Bradford 2012 Review: THE RAID: REDEMPTION

Another year, another film promising to rejuvenate martial arts cinema - Gareth Huw Evans's sophomore feature The Raid comes riding a tidal wave of hype to that effect, in fact, promising ass-kicking the likes of which you've never seen. Once again starring Evans's muse, pencak silat fighter Iko Uwais (previously in Merantau), The Raid sees a hand-picked team of elite cops preparing to storm a crime lord's stronghold at the top of a crumbling thirty floor downtown tenement block. But every tenant in the building is there on the kingpin's sufferance, and they're more than happy to help wipe out the intruders. Trapped inside, hopelessly outnumbered, the cops realise the only way out is through.

A quick and dirty narrative framework promising no holds barred action, a physically talented star, a labyrinthine set the director's free to throw both camera and stuntmen around, over, under, physically through - does The Raid live up to expectations? Well... almost. Given the frenzied reception from its festival screenings and US release could lead more than a few people to anticipate the heavens opening up the moment the lights go down, 'almost' is not such a bad thing. Still, while genre fans will protest they're not interested in anything bar the fighting, the story's both spread way too thin and brought up at precisely the wrong moments. The early action, while still frenetic, is much less dynamic than the later set pieces and cutting the best matchup in the film in two was not a good decision.

But other than that, yes, chances are The Raid really is like nothing you've ever seen.

Even on a purely technical level The Raid is still an exemplary action film. While the way Evans handles the story does frustrate in some respects, the way he charges in with a couple of minutes of scene-setting then straight to the cops psyching themselves up is a beautiful thing - quick, concise, leaving the backstory until later when he judges we actually need it. DP Matt Flannery shoots the tower in cold, wet and filthy shades of blue and grey with dingy shanty-town interiors. The camera flits effortlessly through the corridors, long on wide shots showing off almost every move the cast pull, short on shaky cam, superfluous CG or overly showy messing with the audience's point of view.

It stumbles a little in the early stages. Unlike Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais still projects star charisma once he's opened his mouth, but despite all the major players handling their dialogue surprisingly well the story gets in the way to the point you can't casually dismiss it. Uwais's role as young rookie Rama simply isn't that interesting - oh, he's looking for someone living in the tower? Okay, and? The eventual resolution to that one isn't that much of a surprise, nor does it go much of anywhere, yet Evans still interrupts the flow to flash back to peripheral characters we haven't got to know and don't really care about. The first lengthy fight sequence, too, while technically fantastic, seems somewhat out of step with the pacing, leaving you wondering why this rookie hasn't gone straight to the head of the class with such godlike martial prowess.

But once Evans starts letting the stakes go up naturally, rather than reminding us this guy's personal mission is important, the tension ramps up considerably. Once the tower's tenants are all but crawling out of the walls and Rama and his squadmates are actively fighting for their lives, not just blithely throwing themselves at all and sundry, The Raid finally begins justifying the hype in earnest. And the results are frequently astonishing. Blades are swung, bullets sprayed everywhere and stuntmen sent flying in the kind of tightly choreographed madness that would have Panna Rittikrai foaming at the mouth.

Indeed, you wonder if Evans is too eager to show off what his team can do at times. It's great he wants to give others in the cast a chance to shine - a sequence with the whole squad fighting hordes of enemies above and below a hole in the floor between two different storeys is an early sign of how crazy later set pieces are about to get. But Yayan Ruhian as the crime lord's sidekick Mad Dog threatens to steal Uwais' thunder. Small and not particularly physically intimidating, the moment Ruhian explodes into action in his first fight is stunning like a physical blow, the kind of statement of intent - look at me, this is what I can do - Uwais doesn't really get. The final, bloody two on one featuring him and Uwais is nigh on peerless, sickeningly fast and physical, Ruhian bouncing back no matter how many times he's hurled against the walls. Jaw-dropping doesn't begin to describe it.

Let's be serious - there are better action films, in the sense there are action films with more fully realised characters and more interesting plotting, ones which don't splice this into the fights where it's not warranted. As a movie The Raid doesn't quite measure up to Hong Kong's vanished golden age. It's not that Evans's story is bad, and his cast lend a good deal of inner life to what are really fairly simple roles, but there's too little too carelessly employed here to elicit much genuine interest in where the promised sequel will take the plot. Still, for an action film, the action here trounces nigh-on anything you care to name, whether you're watching for pure visual spectacle, athletic prowess, invention or anything else. The Raid isn't perfect, but it's hard to care about its flaws that much when it's still one of the most riveting, purely thrilling pieces of cinema you will ever see.

(The Raid: Redemption was screened at the 18th Bradford International Film Festival, held in the UK National Media Museum in Bradford from 19th-29th April 2012.)
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