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Oscars in the trash

| Tuesday, February 17, 2015

It’s an open secret in Hollywood that certain films do not win awards. Science fiction, fantasy, action and comedy are toxic as far as the Academy is concerned. Every once in a while, an exception sneaks through — a “Return of the King” or “Gladiator” — but by and large, films of these genres are lucky even to be nominated. The Oscars, the Academy seems to say, don’t belong to these “trash” genres. Instead, we see award after award go to period dramas and overcoming adversity storylines (I’m picking on the Academy here largely because of their visibility; the problems I discuss are more or less universal).

Perhaps the starkest example of this trend was the 1988 Academy Awards. The winner for Best Picture was “Rain Man,” a film about an autistic savant (Dustin Hoffman) that seemed tailor-made to snag a golden statuette or eight. Meanwhile, the Academy chose to ignore “Die Hard.” Despite having a killer script and great performances from Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, the film that would be its genre’s gold standard for the next decade received only four nominations for technical awards, of which it won none. Too lowbrow for the delicate sensibilities of the Academy, the film was written off as a mere “guilty pleasure.”

This kind of condemnation is symptomatic of a common attitude among both elder-statesman film critics and certain members of the film-going public — that all action flicks are empty, cash-grab pablum, devoid of artistic merit. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some horrible action out there — B-actors like Jean-Claude van Damme and Steven Seagal have made entire careers out of serving up lifeless machismo. But to conflate their efforts with those who rise above the lowest common denominator only discourages future action directors from trying to elevate their craft above the sea of sameness. Good action ought to be unironically praised, not cast aside as “popcorn cinema.”

In fact, there’s a case to be made to prioritize the blockbuster over the drama when it comes to awards for directing. The complex makeup of a fantasy world, the careful choreography of a sword fight or the precise timing of a comedy testify to the obsessive skill of the filmmaker. Further, film is primarily a visual medium; therefore, a picture that “goes big” ought to be reckoned more faithful to its art than one with more modest camerawork. Example: Which film would lose more of its essential filmic character if it were transcribed as a radio screenplay — “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Twelve Angry Men”?

In order to motivate change, I therefore announce my own personal nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2014 — “The Raid 2.” Director Gareth Evans follows up his original “The Raid,” released in 2010, with the continued story of honest cop Rama, who now seeks vengeance for the murder of his brother by infiltrating Jakarta’s organized crime scene. Rama, played by martial artist Iko Uwais, must use his mastery of pencak silat (national martial art of Indonesia) to keep himself alive and undiscovered while thwarting the schemes of local kingpins.

Though tonally similar to John Woo heroic-bloodshed flicks like “Hard Boiled,” “The Raid 2” focuses more on in-your-face melee combat than gun ballet. Rama punches, elbows and kicks his way through wave after wave of baddies, inflicting bone-shattering punishment that literally dropped my jaw as I watched. Imagine if “The Departed” starred Bruce Lee and was directed by a more misanthropic Quentin Tarantino.

“The Raid 2” illustrates perfectly how a top-notch director like Evans can use big visuals to tell his story, rather than interfere. The first fight sequence begins with Rama locked in a prison bathroom stall as angry inmates rattle the door. The tension as the lock weakens perfectly builds anticipation of the battle to come. After a brutal free-for-all in a rain-soaked field and a bloody fight in a restaurant, the film climaxes in the aseptic white of a restaurant kitchen with a one-on-one fistfight between Rama and a man known only as “The Assassin.” Without a single line of dialogue, this seven-minute duel still conveys a complete narrative arc, punctuated by explosive choreography that solidifies “The Raid 2” as the greatest action movie of this millennium.

“The Raid 2” won’t win the Oscar — it wasn’t even nominated. Evans’ gleeful borderline-exploitation was never likely to play well with the Academy’s prejudices. Nevertheless, I’d advise you to check it out if you like action. If nothing else, remember that Iko Uwais and two of his co-stars have been cast in the upcoming “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.” So when all your friends are buzzing about how epic that one light saber duel was, you can smile proudly and, with a hipsterish smirk, declare “I was watching them before it was cool.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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