A brief recap of the career of Gareth Evans: 2006’s Footsteps was a grubby, miserable little indie-crime movie largely indistinguishable from a million other films of its ilk. 2009’s Merantau was a big step up, a handsomely shot martial arts flick with a charismatic star that was nonetheless overlong, overgeneric and lacking in qualities to make it stand out from the pack. 2011’s The Raid: Redemption is very possibly one of the greatest action movies ever made. Go figure.
Like Footsteps, The Raid: Redemption has a real motherfucker of an opening scene, starting with a shot I like too much not to share:
The owner of the gun and the watch is Rama (Iko Uwais, returning from Merantau), although we don’t learn his name just yet. This shot kicks off a quiet, expertly edited montage: first, we see Rama performing Salat (the Muslim prayer; not to be confused with Silat, the martial art that he also practices). Then he’s doing chinups. Then, Salat again. Then situps. More Salat, with his pregnant wife sleeping in the background. Then hammering away at a punching bag. A fourth Salat. He loads his gun and kisses his wife goodbye. As he leaves the house, an old man with sad eyes stands and meets his gaze. “I’ll bring him back,” Rama says. Roll credits.
Not as grabby or intense as the snuff-film opening of Footsteps, but man oh man do I love this scene. The whip-smart editing, the absolutely perfect sound design (the way the ticking of the watch grows and recedes from shot to shot, the contrast between Rama’s soft, almost inaudible prayers and the startling loudness of his gun cocking and his fists on the punching bag), and all it tells us about Rama as a character in just over 90 seconds: he is devout, he is determined, and he is devoted to his family. It functions on its own as a short essay on a topic all martial arts films address to some extent: total devotion to a physical and mental ideal.
Anyway, now that I’ve spent so much time on the first two minutes, I’m very grateful that The Raid is a movie where I won’t have to spend too much time on the plot: Rama is part of an elite swat team sent to take back a 30 story tenement building controlled by the vicious druglord Tama, his two chief enforcers Andi and Mad Dog, and a seemingly endless supply of bloodthirsty henchmen. There will be some character-based wrinkles along the way, but that’s basically it, and the film’s single-minded clarity of purpose in this regard is one of its foremost virtues (an early dialogue sample between Rama and a superior officer: “Why us? Why today?” “Why the fuck not?”). It’s such an elegantly simple setup that it ended up closely mirroring Pete Travis’ excellent comic book adaptation Dredd (a movie I hope to get around to reviewing here one of these days) which was filmed concurrently, and it also shares with that film a pronounced apprehension about the logical end point of police militarization.
After a drive to the tower that stages things like Saving Private Ryan, casting the SWAT van as one of the boats on D-Day complete with glimpses of nervous, shaking hands, the film uses a technique familiar from Aliens, starting us off with a heavily-armed regiment of badasses (and one craven superior officer in over his head) who make their way deep into the foreboding building before being swiftly winnowed down to a mere handful of survivors in a brutally efficient ambush. It’s then Rama and his injured comrades versus a flood of goons in a stakes-raising series of fights that smartly raise the stakes even as they regress with each sequence from machine guns to pistols to machetes and knives to bare fists.
Evans and returning cinematographer Matt Flannery are joined by a second cinematographer, Dimas Imam Subhono (who, apart from the Raid films has no screen credits, but what a way to make your debut), and the things they do with the camera are truly wild – careening through holes in walls and floors, hanging from ceilings, moving in and out of and around the combat with a daring fleetness that would make Michael Chapman circa Raging Bull shake in his shoes. Their camera is fast, often employing a barreling dutch-angled charge on loan from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, but it knows when to be slow, too. Any moron can dutch an angle (see: Battlefield Earth, Thor, etc.), but Evans et al show a remarkable knowledge of when to dutch an angle for maximum effect.
This leads into my next point, and another way in which The Raid shows a massive growing up from Merantau and Footsteps; Evans’ previous movies showed an unmistakable talent for action, but The Raid is the first film of his with actual, honest-to-god tension. Evans evinces a perfect grasp of how to best put the audience into a rapidly constricting bottleneck of suspense as he subjects Rama and co. to increasingly dire circumstances that also make great use of his penchant for horror imagery, particularly Rama’s recurring encounters with a featured henchman I can only think of as Steve from Machete Squad* (and to further the Evil Dead connection, one such encounter was lifted wholesale for the 2013 Evil Dead remake).
This combination of breakneck intensity and brutal simplicity also does wonders for Evans rapport with his actors. Iko Uwais showed a bit of charisma in Merantau, but paradoxically, by stripping his character of all of the backstory and dialogue he got in that film, Rama comes across as a much more human and relatable figure. His increasingly intense stuntwork plays into this as well; like Jackie Chan before him, there’s a bit of Buster Keaton to Uwais, in the way he heedlessly flings his body around tight spaces or seems to run the length of a marathon in a late brawl taking place in a drug lab. In the endless pummeling and abuse he takes, there’s a bit of Bruce Campbell too (there’s that Raimi connection again). One particular moment, where even Rama takes a pause to be shocked at the damage he’s just done to somebody using a splintered doorframe, is one of the best nonverbal human moments in a martial arts film since Bruce Lee sized up Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Game of Death. And Uwais is not the only actor to stand out; Merantau costar and Uwais’ Silat trainer Yayan Ruhian cuts an impressive figure as the vicious miniboss Mad Dog (a character lifted in name and plot position directly from John Woo’s Hard Boiled, a sign of Evan’s utmost confidence in this project if there ever was one).
And here I’ve barely talked about the action scenes! Well, it’s very hard to do them justice, but standouts include a four-on-one showdown between Rama and Machete Squad in a narrow hallway that really milks the situation for all its worth, gluing the viewer’s eyes to each death-defying swing of the blade and Uwais’ unbelievable maneuvers. And then there’s the final two-on-one melee between Rama, his double-agent brother Andi (the movie drops this revelation with about as much fanfare as I just did), and Mad Dog, and this one truly has to be seen to be believed. Staged in an unadorned concrete room, stripped of any undue gimmickry, this scene is an absolute masterclass in martial arts film choreography and camerawork. There’s a moment when Rama does a flying kick from offscreen over Andi to hit Mad Dog on the opposite side of the frame that is as perfect a two seconds as any martial arts film has given us. It’s frankly unbelievable. Seriously, I don’t believe they made it. I can’t even wrap my head around it. Let’s just call it what it is: one of the greatest action scenes of all time.
I’m rambling and gushing, so I might as well bring this to a close. With this film, Evans crafted a watershed moment in action cinema that is hard to find comparison with. With his next project, he would take on another genre, with goals more modest but no less striking.
*this is your reminder to watch Frisky Dingo if you haven’t.
Up Next: V/H/S/2: Safe Haven (2013)