Joe Taslim might be Sub-Zero in the upcoming Mortal Kombat, but a career retrospective proves he was never Plain-Zero. This is a guy who’s badass now and always has been, so for each role, let’s put on our scientist hats and ask, “How badass?”
The Raid: Redemption
What makes The Raid different? It remains a high watermark for action movie brutality, with a visual edge lacking in the admittedly bloodier sequel. It’s the grey halls of stained concrete decorated by broken wood and glass, the tactical vests and sweat-drenched T-shirts, the scratchy synth score. And there’s something else, too, another key ingredient: the actors, who shoulder an invisible burden that constitutes an X factor, distinguishing what could’ve been merely good from what we know is great.
Taslim’s character Jaka squares off against Yayan Ruhian’s Mad Dog in a frantic, desperate fight. While our fighters don’t bring props to the combat, the combat brings the fighters to the props. I especially like when Jaka swings Mad Dog headfirst into the closet. This marks what will be a surprisingly recurring point — what strikes me about the fights in The Night Comes for Us is Taslim’s height differential. The camera angles favor him as he circles Ruhian, and we see he’s a head taller. This wouldn’t factor into a Hollywood film (that old chestnut), but here, it influences the choreography and tells a story. If you close your eyes and try to remember this scene, it might be Mad Dog scrambling all over Jaka, like Peter Stormare’s death in The Lost World. Jaka can flip and swing Mad Dog, but Mad Dog has to break Jaka down piece by piece before lifting him over his shoulder. This is about a guy who wants it more, whose life is defined by moments like this. It’s an incredible energy, as well as a compelling depiction of how a smaller figure overcomes a larger one.
The director Gareth Evans appropriately wins praise for his innovative camera and dedication to capturing the choreography, but we also see a director’s influence in the eyes of the performers: their faces, their continuity of bodily injury and weariness. The Raid might feature superhuman fight scenes, but there’s an anchoring humanity in them. In an interview with Asian Movie Pulse, Taslim notes that “Many action films focus on the choreography of the fight, but not the acting. The audience is still entertained by the fight, but it has no sense of what the characters are going through when they suffer a blow to their legs and start to stumble or limp. If you do not show that as an actor the fight is nor believable to me.” The Raid is particularly illustrative, as in critical retrospect its concise, simple story narrows our focus to the immediate storytelling. There is backstory but there are no flashbacks, and character is expressed or even exuded, by force, in the action. While contemporary criticism of such a landmark film may have been befuddled by a “lack” of certain observable elements, The Raid tells us that film and storytelling is dimensional, and these dimensions overlap.
Jaka’s is a slow and dramatic death, with sound effects giving way to the soundtrack and Taslim now flailing against his inevitable doom. It’s also an inauspicious start to a post so titled, but “badass” isn’t a one-dimensionsal thing, either. One of the cool things about The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2: Berandal is that, as the breakout Indonesian movies, they generated star power beyond the lead. Of course, Iko Uwais is thriving on the global film scene, but so too are Ruhian, Cecep Arif Rahman, and of course, Joe Taslim. I think this reflects the movies’ even distribution of cool, that everyone gets a turn. Taslim indeed plays a supporting character, whose role in-universe is leading the titular raid, but in-movie is to set up the badassness of the primary fighting villain. How do we know Mad Dog is The Guy? Well, he defeated Jaka. So in terms of Taslim’s badass meter, it’s a complex register. He needs to be badass enough to lose compellingly.
Taslim took a circuitous route to his current, truly international stardom, arriving at acting with two careers already under his belt. To fulfill his parents’ wish, he became a national athlete on the Indonesian judo team. While modeling on the side — no doubt acclimating to the camera — he won gold and silver medals through the early 2000s until suffering a knee injury at the end of the decade. He maintains acting was always the first goal, and accordingly, threw himself into it, snagging a couple of roles before seeing a film called Merantau and tracking down the director — Evans — through Facebook. On The Raid he met Iko Uwais and the team, and would also discover that Evans is a perfectionist, at one point demanding of him 45 takes. In a chat with Scott Adkins, he describes an intense experience, memorizing a scene of choreography in an hour to land the part, but he’d be happy to do it all again.
Badass Rating: 6/10
The Raid is the best action movie of its decade, eclipsed only by the John Wick series for influence on the industry — but hey, Joe took the L here. As a note, this is the kind of role that might’ve seen him typecast, if only because he pulls a stern leader-face real well. That’s a man to follow! However, we never see him playing the military commander guy in another action movie again.
Fast & Furious 6
Of course, leave it to Adkins to note that Taslim’s judo background hasn’t really played into his film career, in which he more so demonstrates “striking.” It’s only with Fast & Furious 6 that Taslim pulls a “reverse ippon” to take down a hapless guard. In this brief but memorable scene, Taslim’s fight with Tyrese and Sung Kang is intercut with Michelle Rodriguez fighting Gina Carano, at a moment in the latter’s career between Haywire and her 2021 implosion. This assemblage of styles, of fighters, might be owed to the director, the next major creative in Taslim’s story, Justin Lin. The Raid was a breakout success, and keen-eyed American producers like Lin were eager to harvest the talent. Which… doesn’t sound too good written out. Call it the Hollywood Effect, perhaps one of several, where blockbuster filmmaking takes foreign talent and reproduces it in thine own image. Always cheapening what’s good — even Justin Lin, who broke out with one of the essential Asian-American movies, Better Luck Tomorrow, then went on to do things like Fast & Furious 6.
So, yes, it’s an action movie, but it’s not really my interest. However, it’s an important entry here, as Taslim’s character Jah isn’t a supporting role or a leading part, but a single moment. He’s a very tough henchman and the scene is constructed around how tough he is. Our heroes chase Jah into a subway, and then he simply turns around and the energy shifts. His beating up those guards as a sort of apéritif is perfect economic setup. Tyrese and Sung Kang stumble onto the scene and know immediately who they’re dealing with. They attempt to fight him, get tossed around, push each other at him. Taslim has the opportunity to showcase his comedic timing, as well as those of his screen partners. Choreography and comedy are both about timing, so it’s a natural fit, and the results are undeniable.
Taslim’s reputation landed him this part, but it was a double-edged sword. Staff on set would say, “It’s Joe from The Raid!” and he felt the weight of those expectations. This was his first Hollywood production, a marked change from the albeit unique circumstance of the earlier Welshman-helmed Indonesian film. This fight scene was only a day of shooting, and that doesn’t leave room for 45 takes. “Everything was in a rush,” he recalls. I’m not sure how much more he featured in this movie, but the subway fight is a well-constructed set piece and a sort of respectful confirmation that, yes, they grow ‘em tougher in Indonesia.
Badass Rating: 8/10
It’s a fun scene, and proof that even a PG-13 American blockbuster can offer the big hits.
The Night Comes for Us (2018)
Now we come to the very opposite of a PG-13 American blockbuster, an explosively gory action epic that sees Taslim return to Indonesia and reunite with Iko Uwais. Now, the “return to Asia” narrative can go one of two ways, it seems. There’s the John Woo path, who flamed out after never having made a good American movie, and actually saw success in China afterward. Then there’s the Jackie Chan path, who goes back and forth, never stopping, never slowing down. For Taslim, this film is a smart move, taking the clout and exposure — and experience — gained in America to a leading role in a movie with a fraction of the budget but a guaranteed market. The Raid 3 may never happen, but The Night Comes for Us is the closest we’ll get, a logical next step in terms of scale and bloat, completely blowing out the comic book aspects of The Raid 2 and steeping itself in Wick-like mythology. For whatever its problems with pacing or focus, Night comes highly recommended. It’s the most violent action movie I’ve ever seen, inspiring a cottage industry of YouTube reaction videos. Maybe those YouTuber screams are played up a little, but just wait until the saw blade shows up.
While the butcher shop fight is a personal favorite and the van escape is extremely gory, we have two other fights to discuss here: the clubhouse brawl and the final showdown. Both of these in combination represent an essential piece of action movies. First, the hero has to make his way through many henchmen, and only then does he have the final fight — out of breath, at a disadvantage. Sometimes there’s variation, like in Equilibrium where the final showdown is presaged by a mini-boss of sorts. In measuring Taslim’s badass performance, we have two elemental questions: how does he fare against multiple opponents and how does he fare against a single equal opponent?
Taslim’s character Ito arrives at the gang clubhouse and you can see it in his face. He’s channeling a rage which has become quite popular thanks to the recent Doom games — when a hero is simply “too angry to die.” For my part, I’m reminded of Berserk, that most evocative title that could also accurately describe this film. He starts off with a war cry — more like a big scream — and his face gets red with blood and anger. He’s got the crazy eyes with the one guy he stabs in the throat — a downward stab. This is another Taslim thing. Like with the Mad Dog fight in The Raid, he’s noticeably taller than everyone else, so it’s almost like he’s leaning forward the whole time, bearing down. A big guy on a rampage.
He’s also creative, with an improvisational take on the many props scattered about. He’s working in pool cues and balls, a light fixture, in addition to the bats and knives already in the mix. Toward the end, Ito dodges a shotgun blast and “equips shotgun” for himself, immediately turning it on the charging attackers. One of these guys gets blown away, and his friend stops to witness it before charging again. That one beat of hesitation sees him also gunned apart in a spray — perfect comedic timing. The violence reaches a fever pitch; it’s all so absurd, and it boils over. Every stab, shot, punch lands so hard, and that’s a credit to the director, Timo Tjahjanto. Taslim, noting Tjahjanto’s background in slashers, describes The Night Comes for Us as “horror-action,” and that’s a very important delineation from “action.”
Tjahjanto, a good guy to follow on Twitter, actually gave me a shout-out last year for this video about Julie Estelle, and I had to grit my teeth because never once did I mention him by name. An oversight, especially as what I responded to with The Night Comes for Us was its realization of something cherished but theoretical: its blend of horror and action. Specifically, applying a slasher villain to an action context. We have a brief glimpse of this in Freddy vs. Jason, with Jason hacking and slashing through an army of teens at the ol’ cornfield rave. There are odd examples like The Marine or John Wick, where the villains are scared and hunted. Terminator, of course. The Punisher, though it took three tries to nail this aspect in the movies. There’s something powerful about a single figure wading through expendable fodder, and that’s only heightened by flashes of gore.
There’s also that moment in Drive when Ryan Gosling walks into the strip club and within a still, indifferent camera angle, brings a hammer down on a guy’s hand. No cutaway, no insert shot — just business — and this was such a shocking, alien portrayal of violence. Perhaps the Matrix trilogy had conditioned us to certain precepts about physics and flow, that bodies bounce and fly, and Hollywood, the world’s worst student, applied those precepts broadly. So much to say, a depiction of motion, a synchronicity between a performer, the stunt team, and an unflinching camera, can make all the difference. Big Joe smashing a guy’s face with the cue ball is the perfect example. It’s so fast, and I don’t know how it was done. I just know that it works.
One of the side effects of watching action movies from different countries is the variety in “the rule of cool.” In the beginning of the Donnie Yen movie 14 Blades, a kung fu witch is introduced when she eviscerates her opponent, but that description is more concise than the scene itself. She takes way too long to get the job done, and while it’s cool to see her flowing around her opponent, it might’ve been more demonstrative to end things quickly. This is per the American sensibility, anyway, which tends to favor the disaffected action hero. Get shot? Don’t care. Boom, you’re dead. In fact, when Rambo starts yelling like an ape and firing the M-60 into the air, it’s a release of dramatic tension. So I’m glad to see Taslim’s Terminator attend to business so expressively. We feel every step along Ito’s journey. He’s like an explosion in human form.
Taslim goes on to recount to Scott Adkins that the final fight was shot first, and what a way to set the tone of a production. This is, for the viewer, a grueling sequence, the slow-mo obliteration of two bodies as expressed by speed and a frame ever minding sharp objects. It’s the kind of thing that requires trust between two performers, and Taslim considers Uwais a friend and brother. They trained together and shot this scene over eight days. However, a relationship, even a brief one, is what screen partners should always cultivate for fight scenes. “We need to be friends” before we fight, he says, “He needs to understand who I am.”
As personally satisfying as the henchmen brawl is, I have to admit that this climactic fight scene is the most astonishing martial arts battle I’ve seen. Yes, Uwais’s choreography is intricate and fast, and as performers, Uwais and Taslim meet that challenge with grace and skill, but it’s the sheer brutality that gets me. It’s a magic trick how we’ve seen guts exposed and fingers snapped clean off, and yet nothing has prepared us for this. And it’s a kung fu fight, for God’s sake. Ip Man’s franchise-making dojo fight should indicate that blood geysers aren’t required to make us feel a hand-to-hand fight. Here we have the “more is more” approach, and goddamn is it glorious.
The Night Comes for Us is a great movie, but it’s also a satisfying narrative point in Taslim’s trajectory. It’s like what Collateral is for Michael Mann’s filmography — yes, another L.A. crime drama, so we can say, “This is what he does.” This may be what Taslim does, but part of the reason why these action performances are top-rate is because he’s an actor first. Between the eye-grabbing (blog-grabbing) titles, he takes on smaller dramas. In fact, between the films discussed here, there’s always a title I don’t recognize, like A Diary of Letters to God between Star Trek and Night, or La tahzan between Fast & Furious and Star Trek.
Badass Rating: 10/10
This is a hall-of-fame performance, and at this rate, one-of-a-kind. Fingers crossed, forever, that Tjahjanto teams up with Estelle again for Night of the Operator, because I love his take on the action genre. And Estelle, yes.
By this point in Taslim’s career, he’s being credited with “and Joe Taslim” in the ensemble, and his character is framed with an according reverence. He enters the scene and you just know, right away, he’s bad news. Granted, “bad news” only gets you so far on the badass charts, and in an action movie, the top-billed credit is likely the apex predator. But given Taslim’s track record, being a good guy or the protagonist doesn’t guarantee the win. No doubt, the hero of Warrior, Ah Sahm, is a tough dude, but Taslim beats him up so bad he starts hallucinating a backstory.
Now, it isn’t a one-sided fight; these two are evenly matched. It’s the situation once again where the only difference is motivation. Taslim’s character Li Yong is fighting for his love, and Ah Sahm is only fighting to prove he’s the best. It’s a turning point for the protagonist and the show, a humbling that moves him into the act two low point in the coolie mines, where workers are desperate for a chance at back-breaking labor. The turn happens here, where we can see what Taslim talks about as an actor working primarily in this genre. There is no dialogue, but there is communication, there is language.
It’s also a technically impressive fight, and one decidedly American. In the Indonesian productions, the performers wear tactical vests or shirts in part to better conceal squibs. In America, an action scene means the shirts come off. Behold:
As an actor now, Taslim maintains himself by running five kilometers a day, which is less strenuous than in his judo days but part of the same self-discipline. On Warrior, the routine is kicked up a notch, with training and shooting every day. Most of the production schedule is taken up by the dramatic scenes, leaving just two days to shoot an action set piece like this. I suppose the Jackie Chan ping-ponging back and forth is an endless cycle of culture shock, but Taslim adapts each time. That career-ending judo injury has stayed with him, and as a matter of fact, he worked with show choreographer Brett Chan to modify some of the crazier kicks — you’d hardly notice. Instead of landing after a move, he drops to one knee. A safety measure, but it looks awesome.
Before Warrior, Taslim played another henchman in another American movie, Star Trek Beyond. It would’ve been difficult for me to make the Justin Lin connection back then, but it’s obvious now, as Lin is an executive producer on Warrior. While the filmmaker leapt into blockbuster filmmaking rather than follow the personal track of a John Singleton (who, ironically, also directed a Fast and Furious movie), he’s always kept those personal concerns close. Warrior is an outgrowth of a fascination with Bruce Lee that was likely extant in Finishing the Game, all about the zany production of Game of Death. Casting Asian actors, even and especially in the biggest movies of all time, is certainly a nice change of pace. He’s kept Taslim in the rolodex since 2013, and that paid off six years later.
Badass Rating: 9/10
Confession time. For as often I’ve discussed Warrior on this site, I haven’t actually watched season two yet. I loved it so much I didn’t want it to run out, but now that season three has been announced, I can’t wait to dive back in.
Mortal Kombat (2021)
However it turns out, Taslim’s part in the upcoming Mortal Kombat represents the next shift. With a big Netflix movie under his belt and enough memorable turns in American blockbusters, he’s being sought out, and for an established, beloved character. It’s still within his wheelhouse, or pidgeon-hole, but in this foreign market, he’s an actor for whom characters are written. Not necessarily that the writers had Taslim in mind from the green-light, but he’s a chief contender. This is, for now, a happy and appropriately bloodsoaked note to end on, though we’ll only know how badass he is when the film is released.
We’ve seen from the celebrated trailer that he’ll be making use of more and further creative weapons. Again, largely imperceptible to me, it was fists and “striking” in The Raid and The Night Comes for Us, and it wouldn’t be until his 2020 role in The Swordsman that he learned sword-fighting. While it all reads as “action” to me, it’s a separate and new discipline for the actor, compounding the challenge of filming a Korean production. Taslim describes his process I think tellingly: “For The Swordsman my knowledge of various martial arts helps me to understand and find the soul of a specific way of fighting. When you use a sword, it is naturally quite different to other types of combat, but this is just the shape or shell. My task is to look beyond that and find out what is actually inside.”
With every Joe Taslim performance, maybe we see the same badass, to varying but always high marks, but he reinvents himself for every role. Moving from judo to silat for The Raid was a significant transition, just like learning swords and the Korean language, or Hollywood filmmaking, the rush of television production. He tries everything, and that necessitates problem-solving, like the critical thinking already evident on-screen. Taslim has been part of the most cutting-edge modern martial arts projects, those thoughtful enough that you can see his characters’ minds at work, just as you know where they’re coming from. Hero, villain, henchman, he goes all in for each.
The Art of Action – Joe Taslim – Episode 25 | Scott Adkins
Interview with Joe Taslim | Asian Movie Pulse
Joe Taslim: His fast & furious moment | The Jakarta Post
Who is Joe Taslim, Mortal Kombat’s new Sub-Zero? | South China Morning Post