Can a Videogame be Martial Arts?
The other week, Alan and I watched the trailer for The Last of Us. It very clearly has roots in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: two survivors in a harsh and angry world burnt out from some unknown apocalypse. There are no supernatural, demonic entities other than the primal terror of other human beings desperate to survive at any physical or moral cost.
Now I love The Road – both book and film – but The Last of Us unsettles me. It was somewhere between the man’s skull being repeatedly caved-in against a table and executing his pleading friend when my stomach turned. That’s the gamble of a ten-minute teaser: Looking over the shoulder of Justifiable Hero I don’t know the character’s story that warrants such brutality against another human. Between heaves, my gut tells me this probably won’t be another allegory about a father’s love for his son.
Alan similarly came out of the trailer appalled and in his return to Reality Check makes a case for fantasy over reality in games. In terms of where violence sits within that desire, he later told me that he prefers to “shoot at aliens with a big, purple gun”.
Unnerving Freudian quips aside, I came out of The Last of Us trailer suitably disgusted. Then I walked right into a screening of The Raid, a relentless martial arts film from Indonesia, and absolutely adored every punch and kick.
The plot is so bare-bones it’s a pure arcade beat ’em up: A SWAT Team of 20 elite agents storm a tower block on a mission to kill the Powerful Drug Baron residing on the top floor. Our heroes are quickly discovered and the building is locked down. The team outnumbered and against the odds, must conquer one level at a time dispatching all flavours of Vile Goons with Assorted Weaponry. Along the way, they eat turkeys to regenerate health.
Ok, I can’t get away with it: The end of that trailer also involves a man’s skull being repeatedly rammed against a wall. The Raid is violent, bloody, good, clean fun. It’s exciting rather than upsetting (and so I am not a hypocrite) for the following reasons:
The Raid does not linger on the aftermath of violence. Given the sheer number of fights, there simply isn’t enough time. When Machete Goon is chopped down the final moment occurs either off-screen or our attention is quickly advanced to the next blade-wielding obstacle. The intensity of the fights comes from the claustrophobic hallways quickly filling with bodies and then corpses which all but flash and disappear.
That being said the first deaths are the most intense and gory and are shot in full view. This sets the audience up to anticipate an extreme to which the film rightly never returns. Perhaps this is the case for The Last of Us. It’s also the same trick used in those eighties frat boy films which showed some breasts in the opening scenes. Perhaps this will also be the case for The Last of Us.
Second, the aftermath is the sheer physical reality of martial arts. The Raid‘s fights are truly athletic performance theatre and not macabre digital puppetry. The dizzying choreography is beautifully cut together with rhythm and style driving these dances to the death. Director Gareth Evans previously shot martial arts documentaries in Indonesia so believe me when I say this is a passionate love letter and an uncluttered showcase for the actors to do what they love. Their inventiveness, though very nearly exhausting, is never boring.
Videogames can be as merrily violent as they desire, like good martial arts, by focusing on stylistic execution and not on the horrific aftermath. Increasingly corpses litter the hero’s path in the name of visual realism and little else. When it comes to violence and fun, it’s better to be light on your feet than heavy-handed.