I’m always curious to see where the next action sensation comes from, but even I was surprised by The Raid. Erupting from under the radar like an unseen roundhouse to the jaw, this grimy, vicious Indonesian tooth-loosener arrived of the scene, ready to beat Hollywood at it’s own game with an impossibly lean story that merges Die Hard with a flurry of legitimately savage martial arts and an array of stunningly brutal finishing moves that would even have the Mortal Kombat gang utter “Jesus Christ” in shock. Even more bizarre, this devastating experience was randomly (and sublimely) directed by Welshman Gareth Evans, who had become obsessed with the Indonesian fighting style of pencak silat and wanted to bring it to the wider world, casting martial artists he’d met along the way. The result is a movie I genuinely regard as one of the greatest, modern action experiences I have ever seen that carries an impact that hasn’t lessened over time.
Rookie officer Rama joins an ambitious 20 man raid on a criminal infested apartment block in the slums of Jakarta with the aim to bring down grinning crime lord Tama Riyadi who runs the building as a safe space for anyone willing to pay. Led by Sergeant Jaka and Lieutenant Wahyu, the group infiltrate the hideout and stealthily work their way up floor by floor, careful not to trip the alarm and alert the multitudes of wrong doers lurking behind every door.
However, while their training is on point, their luck could use a bit of work and Tama is alerted to their presence which spurs him on to call in reinforcements and exterior snipers in order to seal in the intruders in what is now one big, multi story, murder maze. Controlling the lights, security cameras and intercom, the crime boss alerts his murderous tenants that they’ll be granted free lodgings if they bring him the mangled bodies of the penned in police.
Switched rudely from hunter to prey, the team realise that if they’re going to live, they’re going to have to out-animal the animals who are searching the corridors, machetes in hand and so a desperate battle for survival ensuses that takes no prisoners. Separated from his rapidly dwindling unit, Rama has to channel his inner bezerker if he going to have a hope of getting out with all of his blood and organs located in their original packaging and get back to his family. But aside from the waves of have-a-go thugs he has to wade through, he’ll also have to get past Tama’s lieutenants, the cerebral Andi and the thrill-killing Mad Dog, but fate is a funny beast and it turns out that Rama may have more in common with one of these criminals than he’d like to admit.
So, before I get stuck into the superlative action with the gusto of the diminutive Mad Dog snapping a neck, you have to give the rest of the movie credit for not simply relying on a typically threadbare plot as an excuse to hang the bestial fisticuffs on as Evans ensues that the scenario and characters are fleshed out to the point where you genuinely care about the characters rather than just seeing them as punchable meat sacks shuffling on to their next brawl. Taking the aforementioned concept of Die Hard and giving it a stark, Assault On Precinct 13 style sense of desperation, Evans also gives things a gritty feel that doesn’t solely rely on feet and fists, but instead starts the movie with everyone heavily armed and only resorting to beating each others brains out against the wall as the bullets run out and the situation gets evermore dire. The director is also smart enough to know when to not have his leads fight to the death, drawing out the tension to unbearable lengths and making his action heroes seem way more vunerable than the skull breaking antics of Tony Jaa or the ballet-like gracefulness of Jet Li. A scene where Rama (a baby-faced Iko Uwais with a little fish on a big fucking hook etched on his face for the entire movie) struggles to remain silent as he hides in a crawl space while a bug-eye loon jams a blade repeatedly through the wall eventually finding his cheek, is agonisingly tense and shows that Evans has a good grasp of all the peaks and valleys that keeps things varied and interesting. Even the relationships between characters are clearly sketched, be they the link between brothers estranged by being in both sides of the law or a crooked cop and a hammer wielding crime boss and it gives a legitimate reason why everyone is so fucking desperate to annihilate everyone within kicking radius.
Still, savvy filmmaking aside, what brought me to the party is the movie’s uncanny nature to make its scenes of truly brutal conflict feel quite like nothing you’ve ever experienced, eschewing elaborate athletics for a real down and dirty style that feels as desperate as it is wince-inducingly spectacular. Think John Wick’s slickly smooth takedowns are impressive? Evans stubbonly refuses to let any character leave a brawl early without at least one seriously life threatening injury. Be it Rama sticking a knife into an opponent’s thigh and that dragging it all the way down to the knee, opening up the leg like a sliced ham; or another thug getting his throat impaled on the splinters of a broken door, Evans, infused with a sense of sadistic duty, makes sure the audience feels every fractured orbital bone and every punctured lung.
There’s an argument to be made that pencak silat maybe isn’t as flashy and exuberant as, say, the muay thai seen in Ong-Bak, but the beleaguered characters don’t have time to run up a wall and drive an elbow into the skull of an enemy when there’s so little room to manoeuvre in the dank corridors of the apartment building. It all accumulates with a magnificent Phantom Menace-style two-on-one smackdown that’s sees Uwais and his character’s brother (Donny Alamsyah) square off with the movie’s most fascinating character, Mad Dog, a shaggy-haired, shorty who makes up for his lack of size with a deranged determination as he confidently fights off his multiple opponents simply because he wants to see if he can.
Putting not only Iko Uwais on the map of martial arts maulers, but also gifting us with the bludgeoning talents of Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog) and Joe Taslim (the ill fated Sergeant Jaka) as well – not to mention rightfully breaking Gareth Evans big too who transferred his skills to the similarly savage show, Gangs Of London – The Raid is a lean, mean, rib cracking machine that not only beat Hollywood at it’s own game (in a bizarre turn of events, the sci-fi movie Dredd was released in the same year with almost the exact same plot) but created a whole new wave of bloodthirsty followers such as Timo Tjahjanto’s equally bloody Headshot and The Night Comes For Us.
Relentless, breathless and jacked up to the tits on ruthless brutality, The Raid is one film that’s worthy of an ambush and possibly one of the greatest modern action movies ever made.