You know what fight choreography is, we know what fight choreography is. Let’s just dive right in.
Oh, and we should warn you that unlike our other Best of 2014 articles, since fight scenes usually involve a big reveal or someone’s death:
THE MOVIE CLIPS IN THIS ARTICLE CONTAIN SPOILERS.
They won’t play without you clicking on them, but just be aware of the above if you do.
3. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Chris Carnel, fight coordinator James Young, fight choreographer
This has stunts and fight choreography across the board – car chases (although the more outlandish stuff is CG), knife fights, wire-assists – you name it, it was in the Captain America sequel.
It was a really good year for practical choreography on film, and Captain America includes much more practical work than any other Marvel film. That blending also requires a great deal of creativity on the part of the stunt and fight coordinators, who wanted something less cartoonish and more immediate and brutal.
This is the attitude that permeates the creative fight choreography of John Wick. Gun fu has been around for a while, but what Keanu Reeves practices is closer to gun jutsu. He controls the nearest threat with his body, saving him for later, and deals with the furthest one or two or three. It’s completely counter-intuitive and could only work in movies, but it is downright beautiful to watch.
It completely undermines your expectations of how a fight’s going to proceed and using Keanu Reeves as its dancer, John Wick gives us martial arts movements according to a ballet philosophy.
The clip above is the conclusion to a sequence that sees Reeves fight his way through several floors of a club. Each floor has its own dance music, and the pace of the choreography changes according to each genre – slowed down and deliberate in the new age spa, frenzied and tense on the dubstep dance floor.
It’s exceptionally clever, and that’s even before mentioning the fight between Reeves and Adrianne Palicki a few scenes later, which begins like a dance and ends like a brawl.
Here is one of the most overlooked movies of 2014, a martial arts film that you could take every action scene out of and still be left with a compelling gang drama. And yet, those action scenes are some of the best ever filmed.
Director Gareth Evans leaves the fight scenes to his choreographers, who also play a lead and supporting character, but he still insists on using long takes that hit certain marks. The fight scenes to him are opportunities to communicate emotion in a way that’s removed from traditional storytelling. They’re filled with visual beats that lay their characters raw in a way that’s shielded during dramatic scenes.
In this clip, for instance, we already know that Hammer Girl is deaf, but when her sunglasses are knocked from her face, it’s revealed that she only has one eye. We stay on this for only a split-second, nothing is mentioned, and the fight doesn’t stop. It’s a heart-wrenching realization that suggests a whole other film’s worth of story, told in a moment, and that turns the end of a henchwoman from one character’s triumph into another’s tragedy.
This is how the film constantly communicates an anti-violence message through some of the most brutal fight choreography ever put in a movie. That’s not to say The Raid 2 doesn’t like cinematic violence. To the contrary, it basks in it, but it uses this to create a message about real-world violence and corruption in Indonesian politics.
We could talk about Iko Uwais’s tight body control and efficient movement, Yayan Ruhian’s loose, wildly animalistic performance, and how every character in the film fights completely differently, but in the end, Evans uses the choreography not as an attraction, but as one more storytelling tool to convey emotion and fill the world of his story in with detail. It has fight scenes that will make you cry. How many films can say that?
What makes the fight choreography in The Raid 2 special isn’t just the insane technical level required of the performers, it’s that the choreography itself tells vignettes inside the bigger story. The narrative doesn’t stop while we watch the fighting. As in dance, the story condenses and intensifies.
We’re always talking about how filmmakers need to invent new “cinematic language” for technical elements on film. The Raid 2 invents brand new language for fight scenes and how they can be used. It’s a rare instance when a film does that this successfully.
The midpoint of the year is a fantastic time to highlight the amazing films we’ve seen so far, many of which have passed hidden underneath the bigger event films of the summer. Let’s get on with the design portion of our Half-Year Awards:
Eavesdropped conversation on the downtrodden streets of Edinburgh, Scotland. The digestive system of an alien beast. Wind bending the pines. The raging ocean and the cry of a child. Feet racing through falling snow. The back of your jacket rubbing mossy bark off a fallen tree.
And Mica Levi’s score over all of it, spare, atonal, discordant, threatening and yearning, relentless yet lost, pulsing, an organic system all its own, a sound that exists before you walk into the theater and stays with you long after you walk out. She may even hijack the movie’s conclusion through a shift in musical cue, perhaps one of the most important musical moments since Jaws.
How do you portray the remorseless sociopathy of a rapist in music? How do you communicate the aching you feel in your chest on witnessing the beauty of nature, the hard stone in your stomach on spying its unfeeling violence? This is the score you’ve felt in your bones when you look at the dark woods under a bruised sky and feel like all the menacing possibilities of your imagination lurk in those shadows. This is the soundtrack you’ve felt all your life when chills run up your spine. Mica Levi gives our most basic impulses and fears notes to play by.
This could just as easily be The Monuments Men, but The Raid 2‘s production design isn’t quite as piecemeal; it comes together to form a more cogent whole with its other elements. The Indonesian film’s red-walled dining hall is straight out of a Kubrick film, its vibrant night clubs would feel at home in a Nicholas Winding Refn piece, and its snow-draped alleys speak to Zhang Yimou’s influence on martial arts production design. To design a movie at once gangster, drama, spy, war, and martial arts film demands an eclectic mix. To bring it all together into a whole that feels part of a singular world is nothing short of breathtaking.
With a core cast that becomes progressively more bruised and bloodied over the course of the film, and dozens of extras sliced and diced along the way, The Raid 2 separates itself from other martial arts films by taking its technical elements the extra mile. Director Gareth Evans doesn’t want your basic henchmen, though. He wants each to have their own story, so that one man’s victory is always another’s tragedy. In this way, he crafts an incredibly bloody film that’s simultaneously anti-violence. Evans often tells these smaller stories through Tanara’s make-up design, which allows lengthy fight scenes to develop their own emotional pulse free of the choreography.
Best Stuntwork: Yayan Ruhian, Fight Choreographer; Iko Uwais, Fight Choreographer;
Bruce Law, Stunts Coordinator, The Raid 2
There are basic rules about fight choreography that are there to keep directors from biting off more than they can chew. Director Gareth Evans breaks most of them. The more difficult the choreography, the more impractical his shot selection. Ruhian and Uwais’s choreography is presented in long, unbroken takes, much like dance choreography is. In one fight, dozens of fighters are filmed in a space so narrow that cameras barely fit. In another, 30 combatants wage war in a muddy prison yard. Choreography in thick mud is already ill-advised – shooting it with overhead crane shots that show every fighter at once is next to impossible.
A later sequence involves three fighters in a narrow hallway. Most films would cut back and forth, shooting the fight from behind one side and then shooting it from behind the other. Here, the camera is choreographed with the actors, swinging in between and under them as they fight. The fight choreography itself is already top-notch, but nothing like the intricately choreographed camerawork in The Raid 2 has ever been done before. It’s too impossible a task. Or at least, it used to be.
Noah wins this by default. There just haven’t been a lot of strong entries so far this year. However you feel about its story, its technical elements are brilliantly executed, and its costuming is very detailed.
Best Visual Effects: Industrial Light and Magic, Noah
Darren Aronofsky uses a number of techniques that are inherently broken or hopelessly dated in modern cinema. The quick montage. Stop-motion. Time lapse. BodyCam. Shooting in silhouette. Yet he translates all of them into his own cinematic language, and for Noah that means implementing visual effects.
It’s not just about the rock giants and the mythical Great Flood Noah depicts, it’s also about how Aronofsky uses visual effects to enhance and emulate his other cinematic techniques, to create a big-budget version of his particular views of religion and philosophy. For me, visual effects aren’t just about fidelity, but also about how they are used, and few films use visual effects so effectively and experimentally as Noah does.
Like it or not, 3-D is here to stay. It’s unlikely it will ever overwhelm 2-D film – people work on a visual level in too many different ways, and until we can take the burden off the human eye and put it on the technology itself (read: a big step forward in holographic tech), 3-D will remain too uncomfortable and unhealthy for too many people.
That said, it can be fun for some. In terms of 3-D, no film takes full advantage of it this year quite like Edge of Tomorrow does. Is it as revolutionary as Gravity? No, and we’re not going to see 3-D used as well as Gravity used it every year. But there were moments when I’d move a hand to wipe incoming debris from my eye only for my brain to check myself and remind me it was only in the film. That’s the measure of 3-D for me – how well can it trigger kneejerk physical responses in ways that 2-D can’t. Edge of Tomorrow wins that comparison handily.
I look for an animated film not just to be beautiful, but to communicate meaningful themes to adults and children alike. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a lot to say about growing up, trusting oneself, and taking responsibility, but most big-budget computer animated movies do that. What puts it in a class all its own is what it has to say about betrayal and forgiveness, about divorce, about death and loss.
Combine this with its bright color palette and phenomenal mythic imagery that speak to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’ consultancy on the film, and – despite being a cameraless film – you have no idea how tempted I was to suggest How to Train Your Dragon 2 for this next award as well.
There’s something in the cinematography of Under the Skin that’s like looking at Winslow Homer’s “Wild Geese in Flight.” In the painting, those geese are being cut down by something unseen as they fly in. Countless more are on their way. We don’t know what’s killing them. In Homer, the perpetrator is out-of-frame. In Under the Skin, the perpetrator is largely silent. In both, the artist imitates your perspective well enough to make you believe it’s your own, and so that pile of dead animals becomes a weight on your conscience. Except here, while death of nature is still the subject, it’s not geese being shot – it’s sexual assault, acts of possession and consumption.
This is fused together with an approach that highlights bright figures in dark surroundings during the film’s first half, only to switch to dark figures in frames only edged with light in its second part. In many ways, the visual approach shifts us from a documentarian beginning to a narrative end, while also reflecting the powerful predator’s burgeoning confusion as she begins to identify with her prey and their natural environment.
Edge of Tomorrow is nothing particularly new. On paper, it falls into the gimmicky column that thousands of other action movies inhabit. But this is a film that lives or dies in the editing room, and I’ve rarely seen a film edited so tightly. If it were beef, it’d be 99.999% lean, and that sounds fricking delicious. So it is with Edge of Tomorrow. You’ve tasted this movie before in Aliens, Predator, Terminator, (oddly enough) Groundhog Day, and Saving Private Ryan flavors. But Edge of Tomorrow does it all so well that it ceases to matter – it puts its own stamp on things and it does it through editing.
Moreover, it’s a throwback breed of action movie that’s not all that heavy on action – visual effects used to cost tons of money, and that meant you had to have a lot of character. While Edge of Tomorrow isn’t short on visual effects, it harkens back to the days when an action movie’s intensity relied on caring about its characters first and foremost, and the action was secondary. I’m glad I caught this in the theater, and I intend to watch the crap out of this movie once it’s streaming. I highly recommend you do the same.
I’ll publish my choices for Half-Year Awards in acting tomorrow, and for screenplay, director, and film on Thursday.
I went out and asked various writers a loaded question: Who is the next Jackie Chan? It’s tricky because, like Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly, or the Highlander, there can be only one. His skills are too unique to duplicate. I was just as interested in what Jackie Chan means to different viewers, and who might best embody those meanings going forward. Without further ado:
STEPHEN CHOW by Simon Scher
Who is the next Jackie Chan? To answer this we must first ask, who was the last Jackie Chan? When he first burst onto the international stage, his high-flying kung fu action and peerless speed were instantly compared to the father of international martial arts media, Bruce Lee. Chan did not hit the big time until after the death of Lee. So it would be hard to identify the next Jackie Chan until he too passes on or stops making amazing martial arts movies.
It has been said that Jet Li or Jason Scott Lee would fill the role, but though they are amazing martial artists with comparable skill and speed to both Chan and Bruce Lee, Jackie is still holding his spot while Jet and Jason are moving past their prime. I do not doubt that there will be another in the succession of Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, but I do not believe he has yet made an appearance on the silver screen.
There are a number of young, talented Chinese Wushu stars simmering in the Hong Kong cinematic forge just waiting to make their way into Western cinema – perhaps it will be one of them. A strong but doubtful case can be made for Tony Jaa, but I don’t think he has the range or mass appeal to fill the slot. It will have to be a martial artist with range, language skills, and something innovative that takes the genre to a new level and in a different direction as both Bruce and Jackie did. If I had to pick somebody to pin my hopes on I would name Stephen Chow for his innovative approach to martial arts cinema, his amazing skills, and his sense of comedic and dramatic timing.
Simon Scher runs Northampton Martial Arts in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to Black Belt Magazine, the biggest martial arts movie buff I know, and holds a sixth-degree black belt in Taekwondo.
JEEJA YANIN by Himura Sachiko
Having already shot one of the best martial arts sequences in recent history, Jeeja Yanin is my pick. I enjoy her work because her background is in Taekwondo, very close to my training, but she is choreographed in Muay Thai films. As a technician, she is perfect. Her kicks are some of the most complete I have ever seen. She over-rotates every one of them, which adds power, but she does so without losing control, balance, or speed.
Her style is a controlled lack of control, which speaks of true mastery and reminds me of Jackie Chan’s abilities. He was so perfect he could afford to be imperfect. Yanin also has Chan’s streak for the kooky, striking poses and involving dance in some of her roles. Ever since I first saw her in Chocolate, she has been my idol in my own training. She is also no stranger to insane stunt scenes.
My single worry is that she’s taking time off to have a baby. It is a wonderful decision and I congratulate her on starting a family, but time off has never helped a martial arts star grow. The man who laid the groundwork for her in Thai cinema, Tony Jaa, took time away and came back a shade of his former self, making films to cash in on his name but without the remaining skills to match.
Himura Sachiko is a business owner living in Osaka, Japan. She has a black belt in Shotokan Karate.
IKO UWAIS by Justine Baron
Jackie Chan is a martial arts legend who has graced the screen for over 50 years. Chan has managed to stand out from other martial artists by adopting his own style of light hearted comedy mixed with martial arts. He took roles like that of Wong Fei-Hung in Drunken Master, Dragon Ma in Project A, and Chan Ka Kui in the Police Story movies, to name a few of my personal favorites. He was, and still is, the quintessential example of an entertainer.
His first really successful English-speaking role was that of Keung in Rumble in the Bronx, which was a Hong Kong-made movie that was filmed in the U.S. with the intent of introducing him to Western audiences. This is where a lot of Americans, including myself, became familiarized with the man who would become a huge star outside of his home country, China. Rumble in the Bronx is actually the first movie of Chan’s that I’ve ever seen.
Not only that, but Jackie Chan was the first martial artist I’ve ever seen period. I was only about 7-years-old at the time and didn’t know who other martial artists like Bruce Lee were and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have cared at that age. Jackie Chan was fun to watch. He was funny, talented, and charismatic – all the qualities that would appeal to a younger, as well as older, generation. I further enjoyed watching him in other Hollywood movies like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. Now that I’m older, though, I prefer a lot of his Hong Kong films to his American ones. He has made over 100 films in his career. As I continue to discover more and more of his movies, I just become more impressed with his performances and the stunts that he can pull off. Jackie Chan was the man who introduced me to martial arts and, because of him, I have loved martial arts movies of all kinds ever since.
I think it goes without saying that there will never be another like Jackie Chan, and maybe that’s a good thing. However, there is one other martial artist who has really caught my eye in the past few years, and that is the up-and-coming Indonesian actor Iko Uwais from The Raid movies. This guy has impressed me so much with his abilities to not only choreograph amazing fight scenes and perform his own stunts, but also to execute the choreography so perfectly, I oftentimes find myself rewinding scenes and watching them again because I can’t believe what I’m seeing. This guy has been practicing Pencak Silat since he was 10-years-old, competing in tournaments and winning titles. No doubt the intensity of his fight scenes is partly due to the amazing style of the director who discovered him back in 2007, Gareth Evans. Together, they make movies with some of the most skillful, hard hitting action I’ve ever seen. They have managed to completely alter my taste in action movies.
That’s not to say there aren’t other martial artists and martial arts movies that I absolutely love, but it’s the work of Iko Uwais that has really stuck with me in recent years. Even after the success of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – which I did enjoy – that shows how wire fu can be used beautifully, artistically, and performed almost like a ballet, I still prefer the wireless, raw, bloody, bone-crunching action given to us by Uwais. Call me weird, it’s OK. In my opinion, there’s already a ton of violence in movies in general, so if you’re going to watch a blood bath, why not enjoy a talented guy who can turn that into a well-choreographed blood bath? I am hoping that he will continue to make amazing martial arts movies for years to come, and be able to keep taking martial arts films to the next level.
He may not have the same kind of appeal as Jackie Chan, and that’s OK. In my opinion, he’s great at what he does, and that’s enough for me to wish that he has a long-lived, successful career.
Justine Baron sometimes works as a freelance production assistant on films and commercials. She has a passion for movies, and she puts her B.A. in English and Film to use by writing about movies in her free time at Justine’s Movie Blog.
YAYAN RUHIAN by Vanessa Tottle
Leave it to me to pick the bad guy, but Yayan Ruhian is my favorite martial artist to watch. I’ve seen three of his films now, including the two Raid movies, all Indonesian movies directed by Gareth Huw Evans. It’s not odd to work with the same director over and over again; most martial arts stars stick with one until they have the cachet to control their image working in unfamiliar environments.
Yayan also choreographed those films, with Iko Uwais. In The Raid, Yayan plays the enforcer Mad Dog. He fights as if killing someone is a religious experience, an addiction of the soul. He is powerful. In The Raid 2, he plays the assassin Prakoso. He may as well be called Stray Dog. Murder is the only trade he knows, the only thing he’s good at. He is desperate and sad. In both, he brings an animal quality I’ve never seen before. He throws himself into fights with reckless abandon. He sometimes feels a step away from losing all control.
In both, he possesses a dramatic quality not always seen in action movies. This is what martial arts stars will need to display in the future. It’s not enough to just be a Jackie Chan anymore (except for Jackie Chan, of course). Or, for that matter, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Those days of rooting for actors and never knowing the characters’ name are over. You must be able to play a character inside a story now. While many martial artists can impress us in their action scenes, we will only remember those who impress us in quiet, emotional scenes as well.
It’s fitting that our next Jackie Chan might be an expert at playing villains, like a Silat master Gary Oldman. We live in a time of villains, of religious addict mad dogs and sad, stray dogs under thumb who know nothing else. The next Jackie Chan will speak to his time the way Chan did to his, and Yayan Ruhian speaks to this time in a way that terrifies and intrigues me.
Vanessa Tottle is earning her Ph.D. in vertebrate paleontology. She writes often for this site, and holds a black belt in Krav Maga.
NO ONE by Chris Braak
Jackie Chan sat at the crossroads of a very particular combination of cultural factors – as a direct successor to Bruce Lee, whose influence helped change Hong Kong cinema from one that relied on elaborate special effects to one that focused much more on physical virtuosity; as an actor he sort of “broke through” in the U.S. in the 80s and 90s, when the kind of star-powered action vehicle was still going strong; and as a product of the Beijing Opera School, which taught a very performance-focused form of kung fu. And I’m not sure that this combination exists right now; American cinema is bifurcated between low-budget, very “acting” films and high-budget, elaborate-effects heavy movies, neither of which are geared to showcase (nor do they particularly require) the kind of virtuosity that Jackie Chan brought to his movies.
The star-powered vehicles are largely a thing of the past as well. It seems like Tom Cruise is maybe the last Hollywood star trying to work this way, and his movies aren’t doing so well; even the lower-budget martial arts stars are either abandoning that kind of movie (Jason Statham, for example, just doesn’t seem interested in them right now) or never quite made it with American audiences (David Belle is in his forties, now, and past his prime; Tony Jaa never seemed to catch on, and seriously I did my part, I saw Ong Bak in the theaters; who else? Stephen Chow seems to have abandoned the martial-arts-star movie.)
The kinds of actors who are working now as martial arts stars in the U.S. are either second-string, low profile guys (like Scott Adkins) or they’re old.
So where would the new crop of actors come from? Well, the thing is that there is nothing like the Beijing Opera School in the U.S. or any of the Anglophone nations where we get our actors (England, Australia, Canada). Nothing. And while that doesn’t mean we couldn’t get Asian actors with the kind of background in both performance and spinning flip-kicks if we wanted, it does govern the kind of movies that actors are drawn to, and thus the kind of movies that get made, and I think this is going to crowd out the virtuoso-martial artist movie, and therefore crowd out the virtuoso martial artists.
Furthermore, we’ve got to accept that American movies don’t select for virtuosity. “Martial arts” provides the background for a lot of actors’ workout routines, sure, but those are exactly what they sound like: workout routines. They’re about building big muscles and washboard abs, not developing that kind of grace and agility that only being sold to the Beijing Opera when you’re 12 years old and spending your formative years leaping over tables and whacked with bamboo sticks can provide. This is both limiting, in terms of what those actors are going to do onscreen, and also antithetical to the essential nature of kung fu: “cosmetic” kung fu is not kung fu at all.
In my opinion, we’re not in a place right now in American cinema that’s got room for a new Jackie Chan. I think we might be ripe for it, definitely I would be in favor of a new wave of popular, virtuoso martial arts movies; I expect they’re going to have to come from somewhere other than the U.S., though, and I don’t see anything quite like that on the horizon.
Many people name martial artists like Jet Li, to which I respond NOOOOO! You are missing the point if you consider actors like him. Jackie Chan is comedic, his predecessors were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, not Bruce Lee. One of his contemporaries was Chris Farley. People are so blown away with Jackie Chan’s agility and physicality that they don’t make the connection that he is doing slapstick comedy. The Question becomes who is doing advanced slapstick these days, and I can’t think of anyone on this side of the pond. That’s my two cents.
[After asking Carter if there was anyone popularizing martial arts films the way Jackie Chan did as a director, she did add the following. -Gabe]
How about the Wachowskis? Sci-fi/kung fu crossovers weren’t common until after The Matrix.
Carter Churchfield is a tour guide/jack of all trades/international mercenary who is a horror aficionado/famed pigeon wrestler/diamond smuggler. She doesn’t know it, but it’s a high school performance of hers that got me interested in theatre and filmmaking in the first place.
GINA CARANO by S. L. Fevre
12-1-1 record in professional Muay Thai. 7-1 record in MMA (undefeated against fighters who didn’t get suspended for steroids). Here’s her debut. All 38 seconds of it. Arguably the best stand-up fighter MMA’s had, man or woman. One of the only actors who began her career as a competitive fighter. When she was filming a fight scene for Haywire, Michael Fassbender slammed her head into a wall too hard. She retaliated by breaking a vase over his million dollar face. (He told MTV he could tell it was coming a second before it happened, and that’s when he knew it would be a great fight scene.)
Cause I’ve met cats who hit harder than actors like Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana and there’s a plague of mainstream actors who think a few weeks of training make them look like secret agents. Carano’s knocked people out and she’s been knocked out. When she kicks someone in the head, I can believe she just gave them a concussion.
S. L. Fevre is an actress, model, and martial arts movie fan who lives in California. She kickboxes for fitness.
MICHAEL JAI WHITE by Kyle Price-Livingston
With the concurrent rise of superhero movies and Mixed Martial Arts, audience expectations for martial arts films have changed. Where once we looked for grace, speed, and agility, we now seek bone-shattering strength and brutality. The Jackie Chan of the future will need to demonstrate a mean uppercut, a working knowledge of submission holds and the self-confidence necessary to wear tights without embarrassment.
There is, to my mind, only one actor who can currently pull that off: Michael Jai White. At 46, White is perhaps a bit old to be considered “the next” anything, but he works consistently, looks the part, and even plays the Jackie Chan role in Skin Trade, an upcoming film which is basically a photo-negative of Rush Hour. He is, at the very least, the prototype for the next generation of martial arts stars.
All you need to know about Kyle Price-Livingston is that he’s the sort of guy who – when he posts about giving a chipmunk CPR – you think about it for a second, consider to whom it happened, and figure, “Yeah, that’s reasonable.”
ZHANG ZIYI by Gabe Valdez
Insofar as his unique physical performance and comedic presence, there is no next Jackie Chan. It’s a ludicrous question, which is why all these fantastic writers have been so game in answering it. To me, the next Jackie Chan is someone with demonstrated box office appeal who uses his extent of unique training to bridge cultural gaps, to make social commentary on his own culture, and to further popularize martial arts films by making people look at them in a way they never have before. Having been baptized in fight choreography against the icons of the previous generation only helps his credibility.
There is only one answer for me: Zhang Ziyi. Proven box office, name appeal in the East and West. Like Jackie Chan, she was trained from youth in a separate field from martial arts (dance) that lends her a quality that’s unique from every other martial arts actor on film. As anyone who’s seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers; or The Grandmaster can attest, she has a dramatic ability most actors – martial arts or otherwise – can only dream of. She’s worked with directors Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, and Wong Kar Wai in films that have revolutionized the operatic approach to kung fu cinema, and are simultaneously very popular in China and yet incredibly subversive in their themes.
And you can’t beat her resume – fight scenes opposite Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and alongside Takeshi Kaneshiro. She’s also starred in a movie with Jackie Chan (and if you ask me, Brett Ratner’s biggest mistake as a director has nothing to do with X-Men 3 and everything to do with giving us a Zhang Ziyi-Chris Tucker fight scene instead of a Zhang Ziyi-Jackie Chan fight scene in Rush Hour 2).
Most importantly, she can communicate a scene dramatically through her movement quality in a way no other actor has demonstrated. This has made directors change how kung fu is filmed.
Gabe Valdez writes the movie blog you’re currently reading. It’s read in over 90 countries and has featured more than 20 different writers. I hold a black belt in Taekwondo and analyze fight choreography regularly. I’ve most recently written on zen philosophy in Jackie Chan’s choreography and the mythical choreography in Troy and Serenity.
If Stanley Kubrick were to have directed a martial arts movie, you might get something like The Raid 2. It’s an Indonesian movie by a Welsh director, sequel to 2011 surprise hit The Raid: Redemption. It’s OK if you haven’t seen the first – it’s like seeing the second Godfather without seeing the first. The two build on each other, but they’re each their own animal.
The first Raid followed an Indonesian SWAT team’s assault on a drug lord’s tenement building. It was brimming with enough gunplay, explosions, and martial arts to put it alongside Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard as one of the best action movies ever filmed.
The second Raid follows the first movie’s hero, Rama (Iko Uwais). It is an incredible action movie, but it’s an even better gangster thriller. Rama is convinced to go undercover, get arrested, and befriend the incarcerated son of a Japanese gangster who owns half of the capital Jakarta. Needless to say, few things go as planned. Rama begins discovering that being an undercover officer doesn’t mean he’s a wrench in the gangster’s works. He’s merely additional leverage in the business relationship between the gangs and Jakarta’s police.
There are a range of decisions that make the fight scenes some of the most effective ever put to screen. Director Gareth Evans builds his film using old-fashioned suspense techniques, and his martial arts scenes – using the Indonesian style Silat – are more than just impressive choreographic sequences. He makes every fight a plot point, communicating through action the kind of relationships and character history other films explain in dialogue.
Evans shoots in long, unbroken takes, not unlike Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men). Where Cuaron’s style reflects a character’s perspective, Evans’s style anticipates a characters intent. It can be hard to communicate how someone thinks in a fight – martial artists train to slow down a situation in their heads, so a response is entirely mental. The physical action that follows is just muscle memory. You learn to plan several moves ahead. It’s incredibly difficult to translate this in a full-speed action movie to a movie theater full of people, but Evans’s approach comes the closest. It offers a unique glimpse into the strategy martial artists employ, which allows you not just to marvel at the athleticism on display, but to understand the chess match that goes on behind a fight.
These longer takes demand incredible feats from choreographers and actors alike. The more complicated the stunts – as in an early prison riot in a mud pit – the longer his shots are likely to be. There are unbroken fight sequences that made my jaw drop at their audacity and ambition.
No matter how easily a character might be described – Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) is deaf and uses hammers as weapons, for instance – Evans always reveals a visual detail or line of dialogue that gives us a brief window into each henchman’s soul. It transforms characters who would be one-note villains in other films into complex figures. When Rama defeats a henchman, his own moment of heroic triumph also feels like the tragic ending to somebody else’s story.
This is how a martial arts movie laden with fight scenes speaks against violence, and this is one of the most violent movies you’ll ever see. The fight choreography may be impressive, but time and again it communicates mutually assured destruction and the toll such violence takes not just on the body, but the soul as well.
A vignette in the middle of the film, during which we break away from Rama, tells the story of Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian). He is a lifelong assassin who lives on the street and gives all his earnings to his estranged wife and child. His story is a heartbreaking half-hour that could stand as its own short film, culminates in an incredible fight scene, and serves as the keystone to the rest of the plot.
Prakoso’s story is also an opportunity to condense one of The Raid 2‘s underlying themes: the plight of the everyday laborer. This is the 95% of everyone – American, Indonesian, Japanese, whoever they might be – who just try to live their lives well, go to work, and do right by their families. Prakoso is an assassin, but these others are not, and they occur in scene after scene, constantly apologizing to gangsters for not groveling well enough or serving them fast enough. It’s a bitter message from a country rife with organized gangs peddling drugs, sex, and violence. It’s obviously important for the makers of The Raid 2 to communicate to the rest of the world – and to their own citizens – that crime and corruption may be what they endure, but it’s not what defines who they are as a country or a people.
This is an exciting action movie, an accomplished martial arts film, and an epic, intelligent gangster tale with a lot to say. There are treats in here for aficionados of any of those genres, and I haven’t even hit on how beautifully The Raid 2 is filmed, or how lush its design is. Be aware this is an exceptionally hard-R rated movie for its violence and a moment of sexuality.