This review could very easily have turned into a diatribe against the Malaysian film industry.
I could go on and on about how we, as a nation, cannot seem to produce anything half-decent on a consistent basis despite the resources, opportunities and talent out there. Heck, we can barely even manage a genuinely good film once every decade. And I could cite “The Raid: Redemption” as a damn good example of how the Indonesians can make a kick-ass film on a very limited budget… with the natural implication being “So why can’t we?”
But I’m not going to do any of that.
For two reasons. One, pretty much every Malaysian knows our films are generally crap. So there’s no need for a further teardown. Two, although “The Raid” aka “Serbuan Maut” is a “Buatan Indonesia” (Indonesian-Made), the central creative force isn’t an Indonesian. He isn’t even Asian. Writer-Director Gareth Huw Evans is a Welshman. Now, this doesn’t take anything away from the Indonesian cast and crew, whose considerable skills helped make the film what it is. But, if we’re being honest about assigning credit where credit is due, the success of the film is largely down to one man.
Evans reminds me of early John Carpenter, James Cameron or Sam Raimi, in that a shoestring budget is no barrier for creativity. In fact, all these filmmakers thrived in situations where they had very little time and money to work with. Like them, Evans’ biggest strength lies in knowing how to hold an audience captive. His movie is not a complex tale filled with layers of subtext. Not every movie needs to be. In fact, the plot of “The Raid” is videogame simple. A SWAT team raids the high-rise hideout of a nasty crime boss, and must battle their way through hordes of henchmen all the way to the top to capture him. Along the way, there are double-crosses and revelations of personal stakes thrown in just to give the characters enough definition to avoid coming off completely flat. But primarily, this is a no-frills exercise in taking you to the edge of your seat. And keeping you there.
I’m particularly impressed at how Evans builds tension. From the onset, he lets us know things are going to get real ugly. Before long, the dread creeps in with a purposeful inevitability and ratchets up a notch with every subsequent scene. The taut, minimalist electronic score by Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda (with Joseph Trapanese) also drenches the proceedings in a doom-laden atmosphere, perfectly matching the decrepit location. Then, when the tension has reached nail-biting levels, the violence explodes. And boy, is it something to behold.
Evans knows what the selling point of his film is, and he over-delivers on that front. Some critics have raved that this is the best action film in decades. While that’s something of an exaggeration, the fight scenes are definitely the best you will see all year. The critical hyperbole is understandable. After all, very few Westerners have been exposed to the Indo-Malay martial art known as Pencak Silat. So they’re seeing with new eyes. I must admit that the way it’s presented in this film is quite an eye-opener for me as well. Silat has always struck me as being a little poncey and ceremonial, unsuitable for real-life application. Not here. In a lightning-quick flurry of elbows, fists and knees, the film’s combatants prove that Silat can be ruthlessly efficient and very, very brutal. Cinematically speaking though, this fight system isn’t new to Asian audiences, as it bears more than a passing resemblance to Muay Thai or even Wing Chun. Still, it’s great that Pencak Silat is finally getting its due on the big screen.
The chief purveyors of punishment are Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim in the cop roles, and Yayan Ruhian as henchman Mad Dog, with Uwais and Ruhian also orchestrating the fight choreography. When done right, no other form of Cinema can match the martial arts genre in satisfying our more primal impulses. Sometimes, we just love seeing people beat the shit out of each other — which these guys do exceeding well. Proper acting however is in short supply, except in Ray Sahetapy’s case, whose dry charm makes his mob boss Tama all the more menacing. The cast is also hampered by an awful dubbing job by Indian voice “actors”. Seek out the original Indonesian-language version if you can.
Another thing that diminishes the film’s impact is the clumsy editing. Evans has a habit of cutting away at the height of a tense moment, to some other scene. It’s a stylistic choice that probably comes from wanting to keep the viewer guessing about the fate of the character(s). In reality it ends up deflating a lot of what’s been nicely built up to that point. I’ll put that down to inexperience. Evans also displays a rookie director fondness for referencing the cinematic vocabulary of the great filmmakers. While homaging Stanley Kubrick shots might go unnoticed by general audiences, it’s quite distracting for a film geek like me. I don’t need it, as I think Evans has enough visual flair to call his own.
Ultimately though, these are relatively minor issues that do not detract from the overall enjoyment of the movie. “The Raid” has no pretenses to greatness or highbrow art. Evans set out to make a crowd-pleaser, albeit one that’s more male-skewed, and that’s precisely what he’s accomplished. The simplicity and clarity at play here is admirable, particularly in the absence of big studio support, and it is a valuable lesson that Malaysian filmmakers can learn from. Hell, even Hollywood could learn a couple of things about how he shoots his action.
That said, it is unlikely Evans would or could ever have made such a film in his native UK. There is a certain down & dirty vitality and fearlessness in how Asians approach action filmmaking. From Jackie Chan’s death-defying stunts to Tony Jaa’s full-contact fighting, we simply don’t hold back. “The Raid: Redemption” has that nature in its blood. As an expat living in Jakarta, Evans has probably soaked up the local ways. The result is a thrilling actioner that raises the bar for the genre, and for the rest of the world.
Now let’s see if we can meet that challenge here in Malaysia.