iko Uwais, who is destined for great things.
    • Armed with: a standard-issue police baton and combat knife. He had an assault rifle and hand gun, but has discarded both after running out of ammo. Also still wearing most of his riot gear: flak vest, elbow & knee pads, but no helmet.
  • Bad Guys, like 20 of them (it’s hard to keep count). Denizens of the apartment building where the titular raid occurs, they’re all foot soldiers loyal to the film’s villain. All ruthless thugs but most of them here don’t seem to have much more than rudimentary skill. Played by stunt men.
    • Armed with: Various small sticks, blades and even a machete.

The Setup: Although the plot does eventually produce a couple interesting twists, The Raid’s basic premise is refreshingly simple: 20 cops in full SWAT gear storm a building that’s run by a sadistic crime lord. From up in his perch where he has access to dozens of security cameras, the villain sics the building’s inhabitants (most of whom work for or are in some way beholden to him) on the police. Although the protagonists are largely competent and virtuous, they find themselves quickly overwhelmed, their numbers dwindled and the survivors separated.

After a fantastic action sequence that culminated in an exploding refrigerator (I love this movie), our main hero Rama is stuck with his wounded but living comrade Bowo (whose only character development prior to this was “annoying jerk”), searching for safe harbor while the other remaining crew hide elsewhere. Rama drags his non-friend through a hallway on the seventh floor, but the two are quickly discovered.

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The Fight: Fast, mean and complex.

Fortunately for Rama’s sake, the bad guys keep coming in one or two at a time. But for once this old action cliche is justified: the thugs here have mostly been conducting a spread-out, disorganized search, and all of them except for the first few are drawn by the noise, so they rush in at non-coordinated intervals.

Not that these small bursts of baddies give Rama much of a chance to rest, of course; he’s constantly moving and attacking nearly the whole time, a frenzy of focused violence. He wields his baton in one hand and knife in the other, using the two weapons sometimes separately but often in concert, such as when he pulls one guy in by hooking him with the baton’s handle and then stabbing him with the knife.

There’s all sorts of inventive nastiness on Rama’s part. Several times he uses the baton to “deconstruct” opponents, delivering a lightning-fast series of small blows to various points on the body, quickly & systematically overwhelming the victim. Others get slammed harshly into walls and doors. Rama stuns one thug with a club to the chest then reaches around to stab him in the back of the thigh. He stabs another in the upper thigh and then pulls the still-inserted blade nearly down to his knee. He stabs another right in the knee and then twists the knife. Throats get not just sliced but also clubbed. Over & over the knife is used for all manner of quick, punch-like stabbings, and the accompanying sound effect is suitably sickening.

Rama is one ruthless SOB, but not sadistic; he’s just doing what he has to. While many if not most of the wounds he delivers are fatal, often he’s satisfied just leaving a defeated foe injured enough to not get back up again. Indeed, during one of the fight’s few lulls, as Rama creeps his way warily to a T-section of the hallway, he leaves behind a handful of groaning cripples along with all the dead & dying. One of those injured seizes Bowo just as the latter crawls to keep up with Rama, and the visibly agitated cop repeatedly stabs the thug in the chest– it’s Bowo’s sole contribution to the action and one of the film’s few moments of humor.

When baddies rush in again and Rama has to take them on from both sides, things get a bit hairier. First he loses his baton in a close-up scruff, and not long after that he has to abandon his knife when he gets yanked away from behind just after he’s stabbed one poor sucker right in the shoulder. Fortunately he’s almost as deadly unarmed as he is armed, and, wouldn’t you know it, none of the remaining bad guys in this scene happen to run in with weapons either. Rama cleans up the remainders, and takes out the last one with an epically brutal finishing move that was rightfully included in most of the trailers:

“Knock knock.”

Yep, he grabs the man, slams his head into a hallway light fixture, and then slams his head FIVE MORE TIMES down the side of the wall before dropping him. It’s… it’s beautiful. Unfortunately, Rama does not take the time to recover either of his weapons before picking up Bowo again and moving on. That will prove to be a mistake.

This fight, however, is anything but. Though it’s definitely not the first bit of excitement in the movie it’s the first extended physical fight we’ve seen, and as such is as powerful a mission statement as an opening fight can be.¬†Evans smartly turns the limited scope of the hallway into an effectively claustrophobic environment. The choreography switches seamlessly between multiple weapon types and pure hand-to-hand, and the constant stream of bad guys makes for an unpredictable threat. The filmmakers manage to find that sweet spot of being complicated without seeming complicated– there’s never really a moment where you stop and say “wait, why didn’t he just do that more simply?” or suspect the characters are showing off, it all feels very organic.

Much of the credit of course goes to all the meticulous stunt work behind the scenes, but a large amount is due to Uwais as well, who sells the entire thing as natural and unforced. Physically impressive and with a highly sympathetic face, the audience is always rooting and fearful for him, because he’s not some Superman. Although he comes out here miles better than he does in any upcoming battle, Rama does absorb a couple blows here, and has a few of his own attacks stymied one way or the other. He’s awesome, but not invincible.

And you know what the crazy part is? This is the least impressive fight in this movie.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: Machete kills.

Rama don’t text.

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Kill Bill (fight 1 of 4)

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

– old Klingon proverb

Kill Bill is an odd movie (or pair of movies), even by Quentin Tarantino standards. Made after a six-year absence, which itself followed quite a hot streak, it’s arguably the beginning point of the auteur’s (still ongoing) decadent & self-indulgent phase. Though that’s quite fitting, considering the whole point of the thing was for Tarantino to dive head-first into the sort of throwback genre filmmaking he had only paid glancing tributes to in the past. It’s a B-movie plot & premise made with A-level talent, and the resulting mix vacillates between brilliance & irritation– your mileage may vary.

Adding to the movies’ schizophrenia is the late-in-the-game decision to split it the story in half, making two films out of what was intended to be one. The idea, “suggested” by the studio, was almost certainly financial, but QT tried to cover for it by claiming that one three-hour action movie is boring, whereas two 90-minute movies is more appropriate and “ambitious.” Of course, both movies well exceed their 90-minute run time, with 111 minutes for Volume 1 and 136 minutes for #2. The first feels abrupt and action-packed while the second is far more talky and laconic– a clear sign of its obviously longer production/post-production time, with many pointless scenes inserted apparently just so Tarantino could give minutes-long monologues to some of his favorite character actors.

(This also resulted in silly decisions like coyly keeping the titular Bill’s face off-camera for the whole of the first film. I mean, really– are we supposed to not know what David Carradine looks like?)

Still, when the film works, it really works, especially during those action scenes. Much praise is due to Tarantino who, despite his reputation for violence, had never really done any sort of “action” film before, but a lot is also thanks to star Uma Thurman as well. Not all of her performance works perfectly in the movie, but she most certainly puts her game face on when it comes fightin’ time. This girl can beat some ass.

[Administrative note: I’m treating this movie as one big movie, which theoretically it ought to be– a shame Tarantino’s “The Whole Bloody Affair” edit never got a wide American release, I’d buy that on Bluray in a heartbeat. Also the movie does take place out of chronological order, so if any of you wants to get cute by arguing which fight really does come “first,” know that I am, as always, writing up the fights in the order the audience seems them happen in.]

[Second administrative note: After hearing rave reviews about the movie’s epic script online, I purchased (for an amount of money I’m too ashamed to disclose) a copy of the script via eBay, about a year before Volume 1 came out. It is largely the same as the finished story, with a few significant changes and one entire (cool, but superfluous) chapter removed. I will comment on the differences when appropriate.]

1) The Bride vs Vernita Green

The Fighters:

  • The Bride, aka (spoiler) Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba. A veteran assassin and deadly warrior out for revenge against the former colleagues who betrayed her. Her real name is amusingly bleeped out (like a curse word on TV) every time it’s mentioned until very late in the second movie; this is done apparently so that she is mostly only thought of as the archetypical “Bride” figure (it’s even how she’s named in the script), as well as set up the punchline to a joke that every time Bill addressed her as “kiddo” in flashbacks, it wasn’t merely an affectionate nickname. Played by Uma Thurman, who originally developed the character with Tarantino.
    • Armed with: she brings a hunting knife with her, but doesn’t draw it until Vernita produces her own blade.
  • Vernita Green aka Jeannie Bell aka Copperhead. A member of the Bride’s former team, who has since left the crime business for domestic bliss under the “Bell” alias. A husband (not seen) and young child have not made her any less lethal. Played by Vivica A. Fox.
    • Armed with: nothing to start but, as mentioned, later produces a knife, as well as some other handy implements.

The Setup: For an undisclosed number of years, the Bride and Vernita were, along with several other (mostly female) killers, members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS, get it? It’s a “real” version of the “Fox Force Five” TV show Thurman’s character from Pulp Fiction had starred in the pilot for), led by the titular Bill. The group’s snake theme led to each having the code name of a killer serpent, hence “Black Mamba” and “Copperhead.” (Vernita later grouses that SHE should have been Black Mamba, presumably because she was the only black member of the team, but maybe Bill thought that would be too on-the-nose.)

For reasons that are gradually revealed (long story short: Beatrix, Bill’s lover, discovered she was pregnant, and went into hiding to keep her child safe from Bill’s criminal life. Under a fake name she got engaged to a shlubby but nice & ordinary man… and Bill, upon tracking her down, assumed that she had betrayed him), Bill brought the entirety of the DiVAS to bear his wrath on the Bride’s wedding rehearsal day, killing her fiancee & new friends. Bill himself put a bullet in her head, leaving her for dead in her own wedding dress. She miraculously survived and awakens from a four-year coma to find her baby gone — she assumes dead, but the baby had actually been delivered safely and taken by Bill. After recovering and arming herself suitably, she embarks on a “rip-roaring rampage of revenge” to take down the folks who wronged her, one by one.

First we see her target Vernita Green, living in an idyllic suburb. At home alone, she answers the doorbell and, from her dialogue, she seems to think it’s a friend of hers come to visit. It isn’t.

The Fight: Vernita opens the door and after a quick glare in which we hear the Bride’s “revenge theme” playing on the soundtrack (the film’s audio cue signal that the Bride has set eyes on her latest target of revenge. It’s an obnoxious but weirdly funny musical bit with a blaring siren featured prominently. Taken from the TV show Ironside), followed by a punch to the face.

From there it just goes nuts. Vernita may be retired and she may not be driven by revenge like the Bride, but she does have a family to live for, so she fights back ferociously. She’s not shy about using her own home as a weapon, however, and the domestic tranquility transforms quite rapidly into a war zone.

The two throw each other through glass and into walls. The Bride kicks Vernita in the crotch (!) and drops her through her own coffee table. Vernita grabs one of those broken table legs and uses it to bash Kiddo in the calf. The Bride nearly chokes out Vernita, until the latter stops her by grabbing a fireplace poker and whacking her in the head with it.

Soon enough the fight goes into the kitchen, where Vernita ran to get a knife. The Bride barely dodges her initial lunges and deflects more by seizing a frying pan. After some creative use of the kitchen table, the Bride matches her by whipping out her own blade.

“This is even worse than the time I let those Mormons in”

With both combatants solidly armed, the two slowly move back to the living room in a tense stand-off, tentatively searching for an opening in the knowledge that one wrong move will bring death. The stalemate drags on as the audience sees, through the bay window the two ladies are on either side of, the approach of a school bus, which lets off a little girl who trots obliviously towards the house. As the reality of this sinks in, Vernita pleads silently not to continue this in front of her daughter. The Bride acquiesces, and both hide their blades just as “Jeannie’s” daughter Nikki comes through the front door.

The choreography has a definite martial arts feel to it, but not in any extravagant way. It’s quick, mean, even desperate. Tarantino makes a few aesthetic concessions, such as overt “whoosh” sound effects whenever either lady gets flipped through the air, but there’s an overall sense of this fight’s realness– it feels like it could really happen. Especially considering how the two combatants look after not too long: bruised, battered, bloody, sweaty and tired. It’s in this state that Nikki finds them.

Nope, nothing suspicious at all.

Vernita bluffs the girl’s initial hesitation away (“This is an old friend of mine I haven’t seen in a while,” she says with forced sweetness. It’s technically true), and makes her leave. Tension deflated, the two head for coffee in the kitchen.

After some discussion they agree to finish their duel elsewhere, later that night. In the original script there’s some discussion over how the Bride deliberately chose to make this a fight rather than a hit; she could have easily taken out Vernita at a distance with a sniper rifle or a bomb, but she had enough respect for her old comrade to give her a fighting chance. It’s not brought up here.

And in any case, Vernita shows no similar restraint in return. Hiding a gun inside a children’s cereal box (called “Kabooms,” of course), she takes a shot at the Bride that misses, which the heroine responds to by throwing her knife straight into Vernita’s heart. She slumps to the floor and dies within seconds.

The real kicker comes in the denouement: as Beatrix pulls the knife from her opponent’s chest, she turns to find¬† four-year-old Nikki standing behind her, looking right at her mother’s corpse and too shocked to speak. The Bride, cold as ice, tells Nikki that although she didn’t want Nikki to see this, her mother nonetheless “had it comin'” and if Nikki grows up and wants payback, she can look Beatrix up. Harsh.

(There’s also another, smaller kick after that: when the Bride goes back to her car, she crosses Vernita’s name off her kill list… and we see that it’s the second name getting crossed off. The plot, she thickens.)

As we’ve discussed here numerous times, the main job of the opening fight scene is to set the tone, or, as is the case here, the baseline. As mentioned earlier it’s an interesting mix of the fantastic and the grittily realistic, just as the movie itself largely is. But things will certainly get more ridiculous from here on out, and it was wise of Tarantino to start out with what’s arguably the most grounded encounter.

The fight pulls no punches. And neither, as we learn at the end, does the Bride: her cold-blooded behavior proves that her single-minded quest for revenge will have human consequences, and neither is she a very healthy person. This isn’t about right and wrong so much as it is about unfinished business.

As a side note, Tarantino has said repeatedly that he plans to make a third movie many years from now about Nikki’s own quest for revenge against the Bride. But then, Tarantino says a lot of things.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: An unfair fight.

Totally unfair. They don’t stand a chance.