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Posts Tagged ‘Iko Uwais’

There were just under two hours left before we landed at Heathrow, which I reckoned should give me just enough time to enjoy, or not, Peter Berg’s Mile 22, a thriller starring Marky Mark Wahlberg. Berg and Marky Mark have forged a bit of a partnership in recent years, mostly doing based-on-a-real-life-disaster movies like Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, although I have to say I much prefer his earlier, sillier films like The Rundown and Hancock. My main interest in Mile 22 stemmed not from the involvement of Berg, nor indeed Wahlberg (who I find I can really take or leave as a performer), but that of Iko Uwais, a brilliant Indonesian actor and martial artist who starred in the Raid duology (he was also in one of the stellar conflict movies for about three seconds, but let’s not worry about that). Any film where Uwais gets to do his stuff has a claim on my attention, even when that film gets unfriendly (and that’s putting it charitably!) notices from legitimate film critics.

(Checking out Mile 22 on the in-flight information system, I was startled to find the entry on this movie ran something like ‘Critics have said very unkind things about Mile 22, but these are the same people who didn’t like The Greatest Showman – so why not give it a try?’ I’m all for people being encouraged to make their own minds up, but on the other hand it doesn’t necessarily follow that The Greatest Showman is not, by any rational standard, a massive cheesy wotsit. It didn’t put me in the best of moods, anyway.)

Hey ho. Anyway, the film gets underway with some shadowy American coves, led by Marky Mark, undertaking a secret operation against – so far as I have been able to find out – some Russian spies operating on the US mainland. (This is one of those films which attempts to generate verisimilitude by having the characters rattle out their dialogue in a very terse fashion, and it’s probably not the best movie to listen to over headphones on a crowded plane, even in the wee small hours around dawn.) Things do not go as planned, but for quite a long time it is really not clear what this has to do with the rest of the plot.

This takes place in the fictitious Asian nation of Indocarr, where some radioactive terror dust has gone missing, and the American government would quite like to get it back before people start melting in the street (at least this is what it’s suggested will happen). Marky Mark, who is playing a version of that character whose brilliant brain function excuses the fact he is somewhat sociopathic, is on the job, and it is made clear to us at some length what a tough job it is keeping Uncle US of Stateside safe. Hey ho.

Anyway, up pops Iwo Uwais playing Li Noor, a rogue cop who knows where the terror dust McGuffins are to be found, but will only reveal the information if he is whisked off to the airport (35.4 kilometres away) and given political asylum in the States. The US government isn’t technically allowed to do this sort of thing under the usual international conventions, and so they activate Marky Mark and his team of plausibly deniable agents, who will theoretically be private citizens for the duration of the mission. Also on the team is Lauren Cohan, playing an agent with a challenging personal life, and Ronda Rousey, playing an agent who can clearly bench-press a lot (finely-drawn characterisation isn’t really Mile 22‘s strong point). Shouting at everyone over the radio is John Malkovich. Off they go in their SUVs, and before long an awful lot of people are shooting at them. This makes up the plot of most of the rest of the film.

Hey, you know what? The Greatest Showman is still a massive cheesy wotsit and this film isn’t much cop either. (I should point out that they are very different beasts and even if you are one of those people who thought that Hugh Jackman organising a diversity barn dance was a profoundly uplifting emotional experience, you still probably won’t enjoy Mile 22.)

I remember the critic and commentator Mark Lawson making the observation that when it really boils down to it, there are two kinds of entertainment: Escapist, which attempts to help you forget how awful the world fundamentally is, and Reminder, which grinds your face into the dismal grit of reality. One of the worst mistakes you can make as a storyteller, he suggested, is to be at all unclear on this point, or be under the impression that you’re doing one when you’re really doing the other.

This is the problem with Mile 22. It has a nice high-concept premise to it – team of guys must transport other guy they don’t particularly trust through hostile urban territory – and basically has cheesy knockabout thriller written all over it. Two prominent characters are played by performers with a martial-arts background, after all. However, after all those gravitas-laden true-life stories, it seems that Berg and Marky Mark have no real interest in doing cheesy crowd-pleasing stuff: they are Serious Film-makers now, even if they are now making a film in which Iko Uwais beats three armed opponents to death in his pants.

Thus, that high-concept premises vanishes under a slew of dour, improbable plot-twists, downbeat character bits, and general complications that just make the film less fun to watch. We’re quite a long way into Mile 22 before they start going those twenty-two miles, and the stuff before that is not especially interesting.

It has to be said that the actual twenty-two miles themselves are not much better, mainly because Berg seems to be one of those people who thinks that the secret of a great action sequence is to cut between cameras every three seconds. This is good for generating incipient nausea, but not so good when it comes to tension and excitement. Needless to say, it favours the actors over the martial artists and stuntmen – what’s the point of hiring someone like Uwais if you never show what he’s capable of doing? (That said, Iko Uwais does deliver an impressive English-language acting performance, though I’m not sure the film is worth watching just for this.)

In the end it is just a frustrating and depressing experience, not just because of the tone of the story, but because it feels like you’re watching people with genuine talent actively setting out to make a bad movie on purpose. And you just wonder what the point of the exercise is, unless this is all supposed to be setting up a sequel. Even if it is, I can’t imagine many people feeling sufficiently motivated to come along and check it out. This is pretty much a thorough-going dud.

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There’s a moment in the middle of The Raid 2 where an elegant young woman, sitting on a subway train, casually checks her mobile phone and then gently reaches into her handbag and extracts a pair of hammers. Well, the punchline is slightly quirky, you might think, but that’s nothing very unusual. Nevertheless my own reaction was to cringe back into my seat with a rictus mask of horror and alarm on my face – because, by this point in the film, you know that when anyone pulls out that sort of implement, it’s not because they’re planning to do up their spare room.

So it proves, and bloody havoc ensues. But, as I say, it isn’t really a surprise: The Raid 2 is bookended by characters taking shotgun blasts to the head at point-blank range, and in between features pick-axes, machetes, baseball bats, hammers, shards of broken glass, broom handles, and restaurant hotplates being put to inventive uses possibly not envisaged by their inventors. The Raid 2 is a colossally violent film; it may be the most violent film I have ever seen. If you have a problem with screen violence, run in the other direction. But, if you can stay the distance, this is quite probably one of the outstanding films of the year.

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All the key personnel from 2012’s The Raid return for this return engagement, principally writer-director-editor Gareth Evans and fight-choreographer-star Iko Uwais. Uwais again plays young cop Rama, who had such a tough time of it in the first film. To be honest, the connections between the two films are just a tiny bit tenuous, but: realising what’s gone down may put him in trouble with the corrupt cops at the top of the Jakarta PD, Rama joins an elite undercover unit in order to identify the bad guys. This involves doing some serious jail time while he befriends Uco (Arifin Putra), the heir to the city’s biggest crime syndicate , all with a view to infiltrating the organisation as a footsoldier.

It all sounds a bit like Infernal Affairs (or The Departed, for that matter), but then again neither of those films includes a twenty-against-one fistfight in the prison toilets or a brutal prison riot in the middle of a sea of mud. Gareth Evans’s achievements in The Raid 2 are numerous and significant, and not least amongst them is his ability to balance the gangster drama elements of the story with the martial arts thriller requirements.

There is a sense in which the crime drama storyline of The Raid 2 is just a sort of substrate on which the extensive and numerous action sequences are founded, but that’s not to say that this plot isn’t engaging and tense in its own right. The story is actually pretty complex for a martial arts film, involving personal and gang relationships, and while none of this is hugely original, one gets a real sense that time and effort has been taken to flesh out the characters. Certainly the performances are uniformly strong, eyecatchingly so in some cases, and even minor characters are just little bit more rounded and quirky than you might expect.

Iko Uwais gives a perfectly respectable performance as Rama, even though it’s pretty clear he’s on board for his proficiency in pencak silat rather than his thespian ability. Yayan Ruhian, who played Mad Dog in the first film, has an extended cameo as a different character, and mysteriously manages to make a machete-wielding sociopath borderline sympathetic. Rama’s main opposition this time around, though, consists of a trio of charming characters known as Baseball Bat Man, Hammer Girl, and the Assassin, and his climactic confrontation with them in a pair of epic fights is one of the most viscerally exciting things I’ve ever seen. Bones crunch and blood sprays but you simply cannot take your eyes off the screen.

It’s not just that Gareth Evans is a brilliant action director and editor, blessed with a pair of genius fight co-ordinators (Uwais and Ruhian), though this is of course the case. It’s that he really understands how to pace and structure the rest of the film so the fight sequences have maximum impact – he’s not afraid to include a moment of stillness and silence just to set the scene for a coming clash, or throw a stylistic curveball like sticking some Beethoven on the soundtrack for a particular significant moment of bloodletting. This is a long movie and he basically doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout it.

The Raid 2 isn’t the greatest crime drama ever made, and I don’t know enough about martial arts movies to say for certain that this is the best of the lot, but as a fusion of the two it is surely unparalleled: it is, at the very least, an instant classic. Hollywood must surely be breaking down these guys’ doors, but apparently The Raid 3 is still definitely on the cards. The Raid was a superb movie – this sequel is a quantum leap further on in terms of complexity and style. Quite how Evans and his associates will be able to improve on this film, I can’t conceive, but I am really looking forward to seeing them try.

 

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It’s nice to have a varied diet, and here in the UK we are lucky in that the fare of many nations is widely available. In some cases this sort of thing has become an accepted part of the culture – pop out for an Italian, an Indian, a Chinese, or even lately a Thai, and eyelids will go unbatted. Beyond this, however, things do get a little bit niche and specialist, despite the fact that what’s on offer isn’t necessarily that different from what we’re used to – it’s more a case of unusual seasoning than anything else, I suspect.

Indonesia is currently mounting an assault on the mainstream of a slightly different kind (the metaphor is an appropriate one), although if this was an Indonesian restaurant things would be slightly odd, in that the head chef was formerly based in Pontypridd. However, he is not a chef, he is a film-maker: his name is Gareth Huw Evans and his new film, The Raid, does more to further the cause of astounding, relentless, brutal, insane violence than any I can recall for as long as I’ve been writing about movies.

Our hero is Rama (Iko Uwais), an inexperienced young cop. We first find him about his prayers, then see him working out. Finally he kisses his heavily pregnant wife goodbye and sets off to work. All this, of course, is basically leading us to expect that Rama is about to have an utterly hellish day at the office, and so it proves.

Rama is part of a police assault team attempting to penetrate the headquarters of vicious crime boss Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy) and capture him. Riyadi has based himself at the top of a tower block, the rooms of which he has thoughtfully leased out to every headcase criminal in Jakarta. Riyadi’s own deputy (Yayan Ruhian) has the somewhat-ominous nickname of Mad Dog, but prides himself on having the personal touch and being a tactile sort of person. This is because he doesn’t really enjoy shooting people and enjoys murdering them with his bare hands much more.

The strike team enters the building and gets as far as the fifth floor undetected – but as the tension mounts, mistakes are made and the gangsters realise the police are in their midst. Riyadi gets on the tannoy and announces that everyone in the building who assists in exterminating the unwanted judicial presence will be able to live rent-free in perpetuity.

This is bad news for the cops, who find themselves trapped, rapidly taking casualties and forced onto the defensive. Even worse news is the revelation that this operation has not been officially sanctioned and there is no hope of backup coming to their rescue. Separated from his comrades and responsible for an injured friend, Rama realises that if he wants to survive he has only one option – to fight his way out to freedom, bare-handed if need be…

As you may have gathered, the script is not by Sir Tom Stoppard, but this is not really a problem as it is really just there to facilitate the carnage and mayhem which makes up the meat of this film (and pretty raw meat it is too). It’s not quite as straightforward as I may have made it sound – but the police corruption and intrigue angle which is fairly key didn’t quite hang together for me, while there’s some soapy family melodrama involved too – which while a bit of a staple of the martial arts genre, still felt a bit hackneyed.

However, this is all basically immaterial compared to The Raid‘s action sequences, which are like a syringe of epinephrine driven straight into the heart – compared to anything I’ve seen at the movies in years, anyway. There’s some pretty impressive full-auto gunplay early on, but it boils down to Rama and Mad Dog displaying their mastery of the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. Now, this doesn’t look all that different from many of the other martial arts styles people have been making films about for decades – the rawness of it, together with practitioners’ fondness for making use of knees and elbows, reminded me a bit of the sort of thing Tony Jaa gets up to, but I digress. And the script certainly does not shy away from such genre staples as the hero taking on mobs of people in vaguely industrial settings, or the chief bad guy in a slightly more mano-a-mano fashion.

So it’s not dazzlingly fresh or surprising – but the real achievement of The Raid, which is stunning, is to make it all feel like it is something genuinely new and different.  The credit must go to Evans, for whom this is an astonishingly confident major debut. He really knows how to shoot a fight sequence, keeping the camera moving without indulging himself in eight cuts a second. Even more impressively, he understands the value of stillness and silence when building up to a piece of major action: there are a couple of really electric moments where people are being completely reasonable and civil – but you know this is just because they’re preparing to go utterly berserk at each other. Evans himself has said that Die Hard was a major inspiration, but I can see much more of John Carpenter’s early movies here, to be honest (something else he’s acknowledged). He also shows something of Carpenter’s mastery of music, adding cues to the fight scenes that really add to their impact (the fact that the soundtrack includes tracks with names like ‘Quaking Old F*ck’ and ‘Machete Standoff’ should tell you the sort of thing to expect).

The Raid is one of those films that comes out of nowhere and isn’t released so much as detonated. Yes, it’s raw around the edges; yes, the story isn’t fantastic; and yes, the actual performances are unlikely to trouble the Oscars (having said that, the main villains are properly terrifying) – but none of this matters. I went in to see The Raid in a fairly good humour, comfortable in myself and with the world – I emerged two hours later as a trembling, staggering, exhausted piece of human wreckage. If I’d been to a restaurant, this would not constitute a recommendation – but The Raid is not a restaurant (stick that on the DVD cover as a quote), it’s an action movie – and it’s an absolute blitz of one.

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