With the all round great reviews The Raid, then subsequently subtitled Redemption, is getting from festivals worldwide, and chalking up an impressive box office in the US and Indonesia, I just had to get out there and watch the film, with appetite whet by the numerous teasers and trailers available. After all, it's 99.999% uncut in Indonesia, and chances for it to survive unscathed in Singapore remains - and after watching the film I'm fairly convinced - slim even if under the R21 category. Having had a number of Asian martial arts movies especially Thailand's (from Ong Bak 3 to Bangkok Knock Out) ruined by censorship and/or distributors thinking of allowing potentially a wider audience base catch an adulterated version, I'd rather cross geographical boundaries for an action film even if the lack of English subtitles means having to rely on my non-existent Bahasa skills, or getting Bahasa speaking friends on the same trip fill me in on some of the gaps.
The declaration above is so that you'd know better to check the relevant local censor board's website for the rating, since no other local reviewer out there will tell you the truth from a press screening, and that this review obviously couldn't cover all the nuances of the characters properly, since there are dramatic episodes in The Raid to provide an overall character focus rather than to be just an all out action fest. The gist of the story you'd likely know from the premise and synopsis, where a group of SWAT team members under the leadership of Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim) and Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), are tasked to invade one rundown apartment block notorious for being a haven to just about the nastiest gangsters in town, led by the drug lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy).
Their job is simple in this pre-dawn raid - go in silent, make arrests and capture the head honcho, all done in stealth. It starts promising, but midway their presence was noticed and all hell breaks loose, with every thug in the building out for their blood, and the group, without proper backup when they realize their raid was an unsanctioned procedure, find themselves trapped from all angles, and needing to desperately find, and fight, their way out. Dramatic moments make up for the usual brotherhood themes, back stories to key characters, and betrayals from both sides which will turn up the level of surprises as the movie progresses, which provides this action film with a little bit more than what you'll get from its peers, without feeling like they're there to pad and lead from action sequence to action sequence.
Written, directed and edited by Welshman Gareth Huw Evans, who together with leading man Iko Uwais and most of the core group who had worked together in their first feature film collaboration Merantau, The Raid picked up from the good groundwork established from that film, and translated big time into this, with bigger stunts and bigger action choreography. The action, oh the action, for the first time in an extremely long while, left me holding my breath, literally, before gasping for air when the dust settled. Never before had an action movie grab me by the scruff of my neck in attention like The Raid has, with eyes kept wide open for the fear of having to blink means losing out a single frame of a finishing blow. Merantau, if compared to this, was a tease of what the entire team can do, and under the martial arts choreography by Iko and Yayan Ruhian, who plays Mad Dog in the movie, the battle - tooth and nail, fight for survival type - sequences are a sight to behold.
Evans handled The Raid with a deftness, building up suspense, anticipation and excitement like an old hand, despite this being only his third narrative feature film production. The level of complexity got increased here even if the scale of the film got reduced into from the sprawling city in Merantau, into a claustrophobic apartment block. There's CG enhanced firing of rifle rounds, before gun battles between opponents cook up a flurry of emptying magazines after magazines of automatic weapon rounds. When ranged weapons are no longer an option, in comes close quartered combat weapons like knives and batons against machetes and pipes, before the lowest common denominator of relying on bare knuckles, kicks, throws and the occasional head butt.
To describe the action in the film would be a disservice in revealing too much, when it is best that you experience it for yourself. It's bloody, it's violent and it's no holds barred, bringing out panic, tension, and a great adrenaline rush as if putting you into the thick of the action like an embedded war journalist having to weave through attacks from all directions. In each carefully choreographed action milestone in the film, you're bound to discover many amazingly delivered fight sequence that you'll probably never seen before, keeping things really fresh even for the jaded action / martial arts film junkie, where you're bound to find a certain moment within each sequence that will serve as a talking point when the end credits roll, and providing you with rationale to just about watch the movie immediately again.
Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian just about found the perfect holistic ingredients that go about making hard hitting action films, with a competent stunt team and martial arts crew to deliver action just as the two of them conjured, making everything feel real when the going gets rough, with an eye for detail and attention, keeping fights credible with an element of real danger put into them. Both men play characters on either side of the fence, with Iko on the side of the SWAT Team powering his way through to an escape, and Yayan being the brutal enforcer on the side of the thugs, each having moments to showcase what they can do individually. You'll be catching yourself more than once wondering, how the heck did these guys do that? But they did, and it's all up on film for everyone to witness. It's testament of their talent and their brand of martial arts being worked for cinema, and with this they had shown that they've come a long way from Merantau some 3 years back, despite being their second action film with Gareth Evans.
Action films from South East Asia are raking up a storm, with Thailand leading the charge, Malaysia following suit recently, but Indonesia really cranking and setting the bar really high for everyone else to follow. The cinematography here is silky smooth, with none of the bullshit that Hollywood tries to force as a standard - what with its shaky cam and up too close camera angles - THIS is something that Hollywood should wake up to, where the camera flows and moves around the action, keeping things steady to capture the absolute beauty of martial arts being executed by professional practitioners, and allowing the audience to see who's hitting what/who, with edits and cutaways being kept to a minimum and logically done, rather than to cover up the lack of real skills by the stunt team, or try to pass off the non-trained actor as a modern day superman.
Chances are I will want to watch it again in Singapore when it premieres next month, with slight differences of course. The soundtrack for the local release will follow the US', meaning we'll get to listen to Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Joseph Trapanese's version compared to the Indonesian one, which in itself is already rocking and suited the look, feel and mood that The Raid will bring to action cinema. For those, like me, who can't wait, you can either do the same crossing overseas, or pick up the Merantau DVD available if you have not seen that film yet. It will introduce you to a different aspect of Silat, one primed for action cinema, and provide you a sneak peek into what to expect from The Raid from just about almost the same main cast and crew who had progressed leaps and bounds from there.
The best action movie of the decade some say, and I'll verify and concur to that with a resounding Yes. Definitely highly recommended, where action junkies will find a new film to pay homage to, as it powers its way to my shortlist of one of the best this year has to offer.