The following is a reprint of our review from Sundance.
If you ever wanted a feature-length version of the scene from Tony Jaa’s “The Protector” where in one shot he literally fights his way up to the roof of a building filled with baddies, then “The Raid” is the movie for you. Although his two previous films failed to make an impression outside of Indonesia, writer-director Gareth Evans crafts a relentless – and relentlessly exciting — onslaught of visceral entertainment with his tale of a SWAT team that’s ambushed after being assigned to invade a drug kingpin’s heavily-fortified stronghold. Featuring fight sequences almost literally from start to finish, “The Raid” is an action-lover’s dream, precisely because it pitches the choreography at a thrilling but believable level that prevents viewers from succumbing to an overdose of kicks and punches.
Iko Uwais plays Rama, a middle-management cop whose bosses assign a small contingent of men to infiltrate the derelict apartment building out of which Tama (Ray Sahetapy) deals drugs with virtual impunity. Although Rama and his men effortlessly gain entry to the building, they are quickly noticed by a spotter, and Tama unleashes the building’s inhabitants on the invaders, promising them rent-free accommodations if they protect him from being apprehended. As hordes of Tama’s foot soldiers descend upon them, Rama and his men are forced to improvise an exit strategy, in the process facing off against some of the most ruthless killers in the criminal underworld. But after Tama sends his two best men into the fray, strategist Andi (Doni Alamsyah) and cold-blooded warrior Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), Rama begins to uncover an unexpected relationship between the cops and their foes that doesn’t just herald a criminal conspiracy, but threatens the lives of himself and his men.
As much of an endless appetite a person can possibly have for watching people beat the shit out one another, there almost always comes a time when you say, “Maybe, you know, if you wanted, you could throw in a little plot,” or at the very least, “Could we take a break so I can catch my breath?” The problem with most Hollywood action movies is that their general sense of action is limited to the “Rocky III” style of choreography, where every blow is a haymaker, and every kick a back breaker. But Hong Kong martial arts has understood for decades that if the choreography is exciting, and two people are evenly matched, then the fluidity of their fighting becomes a sort of set-up, and a landed blow the punchline. (There’s a reason that few American directors’ action films are described as “balletic” – namely, because they’re designed to be brawls, not ballets.)
Consequently, the pitch of most American action movies is like a tidal wave of ups and downs: for every awe-inspiring shot of a real person human-squirreling through downtown Chicago in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” there are a dozen, endless, numbing sequences in which indistinguishable robots pound each other into scrap metal. But in “The Raid,” there’s nothing on screen except for men – and normal-sized, mostly unexceptional-seeming men, so when they start to trade blows, there’s a momentum and energy that is undeniably palpable; regardless how long two men (or five) square off, they’re still just people beating the shit out of one another, unencumbered by superpowers, improbable armor, or some other sort of augmentation. And while they probably can (and inevitably do) endure more abuse than any person should have to, these fights still feel believable, because they’re being executed by actors and martial artists with the chops (so to speak) to pull off every kick, take every punch, and prevail by sheer force of will.
While that might seem to damn the film with faint praise, suggesting that Evans and company’s ambition was more modest than the dream-makers in Hollywood, the truth is that “The Raid” features some of the most invigorating, tableau-like storytelling in recent memory, and it’s second to no film. Rama’s goal, purely and simply is survival, and while the film slowly peels back subsequent layers of conspiracy and betrayal, it never loses a core interest in its characters, and maintains an emotional throughline that never lets us forget that, ass-kicking aside, these are essentially normal guys. It’s as if the sine wave of ups and downs is less dramatic, but more constant, so even though some of those fights seem to go longer than we have patience for, or perhaps to the point of viewer (much less participant) exhaustion, they never venture into territory that makes them more than human beings are capable of, and as a result, never get tiresome to watch.
Meanwhile, there are enough awesome kills in the film that trying to rank them or keep a running tally feels like an exercise in futility; for every moment that leaves you gobsmacked, at the sight of some poor bastard being shuffled off into the afterlife in a particularly (awesomely) gruesome way, there are still dozens yet to come which by comparison will demand the literal unhinging of your jaw in order to swallow. Again, however, it’s not a matter of plausibility or endurance, but one of compelling character definition and streamlined storytelling, both of which Evans accomplishes effortlessly. Ultimately, “The Raid” is the sort of film to which most b-movies aspire, because it takes lesser-known (or in the states, unknown) actors and launches them through a gauntlet that amounts to far more than the sum of its superficially conventional parts. But given the fact that even most A-list efforts can’t live up to “The Raid” – testament to which being the news that Hollywood is planning a remake – it’s not only a triumph because it shows the most interesting ways to kick other people’s asses, but because it shows the most interesting ways to kick most other movies’ asses as well. [A]