Review: The Raid

Garth Evans, Welsh born director of the new Indonesian action/ martial arts film The Raid, knows how to stage some great action.  His first work, Merantau, was very watchable and it seemed as if Iko Uwais (his star, master of Silat) was on his way to becoming the next Tony Jaa.  Unfortunately, the hype about The Raid is as excessive as his use of elbowing people in the back while they try for a take down.  It’s pretty cool, but we can’t figure out what exactly makes it so noteworthy.

At first the film builds a decent amount of tension and the timing is spot on, making the viewer cringe with the feeling of anticipation Tarantino gave us in Inglorious Bastards.  There’s some decent gun-fu, improvised explosions, and a few crazy kills.  These shots place The Raid in the “must check out on Netflix” category, but not quite in the “get the gang together and lets meet at the theater” category.

Some of the typical flaws you might find in any fight flick are here and are a bit distracting:  Why isn’t he picking up any of the weapons all over the floor?  Why is that other guy waiting to attack in the one vs many fights?  The scoring is also terrible, spoiling the flow of the action and peaking before the final blow is dealt. It’s as if the composer really hated the idea of his audience being surprised at all.

At one point we were able to predict what moves we’re coming next, as if Evans (or Uwais and his team) ran out of techniques and tried re-remixing their own work within a single film.  Elbow to the knee, whirl around and knee to the head… Uwais does a fair job and moves really well, but quickly you can tell he is more fighter than stuntman.  This limits the entertainment value of what is essentially an hour long fight scene with a brief setup attached to it.

Our other complaint is that the women in this film (of which there are nearly zero) are depicted as weak and sick.  Evans should take some cues from the Chinese and Thai martial arts film scenes (and the US in some cases) and grow up a bit when it comes to depicting female characters.  We would much rather see women getting in on the killing action than lying in bed, weak, pregnant, or addicted to drugs.

With Trent Reznor tweeting about it and all of the cool kids lining up to see it, we had hoped for more from The Raid.  Action fanboys and MMA kids will love it.  Those who prefer their violence served up with substance can pass.  For long time genre fans, here’s hoping TYG2 (which has Jija Yanin and Tony Jaa) is as good as it should be.

New School Fighting Females

Perhaps the only thing better than watching a pack of brilliant stuntmen pull off a death-defying, heart pounding, perfectly timed action sequence is watching a pack of stuntWOMEN do it. There are some great women, like Zoe Bell, that have already become legends in post-millenial cinema. After doubling for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (and for Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess), she portrayed herself brilliantly in Death Proof while making her audience literally hold their breath.

There are some young female martial artists battling their way into genre films abroad that deserve attention. Jija Yanin, the Muay Thai warrior, and Jiang Lu Xia, the perfect example of modern wushu, are leading the pack. Both have starred in films that show that, with the right director, either could produce films as valuable to the kung-fu film canon as Angela Mao or Michelle Yeoh.

After starring in her première role in “Chocolate” (according to the Hollywood Reporter, Quentin Tarantino thought it was one of the best films of 2009), Jija has most recently starred in “Raging Phoenix“. In both films she portrays very serious and abused characters (an autistic savant, and an abandoned loner), and seems to only enjoy herself when she is flipping between railings or roundhouse kicking a face. Her timing is spot on and she seems far stronger than she ever could be. Hopefully her success will lead her to more international roles.

Jiang Lu Xia (aka Kitty Darling) punches hard, kicks like a mule, and can really take a fall. After making it to the finals in Jackie Chan‘s reality show “The Disciple,” she got her chance to play a lead role in “Coweb” this past year opposite Kane Kosugi (son of famous onscreen ninja master Sho Kosugi). Her stunt work is fearless and gives the audience the proper sense of how powerful her opponents are. Unfortunately she is never allowed to be a girl for even a second. She radiates modern Chinese gender equality, which makes her seem completely asexual.

What these women lack that their predecessors had is feminine beauty. Perhaps that seems shallow, but there is something profound in watching a woman, dressed to kill and made up in her lovely warpaint, wreaking havoc and flying through plate glass windows. Jija and Kitty should spend some time watching some new school chanbara films (sexy samurai), taking walking lessons from a drag queen, and finding proper stylists. Then they will break hearts as fast as they put their heels into them and be truly unforgettable.

Review: Art of the Samurai at the Metropolitain Museum of Art

If you have not yet taken the time to see Art of the Samurai:  Japanese  Arms and Armor 1156-1858 you should do so immediately as the show is only open until January 10, 2010 (that’s at the end of the week in which this blog was written).  Descriptions of collections such as this often carry descriptive advertising promising “unprecedented” wonders, and usually come up short.  This show is, in fact, unlike any similar show here in the United States or, as many of our AUX members who are experts in the area (hey Vernon!) will attest, in Japan herself.  It is simply the most complete and fascinating show of its kind.

Each blade is as an individual masterpiece with historic, artistic, and political significance.  They are displayed on plexiglass mounts so that, unlike with traditional wood racks, one may see the entire curvature of the blade.  These blades don’t just have dates and signatures stamped on the tang, or even hamons that look like mystical cloud formations, they have NAMES.

The helmets are so grand that I thought they’d look more in context on a club kid than on a Japanese general.  One piece in particular, a huge circular number that looked as if it would give its wearer neck strain in about 30 seconds of wear, carried a laugh-out-loud tale of a general who was mistaken for a giant bullseye.  Perhaps this is fitting analogy for many of today’s martial artists.

The most incredible element of this collection is being within it, listening to people of all interests discussing martial art in a serious and enraptured way.  Of course, there a few bored wives hustling to the gift shop.  Look around and you’ll see grandsons speaking proudly of their knowledge of Japanese history, girlfriends finally understanding what their boyfriends were talking about all of this time, and all kinds of people actively engaged in trying to understand and appreciate the gifts given to us by Japan’s legendary warrior-craftsman.

The show does have flaws.  Japanese knot tying (“hojo-jutsu” as a martial skill) is a fascinating craft from this time period that was a bit overlooked, perhaps because it is now mostly associated with modern bondage (Museum of Sex, let’s see a show!).  There could have been more full suits of armor, and some more obscure weapons.

Regardless, anyone even remotely interested in martial art will completely enjoy this collection.  If only it were here longer.  See it now or hear about how you should have seen it forever.