DVD Review: The Raid

Posted on August 30, 2012 by editor

Review by Keri O’Shea

I’m not the world’s biggest martial arts movie fan generally; the genre’s just too expansive and, in a lot of cases, all the expert flailing of limbs grows monotonous through overkill after a while. However, this is certainly not always the case. I saw an Indonesian film entitled Merantau a few years ago, and was hugely impressed by its unorthodox elements, as well as by its blend of realistic fighting with moments of great beauty. The only minor issue I had with it was that a slightly saccharin note crept in towards the end; I didn’t anticipate this of The Raid, the most recent film by Merantau director Gareth Wyn Evans, and my gut feeling was correct. The Raid is an altogether darker movie in look and feel, though without having to sacrifice the high intensity of the action therein. However, in common with Merantau, this is an action flick with heart and soul; put simply, personal integrity, and issues surrounding integrity, are examined here.

The basic plot is, or at least appears, magnificent in its simplicity: we’re shown two polar opposites in Indonesian society. One’s a cop, Rama (star Iko Uwais), preparing to go to work; the other’s a gangland boss, Tama (Ray Sahetapy). When we see that Rama is about to form part of a team on a clearance operation, we understand that these two worlds are about to collide. Rama’s senior officer outlines what they’re about to face: Tama’s based in a notorious tower block, surrounded by his own henchmen and lots of other people who would happily act on their anti-cop bias; there’s also a large-scale narcotics lab to be taken care of there. Floor by floor, the cop team must do whatever is necessary to shut this place down for good.

It seems like plain sailing for the cops – at first (although necessity is an ugly, child-killing beast). But, when Tama’s paranoia pays off, he’s able to put the building into lockdown, watching the cops’ progress on his CCTV network and using his insider info to put a serious crimp on their winning streak. We also soon see that there’s more to this mission than a straightforward clean-up; but, regardless of the whys, getting out of this place alive is going to take some serious guile.

Wow. This is a very tense film, sometimes unbearably so, and right from the outset; in a very short space of time, our premise is neatly in place. We see the anxious cops, lots of them new recruits; we hear how efficiently their orders are given, and we know what’s waiting for them inside that looming tower block. Just like that, within a few minutes, we have a strong set-up for the action which we know will follow. However, the action is not relentless, and it’s far stronger for the contrasts which Evans weaves into the movie. We see this happening right from the start. As Rama prepares for his mission by exercising at home, we see him training, but then it’s broken up by some moments of great stillness. He’s training, but then we see him praying; all the sound and movement slows almost to nothing. It’s a device which is used throughout The Raid. The way in which Evans carefully punctuates extreme violence and rapid pace with moments of brooding peace (and even some slow-mo) adds exponentially to the film’s impact; had this been nothing but action, the action would have become normalised, and it would have lost a lot of its edge. As it stands, you’re always surprised by the contrasts, and you have space to appreciate the characters too.

The film also works so well because you’re not allowed to occupy a privileged position as a viewer; our empathy is kept with the cops (particularly Rama and his closest friend) because we’re usually at their level. A wide array of camera shots establish a sense of time and place whilst smart editing makes us feel vulnerable within it. The camera even follows the cops into the unknown on occasion, literally jumping into holes after them and trying to regain balance afterwards. Where we do differ from the cops is in that we know early on that the bad guys are already watching them; it’s insider knowledge which definitely adds to the anxiety here. It also allows the set-up for an absolutely staggering scene of good guys vs. bad – impeccably choreographed in its grisliness.

The bad guys aren’t just mannequins, though, meaningless beyond their contribution to the body count. Although most of them don’t have big speaking roles, they’re still people, with their own motivations; some of them look scared, some of them look confident, and some would rather not get involved. The film breaks with cliché in other respects: wounds are realistic (punctured bowel, anyone?) and people don’t simply lie down and die when they’re hit. As the cops pass through the building’s corridors a second time, you can clearly see a lot of people lying there wounded, and the cops themselves are far from infallible because they’re good, sustaining major hits throughout. Iko Uwais has matured a lot since Merantau, and he’s put through his paces here, balancing his martial arts work with acting as an individual under extreme pressure.

My only real gripe with The Raid would be in regards to some disparity of threat during the film; Tama, for instance, seems to disappear from the equation for a surprising length of time, when he could be directing everyone’s efforts from his CCTV hub. The idea of his all-seeing, all-powerful status takes a few knocks along the way as his concerted, organised retaliation lulls in places; it’s not enough to destroy his credibility as a villain, but enough to make me wonder what had happened to him. Guns as weapons are also in, then out of the equation during the fight scenes in some baffling ways. Obviously if everyone just rained bullets on everyone else this would be a short film, not a feature, and a very different animal, but at some points I wondered why the choice of weaponry had shifted. Still, some minor griping is just that: the pace, performances and gritty aesthetics more than compensate. I loved how the building itself provides such surprises – more than just a series of floors and staircases, it shifts, is permeable; its walls hide secret compartments, its fabric can be torn open, its floors give way…

Just as the cops make their way slowly up through that building, so the film reveals that it has more and more to offer. It operates effectively as an action film, with a simple premise which works. But, as the cops progress inwards, more and more about their mission – as well as about themselves, and their enemies – comes to light. The Raid is anything but mindless violence, instead using its violent framework to say more about its characters, albeit never in a sentimental, or even an expected way. I’ve honestly no idea how a Welshman came to establish himself as a director in Indonesia, but the fact that he has is something to celebrate: The Raid is a brilliant, savage piece of filmmaking.

The Raid (DVD/Blu-Ray) is released by Momentum Pictures on 24th September 2012.