You would be forgiven for thinking that the sound designer working on The Raid had made some odd artistic choices; what’s with are all that manly grunting and hooting and the sound of sweaty palms slapping against one another on the soundtrack? You will in fact find that those noises are coming from the audience. The Raid is that kind of action movie that causes men (and women, though less verbosely so) to revert to a primitive, almost bestial state, resulting in cheers, roars and copious high-fivery.
Delivering every 10 minutes the sort of cheer-inducing ‘awesome’ moment that most blockbusters nowadays strain themselves to provide one of (think Legolas flipping onto the horse in The Two Towers, or the Batpod’s wall reversal in The Dark Knight), The Raid manages to entertain its audience without ever becoming too stupid or too experimental to alienate.
The story of how Welsh film fan Gareth Evans found himself at the helm of a modest budget Indonesian action film is quickly becoming the stuff of legend, and has been suitably embellished as all good legends are. The Raid is in fact Evans’s second film, after 2009’s Merantau, which introduced action star Iko Uwais and the extreme martial art pencak silat to the world. But if The Raid is not his cinematic debut, it is definitely the film that has made his name been heard the world over.
The story is all too simple: a squad of elite cops storm a tower slum to take out a drugs kingpin. But the boss turns the tables by setting his machete and machine gun-laden junkie goons on the cops. Soon the good guys run low on both ammunition and other good guys, and it’s up to the survivors to kung fu fight their ways to the top of the tower. (yes, I know it’s pencak silat, but I can’t say “they pencak silat” their ways” now can I?) There are a few minor plot twists along the way, but really this is all about intense action sequences, heightened by a pumping soundtrack.
Blood splatters, bones shatter, fridges explode. The fighting is frenetic and balletic; choreography for the hand-to-hand combat is honed to perfection, while clunky machetes are wielded with the grace and elegance of the Green Destiny in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
And indeed, this is a film all about references to classic action movies – but always references that show reverence, and not theft. The villain wields a hammer like Oldboy, his henchman shares the name “Mad Dog” with the henchman from Hard Boiled, the plot itself reads like The Warriors mated with Assault on Precinct 13. Obvious too are references to computer games; the film features action and stealth sequences, and the tower is literally played through level by level with “boss fights” along the way. One scene in which two of the acrobatic cops and their burly sergeant raid a meth lab full of goons is overwhelming similar to the classic arcade beat ’em up Final Fight.
The film shows signs of clumsiness along the way. The geography of the tower is somewhat ill-defined, and it’s rarely clear where everyone is. Worse still is the editing of scenes together. In one sequence a goon walks to the end of a corridor, pauses to think, we cut to a separate scene and then back to the goon who has not progressed in any way in five minutes; this is the sort of continuity mistake silent cinema gave up on before 1910. Later, a character gets into an elevator and is in it for at least 15 minutes, simply because of the way lengthy scenes are cut around his (assumedly) brief descent. But with action this awesome these minor problems fall by the wayside.
We enjoy the violence because it is so stylised and, oddly, beautiful; there is a certain poetry to the way a man is knocked out by having his head shatter tiles along a wall. Iko Uwais shows off his formidable skills but also shows off an intensity in his acting that escapes many of his American action counterparts. It no doubt limits him to this sort of movie, but he is never anything less than sincere in his performance. In fact the realistic performances, combined with the film’s gritty, almost filthy look, are what make The Raid so memorable and impressive. It’s hectic madness, with men flipping over the backs of one another, yet somehow it all looks, well, sort of possible.
What it lacks in the one-liners of Die Hard and Commando it makes up for with Mortal Kombat-style finishing moves. A remarkable breakthrough for director and star, The Raid will become a staple in the collections of action movie buffs, and keep men (and women) roaring with delight until the day that impaling a guy on a doorframe is no longer considered entertainment.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)