The Raid

Every now and then, an action movie comes along that gives the much maligned genre a shot in the arm, and changes the game for all that follow suit. Writer and director Gareth Evans’ Indonesian cops and robbers martial arts epic The Raid is such a film: a breathless, heart-racing series of bone-crunching fight sequences built on a constant rush of adrenaline. An extraordinary cinematic experience, best enjoyed with a crowd of like-minded aficionados in a packed auditorium, it is the finest action film I have seen in a decade.

As terse and efficient as the title suggests, The Raid opens with rookie SWAT team cop Rama (Iko Uwais) reciting his morning prayers on a mat before kissing his pregnant wife goodbye and going to work. The police mission is simple: infiltrate a tower block in the Jakarta slums and extract the notorious crime lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy). Having filled the building with his own soldiers, spotters and sympathisers, Tama sits at a bank of television monitors in his room on the top floor, watching everything that movies. Within minutes of gaining entry (a sequence reinforced by total silence on the soundtrack) Rama and his colleagues come under sustained attack from Tama’s forces as they inch their way up, floor by floor, to a grandstand confrontation. Complicating matters is the fact that most of the cops in the unit are desperately inexperienced and that their cocksure lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) has a cavalier attitude to their survival.

And that’s about as much plotting as the movie is concerned with, or needs. When the advancing SWAT team meet a young boy on a stairwell, and he races to trigger an alarm, it’s the cue for an all-out war. The ensuing 90 minutes are a hand-to-hand, elbow-to-face, machete-to-throat pitched battle, with a few wild-eyed machine-gunners thrown in for good measure. There are a handful of narrative twists – a helpful tenant with a sick wife, a potential turncoat in the squad, a possibility of redemption for one of the gangsters – but for the most part, The Raid is exuberantly uncomplicated. Good guy, bad guy, fight.

Once Evans kicks off the action, he never relents. Fists, feet, bullets and blades all swirl in a bravura display of violent invention, all captured by Evans’ constantly mobile camera. Uwais, who was working as a truck-driver before Evans cast him in his first Indonesian action movie Merantau, is a practitioner of a ruthless form of martial arts known as Pencak Silat and the fight choreography is blindingly quick and smooth. It’s an extraordinary performance of physical force and eye-grabbing charisma that announces Uwais as a martial arts star for a new generation.

Freely inspired by the best of the 1980s cult action movies, from John McTiernan’s Die Hard, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and John Woo’s entire back catalogue, Evans’ creates a grimy, grimly realistic world within the claustrophobic setting of the tower block. But The Raid is not another ironic exercise in strip-mining the past for grindhouse thrills. Evans uses old-fashioned methods to make an old-fashioned movie that comes from an instinctive understanding of the grammar of action cinema. Time and again Evans displays remarkable creativity in his action sequences, showing us spectacular things that simply have never been seen before. It is violent, it is brutal, it is cheap and nasty but it is also exhilarating. Evans and Uwais make it look effortless but their ingenuity, economy and control are masterful.

Winner of both the audience and critics’ awards at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival, the screening of The Raid met with a three-minute standing ovation from a crowd that gasped and shrieked their way through the film. See it before the inevitable Hollywood remake focus-groups all the fun out of it.

Dark Shadows

Over the years film directors have allied themselves with their favourite actors to form lasting partnerships, combinations that lead, in some cases, to their best work. John Ford made more than twenty films with John Wayne, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro were inseparable before Leonardo DiCaprio came along, Neil Jordan and Stephen Rea remain seemingly joined at the hip while Woody Allen made a film a year with Mia Farrow in the decade from 1982 to 1992, until it all got a bit weird.

Getting weird doesn’t seem to bother Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. In fact, they seem to thrive on it. For Dark Shadows, their eighth collaboration in the twenty years since Edward Scissorhands, the pair has composed a Gothic valentine to an almost-forgotten occult-themed daytime television serial, which ran from the late sixties to the early seventies in America but never made it to screens on this side of the Atlantic.

Having taken more than a billion dollars in box-office receipts for his reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, Burton has been given a sizeable production budget with which to play dress-up. The production design is slick and sumptuous, the cast is filled with stars, the costuming and special effects are superb. However the story is a shambles, to say nothing of the sense of fatigue that surrounds watching, once again, an archly mannered Depp wandering through elaborate sets in pale greasepaint while speaking in a strangulated voice.

Pitched somewhere between horror and comedy and missing both marks by some distance, the story opens in 1760 as the well-to-do Collins family leave Liverpool for a new life in the New World. Having established a fine house and a thriving fishing business in a town they modestly call Collinsport, young Barnabas Collins (Depp) has fallen in love with a beautiful young woman (Bella Heathcote), spurning his housekeeper Angelique (Eva Green), a jealous witch who is a dab hand with a curse. Furious, Angelique dispatches Barnabas’ true love to a watery grave and turns the young man into a vampire, sealing him in an iron coffin for two hundred years.

Disinterred by a gang of soon-to-be-drained construction workers in 1972, Barnabas sets about reuniting with his descendants. The surviving Collins’, led by matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) have fallen on hard times. The once proud mansion is falling down around their ears and their fishing business has failed. Pretending to be a distant English cousin, the vampire moves in and sets about restoring the family to their former glory, convincing Elizabeth that he poses no threat to her, her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), brattish teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) or Roger’s troubled young son, David (Gully McGrath). 

The other residents of the house are not so easily convinced, including alcoholic child psychiatrist Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), newly-hired nanny Victoria (Heathcote again) and dogsbody janitor Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), who Barnabas quickly makes his personal Igor. The only person standing in Barnabas’ way is Angelique, his cauldron-stirring nemesis from two centuries ago, now a wealthy fishing magnate with porcelain skin, ruby-red lips and a predilection for low-cut evening gowns who is still obsessed with either winning Barnabas’ heart or driving a stake through it.

A stranger in an even stranger time, much of the film’s sense of fun is derived from fish-out-of-water Barnabas’ nonplussed navigation of the early 1970s, his courtly manners and frilly cuffs allowing him to pass as a gentlemanly English hippy while he wanders around his former home, delicately fingering period relics like Macramé knitted doilies and lava lamps. The beautifully constructed mansion, filled with carved wooden statuary and cleverly hidden secret rooms, is a pleasant enough place to pass the daylight hours but Burton’s story soon runs out of things for his undead protagonist to do, with the repetitive gags stranding Depp somewhere between The Addams Family and Austin Powers. A scattered few sexual innuendoes and unsurprising character developments provide events with a limp frisson, but even these seem shoehorned into a rapidly dwindling central narrative that is palpably exhausted far before the end.

Depp extracts as much juice as he can from his deadpan vampire with the singsong voice but has played this character, or a variation of it, far too many times for Burton and the results are nothing new. Barnabas is a funny character that Depp cleverly underplays but without an engaging story to provide him with some impetus, he slowly fades into the background. He’s all teeth and no bite. Opposite him, Green plays her vampish witch with particular relish, her flashing eyes signalling a tone of wolfish humour and camp morbidity that the rest of the film only achieves in fits and spurts. Reunited with her Batman Returns director, Pfeiffer is the only secondary character that Burton doesn’t seem to lose interest in and provides a consistent presence, even as the scattershot story collapses into a mess of flaccid jokes, narrative dead ends and elaborate special effects set pieces.


Obsession, betrayal and murder are some of the rich ingredients in this entertaining Norwegian noir crime thriller that has more twists than an old road and the blackly comic sensibility of a nation that spends half the year in darkness.

Adapted from the novel by best-selling Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, Headhunters opens with a short pre-credits sequence that nimbly introduces us to a masked Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) as he breaks into a house and snips an expensive painting from its frame. Roger’s salary as a corporate headhunter isn’t enough to fund the lavish lifestyle he sees as his due; his multi-million euro house, sleek suits and his gallery-owning trophy wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). So to make up the shortfall, he steals art from well-to-do Oslo houses, selling it through his seedy security-guard intermediary Ove (Eivind Sander).

So far, so Thomas Crown. But things are not all that they seem. Crushed by his own sense of inadequacy, Roger lives in fear that his wife will leave him for somebody else: someone taller, richer and willing to give her the child she desperately craves. With his stash of money running out, and a payment on his enormous mortgage due, Roger meets the tall, wealthy and urbane Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who he immediately identifies as a perfect fit for an executive position at a high-flying technology company. More to the point, Clas lets slip that he has inherited an original painting by Rubens, stolen by the Nazis and stashed in his grandmother’s apartment. Clas and his priceless Old Master seem like the perfect target for Roger’s covert sideline. For the first time in his criminal career, however, the mark is prepared to fight back; first by apparently sleeping with Diana, then by letting slip that before beginning his climb up the corporate ladder, he was a highly-trained soldier and is still very handy with handgun and knife. As Clas comes looking for that which was stolen from him, Roger flees for his life, kicking off a brilliantly sustained hunt for vengeance that is consistently exciting and frequently surprising, falling somewhere between a morally indifferent Coen Brothers thriller and a Warner Brothers Road Runner cartoon.

The entire cast is superb but much of the film’s success is owing to an outstanding central performance from Aksel Hennie, whose character starts out smooth as glass but winds up shattered into tiny fragments. Goggle-eyed Hennie (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve Buscemi) plays the covert criminal as an engaging combination of skilled resourcefulness and panicky idiocy. It’s a neat trick, because each new indignity the story throws at him, from being run to ground by Coster-Waldau’s unstoppable nemesis to being flattened by a speeding truck and dunked in an open sewer, transforms this self-serving Napoleon into a sympathetic character. With his sharp tailoring, smug smile and deep concern for how his hair is looking at any given moment, Roger is a smarmy creep; it says a lot for Hennie’s performance that we are willing to root for him, regardless, all the way to a breathless, blood-splattered finish.

As Roger is slowly stripped of everything he possesses and his prospects for survival darken, the story spasms deliriously into a rapid-fire series of ever more violent twists, exposing the characters as deeply flawed and compromised individuals, providing the film with substance as well as style. Director Morten Tyldum never allows the pace to flag, sustaining the finely-wrought tension and not allowing the viewer enough time to question whether the intricacies of the plotting are entirely sound. Similarly, there isn’t room for any of Wallander’s windblown moping or the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s expositionary chatter with Tyldum racing through his story, dextrously skipping over the numerous plot holes, determined to cram in another outrageously gory thrill or gallows-humour gag.

The Cabin in the Woods

Drew Goddard’s splashy horror comedy The Cabin In The Woods expertly plays with audience expectations in a sly, cynically self-aware take on the slasher film. Not since Wes Craven’s Scream back in 1996 has a horror movie so cleverly subverted the genre with such devious wit, taking the bare bones of the clichéd camp-side teen massacre and spinning it into something deliciously dark and wildly entertaining.

The less the audience knows about the film beforehand, the more satisfying the payoff will be for a film where the merest suggestion of the workings of the simple plot might be considered a spoiler. Co-written by producer Joss Whedon and his Buffy the Vampire Slayer collaborator Drew Goddard (making his directorial debut), The Cabin in the Woods works as a gleeful rejoinder to the recent rash of rapidly uninteresting torture-porn horror films, delicately balancing the genre’s requirements for buckets of blood with a newly minted, and deviously uncomplicated, back-story that re-examines the ancient stories and myths that were the progenitors of what we find terrifying today.

The opening sequences set the stage with commendable efficiency. Five college students pile into a truck and head out to a remote woodland cabin, borrowed from a friend of a friend, for a long weekend. All five fit easily into broad character types, for a reason. There’s the athletic Alpha-male (Chris Hemsworth), the brave and brainy black guy (Jesse Williams), the blonde cheerleader (Anna Hutchison), the befuddled pot-head philosopher (Fran Kranz) and the wholesome, virginal good-girl (Kristen Connolly). Having arrived at their destination, despite dire warnings of doom from a scrofular stranger they meet on the way, the five set are soon exploring the cabin’s creepy basement. There, as decades of cinematic instruction have left the audience in no doubt, a greasy death awaits.

And that’s about all I can tell you. Although Whedon and Goddard’s script does find ways for their stock characters to surprise us, they are never developed into more than the sum of their standardised exteriors, making it difficult to care much about their fates. But that becomes much less of a problem when it becomes clear that the five imminent corpses are little more than pawns in a far greater game, as the story ingeniously enlarges. From an opening conversation between two seen-it-all scientist types (brilliantly played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) to the glimpses of international atrocities glimpsed on television screens and similarly inspired by folklore, there are signs that the gory events are being manipulated from the shadows.

The thrill is all in discovering who, or what, is pulling the strings as the terrifyingly unpredictable story piles on the genre subversions and upends every stereotype in the book. The greatest trick The Cabin in the Woods plays is in somehow refreshing a genre that had become tediously stale and unambitious. Funny, creepy and delighted with the cleverness of its own irreverent conceit, it’s the most entertaining teen horror movie in years.