The Best Action Films Don’t Come From Hollywood

'The Raid 2' is the latest proof that action-lovers need to look to the East.

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It is with no exaggeration that I tell you that The Raid 2 is pretty much the most violent film I have ever seen. Gareth Evans’s (no, not that one) sequel to his 2011 action extravaganza The Raid is a bloody, two-and-a half hour jaunt through an Indonesian gang war, with returning cop hero Rama going undercover in a Corleone-esque crime family in order to root out police corruption. Bodies are mutilated, maimed, and murdered at an appalling rate, with a remarkable variety of methods: fists, shivs, guns, cars, machetes, glass bottles, hammers, baseball bats, sizzling hot plates, wicked curved blades, and so on.

In his review from SundanceJunkee’s own Glenn Dunks wrote “150 minutes of almost constant nihilistic violence isn’t my idea of a good time…” — a completely reasonable sentiment that nevertheless copped him some flak from the film’s crazed partisans. Different strokes for different folks, though. Which is to say, I found the film very entertaining. I laughed, gasped, groaned, winced, felt a bit nauseous (seriously, those hammers…), and then cycled through all five again.

If relentless, kinetic action movies are your kind of thing, The Raid 2 reaches the peak of the form, thanks to Evans’s crisp style and sure narrative hand. It’s also a shining example of a kind of action movie craft that isn’t really found anymore in Hollywood blockbusters, which seems to be stuck in the kind of style pioneered by filmmakers like Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass, a schema that pushes shaky camerawork and rapid editing to the point of visual incoherence.

If you want your actions films to have visual clarity, a feel for pacing and the dynamics of space, and a straightforward respect for the ability of well-trained human bodies to do astounding, athletic things without the assistance of computer effects, then you have to look outside Hollywood. Here are five action films that will prepare you for the joys of The Raid 2.

The Raid (2011)

Gareth Evans’s original The Raid has an action premise so perfect and crystalline that it’s a wonder it was never done before. A squad team enters a seedy apartment building in search of the drug kingpin who lives at the top. Once they are inside, the kingpin locks the building down and orders his tenants to kill the cops. Besieged from all directions, the policemen — including rookie hero Rama — have to make their way from floor to floor to nab the dealer and try to get out alive.

The key to The Raid’s success — and the key to the style of many other Asian actions films — lies in the athleticism of its performers. Mark Wahlberg may like to brag about how he could have stopped 9/11 had he been on one of the planes, but pumped-up musculature aside, it’s hard to imagine him actually being a real-life action man.

The Raid features an Indonesian martial arts called pencak silat, a style practiced by the film’s star Iko Uwais (whom the director first discovered while filming a documentary in a silat training hall). Uwais also serves as a fight choreographer on The Raid and its sequel, and his facility (and that of his co-stars) with silat fighting allows Evans to employ a dynamic visual style, in which he keeps his performers in full or medium shots and cuts for pacing or effect rather than to conceal the presence of a stunt performer.

[crazy violence warning in the following clip]

Mr. Nice Guy (1997)

From the ’80s to the ’00s, Jackie Chan was probably the foremost martial artist-turned-action lead. He legendarily performs most of his own stunts in collaboration with his crew of fight performers and choreographers, the Jackie Chan Stunt Team.

Chan has been vocal about how industry conditions in Hollywood prevent him from plying his craft as he would like. Union regulations and insurance conditions limit the kind of stunts that can be performed in American productions, especially by the star. Some attribute these limitations to the comparatively lacklustre fight scenes in his American work.

This clip from his 1997 film Mr. Nice Guy doesn’t represent the best of Chan’s moves, but it is notable for being filmed in Melbourne, and the ’90s Australianness of it is off the charts. There’s local thespian Peter Otto — bizarrely dubbed — and a vintage, pre-renovation Melbourne Central. There’s also a dramatic race up Swanston St in a horse-drawn carriage, as Chan bounces between bad guys and passing trams. It makes a hash of Melbourne geography, but it also features a villain hoisted on the sign of Academic & General Bookshop, so even trade, I reckon.

A Bittersweet Life (2005)

The international hot streak of Chan’s martial arts movies — along with that of the pyrotechnical shoot ‘em ups of his Hong Kong contemporaries like John Woo — went through a bit of a cooling period after the late ’90s, as major industry figures hiked over to Hollywood and made films that were inevitably a pale shadow of their past glories. But if you were searching out international action movies in the vacuum created by this period, you might have been witness to the rise of Korean cinema and especially the emergence of key directors like Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker), Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), and Kim Jee-woon. Their films are marked by an astonishing technical control, as well a thrilling sense of tonal plasticity: their narratives veer from black comedy to tragedy in an instant, with a whole lot of ultra violence in the middle.

Kim Jee-woon is the action purist among this bunch, with films like the spaghetti western riff The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), and the deranged serial-killer chase thriller I Saw The Devil (2010). His first Hollywood job, 2013’s The Last Stand, featured the big screen return of none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

His 2005 thriller A Bittersweet Life feels like a clear precursor to The Raid 2, not only for its vicious depiction of violent, gangland competition, but also for certain similarities in their art direction and costuming. Here’s a bloody scene from the middle stretch of the film, in which the star, Lee Byung-hun, has been betrayed and consigned to torture by his mob boss. The fun thing about a lot of Korean action scenes is that the characters don’t seem to have a feel for any particular fighting style so much as a relentless appetite for brawling.

Man Of Tai Chi (2013)

This Chinese-American martial arts flick is the directorial debut of none other than everyone’s favorite Western-Eastern film intermediary, Keanu Reeves, who also takes the lead villain role. The film follows Tiger Chen, a mild-mannered tai chi student (played by Chen Hu, a friend of Reeves’s and a stunt performer on the Matrix trilogy) who is drawn into an underground fight competition as a means of earning the funds to save his temple. Man Of Tai Chi is a bare-bones tournament narrative, as Tiger advances from fight to fight and learns to resist the sinister designs of Reeves’s Donaka Mark, the fight club mastermind who wants to force his competitors to kill.

Reeves is a competent fight director, and he’s clearly absorbed a lot of respect for the craft of martial arts — and the techniques for filming it effectively — from his work on the Matrix films. He pretty much steps back and allows his performers — who all seem to be experienced martial arts professionals — to do their work with minimal interference from the camera and editing.

The Raid’s Iko Uwais also turns up at the end as a fight competitor, but his bout is disappointingly cut short.

I can’t resist including this clip from the climax of the film, when Donaka and Tiger finally meet mano-a-mano on the grounds of the tai chi temple. It’s clear that Reeves isn’t a natural fighter — he does a lot of standing in place, and lets Chen Hu pull out the big moves — but it’s worth it to see him growling out the immortal line, “You owe me a life!”

Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning (2012)

If simple, martial arts-based action movies have been pushed out of Hollywood by the likes of Transformers and Iron Man, then they haven’t disappeared entirely: they’ve just gone underground. The American direct-to-video market is now a wellspring of old-school action filmmaking, and even ’80s and ’90s stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are still kicking around down there. Their Universal Soldier franchise, first begun in 1992, is now on its sixth installment.

English martial artist Scott Adkins — who made his film debut in a 2001 Jackie Chan movie — stars in the latest installment, fighting against a creepy cult of super soldiers headed by Van Damme and Lundgren. Day Of Reckoning is weird. critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the film “radiates menace”. Vulture critic Bilge Ebiri likened it to the work of controversial Austrian arthouse director, Michael Haneke. The whole film is suffused with a kind of hallucinogenic Lynchian weirdness, somehow made more pointed by its obviously low budget. But the fight scenes are crystal clear. Director John Hyams keeps his performers in long and medium shots and lets their actions shape out the arc of the scenes, rather than slicing up their movements in the editing.

[fair notice, this clip has a pretty gruesome ending]

Adkins and Gareth Evans have recently been making some noise about their desire to work together, a collaboration which would tighten the bonds across an international constellation of action filmmakers — from China, to Korea, to Indonesia, to England, to America — that exists comfortably independent of the Hollywood blockbuster model.

The Raid 2 is now showing in cinemas. 

James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.