NOTE: Early, gushing reviews from TIFF Midnight Madness presentations should not generally be trusted, as many fest-goers are unable to separate the film from the experience, and formal critical consensus often sends most Midnight films into obscurity. Thankfully, THE RAID earns its stripes and deserves its praise, and stands firmly above the typically overeager reactions heaped on many other films screened in the Midnight program this year and in years past.
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In the future, when someone tells you a movie is wall-to-wall martial arts and gunplay, you should have no choice but to ask them how it rates against this picture, which has so much gunfire and brutal martial arts action -- all of it meticulously choreographed in ways more refreshing than I'd ever have thought possible in this world of peak-performance Donnie Yens and Tony Jaas -- that I very nearly lost the hearing in my right ear, in no small part thanks to the tendency of TIFF sluggos to mistake volume for quality when adjusting their sound levels in an aged, less-than--acoustically-ideal theatre.
Star Iko Uwais is the real deal: wiry, lightning-fast and evidently the leader of a team of experts that truly takes martial arts choreography into new territory with this film (and, to a lesser extent, MERENTAU before it). If there's a downside to his inevitable celebrity because of this film, it's that Indonesian cinema in general will fare no better than Thai cinema has in the wake of Tony Jaa. Like Jaa, anything Uwais makes from this film on -- especially if he keeps teaming with writer-director Gareth Evans, as he should for at least a couple more pictures -- will gain instant and welcome interest from the west, while the rest of Indonesian cinema (such as it is!) will remain the domain of low-brow entertainment that caters largely to the locals, with the exception of the occasional horror movie that can be scooped up for exploitation by "Asian Extreme" DVD labels and streams in the U.S. and Europe.
What really separates this picture from the hordes of martial arts films from the region is its heavy use of Silat, the native martial art of Indonesia. I've seen a billion martial arts pictures over the years, and a million "styles" to go with them, but I'll admit my knowledge of Silat was absolute zero, and this movie turned out to be a wonderful wakeup call.
The key thing about Silat is that it involves knives, lots of 'em, and the film's heroes and villains deploy them with extreme prejudice for almost the entire duration. One stab won't do, but ten capped off by a throat slashing is a good way to gauge whether you've won the battle.
By way of example, picture the exemplary alley-fight-with-sharp-weapons between Donnie Yen and Jackie Wu Jing in SPL (a personal favourite sequence). Now, double the speed (!), and make the ultimate goal to stab, slice or otherwise eviscerate your opponent into oblivion, and you've got most of the hand-to-hand combat in THE RAID. Hero cop Uwais has this neat little trick where he stabs a long blade deep into your upper thigh, then yanks it clean down to your kneecap. Ouch! This thing is bloody with a capital B, but it's so exceptionally well choreographed, photographed and edited that you never lose sight of the geography surrounding the combatants or feel like you've missed a single blow or puncture as each new pair (or group!) of fighters grinds each other down.
Evans' editing in particular is a standout, and rather refreshingly, it isn't used to hide little bits of phony business or make the fight participants look more skilled than they really are, such as it often is in so many action pictures these days (both in western, and, sadly, many Asian cinemas; Legend of the Fist, I'm looking at you). Evans' performers know their stuff, and his editing does more showing than telling.
As to the picture as a whole, if you thought the final 40 minutes of John Woo's HARD BOILED were collectively one of the greatest pieces of action cinema from anywhere ever, imagine that cinematic Nirvana expanded to feature length, and with virtually no fat. The movie starts with a team of elite cops attempting to covertly secure a maze-like high-rise slum apartment building run by a merciless drug lord (when we first meet him, he's executing five bound and gagged men in his office, but he runs out of bullets for the fifth guy, which causes him to casually grab a hammer out of his desk drawer . . . ). Within minutes, though, his goons -- who populate every floor of the building like cockroaches, fight like rabid dogs and spontaneously appear around every corner and out of every doorway -- turn the tables and wipe out most of the fleet in a monster battle of guns, fists, feet and the ubiquitous knives, trapping just a precious few of our heroes on the sixth and seventh floors with little hope of escape.
Aside from a couple of quiet moments where allegiances on both sides of the field shift, not unexpectedly, that's pretty much it in terms of plot, and it obvious the filmmakers would have it no other way. This is a showcase, for Silat, for Indonesia and for Iko Uwais, who is very much the "next Tony Jaa" (as I'm sure he'll be labeled far and wide), for better and, somewhat regrettably, for worse in terms of his country's film industry, for he may very well come to single-handedly represent it around the globe. Not that I'm complaining after having been winded by such an audacious effort as THE RAID.
Barry Prima who?