There aren’t many action movies that begin with their Muslim hero performing his morning prayers, but before it launches into 101 minutes of nonstop face-breaking, kneecap-shattering, and elbow-smashing, Indonesia’s The Raid does just that, giving its audience a few quiet minutes of actor Iko Uwais doing fajr. Viewers will later look back on this scene fondly as the one time in this frenetic film when they had a moment to catch their breath.
Shot for slightly over a million dollars, The Raid reunites the team behind 2009’s amiable Merantau for a flick that represents a major leap forward in storytelling, performance, and technique. The plot is bone simple: a SWAT team enters a 15-story housing project owned by a crime lord, Tama (Ray Sahetapy), whose lair is located on the top floor. Their mission is to neutralize his gang, arrest him, and get out without being macheted, shot, kicked out a window, or picked off by a seemingly endless army of henchmen led by the insane Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) and the cool, composed Andi (Doni Alamsyah). And, of course, things go terribly wrong.
The story sounds lightweight, but The Raid scores on so many levels that it’s impossible to dismiss. Peter Greenaway used to complain that movies had become little more than 19th-century novels transferred to film, firmly devoted to story and character. Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, and Jackie Chan created films that privileged performance over plot, partially sacrificing the satisfactions of narrative for the gratification of showcasing sheer skill. Ballet aficionados don’t go to see Swan Lake for the story, they watch it to see the abilities of the dancers. By the same token, why should a film be looked down on for putting its best fist forward?
Prizing speed and impact, The Raid unfolds as a series of high-impact setpieces showcasing silat, Indonesia’s indigenous martial art. In one such sequence, Rama (Iko Uwais) is carrying a wounded colleague down a quiet corridor when suddenly a thug explodes from behind a door. No sooner is he dispatched with a brutal series of joint locks than another appears, then another, then two at once, then three, and before you know it the hallway is knee-deep in broken bodies. The focus is on grace and skill, the blistering speed of the choreography, and the personal panache the performers inject into their combat.
This attention to speed, immediacy, and economy is carried over into the narrative, which propels the movie by showing who the characters are, rather than telling. Yayan Ruhian, a philosophical silat teacher who barely measures five feet tall, plays the murderous Mad Dog, and demonstrates just how much he loves his job by spending most of the movie parallel to the floor and bouncing off walls. Joe Taslim, a former judo champion, fights like he’s in the ring, all power and nobility, which allows his fate to carry a genuinely tragic heft. At the center of it all is Rama, a decent, observant Muslim kid whose kind demeanor is slowly stripped away by desperation, until only survival, not salvation, matters.
Hollywood is particularly unsuited to producing sensation cinema these days. Talent works freelance, moving from job to job, and rarely is there the rehearsal time or the shooting days to build the trust between director, editor, choreographer, and actor that great action movies require. But Gareth Evans, Iko Uwais, and Ruhian took all the time they needed to get it right (six months of rehearsal and three months of shooting). Their continuity of work has enabled them to build a level of trust that lets them push their brand of cinematic physicality further forward. The result isn’t a guilty pleasure, or a B-list action movie, but a purely cinematic experience that is, in every sense, breathless.
© 2012 by Grady Hendrix