Gareth Evans' first film, Merantau, was a solid bit of Indonesian action that had the familiar feel of the original Ong-Bak. Star Iko Uwais had boyish good looks that belied the astonishing ass-kicking that he could do using the martial art silat. The action was great, and the film around the action was pretty good. Evans' marked himself as a director to watch.
His second film, The Raid, represents a leap forward that is so immense it must be measured in astronomical units. This time around the film surrounding the action is just as good as the action - and the action is often next-level incredible. Evans' script is a truly admirable example of story economy, giving us character and plot while maintaining an almost relentless forward momentum.
The plot is simple: a SWAT team raids a 15 story apartment building that serves as the headquarters for a vicious mob boss. Things quickly turn violent and the cops find themselves battling hordes of criminals as they attempt to get to the 15th floor, where the boss is hiding. As they go on they are killed and maimed and run out of ammo, so the action goes from blazing gun battles to vicious knife fights to punishing fisticuffs. Along the way secrets are revealed, bones are broken and asses - especially those of the audience - are kicked. Only the first few minutes take place outside of 'the raid;' you are otherwise thrown right into the thick of it.
In a lot of ways The Raid has the plot of a video game; there are even mini-bosses encountered along the way. But the best way to compare The Raid to a video game is that the film captures the visceral thrill you get from playing a good game. Evans changes up his shooting style, going from handheld and jittery to calm and focused. He is always looking to offer up the best view on the senses-rattling fight choreography, but that doesn't mean he just sets his camera down and let two guys fight in front of it. The Raid is filled with inventive shots during the fights, coming at odd angles and POVs. The choices that Evans makes with his camera are often brilliant.
The Raid could be just a pummeling experience, but Evans understands pacing perfectly. The film comes in ebbs and flows, and the ebbs serve to build up heightened tension. There are many scenes where you'll be on the edge of your seat, waiting for mayhem to break out, and Evans stretches those moments as long as he can. More than once he builds up to what seems to be the beginning of a bloody fight... and then cuts away to elsewhere in the building, where the tension is also building.
Iko Uwais reteams with Evans as the main heroic cop. He still has those boyish looks and he still has those deadly moves; his hero character is a true blue good guy, a kind of a character who might be too straight for the inevitable Hollywood remake. But that straightness is what I like about him; the entire film takes place in a universe of murky morality, where the cops are as crooked as the theives, and it's Iko's unwavering decency that shines out like a beacon.
He's surrounded by some great characters, most of whom escape being mere archetypes. I loved Mad Dog, the vicious henchman who explains that shooting someone is like ordering take out, while beating them to death is the real thing. He's played by Yayan Ruhian, whose small wiry frame conceals furious moves. Then there's Jaka, played by Joe Taslim, the tough police lieutenant whose gruffness doesn't conceal his heroic qualities. He also manages to kick some serious ass.
The action in The Raid is hyperviolent. Silat is a martial art that often makes use of bladed weapons, and The Raid is filled with machete battles. Evans perfectly understands how to balance the violence in a movie like this; while many of the fight scenes contain 'Oh shit!' moment after 'Oh shit!' moment, he also stages scenes where the violence is real and personal. He knows when to make the violence entertaining and when to make it hurt. That's rare in films like this, which often wallow in melodrama in an attempt to get serious. Evans gets serious with broken necks.
The Raid carries the DNA of many other films - Die Hard, The Warriors, Assault on Precinct 13 and more - but it feels very much its own beast. This isn't homage or a riff, it's a serious attempt at bringing action films to a new level in the 21st century. And it succeeds. There is no doubt that The Raid is one for the pantheon, a truly great and amazing action film that will be revisited for generations. It's an action masterpiece.
If this is what Evans does on his second film I'm almost afraid to see what he'll pull off in his third.