Nearly half way through Gareth Evan’s latest Indonesian martial arts flick is an explosive act of desperation that I knew would come to serve as the perfect visual metaphor for the entire film. Two terrified, injured and outgunned remnants of a 20-strong SWAT team sent to a Jakarta slum tenement blockade a doorway with a fridge, recently filled with a gas cylinder. One of the cops then slings a grenade in for good measure and spins the thing away round. The resulting jet of fire incinerates a corridor of their pursuers as the fridge itself flies backwards, caving in a wall and knocking out the surviving protagonists.
That’s The Raid for you; a jet-flame of intensity, not big, not that clever but unusual, innovative, and devastatingly effective. Bar a brief, stylish set up which introduces us to Iko Uwais’ boy-faced protagonist Rama, his heavily pregnant wife, along with the two senior cops leading the raid (Joe Taslim’s Jaka and Pierre Gruno’s Wahyu) the entire film is full of these frantically cobbled together improvisations, infusing it with verisimilitude.
Despite Evan’s pedigree you’d be forgiven for initially thinking the action of the film is going to be mostly gun-play, which kicks off in spectacular fashion after a seriously tense standoff in the dark between gang lord Tama’s armed tenants and his would be SWAT assassins. After what seems like an age, an ill-considered shotgun blast from one of the cops lights up the multi-tiered stairwell like a flare, before all hell breaks loose in a tornado of debris, dust and death.
It’s a claustrophobic and redolent scene, but it’s not until the SWAT team has been decimated that Rama, carrying heavily injured squad-mate Bowo on his shoulder, is actually forced to rely on his fists. What follows is a gloriously inevitable, stab-happy Silat (Indonesian martial art not unlike Muy Thai) demonstration; Uwais evoking a more brutal Tony Jaa. Yayan Ruhian and Uwais’ choreograph is brutal and utilitarian, ligaments and thighs being torn open with shocking rapidity. What makes this picture’s combat quite so gripping is how big a part the decrepit environment plays, forcing Rama to make do with a linearity of movement powerfully reminiscent of the one-take corridor fight scene in Oldboy. What’s more, it’s certainly not like Rama is an invincible bad-ass; he takes plenty of punishing hits, and not all of the henchmen are mindless cannon-fodder. There are scenes of such breath-holding suspense that you won’t for a minute believe Rama is going to get out completely unscathed.
Action aside and without giving the compact plot away, there emerges detail that really sets the film apart; a twist here, a character development there, and Evans has left room for a potential sequel or prequel, and either would be eagerly welcomed. A visceral thrill-ride with moments of dark humour, inventively shot and not an ounce of fat on it, ‘The Raid’ makes a compelling argument for best martial arts film/thriller of the year.