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Thrills and action abound in ‘Argo,’ ‘The Raid’

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Posted: Friday, October 19, 2012 7:19 am

It looks like things have improved significantly since we last spoke. There are plenty of reasonable options playing in local theaters (I have not yet seen “Seven Psychopaths,” “Sinister” or “Looper,” but I’m sure they’re all worthwhile in one way or another), and the good times should keep on rolling over the next few weeks with “Cloud Atlas,” “The Man with the Iron Fists” and, of course, “Skyfall.”

(And if that isn’t enough, P.T. Anderson’s “The Master,” which I shamefully missed when it was showing locally, is still playing in Sacramento.)

Then we’ve got the final “Twilight” movie to contend with, but after that it’s on to awards season and an easy ride on the gravy train until around February. Sounds good to me.

For now, we’re looking at two of the very best films I’ve seen all year: Ben Affleck’s dramatic thriller “Argo,” now showing in wide release, and the acclaimed Indonesian martial arts flick “The Raid: Redemption,” recently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

People have been somewhat hesitant to embrace Ben Affleck as a major filmmaking talent, and this reluctance fills me with confusion and indignation. Under normal circumstances, I would understand the impulse to temper enthusiasm and expectations on the basis of one great film, but in all fairness, “Gone Baby Gone” stands as the single most impressive directorial debut since Orson Welles dropped the mic with “Citizen Kane.” Affleck’s follow-up, the character-driven bank heist thriller “The Town,” should have satisfied anyone who, for some inconceivable reason, still had any doubts about Affleck’s natural, raw filmmaking talent.

These movies could not have been “flukes.” They are masterfully composed on a fundamental and very rare level, and could only have been the work of a born prodigy. And now that “Argo” has been released, it seems that people are finally coming around to the idea of Affleck as a master-class director.

The film tells the true story (declassified during the Clinton administration) of a CIA extraction mission during the Iranian hostage crisis. After the U.S. embassy in Iran is overrun by a mob protesting the Shah’s asylum in the U.S., six American diplomats manage to escape before the rest of their nearly 60 colleagues are taken hostage in the embassy. Holed up in the home of the Canadian ambassador, they must evade detection or risk being tried as spies and publicly executed.

Enter Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), a CIA operative brought in to advise on possible extraction scenarios. After his superiors’ suggestions prove impractical, Mendez concocts a scheme just crazy enough to work: Posing as a Canadian producer scouting locations for a Hollywood sci-fi movie, he will go to Iran and collect the six Americans, who will then leave the country posing as his film crew.

The first half of the film depicts the painstaking preparations necessary to pull off such an unconventional mission: the enlistment of an established and trustworthy producer (Alan Arkin) to lend his name to the film, called “Argo”; the production of press materials, including story boards, movie posters and concept art; a press junket and script read-through, complete with makeup and costumes; etc. This portion of the film offers up some effective dry humor courtesy of Arkin, and the utter absurdity of the undertaking provides the second act with more laughs than most comedies.

“Argo” ratchets up the suspense when Mendez arrives in Iran, and must convince the “houseguests” to trust him with their lives. The second half of the film, depicting the Americans familiarizing themselves with their cover stories and eventually taking a profound leap of faith by accompanying Mendez to the airport, showcases Affleck’s considerable talent at building and maintaining tension — he may not be the world’s greatest actor (serviceable, though often a tad wooden), but what he lacks in performative skills he more than makes up for in storytelling ability. Intense and intricately detailed while still economical, “Argo’s” final act should leave absolutely no doubts that Affleck deserves recognition as one of our premiere filmmaking talents.

This is not a review, but rather a plea to my fellow action junkies: If you have not yet seen “The Raid: Redemption,” put your life on hold and see it as soon as humanly possible. Have to go to work? Take care of your sick kid? Put out the fire that just started in your living room? Believe me when I say that these responsibilities pale in comparison to your need — desperate, frantic need — to see “The Raid” at least thrice before the day is out.

It has been touted by gushing fanboys as the greatest pure action spectacle to be released in the past 20 years. As usual I dismissed this praise as hyperbole, but still put the film near the top of my “to watch” list. After seeing it multiple times over the past few days, I am happy to verify these wild claims. It’s a solid, delightfully minimalist concept (20 elite cops enter a slummy high-rise in order to extract a notorious crime lord) executed with absolute precision, and represents two of the most ridiculously entertaining hours I’ve ever spent watching a movie.

For the first 40 minutes, the film is a top-notch but standard action flick packed with well-shot gunfights and a thrilling sense of momentum. But eventually guns and ammunition become scarce, and our heroes and villains must resort to other methods of combat. This is where “The Raid” really takes off, and morphs into a nonstop, bone-crushing ballet of expertly staged martial arts choreography, delivering what may be the fastest and most brutal hand-to-hand action I’ve ever seen. So you if you’re into this sort of thing (and for God’s sake, why wouldn’t you be?), then why are you even still reading this? There are pressing matters to attend to.

Both “Argo” and “The Raid: Redemption” are rated R for violence and profanity.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jackjackgittes@gmail.com.

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