Critic screenings can be a weird, airless place to eat up a movie. For those who’ve never ‘entered the vacuum’, they’re a bit like taking an entertainment exam — guarded, concentrated, lots of pen-chewing and a firm, unspoken etiquette of silence. Most screenings, you could hear a spider fart in a film can. Pringles go off like grenades. At The Raid, however, decorum fell out the window. Everyone, eventually, contributed their own part to the soundtrack. Aghs. Oofs. Ows. Farks. There might have even been an “eep” from one of the broadsheets. This didn’t happen during The Expendables.
Hot off the festival circuit, the buzz on this one is well-earned and genuine. It’s been a while, but here’s an unabashed, unironic Friday-night movie — a noisy, bloodlusting crowdpleaser that’s like a kickback to the grindhouse. Other than hailing from Indonesia, there’s nothing new about The Raid — in fact, with its henchmen, Big Bads and AK-47s, it’s stubbornly retrograde. The dialogue’s been cut-and-pasted from Action Movie Pass Notes (“We go in, we take him out”; “Not without my team”, and, that classic understatement, “We have company”). The villain is dial-a-drug-baron. And yet, between an unknown Indonesian and a man from Merthyr Tydfil, The Raid’s accomplished what all action movies promise but few achieve — it makes you gasp. And, in some cases, eep.
It’s certainly a stylistic wake-up call for Hollywood’s default battle mode. Rapid cuts and shaky cams might give you the sense of being inside a brawl, but it’s wearing numb. Here, the combat is shot long, wide, often from an insane angle, frequently one take. It’s not remotely suggestive — just breathlessly visceral. There will be few more thrilling sights this year than watching Iko Uwais domino a bunch of superbads down a corridor. With the possible exception of watching Iko Uwais dive out a window, fall three storeys and land on a fire escape — still fighting the same guy.
Surprisingly, for a nation with such a loaded martial arts heritage, you can count the number of Indonesian action stars on one fist. Its last big bruiser, the mighty Barry Prima, flaunted his exotic hair during the ’80s, pounding rubber crocodiles in a series of daft fantasy lemons. Prima, an Indonesian icon, trained in taekwondo — a Korean martial art. Uwais, The Raid’s primary weapon, was raised on his native pencak silat, rarely seen and, it turns out, fearsomely cinematic — quick as kung fu but blunter, weapon-ready and not shy of using its environment. Even the set joins in the fights. Tables. Fridges. Ovens... No CG. This never gets boring.
Of course, we’ve been here before, with Ong-Bak and the coming of Tony Jaa — Uwais’ advantage is the film matches him move for move. Director Gareth Evans has pulled off something of a coup here, tempering the cartoon hysteria of Asian action cinema with a slicker, colder Western sensibility. The primitive invasion plot has just enough twists and character flips to keep you emotionally enagaged. More importantly, they double up as perfectly placed recovery points. You’ll welcome the breathers. Ultimately, it’s The Raid’s skill at reading an audience’s heart-rate that makes it such an exhilarating rush. Things become a bit of a bludgeon during a climactic fight with main hench Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) — it’s at least 51 kicks and 135 punches too long, but, in the words of Nigel Tufnel, that’s just nit-picking isn’t it?
With its pulsing synths and underlit sets, The Raid feels like a mean John Carpenter film — Assault On Slum 13 with added machetes. There are few laughs. Just breakneck action and electric menace. Be sure to stay for the end credits, which tell their own story — a full army of massage therapists and the debris of a hundred bruised extras. Floor Hole Attacker No. 4, we feel your pain.