TIFF 2011 Review: 'The Raid'
Quite possibly the action film of the year
There is, to be sure, a certain shared delusion that can pervade any midnight screening - the throng of people who clearly want to be there, the mingled scents of adrenaline, excitement, stale coffee and the slightest hint of weed wafting second-hand from the crowd. At the same time, when a film works that late -- as so many films in Toronto's Midnight Madness selection do -- you know that it works superbly. So it is with Gareth Evans' "The Raid," a cross-cultural action film that turns the "Die Hard" model on its head by putting a group of cops in an apartment complex that's become almost a nation-state unto itself as a wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Good young cop Rama (Iko Uwais) is part of the team attacking the block under the leadership of the scared-but-stalwart Seargeant Jaka (Joe Taslim); inside, master criminal Tama (a chilling Ray Sahetapy)is protected by an army of goons and his two enforcers, the brainy-smooth Andi (Doni Alamsyah) and the nickname-says-it-all Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian). There are, of course, complications -- secret corruption, hidden family ties, a decent man with a sick wife on the 7th floor -- and there are, of course, plenty of people to kick in the head.
Just as in the earlier "Merentau," Evans and Uwais work together to highlight silat, an Indonesian martial art that combines brutal blows with lightning-fast knife work. It ain't pretty -- in fact, it can get damned ugly -- but it's exciting as all get-out. Evans wrote the screenplay and also edited the film, and his and cinematographer Matt Flannery's work is the kind of stuff you wish more action films could pull off -- long takes of uninterrupted fighting, fluid movement in space that clearly conveys who's where and doing what while still pulling Sam Raimi-style tricks like zooming through walls with X-ray vision and bursting through floors and windows like a speeding locomotive.
A fellow critic -- who will remain nameless for fear of being outed as no fun -- Tweeted that he walked out of "The Raid," as "I need more than 50 inventive ways to kill a dude …" and clarifying "(That reads a tad ambiguous. I'm asking for some character/narrative/formal interest, not demanding 100 inventive ways to kill a dude.)" But there are late-act revelations about character here -- not especially well-established early on, but still in the mix -- that John Woo would appreciate, and the narrative plot of 'Get out or die' is simple but elegant; Uwais's Rama isn't a chilly Donnie Yen-style supercop but more in the mold of a John McClane, mortal and scared and woozy and bloody and totally fricking badass. And as Mad Dog, the small-but-grim Ruhian is the honey badger of bad guys -- fearless and fierce out of all proportion to his size. (Ruhian gets the film's best line as he puts down a gun before fighting Taslim in an awesome sequence: "I never really use these … Pulling the trigger? It's like ordering takeout.")
There's humor here, and wit, and economy in every sense of the word -- it's hard to think of a needless shot or beat in "The Raid," and it packs more action into a small number of sets in a limited location than Michael Bay can into an entire galaxy, or than Jason Statham can in all his globetrotting Transporting --but there's also back-breaking blows and six-minute long fights that clearly took two days to shoot and bad guys' heads being bounced off of a tile wall 8 times in a second and good guys getting atomized by punk kids who laugh as they pull the trigger. Evans can work with his actors, his stunt team and his tech crew in a way that other directors with ten times the resources can't manage, from impressive slow-mo shots that also work emotionally to a sound mix that feels like you're in the moment in shock. (Were I the head of a major studio, I'd throw a bunch of money at Evans immediately -- not too much, but enough that, say, his stunt team could land on airbags instead of stray mattresses.) "The Raid" worked at midnight, to be sure, but I'd watch it again in a heartbeat; it's hard to imagine seeing a better, burlier, brisker or brighter action film this year.