“He [James Herbert] told me that he finally got sick enough of the, ‘Do you write violence for the sake of violence?’ question to finally blow up at a reporter. ‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘I write violence for the sake of violence, just as Harold Robbins writes sex for the sake of sex and Robert Heinlein writes science fiction for the sake of science fiction and Margaret Drable writes literature for the sake of literature. Except no one ever asks them, do they?'”
Stephen King, Danse Macabre
When Roger Ebert panned The Raid I didn’t agree, (to the surprise of no one) but I could understand. After all, while film criticism’s sorely missed king humanist hardly rejected violence out of hand, the man was among the most vocal proponents of Peckinpah and Scorsese, he usually wanted cinematic violence to have a point, and in The Raid the violence was the point.
A Peckinpah film can use violence as a signifier of moral rot, a Scorsese film a mortification of the flesh to reflect a spiritual state of being (rewatch the plane crash in The Aviator sometime… yeesh) The Raid uses violence to show how cool it looks when a man has his throat ripped out by a door jamb or falls three stories down a stairwell and breaks his back on a cement divider. All to make the viewer wonder, “My God how is Gareth Evans not wanted for murder in Indonesia?” It just doesn’t seem physically possible that every stuntman who signed up for The Raid walked away from that shoot. Though I think Evans and star Iko Uwais actually do a fine job adding human shading to the lead character Rama, making him a living, breathing, not to mention bleeding hero, no one is watching The Raid to see how Rama grapples with impending fatherhood. They’re watching it to see him wreck faces like the warrior God for whom he is named and no other reason. If you think the Scorsese and Peckinpah comparisons are a bit lofty or unfair, why not compare it to Kill Bill, where by the end of the film we are genuinely invested in the Bride’s journey and getting to watch her kill people is just a fringe benefit. Why do we enjoy something with so singular a focus as The Raid?
Now before you write me off as some handwringing scold, Iet me remind you that I’m a man so preoccupied with horror media that I had to write a book about it just so I could occasionally think about something else. By just about any standard I’ve watched an amount of “violence for the sake of violence” that some folks would consider sociopathic. I’m not trying to tell anyone they’re wrong for liking The Raid. The Raid is a jaw dropping piece of filmmaking and trying to claim otherwise would be stupid. Really stupid. In fact there’s a lot of great filmmaking that can basically be discounted as violence for the sake of violence. Raiders Of The Lost Ark is essentially violence for the sake of violence (check out Red Letter Media’s Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull review for an eye popping tabulation of Indy’s murders) and if you don’t like Raiders then you may not have the capacity to feel that which we humans call love. Enter The Dragon is pretty much violence for the sake of violence, despite Lee’s attempts to get some of his personal philosophy in around the edges. The James Bond films certainly are.
But these are all to a certain extent sanitized films, violence without true impact. Part of what made The Raid so jarring is that it was empathically not. The James Bond films can be brutal (take the train compartment fight in From Russia with Love, truly one of the greatest action set pieces of all time) but at the end of the sequence there is no mess. The bodies are out of frame, most executed in a single shot. The aftermath of Uwais fights more often than not leave bleeding, screaming casualties in their wake.
But which approach is more objectionable? Take Robocop, truly one of the greatest examples in existence of how to use film violence. Verhoeven pushed the violence in that film past the point of absurdity; to the point where it couldn’t just blend into the background the way it does in other action films of the era. It is impossible for the viewer not to notice it. The violence in Robocop is single mindedly focused on showing just how easily and completely a person can be transfigured into wet chunks of meat. Murphy’s murder is lonely, terrible and sad. The boardroom demonstration of the ED 209 is absurd and hilarious like a splatter version of Modern Times. The explosion of the toxic waste soaked henchman an out and out gore gag. Verhoeven made a film where the violence was so prominent that not only could the viewer not ignore the violence itself, they could not ignore their own reaction to it, and could not help but be forced to ask why they were reacting in that way.
Compare that to Padilha’s film which by all accounts brokered in consequence free violence. Though Verhoeven’s film was initially rated X, thus much more likely to offend the usual suspects, his film was an act of conscience transgression and is therefore moral. The unthinking brand of violence being foisted on us by modern studio filmmaking and the MPAA is much more troubling.
Of course extreme violence can be its own version of a smokescreen. The violence in the average heroic bloodshed film reaches a point of abstraction, while the extreme splatter of something like Dead Alive or Sin City, masks any visceral distress with its own cheekiness. No one risks getting upset when Lionel Cosgrove, purees a house filled with zombies until he’s literally slipping and sliding in blood, just as no one really minds that much when Bruce Willis castrates The Yellow Bastard with his bare hands. Bloodless or hydraulically-blood-splattered are simply opposite techniques with the same aim, to make violence into something that is fundamentally unreal.
This is something that Evans seems absolutely uninterested in. His violence is no doubt stylized but always recognizable. And though three films (the latest of which I have not yet seen, to my sorrow) make it a touch early to contextualize his career as a whole, I suspect it is to his credit. In the end I think the pleasure that someone takes from something like The Raid has very little to do with violence in and of itself. Instead it harkens back to one of the oldest and most primal pleasures of the movies, one that has been in place since at least the days of Melies and was truly perfected by the great silent comedians; the sheer pleasure of watching people do things that do not strictly speaking, seem possible. Watching Uwais make an impossible leap, perform an incredible feat of endurance or yes, destroy a hallway full of villains carries the same fundamental charge I get from watching Buster Keaton run across a moving train, or change his appearance into that of an old woman in midair. That blinking dog who just watched a magic trick sensation of “How did that happen?” People have taken pleasure in such acts since we’ve been able to tell stories (Beowulf could hold his breath for how long?) It could be that this is just some vestige of our ape brains that will doom the species, or perhaps we just love the poetry of our form pushed to its limits. Whatever the nature of the art, Evans is just the latest practitioner in a very long line.