Colin Geddes unabashedly lurks through the murkiest waters of the cult, macabre, the fisticuffs and the paranormal in an effort to find ten films that are likely to be loved by the devoted, loathed by the mainstream. Breakout hits from previous years include Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's queasy À l'intérieur (Inside), a terrifying little picture that rejuvenated the once prolific 'New French Extremity' movement, and if its success is any indication, it's that audiences are prepared for a little more sizzle on their steak.
Enter Midnight Madness 2011, where Gareth Huw Evans' The Raid is selected for the coveted opening night slot. An action film shot by a Welsh director in Indonesia, featuring the stylish up-and-coming 'silat' martial art, the picture is a brutal, unapologetic, and ultimately satisfying embodiment of whoop-ass. Bet you never thought you'd see that sentence appear in a Toronto Film Fest review. Well, it just happened. Get used to it.
The premise of the picture is simple, and it wastes very little time throwing our hero into extremely hostile territory. Opening the film with a montage of a rigorous morning workout, we are introduced to Rama (played with neck-breaking passion by the young Iko Uwais), a police officer with a beautiful wife and baby on the way. Just as soon as we feel we've glimpsed a snapshot of his forthcoming family life, we are thrown into the back of a SWAT van and treated to a Saving Private Ryan styled exposition of events. Just as the boats floated calmly towards the shore at the beginning of Spielberg's film, there is a brief calm in the truck before all hell breaks loose at their destination. Laying out most of what we need to know, superiors shout their orders to converge upon an apartment block in the core of Jakarta. Their mission is easy: Invade the infamous block (which is, unsurprisingly, filled to the brim with criminals, drug panderers, and a violent warlord), lock it down, and capture the man in charge. As all good action films go, however, it all quickly goes to hell.
With only one prior feature under his belt, director Evans proves that he is not only confident behind the camera, but that he can weave an expertly paced tale out of tried material. The film's comparisons to Die Hard prove generative here, showing that even the most clichéd action stories can become respectable and even more enjoyable when given a new spark by an imaginative mind. The picture's bleached out grays and swampy green filters discreetly camouflage cinematographer Matt Flannery's gut-busting deep focus expositions and rapid-fire whip pans that create an unbelievable amount of tension when the action picks up. There is no resting in this film, for even when half the police crew goes missing and we think we've been lulled into some tantric moment of relaxation, even more deranged psychopaths come running out the woodwork and pouncing onto the protagonist.
The Raid is a creatively violent film, proving to its viewers that it knows how to go brazenly extreme - such as when an unfortunate soul graphically gets a knife shoved through the entirety of his neck - but also restrain to create tension - where otherwise graphic events occur offscreen or are augmented by the use of spikes in the soundtrack. With a film like this, it is difficult to point out areas where the film could be perceived of as 'bad.' I feel that criticizing a movie like The Raid in the same way I would criticize a film like Alexander Payne's The Descendents would be setting it up in the same way the former's protagonists are blindsided and outnumbered by their enemies. For an action film, this picture ups the adrenaline in ways Crank only wished it could, it maintains a relatively staunch amount of believability (for a crazy action film, that is), and it features many innovative moments that create interesting kills using weaponry, martial arts, and the aforementioned kicks to the face. Additionally, it is nice to see a film focus on character development and character relations, as briefly as they may be. It is something that is featured in fewer and fewer action features, and this picture shows that it does not need to bog the picture down. Not every feature needs to emulate Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi, interspersing introspective rumination with brief bouts of violence, but it's nice to see a little more than an ass-whooping (there's that term again).
Evans, much like Tarantino a generation before him, illustrates his love for the cinema all over the cinema screen. The twisting theatrics and testosterone fueled mayhem in The Raid are influenced just as much by Ringo Lam and Quentin Tarantino as they are by John Woo and John McTiernan. The film is fun to watch, it never leaves you bored, and you leave the picture with a sense of accomplishment. It paints a portrait of a vibrant young filmmaker and an equally vibrant new international star, the scent of Ong-Bak still floating in the air. Here's to hoping we see a lot more from this director/actor team.