So this will sound like a cheesy ad voiceover, but... if you only see one action movie this year, make sure it's The Raid. Actually, screw that. If you only see one action movie in the next five years, you still need to make sure it's The Raid.
First, let me state that this movie is not going to be for everyone. It's virtually 100 minutes of Indonesian dudes fighting each other, recovering from fighting each other, and getting ready to fight each other. If that's not your thing, no one will blame you if you go watch a rom-com instead.
For the rest of us, The Raid is edge-of-the-seat stuff. The plot is nothing amazing, but since when have martial arts flicks required an amazing plot? All you ask for is that it basically makes sense*. In this story, 20 cops, mostly rookies armed to the teeth, are sent into a derelict apartment building to extract the landlord, drug kingpin Tama (Ray Satehapy). The only problem is that the building also serves as a safe house for the cream of Jakarta's population of gangsters and thugs, who the cops will have to fight their way past in order to get their quarry on the 15th floor.
It's a lot like a video game, with the protagonists facing an onslaught of different baddies as they climb the levels of the tenement. Most of the cops get wiped out early, leaving just a few survivors, including the team's leader Jaka (Joe Taslim), and rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais), who has his own motives for coming along on the mission.
There are hints at Indonesia's ever-present police corruption, with the cops merely being pawns in something bigger, but that's secondary to the main theme, which is dudes letting loose with fists, knees, machetes and machine guns.
There are two main stars here. One is writer-director Gareth Huw Evans, a Welshman who 5 years ago was teaching people how to speak Welsh. Then after his Indonesian wife suggested a change of scene, he decamped to Indonesia and helped make a documentary about the local martial arts, a path that led to his first film, Merantau. Now with the release of The Raid (titled The Raid: Redemption in the US for copyright reasons), Evans is improbably being hailed as the saviour of martial arts. The reason is simple: the guy really knows how to shoot a fight scene, and can come up with new and interesting ways for his characters to kill people.
During the making of his earlier documentary, Evans came across Iko Uwais, a pencak silat practitioner who was working as a delivery driver at the time. Evans cast him as the lead in Merantau, and now again as Rama in The Raid. Uwais is reminiscent of Tony Jaa, the Muay Thai star whose 2006 film Ong Bak also reinvigorated the chop-socky genre. Like Jaa's characters, Rama is the mild-mannered, virtuous guy who just happens to be extraordinarily good at kicking bad guys' asses.
The best characters though are the baddies. Ray Satehapy as Tama is a great villain, loathsome yet sort of likeable. The scene of Tama speaking into a microphone, inviting his residents to help remove the "infestation" that has taken over their building, could be routine in another actor's hands but his lazy, chilling delivery makes it one of the best scenes in the movie. It does help if you speak Indonesian though. Likewise, his right-hand man Mad Dog (played by the film's fight choreographer Yayan Ruhian), is a great villain who likewise challenges the audience to admire him as well as recoil at his brutality. He's a wiry little guy with a somewhat honorable manner of being an insane killer: he passes up the chance to shoot people in favour of beating them to death with his fists and feet. Which is summed up in his best line: "Pulling the trigger is like ordering take-out". Gotta love a psycho who keeps it real.
Already I can see this movie achieving several things.
It's going to be the highest-grossing Indonesian movie of all time, internationally, although that wouldn't be hard. Apparently made for just over a million dollars US, this still looks fantastic. And while you'd normally think a movie featuring a little-known Indonesian cast, all speaking Indonesian, would hardly result in much backing from the big-time movie promotion business, it's been picked up for major release in an odd show of good taste from the big players when it comes to these things.
It's going to be the movie that has people all over the world interested in pencak silat, the Indonesian martial art form. I'm hardly the expert in these things, and couldn't really tell you how it's different to any other style, but I'm sure plenty of fans of the genre are taking notice. (On this evidence, it seems to feature a lot of kneeing dudes in the head.) The movie is basically one long demonstration of pencak silat being inflicted on a cast of scruffy bad guys.
One thing it is going to achieve is not merely a sequel (Evans has already announced it's in the works), but also a Hollywood remake. And it would hardly take Nostradamus to predict that the remake is going to suck in comparison. So forget that and enjoy the real thing.
* In the way that Tony Jaa's Ong Bak made sense, while the follow-up The Protector/Tom Yum Goong also had great sequences but unfortunately had a plot that was almost insulting in its stupidity.