A version of this review appeared in The Age, March 24, 2012.
Something tells me even viewers normally allergic to ultra-violence might enjoy this zestful bloodbath, made in Jakarta by the young Welsh writer-director Gareth Huw Evans. The premise is simple but ingenious, not least in the way it allows Evans to get maximum value from a single set: virtually the entire film unfolds within a high-rise tower ruled by Tama (Ray Sahetaphy), a powerful crime boss who offers protection to any lowlife who can pay the rent. For a long time the cops have steered clear – but now an elite special-forces team have decided to take the place by storm, all fifteen identical-looking floors.
Unfolding almost in “real time,” the plot focuses on Rama (Iko Uwais), a smooth-faced new recruit to the force who just happens to be a martial-arts virtuoso (in the opening scene, we see him laying into a punching bag with a fury that miraculously fails to waken his pregnant wife). Innocent as he looks, Rama is going into battle with an agenda of his own, not that he's the only team member with something to hide.
Monotony is a obvious risk in a film that consists in large part of semi-anonymous men racing along dimly lit corridors, with extras popping into frame to be shot, stabbed or thrown to the floor. Evans doesn't strain too hard to characterise the range of crooks in the building – the average bit player is credited as, say, “AK-47 Attacker #5” – but he's up to the challenge of varying the parameters of each encounter, making especially resourceful use of doorways and ledges.
Shoot-outs dominate the film's first act; as firepower runs down and corpses pile up, the focus shifts to hand-to-hand combat. Either way the action rarely pauses for breath, save for occasional interludes in the penthouse where Tara is poring over his bank of security cameras, flanked by his lieutenants Andi (Doni Alamsyah), the brains of the operation, and Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) whose name describes his function pretty well.
It's become a cliché to whinge about disorientating quick cutting in modern action cinema, but there's no question many directors have to work overtime to mask the limitations of stars without much athletic skill. Serving as his own editor, Evans keeps things moving briskly, but includes enough medium-to-long-shots to let us know that a fair proportion of the stunts are performed by the actors, not by doubles; for that matter, both Uwais and Ruhian had a hand in choreographing the fights.
Evans plainly dotes on his lead performers, tailoring his style and approach to their specific physical gifts: Iwais in particular sets a kind of egg-beater rhythm, with both arms in constant motion. The musical sense of pacing is enhanced by the mainly percussive score by Fajar Yuskemal and Aria Prayogi, and by other elements of the sound design: one heavy announces his presence by striking a machete against a wall, and several emit grunts and growls to spur themselves on.
Though impressively slick considering its low budget, The Raid retains an endearing “homemade” quality: none of the characters are built up as invulnerable, super-cool dudes. Even the fearsome Mad Dog is deceptively scrawny-looking, with the relaxed attitude of a guy who simply likes to fight, preferably at close quarters. “Squeezing a trigger is like ordering take-out,” he tells the foe he's just ushered into an empty room for a one-on-one battle to the death.
These big scenes are like splashy production numbers – and though Evans never quite lets the film descend into silliness, his conscious showmanship is enough to offset the superficially dour mood. There are even a couple of outright sight gags that trade on the contrast between the extreme and the mundane: early on, one of Tama's few harmless tenants fumbles with his keys at the building's entrance, oblivious to the gunmen gathering at his rear.