Ever since Ong Bak exploded onto screens back in 2005, the promise of the ‘next Tony Jaa’ has been a favourite buzz phrase for PR agents to push obscure martial arts movies from the less prolific Asian nations. But you can’t help but think that in the case of Iko Iwais, the star of Gareth Evans’ action extravaganza The Raid, this is entirely justified given the immediately iconic nature of his screen performance and the stunning display of his martial prowess. This is an entrance that demands your attention and Iko Iwais, who also acted as principle choreographer, is undoubtedly set to make the little known Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat as globally well known as Jaa made Muay Thai. With his reserved and understated personality segueing into brutal violence, Iko is also clearly operating in a similar tradition to Jaa; refusing to let a desire to over ‘act’ get in the way of show casing his skills as a fighter, although Iko does manage to project a far more likable persona.
However this is also a slightly unfair point of comparison for the film itself. Whilst Ong Bak and its increasingly unimaginative sequels were mired with some of the worst writing and plotting in cinema, leading many viewers to ‘edit’ the film into the string of bone-crunching action set pieces that made up their most satisfying part (especially that staircase sequence from Warrior King – you know the one I mean), The Raid contrastingly takes a satisfyingly simple story and gets just about everything right. Iko’s character Rama, a rookie SWAT team member, is seen in the film’s opening saying goodbye to his pregnant wife and father, before heading off to join 19 comrades as they embark on a mission to storm a 30 floor tenement in a suicidal attempt to take out the ruthless crimelord Wahyu, who has the place locked down tighter than fort knox. As the film progresses it’s clear that the aging lieutenant leading the charge as well as Rama himself have very different motivations for being there, creating a thrilling pretext for the action.
By eschewing the desire to laden the film with unnecessarily sentimental ornamentation and keeping the setting confined to this one incredible location, Evan’s has created a claustrophobic and tightly spooled action masterpiece that nods appreciatively at the influences of Die Hard and Hardboiled, before blowing them both out of the water in a shit storm of utterly unbelievable, heart-stopping and sinew snapping action. You see, Gareth Evans, a Welshman whose wife’s Indonesian connections gave him the opportunity to work within that industry, is clearly a massive geek and knows, from his personal experience of growing up watching 8os Hong Kong action movies, exactly what we want to see. You can’t help but feel he must also have been a fan of Mega Drive classic Streets of Rage, as Rama’s progression from level to level, leading to an inevitable final confrontation, has all the energy and dynamism of a video game. Think that awesome corridor fight in Oldboy but sustained for a full 90 minutes and you won’t be far off.
Whilst Ong Bak fell apart as a film as soon as you removed the crucial ingredient (namely Tony Jaa), The Raid is happily a more substanstial affair. For a start Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park fame) provides what must be one of the most astonishing soundtracks of the year (on par with the score for Drive, and more reliant on original compositions than well chosen songs), giving the action sequences a breathtaking intensity with his characteristically industrial electronic soundscapes, and providing lashings of suspense in quieter moments by crafting an admirably restrained and atmospheric accompaniment. One brilliantly tense sequence sees the swat team attempting to pick a lock in the exposed position of the staircase, when the camera pans up to reveal the silhouette’s of dozens of armed assailants watching from the floor above.
In short whilst Iko’s martial arts are magnificent to behold, they are perfectly accentuated by both the score and some particularly brilliant camera work and editing, which stays well away from Hollywood’s frustrating tendency to ruin a good action sequence by turning it into an impressionistic blur, and instead subtly enhances each blow by tilting the angle, pulling in or providing just the right amount of slow motion. The result is a brutal lyricism every bit as worthy of that poet of violence John Woo’s early triumphant heroic bloodshed movies. An action masterpiece for the ages.
Words > Dean Bowman