The notion of a foreign director coming into the martial arts industry and changing it is not a new one. One of the most important Chinese martial arts films that established countless conventions (King Boxer) was directed by a Korean, which in the early 70s was unheard of. Over 40 years later we have someone from Wales – Gareth Evans – shooting his second Indonesian film. That film is the Raid.
The story told is slender, because as per genre expectations violence is king. What we do have is Iko Uwais is Rama, a member of a crack squad of police who march into a tower block owned by one of the most powerful crime lords in the city, although they were ready for a fire fight this squad of around 20 men had no idea what they were getting into. Along the way they’re plot beats detailing the truth behind the raid and Rama’s relationship with someone who lives in the Block, a story is there but it’s thin on the ground. Needless to say, don’t expect vast characterisation and deep layered storytelling.
Before this review descends into a torrent of superlatives, the soundtrack redesigned by Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park must be addressed. The martial arts genre may not be well-regarded for its compositions given its status as a cinematic outsider. However, such a truth is dismissive to a genre that both enthuses with the colour of its country of origin as well as a momentum that keeps the adrenaline pumping when it’s necessary and the excitement palpable when it’s not. Shinoda’s work is an empty ploy to get bums on seats in the West. While this new score does get the job done, it is achieved with such a perfunctory outcome; his work could have been taken from any generic action film and pasted over the top. It would have been more complimentary, richer and organic to include the original score by Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal.
Being from Indonesia, this is not kung fu or Muay Thai, this is Pencak Silat an umbrella term used to describe Indonesian martial arts. Stylistically it’s a simple martial art with a fluidity that makes it as brutal and dangerous as it is and the raid has two master practitioners at its heart. The first, Iko Uwais, is a national champion, and the second is Yayan Ruhian, the fittingly titled mad dog. Ruhian teaches the Indonesian police force how to fight, this is one of the toughest forces in the world, and he is every bit as tough as that suggests. Together the two work as action choreographers and choreograph they do.
When the opening blows are drawn, guns are used and that shakycam tool which is used to mask a lack of technique in lesser films is implemented to great effect by Evans to stress power. When the surviving police force is down to their last few the work of Ruhian and Uwais comes out to play. The violence cannot be understated, heads are smashed into walls, backs are broken and jugulars are sliced, the extreme violence cannot be underestimated as there’s always something around the corner to outdo what comes before. Martial arts cinema has rarely been this extreme, but thanks to a flurry of fists and feet it is always breathlessly entertaining. If this truly was action packed from the first to the final second the audience would be overwhelmed, the occasional respites are necessary to come down to earth and process.
Evans has an impressive handle on this action, framing the image with confidence. What sells the hyper-real and unflinching violence is the ideal he celebrates, these men are not superheroes, this is not a Jackie Chan film. If anything his oeuvre owes a debt to the golden era Sammo Hung films. Heroes and villains get beaten thoroughly, even when a winner emerges. For even the token bad asses to be covered in cuts and bruises imposes a grim reality onto the relentless murder of countless re-spawning gang members.
Gareth Evans has brought us a modern classic that re-announces to the world that the martial arts genre is still here and that it is still relevant by punching for the jugular of all who stand in its way. While more mind-blowing in its thrills and spills than game-changing, the work of Gareth Evans, Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian have achieved something incredible: it has announced the existence of the Indonesian film industry in a bigger way than ever before thanks to the best martial arts film since the last golden era.