As a film fan the thing that frightens me the most about getting older is the possibility that I will cease to be excited by new cinema, that I’ll become one of those dismissive middle-agers who cranks on about how “movies ain’t what they used to be.” Similarly, a hesitation I had in taking this gig at CHUD was that shifting my movie watching from hobby to thing I actually have to do would cramp the process into mundane routine, as any job does. And at times it has. Then something like the Indonesian barn-burner The Raid happens in front of my face for 100 minutes and these concerns blow out the motherfucking door. The Raid isn’t just good. It won’t just entertain you. It won’t just rouse you. This movie will kick your ass.
The story is simplicity at its sharpest. We’re in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia and thirteenth largest city in the world. Rama (Iko Uwais) is a police officer on the SWAT team. The SWAT team is making the titular raid on a slum tenement owned by crime lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy), with the aim of apprehending him. But once Tama discovers what is going on, he jumps on the building’s loudspeaker and offers up a The Warriors-style bounty on Rama and his teammates — any resident who kills a policeman will receive a lifetime of free rent and protection. And the carnage begins. Floor by floor.
The purity of purpose writer/director Gareth Evans (a Welshman by birth and accent) brings to The Raid is impressive. And utterly joyous too. The movie never lets up. But this is no Transformers 2, where the action is such a uniform inundation that your eyes gloss over until you eventually just disconnect entirely. Evans understands pacing and more importantly for a movie that essentially has no “story,” he understands rhythm. Because non-stop is an apt way to describe The Raid. Anyone can string together an endless series of fight scenes. That’s just editing. Keeping the tension fresh and continuously building without simply making each subsequent fight scene “bigger” like a video game, that is the hard part. Evans displays great versatility in this regard, shifting from one imaginative set-piece to the next. Some are shoot outs. Some are one-on-one martial arts. Some are epic hallway brawls. Some are merely tense close-calls. And my personal favorite is a Hitchcockian scene in which Rama is hiding in a narrow crawlspace while a thug randomly stabs his sword into the wall in an attempt to see if anyone is behind it. Evans doesn’t have to resort to action thrills to flatten you in your seat. Though, you won’t mind that mostly he does. For every bit of well-staged tension, there is a great moment of gonzo slaughter — some of which delightfully extends into the absurd.
There is something very interesting that we get from a Western whiteboy who obviously grew up heavily influenced by early John Carpenter and Walter Hill making an Indonesian martial arts movie. It is a perfect blend of cultures. The Raid highlights the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat, and will surely do for this lesser known style what Ong-Bak did for Muay Thai. Forgive me, as I’m not that savvy on martial arts as I am in other things, but to me the style seems somewhere between the smooth artifice of Kung-Fu and the throw-down brutality of Muay Thai. It looks practical; less showy and more efficient. Which is how Evans staged the fights along with his star Iko Uwais, who is an international Silat champion. Evans’ approach was to pick a location in the building, the number of combatants, the type and number of weapons, and the tone the fight needed to be (for his well-crafted rhythm), and then Iko and his team would plot it out so Rama could win. And the fight choreography is hypnotic. And painful. The Raid features some of the most viscous, and entertaining, knife fighting I’ve ever seen. This, though, isn’t anything we haven’t seen in a million other martial arts movies. Iko and his crew could surely have put together a fun Ong-Bak-esque film of Indonesian fisticuffs. But Evans takes this action and places it into his late-70’s/80’s aesthetic, full of guns and cinematic staging, which, like last year’s Attack the Block, creates something that feels simultaneously familiar and brand new.
Matt Flannery’s cinematography is very important to the grimy feel of the film, as is the set design of the apartment complex (which is the film’s sole location). Frankly, I did not expect The Raid to be as slickly put together as it was. I had anticipated more of an Ong-Bak rough-around-the-edges vibe — an example I should probably stop making. My Ong-Bak comparison only pertains to how the film fits into the global market. The two films bear no resemblance otherwise, especially when it comes to their respective leading men. Ong-Bak announced the arrival of a new martial arts dynamo on the scene. Iko Uwais is not a Tony Jaa. For one thing, Silat lacks the spectacle of Muay Thai (at least as Jaa presented it), and Iko isn’t performing the kind of acrobatic madness that made Jaa an instant star. Acting-wise, Iko gives more of a performance than Jaa ever did, but that possibly matters little for this kind of film. In any case, Evans and Iko are the joint star of The Raid. Iko is still learning the ropes. Fortunately, Evans surrounds him with solid performances, particularly Ray Sahetapy as bossman Rama, who plays the character with a whimsical edge. The other stand-out performance comes from the diminutive Yayan Ruhian as Mad Dog, Rama’s enforcer, who despite his size is virtually unkillable and mean as all hell. The battle between Mad Dog, Rama and one of Rama’s allies is probably the highlight fight of the film. Evans also stocks Rama’s building with a cornucopia of striking looking thugs and lowlifes for Rama and his team to battle.
Of course, an American remake of The Raid is already in the works — and I won’t be surprised if they shoe-horn in an unnecessary romantic subplot and something involving a character outside the complex. But this film will be in select markets on March 23. I cannot advise going to see it highly enough. The Raid is a good bone-crreunching time. If it sounds like something you might like, you will not be disappointed. Gareth Evans is someone I can guarantee you we will get a lot more from in the future. If nothing else, the awkward addition of “redemption” onto the title of the film is meant to indicate we’re in for a trilogy. *squirms with anticipation*
Out of a Possible 5 Stars