Salon's Andrew O'Hehir reviews the new Jason Statham vehicle Safe this week as part of a return to "a decade of maximum screen disorder and maximum creativity," with a "Charlie Bronson, bullet-in-the-teeth authenticity." Also in theaters, the Indonesian film The Raid is the kind of flick that catches the attention of discerning action fans — a terrifically crafted piece that offers tons of ferocious fight scenes. So this seemed like a good week to dig up the most intense foreign action flicks Netflix has to offer.
If you liked The Raid and are in the mood to see what else the makers have to offer: Merantau (2009, Gareth Evans):
A couple of years before to The Raid, director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais collaborated on Merantau, and watching it, you can see that these guys were the real deal from the start.
Where The Raid is a stripped-down machine, focusing on combat and nothing else, Merantau is a more traditionally plotted work centering on a young man who goes on his "merantau," a sort of rite of manhood. He leaves his small village for the city of Jakarta and almost immediately runs afoul of a human-trafficking ring, which results in many flying fists and feet. In particular, the balance between quick-sketch character work and kung-fu calisthenics is well struck; one might consider this Evans's version of John Woo's The Killer in contrast to The Raid and its nods to "Hard-Boiled."
But while emotion is all well and good, kung-fu films live and die on the strength of their fight scenes. Merantau may not be as accomplished as "The Raid" in that regard, but it's still unassailable once it gets rolling. Evans likes to use the architecture of an environment to augment the choreography, with his strength lying in tightly-shot close-quarter knockabout brawls. Highlights range from the brutally quick (Uwais's use of a laundry pole to repel a leaping attacker in the most painful way possible) to the excitingly prolonged (a wall-banging elevator battle between Uwais and Yayan Ruhian that anticipates a similarly confined setpiece in The Raid). Early in the film, Uwais's mother tells him, "You must do yourself right by your own standards." Evans and Uwais appear to be doing just that, and I think it's pretty thrilling.
If you’re in the mood for a hard-nosed cop flick with something more under the surface: Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976, Ruggero Deodato):
I presume that mouthful of a title was used because you can’t put “Asshole Cops” on a marquee. But make no mistake: Buddy cops Fred and Tony (Marc Porel and Ray Lovelock) are total alpha-male assholes. The initial idea, of course, is that they’re tough because crime is tough – the opening chase scene kicks off with a couple motorcycle hoods snatching a woman’s purse and dragging her along the sidewalk until her head collides with a lamppost. But as their investigation into an infamous, elusive gangster proceeds, their casual disregard for proper procedure indicates their true nature; by the time Fred responds to an adversary’s panicked, “Don’t shoot! I surrender!” with a bullet to the face, we wonder if these two see other people as complex, thinking individuals or simply as dumb meat sacks. And that’s probably the point.
Ruggero Deodato, the jaunty fellow behind “Cannibal Holocaust,” often works with a nihilistic tone, and that ends up being befitting this especially cynical poliziotteschi, the most cynical of genres. This is a film with no heroes – both sides of the battle between lawful and lawless are populated by savages and thugs, people whose modus operandi is shoot first — fuck the questions. While not exactly a rare stance in this genre, it’s at least excused as the only way to get results. What’s most bracing about this is how Deodato slowly but surely subverts the typical excuses. By the climax, it’s been made very clear that these brutes, for all their hot-shot bravado, are shitty cops that survive on luck and swagger. It’s a violent world out there, Deodato seems to say, but it needn’t be this violent.
If you’re in the mood for a freakin’ phantom movie: Revolt (1986?, J. Sheybani):
I imagine most everything you would ever need to know about the thoroughly forgotten revenge action-thriller Revolt is embodied by the title card that reads, simply, “SCREENPLAY: SHIELD.” This film was written by a man who chose the pseudonym of Shield. I’ll let that sink in.
Revolt is what happens when Walking Tall an educational filmstrip about the evils of drug trafficking and an Afterschool Special about racism are grafted together on the kind of budget that would make Troma weep. It’s about a dude with a mustache whose brother is killed by drug runners working for another Captain-Kangaroo-looking dude with a mustache, so naturally, the good dude devotes the rest of the film to taking the bad dude down. Meanwhile, he also co-owns a Persian restaurant in town and is married to an Iranian woman, and wouldn’t you know it, the Iran hostage crisis just happens to be going on… So there’s guns and fists and knives and rape and people getting hit by cars and choked with large sticks and a concerned sheriff and a corrupt deputy.
It has no IMDb entry, nobody really seems to know much of anything about anyone who worked on it (aside from the director, an Iranian expatriate who made a couple film there in the ‘60s) and I’m pretty sure my lunch this afternoon cost more than the entire production. The acting is stiff and amateurish, the direction is televisual at best and the screenplay is a shambles (there’s at least one significant plot thread left unresolved). Overall, this makes the immortal Deadly Prey look like a Michael Mann movie. And yet, there’s a sincerity, a wide-eyed gumption that makes this thing appealing. Revolt is a group of people banding together with the best of intentions to make something they believed in and hoped people would find entertaining. They made a piece of shit, true, but it’s a sincere and honest piece of shit. It’s also, despite itself, pretty damned entertaining.
The Netflix streaming library is vast and daunting and mostly filled with crap. Steve Carlson is the Netflix video clerk, and every week he hand-delivers three awesome movies you've never heard of before. He's been writing about movies in one form or another on the Internet since 2002 and co-hosts the Bad Idea Podcast. Someone once called him the lonely Magellan of exploitation cinema. He thinks that's the best compliment he's ever received.