March 15, 2012

Film review: THE RAID

The high-stakes premise of The Raid is brilliantly simple: a team of elite SWAT-type cops must make their way up an apartment block in the slums of Jakarta to capture a gang-leader of gang-leaders, without raising the alarm. They have to be quick and quiet as the block's tenants are gang-bangers, drug-dealers, machete wielding psychopaths and more; it is, essentially, the Mos Eisley of apartment blocks.

When the cops are some 6 floors up, the alarm is raised and the full block's worth of residents descend upon them with automatic weapons, knifes, handguns and bodies. The cops are cut to pieces with no hope of back-up. It is up to the few remaining cops left alive to fight their way through floors of pissed off bad guys just to survive and, hopefully, escape. Throw in a few juicy character secrets, mix with bone-crunching action and baste in a pace that barely lets up. Cook for 100 hot minutes and serve up a sweaty, exhausting and fuckin' awesome movie.

This is Welsh director Gareth Evan's second film with lead Iko Uwais and The Raid is leaps and bounds above their impressive Merantau. Uwais is a practitioner of the Indonesian martial art of Silat - a fighting style that seems to involve using every part of yours and your opponents body to inflict maximum damage. Evan's keeps a steady hand on the proceedings, knowing when to bring a shakey, intense dynamic to the camera and when to let it smooth out. The camera work is muscular and physical; and it has to be to keep up with these guys beating seven shades of shit out of each other.

The cops run out of ammo fairly quickly and, to be honest, none of them really looked that comfortable firing a gun. The film, and the actors, really pick up when they're fighting hand-to-hand, occasionally using a firearm in close quarters (as in, point blank). These aren't gun-toting action heroes; these are brutally physical guys that go at one another with feet, fists, knees, elbows, knifes, machetes, walls, lights and damn near everything else.

And those action scenes are all incredibly well constructed. You can see the thought, planning and passion that has gone in to each one. And they're not short. No, that'd be too easy. Too easy for the characters, too easy for the film and too easy for the audience. Instead Evans has each fight scene build and build and build, using the photography, the editing and the music to build the tension and eventual release. It's exhausting, especially to an audience more accustomed to the quick and close fight scenes of Western action films. You may recall my Anticipated Films of 2012 and how I simply posted the trailer for this film. I'll be honest, I was a little worried that the trailer had already spoiled all the best bits; all the best kills and impacts. I worried needlessly. No trailer could hope to capture a fraction of the combat in The Raid.

But The Raid is more than just the fight scenes. The way Evans builds and deflates tension is, in of itself, a masterclass. The audience is given precious moments to get its collective breathe back, before biting their nails or cheering in their seats. The Raid is not just fight-scene after fight-scene pummelling the audience into bored submission, but instead a series of continually building scenes that usually climax but just as often end quietly or (beautifully) anti-climatically.

There is a wonderful sense of economy to The Raid and it succeeds due to the absolute simplicity of the story, with quickly established characters & clear stakes, and the absolute commitment of everyone involved. Seeing this film with an appreciative audience is a hell of a lot of fun, as the crowd laughs, cries out and applauds these bravura punch-ups as one.

Just a quick idea: The Raid is out in NZ cinemas on March 22nd and, a week later, Attack the Block is released. May I recommend a double feature of Attack the Block followed by The Raid for all your block tower related awesomeness. 

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