The Raid: Redemption and Act of Valor

June 29, 2012

The action film must be one of the hardest for anyone to justify enjoying to him or her self on a moral level.  We can talk all day long about the technique and the artistry and, in the best cases, the moral depth that create a great action film, but at the end of the day, there’s always going to be that element of thrilling to the violence.  In a fashion, the closer to a realistic depiction of violence an action movie achieves, the farther away from its purpose it gets.  If you think of the brutal physicality and sad desperation in the fistfight-cum-wrestling match of a drama like All the Pretty Horses or the bathhouse finale of Eastern Promises, or even that moment in Saving Private Ryan where Adam Goldberg’s character kills the sense of war-action heroics by pleading with the German soldier not to slowly plunge a dagger straight into his heart, the last thing you feel is “fun” or “thrill” – the reality of violence is that it is generally a sad, ugly thing that represents the absolute worst in humanity.  Therefore, the more outlandish and choreographed and lovingly filmed and edited an action scene is, the better.  Many of the good ones have more in common with a Hollywood musical number than an actual fight.  Even the recent turn towards the more guttural action, like the Bourne films or Craig-era Bond rely heavily on swift editing and choreography to keep the fast-paced excitement going so it can be punctuated by a violent knock to the stomach.  It is on the level of thrills that the action scenes in Act of Valor and The Raid: Redemption hope to deliver, but due to the circumstances of each of the films, there is a drastically different effect on the viewer.

The Raid: Redemption, and Indonesian film directed by Welshman Gareth Edwards, is pure martial arts action violence, closer to the kung fu/John Woo tradition than the rough-and-tumble Bourne-aping “Chaos Cinema” style that is so prevalent in the genre elsewhere.  The story is so simple it beggars belief:  Rama (Iko Uwais) is the rookie in a SWAT-like group of policemen who are tasked with taking out a tower held by a notorious criminal.  They have to fight their way through the endless henchmen to get to the main guy.  There are twists – deceptions, ulterior motives, corruption, etc… – but they are of the most rudimentary kind.  This film is all about, as a pull-quote might say, “Wall-to-Wall ACTION”, and there is no real need to contextualize it.  Edwards proves himself very adept at filming the lovingly choreographed martial arts sequences, which are fast and exciting in a way very few extended sequences of hand-to-hand combat are these days.  There are stabbings (lots and lots of stabbings) and some bone-crunchingly painful head-smashes but it’s all done in the spirit of good fun.  Okay, it gets a tad nauseating as it does eventually run out of steam, but overall, it’s a damn good effort.  The feeling of the film is enhanced by the set design, which is grubby and moldy, but also so obviously just sets in a studio that it enhances the heightened quality of the action and movement.  Indeed, that movement is something special, and Edwards understands that restrained cutting can allow that movement to sink in while adding an extra heft to the hits.

Still, The Raid features copious amounts of blood and loss of life for no reason other than our entertainment, and yet there’s something okay about that. Something “okay” that is sorely missing from Act of Valor, the new film directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh.  Its USP (and this is a film so bereft of artistic content that it most definitely deserves to be considered in terms such as “USPs”) is that it stars active duty Navy SEALS.  The plot, as thin as The Raid and yet far more tedious and time-consuming, sees a team of SEALS globe-trotting on a series of connected missions to stop terrorists from using a new weapon on Americans.  Simple enough, but dragged out due to – and I don’t really feel right for faulting non-professionals for this – very poor acting combined with the kind of clichés you would only expect in a lazy parody nowadays (one of the SEALs is expecting his first child, etc).  It is very tedious indeed, and this is not helped in the slightest by the witless direction, the tacky editing, and the general cheapness of the Digital Video quality.  These men, for all of their poor acting, are trained very well in what they do, and yet we’re never offered the opportunity to revel in their brutal glory by the filmmakers through anything even remotely resembling innovation.

Not that we should revel, perhaps – and here I’d give credit to the filmmakers if it wasn’t so obvious that all they wanted the audience to do was to revel – because there’s something eerie and disconcerting about the whole enterprise.  It isn’t just that this is a propaganda film (though it most definitely is that), nor is it the gleefully jingoist, ultra-conservative agenda (the finale deals with killing cartel goons in Mexico because the terrorists are using their tunnels to cross the border – no, it isn’t 2005 again, I checked) that sees it fitting to raise these men to the status of human gods worthy of praise when, essentially, what they do is kill with incredible efficiency and without asking questions – necessary attributes that can be seen as tragic in a way but, for me, certainly not worthy of exaltation. There’s a lot of guff in the voiceover about the “warrior ethos” that is in the blood of the child or the bonds of brotherhood and the ultimate sacrifice etcetera etcetera, but what this film is really about is combining cheap sentimentalism with video game aesthetics to convince naïve kids that they can live out Call of Duty for real – and be a hero for the pleasure.  The constant shift to the first-person (basically FPS) perspective during the action sequences, bizarrely, creates a distancing effect for the viewer.  What might have been an idea for “putting you in the shoes of a SEAL” has turned out to be a tool that reduces what you’re watching to that of a video game.  It’s doubly disturbing considering these are real live Navy SEALS doing a (much cleaner, morally simplistic) version of what they do for a living.  By putting these authentic elements into something so crudely inauthentic as this propaganda film, it serves to completely belittle whatever respect we might have for these highly skilled professionals, and instead uses them as recruiting tools for a monstrous military-industrial complex.  It is the most insidious use of mindless, plotless action I’ve seen in a long time.  The visual dullness is eventually superseded by the moral queasiness, but if we’re going to suffer through that pain, at least look back to the Soviet, American, and even German propaganda of the first half of the 20th Century, because at least those films looked good.



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