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Fist > Machete > Machine Gun > Common Sense

June 22, 2012

It says something about a film when you can look at the cast listing, and none of the characters have last names, and the tenth-highest-paid actor is listed as “Machete Gang #1.”

The Raid is one of thosemovies. You’ve probably heard of it – it’s an Indonesian action flick that gained some attention at the Toronto film festival. A SWAT team enters a drug lord’s building and has to fight their way up to the top floor and kill the bad guy. There. You now understand everything important about The Raid’s plot.

That’s not to say there isn’t a plot – there are definitely characters, and twists, and motivations. But none of them are very interesting, and either the subtitles aren’t very accurate or the script was written by someone who’d just been kicked in the head by the film’s protagonist. The Raid is less like a novel, and more like a can of Red Bull – a purely chemical adrenaline rush.

And that is absolutely not a criticism.

Hollywood has done some truly great action movies. Aliens, Terminator 2 and Die Hard were gems of mass appeal, genuine emotion and original ideas. But the West can never seem to match the East for pure, brilliant fight choreography, and this is where The Raid delivers. It turns out that in Indonesia, SWAT teams are trained in kickboxing first and rules of engagement never. The first thing the police do in this film is garrotte someone. Losing all your guns and teammates doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your drug bust – it just means that you need to find the Drug Room (yes, there’s a drug room) and bust it with your bare hands. The mob boss’s only defensive strategy is ‘screaming machetes’. You can hang paintings on the hero, because his skull is hammered into every wall in that building.

For all my indisputably hilarious one-liners, this isn’t a ‘wacky’ action film (I’m looking at you, Ong Bak, you glorious son of a bitch). Everything is played quite straight, but not wearingly so, which all ties into that Red Bull thing I mentioned earlier.

The tension in The Raid almost never lets up. The first twenty minutes of slow, stealthy (by which I mean garrottey) infiltration build up your anticipation to snapping point. And then ten minutes of gunfire and roundhouse kicks. And then someone yelling, or a dramatic moment involving yelling, or hiding from a bad guy, or performing desperate battlefield surgery. And then more kicks. It’s all tied together by an absolutely fantastic techno-orchestral soundtrack, which sounds like Inception crossed with an absolutely sick rave.

My circuitous point is that The Raid is gripping, like when you can’t let go of an electric fence (in a good way). Really, the fight scenes are just relaxing – they release all the tension that you’ve been building up, and let you ease back and just watch the balletic dance of kicking, backflipping and skull/wall meet-and-greet programs. The fight choreography is absolutely top-notch – it’s from the company that produced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so no surprises there. The battles are truly artistic, making cubist masterpieces out of spine fragments, and juxtaposing the tender, natural intricacy of the human throat with the harsh, aloof beauty of a combat knife… sorry, just wandered off into serial killer territory there. Just trust me that when it comes to action, it’s hit murder punch fun death good.

So, what is there in terms of criticism?

Well, it would be nice if the gunfights were as well designed as the fist/foot/knife/baton/machete/chair/filing cabinet/light bulb/axe fights were. As it is, it feels like the head mobster cast a magical spell on the building to neutralize all firearms about thirty minutes in.

But more importantly, there isn’t much movie behind the mass murder. There is some attempt at characters, plot and emotion, but after the intense adrenal high of watching hero Rama tear through Machete Gang #7-16, I’m just not into watching the obviously traitorous character reveal himself to be an obvious traitor. And I’m not sure which is at fault, the script or the subtitles, but “if I’m mad, I will enrage” is not a badass quip in any language.

Really, you could cut out every character name, line of dialogue and talky scene from The Raid and not really affect the quality of the movie. I don’t object to that out of hand, but when Hard Boiled, Kill Bill and First Blood have proved that plot and mass eviscerations go together so well, The Raid can’t help but be left a bit behind.

So, what’s the final verdict?

If you like violence in any form, you will love The Raid.

If you don’t really enjoy arterial spray, you will find The Raid uninteresting and sickening.

And if you have any medical understanding of how the human skull is not as strong as concrete, you will be very, very confused.

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