Gareth Evans’ action stunner smashes its way onto UK Blu-ray.
The Raid comes to us at a time when the action genre has become a neutered, brady-bunched parody of itself, blood and gore and cursing having been toned down in the quest for the almighty dollar. Even when films do purport to return to the good old days, they’re full of tired old men and lots of CG effects. But Eastern action cinema has always provided a harder-hitting counterpoint to the Western equivalent, even during the big-muscled heyday of the ’80s. This time however, the latest action sensation comes not from Hong Kong, nor Thailand, but Indonesia, albeit under the watchful eye of a Welshman. Gareth Huw Evans’ previous film, Merantau, was well received but little seen outside of its native land, yet that didn’t stop the buzz building around his 2011 follow-up.
After a frenzied post-production period and some high-profile festival slots, Sony picked up The Raid for Western release. They added the tagline Redemption (the US rights to the standalone title are taken) and they changed the original score to something altogether more ominous and industrial sounding, enlisting Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda and Joe Trapanese, who worked with Daft Punk on Tron Legacy. Written, edited and directed by Evans, the film is a straightforward story told in bone-crunching fashion. Take one idealistic young policeman – with a pregnant wife at home, natch – who’s part of a small SWAT team on a smash-and-grab raid against a local crime lord, mix in a corrupt officer and add a healthy dollop of familial angst. Pour into a 15-floor housing block in a Jakarta slum, light blue touch paper and stand well back. That’s pretty much all there is to it.
The breakout star of Merantau, Iko Uwais, leads as rookie cop Rama, and his blank-faced performance seems somewhat fitting for a man running on pure adrenalin, letting his fighting skills do the talking for him. Joe Taslim is Jaka, head of the SWAT team who discovers that his superior (played by Pierre Gruno) is almost as shady as the man they’re trying to take down. Tama, the big boss, is the one atypical element of the whole set-up; as played by Ray Sahetapy he’s not a scenery chewing villain, instead he’s so calm and low-key – even when shooting people in the head – that he’s all the scarier for it. Tama’s right hand man, Andi, is realised by Doni Alamsyah, another holdover from Merantau who also gets to show off his fighting prowess in a terrific triple-threat throwdown at the end of the film. Chief henchman Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) has a hustling, bustling combat style which often threatens to steal the show from the leading man.
The debt that the film owes to Die Hard is obvious, along with siege movies like Assault on Precinct 13, and Evans also acknowledges the strong influence that survival horror had on the story. I know that complaints about the narrative in a film like this are somewhat churlish, but that doesn’t stop it from being terribly clichéd at times – all that’s missing is an old timer two days from retirement. The police are stranded without backup (what a surprise) and one bad guy refuses to simply shoot his opponents, instead letting them get all settled before dispatching them mano a mano in cheesy Heroic Bloodshed style. When rewatching the film the flaws in the pacing become obvious, and there’s a big plot hole regarding the CCTV cameras dotted around the building.
So, the movie is a thinly sketched grab-bag of contemporary action/thriller/horror elements, yet it all seems to coalesce into a satisfying whole. The tone soon shifts from raw realism to a more extravagant groove that’s typical of Eastern martial-art actioners, and when the fists started flying my concerns about the story quickly melted away. The movie is chock-full of brutal, unflinching action. Evans’ love for HK action flicks is clear, but the focus of this show is silat, Indonesia’s native martial art, and it’s a fluid mix of elbows and knees and fists and feet that isn’t classically beautiful but has an ungainly grace all its own. It’s a largely grounded technique, so you won’t find any dodgy wirework here, and there are other styles mixed in (Joe Taslim comes from a Judo background, for example) so that it’s not simply the same thing every time.
There’s plenty of gunplay throughout The Raid but it’s not the fetishised John Woo-style action of old. Each gunshot counts, often culminating in a glob of brain matter smeared against a wall, and the bullets don’t magically replenish themselves as the film progresses. As a consequence the action gets increasingly elaborate as Rama ascends the building, switching from firearm to stick to knife as the circumstances dictate, and finally all he has left is his bare hands – plus a broken flourescent tube light. There’s a bit too much CG blood for my liking (it always looks so fake) but the remainder of the staging is visceral enough to remind me of the glory days of HK action cinema, with people taking some nasty looking bumps onto chairs, tables, work surfaces etc.
To Evans’ eternal credit he puts his camera right into the thick of things, showing off some fancy moves, and he doesn’t use the Shakey-Cam™ aesthetic for the sake of it, only when it serves the story best. And the slick editing really allows the tight choreography amongst the cramped sets to become the star of the show. An honourable mention goes to the music, populated by some storming synth beats that harken back to the ’80s whilst also sounding very contemporary, there’s even a brief bit of dubstep in there. At least I think it’s dubstep, I can’t keep up with the yoof of today.
For all of its minor foibles, The Raid lives up to the hype. Gareth Evans has fashioned a gloriously ultra-violent tale that isn’t weighed down by an elaborate plot. Some might say that it’s too simple, even, but that can’t take the shine off of the intense action scenes, the likes of which I haven’t seen for years. It’s testament to the quality of the combat that I was expecting to see a gag reel at the end of the film, a la Jackie Chan. The ending itself is somewhat downbeat, as it’s primed for a sequel that’s already well into development, and don’t forget about the inevitable American remake. I’m not so jazzed about the latter, but I can’t wait to see where the sequel, Berandal, takes us.
The Blu-ray is locked to Region B and starts with skippable trailers for Safe, Red Tails and Mars bar. The old-fashioned animated menus are slow to load on my Panasonic BBT01 but they set the tone nicely, although the swaying motion of the animation made me feel a little queasy if I looked at it for too long! The film is presented in Indonesian and dubbed English versions, both with the Shinoda score. The original music score is not included. Two cuts of the film are present, the UK theatrical and the ‘Fully Uncut Version’, but I’ll be damned if I can spot any differences between them! The English subtitles mostly match the dub, although there are a few simplifications here and there. There is also a set of Hard Of Hearing English subs, in larger font with audio descriptions. A descriptive English PCM 2.0 audio track is also included.
The Raid was shot predominantly on Panasonic’s new AF100 1080p camera and was finished on a 2K Digital Intermediate. Framed at 1.78 widescreen, this AVC encode is a very poor advert for that camera system, with middling detail that doesn’t hold a candle to something shot on RED or the Alexa. Blacks are average at best, and most of the darker scenes are riddled with noise. The colour scheme is very drab, looking cold and menacing, which I’m sure was the intention. The compression can just about keep up with the fastest bits of action, but throw some smoke in there and the image falls apart in front of your eyes due to the noise and the horrible banding.
The banding is so severe that it undermines every aspect of the presentation and makes the whole thing look very amateurish, which is a shame. And there are some disorienting frame jumps scattered throughout too. I didn’t see the movie theatrically so I can’t tell you if the jumps were always there or if they’re a problem with the encode; Evans says in the commentary that they stuck religiously to shooting at 24fps without any cheats, so make of that what you will. In any case, the overwhelming impression of this Blu-ray is like watching a re-compressed bootleg. No, I’m not kidding.
What doesn’t disappoint is the 5.1 sound, encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio for the Indonesian and English flavours. The effect is the same across both: this mix kicks ass. The entire sound field is richly detailed, full of dread atmosphere in the quieter moments and deliciously accurate spot effects that spin around the room when the action starts. Some may say that the gunshots sound a little flat, but if you care to look at the SWAT guys’ weapons you’ll see that they’re supposed to be silenced, and Evans made sure to reflect that in the sound mix, dialling back the percussive crack of the gunfire and combining the recycling action of the guns with little thwumps of bass.
The low end is very lively overall, underpinning not only the action on-screen but the pounding music too, and there are some gut-churning bass drops that rattled the fittings in my room. The dialogue in the risible English dub is perfectly intelligible, not that this movie relies on talking a great deal, and if I could understand the original language track I’m sure I would be saying the same about that mix. (The Indonesian dialect itself is a joy to listen to; some of the actors spit out their lines in a rapidfire staccato, others practically purr their dialogue.)
We kick off the extras section with the two commentary tracks. Yes, that’s right, two, even though the Blu-ray cover – indeed, the Blu-ray menu – only mentions one. Evans’ solo commentary is excellent, full of details about the inception of the film, what the thinking was behind certain scenes, what scenes didn’t make the cut and so on. The alternate commentary, accessible using the audio selection button on your Blu-ray remote, is with Evans and Joe Taslim (who played Jaka). Evans covers much the same ground as the previous commentary, but the addition of Taslim helps to unearth more information, like how he was cast and what the bootcamp for the actors was like, and the two of them have an easy-going rapport which helps to move the chat along.
The video based extras – all presented in 1080p HD – also tend to repeat the information from the commentaries, mainly because Evans is centre-stage. The 40-minute Q&A session with Evans, Shinoda and Trapanese brightens up whenever the latter two get to speak, as they get to tell their side of the story. They also get their own 11-minute featurette called Behind The Music, where they talk about their process and how they came to work on the film. There’s a 12-minute collection of Featurettes, produced to help sell the film, which have Shinoda and Evans bouncing questions off of each other, and there are some interesting little titbits in there. The Video Blogs made during the shooting of the movie are far more interesting, letting us peek behind the scenes for a total of 37 minutes. There are a couple of fan films, one of them a faux-VHS anime style TV spot, running 42 seconds, and the other is a funny 3-minute Claycats version of the film. Lastly there’s a bunch of trailers. The two for The Raid are identical as far as I could tell, but they’re interesting because they offer a look at the movie without the steely-grey colour timing of the final version. Trailers for Sleeping Dogs and Warfighters are also included.
Forget about The Expendables, if you want R-rated action done properly then you’ve come to the right place, because Gareth Evans’ The Raid is an instant action classic. It doesn’t get a perfect score because it’s not quite a game-changer and has a very thin story, but then again, it’s not supposed to be reinventing the wheel. It’s happy to simply shoot, stab, chop, punch and kick the wheel all over the place, and it does so with no small amount of style. The Blu-ray presentation is curiously lop-sided, with terrible video and outstanding audio. It’s a shame that the original music score doesn’t get represented though. The package of extras is good but not great, as there’s far too much repetition, although the ‘hidden’ commentary track is a nice bonus.
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