You’re all alone. You haven’t even been on the police force for that long, but here you are, disarmed and cut off from the rest of your paramilitary SWAT team. You’re in a dilapidated apartment building in Jakarta, and practically everyone who lives here is a criminal of some sort, an addict or a low-level drug dealer. Up on the top floor, there’s a crime lord who wants you dead. A little while ago, he came on the intercom and said that anyone who helped kill all the cops in the building would become a permanent resident. So you’re sneaking around in this hallway, just knowing that, eventually, you’re going to have to fight against a whole lot of people who want to kill you. The only way to get out alive is to fight your way to the top floor and take out that crime boss. And the only thing you’ve got going for you is this: You’re really, really good at fighting.
That’s not a movie plot. That’s barely the plot of a video game. And it’s not even the plot of a current video game; it’s more of an early-’90s side-scroller type of situation. And yet that is exactly the plot of The Raid: Redemption, which is quite possibly the best action movie that anyone has made, anywhere on earth, this decade. The best thing about The Raid is its purity. There is virtually no plot to the movie; it’s a sustained feature-length fight scene the same way that Mad Max: Fury Road is a sustained feature-length car chase. There are no subplots, no scenes of tortured soul-searching, no romance. There are a few story beats: a couple of double-crosses, a highly unlikely family reunion. But those bits aren’t what matters. What matters is the constant, unrelenting, brutal action—the way the movie stacks fight scene on top of fight scene, never letting up.
The Raid was the brainchild of Gareth Evans, an action-movie fan and aspiring filmmaker from Wales. In Wales, Evans’ movie career wasn’t really getting anywhere. He’d directed one unreleased independent movie, and he was working office jobs. Eventually, he got hired to direct a documentary about pencak silat, a centuries-old Indonesian martial art built around the idea of full-body combat, of using whatever was available. He packed up his family and moved to Jakarta. His wife’s family was from there, so he settled in. He made the documentary. He met Iko Uwais, a young martial artist who was working as a delivery driver and who looked good on camera. He cast Uwais in Merantau, a very good 2009 movie that worked as a sort of Indonesian version of The Way Of The Dragon or Ong-Bak. Like those movies, it’s about a rural kid who comes to a big city and finds himself fighting a whole criminal network.
The fights in Merantau were just staggering. Nobody had really seen silat in an action movie before, but it’s a martial art that needed to be caught on film. It’s all speed and inventiveness and brutal, brutal impact, and it works on screen. Merantau came out at the end of a decade when the art of filming fight scenes was growing around the world, with different filmmakers from different countries putting their own spins on it. Screen fights were drawing on different disciplines and, thanks to MMA, the intermingling of those disciplines. And a scene like the bit in Merantau where Uwais and the older, smaller Yayan Ruhian slug it out in an elevator fit beautifully into that context. Evans clearly knew what he was doing.
The Raid, which turned out to be essentially the feature-length version of that one fight, was not the plan. Ennis wanted to make a grander, more expansive crime saga called Berandal, but he couldn’t get the budget together, so he had to make something faster and cheaper. And the faster, cheaper thing turned out to be the best thing he possibly could’ve made. The Raid is a movie that turns simplicity into a glorious virtue. The setup is bare and minimal. A bunch of cops huddle in the back of a van, their shiny black helmets making them look weirdly like cockroaches, as their sergeant tells them about their target: “This man has become something of a legend in the underworld. Pushers, gangs, killers—they all respect him like a god.” And we see that crime lord, in his habitat, methodically murdering four men, shooting all of them in the head while they’re kneeling on plastic on his office floor. When he gets to a fifth, the gun clicks. He’s out of bullets. So he rests his gun on the guy’s shoulder, goes to his desk, pulls out a hammer, and beats him to death. That’s what we’re dealing with. After that, it’s off to the races.
Uwais stars as Rama, the lead, and he’s perfect. He’s young, innocent, fresh-faced, and you can tell that he wants to get out, to see his pregnant wife again. Uwais wasn’t a trained actor, but the beauty of The Raid is that he doesn’t have to be. He’s got an expressive face, and he can communicate the feeling of knowing that four dudes with machetes are about to run at you, that you’re going to have to kill all of them. And he’s even better at fighting those guys. As a screen fighter, Uwais is an all-time great, a human blur who seems reluctant to fight but who can also believably leg-sweep a guy and then shoot him in the head the second he falls.
But Uwais isn’t even the best screen fighter in the movie. That distinction belongs to Yayan Ruhian, back from Merantau and now playing a much nastier character. Ruhian is Mad Dog, the boss’ main henchman, introduced by the police sergeant as “a maniac of feet and fists that would tear down walls for his boss.” The movie holds off on showing Ruhian fighting, almost like he’s the shark from Jaws. And when he does fight, he always makes a point to put down his gun first: “I never really liked using these. Takes away the rush.” Mad Dog is an evil character, but he likes fighting so much, and he’s so good at it, that we, the audience, end up liking him anyway. In the movie’s best fight scene, he fights two different guys, calmly accepting the longer odds just because that’s the kind of sporting killer he is. He doesn’t want to make things easy for himself.
A lot of things had to happen for a miracle of a movie like The Raid to exist. Evans had to be working in Indonesia, a place where unions won’t prevent stuntmen from doing absurdly dangerous shit for our entertainment. (One shot, of a hitman falling and breaking his back on a staircase railing, is so fucking raw and realistic that it’s almost impossible to believe the stuntman is still alive today.) And Evans had to be a student of action movies, one who recognized the value of the single-location simplicity he’d seen in Die Hard and Assault On Precinct 13 as well as all the breathtaking Asian martial-arts movies he’d seen.
The Raid isn’t a big-idea movie, but all the little ideas in it are amazing. Rama, trapped in an apartment, makes a bomb out of a gas can and a refrigerator. Rama, trapped in a scared couple’s apartment, hides an injured friend in a crawl space and tries to stay still and quiet while some guy stabs a wall with a machete. Rama, trapped in another apartment, throws himself and an enemy out of a window, holding the other guy’s body underneath his so that it’ll break his fall onto the fire escape a few floors below. A nervous cop shoots his gun in the dark, his muzzle flash giving away his position so that a whole crew of bad guys can open fire with machine guns. The crime boss, on the intercom, cheerfully tells his underlings to “have fun” while they’re killing cops. The crime boss, upon learning that a fridge bomb has destroyed a few apartments and killed a bunch of guys, makes a mental math calculation. Of the dead guys, he says, “Clean out their stashes. They can cover the damage.”
The fights themselves are beautifully choreographed, but they’re also fast and desperate. The people don’t seem like martial artists showcasing their technique on screen; they seem like people trying very hard not to get killed. The blows are grisly, but they’re also fast and intricate. There’s a lot of countering, and also a lot of picking guys up and swinging them into walls. When people get kicked in the face and knocked down, they don’t just lie around moaning; they get back up again and try to keep fighting. The best fighters seem superhuman, but they also get injured and bloodied. Every scene is essentially some version of the hammer-fight scene from Oldboy, or it’s something on that level.
The Raid came absolutely out of nowhere and blew people’s minds. I saw it at an action-movie festival, where a scene like that final Mad Dog fight drew a long, loud, sustained applause from the crowd even though nobody involved in the movie was there to hear it. (That was in 2012. I’m cheating on the dates, since the movie came out in Indonesia in 2011, but I still think of it as a 2012 movie, since that’s when most of the world got to see it.) After its success, Evans got to make his sprawling crime drama as the sequel to The Raid, and it turned out to be absolutely fucking awesome while still not quite equalling the first movie. Uwais and Ruhian made quick cameos in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though, for reasons that I can’t begin to imagine, they didn’t really get to do any fighting in it. Joe Taslim, who played the sergeant Jaka, showed up as a henchman in Fast & Furious 6. A few other excellent and brutal action movies have come out of Indonesia, though it hasn’t become a new Hong Kong or anything.
But the real legacy of The Raid is that it showed just how good a pure, single-minded action movie could be. It laid down a challenge, and while nobody has outdone it yet, people are at least trying. I like to imagine a movie like John Wick as American cinema’s attempt to answer that call. Action movies around the world have gotten a whole lot nastier and more visceral and more carefully choreographed since The Raid. People were paying attention, and if they weren’t, they should’ve been. After The Raid, the regular action-movie bullshit got a whole lot harder to swallow.
Other notable 2012 action movies: If Donnie Yen introduced MMA to action cinema in general with Kill Zone, then Steven Soderbergh, of all possible people, can take credit for bringing it to Hollywood. There had been MMA in movies before Soderbergh cast the MMA fighter Gina Carano in Haywire, building the movie around a series of stunning fights between her and movie stars like Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum. But nobody had really figured out how to make a whole movie out of it. With Haywire, Soderbergh finally made an American studio action movie with fight scenes that could compete with what was coming out of Hong Kong and South Korea and Thailand and Indonesia. The movie didn’t make any money, but, as with The Raid, people paid attention.
Another of the year’s best English-language action movies turned out to be a probably unintentional remake of The Raid. Dredd had a dystopian setting and a comic-book hero, but otherwise, it had a ton in common with Evans’ movie, with its story about heavily armed paramilitary cops attempting to fight their way to the top of a criminal-infested high-rise to take out the boss at the top. Dredd’s version of that story is different from The Raid’s, but it’s almost as good. People should make more movies with that same plot. I would watch all of them.
There were other good big-budget action movies that year. Lockout (actually a French movie, from Luc Besson’s beautiful assembly line) told a story about Guy Pearce rescuing the president’s daughter from the criminals who’d hijacked a futuristic space jail, and it was an absolute blast. Jack Reacher was total airport-bookstore pulp with a probably miscast Tom Cruise, but it was a lot of fun as well. Act Of Valor hit on the novel idea of casting actual active-duty NAVY Seals as its action heroes. It’s total propaganda, but its explosions are great. Wu-Tang Clan mastermind and vocal kung-fu movie fan the RZA got to make his own kung-fu epic in the delightfully incoherent The Man With The Iron Fists, with a cheerfully slumming Russell Crowe showing up to steal a bunch of scenes. And Skyfall was a mostly great Bond movie, with some truly stunning Roger Deakins cinematography and Javier Bardem having so much fun as the villain. It falls apart by the end, but set pieces like the opening train chase are why we keep paying to see big-budget action movies.
Even the sequels weren’t terrible. The Expendables 2 still wasn’t as good as its cast, but its action scenes were a little sharper, and the additions of Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain and Scott Adkins as a henchman were inspired. The Bourne Legacy, the since-forgotten reboot attempt that tried to swap out Matt Damon for Jeremy Renner, was a better movie than its reputation might suggest. And Taken 2, while somehow more ridiculous than its predecessor, was still some supremely watchable bullshit.
Still, almost none of those bigger Hollywood movies could compete with Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning, John Hyams’ raw and hallucinatory follow-up to Universal Soldier: Regeneration. The movie opens with a deeply disturbing family massacre, and it proceeds to call into question the very nature of reality, but it still has some absolutely ridiculous fight scenes. Day Of Reckoning had a tiny budget, and it effectively went straight to video. But if you care about action movies, it’s essential.
Elsewhere around the world, the genre continued to find new ways forward. The Hong Kong master Johnnie To went to mainland China and made Drug War, which starts out as The Wire-style procedural realism and eventually figures out how to turn into a crazy, beautiful shoot-out. South Korea cranked out A Company Man, about a disgruntled hitman lashing out at the bosses who wouldn’t let him quit, and Confession Of Murder, about a confessed serial killer who becomes a celebrity once the statute of limitations on his crimes are up. Both movies embrace their ridiculousness and give us truly sublime action scenes and truly absurd plot twists. And even Denmark, a country not known for its action cinema, gave us A Hijacking, a tense survival thriller about a merchant ship taken over by modern-day pirates.
Next time: It only barely counts as an action movie, but Bong Joon-ho’s surreal dystopian fable Snowpiercer shows a best-case scenario for what can happen when creative people from around the world work together. In an increasingly globalized action-movie marketplace, that would turn out to be a way forward.