Machete fights, guys. Machete fights.

The Raid is also known as The Raid: Redemption for some reason. It’s a movie that many who stay informed about such things have already heard of. They have heard that it is one of the best action films in years and easily the best martial arts film in a decade. I shit you not, if you even remotely like fisticuffs, gun-play, and fucking machetes, you will be mouth-gaping most of the run-time of this movie. With a simplistic story that never presumes to be more than an excuse for context to surround all the violence, The Raid is pretty much all payoff with a surprising and steady rate of tension that characterizes its fights. This tension elevates the action to a point where it is a story in itself, with most of the fights and sparse dialogue providing all the character development and narrative propulsion you could ever need from a movie like this.

As I said, the story is simple: Rama (Iwo Uwais) is a rookie cop with a beautiful wife and baby on the way. Assigned to a police raid against a mob-controlled tenement building, Rama is one of the few survivors struggling to get out alive when the whole operation goes impossibly wrong. In the midst of all the chaos, some intrigue is maintained as nothing about the raid is as it seems and even Rama, a total boyscout, has hidden motives for being there.

Because I spend so much time talking about narrative in my reviews, a movie like this one leaves me with a bit less to say. There’s a bit of a twist in the movie that most will see coming a long way off, but since it’s the only one and it sets up the penultimate fight scene, one of the best ever, it would probably be more fun to leave it to you to see for yourself. Anyway, I guess this is just my way of explaining why I won’t be dissecting the narrative choices of The Raid. It will also account for why this should be a shorter review than average. It’s not an indication of quality, obviously, as my longest reviews are usually the most negative. And, well,  The Raid is a fucking amazing film. So there ya go.

Rama is a resourceful, quick-thinking killbot.

The movie feels like something John Woo wishes he would have made. The surprise is that this isn’t some unheard of Asian genius at work, but a young Welsh guy named Gareth Evans who seems to have a lucrative interest in martial arts. The Raid, and his previous film Merantau (which I haven’t seen), both feature the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. It’s a vicious assortment of knees, elbows, kicks, throws, and rapid hand strikes. The choreography in the film is high-speed but always completely clear which, added to the fact that every fight is utterly life-or-death, gives the whole thing a lot of its power. There’s a desperation in many of the moves that comes from the apparent kineticism of the martial art itself as much as from the tone that Evans maintains in any scene without fighting. There are few of those, too. At around an hour and a half long, The Raid is violence for at least two thirds of its length. This makes the film’s brutality as much an exercise in endurance for the audience as it is for its characters.

The martial arts make up the bulk of the action but the first half of the movie features some cleverly shot gun-based combat. Some of this stuff is noticeably creative, especially a bit where the muzzle flash from a shotgun blast illuminates the squad of police just enough for a waiting band of gunmen to cut them to pieces. This stuff feels like a slightly more stylized version of Blackhawk Down except that it all takes place in one apartment building.

The building is practically a character in the film, too. As it houses 95% of the movie, it has to constantly be shot in interesting ways so that it doesn’t get stale. Or, the movie must find its way to locations that feel enough unlike the stuff we’ve seen before that we remain invested. This utilization of a single setting is masterfully done and just noticeable enough that you appreciate it.

Knife vs. Gun.. not always an outcome you’d expect.

I said before that the fighting itself provides a lot of the character development. This is another thing that makes The Raid something special. Rather than spend a lot of time on exposition and background for characters to make us care about them, Evans backs off and let’s their actions speak for them. Rama is the hero of the piece and we get behind him not only because he’s sort of noble and kind to begin with, but because he shows extreme courage and competence in the face of incredibly desperate circumstances. When charged with a horde of machete-wielding thugs, he runs until he’s cornered and then he charges, constantly coming just this close to death as he fends them off with tenacity that overshadows even his incredible skill. This tells you enough about the guy to root for him. Same with Jaka (Joe Taslim), the sergeant leading the crew, who is protective of his men and able to go toe-to-toe with even Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian, who taught Silat to the Indonesian secret services in ’89), the right hand and enforcer of Tama (Ray Sahatepy), the oily and charismatic big boss. Mad Dog is the kind of villain you totally root for. He’s small but built like a tank and he loves fighting so much that he’ll give up the advantage of a gun just to prove himself, presumably to himself, and kill the way he likes. His scenes with Andi (Doni Alamsyah), the brains of the operation, are highlights of the few dialogue-oriented parts of the movie.

You need to run to see this movie, especially while it’s playing in the big screen. While one of those films that remind me of the rare old times where finding a crazy foreign action movie in a corner of the DVD rental shelves was the only way to get at it, it doesn’t do The Raid any justice to see it at home without an audience of other people waiting to be floored by how awesome this thing is.