The third feature by Welsh writer/director Gareth Evans, but the first to gain a high profile, The Raid has an almost embarrassingly simple story. The film is set in Indonesia, but really could have taken place anywhere in story terms as all you need to know is that there is a building filled almost entirely with members of drug dealing gang, and that a force of about twenty cops (including Rama, played by Iko Uwais) is being sent in to take out the the leader and take down his operation. Shooting, machete fights and kicking ensue.
The Raid isn't deep, but it does at least tell a coherent story, and present one reasonably surprising twist in between the action scenes that are its raison d'etre, which is a step up from a lot of martial arts films. The action shifts emphasis as the film goes on, and Evans refines his style accordingly. Early scenes are frenetic and more about gunplay, and here Evans employs the shakycam and rapid editing style that has been so modish in action cinema lately, but as the film moves from larger scale fights between groups of distant opponents to ever closer quarters battles as the number of people in the tower shrinks the cutting rhythm slows a little, and the camera becomes more sedate and stays further back. To his immense credit though - and this is likely testament to his involvement, along with star Uwais, in choreographing the action - Evans always manages to keep the geography of his action scenes intact, we get who people are, and where they are in relation to each other, which makes even the scenes that employ shakycam more fun.
While the first act is tremendously entertaining, the film really hits its stride when most of the guns are empty and the fights become more up close and personal affairs, it's also at this point that Iko Uwais - largely in the background for the first act - steps up and demonstrates that he's a force to be reckoned with on screen. The first real showcase comes in a scene reminiscent of Oldboy's hammer fight - Evans, in the best possible way, wears his influences on his sleeve throughout - in which Rama has to take on an almost endless stream of knife wielding bad guys while also protecting an injured colleague. It's here that we first really see what the film has in store choreography wise, and it's mightily impressive.
The martial arts style on display here is Silat, which I had neither heard of nor seen before (I love martial arts movies but, for the record, am not a practitioner of any style). Looking at it here there are certain aspects that seem to relate to Muay Thai (use of knees and elbows), but there seem to be influences from Chinese styles too. The pace of the moves is often blistering, and the impact is definitely felt (without, so far as I can tell, the use of much in the way of 'power powder'), and Evans' refusal to back down from the extremes of violence suggests that as a filmmaker he owes more to the directorial style of Sammo Hung than to Jackie Chan.
While it's always fun to watch a great martial arts or stunt sequence (the only problem being that at the cinema you can't rewind any of the 'holyshitdidyouseethat?' moments), it's a nice touch on the part of Evans' screenplay to bring a personal dimension into the film in its third act. By doing so he raises the stakes and creates a degree of tension in the film (we KNOW Uwais won't die, but that doesn't make anyone else safe), which makes the big three way set piece fight that caps the film's action off more narratively gripping than most final set pieces. As I said, it's easy to see the influences on Uwais, Yayan Ruhian and Evans' action, but they don't copy their heroes, rather they reinterpret, finding their own very particular and hugely entertaining and impressive style. There are scenes here - the drug lab fight for example - that can stand with the best fight scenes I've seen on screen.
The Raid is a great calling card for Evans and Uwais (who gives a strong performance, and is much more charismatic than martial arts cinema's last anointed new star, Tony Jaa), but more than that it's just a great night out. I always try to evaluate a film on how well, for me, it achieves what it is attempting to do. On those terms these 100 minutes are just about flawless; the film grabbed me early on, and refused to let go until its final moments.