Asian action cinema, and in particular Asian martial arts films, has been on something of a downward turn of late. Maybe it’s because the old stars are, well, getting older - Jackie Chan has just hit 58 this year, even Donnie Yen is nearing 50 - and the void has not really been satisfactorily filled. Tony Jaa was the great big hope, but we all know what happened to him - one only hopes that his reunion with Prachya Pinkaew (Ong-bak , Warrior King ) on Warrior King 2 will serve as his redemption. The scene, bar a few outstanding films such as Ip Man 1 (2008) and 2 (2010), has been somewhat lacklustre of late, with action roles falling to Asian pop stars seeking a film career rather than talented martial artists.
So thank heavens for writer-director Gareth Evans and new shining light Iko Uwais, who between them have created two beacons in an otherwise faltering genre. Their first collaboration, Merantau (aka Merantau Warrior, 2009), is a highly enjoyable action flick that introduced the world to the formidable talents of Uwais and his preferred martial art, Silat, an Indonesian form that had never really been showcased on film before. It’s a simple coming-of-age set-up: a young boy (Uwais) leaves his remote village to become a man and must face the hardships that come with growing up in an unrepentant and crime-ridden city (in many ways, it’s similar to Ong-bak). While not altogether ground-breaking, there’s enough raw energy, passion and style on show to suggest that a more accomplished film would come.
The Raid is the film that delivers on that promise. Having already stunned festival-goers around the world, The Raid is now set to take the UK by storm. And that’s exactly what it is, an unbridled storm, a thunderous lightning bolt of action cinema that will sweep you up and blow you away.
Once again, the set-up is simple. There’s a murderous crime boss, Tama (Sahetapy), living on the top floor of a tower block, a high-rise concrete maze that he’s populated with seemingly every hardcore villain and violent madman in Jakarta. A team of crack special forces cops is sent in to take him down, quietly and with no fuss. But, as in all good action films, there’s a dirty cop on Tama’s payroll and soon the spec ops team have been betrayed, and, cut off from the outside world, they are facing certain annihilation. Fortunately, one loyal cop, Rama (Uwais), has eaten his Shredded Wheat for breakfast and sets about cleaning shop in the most brutal way possible.
Like Merantau, The Raid starts with Uwais warming up, stretching his muscles and practising his martial arts skills - the quiet before the storm. But when the action hits, it’s relentless. Each breathtaking set piece is perfectly orchestrated, from Uwais’s intricate skill set through to Evans’s peerless and pacy direction. The fights are artfully done, played out like ballets of destruction, culminating in a final three-way fight that is stunning in its execution: I can’t recall any other action film finishing with a fight between hero and villain where the latter is the one who is outnumbered (two vs one) but is so talented in his art that the heroes are the clear underdogs.
Uwais is certainly the star of the film, mixing the charisma of Tony Jaa with the hand speed of Bruce Lee, but the performer who really captures the eye is Yayan Ruhian as one of Tama’s psychotic henchmen, the appropriately named Mad Dog, who delights in causing pain. Slight in build, Ruhian, who served as the film’s fight choreographer with Uwais (a role the pair also filled on Merantau), is a lithe, lightning-fast bundle of muscle and sinew whose performance as Mad Dog is set to make it one of the genre’s most memorable villains ever.
As a full-on martial arts action film, The Raid wears its influences on its sleeve, taking the very best traits from the cream of Hong Kong cinema, in particular John Woo’s classic heroic bloodshed movies of the 80s and 90s, such as Hard Boiled (1992) and A Better Tomorrow (1986). Even Oldboy (2003) gets a nod with what has become a de rigueur scene for Asian action cinema - a fight in a corridor. But with the director being Welsh (yes, we don’t really get how that happened either), it also has smatterings of Western cinema too, such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Die Hard (1988). Indeed, one scene, where Rama tries to hide an injured fellow officer in a wall crawlspace as one of the villains systematically stabs through the plasterwork with a machete, is so nerve-twitchingly intense it would be more at home in a horror film than an action flick.
Overall, The Raid is hard to fault. OK, it’s not breaking any new ground, more so reinvigorating it, and the action dominates character development (although there’s just enough to make you care what happens to Rama et al). Equally, some of the more visceral violence will put off a few, and even have hardcore fans wincing, but, as a whole, The Raid is such a refreshing take on the action film it makes you realise just what you have missed from the genre for the past few years. It’s been a long time since I’ve left a cinema so pumped with energy that I just wanted to watch the film again immediately, and I can’t wait to get it on DVD so I can watch in more detail the blistering fight action.
It’s early days yet, and there are still some excellent films to come, but already I think I’ve found my film of the year. Bring on Evans/Uwais collaboration number three.