The two best action pictures on offer at the moment are the Indonesian martial arts/crime sequel The Raid 2, which spills blood by the barrel, and the Marvel superhero sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier, wherein most of the similarly high body count is kept just offscreen. They're officially both 2014 Part Twos to 2011 Part Ones, though Winter Soldier is more like a part 6(c) — another stone in the Marvel mosaic — and The Raid 2, really, really doesn't demand much familiarity with its precursor. I say this because I have seen its meaninglessly subtitled precedent, The Raid: Redemption, but I still spent much of its sequel feeling confused.
I was confused about that title, among other things. The Raid 2 is not about a raid. (The Raid: Redemption was, however, about a raid.) But one of the most inventive of its many melees comes where two dozen or so guys are trying to kill our guy — Iko Uwais, an genius practitioner of the Indonesian martial art pencak silat — who has barricaded himself in a bathroom stall. His tactical brainstorm is to admit them one at a time so he can clobber them individually. So that's kind of a raid, I guess. Call it The Raid: You Gonna Be Much Longer in There?
The Raid 2 cost literally one-thirty-seventh of Winter Soldier's $170 million price tag, and its appeal is necessarily more limited, but both are good commercial films that draw a loving, laser-guided bead on the hearts of 12-year-old boys of all ages. Neither is a cynically tossed-off piece of junk. But they approach violence very differently.
Winter Soldier is a humane blockbuster that remembers to breathe between what producer (though not of either of these pictures) Joel Silver used to call "whammys" — the action beats. Its most memorable scenes are all just two characters talking, and this emphasis on character and emotion is exactly what made the Marvel Comics of the 1960s revolutionary in their time. In fact, the weakest parts of The Winter Soldier are its whammys, although they're better than the headachy ones Joss Whedon directed/animated/outsourced/whatever in The Avengers.
Contrast this all with The Raid 2, which runs a quarter of an hour longer than Winter Soldier's already-luxe 136 minutes, and nearly an hour longer than its own predecessor. (The one with the the raid in it.) Easily 105 of its 150 minutes are pure combat, and we're not talking about the bloodless pixel-vs.-pixel KWA-THOOOM!s that rock the Marvel Universe without consequence. These are grisly, bone-shattering-bone brawls, pulsing with some of the most elaborate and athletic fight choreography ever filmed. To watch The Raid 2 is to wonder how many stuntmen (they're all men, with the memorable exception of, uh, Hammer Girl) died or crippled themselves making it.
It's impossible not to admire the grace, the athleticism, the stamina of these performers. What (relatively) little gunplay there is in The Raid 2 is uncommonly explicit about the way too-solid flesh melts and resolves itself into a splattery dew under the influence of bullets and buckshot. It's gross. It's also a more responsible way to depict gun violence than to pretend, as nearly all PG-13 shoot-'em-ups do, that firearms are masculinity-conferring toys that don't end and/or ruin lives.
Obviously, the now-bullish crop of Marvel films, wherein guns are omnipresent but not foregrounded, is not the main offender here. There have already been three films based on The Punisher, the Marvel character of choice for firearms fetishists — though they're not connected to one another, they were all made by and star different people, and none were produced by Marvel Studios. When he first appeared in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man in the '70s and then in Daredevil a few years later, the Punisher — a non-superpowered vigilante who hunts down criminals and assassinates them — was presented as a bad guy. By the end of the gunsmoke-clouded '80s, he was one of Marvel's hottest characters, starring in two monthly comics of his own.
This was where the quippy, gleefully homicidal action pictures Schwarzenegger and Stallone were starring in at the time began to remake Marvel Comics in their own image. Back then, the Punisher's adventures, like most Marvel books of the era, appeared under the seal of the now-defunct Comics Code Authority. Like the present-day MPAA, the Comics Code seemed to give epidemic levels of life-taking a pass but would not abide visible female nipples or four-letter words, because, think of the children. Even splashes of blood were permissible, as long as the colorist made it black instead of red. (Has there ever been a better metaphor for the cultural violence trade?)
A generation later, it's more common for action pictures — of which Marvel Studios' are now the most popular — to emulate the phony squeamishness of '80s Marvel Comics. Even sequels to once-great, once-R-rated franchises like The Terminator and Die Hard carry the "no more than one F-bomb and no boobs" PG-13. (These are my own observations as a prolific movie-watcher over the last 25 years. Officially, the MPAA does not have a specific code correlating ratings to content.) The comics, in turn, are now published without content restrictions. Anything you could see on HBO at 9 p.m. is fair game. Screen violence is a flat circle, y'all.
Indeed, one thing The Raid 2 seems to demonstrate conclusively is that it is no longer possible for a film to be slapped with an Adults-Only rating for violence alone. Paul Verhoeven's preferred cut of RoboCop, the one the MPAA of 1987 made him trim several times before it would grant an R rating, was not half as gruesome as the R-rated, gristle-stained The Raid 2.
But then, most of the violence in RoboCop is gun violence. Overwhelmingly, the actor-combatants in The Raid 2 eschew the unearned power of the gun to satisfy their bloodlust with fists, elbows, knees, foreheads, broom handles, hammers, liquor bottles, an X-acto knife, those shatterproof water bottles that men over 150 lbs. are always being asked to change at the office, I think I already mentioned the hammers, and also a baseball bat. (When Robert De Niro's Al Capone took a bat to the skull of one of his till-skimming lieutenants in The Untouchables in 1987, it seemed shocking. You could put that movie on network TV now and you'd only have to dub over the F-bombs.)
The Raid series' writer-director Gareth Evans — a Welshman relocated to Indonesia — is extremely conversant in the visual language of cinema. Each of his film's dozens of fights is visually and rhythmically distinct from the others, and these whammys are punctuated by gorgeous, color-rippled interludes in nightclubs and fancy restaurants and hotel ballrooms. Evans is a sensualist for sure, but violence isn't the only sensation he knows. There's no explicit sex in the The Raid 2. If he ever films a sex scene, the MPAA will have to invent a new rating, like NC-87 — No One of Sex-Having Age Admitted. The movie is as exhausting and a little sickening. It's a strong drink that you know is a strong drink. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its ilk are, in this analogy, the sort of sugary cocktail where you never realize how much booze you've been served. Or how much fake death you've witnessed.
I've been wondering if and how movie and TV violence begets violence in real life for 20 years. It's not an it-does-or-it-doesn't binary, and I haven't reached any firm conclusions. I believe this much: A film that glorifies martial arts — which demand patience and discipline and physical fitness and attention to minute detail — has to be better for us than a film that glorifies close-range shooting, which demands nothing that can't be purchased at Wal-Mart (in most states).
We can be glad, at least, that Captain America doesn't pack heat. As in the comics, though, he's pretty good at finding ways to use his boomerang-like star-spangled shield as an offensive weapon. Meanwhile, the unnecessary but inevitable English-language remake of The Raid: Redemption is already on the way. Director Patrick Hughes is rumored to be pursuing Chris Hemsworth to star. So maybe the Mighty Thor will get to fight Hammer Girl.