So this would normally be my week to do a Foreign Fare, but… as it so happens, one of this week’s big releases is foreign. I’d actually seen this director/actor collaboration’s previous film, Merantau, a few months back, before I knew much about this film. That film had a pretty lame story and some rough acting, but some great action. Knowing the style, I had some hope to the rumors that this could be one of the greatest action flicks ever made. But was it overhyped?
The film follows a special police force as they raid an apartment complex run by the city’s ultimate crime boss. It’s full of most of his employees or buyers, as well. Rama (Iko Uwais), whose wife is 7-months pregnant, is a part of this team. But when they get to the sixth floor, they’re spotted and ratted out, leading to a total lockdown of the building. And that’s when almost every other tenant in the building comes out to take the cops down. So they have to find a way to survive and escape… if they can.
Going back to the overhype question… the answer is yes and no. Yes in the sense that I was actually let down by the first 30 minutes. When you fling around “greatest action movie ever,” especially for a martial arts flick, it better damn well be balls-to-the-wall insanity from start to finish. And that’s just not the case. It’s almost the case. But not quite. My biggest problem with the first 30 minutes is that most of the action is just people shooting at each other. Now, this can be done well if done over-the-top or stylishly. And some of that is here (in particular the slow-mo shadow/fire shot, or the axe to the floor while shooting and then exploding fridge moment). But the majority of it is just stuff like the cops against a wall shooting up. Or standing still in a room, shooting at a door. And I just don’t find that kind of action all that exciting… particularly when I thought I was coming into an intense martial arts movie. Though I did watch this twice in two days, and it was better on the second viewing (mostly due to some story notes you pick up on).
However, at somewhere around 32 minutes, everything goes nuts. This is about the time the martial arts kicks in (no pun intended). And it never slows down for the next hour+. What makes this style so different from other martial arts films is in both the camera movement and the fighting style. The martial arts itself is smooth and fluid, yet simultaneously brutal and hard-hitting. Every inch of movement is choreographed, and it looks fantastic. Bodies move together like a dance, but where the dance ends in broken limbs and knives in your chest and neck (and the knife work in this film is absolutely insane). The camera, also, seems to be a part of the action in and of itself. And I don’t mean something like shaky cam. There’s actually not much if any of that. But instead, you get movement with the fighters. If an enemy is thrown to the left, the camera glides left with it. If somebody is flipped to the ground, the camera tilts down to the ground. If someone jumps through a hole, the camera goes through the hole with them. You see all the brutality, yet it somehow helps to capture the fluidity of the fighting, as well.
What really helps to tie all this action together, though, is the story. I’ve read elsewhere that this isn’t a movie you see for the story. And I suppose that’s true. But at the same time, the story presents some really nice twists and turns as it goes along. I don’t want to share much more than that, but believe me… a bad story can hurt even the greatest martial arts movies. Merantau had the ability to be just as great, but the story (and acting) really held it back. That isn’t the case here. It’s nothing deep, but it works well.
What else is there to say? If you’re a fan of action and/or martial arts films, you need to see this immediately. I also didn’t mention the rockin’ score by Linkin Park musician Mike Shinoda. (And I know that at least the Blu-Ray has the option of watching with the original score, as well, though I haven’t seen that version yet.) Overall, It has a really good story, good characters, and some of the most intense fight sequences you will ever see. In fact, I’ll go on record and say that I feel the final battle (the “2-on-1″ fight at the end) is probably one of the greatest fight scenes ever put on film. It has a bit of a slow start–at least in my opinion–but it doesn’t take long for it to pick up. And when it does, it doesn’t let up.
(Despite the slow opening, I think the rest of the film more than makes up for it, hence the full score.)