The Raid (2011)
Director: Gareth Evans
Writer: Gareth Evans
Cast: Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Ray Sahetapy, Yayan Ruhian
Running time: 101 minutes
Just how a Welsh filmmaker came to write, edit and direct a violent Indonesian thriller is a story in itself. Invited to Indonesia to direct a documentary on the martial art of ‘pencak silat’, Gareth Evans befriended a local silat student named Iko Uwais, and cast him as the lead for feature film, Merantau. Whilst the film failed to rise above anything other than a by-the-numbers action vehicle, the two became friends and began working on a second collaboration; this time, a deliberately constructed siege movie that makes no apologies for its genre borrowings and clichés, but instead, revels in them.
The fact that The Raid is one of the most effective, no-holds-barred, head-cracking, bone-snapping, action thrillers of the past few years is both a testament to its star and its director, as well as to the versatile pencak silat style. The set-up is wonderfully simple; an elite SWAT team are tasked with infiltrating an imposing tower block that has been left untouched for a decade. As a result, the building now houses all manner of lowlifes, drug dealers and bad-ass henchmen that live under the rule of ruthless and sadistic gang leader, Tama (Ray Sahetapy). The team is to stealthily work its way up the building, floor by floor, in an effort to reach the hallowed chambers of the 15th floor where Tama resides. Rama (Iko Uwais) is a member of the SWAT team; a young and unproven rookie who is soon to be a father. He is our eyes and ears for much of the operation. He is our hero, and, as we soon discover, he is absolutely deadly. When the plan inevitably turns sour and the resident junkies are alerted to the SWAT team’s presence, the operation becomes a simple kill-or-be-killed mission; close-circuit monitors track the SWAT team’s every move, and the residents of the tower block are all-too-willing to do their master’s violent bidding. As events heat up and the team’s numbers decline, the young Rama must employ his deadly skills if he is to survive and witness the birth of his child. Simple enough for you? That’s the beauty of it.
The simplicity of the film’s set-up allows the film’s director to unashamedly focus on what makes The Raid so compelling. With only the barest bones of a plot, the film presents us with scene after scene of brutal violence; bullets fly at a dizzying rate, bones are snapped like branches, and heads are cracked like fragile eggshells. There’s enough gunplay, swordplay, and physically-impressive body combat to suit the most battle-hardened of action junkies. In short, pretty much everything that The Raid has to offer is violence. Yet the film does this so well, with such ingenuity and fluidity, that you can’t help but admire the artistry on display. Evans avoids the temptation to shoot everything close, instead preferring wider shots and longer takes that track the flow of action. We actually see the kicks and blows, rather than thinking we’ve seen them, and these scenes work in the same way that carefully-choreographed dance routines work. The film utilises its environment well; walls are employed as brutal bouncing blocks, broken light casings make for great weapons, and stairs, corridors and hallways all provide an opportunity for tense close-quarter fight sequences. The violence never lets up, but in a film that is designed like the levels of a videogame, why should it?
There is something about The Raid that will be familiar to anyone who has delved into the world of first-person shooters or survival horror games. The film’s villains run blindly around corners like badly-controlled AIs, and are dispatched at such a rate, and in such a staggering variety of ways, that it’s hard not to notice the similarities. In true ‘beat-em-up’ fashion, combatants even sway and shift while facing-off before a fight. The Raid would make a great videogame (and with an American remake already green-lighted, don’t count it out), but to condemn the product to the oversaturated market of movie tie-ins would be to severely underestimate the film’s achievements. It’s not easy to make incessant violence so watchable, and, dare I say it, so enjoyable.
Placing the film’s violence to one side, The Raid does have some impressive performances on display. Iko Uwais is great in the lead role, and has a star quality that could rival Jet Li if handled well. In the same way that Ong-Bak proved to be a breakout film for ‘muay thai’ star, Tony Jaa, The Raid could well be Uwais’s ticket to martial arts stardom. Ray Sahetapy is equally impressive in his role as the sadistic Tama; a man who has absolutely no moral compass, and is all-too-willing to improvise with a hammer when his bullet-supply runs low. Despite these powerful onscreen presences though, it is Tama’s bedraggled and surprisingly slight henchman, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), who provides the film’s most memorable performance. Evans employs the henchman sparingly, but when the tenacious warrior does enter the fray he is a true force to be reckoned with, As a fighter who prefers his fists – after all, pulling a trigger is like ordering a takeout – Mad Dog’s final fight scene is an intense and brutally-unflinching cacophony of lightning-fast kicks and bone-splintering blows. As an unrelenting villain, he will be remembered by martial arts fans for a long time, and remains one of the film’s most lasting impressions.
The Raid is certainly not for the faint-hearted; the film contains a level of violence that is shockingly-graphic and it makes no apologies for it. There were a number of moments when I physical winced from what I was watching on screen, and in modern cinema, where violence is an omnipresent and desensitising force, that is some feat. Sure, it borrows heavily from all manner of action-movie tropes, echoing Assault on Precinct 13 and Die Hard, among others. Yes, it contains very little in the way of plot and character development; we know who everyone is from the outset (or almost everyone) and their roles, attitudes, and philosophies never change or develop. There may well be a heavily-veiled socio-political comment on the level of corruption and exploitation present in contemporary Indonesian society, but in the end, it matters little. The film is simply a visceral and unforgettably-brutal carousel of physical violence that employs a simple set-up and a claustrophobic location to provide us with 100 minutes of expertly-shot, wonderfully-choreographed, and suitably-graphic fight scenes that for once, really do feel real and tangible on our screens. And as escapist fun, what more could we ask for?