The Raid (Gareth Evans/Indonesia, USA/101mins)
At the break of dawn a twenty-strong SWAT team makes an attempt to overtake a slum tower block full of murderers, drug dealers and other assorted criminals. Enter, fight, finish-off, depart. This is, gleefully, what The Raid is: a hefty dispensation of physical pummelling up and across thirty floors. But there’s no clean sweep – the intensive climb to the crime lord at the top is grim, strenuous and messy. And immensely gripping fun. Everyone at some point gets seven shades of shit kicked out of them; it’s gruesomely giddy entertainment for anyone who seeks pure action momentum and nothing but. Iko Uwais plays Rama, the film’s standout team member and ostensibly the lead character, the one we’re here to cheer for (he has pregnant wife at home). Watching him scale the block, leaving a trail of human carnage at every level, has the mounting tension of a video game; we are, as he is, focused on the ‘win’ at the end of ‘play’. It gets harder the higher he goes as increasingly near-unachievable obstacles are thrown his way.
One such obstacle is the villain’s (Ray Sahetapy) main henchman ‘Mad dog’ (Yayan Ruhian), an equal in stamina and might to Rama. They have an all-consuming ten minute smackdown – a mutual full-bodied blitzkrieg of fists and kicks – that feels like it lasts thrice as long, so prolonged and intensely brutal is it. But it’s moments like this that thrill the most and make you forget about the sparseness of the actual plot and character shading surrounding it. It’s not of paramount importance that The Raid should be as strong or narratively dexterous as the battle-hardened bodies fighting within it, but some clichés stand out and some story elements feel shopworn, frayed.
Does it have to be a pregnant wife that hero Uwais fights to be reunited with? (Brightly lit flashbacks during his most tortuous moments remind him, and us, that he simply must go on for her.) There’s of course nothing wrong with that. But for once could it be that, for argument's sake, he’s, say, desperate to return to a man at home? Or that he’s got a hot date with the girl of his dreams later that evening? Or that he’s doing all this so that he can make the person who trained him to fight so expertly proud of him? Or that he’s simply booked an absolutely smashing once-in-a-lifetime holiday for the week after and, like, really really wants to go on it? (Whilst I’m at it: are there any other types of villains in films such as this who don’t wear floaty floral shirts, open-toed sandals and eat slices of apples off knives? This is a long way, both time- and tone-wise to 1980s Miami Vice episodes.) What I'm getting at is: does Rama really need an added, exterior reason for us to care? Don't we want our leading characters to succeed simply because they're in an awful life-threatening situation? Investment in who we champion onscreen doesn't necessarily require a, dare I say it, mawkish backstory. Give Rama no motive. Let there be an ounce of anonymous allure to him.
These are on the whole minor quibbles, and certainly won’t nag every viewer, but they point out – along with a case of the familiar ‘he-shot-him-not-him’ switcheroo toward the end – that a few fresher decisions regarding characterisation might have made for a script to equal the inspired and thrilling action. Some leftfield, out-of-the-blue surprises would have added to the suspense that the action provided. These issues fade somewhat the more the fighting intensifies; it’s as if Evans knows full well that a rapid body count overrides intermittent plot nitpicking. The creative and slick merging of the exhaustive and crisply realised sound effects (grunts, gurgles, GORENOISE!) with Aria Prayogi, Joseph Trapanese and Fajar Yuskemal’s score (soundscape glitches, pounding beats, high tension) is one of the film’s chief pleasures – as is the fact that Evans doesn’t appear to believe in relenting even for a moment. And The Raid is more enjoyable for it.