“Pulling a trigger is like ordering a takeout.”
With The Raid 2 now out in cinemas, it seemed a good time to watch The Raid, an exhilarating and exhausting Indonesian martial arts thriller written and directed by Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans. After a tiny, brief moment of calm as Rama (Iko Uwais) quietly completes his morning prayer rituals, the film explodes with a flurry of insanely fast punches as he moves onto his exercise regime, and there’s barely a pause from that point on. On release it was met with critical acclaim, and has already found a place among some of the most highly regarded action movies – it featured in a recent Channel 5 list, Empire counted it as one of its top films of the year, and The Skinny writers voted it as their number one. Not bad for a little subtitled movie with a cast and crew of unknowns.
The plot is simple and, at least on the surface, fairly generic: rookie cop Rama is on his first assignment, set the daunting task of infiltrating an ominous high-rise apartment block inhabited by some of the city’s most dangerous criminals. At the top is kingpin Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy), a man who doesn’t even blink an eye as he executes those who have disappointed him, who will calmly swap a gun for a claw hammer when he runs out of bullets. He’s flanked by two men, one a seemingly peaceable, rational type, and the other appropriately named Mad Dog, a slight figure with seemingly boundless energy and an obliviousness to pain. As well as these two formidable characters, the small consignment of police have to face every other inhabitant, all of whom appear to be experts in martial arts, of course.
And it’s here that the film really triumphs, bringing a new form of fighting, pencak silat, to UK audiences. Developed by Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, it’s insanely fast and eye-bogglingly intricate, not to mention utterly brutal – there’s even a corridor sequence to rival the classic scene in Oldboy. While Oldboy‘s fight really portrays the physical toll on the body in a distinctly realistic, unglamourised way, The Raid‘s fight scenes are unrelenting; it seems impossible that these people would be able to carry on, but they do, and the exertion is felt in every punch and kick.
It may seem like a repetitive concept – the young cops, their sergeant and the morally-dubious lieutenant gradually making their way higher up the building, meeting gang after gang of drug-addled maniacs with an impressive arsenal of machetes and guns. Yet it’s never boring: each set piece (of which there are many) is carefully choreographed to offer something new and innovative that obliterates any sense of complacency. There are strobe-filled gun fights, overwhelmingly outnumbered hand-to-hand combat sequences, chases, knives, hell, there’s even an exploding fridge. It’s ludicrous, gratuitous, and entirely riveting. There’s a real flair in Evans’ directing, and the rapid editing drags the viewer into the centre of the action, keeping everything turned firmly up to eleven yet never appearing frantic or out of control, all the while acknowledging that the real star of the film is the fighting itself. The score emphasises this – the soundtrack, by Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park) and Joseph Trapanese, works perfectly, punctuating the action and ramping up the tension even more.
Uwais’ physicality is undeniable, and his performance is captivating as a result, while the rest of the cast (not including the general fodder) bring personality and glimpses of depth to even the less developed characters. Mad Dog in particular is a truly formidable foe; in some ways he’s no more than a crazed Bond villain’s henchman, but despite his stature, he’s easily the most intimidating opponent. The sergeant and lieutenant are also prominent, with the latter in particular proving to have some ulterior motives for his decisions. This brings some intrigue to the narrative, and it twists and turns in some unexpected ways – or, rather, perhaps not quite unexpected, but definitely not unsatisfying.
One of the (few) criticisms of The Raid was its lack of female characters – Rama’s pregnant wife is only seen in bed in the opening scenes, and the other two females that I can think of are entirely irrelevant. Yet this is an unashamedly masculine film; the brute force of the male body on show, while themes of family, revenge, loyalty and respect run along as (admittedly unsubtle) undercurrents. And, it must be said – male or female, martial arts fan or not, it’s difficult to not get caught up in The Raid: it grabs a hold of you and barely lets you breathe until it’s over. As a last thought, I leave you with this question: who would win in a fight, Bruce Lee, Tony Jaa (Ong-bak), or Iko Uwais?