Review by Daniel Lima
There’s no greater joy than watching a scrappy independent action film made by a bunch of stunt people and martial artists. Whether a showcase for a group of hungry young guns just getting their name out there, or established veterans taking time out of their schedules to work on something that is their own, the passion that the filmmakers have for the art of action cinema is always on full display. Director Areel Abu Bakar's latest film, Walid, aims to continue in that fine tradition, mixing socially-conscious melodrama with some of the most densely packed action put to film. Unfortunately, the film goes about this in entirely the wrong way, and all the talent on display ends up going to waste.
The first half of the film follows a dual narrative, bouncing between a good-hearted schoolteacher who begins to bond with a precocious local girl, and a criminal operation that is trafficking children. Those two threads come together exactly as you’d imagine, and the second half is filled to the brim with blistering, bone-cracking fights as the teacher seeks to save that little girl.
Plenty of action movies force the audience to wait before getting to the action, but aside from a few quick skirmishes, most of the action here is saved for the second half. That places a greater emphasis on the film’s drama, its ability to build these characters and tell a compelling narrative, so that the audience both remains engaged until the fighting starts in earnest, and emotionally invested through the frenzied fights.
Unfortunately, the film buckles under the weight of that expectation. The crime story is convoluted, featuring an ensemble of villains who lack the personality and flair to make them stand out. That this narrative is almost entirely disconnected from the emotional heart of the film — the relationship between the teacher and the girl — makes it feel particularly weightless. On the other hand, that relationship is the stuff of boilerplate indie dramas the world over, a mawkish play at heartstrings that is too transparent and simplistic to work.
Bakar directs this part of the film in an abrasively amateurish fashion, forgoing deliberate compositions for shaky handheld shots that simply aim to keep people in frame and in focus. The result is a lack of a defined aesthetic that could lend this part of the film some flavor. For all the dense plotting of this first hour, by the time the action kicks off, it’s hard to care about what is happening.
Sadly, this is where Walid reveals itself to be flawed on a conceptual level. There are plenty of action films that end with huge climaxes set in one large location that last an inconceivable amount of time. When someone like John Woo indulges in such an extravaganza, however, it’s never just relentless action until the credits roll. The characters make full use of the space, allowing for different environments to stage the action. Characters have goals that change with each set piece: save the hostages, get to the end of the hall, get rid of the bad guy. There are breaks from the action that reinforce the character work that came before, redraw the battle lines between the heroes and villains, and simply give the audience a chance to breathe and collect themselves.
None of that is true here. Just over an hour in, a fight breaks out at the villain’s compound, and for the next forty minutes, the fighting doesn’t stop. The combatants change, and the film constantly cuts between multiple bouts happening simultaneously. The only reprieve are the moments just before a new person joins the fray. The characters all feel just as indistinguishable as they did through the drama, meaning the audience has no vested interest in who wins. The fights all take place in similar-looking locations within the same building, often times with multiple fights in the same space. There is never any goal more complex than beating up the other guy, no narrative unfolding within the action. As ambitious as this finale is, it ultimately feels unbearably monotonous.
The worst part is that the fights themselves are commendable. The cast is filled with actual martial artists, practitioners of silat, and the style’s penchant for incredible kicks, joint manipulation, and weapons use is on full display. The choreography, unvarying as it is, is thoughtful and complex. Some performers are more capable than others, and Bakar knows how to shoot around their capabilities. The less impressive displays are shot a bit tighter, edited a bit quicker, with zooms that follow the punches, kicks, and traps to lend a sense of impactful violence to looser movements. the truly impressive ones are captured in longer, wider takes that revel in the speed and power of the participants. It’s everything you could want from a small production like this.
Action cinema, however, is more than just cool stunts and choreography. Action is storytelling, as integral to a film as developing characters, crafting an engrossing plot, establishing an aesthetic and tone. The action should act in concert with those elements: clarifying characters through movement, telling its own narrative within a set piece, complimenting the established rhythm and feel of the film. Though the ambition and passion behind Walid are palpable, and the desire to play with the action filmmaking formula should be applauded, the film loses sight of that core tenet.
Walid releases in theaters July 28.