Friday, March 23, 2012

The Raid (SXSW 2012)

Directed by: Gareth Evans
Written by: Gareth Evans

The film with the trailer that shook the Internets. Like most, that trailer along with general word-of-mouth buzz created unbelievably high expectations for The Raid. Few films ever live up to that kind of hype. Even if The Raid was simply just good, it'd still be a massive disappointment. I'm here to tell you, The Raid lives up to the hype. Hell, it may even exceed it.

At its highest conceptual level, The Raid follows a SWAT team that storms an apartment building to apprehend notorious, maniacal crime lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy). The only problem is that Tama resides atop the building in his stronghold headquarters with every level between him and the ground floor packed with the most dangerous, kill-crazy criminals seen in recent cinema. Once the cops are made, the film erupts in nearly never-ending streams of hard-edged baddies wielding guns, knives, machetes and touting jaw-dropping martial arts prowess gunning for the cops as directed over an intercom system while Tama observes via security camera monitors. It might be easy to eye-roll the premise as something lifted from a video game, and that isn't necessarily off-base (I'd gladly kill an entire weekend if this were a video game, though), but it's the execution that truly allows The Raid to transcend this premise.

Starting with the obvious, the fight choreography and action beats are the best committed to celluloid since John Woo's heyday, though stylistically much different. Be prepared to gorge yourself on a buffet of bone-crunching combat. The exchanges are lighting fast, packed with blinding reversals and carry home excellent finishes that demand you cheer (many of which you may have already witnessed in the greatest sizzle reel of all time). How can you not fly outta your seat when seeing one thug head-slammed multiple times down a wall or watching another force fed a barrage of gunfire at nose-hair trimming range following a takedown roll. To call the film a crowd-pleaser is an understatement, I saw this in a sold-out theater of 1200 strong that burst into ohhhs, ahhhs and raucous applause throughout the film as if these fights were live MMA bouts unfolding across the screen.

To director Gareth Evans' credit, he shies from trying to continually top each fight scene and moment, displaying a deft touch for pacing and escalation. Evans certainly constructs fantastic exchanges, but he also finds moments and sequences to wring tension out of the situation. Primarily, this tension comes as the seriously depleted cop squad try to quietly hide, escape and maneuver about the building without being detected. One particular highlight involves the cops hiding between walls, struggling to remain still and quiet as a machete thug jabs his blade through the walls to jar them out into the open. Visually, Evans excels at switching gears viscerally as well, finding varied ways to film the melees and unique angles to create engaging perspectives. Equally impressive is that Evans never loses coherence to his shot composition, capturing the action so one can easily follow it and know what's occurring, which is quite the feat given the insanity breaking loose.

All this would be far less effective, though, if Evans hadn't tailored the narrative with original flourishes in both story design and characters. While there are surprises as the story unfolds, it's the characters who often surprise me the most. Iko Uwais admirably fulfills the leading man role as super heroic cop, Rama, whose martial arts ferocity is equally matched by an unwavering wholesomeness and dedication to doing the right thing no matter the odds. Rama's character possibly sounds stale, virtuoso fight moves aside, but it's his straight-forward morality that provides a baseline for establishing the fantastic characters around him. There's grittier fellow cop Jaka (Joe Talsim) that's every bit the hero that Rama is even though his methods, and fighting style, in upholding order are unfriendly, abrasive and nastier though altogether warranted. Then there's my favorite character, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), Tama's top enforcer and best fighter. I haven't seen a villain like this one in this genre of film. His defining trait amidst all the bloodshed is in engaging in a level playing field, though one could chalk it up to psychosis instead of honor. Mad Dog shockingly discards the upper hand in fights, laying down his weapon or unchaining an adversary, allowing them to throw down 1-on-1 hand-to-hand to determine superiority; at one point, he admits to preferring using his hands to do his killing rather than guns because "it's the real thing."

It's probably not possible to add to the hype for this film, but it easily belongs up there with the top echelon of action classics. Go ahead and reserve a spot on your Best of 2012 lists.

Make or Break scene - It's less of a scene, but more so a moment that made The Raid for me. This occurs toward the end when Rama discovers Mad Dog torturing someone (who'll I refrain from naming for spoiler reasons), halting the beating as Mad Dog elects to unchain his prisoner, welcoming the pair to face off with him 2-on-1. I absolutely loved this moment, and the ensuing brawl, because this situation is so typically reserved for the hero, not a key villain. Instead of bolstering our hero's toughness, this moment serves to strengthen the bad guy's dominance. And make no mistake, no one in this film has even the slightest chance of defeating Mad Dog in a 1-on-1 "fair" fight. Not only do we know this, but Rama knows it as well, which is another facet I love -- the hero readily accepts the advantage given to him, knowing it's a losing effort any other way.

MVT - As much as I'd like to go with Mad Dog, and I'm very tempted, the answer has to be the incredible action. Just too unreal and entertaining not to be the most valuable.

Score - 9.25/10

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