Review Guest Post

Pre Vis Action (2016)

Hirwaun hellions

I have to imagine that the end of The Raid 2’s release cycle was an existentially scary moment for Gareth Evans.

In just eight years, he’d gone from being a struggling university graduate making microbudget indies in his native Wales, to an internationally lauded genre maestro, feted by fanboys and critics alike, not only for having instituted a new, exciting grammar of action filmmaking, but now for having pushed that style to its logical conclusion. Where exactly do you go next after you release your sprawling, self-indulgent magnum opus, which turned out to be a hit that audiences all over the world loved? At the tender age of 33, what does growth from that point look like?

Where exactly do you go next after you release your sprawling, self-indulgent magnum opus, which turned out to be a hit that audiences all over the world loved?

For the months immediately following The Raid 2’s release, it looked as though Evans would stay in that same mode of dark, stylised crime thrillers with a lot of gory action. Word floated around the internet for a while of a new project being made in partnership with the American studio MRC, entitled Blister, that he described as “my take on the contemporary American gangster story with echoes of The Wild Bunch. In 2020, in the same interview with Empire magazine which detailed the plot of the hypothetical Raid 3, Blister was alluded to as a project that didn’t come together after 18 months of prep.

It was also announced in 2014 that he would be serving as a producer and action-director for Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us, a story about a hitman with a conscience written to be played by Joe Taslim, with other cast members including Julie Estelle, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra and Oka Antara, set by PT Merantau Films and XYZ Films. The gang were back together! The Night Comes for Us was set to be the next, logical iteration upon the brand Merantau Films had built for itself.

In 2015, though, that project went dark, and not long after, Evans had moved back to Wales together with his family. In 2018, The Night Comes for Us was resurrected, with Netflix footing the bill, but in a substantially re-tooled form; Putra, Antara and Ruhian were nowhere to be found in the cast, the Merantau Films logo is absent, and Evans’ name is nowhere to be seen in the credits.

What specifically precipitated the move back to his homeland, I’ve not been able to glean from online resources, but I have to imagine the struggle of Blister and The Night Comes for Us ver. 1.0 to get off the ground must have been a contributing factor. Then again, Merantau Films faced lean times before when they were originally working to get Berandal financed, so it may simply be the case that Evans was feeling homesick, or that he’d exhausted the creative possibilities available to him in his adopted home. Probably a little column “A”, a little column “B.”

All of which is to say, he stayed pretty well beneath the radar after The Raid 2, and only resurfaced in 2016 when this fun little morsel of content made its way online. Pre Vis Action, as I guess I’m obliged to call it, doesn’t really seem to consider itself a “film;” not even really a “short.” The original text, uploaded to Youtube on January 25th, 2016, features no onscreen title cards or credits. All of the information identifying who was involved in the production is, instead relegated to the description below the video player, together with a paragraph of flavour text providing context for the short’s dialogue-free incident. The description explicitly disclaims that the short was intended for commercial purposes, and emphasises how sparse the circumstances of the production were. Shot in three days, only Evans and his three actors were present on location, in the woods of Hirwaun. Sound editing, sound effects and music were provided by long-time Evans collaborators Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal – the end product represents the labour of no more than six individuals.

Shot in three days, only Evans and his three actors were present on location, in the woods of Hirwaun

And yet, this is much more of a cinematic object than the utilitarian title of Pre Vis Action would suggest; this is no mere Youtube stunt reel, or one of the video storyboards that Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian would hack together in the gym. The widescreen, black-and-white cinematography features compositions as considered and painterly as anything in The Raid 2. Consider the establishing shots like those at 0:10, which makes a void of negative space out of the overcast Welsh sky, or at 0:37, with its gloomy, ominous symmetry, making a cathedral vault out of the inward-leaning birch trees. The combination of handheld camera darting through the forest with the score, consisting of frantic bamboo flutes and taiko drums, sells the panic and adrenaline of pursuit. Hannah Al-Rashid, Yayan Ruhian, and Cecep Arif Rahman are all delivering committed performances of their ever-so-lightly sketched characters, reinforced by brief reaction shots. The prop swords and costumes, at least to my untrained eye, look persuasive. Pre Vis Action never once looks like four friends, dressed up as samurai, goofing off in the woods (which is what it is). It looks like a professional, high-level filmmaker plying his trade for five minutes (which is also what it is).

The content of Pre Vis Action is as straightforward as it comes. Situated in a vague “time of civil war” (quoth the Youtube description), presumably based on Sengoku-era Japan, Hannah Al-Rashid’s character is a courier, delivering a treaty that will bring an end to the conflict between two rival warlords. She’s intercepted in transit by two assassins – Ruhian and Rahman, natch – bent on preventing her from reaching her objective, whether by killing her, or snatching the treaty she’s carrying in a bamboo canister over her shoulder; whichever works. She fights them off, lethally. The End. Dostoyevsky it ain’t.

It’s exactly as much context as we need for the short’s purposes, though. Most of Pre Vis Action is a fight scene, with Al-Rashid, wielding dual katanas, fighting off both Ruhian and Rahman at once. In the canon of Evans-directed fight scenes, I’d say it’s a good one; not his best, by any means, but formidable considering the constraints the performers were working under, with no access to stunt-doubles, wire rigs, breakable props or sets, etc. It serves as a demonstration of the Evans house-style of choreography, stripped of any opportunity for trickery or sleight-of-hand. And the choreography rises to the occasion; Al-Rashid is required to sell her character’s quick thinking and stressed ingenuity in the ways she fends off two skilled enemies at once. The camera’s movements emphasise her strategic positioning, how her attention flows back and forth from one opponent to the other. The handheld camera will lock on to the blades of the swords as they whisk through the air, following them through fast combinations where they intercept and redirect and trap one another, simultaneously calling attention to the fighters’ technical prowess and the potential cost of a single mistake.

In the canon of Evans-directed fight scenes, I’d say it’s a good one; not his best, by any means, but formidable considering the constraints the performers were working under

The action design is probably most closely reminiscent of Iko Uwais’s corridor fight with Julie Estelle and Very Tri Yulisman in The Raid 2. Compared to that august antecedent, I’d suggest a couple of ways that Pre Vis Action isn’t quite as strong. One is the fact that the characters are wielding katanas. Set aside the fact that the ways the performers are swinging their weapons around willy-nilly — repeatedly locking blades and scraping their edges together — I’m pretty sure have no precedent within the tradition of Japanese swordsmanship; it just doesn’t quite look right on camera for this particular weapon. The rhythms and the movements in this short are similar to those used by The Raid 2’s silat-trained performers when they were wielding claw hammers or kerambit knives; broad, sweeping slashes back and forth along horizontal axes. This can look great when used in combination with weapons that essentially serve as augmentations of a human fist; when it’s a 28-inch broadsword, with a single edge and a hilt made to be held with two hands, it feels kinda square peg/round hole. Al-Rashid, Ruhian and Rahman all make a valiant effort, with their physicality and their facial acting, and communicate the grunt and heft of their blows with aplomb, but they can’t help but look slightly awkward and ungainly, when compared to the violent elegance of The Raid 2.

The other detail is the absence of blood and gore. This, it’s important to note, isn’t a creative mistake, or a factor of the small-scale production; it’s actually this short’s primary mandate. In the description on Youtube, Evans explains that Pre Vis Action exists as a sort of field test, to see if Merantau Films’ characteristic style of action design holds up under the restrictions of bloodshed prescribed by the MPAA’s PG-13 rating, or the BBFC’s 12A. This is curious, because it suggests that Evans foresaw a situation where he might be working within those sort of studio-imposed restraints. And indeed, he was courted around this time by Warner Bros. to direct a Deathstroke movie, presumably intended to star Joe Manganiello as he appeared in the post-credits scene of 2017’s theatrically released cut of Justice League. This never came to pass, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone, because Warner Bros. decide the future of their integrated cinematic superhero universe according to the signs and portents they derive from tea leaves and goat entrails.

I’m glad that Evans, as of 2022, hasn’t been incorporated into the superhero sausage factory, because I have to say, Pre Vis Action doesn’t quite sell me on the idea that Merantau Films-style action design can be smoothly transferred to a PG-13 context. A big part of what makes the action in The Raid and The Raid 2 sing is the way that the combatants’ prowess is held in tension with their vulnerability. Strategically placed insert shots show bones being snapped, or blades carving trenches through sinew. The rhythm of the fighting builds toward “punchline” moments, gruesome finishing moves that eliminate a participant with the callous indifference of a chess piece being removed from the board. The thrill comes from that dynamic, of showing people in absolute command of their own bodies, while continuously reinforcing how destructible those bodies are.

Pre Vis Action has the second-to-second rhythms of its combat down; it persuades me that its players are locked in a frantic, life-or-death struggle that demands all of their physical and mental faculties to survive. But its “punchlines,” its inflection points, the moments when the equilibrium of its combat is upset; they don’t convince me so well. Midway through the fight, there comes one of Evans’ characteristic stylistic flourishes: what we might term a “checkpoint.” At 3:04, Al-Rashid manages to slay Rahman, switching the sword in her right hand from a forward grip to a reverse grip and catching him with a stroke across the torso. It happens suddenly, in the thick of the melee. The music drops out; the quick-cut, handheld camera transitions to a static wide shot, which holds on the three human figures for nine full seconds as Rahman crumples and falls.

It’s reminiscent of the doorframe decapitation moment from the Machete Gang fight in The Raid; a halfway point in the fight, where the participants pause for a moment, and register an instant of shock. The dynamics of the fight have changed. It gives the short a neat sense of symmetry, switching Al-Rashid’s character from reactive to proactive; Ruhian manages to lay hands on the McGuffin and tries to escape with it, requiring her to give chase. Rahman’s death, though, lacks the punch of a moment like the doorframe kill. There’s no blood, no first-hand visual evidence of fatal injury having been inflicted on his body; the audience simply have to infer that he dies from the attendant visual language. It occurs as performative, not visceral.

The death of Ruhian’s character is underwhelming for the same reasons, but here the visual dissonance is even more pronounced. The very final shot of Pre Vis Action is a close-up of Al-Rashid’s sword, held still after striking the final blow, pommel facing the camera, the blade extending toward the background of the image. In the same hand holding the katana, Al-Rashid clutches the peace treaty in its canister, ripped back from Ruhian with the same motion that felled him. In the background of the shot, Ruhian collapses to the ground, with the exaggerated, stagey shuddering motions movies use to suggest massive haemorrhaging.

It’s a compelling composition to end on, one that insists upon Al-Rashid’s ruthlessness and ferocity as her most salient characteristics. The last image we see of her character isn’t of her face, which might betray ambivalent emotions about the life she just took, but of her unshaking hand, holding her weapon and the trophy it won her, while her quarry is rendered out of focus and out of frame, his total defeat communicated by the ways the camera denies him prominence. The only problem is, again, that there’s no blood. The choice to make the katana’s blade the centre of the shot only calls the viewer’s attention to how it conspicuously isn’t stained red, something that the black-and-white cinematography makes more obvious, not less. The visual grammar of the moment would have it that Ruhian has been disembowelled, but the onscreen evidence suggests otherwise. This isn’t just the elision of gory detail you might see in a PG-13-safe action movie, like a Fast and the Furious or an MCU flick; it actively calls attention to the performative fakery of the cinematic construct, rather than persuading the viewer of its visceral reality. The choice to end on this shot feels like the decision of a director accustomed to working in a hard-R-rated space, with a hard-R-rated visual toolset.

The choice to end on this shot feels like the decision of a director accustomed to working in a hard-R-rated space, with a hard-R-rated visual toolset

It isn’t lost on me that the first thing Evans made after returning from Indonesia happened to be a short, black-and-white chanbara pastiche, just like his very first publicly released work, Samurai Monogatari from all the way back in 2003. As an exercise, Pre Vis Action suggests to me a filmmaker consciously reorienting himself, returning to where he started with the advantage of 13 more years of experience. Here we see Evans keeping his powder dry, taking advantage of a transitional phase in his life and his career to experiment with his style, seeing what works and what doesn’t in a low-stakes context (while also just having fun in the woods with some friends visiting from Indonesia, I guess). His career might have gone in any number of directions after The Raid 2. Happily for us, it hasn’t yet gone anywhere that’s required him to tamp down those R-rated instincts.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

Andrew is a 2012 graduate of the University of Dundee, with an MA in English and Politics. He spent a lot of time at Uni watching decadently nerdy movies with his pals, and decided that would be his identity moving forward. He awards an extra point on The Goods ranking scale to any film featuring robots or martial arts. He also dabbles in writing fiction, which is assuredly lousy with robots and martial arts.

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