It’s comforting to think that no matter how deep Hollywood sinks into the of mire creative of destitution we’ll always have the East. The thought that there’s some Asiatic adrenaline shot of inspiration just waiting to be discovered and stabbed Pulp Fiction style into the oftentimes ailing cinematic heart of the West.
Director Gareth Evans' The Raid is just that, a heart-exploding dose of pure action ecstasy. There’s no cloying, narrative numbing love interest here. No sterile PG-13 rating. No limp-wristed villainy. No preening, unconvincing hero. This is a manly, nay, studly flick with barbwire bristles on its chest, hardcore and thoroughly old school, the über-fix action junkies have been so desperately jonesing for.
Eschewing any exegetic preamble The Raid swiftly establishes our hero Rama (Iko Uwais) as a physical force to be reckoned with as he trains in anticipation of what shall prove to be a fateful mission. Member of an elite Swat Team he and his colleagues have been tasked with the infiltration of a notorious Jakarta tenement building, a veritable den of scum and knavery infested with dopers, killers and thieves. Their target is crime boss Tama (Ray Sahetapy) who acts as psychotic landlord, providing sanctuary at a price for those who wish to remain off the Law’s radar, ruthlessly repelling any encroachment onto his turf.
Once inside the decaying edifice things swiftly deteriorate as our team is ambushed, so beginning a desperate fight for survival against overwhelming odds. Low on ammo and surrounded by machete wielding thugs, the entire block marshalled towards their destruction, Rama and co. must rely upon that most devastating of indigenous martial arts, Pencak-Silat. Let the awesomeness commence.
If previous Evans/Uwais collaboration Merantau was but a bone-breaking overture The Raid is their skull-crushing postlude to a Silat-symphony of hyper-violence. There’s a delicious malevolence to the choreography, seemingly innocuous facets of the environment utilised as instruments of murder and pain. The jagged protrusions of a broken door frame become throat piercing barbs, the metallic hulk of a fridge offering protection against a barrage of bullets before its hasty repurposing as a primitive IED, the sharp corners of furnishings becoming points of agony against which goons are savagely dashed. Its wince-inducing domiciliary death at its finest, punches calculated for the infliction of maximum body trauma, every fight permeated with a sense of jeopardy and peril, of vital desperation.
The Raid revels in the physical prowess of its protagonists, glorying in every pugilistic impact and feat of dexterity. It’s unashamedly proud to be an action flick. Evans has struck a perfect balance between gunplay and furious fisticuffs. Weapon FX is suitably thunderous, gunfights just as satisfying as their martial art counterparts. CGI claret is for the most part unobtrusive and tastefully implemented, save for instances where practical squibbage would have proven problematic such as the unloading of a Sig-Sauer point blank into a thugs face (!). Iko Uwais while no Laurence Olivier has that most important of attributes for a martial arts star, presence. Likeable, believable and possessing undeniable skill, the future is bright for this one. Ray Sahetapy oozes serpentine menace as murderous Drug Lord Tama. The supporting cast is solid. Pierre Gruno's slippery veteran officer Wahyu and Joe Taslim's gruff team leader Jaka standing out particularly.
Such is the breakneck pace however there’s hardly an opportunity for a cast comprised primarily of martial arts experts to flex their thespian chops by engaging in soul-searching soliloquies between snapping spines and dodging death. The momentum simply doesn’t let up. In this sense The Raid is the purest filmic distillation there’s ever likely to be of what made classic Sega Mega Drive retro-bashers ala Streets of Rage so great, our protagonist progressing from one floor of madness to the next, foes becoming ever more fearsome before confronting the big boss. Mike Shinoda’s synth heavy score only serves to accentuate such a nostalgic vibe.
Despite featuring corridor bound brutality of such a calibre as to make Oldboy’s exhausting side-tracking pummel-fest seem like the forming of an orderly queue by OAP’s The Raid somehow never feels gratuitous in all its tactical knife gashing, cranium-meets-concrete glory. Indeed just when you think you’ve seen the best it has to offer in terms of beat downs the whole cavalcade of carnage culminates in a two vs. one grudge-match featuring manful sweating, chains, elbows to the face and shards of broken fluorescent lighting. I’ll say no more. The violence is proportional to the extremity of the situation; put a highly trained paramilitary unit up against hardened criminals and you wouldn’t expect tea and crumpets.
What makes the canonical titles of action cinema so exhilarating, your Die Hard's and Hard Boiled’s, it’s arguably a shared golden property of continuous escalation, the consistent elevation of the ante skyward, the level of action spectacularity always exceeding that which has preceded it but remaining plot contextual. A difficult state of being to affect, that sublime medium between exciting peaks and narrative-furthering troughs, but one that Evan’s seems to effortlessly achieve.
No obnoxiously tacked on set-piece followed by a half hour of leaden gum flapping do we have here however, i.e. no speedboat chase for the sake of a speedboat chase, with The Raid we have a continuous state of flow. From the boys speeding down the rain-lashed streets of Jakarta in their APC to the final dust up there’s an irresistible momentum, an energy to the proceedings that simply demands engagement.
An action movie from its inception should at the very least aspire to contain...well... satisfying action. One wants imagination and verve. The unloading of an AK47 from the hip of a thug in the general direction of our hero followed by the delivery of some bullet-assisted badinage from behind a crate doesn’t cut mustard. In a genre that provides directors with a panoply of stylistic opportunities to dazzle their audiences, from radiant muzzle-flashes to the slo-mo disintegration of scenery, it’s heartening to finally see a flick so evocative of that glorious golden era of Hong Kong heroic bloodshed, the action sequence as vibrant art as opposed to stolid narrative propellant, the John Woo-factor ascendant.
Picture this. Our SWAT operatives have successfully manoeuvred deep into the heart of Tama’s grim lair. They assemble before a door, shotgun primed in anticipation of the breach, blissfully unaware as to the mortal danger lurking in the shadows of the floor above. Assault-rifle toting goons lie in wait for the most tactically advantageous moment to strike, their weapons firmly fixed upon the law. Tension mounts. Fatal opportunity soon presents itself. An effulgent gun blast shatters the door lock, for a split-second all is illuminated. Sound drains away, the sinister silhouettes of the ambushers glide ethereally across the grimy tenement walls in slow motion. They fire. Our team is torn asunder in hail of bullets, concrete erupting with impact after vicious impact, pink mist filling the air.
It’s all about build up. Cinematic foreplay before orgiastic release of light, lead, smoke and death, Evan’s generating more excitement in one exquisitely executed sequence than a million Hollywood dollars worth of cacophonous explosions and anodyne CG. The maestro Woo’s influence is palpable. From the naming of Tama’s fearsome Silat-master henchman Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) in homage to Hard Boiled’s monocular assassin to the veneration of the honourable stand-off between equally matched foes, there’s a sense of thematic continuity with the preoccupations of loyalty, brotherhood and retributive violence that so characterised his oeuvre.
Over the last few years there’s been a paucity of satisfying actioners, the market awash with dispiritingly limp “espionage thrillers” following the same wretched post Jason Bourne template of de rigueur shaky-cam fisticuffs, insipid shooting and the ubiquitous Brendan Gleeson popping up to reveal himself not to be our protagonists avuncular mentor but rather his C.I.A traitor/mole nemesis in the third act.
It seems studio rapaciousness is the culprit once again. What we’re seeing is the nullification of those core elements that make an action movie an action movie, production increasingly centred upon cross-gender appeal. There’s a pathological fear of the R-rating and a cynical desire to engage both sexes so as to double the profit. The formula is thus - attract the chicks by fronting some post-teen sensation Adonis who’s given every opportunity to lather his rippling pectorals and tantalise men with the prospect of something perhaps getting blown up. The result is the proliferation of god-awful genre hybrids, those chimera action-comedies and action-romances that ultimately fail miserably in all departments.
What makes The Raid truly great is that in essence it’s not revolutionary at all, rather a piece of genre reductivism at its finest, taking things back to beautiful basics. It seems remarkable only by virtue of our impoverishment vis a vis good old fashioned men-on-a-mission, pure action flicks. It appears exotic not due to a cross cultural creative pollination which sees a gifted Welshman directing blistering Asian talent but rather a fearlessness in playing by its own rules. The Raid is the real deal, a new aspirational totem for genre, a true action movie with balls, backbone and an abundance of brio. No hyperbole. Seldom does one have the pleasure of writing these words – instant classic.