Gareth Huw Evans | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | Indonesia / Indonesian | 18*
“20 Elite Cops. 30 Floors of Hell.”
So proclaims The Raid’s marketing. Except most of those 20 cops are explicitly stated to be rookies, and the big bad baddie is on the 15th floor. This is indicative of the whole problem with The Raid a couple of years on from its release: it’s become a victim of its own hype.
The plot, such as it is, is well summarised in that tagline. A group of heavily-armed coppers stage a dawn raid on the high-rise HQ of a crime boss. A no-go locale for the past decade, this mission is a Brave and Daring thing. It all goes smoothly at first… until a lookout spots them, warns the (literal) higher-ups, and all hell rains down. Never mind completing their mission, will any of them get out alive? Cue lots of shooting, stabbing, punching, kicking, jumping… and not much else.
In this regard, perhaps the other film that The Raid is most like is Mamma Mia: a perfunctory plot that exists purely to link together the bits we’re really here for — Abba songs. Or “fights”, in The Raid’s case… though, let’s be honest, how much more original and interesting would it be if they were fighting to Abba songs? A lack of story isn’t necessarily a problem, however: much as some people basically wanted an excuse to sing along to a bunch of catchy pop tunes, some people just want to watch well-choreographed punch-ups. The only issue I have with the slight storyline is that the climax leans on it: instead of ending with our hero duelling our villain, a fight with the top henchman is followed by a bit of plot clean-up between the villain and a supporting character. It’s the very definition of anti-climactic.
That aside, the film coasts along on its lengthy action sequences. They’re pretty good on the whole, if a little numbingly repetitive by the end. The style is largely of the punching-and-kicking variety — no parkour-esque leaping about here — but the speed is impressive, even if that means you sometimes can’t quite keep up. Still, at least you can see the people fighting — the direction and editing by Welshman (a whole other story, that) Gareth Evans isn’t based in the Hollywood school of extreme close-ups and super-fast cuts.
A lot has been made (by some) of that US comparison. It’s true that the fighting is leaps and bounds ahead of your standard American actioner, replete with done-for-real stunts, long takes of fast-paced choreography, and no ShakyCam close-ups or single-frame editing designed to create the illusion of someone who can fight for real — these guys can fight for real. But it’s ultimately an unfair comparison, because Asian movies do action differently to Western movies. Put The Raid with its true brethren and, while it doesn’t come up short, it’s not quite as impressive. Leading man Iko Uwais and his fellow duellers are undoubtedly very skilled, but there were no “wow!” moments like I’ve had from the best of Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Tony Jaa, or others. The sequences offered here mean The Raid can sit comfortably in their company, but does it outclass them in a way that merits it being a break-out hit? No.
Another way it’s pleasingly unlike its current American counterparts is the lack of focus on gore. There are plenty of stabbings (of a blood-stain-on-shirt variety), and a couple of sliced necks, but none are lingered on. Things like a hammer beating or repeated machete strikes take place either just off screen or just after we cut away. It’s unquestionably a violent film, but it doesn’t revel in the gory aftermath of that violence in the way many US films increasingly seem to.
While we may not have to endure ShakyCam in the fights, an awful lot of it is still shot handheld — the sea-sickness-inducing close-ups we’re so familiar with from a decade-and-a-half of 24-inspired quick-to-shoot photography are certainly present. Indeed, all of the cinematography is ugly. Maybe someone massively over-compressed it for the BD, but I suspect it may be due to low-budget digitally-shot roots. The image is distractingly laced with banding, weird bursts of colour… And even ignoring such technical issues, the palate is unrelentingly brown. Whole frames are just slightly varied shades of dark murky brown, perhaps with a splash of grey, and maybe some blue streaks where one technical element or another has gone awry.
You’re likely aware of the fuss that was kicked up when the trailer for sci-fi comic book actioner Dredd was released a couple of years ago, and a lot of people said it looked like a Raid rip-off. Such comparisons are largely superficial: the similarities are more pronounced in trailers than in how the full films feel. Comparing the finished results, however, I found Dredd to be more entertaining. It can’t boast the realism of The Raid, both in the level of bloody gore and in the way the action was achieved, with highly trained professionals and thorough choreography; but the 2000 AD adaptation still features effective, exciting action sequences delivered on its own terms, and alongside those offers greater doses of story, character and humour, to make for a much more rounded experience. The fights in The Raid may have blown the minds of people who haven’t seen enough Asian action flicks, but I’d argue Dredd is the better film as a whole. And if you still insist on accusing one of plagiarising the other… well, let’s put it this way: Dredd had finished shooting, and its screenplay had leaked online, before The Raid even entered production.
Sadly, by this point, The Raid doesn’t really live up to the hype — probably because it’s been laid on so thick. The fights are impressive, but not the most incredible ever, unless your action diet is purely American. Plus, those looking for a solid story with the odd punch-up need not apply: what plot there is — and it’s a thin one — exists to service some action, which will drag on and on (and on) if that’s not your thing. For genre aficionados, however, it does still merit your time.
The UK TV premiere of The Raid is tonight at 10:55pm on Film4.
* The international release was cut by 10 seconds for violence, thanks to two short MPAA-mandated excisions to gain an R certificate. The uncut, US-unrated version is available on Blu-ray, and is the one I watched. ^