A few years ago, Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans admits he was slipping into docile conformity. Having made a few well received shorts and a self financed feature, he was losing his interest in filmmaking and easing into his 9 to 5 job. His supportive wife passed his name forward to producers in Indonesia who were looking for outside filmmakers to make a documentary about martial arts. Fast forward a few years and a trip to Indonesia and he is now the leading force behind one of the most hyped and critically acclaimed action thrillers of recent years and with good cause. Lean, mean and apocalyptically violent, The Raid has come straight out of Asia’s left field to huge acclaim on the festival circuit and is set to be a genuine international crossover hit.
Rama (Iko Uwais) is a rookie SWAT officer in Jakarta who joins an elite team assigned to launch an assault on a crumbling apartment complex ruled over by ruthless drug lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy). No assertions are made about good/bad guy from the off. Rama is introduced bidding farewell to his pregnant wife promising to return, Tama executing kneeling prisoners with a hammer. The team head into the building to take him out of business for good yet things do not go to plan. Tama has rented out the majority of apartments to the cities vilest thugs, junkies and killers and has them dispatched after the team. Outnumbered and outgunned, it’s up to Rama to lead as many of his teammates to safety as possible. This however cannot be achieved without shooting/hitting/stabbing dozens of bad guys in the face…
Taking place almost entirely within the confines of the complex defined by its rotting, yellowish hue the proceedings are astonishingly claustrophobic throughout the 100 minute duration. There is always the constant threat attack from a corner or any one of the dozen flat doors on each floor. Even in its ‘quiet’ moments there is an underlying level of tension that never truly relents. Many scenes feel like a more pumped up version of John Carpenter’s seminal 70’s siege thriller Assault On Precinct 13. From the opening scene we are thrown right into the situation feet running on the ground. It’s a work of sparse immediacy, knowing exactly what it is and getting it done. Needless to say when the chaos starts the events are unremitting; gunfire echoes become deafening, bad guys come like space invaders sometimes literally bursting from walls, ceilings and floors to be swotted away by our heroes. As the action becomes hand to hand combat, the fight scenes flurry past with such violent ferocity and pace that it becomes overwhelming at many points. Uwais is an astonishing physical presence; punching, kicking, jumping and smashing his way from floor to floor and doing away with constant foes coming at him like waves of video game enemies before facing down the inevitable ‘boss’ battles. He is proficient in the art of silat, Indonesia’s native martial arts and the experience of seeing it for the first time is breathtaking. The visceral joy of watching Uwais in action reminded me of the first time I saw Thai superstar Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak and his brutal kickboxing fighting style. Barely five minutes pass without bones splintering and the audience wincing in unison (especially during an inspired use for a shard of broken lighting fixture…). Uwais moves are perfectly complemented by Evans deft choreography. In an age of whiplash camera moves and frenetic editing that makes things harder and harder to follow, Evans deserves special credit for keeping the action paced yet never to the point where he loses his players movements. His camera races down hallways with characters and in some bravura moments: follows his characters as they drop through holes in the floor and tumbling down a staircase whilst still trading blows with someone.
Whilst revelling in the chaotic glory of what The Raid delivers, you do have to keep in mind that it is treading ground that has been walked on before. Evans has happily admitted his influences in press for the film and his execution is what truly makes it stand out. Yet the clichés of the genre are impossible to ignore and when they begin to tip into melodrama it does regrettably stall the film. Without giving anything away, there is a subplot involving one of Tama’s henchmen (Donny Alamsyah) that upon its revealing does just not ring and does briefly threaten to bring all proceedings to a shuddering halt. It feels almost unfair to try and criticise a film for attempting some form of character development yet here it falls flat and feels forced. In its defence, it may be setting up for the planned sequel and it does lead to the films brutal, brilliant final confrontation with Rama’s right hand man played by Yayan Ruhian, also one of the films fight chorographer, who truly gives Uwais a run for his money. There’s no satisfying pay off for Rama’s subplot itself. There is much dialogue alluding to police corruption and ties between them and the drug lord yet if anything it just fuels stock cliché dialogue between the many fight scenes. The final climactic set-piece can’t help but feel frustratingly ant-climatic.
However these are minor quibbles against a film that knows where its strengths lie and what its audience have come to see. It’s brutal, fast, and hits you like a blast of fresh air in the face. Evans and his team have managed to come out of nowhere and outdo the majority of Western action films of recent years. Of course an English language remake has already been green lit but I severely doubt it can come close to hitting the sheer adrenalin rush of the genuine article. Savour this one while you can, and take a deep breath first.