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The Raid, dir. Gareth Huy Evans

TIFF 2011 Reviews

On the surface of what is, astonishingly enough, the second Indonesian martial arts film from Welsh-as-a-rarebit Gareth Huy Evans, very little happens. As a briefly-glimpsed Jakarta wakes from slumber, we follow a nervous SWAT team on a mission to kill or apprehend the notorious drug kingpin Tama (Roy Sahetapy). We meet intense rookie Rama (Iko Uwais), badass Sgt. Jaka (Joe Taslim) and the inexplicably edgy Lt. Ari (Ananda George). We are also introduced to Tama's bodyguards Andi (Doni Alamsyah) and Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian). The mission is intended to be covert; all is discovered; the building erupts into a maelstrom of violence.

That's pretty much it. The result is, unexpectedly, one of the greatest crowd-pleasing entertainments I can recall – but also, more importantly, what I would argue is a gauntlet thrown down to every movie whose primary interest in its characters' interactions involves their kicks to each others' heads. Just about every minute from the moment things go south onward seems packed with the pacing and imagination most action features reserve for their big showstopping number. The problem here is not waiting between high points of inventive, aesthetically inspiring, pleasingly visceral physical violence, but distingushing them from each other.

I would rest the laurels for this accomplishment in genre perfection on the heads of three seperate areas of the production. Firstly, most importantly, the martial art used in the choreography is the Indonesian silat. While I don't know the exact definition of the word, a good working translation might be "grabbing someone and then hitting and stabbing them very hard multiple times as they crumple to the floor." People are killed with batons, combat knives, broken table legs, machetes, guns modern and antique, flying fists – in one case, a refrigerator stuffed with explosive death. Martial artists jump on each other, clinically dismantling their opponents' anatomy like howler monkeys with medical degrees and a shared death wish. Most importantly, Paul Greengrass fast-cuts are almost entirely absent. Long shots establish the real skill and intense work ethic behind every move – no-one is a rank beginner jury-rigged into a martial artist. These sweeping single takes track down huge corridors featuring actors with roles like "Hallway Victim #37" (the credits swiftly become a hilarious post-film palate cleanser) are reduced to moaning husks – imagine, if you will, that the hallway fight scene in Oldboy went on for over an hour and never flagged in the slightest. I can honestly say that I've never seen better fights in many years of trolling the depths of genre cinema.

This blood-flecked ballet of madness is choreographed largely by actors Uwais and Ruhian, the former of whom is a deservedly rising star, and both of whom are phenomenal fighters with a theatrical way of expressing character through their combat styles. This characteristic proves crucial to the film's broader success, as the unexpectedly distinctive characters of our heroes and villains gives it an appeal outside of its technical accomplishments. The small list of principals and the relative anonymity of their followers only increases our isolation within the huge and echoing complex – whenever someone we know goes down, we're that much closer to being alone with the truly frightening hordes of criminal scum that won't leave the SWAT cops alone. Tama is marvelous, practical and unromantic in his lack of principle or moral conscience; his almost Shakespearean, gravelly fiats delivered via intercom are frightening and grimly hilarious. Good, restrained, stoic turns by, again, Uwais and Ruhian make their eventual confrontation sincerely interesting. Uwais' Rama flashes back to his pregnant wife and his prayer mat – as one commentator pointed out, he's the first devoutly Muslim action hero I can recall on screen – and it manages to pass the territory of schmaltz into a sincere portrait of a shy, retiring young man whose obsession with his job is threatening his domestic peace. Mad Dog, on the other hand, is played by Ruhian as a genially psychotic sadist – holding a gun on one cop, he sighs and drops it before starting to warm up. Noticing the quizzical cop's expression, he justifies his actions – "Killing a man with a gun, it's like ordering take out." The supporting cast make the most of a sparse, efficient, but compellingly muscular script – those institutionally despairing of testosterone unleashed may well throw up their hands, but it accomplishes all that the film needs it to and makes us care about these men.

Evans' direction of all this swirling energy, however – as well as his writing, which seems to survive its Indonesian translation relatively intact – passes accomplishment into nervy, amphetamine-laced excellence. The brooding, Brutalist concrete mass of the tower complex is shot to resemble some huge cliff face to climb or a medieval citadel, making the ordeals inside that much more appropriate and nerve-wracking. Clever touches of slow motion and the excellent use of chiaroscuro (huge skylights dribble dust-choked sunbeams between shadowed, hulking balconies) allow for a constant sense of paranoia about the vulnerability of characters, as we are allowed to miss crucial background details just as they do. When the melee becomes general, multiple cameras capture the three-dimensional pursuit as walls, ceilings and floors are ripped apart and barrelled through by dealers, troopers, victims, and assorted unfortunate bystanders. It's almost like Stalingrad, where truly urban warfare resulted in seperate floors of multi-story houses being the site of vicious fights over minute shifts in location. For a non-native speaker with little background in the region, it's amazing how believably Evans insinuates Indonesian concerns about the drug culture, the social cost of poverty and police corruption in around the edges of his film. It suggests real life without allowing it to distract from or devalue the gloriously abandoned gunplay and punchery on display.

In short, while it will likely be snubbed at any sort of reputable awards show, the film is 100 minutes of distilled bliss. Next time 'Non-Socially-Constructive Movie Night' rolls along – and if this ever gets a wider release (COME ON NICHE IMPORTERS) – I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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