Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may have kick-started a resurgence of the Fantasy Kung Fu genre back in 2000, but for fans of Modern Martial Arts films like Police Story & Tiger Cage the new millennium has been bitterly stagnant. It hasn't helped that in this time HK audiences have shown more interest in Hollywood-style action flicks starring scrawny pretty-boys like Edison Chen, who look like they'd struggle to lift a pint of milk, than the finely trained and skilful martial-arts stars of yesteryear. It also hasn't helped that some of the biggest names in the industry, like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, John Woo, Ringo Lam have been too busy splitting their time between Hollywood and HK to maintain the consistency their glory years provided.
Perhaps only Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung can hold their head up and say they've done their bit to uphold the grand traditions of the 80s & 90s with films like Sha Po Lang (Kill Zone), Flash Point, and Ip Man, while Thai filmmaker Prachya Pinkaew and the supremely gifted Tony Jaa have provided us with hard-hitting Muay Thai infused films like Ong-Bak, Tom-Yum-Goong (Warrior King) and Chocolate. Add them together and you have barely more than a handful of films that live up to the old standards, and those Thai films, while no doubt providing well-crafted fight sequences, are so awful they would be completely unwatchable without the action set-pieces. The genre has been crying out for fresh blood for years now, and the fact that it seemed to emerge in 2009 in the form of a young Welsh filmmaker working out of Indonesia with the largely ignored (movie-wise) martial art: Silat, is as intriguing as it is improbable.
Evans moved to Indonesia in 2007 to work on a documentary about their indigenous martial arts, where he discovered former national champion Iko Uwais working as a truck driver. With a viable star to work with, Evans made his Indonesian film debut in 2009, a martial arts drama called Merantau that highlighted the potential for skilled Silat-themed combat on-screen and made enough of a splash internationally to make Evans & Uwais names to watch out for. The fact that their follow up feature: The Raid has become an international hit (having already grossed over $4milllion in the US alone) is perhaps a testament to what you can achieve once you have your foot in the door and the talent to build on your previous success. The Raid is generating serious buzz wherever it plays, winning international film awards and garnering the kind of mainstream critical praise that rarely follows a film of its ilk, which is why interest from hard-core genre fans in the UK is currently at fever point...
Iko Uwais stars as Rama, a rookie member of a Jakarta SWAT outfit that has been tasked with taking down local crime lord Tama Riyadi, who has been operating out of a rundown apartment block that houses not only his own personal drugs lab, but also a plethora of criminal tenants who pay for the sanctuary his concrete fortress provides from the law. Neither police nor any rival gangs have been able to breach the building in over 10yrs, and when Rama's team botch their night-time infiltration, they soon discover why: Not only does Tama have a strong security force in place, but the entire building is wired with an intercom system that enables him to instantly broadcast that a precious bounty has been placed on the SWAT team's head: Free residency for life. With all exit routes closed off, the SWAT team have no choice but to stand and engage a force of potentially hundreds of dangerous criminals in order to survive.
The poster for The Raid features the tagline: 20 Elite Cops, 30 Floors of Hell, which perhaps sums up the simplicity of the set up. It's a tightly scripted film, offering up the bare minimum of twists and turns needed to maintain interest and establish a believable context for the mayhem to play out in, but it's also very generic in its approach and pretty low on characterisation. Of the "20 Elite Cops" only three or four distinguish themselves, and of those only Rama and the captain Jaka feel like leading roles. Likewise the villains are largely faceless and nameless, with only Tama and his lieutenants: Andi and Mad Dog (Merantau's Doni Alamsyah & Yayan Ruhian) afforded any kind of personality at all.
This is pretty surprising considering the idea of an apartment block full of different criminal factions is the perfect set up to explore a cast of colourful characters with a number of inter-gang rivalries, but I guess when you're on a tight budget you have to choose your focus. As a result though, the film isn't going to have a massive amount of crossover appeal for viewers who don't share a love for martial arts violence, and the plot ultimately fizzles out in the final act once the fists are unclenched and Tama has to be dealt with.
What The Raid lacks in depth however, it more than makes up for in execution. Evans hasn't just plonked a camera on the ground and relied on his cast's prodigious martial arts talents to carry the film, he's crafted a finely-tuned thriller that has a number of tense set-pieces which slow the action down and help establish a more organic pace. He also builds up to big action beats very well, particularly in the opening act where events escalate ever-so-slowly up until the moment the SWAT team is discovered in the building, then just explodes in a whirlwind of gunfire.
Gunplay may be handled slickly, but the main draw is the hand-to-hand sequences, which do such a good job of showcasing the lethal efficiency of the Silat system that you wonder why there aren't a thousand films out there incorporating it already. It's just an incredibly dynamic martial arts style that implements brutal attacks to the joints combined with bone-crushing body slams beautifully; and Evans, alongside choreographers Iko Uwais & Yayan Ruhian, certainly don't shy away from the more visceral ways in which you can take down a human opponent. This is backs-to-the-wall survival fighting, portrayed with a strong sense of realism that's as graphic as it is grounded.
There are no obvious uses of wires or fancy camera trickery, just meticulously choreographed moves shot and edited in a way to make it fluid and easy to follow without compromising the impact. People are cut down with axes, turned into human pincushions by combat knives, and snapped in two by lethal throws and grapples. There's a sequence which pits Rama against a corridor full of villains armed with machetes that's so kinetic it makes the famous corridor fight scene from Oldboy look like a game of pat-a-cake. This is gleefully cruel stuff, almost to the point that it offers a cathartic sense of excitement from fans who have waited too long for martial arts films to go all out with shock & awe tactics like these again. In terms of pure action, The Raid just may be the most exciting cop siege film since Hard Boiled, and perhaps the best militaristic martial arts film since Eastern Condors.