TIFF 2011: THE RAID review
Very early in the introduction of characters and story in Gareth Huw Evans' new action martial arts extravaganza The Raid it not only becomes very clear to the viewer who the bad guy is, and that he is evil, full capital letters EVIL, but that this is a darker, leaner and meaner Evans and he means to take no prisoners. The scene involves four bullets, then a hammer, and if he didn't get your attention it meant you either covered your eyes or passed out you pansies. It's an attention grabber that is for sure and quickly sets the pace and tone for the rest of the film.
By now you should know the premise of the film. A criminal overlord lives on the top floor of a large apartment building. It is wired to the nines with cameras and speakers. No one moves in this building without him knowing it. He owns everything and everyone inside it. Two-bit criminals take refuge behind its doors. Junkies get their fix in derelict apartments. Nearly everyone inside the building is bought and owned by this overlord. Iko Uwais is Rama, a rookie SWAT team member. One of twenty attempting to infiltrate this fortified complex and snatch the boss. Thing is, they are discovered and whole building turns on them and they have to fight for lives, from floor to floor, room by room. Do they continue with their mission? Or do they just try to get out and survive?
Evans' direction in The Raid is inventive and dynamic. With his DoP Matt Flannery, they follow the action as well as emphasize it opting for hand held camera work that follows each fist, and foot, and elbow, and head... you get the idea. Clinical editing draws focus to moves and hits. Because the adrenaline level of The Raid is so much higher than that of their previous work Merantau you can forgive the quicker cuts. And it still works because Evans has so much respect for the hard work put in by Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian on the choreography that despite the close quarters combat, moving from room to room and floor to floor, he still manages to pull the camera back far enough to allow us to fully appreciate the scope of action. It is only his second film in and you can already pick up on a couple signature shots of his liking. The one shot where he follows Iko rising up from the floor from a lying position? Gareth did that in Merantau. He also likes placing the camera directly above his subjects, looking right down on them, and then spinning with the motion. While in Merantau he did while rounding a corner, he does it more than once in The Raid to grand effect when someone is getting slammed into a wall, pillar, cabinet... so on.
And despite the great bounding energy of the direction and camera work Evans is no fool and understands the sometimes even in a high octane actioner like The Raid that less is more. He does marvelous work drawing out unsettling moments of violence by not really showing us anything at all. Whether it be with cuts before and after the moments of violence, shooting from the fourth wall, lighting effects, and depth of focus at the right time we're still playing out the moment in our heads and we still 'see' what we cannot see. He has also proven that he is quite adept at building tension to nerve fraying levels. It is the pacing of those moments; the crescendo of sound and music. He pulls us close to the breaking point and releases at the right time; either allowing us a moments reprieve or blowing it up in our faces.
In the interest of full disclosure I have been privy to bits and bobs about The Raid pretty much since the word go. I got to see the five clips the film's sales team took to Cannes that triggered a rush of sales to nearly every territory in the World. There were other clips as well that would follow during production, all action, that showed off the incredible work that Gareth, Iko and Yayan were doing both in front of and behind the camera. I don't say this to brag. I say it because it is one thing to watch an unfinished clip without sound and post. You appreciate the work of those three guys in regards to action and choreography. But then it is another thing to watch the final piece and the pounding, throbbing soundtrack by Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal combined with post visual effects and sound. Special mention has to be made for the music and sound production for now that I have had this inside perspective I have a better understanding of its importance to the end product and how much better proper production enhances the final result.
In regards to Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian and there work on the choreography. Holy. Crap! There are not enough words to describe it. Fluid and Fierce. Precise and Powerful. Complex and Crushing. They have proven themselves not only capable of staging great fight sequences but also at adapting the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat to include modern weapons/tools as extensions of themselves. Any questions about the impact and strength of Silat raised from Merantau are quickly and punishingly answered in The Raid. Evans is in an enviable position in Jakarta that he has access to an enormous talent pool of martial arts talent apart from Silat. Case in point, Joe Taslim in the role of Jaka. He's a former Indonesian National Judo Champion and Iko and Yayan went through great lengths to ensure the audience gets a hearty sample of throws and blows from him. The fight between Jaka and Yuyan's Mad Dog is visceral eye candy, plain and simple. Speaking of Mad Dog. Yayan Ruhian is damned pit bull in this film; just an absolute monster and beast in this film. You know what is more unsettling? Anyone at the screening last night could see that Iko and Joe are not large burly men when compared to your average North American male. Yuyan is even smaller but his presence is that of a giant in the film. And kudos to Doni Alamsyah as well. I hope to find out more about him when I speak to Gareth and the boys later next week but he holds his own when it comes to throwing down.
What I also found impressive about the choreography, other than the fact that it is brutally violent and bloody, was when it came down to the melees I loved how the flow of motion and energy sometimes changed mid stride. I've watched unfinished clips over and over again so I've studied them more carefully than a first time screening can allow but during some of the fights you think the action is going in one direction and they throw it or beat it in the opposite direction. Particularly during the Jaka and Mad Dog fight. This works especially well here because of Joe's discipline in Judo. There are a lot of throws. But they move in the opposite direction of where you think they're going. Mad Dog has Jaka by the head and they're running to towards the wall and you think Mad Dog's just going to ram it but he uses the wall to vault off of and knee Jaka in the head instead. That fight is the best example of that change in flow in direction that I noticed. And I love how surprising it and all the choreography is.
There have been a great many duos in the action and martial arts world. Modern masters included John Woo and Chow Yun-fat; Jackie Chan and Edward Tang; Jet Li and either combination of Corey Yeun and Tsui Hark. Leaders of the new school were for a short while Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen, and Prachya Pinkaew and Tony Jaa. With The Raid Evans and Uwais not on confirm they are solid contenders in the genres but clearly the current title holders as well. All challengers are welcome but they best be warned, they'll be met with a combat boot to the face.
Evans, Uwais and crew have done it again! They didn't just knock it out of the park. They knocked it unconscious and threw the bodies over the outfield wall where no one will ever find them.
Best action movie of the year.
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