Director: Gareth Huw Evans
A 100-minute exercise in ostentatiously over-the-top crash-bang-wallop, Indonesian martial-arts thriller The Raid has been subject of worldwide “fanboy” hype since its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last autumn. Part of the fascination lies in its unorthodox pedigree, this being the third feature by Welsh writer-director Gareth Huw Evans after 2006′s little-seen Footsteps and 2009′s Merantau.
A graduate of Glamorgan University, Evans moved to his wife’s homeland to work on documentaries and soon became fascinated by the national fighting-style silat, a “sneaky” anything-goes form of hand-to-hand (or to-cheek/guts/genitals) combat. Merantau was his first attempt at a silat movie, showcasing the impressive skills of twentysomething Iko Uwais, who has been a practitioner since his early childhood.
In The Raid, Uwais is the fresh-faced, as-yet-uncorrupted SWAT-cop Rama – a quietly-spoken sort who, as we see in the opening scene, is about to become a father for the first time. The demurely pregnant wife-at-home has become a favoured non-combatant concomitant of the action genre worldwide (see also 2010 Australian variant Red Hill), and The Raid certainly doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel in terms of plotting or characterisation.
Rama’s unit are charged with invading a squalid inner-city tower-block which has long been a no-go area for law-enforcement officials. It’s the den of veteran criminal kingpin Tama (Ray Sahetapy), who resides in a heavily-guarded upstairs section while renting out most (but, crucially, not all) of the lower apartments to various ne’er-do-wells and miscreants. The SWAT team mount a sneak assault on the building – one which initially meets little resistance… until they reach the sixth floor, and seven shades of merry hell proceed to break noisily loose.
After a deceptively quiet build-up The Raid kicks into gear after half-an-hour or so as the cops meet wave upon wave of opposition – most of it faceless cannon-fodder in Assault On Precinct 13 fashion, but also including a handful of viciously inventive thugs who enjoy longer spells of screen-time before their messy demises. Evans and company have evidently lavished considerable imagination on several of these bloody dispatches – wince-inducing moments abound, most memorably involving one hapless chap’s neck making fatal contact with the jagged base of a wooden door.
But after a while a certain numbing repetitiveness starts to set in, the various floors of The Raid‘s squalidly grimy main setting coming to resemble the different levels of hyper-violent combat-based computer-games. As American critic Danny Peary wrote about the original 1982 Tron, “If you like to hang out at the local arcade, playing video games or just looking over someone’s shaking shoulders for a couple of hours, then you might get a kick out of this.”
Those unwilling or unable to access their inner 16-year-old boy, however, might wonder what all the fuss is about. There’s no doubting Evans’ ability to sock over a fight-scene or six – and the percussive soundtrack, by Joseph Trapanese and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, underlines the swaggering cool of the whole enterprise. But unless one is au fait with the workings of Indonesian society, any wider implications or metaphorical aspects remain fuzzy.
In more imaginative and socially-aware hands, for example, The Raid could conceivably have illustrated ‘Down Vietnam Street’, the chilling epilogue of Mike Davis’ indispensible 2006 dystopian mega-urban-demographics polemic Planet of Slums: “war planners… with coldblooded lucidity now assert that the failed, feral cities of the Third World – especially their slum outskirts – will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century…. [The] delusionary dialectic of securitized versus demonic urban places… dictates a sinister and unceasing duet: Night after night, hornetlike helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. if the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.”
More prosaically, for all the much-trumpeted “sneaky” nature of silat, The Raid is perhaps the most egregious example of the ‘after you, Claude’ school of movie-ruckus clichés, whereby the baddies for some reason feel duty-bound to invariably and politely wait their turn to attack the solo hero – rather than rushing him and overpowering his superior kick-ass skills through sheer weight of numbers.
In the end, then, The Raid - while undeniably diverting popcorn fare (with Sahetapy a memorably ice-cool villain) – falls some way short of two other low/low-ish budget breakthroughs by thirtysomething British blokes from the last couple of years: aliens-in-central-America parable Monsters by Gareth Edwards (Evans is presumably deploying his middle-name in hope of avoiding inevitable confusions between the pair), and Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, which is effectively The Raid in reverse, and with added wit and zap amid all the biff-baff-pow shenanigans.
8th May 2012
written for Tribune magazine