The martial arts genre is one of those niche interests that almost seems detached from the broader world of film. Much as the musical has to functions as a movie on one level and as a concert on another, martial arts movies need to work as exciting action cinema while also being something of an athletic endeavor for the people on camera. Any given martial arts movie that come is like a showcase of what the star is capable of and why he’s the bravest, toughest, and most skilled master of his discipline on the planet and the notion of who rules the martial arts roost changes frequently. The Babe Ruth of the genre is of course Bruce Lee, but the genre really seemed to explode (on these shores anyway) in the late 80s and early 90s when stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li rose to prominence. Since then we’ve kind of been waiting for the next “chosen one” who would bring martial arts cinema back to the mainstream. We got a worthy candidate in the Muay Thai expert Tony Jaa, but the prospect of a larger wave of Thai action films sort of burned out over the course of about two years. Those looking for the next big thing for the genre need look no further because the new Indonesian film The Raid is clearly the most exciting thing to happen to this genre since the height Jet Li’s popularity.
The Raid has been awkwardly re-titled The Raid: Redemption by trademark lawyers which is a mistake firstly because it made the film sound like a tacky sequel but more importantly suggests that somebody at some point in the film will be redeemed for something. There is in fact no redemption to be found in The Raid, just violence… glorious expertly crafted violence. In fact the film takes place entirely in one location: a rundown apartment complex owned and operated by a local drug kingpin named Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy). The film follows a large SWAT team that’s been tasked with performing the titular raid on this complex and the film follows this raid as it goes horribly wrong before going horribly right. We focus on a cop named Rama (Iko Uwais) a relative rookie who just happens to be a world-class expert an Indonesian martial art called Pencak Silat that’s often performed with bladed instruments in hand.
Though this is decidedly of the tradition of the martial arts film, there is gunplay in it as well, especially in the first half when the cops are shooting their way into the building. These shootouts establish one of the film’s defining principles early: it takes no prisoners. This is not the kind of relatively tame martial arts popularized by Jackie Chan, the fighters here go for the kill with no hesitation. Occasionally the film will cut away from a particularly brutal kill like an early scene involving the claw end of a hammer, but it doesn’t cut away as often as most action movies and its kills look particularly real. It’s not the kind of movie where someone is stabbed sort of off camera and then just kind of rolls over presumably having been cut, on the contrary, it’s the kind of movie where you see a damn blade go straight into a dude’s face and you know in no uncertain terms that he’s dead. In short, it’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s not a sadistic movie either. It isn’t killing all these people like this because it enjoys the sight of death, it does it because it’s trying to be hardcore as hell and to someone like myself who’s grown tired of tame PG-13 action movies it’s quite refreshing.
This also isn’t one of those martial arts movies where the director is anonymous and most the credit falls squarely on the lead actor. Star Iko Uwais is certainly a fine leading man and his martial arts ability does contribute a lot to the movie, but much of the credit for the movie falls on the shoulders of director Gareth Evans. I don’t really know how this Welsh filmmaker ended up making Indonesian action films, but he’s really good at it. Evans’ ability to stage and edit action sequences helps the film immeasurably, but what really sets his direction apart is just its general audacity. Not since John Woo was at the height of his Hong Kong Career has a movie been this devoted to being an all out balls to the walls action movie of the highest order. It’s like one awesome scene after another and it avoids a lot of the lame garbage that so often holds movies like this back. Like John Woo’s movies the film needs to be watched with a certain mindset, one where you don’t ask yourself questions like “why are all the bad guys suddenly unarmed” whenever the action shifts from gunplay to martial arts.
There are genre conventions at work here and you sort of have to go with them, but the action scenes are so cool that you really don’t think about them for too long. The bigger problem is that after about an hour and twenty minutes or so into the film’s hour and forty minute run time the action does begin to numb you a bit and the film does begin to lose steam a bit in its final twenty minutes or so. Part of the problem is that the dank apartment complex the film takes place in is by design a generally unpleasant location and after a while you just want to see some sunshine. There’s still some cool stuff in these last twenty minutes like a well staged two on one fight scene, but at this point the audience has maybe had its fill of fight scenes and the climax is not necessarily as great as what’s come before. Still, there’s a lot of energy built up from the first four fifths of the film and this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle by any means.
In short The Raid is fucking kickass. Perhaps I’m being lenient towards it in a way that I’m usually not towards Hollywood movies, but I do genuinely think that this is offering something that those movies aren’t. What it offers is pure, unadulterated, and unpretentious action conducted by real people in real environments and with an amazing degree of skill. There’s is very little noticeable CGI in the film, and there’s not much in the way of music video gloss. To be clear, this is not a movie for everyone. Many will be turned off by the film’s lack of a detailed story and its video game like regard for the value of human life. It’s a film made specifically for a certain kind of action movie fan who’s been waiting for a movie like this to knock their sox off. It’s a genre movie to its core and within that genre it does what it does better than almost all of its competition.
***1/2 out of Four