The Raid (2011)

The Raid first published in S&S Jun 2012

Review: Opening with the image of a ticking watch placed beside a gun, The Raid (Serbuan Maut) is, as those props would suggest, a tense, hyperviolent action thriller, set almost entirely in a deadly 15-story tenement that has been built as much from the tropes and cliches of pure genre as from bricks and mortar. After bidding farewell to his heavily pregnant wife and making a promise (“I’ll bring him back”) whose meaning will only later become apparent, rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) heads off for a dawn raid on a dilapidated building populated by addicts, thugs and killers – only to find himself and a rapidly dwindling number of colleagues trapped inside and under attack from all quarters.

Already slated for sequels and an American remake before it has even had a theatrical release, The Raid is destined to be the breakout film of both its writer/director Gareth Evans and its extraordinary star Uwais – although Evans has in fact been trying to escape the confines of his immediate urban environment from the very start of his career. Though made for his scriptwriting MA in Cardiff and shot entirely in Wales, Evans’ 21-minute directorial debut Samurai Monogatari (2003) was a tribute to the chanbara (or period swordplay films) of Kurosawa Akira, featuring all-Japanese  actors and dialogue – and his first feature Footsteps (2006), though set in Cardiff, was heavily inflected with the stylings of Tsukamoto Shinya, Kitano Takeshi and Miike Takashi. Evans’ eastern orientation was finally given full vent when he was invited to Indonesia to direct a documentary on the local martial art pencak silat. There he met promising silat student Uwais, and cast him in the feature Merantau (2009), an action vehicle clearly intended to bring both silat and the young star into the public eye, much as Ong-bak (2003), with its strikingly similar plot, had done for Thai martial art muay thai and its lead Tony Jaa.

Still, it is only really with their second collaboration that Evans and Uwais have come crashing, kicking and crunching into international awareness. Its plot is an unapologetic raid on the beleaguered-in-a-building tropes of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Die Hard (1988), Mean Guns (1997), The Nest (2002) and The Horde (2009), its dialogue is perfunctory (if engagingly laconic), its various cops and robbers – even the morally conflicted ones – are presented in broad cutout and distinguished more by their hairstyles than by their actual utterances, and the performances (ranging from badass to more badass) hardly come with nuance. Of course, none of this matters much in a film where action is both character and king – and The Raid delivers action so riveting and relentless that the viewer’s own wincing gasps quickly become an audible counterpoint to the excellent bone-crunching foley work. There is explosive gunplay, machete mayhem, a close corridor fight that out-hammers Oldboy, and silat punishment wrought by (and upon) foot, fist, elbow, knee and head, as one brutal set-piece careers into the next with just enough plot (and plot twist) to accommodate all the hard-hitting hurt on offer (unsurpisingly, the closing credits list four on-set massage therapists).

All this is shot by Evans’ regular DP Matt Flannery in a combination of wide shots and sweaty close-ups, skilfully intercut in the editing by Evans himself to maximise the impact of the fighting skills on display. The fights are dirty, high-stakes scraps, with Uwais’ Rama driven but always vulnerable, and the crimelord’s right hand man Mad Dog (played by Uwais’ fellow fight choreographer Ruhian) a fearless, ferocious force of nature who prefers fists to firearms because “squeezing a trigger – it’s like ordering takeout.” As cops and criminals alike prove to be pawns in a broader power game, The Raid conceals in its crawlspace an allegory of Indonesian society trapped in the grip of corruption and forced to struggle its way out from the inside – but the film is more likely to be remembered, vividly and viscerally, for its cathartic orgy of crushing violence.

Synopsis: Jakarta, Indonesia, present day. After kissing his pregnant wife farewell and promising his father, “I’ll bring him back,” rookie cop Rama heads out for a dawn raid on a tenement controlled by ruthless crimelord Tama and his right hand men Mad Dog and Andi. Splitting into two teams, the policemen begin clearing the building floor by floor, until Tama, alerted to their presence, orders a lockdown, sending in both his own men and the building’s tenants against this ‘infestation’. One police group is exterminated, and the other comes under intense attack on the sixth floor. Three survivors – Sergeant Jaka, his superior Lieutenant Wahyu and policeman Dogo – head one way, while Rama fights his way through a corridor of machete-wielding thugs, and then leaves his severely injured comrade Bowo with a kindly resident after hiding in a crawlspace behind his apartment’s interior wall.

To help Rama, who is in fact his estranged brother, Andi stabs his own two henchmen. Mad Dog confronts and kills Jaka. Rama rejoins Wahyu and Dogo, and they decide to continue up to Tama on the fifteenth floor. Meanwhile, Tama confronts Andi with video evidence that he helped Rama. En route upstairs, Rama finds Mad Dog beating a chained Andi, and the two brothers eventually kill Mad Dog. Reaching Tama, Wahyu shoots Dogo, and insists Tama help him escape. Tama reveals that corrupt Wahyu’s even more corrupt superiors had sent the Lieutenant not to kill Tama, but to be killed by him. Wahyu shoots Tama, and fails in a suicide attempt. Andi helps Rama, Bowo and the hand-cuffed Tama get out of the building, but refuses to come with Rama, instead heading back inside.

Anton Bitel