CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, LOOK YOU. YAKKI DAH. OUCH.
On and off, I've been a fan of martial arts movies for maybe twenty years now. When I first discovered them, the best ones tended to be the Shaw Brothers productions released by Warner Home Video: despite the cuts, the awful dubbing and cropping to a 4:3 ratio, it was the intricately choreographed fight sequences rather than the absurd stories that appealed to me. Scenes of Shaolin monks beating up various miscreants were treated as dance numbers, as were the immaculately timed and millimetre-perfect stunts of Jackie Chan or the moves of Bruce Lee. The fights all seemed to be very theatrical, performed to the relentless rhythm of body blows and swishing robes, and it didn't bother me that no-one ever thought to slip in an extra punch between the thwack-thwack-thwack. Not any more: it now looks closer to freeform jazz than ballet or Broadway.
Recently the martial arts movie has been brought back from the DTV bargain racks: firstly by the operatic and opulent wuxia epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou's beautiful Hero, but particularly in the last few years by crunchingly violent films from other parts of Asia: the Ong-Bak series and Warrior King from Thailand, and now The Raid, an absolutely demented action movie from Indonesia directed by Wales' own Gareth Huw Evans. The premise is simple: twenty cops storm a slum tower block to take down the local crime boss, but he knows they're coming and he has a small army of guys to protect him....
We're given very little information about the characters: one of the cops has a pregnant wife but that's more or less it for the team's backstory. Here are the good guys, here are the bad guys, and that's pretty much the plot (though there are a few wrinkles later on). What we get instead is a string of phenomenally violent fight scenes in which people are routinely picked up by the ankle, swung against a concrete pillar and kicked in the guts, before having their heads repeatedly smacked against the concrete floor and (if they're lucky) getting a machete in the face. The amount of damage is inflicted on these guys is astounding and I can only assume that none of the stunt team were entitled to the day's wages unless they'd sustained at least three compound fractures and a brain aneurysm. It's relentless: a bit like the legendary corridor sequence from Oldboy, but for more than an hour.
These scenes may lack the grace of Jackie Chan's knockabout chases and Bruce Lee's showdowns, or the cool of John Woo's gun massacres (the final reels of A Better Tomorrow Part 2 or pretty much everything in The Killer) but they have the grit and pain. These aren't fights staged as dance routines, they're fights staged as fights and boy, do they hurt. It's a long way from the "you have dishonoured my Yellow Dragon Claw style and I must now kill you" Shaw Brothers pantomimes to what is essentially dozens of mad bastards beating the hell out of each other in a dingy slum. The best of the numerous spectacularly crunchy fight sequences has just three men in a sealed room, going at it in an extended two-on-one battle for their very lives.
Yes, The Raid has little to offer in terms of plot development or character detail, deep emotion or even humour. And for all the darkness and gloom (almost the whole movie takes place in the concrete confines of the tower block), it's a spectacular and literally headbanging film, and surely a rare example of a film that carries an 18 certificate despite having no sexual content whatsoever; it's purely down to the violence. For outrageous and unhinged brutality, and thudding blows to the skull, it's absolutely fantastic and I enjoyed it enormously.