Perfect Storm: Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011) – Blu-ray review
More musical than muscle-fest, as a Welsh director and Indonesian star pare down the action movie into a blood-soaked ballet.
(Gareth Evans, 2012)
At action movie HQ, there is a vault containing the premise for the genre’s perfect story. It is so pure, so economical, that it cannot be trusted to any old hack; this isn’t something you risk fucking up. So it is stored at the top of a tall building, guarded by dozens of cutthroat fighters. Come and have a go, says the motto on the vault, if you think you’re hard enough. Little did the guardians of the vault know that, somewhere in Indonesia, martial arts star Iko Uwais and his Welsh ex-pat director buddy Gareth Evans, were hatching a plan.
Put simply, The Raid is it: the action movie you dreamed of every time you rode your bike to the video shop. It has a sky-high-concept narrative that studio execs would hack off their arms to own the rights to, but it’s made by a team who aren’t going to pussyfoot around bringing in the stunt doubles for the close-ups. Hell, there hardly are any close-ups. What you see is what you get, and it’s impossible not to mentally add a bruise-o-meter to the screen to clock up all the moments when an actor’s back is bent near-double or their head is shoved into crumbling masonry.
The premise is so simple (police raid a gangland stronghold; gang fights back) that it must have been a challenge to avoid tinkering with it by adding subtexts or opening it out. Evans resists; his concentration is forensically precise, shutting out any metaphorical intent by simply closing the doors on the tower block. Even a plot twist that echoes back to John Wood’s fighting fables about the duality of man feels less like an extra layer of meaning than a fresh excuse for more action. Frankly, once you’re in, you’re in – and it’s that immersion that removes any fears you might have had going in that this would be a Die Hard clone. If anything, it’s closer to Das Boot: a study in how much claustrophobia can be generated by packing countless bodies into a confined space.
So how the hell do you get out? Evans blocks out his location like a cross between a labyrinth and a funhouse – holes in floors, hiding places behind walls, a central stairwell that can be climbed without even taking the stairs – and redresses an otherwise standard-issue corridor set using corpses and blood splatter, like an art installation composed of viscera. The space defines his shooting position and editing strategy. Rather than cut between myriad placements, Evans hangs just off the actors and pirouettes around them – it’s almost graceful (especially compared to the bloodbath it’s depicting) and the best-ever riposte to the ADHD fast-cut frame-fucking of Michael Bay. It’s refreshing to actually see what’s going on.
Of course, it helps if the performers are up to the task. Iko Uwais has that Bruce Lee-esque quality of not looking remotely fierce until it matters. He’s boyish and clean-cut, but moves with incredible dexterity and ruthlessness: lithe and alive. But plenty of other actors shine, especially Yayan Ruhian as the aptly-named Mad Dog, who exemplifies the film’s ragdoll approach to casting: if they don’t break, they’re up to the task. In lesser hands, the film would be almost unbearably nihilistic in its bloodlust, but the choreography is a thing of such wit and wonder you could double-bill it with a Gene Kelly musical and not feel ashamed.