Friday, November 16, 2012

The Raid (2011) review


Iko Uwais (Rama), Joe Taslim (Sgt. Jaka), Ray Sahetapy (Tama), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Donny Alamsya (Andi), Tegar Satrya (Bowo), Pierre Gruno (Lt. Wahyu)

Directed by Gareth Evans

The Short Version: Indonesian cinema has come a long way since the comic book gore bonanzas of Barry Prima and Company from the late 70s and 1980s. If THE RAID is anything to go by, Hong Kong, Korea and Thailand now have some additional competition. A high action quotient stands in for the barest minimum of plots and character development. The video game storyline is just a decoy for some breathlessly brutal fights that occasionally recall oldschool kung fu movies; what with all the machete wielding gangs, spurting blood and that timeless Asian action mainstay of a monumentally formidable villain that requires two heroes to defeat. It's made even more amazing in that it's directed by a white guy. Finally an Anglo filmmaker that gets it.

Rama, a young father-to-be, is a rookie officer part of an inexperienced 20 man SWAT team with orders to get inside a 30 story civilian occupied tenement and bring out a ruthless drug lord. They soon realize they are up against a much more powerful, and capable enemy than they first thought. Ultimately, most of the officers are killed leaving Rama to battle a legion of machete wielding maniacs and martial arts experts on his own.

While I'm not great fan of modern Asian action movies (still a grumpy oldschool fan for life), I do occasionally see one; and sometimes one that I like. THE RAID is one such picture. There's relatively little to talk about script-wise as the storyline is threadbare, held together by uncompromisingly vicious fight scenes that would make Chang Cheh very, very proud if he were alive today.

Speaking of Chang Cheh, the actor that plays the Sergeant of the SWAT unit, Joe Taslim, reminded me a great deal of former Shaw Brothers superstar, Ti Lung. While this is primarily a showcase for Iko Uwais, Taslim gets a pretty brutal fight scene all his own during a one-on-one skirmish with the short in stature, but powerful in punch, Yayan Ruhian.

Yayan plays Mad Dog, a title he proves worthy of once he finally cuts loose. He's not a typical screen bad guy. When he has his enemies at gunpoint, he prefers to let his hands and feet do the talking. Yayan delivers an incredible performance rife with dark charisma and a titanic level of badassery that usurps the profound evil of  Ray Sahetapy's main antagonist, Tama.

Mad Dog also doesn't say much. He just motions with his hands before letting you see them up close and personal. The final fight is astounding in its brutal, ballet-like brilliance that echoes one of the most oft used plot devices of oldschool kung fu movies; two heroes taking on a single, nearly invincible villain. In this case, it's not an open field, or valley, but within the tight quarters of a mono-chromatic, concrete torture room. The fight culminates in a bit of Chang Cheh style bloodshed that reinforces the word "invincible".

But then this is where Asian and American action differs -- you rarely ever see an American action star in trouble in their movies. When you do, it's generally because of a situation, predicament, or trap they find themselves in and not from any superior skill of the antagonist. American action stars are mostly shown to be almost untouchable. Steven Seagal is a prime example of this; and most of his adversaries aren't fighters to begin with as opposed to being mere slabs of meat to be tossed around the set and have their bones broken.

In Asian action movies, the heroes are also showcased as invincible, but not without receiving a great deal of punishment, or loss of blood in the process. As they are strong, their main targets are often stronger. Such is the case with Mad Dog, who is so formidable, you have to wonder just how in the hell the good guys are going to defeat him. This is one of the beauties of Asian cinema -- that while they have powerful, nearly impervious heroes, they are also prone to pain and death. It's not just their skill, but their spirit that keeps them going till their last breath; again, Chang Cheh would be proud.

Iko Uwais, the Indonesian actor who plays the main character of Rama, is also extremely impressive. I've seen movies with Pencak Silat in them before, but this is the first time I can recall where this fighting style is central to the production. With what little exposition he's given, his minor emotional moments resonate far more believably than those of equally, and enormously fight-minded Tony Jaa epics. Case in point being a vague rivalry between Rama and Bowo. There's glaring tension between the two within the first ten minutes, yet it's never expounded upon. Later in the movie, Rama ends up saving Bowo's life, yet this arc is shoved to the wayside to make way for more action scenes.

To give you another example of how thin the story is, the covert operation begins barely 5 minutes into the film! I felt like I'd walked in on a movie that had already been on for a half hour or so. It didn't seem feasible that the filmmakers would be able to stretch this out to a 101 minute movie when it gets to its main thrust right from the get-go. Gareth Evans' script is simplicity, lacking ingredients that are good for us, but jam packed with all that fattening stuff we all love to eat.

The heart of the movie are its fight scenes. The heart is kept alive by an intermittent string of "breather moments" which consists of minor bits that reveal the slimmest amount of background that gives us some degree of connection with these characters.

While guys like Iko and Yayan shine with their actions, Ray Sahetapy uses his minimal screen time as the murderous Tama to his advantage by way of his dialog delivery. An early scene of him executing a group of captives (presumably some rival gang members) sets the tone that he's not a very diplomatic person. Sahetapy plays Tama as this laid back psycho who occasionally panders towards Grand Guignol theatrics. Up till the end, his lines are casually elucidated with all the restraint of a Charles Manson interview. By the end, his inner madman comes to the surface, eyeballs threatening to erupt from their sockets when his slummy empire begins to literally crumble around him. 

Even with its lack of emphasis on building a better dramatic character, the narrative is driven by whether or not the hero is going to make it through increasingly lethal levels of this tenement with death around every corner. These video game schematics work extremely well here, even with a noticeable lack of characterization. Had at least ten more minutes been given to these characters, THE RAID would have been an even more intense, exemplar addition to the martial arts cinema canon instead of subsisting on waves of fights and spurting blood.

This review is representative of the Sony DVD.

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