Martial arts films have always fascinated me particularly because of how they have managed to capture complex kinetic human action, and the methods employed in doing so. In films like 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the camera often follows the action at a staggering speed, never cutting away but also simultaneously doing so at a close-up. In conjunction with the elaborate choreography and complex interchanges, the logistical nightmare of the whole affair is more like watching a dance or staged performance, then an actual exchange of violence or hostility. These sequences at least in regard to the camera work have more shared DNA with the opening shots of Touch of Evil or The Player, then they do to their more recent genre descendants.
Furthermore these sequences of action often transcend merely being fights, but actually accomplish to unravel and tell their own narratives through the usage of the kinesthetics of the actors, and the way in which the choreography unfolds. The fight scenes between Benny “The Jet” and Jackie Chan at the end of Wheels On Meals, or Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Return of the Dragon are great examples of this.
Even scenes of particularly little action outside the genre such as the trio sequence at the finale of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly communicates a great deal of information between the three gunslingers, as it does to the viewer, all with no dialogue and just the facial twitches and subtleties in extreme close-ups, all before guns are ever drawn.
But somewhere down the line, martial art films sort of lost their edge and became more about selling the spectacle, then actually presenting a harmonized interplay between the action and the narrative of the film. Past works such as Return to the 36th Chamber contain seamless parallels between the protagonist’s movement and their developing characterization. Gordon Liu as Chu Jen-chieh goes from a small time conman to full fledged hero by indirectly learning kung fu at Shaolin where he is forced to scaffold the temple in renovation. The film chronicles his change in character by transcribing it onto his movements and kinetics. He goes from moving like a hapless idiot, to confidently and acrobatically swinging from scaffolds with ease, all the while incorporating the movements of the monks training below into his seemingly mundane labor.
Classics such as the mentioned Shaw Bros. productions were often not reliant upon the martial arts themselves, rather used them as a system that intermingled with the other standard film conventions to create a fully dimensioned work. They were often never the central focus, and the percentage of the film that was choreographed action was often minimal.
More recent films in the genre such as Tom Yum Goong or The Raid differ in that they are wholly action-based with minimal explanation or context. Roger Ebert on The Raid stated that:
“…it is essentially a visualized video game that spares the audience the inconvenience of playing it. There are two teams, the police SWAT team and the gangsters. The gangsters have their headquarters on the top floor of a 15-story building, where they can spy on every room and corridor with video surveillance. The SWAT team enters on the ground floor. Its assignment: Fight its way to the top, floor by floor.”
The attitude here is definitely similar to how games are often approached. Interaction or “play” is central to the work, and in most cases this translates into some sort of spatial interaction. Ebert’s summary on The Raid is ironically not really summary at all, as his explanation accounts for the majority of the setup. Much like a video game, The Raid works like stages or levels in a video game. Instead of structurally relying on a proper narrative, progression is more accounted for by clearing out stages or spaces of enemies.
There is no proper character development or writing to account for a majority of the action, instead the action dictates what sort of narrative is needed in order to have proper context. And the conflict presented is fittingly simplistic, with basically a cops vs. robbers dynamic without any sort of complexities, motivations, or exposition offered.
This spatial model though isn’t necessarily an indicator of a poor film, as there are many that succeed with its utilization. The recent Dredd film is mechanically identical to The Raid in its floor-to-floor clearing. The difference though is that Dredd actually had interesting characters and a dynamic conflict that didn’t solely rely on the spectacle of action to carry itself forward.
And the backdrop of the building was merely that, a backdrop and a smaller part of a larger world. Narrative and its characters are central to Dredd, and action only enters troubling territory when it is clear it is being used to present 3D as spectacle to its audience in sequences of the drug slo-mo.
While it is difficult to prove whether this is the case, I highly suspected that both Dredd and The Raid had a shared influence from the hallway sequence from Oldboy. The mise en scene, color palette, and general tonality of this memorable sequence is blatantly similar in the proceeding two works. The Raid 2 even goes so far as to include hammers as a primary weapon in several of its sequences, both of which take place in claustrophobically similar spaces.
This particular sequence from Oldboy is memorable for quite a few reasons, but primarily in the manner in which it is shot. The whole sequence is a single unedited take going from left to right. Oh Dae-Su much like a player in a platformer must make his way across to the end of the level or space. In between he must fight off or avoid enemies.
While The Raid doesn’t feature this same sort of orthographic projection and two-dimensionality, it still relies on an overly simplistic spatial progression that sees characters going from one end of a floor to the other. The main difference is that characters that move through a space in The Raid are often inherently meaningless past the simple fact they need to get from point A to B.
A Better Tomorrow II provides a good comparison work since like The Raid, it features a similar sense of this directionality of making it across a space. In A Better Tomorrow II though, it still works wonderfully well since these sequences aren’t simply displays of spectacle gunplay. The apartment shootout which sees Ken escorting Lung to safety from mobsters, serves to display a visual struggle that parallels Ken’s attempts to break Lung out of his catatonic state. And the notorious mansion shootout at the end of the film that sees Ken, Lung, and Sung tearing through room after room of mobsters that literally paints the walls red and carpets the floor with corpses is more a visualization of catharsis in reaction to the preceding tragic death of Sung’s brother, Kit.
While it might sound like my opinion of The Raid is less then favorable, it was still a film that I enjoyed immensely, at least enough to warrant a watch of its sequel. Part of me was hopeful because The Raid despite its quirks, did have some amazing choreography. It was often hindered however by bad edits and camera work, but it was still ever present. I also gave the production team the benefit of the doubt since this was a lower budgeted release.
The Raid 2 doesn’t particularly solve any problems however, nor does it take a step back. What it does provide is another example of a work that seemingly borrows more from the traditions and attitudes of video game design and expectation, rather then utilizing standard film practices in order to win audience favor.
Ebert once again on The Raid, talks about how enemies simply exist to get pummeled and there is seemingly an endless supply of them as the action calls for it:
“Some of the hand-to-hand battles are shameless in how they mimic video games. A fighter stands in a corridor and demolishes an enemy. As the enemy falls, another springs into position from around corner, ready to be demolished in turn. Then another. It’s like they’re being ejected by an automatic victim dispenser.”
While this is definitely an area of obvious subjectivity, one of the key differences I’ve noticed in how action is approached from the golden age of Shaw Bros. and now, is that there has been a shift from actually developing characters then pitting them against each other in one-off duels where viewers are emotionally invested in the outcome, to today where combatants are as faceless as the respawning NPCs or hostiles in a video game. Also instead of more personalized impactful duels, protagonists often find themselves stuck in an ocean of action where it is easy to get lost.
The Raid 2 exemplifies this problem clearly. In the prison yard scene which begins with Rama preventing an assassination attempt on mobster Uco, a complete free for all breaks out with all the inmates and guards in the rainy mud. The action while well choreographed is hindered by the simple fact that it is impossible to follow the action or Rama for that matter in a comfortable manner. The camera doesn’t back away when it needs to and is often too close or off-angle to capture the flow of the action properly. Visually since all the players are drenched in mud it is increasingly difficult to pick out key characters and where they stand in the action.
As a comparison point to itself, the opening shot of the Raid 2 has Rama already in prison idling in a toilet stall with the sounds of hostiles just outside. While this sequence is similar to the prison yard in several ways with its general chaos and multitude of players, it is conversely well structured. Spatially, Rama is isolated and emphasized by being centered in his own space. Hostiles must enter into his space and work around him and the camera never loses sight of him. In terms of mise en scene, it paints a clear picture of the unrelenting odds he must face in this undercover operation he has found himself in.
Not only are there issues with characters spatially, where they are placed within the narrative often draws up more confusion and a lack of logic. It is obvious The Raid 2 attempted to inject some form of complex conflict with a large cast of players to offset the rather simplistic setup of the first film. There are multiple gangs and parties vying for power, with both internal and external strife. That said the succeeding mob drama or lack thereof isn’t anywhere near on par with the likes of Johnnie To’s Election or even something like Takashi Miike’s rather absurd Dead or Alive.
The Yakuza while very dominant in the film, hold little significance to the narrative progression. They don’t retaliate or react too much of what goes on, and their presence is merely used as a sore point between Uco and his father. It’s honestly quite a shame since those casting for The Raid 2 actually went through the extra effort to obtain established Japanese actors like Ryuhei Matsuda and Kazuki Kitamura, but their talents are essentially wasted in a film that can’t be bothered to utilize their characters to any significant effect.
Placement of characters in relationship to one another is often more out of convenience for the sake of progressing the film, then being the result of natural development based upon aspects like character motivations or struggles. Bejo & Uco’s collusion is all too convenient and little is offered in what convinces Bejo to ultimately betray his own father after so many years, and Uco to even place trust him. I honestly found myself simply asking why Bejo didn’t attempt something earlier since the rationale the film presents to the relationship schism is so minimal or seemingly arbitrary.
Ultimately, Mad Prakoso is quite possibly the most obviously misplaced character. Prakoso is all but introduced then killed off in a single breath. The film actually bothers to tell us about an estranged son and have us connect to this sympathetic assassin, then he is shortly thereafter disposed of to be used as a catalyst by other characters. None of his briefly explored back story is ever elaborated upon, and it just leaves the viewer feeling as if they missed some vital piece of information to properly contextualize the inclusion of his arc.
When a fight occurs within the realm of video games, there is little order or sense to it outside the mechanical systems that allow it to happen. Given the variable difficulty, the player as the hero or protagonist may even fail and die. And even in success, the narrative from start to finish is altogether random. A series of exchanged punches and blocks holds no significance as it is simply the player inputting some sort of movement modifier with the AI of the game reacting in turn. Fights in games occur in a way that is almost solely mandated by the attempts of the player to simply win the challenge so they can move on to the next one. Scripted events aside, these fights only hold significance because they simply take place and the protagonist eventually overcomes them (at least usually).
With film, fights are choreographed ahead of time and at least with the films in the past, they were not merely an exchange of violence. Characters were actually in communication with each other and the fights unfolded like kinetic conversations. It wasn’t all that uncommon for people to actually talk and even pause to elaborate on the situation they were in.
In this manner, it wasn’t simply character A entering a room with character B then automatically instigating hostility as if it was a triggered event in a video game. Rather characters actually explored each others’ motivations, conflicts, and a fight was typically both physical as well as mental, where a verbal back-and-forth would take place alongside the punches.
The Raid 2 has several significant duels where Rama faces off against key characters. These are situations where as a viewer, the expectation should be that the stakes are high and that there should be at least some sense of dread at how things will turn out.
These feelings of anxiety while artificial, occur even with re-viewings if the manner in which tension and the interplay between characters is performed to a high standard. With The Raid 2, I never found this to be the case. Even though the performances by the martial artists and actors in the film are incredibly impressive, there was ultimately something lacking.
Rama’s encounters with both Baseball Bat Man / Hammer Girl and with the Assassin are seemingly over before they really have a chance to become interesting. It is already somewhat of a problem that these opponents are literally nameless and lacking in any sort of significance past serving as a physical obstacle to Rama.
There is never any words exchanged between the fighters nor even a glimmer of informal thoughts communicated through body language. It’s as if Rama like a player of a video game knows immediately to fight the enemy in front of him, since it is pretty much the only systematic interaction the film can utilize.
The manner in which these characters are placed within their respective spaces creates a challenge where the goal is ultimately to reach a door or pathway that cuts to an altogether different space. Rama walks into a narrow reddish hallway with wallpaper patterns resembling the art design from Oldboy to face off against Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl. A set of double doors are behind them lurking as the stage or level exit. Once done here, Rama walks through into a different space of a white kitchen to now duel the Assassin.
In both these fights, the brevity of the action results in their final conclusion feeling anti-climatic rather then satisfying. There isn’t any sense of narrative to them and it really does feel more like watching an exhibition or demo reel then a proper film.
There is something drastically different then for example when Jackie Chan faced off with Benny “The Jet” in Wheels On Meals. The Raid 2 essentially feels like two people unwilling to communicate on any level fighting for no reason aside from occupying the same space.
If one actually goes back and watches the fight between Jackie and Benny, it’s fundamentally different. They exchange blows then actually take a moment to pause, eye each other up, then resume. If one line of attack doesn’t work, Jackie steps back and switches up tactics. Benny does the same.
In The Raid 2 it’s just a nonstop torrent of action that doesn’t provide this level of variance or progression at all. And thinking back on the film, the only duel I can think of that even had a modicum of life to it was when Rama faced off, with all things, a lifeless wall.
There is a particular scene early on in the film where Rama is sitting in his jail cell staring at the opposite wall which has a silhouetted figure drawn on it. He slowly approaches it and proceeds to shadowbox with it, although his punches actually connect slamming into the hard surface. As the scene progresses his hits go from softer practice shots to actual hard hits that send debris and dust flying. His face tenses up and his punches get thrown more rapidly, until he is actually taking huge chunks out of the stone wall.
Getting back to Jackie in Wheels on Meals, every punch thrown matters and has weight behind it. Jackie rubs his nose after getting punched in the face, and pain is clearly visible every time he gets hit. Contrasting this to the conclusion of the duel between Rama and the Assassin, attacks are much more brutal and objectively harmful yet no sense of weight is felt behind them. At the end of this fight, both participants take up karambits and gruesomely cut into each other. While blood spray is visible, the actors don’t recoil at all and the cuts seem wrongfully arbitrary. Then the fight abruptly ends when Rama repeatedly slashes into the Assassin’s arm then thrusts into his throat killing him instantly.
The way in which hits and damage are portrayed is quite different. While both are entirely fictional, the fight between Jackie and Benny feels more real in the context of film. Just because Jackie takes more punches to the face, doesn’t necessarily mean he will lose, and there is a certain amount of organic back-and-forth between the two. With Rama and the Assassin, hits don’t seem to have much effect on their own. Rama never gets hit in a certain way and displays any sort of change in tactics or approach. It’s just a constant onslaught from both sides, and if anything damage almost seems quantitative with the fight ending without proper dramatization when the Assassin simply runs out of HP. Despite the crippling and probably fatal cuts Rama took on as well, by next scene/space, he is seemingly fully healed up or regenerative.
Ultimately probably what is most disappointing about these particular fights is the fact that they are so well-performed and athletically impressive, but lack proper context and utilization to be meaningful or have any semblance of importance holistically. I never get the sense that these fights are a part of larger whole, and both spatially and narratively are so self-contained and isolated from the rest of the film. And lastly while the fighters execute the choreography flawlessly, their actual character performances are nonexistent.
Gamified Film Mechanics
While I’ve been seemingly harsh on The Raid 2 in detailing its sort of gamified nature, this isn’t meant to be taken that game-influenced mechanics are necessarily a negative, nor is The Raid 2 a terrible film. Rather it simply happens to utilize these sorts of mechanics to its own detriment.
A sense of gamification in the genre isn’t specifically a bad thing. Films like Dredd already discussed and others like Crank which explicitly satires and models itself off of the rather ludicrous notions and physics in games are both overall very successful films. The Raid 2 and many other more recent works of the genre are simply lacking in qualities that made their predecessors great, while taking on new attributes and influences.
A film like Sha Po Lang for example, with veterans such as Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen was uninspiring and frankly unengaging despite having two of the genre greats engaging in some of the most memorable fight sequences in a long while. Neither character went through any sort of development with much of the conflict between the two being established through brief exposition before the film takes place. Their final confrontation while visually impressive, is narratively dull and uninteresting.
I can honestly hardly remember a single thing about the film aside from not enjoying it, while I can recount much from both the earlier works of Sammo Hung or Donnie Yen such as in The Magnificent Butcher, Iron Monkey, or Dragons Forever. Even Tom Yum Goong with its rather unbelievably incredible one-shot sequence of Tony Jaa fighting through a horde of enemies across countless levels of a restaurant is all but forgettable aside from that one memorable scene.
I think it is particularly telling that some of the genre greats like the films of King Hu such as Touch of Zen or Come Drink With Me, didn’t even have that much action at all to begin with. Like any other film, they relied heavily upon its narrative and standard film conventions to carry itself, instead of making a spectacle of the martial arts to an excessive extent. The bamboo forest scene from Touch of Zen is quite possibly one of the more memorable in all of Taiwanese film history and it could largely be due to the fact that the film isn’t overly-saturated with action for no reason.
These earlier directors of the genre primarily made great works because they weren’t necessarily directors of martial arts films specifically. Rather they were simply making “films” where the inclusion of action or martial arts was relevant to the narrative being expressed. In a way, these type of films have suffered a sort of reverse progression that typically sees legitimization over time. For example going from exploitation films to those by directors like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez such as Grindhouse or Jackie Brown, or going from the yakuza films of Ninkyo eiga to the existential explorations by auteur Takeshi Kitano in the 1990s such as Sonatine and Hanabi.
Taken in small doses or as snippets, The Raid 2 much like its first film is definitely impressive and visually appealing. But watched as a whole, it has a difficult time managing cohesion. Fight after fight without any sort of context to make them meaningful, sadly renders the whole experience dull and unengaging especially when it is interspersed with rather horrid attempts at crafting a complex power struggle that lazily puts characters standing around in dull gray rooms without a drop of the effort that went into crafting any of the fights that takes place.