by Thom Yee

The Raid poster

The Raid images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Throughout most of 2012, I kept hearing about this great Indonesian action movie.  It won the Midnight Madness Award at its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011 and proceeded to earn further accolades at the James Dublin International Film Festival in Ireland and the Imagine Film Festival in Amsterdam.  Most of the early reviews referred to it as The Raid (which is what I’ll be calling it), though it’s known as The Deadly Raid in its homeland and was released locally as The Raid:  Redemption.

For various reasons, mostly having to do with becoming unhinged in the land of wind and ghosts, back taxes, lost passports, and Malaysian judicial canings, it took me a long time to catch up to it, but I finally watched The Raid a few days ago.

The Raid - Indonesia

The disputed islands lie here, off the coast of Australia

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about Indonesia.  Its people, its language, its customs — all mysteries to me (not to mention how little I know about the rest of the world).  Okay, so I was supposed to be an Indonesian representative for the UN Project I had in high school, but I really… never did much actual work in high school.  I can remember walking up to the podium to address my country’s horrendous human rights record and giving vague answers and no real solutions, and I told myself that that was the right thing to do because that’s how the real UN works.  But really, I just didn’t want to do any work and spent most of my research time looking for a suit I would be happy with while standing in front of the other students.  Again, just like in the real UN.

On the other hand, The Raid isn’t necessarily an Indonesian movie.  It feels like one, it looks like one, it sounds like one, but, surprisingly, it was directed by a Welshman named Gareth Evans (which is a really Welsh-sounding name).  After the cult success of Merantau, another Indonesian-set and spoken martial arts movie also starring Iko Uwais, The Raid represents Evans and Uwais’ first big push into international markets.  At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Is any of that important to know?”  And the answer is no, but it is the kind of stuff that reviewers like me write to make it seem like we know what we’re talking about.  Also, I never tire of talking about how little work I did in high school (and I went to an academic high school and got pretty good marks [because I’m Chinese and can’t help but get good marks]).

After a brief opening montage of basic preparations on the part of our lead to establish a solemn mood and to show that he’s got a pregnant girlfriend (funny how I just naturally assume girlfriend and not wife), we begin with a pretty basic info dump:   “Our target is Tama Riyadi….  Our mission is simple.  We go in, and we take him out!”  In other words, “We’re the police, those are the bad guys; they’re bad.  Also, they said you guys look like dorks!”  It’s basic screen storytelling to lay out this information, ostensibly to the team listening but really to the audience, so that we get an immediate sense of the world and the stakes involved, but it’s a little weird when you think about it.  The team is already in the caravan on its way to the raid and the guy in charge thought now was the best time to tell everyone what was going on?  There was no tactical plan beforehand?  No prep work or dissemination process?  What if one of the guys thought something else entirely was going on — “Y’know, the longer this van ride gets, the less and less likely it seems that somebody’s going to pop out and yell ‘SURPRISE!’ Don’t tell me you guys forget my birthday again.”

So an Indonesian police squad has to raid a building that’s being run by a crime lord.  And then they do that. That’s all you really all you need to know.  Sure, they mostly get slaughtered and have to fight their way back out and there’s a twist of sorts along the way, but The Raid is largely just an excuse to show off how great Indonesian stunt teams have gotten.  Like Hong Kong in the ‘90s, Indonesia’s action film industry has built itself around developing action stars who perform their own stunts with little to no computer-generated assistance.

The Raid 2

Okay, okay, I’ll stop talking about Scientology.

There are two reasons why The Raid works.  One is that the action is always very inventive.  This is one of those action movies that’s constantly finding interesting ways for people to die.  Something as simple as pushing somebody out of a window is so much more interesting when it’s coordinated with a scene of characters jumping between different floors in a building.  From shooting somebody point blank in the face to driving a knife into somebody’s leg to throwing people down stairs, Evans’s sense of direction always finds a way to make the shot a little bit more thought provoking.  The second reason it works is the constant tension throughout the movie.  There’s a great scene towards the beginning, just as the cops are making headway on their raid, but are suddenly spotted by a kid.  It’s a really well done scene that’s done with just enough intensity for viewers to feel the weight of what’s going on.  Having said that, the movie does wear out its welcome, with a final fight that just seems to go on forever.

Ultimately, The Raid is a movie that typifies the phrase, “It is what it is”.  It doesn’t have the spectacle of Hong Kong action choreography, I wouldn’t take my girlfriend to it, and I even know a lot of guys who I wouldn’t recommend it to.  Whether its about economy of story, theme overriding plot points and story beats, or realizing the limits of your creative talent, movies like The Raid aren’t really here to give us any greater insight into ourselves.  And yet those are the films that can sometimes make the greatest impact, because they allow us to find our own meaning.  There’s an implicit understanding in a statement like “f*ck the police” (which you can hear in the credits’ second song [in the American version]) that’s not necessarily about authority.  It’s not about power or law; it’s about doing what’s right.  Cops, crooks, good guys or bad guys, we all hope that in the end, good prevails and bad gets what’s coming to it.  Our struggles in life are often nothing more than the desperation in ourselves, either to align ourselves with what’s right, good, true and just, or to align what’s right, good, true and just with what we see in ourselves.  Contrary to what you may read in other reviews of The Raid, there is a story.  It’s not one you have to pay attention to and it’s not handled very well, but it’s there.  More importantly, there’s just enough going on that, if you’re paying attention and haven’t been too distracted by the action and brutality, you’ll realize that the movie’s unifying theme is powerlessness.

Until I could see this theme for what it is in the movie, I was ready to give The Raid a 6.5.  But by the time the movie is finished, when you see our lead leave this horrible place, it’s clear that there is a message — people don’t change and we don’t have any real control.  The Raid is by no means a towering triumph of a film, but there is a little bit more there than people give it credit for.  And it’s only in recognizing this that The Raid, by the very, very end, manages to elevate itself into something truly worth seeing.

The Raid final score:  7.5 

On the Edge

-The official subtitles (at least the ones from the Blu-ray) could use a little attention.  There are several instances where the meaning isn’t entirely clear.  Either that or the translators don’t believe in commas.

-Not only is there already an American remake planned, but supposedly they’re already shooting the sequel (planned as a trilogy) which will go under the name The Raid:  Retaliation.  So I guess we can look forward to a lot more meth lab workers who also have unbelievable stunt-oriented martial arts training.

-I f*cking hate shaky cam.  F*ck shaky cam!  I’ll even admit that it works here, but I still f*cking hate it!

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