Gareth Evans introduced the Indonesian martial art of silat to the world in his 2009 action film “Merantau,” and I quite liked the film when I reviewed it at Fantastic Fest that year. I knew that Evans was working with the star of that film, Iko Uwais, on a new movie, and I knew it was the opening night film at this year’s Midnight Madness program here at the Toronto Film Festival.
What I did not know is that this time, Evans and Uwais came with a plan of taking no prisoners. They came to destroy, and there is little doubt that they absolutely flattened a packed Ryerson theater at midnight tonight. I haven’t seen an action film this unrelenting and punishing in quite a while, and I think Evans has set the bar very high for himself moving forward. “The Raid” is not just a bone-crunching visceral experience, but it is also a tidy, efficient piece of storytelling with just enough pause for character to push this from good to great. It is a near perfect action movie, paced tremendously, with bad guys who are genuinely awful, and shot in such a way that you feel every single punch or kick when it lands.
The film has a lean and simple set-up: a bunch of cops in full riot gear are in the back of a van headed to a building where a local drug lord has set up shop. He and his men occupy the entire building, and they are allowed to operate simply because no one wants to risk going in and trying to clear out what is essentially a fifteen-story cement fortress. These cops are going to do it, though, and they’re going to clear every single bastard out of that building, no matter what. Sounds easy, right? Of course not. Jaka (Joe Taslim) is the team leader, a tough-as-nails cop who believes in what they’re doing, and one of the newest recruits on the team is Rama (Iko Uwais), who has a baby on the way. When the team goes in, things go to hell fast, and it only gets worse when the kingpin unleashes Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), a killing machine, and tells all of his people that anyone who kills a cop gets to live in the building rent-free for life.
Once the cops enter the building, that’s it. The rest of the movie is a brutal fight for survival that rages up and down the building’s many floors, with the balance of power shifting several times and with a few narrative surprises snuck in to make it all hurt just that little bit more. Evans wrote the script, directed the film, and edited it, and he is absolutely one of the best guys shooting hand-to-hand action in the world today. He has a great eye for composition, but more than that… he knows that we want to see these people really pulling off these moves, and he is smart enough to give us wide shots, long unbroken takes, and a real sense of how the fights work. If Iko Uwais is the Gene Kelly of the genre right now, making it all seem like something he was born to do, then Evans is his Stanley Donen. They make a tremendous team, and there are so many great fight scenes in the film, each one a different mini-narrative that plays out with broken bones and flying blood, that it’s impossible to list them all.
What’s really impressive is that the film feels totally different than “Merantau” in terms of impact and speed. That film was much more gentle in a weird way. This film introduces gunplay and bladed weapons to the mix, and the result is almost too harrowing to take in places. It’s amazing to watch the way Iko just barely makes it through each fight. Like John McClane in the first “Die Hard,” this is a human-scale hero who is just desperate to escape with his life and do the right thing. He is vulnerable, and he absolutely gets hurt at times. There’s never a feeling that any of this is easy for him. He works for every victory, and there are times when it seems like, hero of the film or not, he could lose it all.
I’m amazed how bad most action films are. All you really need is a compelling set-up, a hero we can get behind, and stakes that matter, and then you have to shoot action that makes sense. Somehow, that simple formula eludes many people in the genre, and to all of them, I would suggest a viewing of “The Raid.” This is everything I could have hoped for from an action film in the Midnight Madness section and more. It is an enormous slice of entertainment, and I hope we hear an announcement soon for when American audiences will get to see the film. This deserves a real wide release, and I am willing to bet action fans will immediately elevate this to the canon of truly great works in the genre. If Evans and Uwais continue to work together, then we may be in for one of the great runs in action history, and I eagerly await anything they make.