The interplay between police and criminal organizations has long been a topic of interest for filmmakers, and it’s the blurring of those two groups that The Raid is interested in exploring. Although set in the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia, the film works with existing action and martial arts archetypes making it easily readable for international audiences. The visually rich and inventive action moves the story along, with sparse dialog during moments of relative calm filling in what can’t be conveyed with bullets, blades, or fists. A run down tenement building in Jakarta’s slums run by local organized crime offers refuge for the city’s most dangerous criminals, making it too dangerous for police to even approach under normal circumstances. The film follows a group of SWAT police as they attempt to take control of the building and capture the crime lord who runs it, although that can’t being to describe the violent chaos that makes up the bulk of the 101 minute running time.
In the sparse few minutes before the titular raid begins, the film establishes the SWAT police as a well trained and equipped force, decked out head to toe in black uniforms, ballistic vests, and helmets. This also serves to dehumanize them slightly, making it more difficult to establish individuals from the group. They approach the apartment block with all the stealth they can muster, neutralizing spotters and tenants in silence as they move up into the heart of the structure. A spotter slips through their grasp, informing the big boss that the police have arrived. Using the building’s central intercom system, the boss gives the signal to lock it down, and promises free room to anyone willing to assist in taking out the police. Within the space of a few minutes, the situation appears entirely reversed, the clockwork professionalism melting away into gunfire, darkness, and blood.
The criminals that live in the building lack the glamour that is often given to underworld figures in film. No finely tailored suits or street fashions here, just the threadbare sweat stained clothing of the desperately poor. Almost all of them look terribly thin and haggard, like they haven’t had the luxury of eating to the point of fullness for years. Their desperation is made so plain to see that it’s easy to understand why they would risk their lives for any chance to make their lives more stable, even if it means killing cops. They swarm out from dark, damp, and dismal rooms to confront the invaders only to meet their ends in quick bursts of gunfire. The SWAT team can’t kill them fast enough, and they retreat to an apartment and barricade the door.
That’s act 1, maybe 15-20 minutes of the movie; the speed that the director Gareth Evans is able to establish the situation and stakes is quite impressive. There’s an economy to the storytelling that is very uncommon in Hollywood movies today. Working with a budget of $1,100,000 there is simply no room for fat in the screenplay, so the action scenes tend to be very dynamic, moving the characters through multiple locations, introducing new adversaries, and furthering the plot all without slowing down. So it’s while the SWAT team is on the run that they learn their white haired lieutenant has been hiding some key facts from them, like that the raid was never authorized by headquarters, so not only can they not call for help, but no one knows they’re even there. It’s during this sequence that their imposing uniforms begin to degrade as they’re shed piece by piece over the course of the film. With less gear in the way, their faces and personalities become more clear, but they also start looking less and less like cops. Without any ammo left, their weapons also shift away from the impersonal violence of firing guns, to clubs and knives, to finally their bare hands.
Pencak silat, the native Indonesian martial art that is demonstrated in the film, seems to be a very no nonsense style with every strike attempting to end the fight as quickly as possible. This makes for some very brutal and bloody fight sequences, as the style incorporate the knife, police baton, and the machete. Iko Uwais plays Rama, a rookie member of the SWAT team, who is able to retain his basic humanity even while committing amazing acts of violence. The film’s use of violence is very interesting in that there’s a lack of glorification to any of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a crook or a cop that’s stabbing someone, they’re both filmed in a way that provokes revulsion, shock, and horror. So even when Rama, the hero of the movie, stabs someone in the thigh it’s a disgusting unpleasant act; the film does nothing to sanitize his violence even though his character is acting with police authority.
Warning: above video is not suitable at all for work, and contains acts of violence. Also contains minor spoilers.
The film also displays a post-structuralist understanding of the nature of urban combat, which seems to be an increasingly common theme in action movies these days. Both the SWAT team and the criminals opposing them understand that walls, floors, doors, windows, etc… are more symbolic than hard immutable structures. All can be altered to better fit the current situation, especially in a decaying structure like the one the film is set in. Each time these symbols are deconstructed, the overall level of tension is raised; if the normally solid boundaries that make up a room are no longer sacred, then danger could come from anywhere at any time.
The Raid treats the home as merely wood, the human body as meat, the police as corrupt, and the criminals as unglamorously poor and desperate, but it manages to avoid nihilism. Love, compassion, kindness, duty, honor, and family are treated with respect even during the most chaotic moments. Rama doesn’t triumph by dehumanizing himself, but by embracing his humanity. The film’s full name in Western markets is The Raid: Redemption, and while it makes for a clunky title, it does speak to the more uplifting theme of the movie, that no one is too far gone to start being a moral person. It may not absolve them of their previous actions, but the world would be a much better place if more people were brave enough to change their ways. Which is a hell of a thing to say about a movie with this many knife wounds.