With Tony Jaa presumably still howling at the moon and polishing off his Messiah act for a herd of adoring elephants somewhere deep in the Thai jungle, it appears that applications are currently being processed to fill the vacant position of king of cinematic ass-whuppery. Sylvester Stallone may well be busy writing references for his coterie of flamethrower-wielding asthmatics, but he’ll need to rely on a lot more than nostalgically-driven good will for any of the wheezing geezers of Expendables 2 to stand a chance of once again filling the role when up against the insanely agile new kid on the block, Iko Uwais.
Discovered by Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans whilst shooting a documentary on Indonesian martial art, Silat in Uwais’ native Jakarta, the director’s inner-Simon Cowell kicked into gear when he saw the commercial potential in the young fighter’s abilities, persuading him to quit his day job to join the fledgling production outfit as protégé and collaborator. Their first project Merantau (2009) was a modest success on the genre festival circuit, but failed to emerge from the shadow of the muay-thai phenomenon, then still going strong. Evans’ approach in deciding where to head next was simple; if audiences came to these films for the fight scenes, why waste any of his next 100 or so minutes of screen time on anything else? It’s a promise director and muse work overtime to deliver with The Raid, creating if nothing else the most relentless and insanely violent action flick since John Woo first introduced us to Tequila.
Like a misreading of Carl Dreyer’s theses on paring back the inessential in his films to reach a more purposeful clarity of focus and intent, Evans demonstrates little interest in anything that gets in the way of the next smack-down. The narrative is video game simple (SWAT team fight their way up through gang-controlled apartment block to big boss at the top), the only character stakes a throwaway shot of rookie cop Uwais’ pregnant wife and the late introduction of an estranged brother (Joe Taslim). The two brothers may represent opposing sides of the same coin, but there’s barely even enough time for black and white shading here, given the hordes of nameless hostiles awaiting a grisly end (assuming of course there aren't 17 characters named 'Carrying Bowo Fighter' as the credits suggest).
Working with co-star Yayan Ruhian (a miniature tornado of a lead henchman), Uwais’ fight choreography is nothing short of extraordinary. The production design may be grim and monotonous, but there’s not a part of it that can’t be broken off to batter, impale or eviscerate. Every manner of gun, knife, foot, knee and fist gets a piece of the action, with refrigerators and light fixtures equally repurposed and artillerized to devastating effect. The Raid pushes its hard 18 certificate to the edge, what it lacks in dialogue more than making up for in bloodshed, particularly during the final showdown between Ruhian, Taslim and Uwais.
If the ferocious and endlessly extended action sequences more than deliver, it’s still hard to shake the feeling that even they could be served better by Evans’ direction. Entirely humourless (if still imaginative in the bad guy despatch department), the lack of levity with which to punctuate the bombardment of bludgeoning is sorely felt. Whilst Evans’ own editing is smart enough to let the movement within the frame speak for itself, Matt Flannery’s handheld lensing is too often a distraction, his flat lighting merely perfunctory, his point-and-shoot coverage uninspired. Even as the body count in one corridor of the building rises above that seen in the ‘hammer sequence’ of Oldboy (2003), it serves as little more than an awkward reminder of the elegance of Park Chan Wook’s image-making.
That said, Evans is more than aware of what those seeking out The Raid are looking for, and taken on its own terms it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Those just after their action kicks aren’t likely to find anything to top this for a while, which leaves just one poor soul to come out feeling more than a little bit nervous. Though I’m sure Expendables 2 won’t be that bad.
The Raid – 2011 – Indonesia – 101 mins – Dir : Gareth Evans