The Raid

Every now and then, an action movie comes along that gives the much maligned genre a shot in the arm, and changes the game for all that follow suit. Writer and director Gareth Evans’ Indonesian cops and robbers martial arts epic The Raid is such a film: a breathless, heart-racing series of bone-crunching fight sequences built on a constant rush of adrenaline. An extraordinary cinematic experience, best enjoyed with a crowd of like-minded aficionados in a packed auditorium, it is the finest action film I have seen in a decade.

As terse and efficient as the title suggests, The Raid opens with rookie SWAT team cop Rama (Iko Uwais) reciting his morning prayers on a mat before kissing his pregnant wife goodbye and going to work. The police mission is simple: infiltrate a tower block in the Jakarta slums and extract the notorious crime lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy). Having filled the building with his own soldiers, spotters and sympathisers, Tama sits at a bank of television monitors in his room on the top floor, watching everything that movies. Within minutes of gaining entry (a sequence reinforced by total silence on the soundtrack) Rama and his colleagues come under sustained attack from Tama’s forces as they inch their way up, floor by floor, to a grandstand confrontation. Complicating matters is the fact that most of the cops in the unit are desperately inexperienced and that their cocksure lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) has a cavalier attitude to their survival.

And that’s about as much plotting as the movie is concerned with, or needs. When the advancing SWAT team meet a young boy on a stairwell, and he races to trigger an alarm, it’s the cue for an all-out war. The ensuing 90 minutes are a hand-to-hand, elbow-to-face, machete-to-throat pitched battle, with a few wild-eyed machine-gunners thrown in for good measure. There are a handful of narrative twists – a helpful tenant with a sick wife, a potential turncoat in the squad, a possibility of redemption for one of the gangsters – but for the most part, The Raid is exuberantly uncomplicated. Good guy, bad guy, fight.

Once Evans kicks off the action, he never relents. Fists, feet, bullets and blades all swirl in a bravura display of violent invention, all captured by Evans’ constantly mobile camera. Uwais, who was working as a truck-driver before Evans cast him in his first Indonesian action movie Merantau, is a practitioner of a ruthless form of martial arts known as Pencak Silat and the fight choreography is blindingly quick and smooth. It’s an extraordinary performance of physical force and eye-grabbing charisma that announces Uwais as a martial arts star for a new generation.

Freely inspired by the best of the 1980s cult action movies, from John McTiernan’s Die Hard, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and John Woo’s entire back catalogue, Evans’ creates a grimy, grimly realistic world within the claustrophobic setting of the tower block. But The Raid is not another ironic exercise in strip-mining the past for grindhouse thrills. Evans uses old-fashioned methods to make an old-fashioned movie that comes from an instinctive understanding of the grammar of action cinema. Time and again Evans displays remarkable creativity in his action sequences, showing us spectacular things that simply have never been seen before. It is violent, it is brutal, it is cheap and nasty but it is also exhilarating. Evans and Uwais make it look effortless but their ingenuity, economy and control are masterful.

Winner of both the audience and critics’ awards at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival, the screening of The Raid met with a three-minute standing ovation from a crowd that gasped and shrieked their way through the film. See it before the inevitable Hollywood remake focus-groups all the fun out of it.

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