|Yeah, that's Yayan Ruhian from The Raid kicking The Hulk's ass. Which would happen.|
(Ed. Note: What you are about to read deals with ownage of sufficient scope and magnitude that not all will be able to fully handle and process. It is ownage so rarified that to merely discuss it is to see one's voice dip in pitch and volume as to become a hoarse, awed whisper. You have been warned.)
The finest pure action picture to come out in 2012, and for some years, is Gareth Huw Evans' The Raid, which for U.S. release had “: Redemption” added on for dumb business reasons. Whatever it's called in whatever country you're in, the important thing is that this fucking movie fucking owns like few things ever have. The most common criticism leveled at the movie is at the sparse characterization and simplicity of the plot, which is a little like complaining that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is indoors. The entire movie can be summed up in this one sentence: there are bad guys in a building, the good guys—most of whom get killed, so it ends up coming down to ONE MAN, because that's how shit works—have to go in there and kill them. Sure, in some genres you'd need a little more story than that, but the demands of this one are as simple as its unifying purpose: people kill people in action movies. You need more nuance than that? Okay. Good people kill bad people. Cut. Print it.
It's a genre defined by the visceral impact created through cinematographic compositions, the blocking of actors within the frame, and the juxtaposition of the resultant images through editing. The right music, as with most things, helps as well. The Raid ticks all these boxes, and within its chosen milieu of ownage pictures, the only one to which it aspires, it is an unqualified masterpiece. Among its many splendors, the weaponized refrigerators, the single take camera moves in which Iko Uwais blows a hole in the floor and jumps down to the story below and keeps killing guys without cutting away, and the one-on-four hallway machete fights where the one guy without the machete (Iko Uwais again) wins, the greatest tradition of the action genre to which The Raid adheres, one it shares with the finest action movies ever made, is the tradition of the Unkillable Henchman, always the penultimate and most difficult obstacle in the hero's way. Die Hard had Alexander Godunov, Lethal Weapon had Gary Busey, and at the historical top of this particular pyramid, John Woo's Hard-Boiled had Philip Kwok. If that last name isn't as immediately familiar, recall Anthony Wong's eye-patch-wearing sidekick Mad Dog. Take a minute to get back up from the memory of how fucking awesome he was knocking you on your ass and get ready for another mind-shtup. The Unkillable Henchman in The Raid is also named Mad Dog.
Whether or not this was intentional or Evans' hand being guided by the universe itself when writing the script is immaterial. The signifier of the mad dog could be used to describe this character archetype regardless. Now maybe this is residual after-effects of having been chomped by a mentally ill Doberman when I was a little kid and never being able to warm up to the fuckers as a result, but dogs, to me, when they're pissed off are these little snarling fucking death machines who'll chew through your limbs and drink the arterial spray. (I will grant that when they're cheerful, dogs' sole problems are their lack of regard for personal space and that they smell.) Now, take a dog that's not just mad as in pissed off but mad as in rabid and THIS IS MADNESS. This is one step beyond.
Now that I'm done refusing to apologize for that joke we can move on. A mad dog can be an asset to an evil old bastard who wishes to intimidate through the threat—and, when necessary or not, the reality—of violence, as long as he's holding the leash. Where the metaphor starts to fall apart, but the character archetype is capped with its scariest aspect, is that this “mad dog” unkillable head vice-bad guy is defined by a distinctly homo sapiens moral and ethical autonomy. His dog-like loyalty to the Head Fucko In Charge is voluntary. That sole human characteristic makes the fact that the rest of the character's personality is assembled from nightmare and nature imagery all the scarier. The “mad dog” is strongly linked to electricity and fire, from Alexander Godunov's Aryan ab inferno phosphorescent rage to Gary Busey's G. Gordon Liddy cigarette lighter bullshit to Yayan Ruhian needing to be stabbed in the throat with a fucking fluorescent light bulb to die (five minutes later, natch) to, most floridly, Philip Kwok using grenades indoors (!!!) and then lighting his cigarette from the fires resulting from the shit he blows up.
Now you might be asking yourself, how are they “unkillable” when both Mad Dogs (and both their lowercase Western counterparts) die? Astute scholars in the history of ownage will note that none of the referenced characters met their fate solely at the hands of the hero. Yaya Ruhian in The Raid was such a stone badass that it took both the hero and his brother, or put another way, the combined forces of light and gray, or put another way, the entirety of the thematic content of the entire fucking movie, to defeat him, and he still almost took them with him. Philip Kwok in Hard-Boiled probably would have made it to the end of the movie and parted with Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung like Vinnie Jones' Big Chris in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (a character closely related to the archetype under discussion, and one whose survival is almost exclusively down to Lock, Stock being a comedy), telling them, “My boss is dead, so I have no more beef with you, but if you fuck with me, you're the one who's gonna get fucked.” But Hard-Boiled is not a comedy (no matter how funny Chow Yun-Fat rapping to the baby was), so Philip Kwok had to die, and the only one who could possibly catch him with his guard down was Anthony Wong. It's only Philip Kwok's seizure of righteousness about Anthony Wong cacklingly gunning down civilians out of sheer evil that leads him to momentarily question Anthony Wong, who's like “I'm Anthony Wong, motherfucker, no one questions me,” after which RIP. (Note also, Reginald Veljohnson was the one who ultimately iced Godunov, not Bruce Willis, and it took Riggs and Murtaugh firing at the same time to take down Gary Busey.)
Also, not that it really has anything to do with anything other than being cool, both Mad Dogs, Yaya Ruhian and Philip Kwok, were both stunt/fight coordinators on their respective pictures. But the element of authorial input can't be overlooked when considering how much more awesome than anyone else ever to play their role in the ownage schema ever were. Here are guys whose job it is to make cinematic violence look cool, and you have to figure they saved a lot of their best tricks for the day when they would get to make themselves look cool.
Finally, that the purest distillations of this character archetype should come in Asian genre picture pictures should not be a surprise to anyone who pays attention to the different world cinemas. Gareth Evans being Welsh does not make The Raid any less an Indonesian movie, merely one made by a Welsh director. And in the East, genre movies are made and released quickly, with a minimum of bullshit. They're supposed to the get the job done, and not waste time with a bunch of extraneous nonsense like plot and so forth. And there are, no doubt, a ton of really fucking bad genre movies that result from that kind of crank-em-out process. But talented people working within such a process find the immediate need to focus and fucking do the job instead of jerking off to yourself for being some kind of brilliant artist means that, when the movies end up being good, they're real, real good. The intensity shines through. As does the fact that their stuntmen are both fucking lunatics and apparently not unionized because holy balls those guys do some dangerous shit.
There's your recipe for ownage, right there: tight scheduling, focus, check the ego at the door, and make sure either your budget allows for extensive stuntman medical care or that you're a sociopath who doesn't give a fuck. Morally troubling? Get outta the pool, this is the big kids' end.