Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Raid: Redemption

Above: Boys will be boys!

I want to start with some expectations management: as great as it is, The Raid: Redemption does not belong in the top echelon of action movies. Compare it to Die Hard, another movie about an overmatched cop trapped in a building with a bunch of lowlifes, and it's easy to see why. The Raid doesn't give us a sharply drawn hero, a memorable villain, or much of a story. Its faceless henchmen are just that, faceless, not like Die Hard's unforgettable team of Eurotrash terrorists, each of whom had a clear role and identity. When I say that The Raid is the best action movie I've seen in years, that's both high praise for the film, and an indictment of the current state of the genre.

What The Raid does offer, in spades, are fight sequences that are choreographed with aplomb and photographed with confidence. In an age when most cinematic action scenes are comprised of cartoonish CGI, incomprehensible blurs, and weaker impacts than touch football, here is a movie that radiates authenticity with every bone-crunching hit. It feels real -- not in the sense that you believe a real-life person could have the stamina that these characters have, or go the whole day without once having to go to the bathroom, but in the sense that you believe the people onscreen are getting hurt. The squalid tenement where the action happens feels like a real place, not a movie set. And as our hero faces down one frothing bad guy after another, you believe, despite the accumulated knowledge of a lifetime of moviegoing, that he might not make it through this thing.

So, no, The Raid doesn't have much in the way of a story. If you've seen the trailer, you've pretty much got it. A team of cops is set to infiltrate a high-rise and arrest a crime boss who acts as a landlord to the city's worst criminals. Naturally, about halfway up the building, the cops are ambushed and cut off. The ruthless efficiency of the gangsters would make a private equity firm proud. The crime boss calls in snipers from adjacent buildings to cover the windows, and their marksmanship is shown in detail. It's a small touch, but an important one -- the cops won't even be allowed to flee with their tails between their legs.

From then on, the movie is one mostly unbroken string of action scenes. Everybody runs out of bullets by about the 30-minute mark, both cops and criminals, leaving them to contend with batons, knives, machetes, and whatever impromptu weapons they can find. It's here that the movie hits its stride. Working mostly in an identical series of hallways and stairwells, director Gareth Evans and his co-fight choreographers (stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian) wring almost endless variety from their battles. I have read criticisms of The Raid that decry the repetition of the settings, but given the martial-arts chops on display, I wonder who even took the time to notice. Besides which, criticizing a low-budget movie for recycling sets is like slamming a sonnet for only having 14 lines.

Evans isn't a showy director who tries to dazzle audiences with fancy camera tricks. His m.o. here is to stick with medium shots and let his performers do the work. We're treated to full-frame displays of physical feats that are all the more impressive for appearing to be done without the aid of special effects. No one in this movie can fly or deflect bullets. The action is fast, yes, but it's comprehensible, and while there are plenty of cuts, they are all made in service of letting us know where the combatants are in relation to one another, and what they are doing. As viewers, we are grounded at all times.

With two other features under his belt, Gareth Evans is already showing growth as a director. His first collaboration with Uwais, Merantau, also featured kick-ass fight choreography, but it was slow to start and dragged for long stretches. (However, Merantau also features a fight in a service elevator between Uwais and Ruhian that is worth the price of admission alone. It's on Netflix streaming. Watch it.) The Raid gets started faster, is better paced, and has a sneakier sense of humor. But I think Evans can do even better.

What I'd like to see from him next is a movie that takes seriously its obligation to give us characters we care about, and a storyline that is about more than just the next plot point. I don't think that means easing up on the action. For instance, imagine if our hero in The Raid didn't lovingly kiss his pregnant wife goodbye before leaving for the disastrous mission, but left in a huff after a dumb argument. Imagine if, fighting for his life against a quartet of machete-wielding miscreants, in the back of his mind he knew that the last thing he may ever have said to his wife was an insult. None of that would require any more dialogue, or less screen time devoted to people kicking each other in the face and chest. Yet it would make him more of a character and less of a type.

All that said, if Gareth Evans just keeps making movies as awesome as The Raid, then we're in good hands for years to come. I hope other filmmakers are taking notice.

Thursday, April 05, 2012


Above: I'm standing on the edge of tomorrow / And it's all up to me how far I go

My review of Journey is up now at It is the culmination of a lifelong scheme to infuriate honest gamers everywhere, and to troll good-hearted players for pageviews in a cynical cash grab. Or it's an accurate reflection of my experience with the game. One of those two things.

I admired thatgamecompany's Flower, mostly for the sensation of flight it gave, which remains the best use of the Sixaxis that I've encountered. Journey isn't much different from that game in the nuts and bolts. You wang around the levels, coming into contact with things that light up, and don't do much that feels traditional or objective-based. (Though Journey is more traditional than Flower in terms of your avatar's moveset, its appeal is also not predicated on your mastery of those moves.) I didn't find the same feeling of exhilaration in the moment-to-moment play of Journey as I did with Flower, and I also thought it strained much harder for relevance. I am all for games that break the rules in an attempt to offer a different kind of experience -- obviously -- but this one didn't do it for me.

I was interested to see that Tom Chick's Journey review was the only one indexed on Metacritic that resembled my own take on the game. Even more interesting was his follow-up, "The official Journey review FAQ," which was his response to the predictable shitstorm that arose after his original review. I have to wonder why a game like Journey, which has a Metacritic score of 92 and is the fastest-selling game in PSN history, needs such ardent defenders. Journey fans: you have already won! The slaughter rule is in effect.

This does speak to the difference between a game review and criticism, though. Are people concerned that Chick's review will dissuade potential Journey fans from trying the game? Are they just looking for validation of their own positive experiences, even though they could get it from almost every other review? Do they sincerely believe that Chick missed something, or that they can change his mind if they just call him an asshole loudly enough?

It is very likely that we'll be covering these topics and more at our PAX East panel, "Stuff Your Criticism, I Want a Review!" Friday afternoon at 3 in the Wyvern Theatre. Pick up a copy of the Phoenix before you come! You can roll it up and whack me on the nose with it.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Insult Swordfighting at PAX East

Thousands of eager readers have written and tweeted to ask if Insult Swordfighting will have a presence at PAX East. I am happy to reply that the answer is yes, insomuch as I will be present at PAX East physically, if not mentally.*

That's not all! I was honored to be invited to participate in a panel hosted by freelancer extraordinaire Dennis Scimeca, along with some other impressive guests. It's called "Stuff Your Criticism, I Want a Review!" You can read the full description on the PAX East site, or in the following pasted paragraph.
Is there a difference between a game review and game criticism? Do you expect reviewers to talk about why a game is important in the annals of development or do you just want to know whether it’s worth your $60 or not? Should game reviewers even CARE if you’re going to purchase a title? As the video game media matures along with video games themselves, the purpose of a review isn’t as clear as it once was. Come hear what a panel of experienced reviewers and games media pundits have to say about these questions, and then let them know what *you* want out of your game reviews.
The panel will be held on Friday at 3 PM in the Wyvern Theatre. Don't be a loser and go to the Dragon Age panel that BioWare is hosting at the same time.

As for the rest of the weekend, I have a few plans, but not many, and will probably be roaming the show floors for most of the time. This is a good time to assure you of two things: yes, I would like to meet you, and no, I will not introduce myself unprompted, because I am an emotionally stunted manchild. Last year I averted my gaze and walked away upon recognizing Justin McElroy, of all people, perhaps assuming that niceness on the internet and niceness in real life are inversely related. Regrets? I've had a few.

At any rate, hope to see you there, and hope that you do not sucker punch me if you pick up this week's Phoenix and read my review of Journey. To PAX!

*i.e., drunk.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Yakuza: Dead Souls

Above: You finally get to play as Majima, and this is the best they've got.


I gave Yakuza: Dead Souls a spin for Paste, and did not like what I found. In a month when I spent more time than necessary feeling superior to Mass Effect fanpersons, here was my own chance to flip out in a righteous spasm of jilted fanboy rage. Dead Souls is a piss-poor entry in a series that I love. It's as simple as that.

Even though the zombies were a warning sign, I was willing to roll with it. It's Yakuza! How could it not be clever and surprising? The problem is simply that Dead Souls is predominantly a shooting game, and it is a bad one. There are long stretches where you have to run through corridors strafing zombies, without any sense of connection to your character or to the gun(s) in his hand. Despite the importance of headshots, precision aiming is essentially impossible, and the best way to succeed in the game is to rely on a generous auto-aim, which is less a helping hand from the designers and more a concession to the game's inherent brokenness.

I wouldn't recommend Dead Souls to newcomers or to fans. But! This would be an excellent time to remind everyone that my 2011 game of the year, Yakuza 4, is available for under $20 at Amazon. It is much, much better.

(Also: Yakuza 2 is $80? Damn.)