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Non-Review Review: The Raid (Redemption)

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

I am not a fan of absolutes. They generally scare me, because they leave so little room for error. With that in mind, I have two things to say about Gareth Evans’ The Raid, the first film to pick up both the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle award for best film and the Jameson International Film Festival’s Audience Award. Put simply, The Raid is the best action movie I have seen in years. The second is that watching it in a cinema with hundreds of film fans feeling the exact same thing might be one of the best movie-going experiences of my life.

That’s a pretty big deal.

Everybody was kung-fu fighting...

It’s tempting to over-intellectualise film discussion. It’s very easy to get caught describing the art form in purely technical terms, as a collection of components that can be broken down and examined, giving us an idea of how the engine functions. It’s easy to get weighed down in moral or philosophical discussions about the objective merit of a film, seeking to evaluate each and every aspect of the production on its own terms, applying rigid rational thought to what is often a very emotive experience. I think that such discussions have their place, but I also think that film is a visceral and a visual medium, and that sometimes it’s possible for a film to succeed so spectacularly on emotive terms that it really overwhelms any perceived flaws.

Put simply, Gareth Evans’ The Raid proposes that martial arts is “ballet for blokes”, if you’ll forgive a crude and awkward gender stereotype. (And I say that as somebody who has been known to quite enjoy the ballet.) It’s a sequence of carefully and meticulously choreographed movements flowing together to present the epitome of form, a delicate and perfectly-timed dance. When martial arts are executed properly on film, as they are here, they manage to seem both incredibly spontaneous and amazingly precise. There’s a raw urgency to the stunts that we know have been rehearsed and discussed and practiced and broken down. Like ballet, once you embrace that graceful movement, everything else is secondary.

Sharp direction...

Nobody discusses the plot of Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, not even within the works themselves. Written by Evans, the script to The Raid is hardly a work of art. It’s written with a sharp awareness of the tropes and clichés that the audiences expect from movies like these – there are betrayals, traps, sharp reversals of fortune, improbable family relations. However, there’s also an efficiency and candour for which Evans must be praised. Nobody wants a half-hour of set-up, and the script is admirably to the point. We’re told the lead character has a wife and unborn child to get back to before the opening credits role, and the mandatory expository briefing is held in the back of a police van on the way to the scene of the action.

There’s no time-wasting here. It’s clear that Evans wants to get to the amazing ass-kicking as much as we want him to get to the amazing ass-kicking. Everything else is incidental. The plot is thread-bare. The characters are shallow at best. The logic is somewhat flawed. These are all background elements, the items that Evans realises he should put in place for the action, and so he diligently sets up them, not wasting any more time than is necessary. It’s a sign of good judgment from the director, who was able to produce the film on a budget of under $1m.

He brought a knife to a gun fight...

By holding back on these elements, Evans is more shrewdly able to devote time and space to the elements that make a movie like this work. The soundtrack is perfect, to the point where I fear what a Linkin Park soundtrack will play like. The choreography is perfect. Evans’ direction is considered. He doesn’t cut quickly to conceal his action, but he doesn’t favour long-shots on principle. Instead, he cuts his cloth to fit his measure, delivering whatever works in any given sequence. For a young director, Evans has a unique awareness of spatial mechanics, and his work is never over-stated, but is always of the highest quality.

The Raid features several truly impressive action sequences. A lot of praise has been lavished on the hand-to-hand fighting sequences, and rightly so. Evans displays an uncanny knack for pacing, at least within the scenes in question. The ballet comparison holds water. The fighting sequences flow gracefully, there are tempos rising to crescendos and then there are lulls. It doesn’t stop and start, instead it bleeds gracefully.

Some things just kick...

Evans knows how far he can push his audience and knows just the right moment to push a little further. His fight sequences occasionally veer into the absurd, but Evans’ technique knows just how to get them past that into “absurdly awesome.” His characters move gracefully, and they enter and leave the fray as if moving to a subconscious drum beat. The Raid is seriously under consideration as one of the best martial arts films I have ever seen.

That said, the other action sequences also display a wicked knack for improvisation on the part of Evans. In particular, the film features my favourite improvised use of a fridge as an offensive weapon, when our erstwhile police officers find themselves pinned down and under siege. There’s a wonderful kinetic quality to these scenes, and a sense that Evans is actually thinking outside the box rather than blindly adhering to classic fighting set-ups.

The big guns...

Characters fight dirty here, throwing one another out windows or cracking spines on concrete banisters. An escape from one mob involves some (literally) three-dimensional thinking. There’s a canny ingenuity at play here, the kind that it’s rare to see in any major genre picture these days – where Evans isn’t blindly following the expected resolutions to these individual scenes, but playing with our expectations. The plot itself is fairly straight-forward, but the action is first-rate.

I should also comment on the audience who attended the film with me. It was really something to end up with an audience who so perfectly got it. I talked above about how film is a visceral medium, and this was a very visceral screening. People laughed, people gasped, people squirmed. In a full cinema, it seemed like most of us were subconsciously communicating on the same wavelength, which is odd given few (if any) of us had seen this before. It think that’s a testament to the skill and the knack of Evans, who has already identified himself as a talent to watch.

A knock-out success...

There is an English-language remake coming up, but do yourself a favour: see it the way it was meant to be seen.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4

10 Responses

  1. Can’t wait for this one.

  2. This is one of my most anticipated films of the year! I have heard nothing but good things about it up to this point. Really sad I missed the film when it played TIFF.

  3. “The Raid proposes that martial arts is “ballet for blokes”, if you’ll forgive a crude and awkward gender stereotype.”
    Ironically, silat, the martial art used in this movie was invented by a woman.

    Overall, I love your review. Instead of going into detail about technical achievements (like many other reviews of this movie), you point out that a film should also be a visceral joy, and I think that’s what Evans, his cast and crews meant this movie to be.

    • Thanks Zanirma.

      I did not know that about silat, and I did intend the quote as an admittedly shallow stereotype. It also implies that ballet is not a “guy” thing, which is another sort of shallow stereotype. I’m quite fond of ballet.


    • Just because it is told Cimande silat style invented by women does not mean martial arts invented by women. Silat already begun hundreds years ago

  4. It’s not Kung-Fu, it’s Silat based fighting style-the original art of fighting of Indonesia…… Premier in Indonesia March 23rd…

    • Hope you enjoyed it. Great film. The only reference to kung-fu in the review was in a caption, which isn’t meant to be an accurate description of the scene in question, but instead an awkward pop culture reference or a terrible pun.

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