Perhaps you hadn't noticed, but the Indonesian film industry has taken its share of blows over the years. In many ways, this is a mirror for the country's political history in general: Interference by occupying countries, economic and political troubles and, most notably, censorship by the 30-year Suharto regime have all played a role in keeping it from ever blossoming to the size or quality of its counterpart in nearby Thailand—even though Indonesia is the fourth-most populous country on the planet. The moviemaking culture has seen a real resurgence in the post-Suharto era, with several films doing the international festival circuit, though a new law passed in 2009, increasing censorship and government control, was another kick in the nuts.
Well, count The Raid: Redemption as Indonesia's first big KO. It'll be all action and martial-arts movie fans talk about this year.
It's not quite the perfect fairy tale: Writer and director Gareth Evans is a Welsh expat and made the film specifically for the foreign market. ("We haven't screened it for the censorship board back home in Indonesia.... It'll probably get cut pretty badly," Evans said in a recent interview with website Dork Shelf.) U.S. distributor Sony has also had the soundtrack redone by one of the bros from Linkin Park (I haven't heard the original, but it can't possibly be worse).
But the cast is Indonesian, the language is Bahasa Indonesia, and the setting is Jakarta. More crucially, the film showcases the little-known Indonesian martial arts of pencak silat. Evans discovered his enigmatic star and fight choreographer, Iko Uwais, while making a documentary at his silat school, and gave him his first role in Evans' previous, also silat-focused film, Merantau. But The Raid will be pencak silat's Ong Bak, and not just because it's light years better than Merantau and will be seen by substantially more people. About 80 percent of the film is composed of brilliantly choreographed, blisteringly fast hand-to-hand combat scenes, which manage to retain the unique and traditional flavor of silat (it'll remind you variously of some kung fu styles, Muay Thai, judo and Filipino martial arts, but it's got its own thing going on) while still delivering on the blood and body count. It's a fresh slap to the face for audiences accustomed only to Hollywood and Hong Kong fight scenes.
The plot? Yeah, there's one in there somewhere. Uwais plays Rama, a rookie on an elite special forces team charged with taking out the city's nastiest crime boss from his 15th-floor lair at the top of a derelict apartment building. That plan doesn't go so well, and the team finds itself trapped inside a high-rise full of criminals, drug addicts and nonspecific bad guys armed to the teeth with giant knives. That's about it: Rama and what's left of his unit (mostly an assortment of appendages splattered against the stairwell) must fight their way out, floor by floor, apartment full of ruthless killers by apartment full of ruthless killers. So it basically plays out like a video game—Donkey Kong with more violence or Wolfenstein 3D with less robot Hitler. It's avert-your-eyes violent and surprisingly nerve-wracking for at least 30 minutes, until it's clear how it will all end and you become acclimatized to seeing men impaled on sharp, pointy objects. Then it's just brutal, messy fun.
Naturally, a Hollywood remake is already in the works. But a $30 million budget, big-name stars and a Happy Meal tie-in couldn't possibly replicate what an unknown director, a former truck driver-turned-leading man, and a measly million have done here. When people hear of The Raid in years to come, theyâll still say, âOh yeah, that Indonesian movie!â And that is no small thing.
SEE IT: The Raid: Redemption is rated R. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.