"This violent, intense and brilliant bulletfest from Indonesia puts western action movies to shame!!!"
It was in a delicate, almost feathery mood that I sat down to watch this film: apparently set in Indonesia, probably an evanescent arthouse piece, and called, THE RAID, was it … ? Perhaps it would soothe my working London commuter's cares like a cup of elusively scented herbal tea. Perhaps there would be unhurried shots of treetops languidly disturbed by evening breezes, of skies on which mysterious cloudshapes would be inscribed, lakes whose surfaces would be disturbed by whorls from the titular rainfall. In the evening, perhaps there would be enigmatic silences between gentle characters accompanied by the plinkety-plunkety-plink of wind-chimes and later a full and plangent moon.
Actually, no. THE RAID is a skull-splinteringly violent, uncompromisingly intense and simply brilliant martial arts action movie in a nightmarish and claustrophobic setting. It has something of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs or John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York, along with the icy ruthlessness of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs. There's also a reminder of the desperate fight scenes from Park Chan-wook's Oldboy. Occasionally, prior to killing or dismembering someone, a combatant will run up a wall and flip over backwards, surreally like Donald O'Connor. The leading man is Iko Uwais – who is basically the Carlos Acosta of Indonesian martial arts – and it is directed by the Welsh film-maker Gareth Huw Evans, who keeps a 10-tonne weight positioned on the accelerator.
It is sublimely, in fact heroically simple in its desire to deliver gasp-inducingly athletic action setpieces at all times, and the stunts and fight moves are stunning. There are times when the drum-roll of automatic fire is so deafeningly continuous it sounds like the fizz of white noise from a mistuned TV. In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee famously says: "We need emotional content, not anger." But frankly there seems to be an awful lot of anger here, and I can't believe that the filming ended without some pretty serious hospitalisation for everyone concerned. There really aren't many films that will have you holding clenched fists to the corners of your mouth over an hour and a half. I was forever bleating the two clipped monosyllables of shock: "Ohhhsh … " and "Ohhhhf …
Uwais is Rama, a young rookie in a highly armed paramilitary special forces unit in Jakarta. On one grim day, he finds himself with his comrades in the back of an unmarked van, hurtling through the streets at dawn towards the nastiest part of town. In their black, bulletproof vests and black helmets, the team are disconcerted to be getting their briefing here, in the vehicle, rather than back at base: they are to launch a raid on a 15-storey building whose top floor is a drugs factory run by sinister crime lord Tama (Ray Sahetaphy).
Tama has turned the building into a virtual gated community for every serious criminal in town, and he is protected by a scary martial-arts hombre nicknamed Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian). The briefing is secret because the raid is secret; Rama and the team discover, chillingly, they are on their own, without official backup, forced to fight their way up the building, floor by floor, corridor by corridor, against fanatical and highly armed criminals. There is just one hope: that the enemy is addicted to the thrill of unarmed combat, and will lay down their assault rifles and meet Rama with bare hands, on equal terms.
The building itself appears to exist in a sort of expressionist-realist universe: the exterior looks like a digital creation, and the interiors, with their endless shabby corridors, are like a bad dream. It looks like a haunted hotel in a novel by Stephen King. The cops have rifles; the bad guys have all manner of weapons, including knives and machetes – everything, it seems, short of the "little friend" of Al Pacino's Scarface.
THE RAID does not detain the audience with expositions of character; despite the plot reversals there is no pretence at subtlety or depth, and the comparison with Tarantino does not run to tricksy flashbacks or point-of-view shifts. The action runs at hair-raising speed on one single rail from A to B. It is not for everyone and the mayhem is pretty hard to take, but the brilliance of its choreography can hardly be denied, and as film-making it's fluent and muscular and uninhibited to say the least, the element of absurdity held in deadpan check: this is a superb pulp shocker made with passion and flair.
The action genre has been left too long to lumbering beefcakes like Stallone and Lundgren; melding it with martial arts has given it fresh life here, and Iko Uwais is a new star. Those cinephiles who have taught themselves not to turn up their noses at westerns may wish to think on the same lines about action. The Raid is completely deranged – and completely superb.