The most influential action movie of this decade doesn’t have a plot. What it has is a setup: A squad of armored cops has to fight its way from the bottom of a dilapidated apartment tower to the top. There sits a drug lord who wants all of them dead. The entire building is populated with criminals who work for that drug lord, so they’re doing their best to kill the cops. The cops’ communications are cut off, and they have no way of escaping, so all they can do is shoot and kick and punch their way to the top of this building, taking on wave after wave of attackers. That’s it. That’s the story. It’s less narrative arc, more 101-minute fight scene.
The Raid: Redemption, the Indonesian fight epic that had its American release in 2012, does away with almost everything that you’d expect to see in an action movie: the romantic subplot, the family saved, the hero’s journey to redemption. There is no redemption in The Raid: Redemption. Instead, all we get is the fight—the frantic, feverish struggle to survive. The most quiet or reflective the movie gets is the scene where Rama, the fresh-faced hero cop played by the Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais, is trapped with a wounded comrade in an apartment’s crawl space, trying to stay silent and undetected while some maniac stabs the wall with a machete. It is a nonstop gut-ripper of a movie. And its true legacy is those fast, jarring, brutal fights.
The fighters in The Raid are all practitioners of pencak silat, an Indonesian martial art that emphasizes—at least in these movies—nasty elbow and knee strikes. Beholding it on-screen is like watching a great UFC fight in fast-forward. The combatants become tangled blurs of twisted limbs, everyone bleeding all over everyone else. And the performers in The Raid truly put themselves through hell, throwing themselves around hallways and staircases, through windows, off balconies. It’s a movie you can’t watch without wincing.
There had been great movie fights before The Raid, of course. The movie belongs to a long, evolving tradition of Asian action movies, which stretches back more than a half century. In martial arts movies, performers are always trying to one-up each other, to come up with the most explosive and memorable movies. In The Raid, Iko Uwais and his co-stars built on things that stars like Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen had been doing in movies like Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior and SPL: Kill Zone. But The Raid took those tendencies, amped them up even further, and stripped away the sentimental plot contrivances so common in Asian action cinema. It stays raw and urgent, and it never lets up.
The Raid worked as a challenge to anyone who would stage a movie fight scene afterward. A few punches, filmed shakily and edited blurrily, wouldn’t cut it anymore. After The Raid, fight scenes, even in American movies, became faster and more visceral. You can see the impact of The Raid in American movies like the John Wick films or Atomic Blonde. The hallway fight from the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil plays like a three-minute homage to The Raid. So does the incredible bathroom brawl from this past summer’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout. Even the airport throwdown in Captain America: Civil War brought some of that sense of speed and physicality, even if we knew we were watching pixels and not Indonesian stuntmen.
A few years before he made The Raid, the Welsh director Gareth Evans had been going nowhere, unable to get his career off the ground. He’d made one unreleased movie, and he was working office jobs to pay bills. So he moved with his wife to Indonesia, where he’d been hired to make a documentary about pencak silat. While making it, he met Iko Uwais, who’d been working as a delivery driver. Evans cast Uwais in his movie Merantau, the predictable but extremely watchable saga of a naive young martial-artist bumpkin who moves to the city and gets mixed up with a shady syndicate. The movie worked, but Evans couldn’t get financing for Berendal, his planned crime-epic follow-up. He needed to make something fast and cheap, and that’s how we got The Raid.
When The Raid became an international cult sensation, Evans did get to make Berendal, turning it into The Raid’s sequel. The Raid 2 is sprawling and sometimes silly, but its fights are, if anything, even more mind-boggling. In three movies, Evans had established himself as maybe the greatest action director in the world. And when Evans moved back to the U.K., you’d think some studio would dump money on his lawn until he agreed to take over a superhero franchise. But instead, Evans went to Netflix and made a horror movie.
In its own way, Apostle, Evans’s new Netflix movie, is as hard and unrelenting as The Raid. Apostle stars the fire-eyed British star Dan Stevens as a thought-to-be-dead ex-missionary who goes undercover in a mysterious turn-of-the-century British cult. He’s there to rescue his sister, but things get weird. Pretty soon, the torture implements come out. Apostle is about as grim and violent as period pieces get. Taking his cues from British folk horror, Evans draws you into a strange and layered world. And then he leaves you staring at fragments of skull and brain scattered across the cold ground. It’s a messy movie, in every sense of the word, but it proves that Evans’s gifts go beyond fight movies.
As Evans was making the move from action to horror, his friend Timo Tjahjanto was going in the opposite direction. Tjahjanto got his start as one half of the Mo Brothers, a directing duo who made some truly disturbing Indonesian horror movies. Shortly after The Raid, Tjahjanto teamed up with Evans to direct Safe Haven, a brutal, relentless half-hour short that was part of the 2013 anthology movie V/H/S/2. Safe Haven, a no-budget found-footage story about a news crew going inside an apocalyptic demon cult, was the first sign that Evans could be a great horror director. But it also showed that Tjahjanto’s particular brand of lunacy could work in action movies.
Tjahjanto made the transition to action with 2016’s Headshot, in which Iko Uwais plays an amnesiac assassin whose past bosses come back to hunt him. Headshot cranks up the violence of The Raid to hallucinatory levels, beyond any plausible suspension of disbelief. When characters in Headshot get shot or stabbed, they just get back up and keep fighting until their skulls have been entirely caved in. It is a wild ride of a movie, and then Tjahjanto found a way to make it even wilder.
A week after Apostle, Netflix released The Night Comes for Us, the new action movie from Tjahjanto. The Night Comes for Us is one of the out-and-out craziest martial arts movies I have ever seen. It amps the gore up to Evil Dead levels. All of the characters are unkillable slasher-movie villains, and all of them are geniuses at finding creative ways to kill each other. Joe Taslim, who played a stone-faced police sergeant in The Raid and who went on to play henchmen in Fast & Furious 6 and Star Trek: Beyond, stars as an elite hit man who decides he can’t kill a little girl and turns against his triad bosses instead. Later on, that same little girl stabs a dude in the neck multiple times. It’s nuts.
In a butcher-shop brawl, Taslim impales one guy on a meathook, slices another’s neck with a cleaver, and stabs a third with a cow femur. Later on, he picks up a dead body and uses it as a weapon. At one point, a one-legged heroin addict named White Boy Bobby goes full-on Viking berserker, single-handedly taking on an entire mob of machete-wielding assailants. Iko Uwais, who choreographed the movie’s amazing fights, also plays the villain, something he’s never done before, and he gets to do unspeakable things. The Night Comes for Us hits plenty of the action-movie beats that we know well, but it hits them so hard that it practically becomes a whole new genre. Call it martial arterial spray.
In the past two weeks then, both the directors and the stars of The Raid have come out with two very different Netflix movies. They’re both nasty and visceral and fascinating. For millions of people they are now available as a particularly gut-churning double feature. But here’s the question nobody will answer: Is anyone watching?
Last year, Netflix announced plans to release 80 original movies in 2018. That’s a baffling number—more than anyone could hope to watch even if they knew the movies would be any good, which they often aren’t. And yet, if anything, Netflix is on pace to exceed that number. A tiny minority of those movies come with great hype. Later this year, for example, Netflix will release putative Oscar contenders like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Next year, they’ll have Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in the Martin Scorsese crime epic The Irishman. But most Netflix Originals are much more modest, low-budget fare. These movies are not trying to compete. They merely exist.
Netflix famously refuses to share viewership numbers, so we don’t know how many people are watching these movies. All we have to go on is the flawed, amorphous metric of cultural impact—gauging buzz by Twitter chatter, or media coverage, or old-fashioned word of mouth. With most of these movies, Netflix barely even bothers with marketing, sending them out into the world to fend for themselves and trusting their mysterious algorithms to put these movies in front of the viewers who might like them. Sometimes, that process works. This past summer, romantic comedies, which only barely exist on the theatrical-release calendar, had a bit of a Netflix renaissance, with online mini-sensations around Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Last week, Netflix claimed that 80 million subscribers had watched the service’s original rom-coms this past summer and that To All the Boys was one of its most-viewed movies ever. But again: Who knows?
Things get considerably more bleak when you look at Netflix’s deep slate of low-budget genre movies, many of which are, at the very least, pretty good. Thrillers like Wheelman, Small Crimes, Psychokinesis, and the darkly hilarious I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore are worth your time, but chances are good that you’ve never heard of any of them. This past summer, John Woo, arguably the greatest action director of all time, came out with Manhunt, his first contemporary action movie in more than a decade. Did you see or hear anything about it? (It wasn’t Woo’s best, but its mere existence is news, and half-speed Woo still beats the hell out of, say, The Predator.)
As it happens, Netflix has been quietly rolling out genre movies for as long as it’s been in the movie business. As one of its first original films, Netflix teamed up with the now-disgraced Weinstein Company to release Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, the sequel to Ang Lee’s lyrical 2000 wuxia masterpiece. The 2016 Netflix sequel came nowhere near the original, thanks to most of the original cast and Lee staying away and the inexplicable decision to shoot it in English. But on its own, it’s a pretty good kung fu movie. You wouldn’t know it. Netflix probably didn’t bother to tell you.
When Netflix bulldozed its way into the movie-studio game, part of the allure was that the company could make movies for audiences who weren’t being served in a superhero-heavy climate. The major theatrical studios are focusing on well-known intellectual property, convinced that anything without name recognition won’t make back the marketing budgets. But Netflix, with its immediate global distribution, could offer a wider range of original visions. That, presumably, was what drew beloved indie directors like Noah Baumbach and Nicole Holofcener—directors who are increasingly being squeezed out of theaters—to the service. These directors could make the movies they want to make, and then millions would immediately have access to those movies. But if those millions don’t know that the movies exist, is anyone really winning?
In 2016, the indie director Jeremy Saulnier released Green Room, a terse and violent movie about a punk band fighting to escape from a fascist skinhead compound. Green Room wasn’t a hit. At the box office, it only earned a few million, less than its production budget. But the people who saw Green Room talked about it. The movie was a career-maker, a critical and cult favorite. Hitting theaters more than a year before the right-wing attacks of Charlottesville, it has come to feel raw and vital and important. It mattered.
For his follow-up, Jeremy Saulnier went to Netflix. Last month, the company released Hold the Dark, a heady and lyrical and even-more-violent thriller about Alaska and isolation and wolves. Hold the Dark has a wider scope than Green Room. It has more locations, bigger stars, and bigger action set pieces. Netflix doesn’t share its movie budgets, but Hold the Dark certainly looks like it cost a lot more than Green Room. But at least from what my own limited Twitter window tells me, way more people were talking about Green Room. And more people also seem to be talking about recent theatrical indie movies like Mid90s or The Old Man & the Gun. If Saulnier had found a way to get Hold the Dark into theaters, would the movie be generating more conversation? Would people care more if they had to pay to see it?
Of course, indie-film directors are making an impact on Netflix. They just aren’t doing it by making Netflix movies. José Padilha and Wagner Moura, the director and star of the morally murky Brazilian cop-movie franchise Elite Squad, are now better known as the team behind Narcos. After directing the first season of True Detective, Cary Joji Fukunaga made the war movie Beasts of No Nation, Netflix’s first entry into the movie-awards race, and his latest project is the hallucinatory Netflix miniseries Maniac. And Netflix’s real fall hit, if online buzz is any indication, is The Haunting of Hill House, the deeply affecting new supernatural family drama from director Mike Flanagan. Flanagan, one of the most exciting horror directors to come along in the past decade, had his breakout when Netflix streamed his 2016 efficient, effective, two-hander Hush. Last year, he made the Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game for the service. And now, after Hill House, it seems like Flanagan will get to do whatever he wants.
So maybe that’s the best way to look at Netflix Original movies. Maybe they aren’t for us. Maybe they don’t exist to be seen as movies. Maybe they’re really just extended auditions for Netflix TV shows. That seems to be the case for both Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais, the people who changed action cinema six years ago and who might now be leaving cinema behind entirely. Right now, Evans is working on Gangs of London, a contemporary crime series that’s set to air on Cinemax next year. And as for Iko Uwais, he’s getting his own show, too. He’ll star in Wu Assassins, a martial arts show set in the San Francisco underworld, and he’ll also produce and choreograph the fights. Look for it sometime soon on Netflix.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum and he writes the superhero-movie column Age of Heroes for The A.V. Club. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.