What makes The Raid such a successful film?

Written by Adam Shepherd

Within the realm of action films, what you can expect to succeed is usually fairly predictable: burly men firing guns at things, with a generous helping of pretty girls and explosions for good meas

Within the realm of action films, what you can expect to succeed is usually fairly predictable: burly men firing guns at things, with a generous helping of pretty girls and explosions for good measure.

However, one of the biggest successes of the past few years has been a film firmly outside the traditional model. Directed by Welshman Gareth Evans, The Raid swiftly became one of the most talked-about action films of the 2012, racking up multiple awards and securing a big-budget sequel.

But why did this Indonesian film, with its cast of relative newcomers and neophyte director, become such a startling cult success?

Nothing particularly special

The script and acting are nothing particularly special, and the concept of the film is far from revolutionary. It shares an almost identical plot with the Dredd remake, wherein a small team of police are trapped in a hostile apartment building and must fight their way to the top.

The subplots and backstory are all fairly run-of-the-mill, and since the story is basically just a framing device for the action, they don’t really matter. The action, however, is where The Raid really shines, and accounts for the vast majority of its success.

Visceral combat

After some brief gunplay early on, the vast majority of the film consists of blistering martial arts in its tight, claustrophobic setting. The film’s wall-to-wall action scenes feature inventive use of surfaces and environments, coupled with some of the most visceral, graphic combat ever put to film.

The film is a non-stop orgy of gruesome headshots, knife wounds, broken bones and smashed-in faces that is impossible to do justice to in words. However, it never feels needlessly excessive in the way that Hostel or Inglorious Basterds does, with star Iko Uwais using his skills with methodical efficiency.

The skills in question are those of ‘pencak silat,’ the traditional Indonesian martial art that director Gareth Evans became fascinated with after directing a documentary on the subject.

Similar to Muay Thai fighting, pencak silat as displayed by the cast of The Raid is thunderingly fast, with Uwais dispatching multiple opponents in a flurry of elbows and feet like some kind of Indonesian Batman. Like Capoeira, it also incorporates elements of performance which make it an acrobatic joy to watch on-screen. 

The principle reason behind its success is that The Raid knows what its strengths are, and delivers on them, rather than overplay its dramatic moments or overburden the audience with story, it chooses to fill ninety percent of its runtime with non-stop fighting and toe-curlingly brutal violence. Combined with its use of a fresh, new martial arts style, it makes the film feel exciting and original.

Was the sequel able to live up to the hype?

This inevitably raises the question of whether the sequel is able to live up to its predecessor’s hype. The Raid 2: Berendal, released on DVD earlier this month, is the film Evans originally intended to make with The Raid before budget constraints forced him to scale back his premise.

Whereas the original had minimal story, using it primarily as a set-up for the fight scenes, The Raid 2 is a sprawling gangster epic in the style of Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs.

As part of a long-term undercover operation, Uwais’ Rama is sent into prison to befriend the hotheaded son of a notorious gang boss, who wants to start a three-way gang war in an attempt to seize power. As with most films of this style, there are double-crosses galore, and the extended plot gives the script real emotional heft, with the acting stepping up considerably.

The length has also increased considerably, clocking in at just over two and a half hours to accommodate the significantly meatier plot. The downside of this, however, is that the film feels less full-throttle that the first.

After the continuous action of The Raid, the lengthy gaps between fight scenes can make the second film seem slower-paced, while the transition from cramped slum housing to open spaces means the fights can sometimes lose some of their energy and intensity.

Still, they retain their uncompromising viciousness, with the notable addition of several colourful assassins, such as a young woman who wields a pair of claw hammers to jaw-dropping effect. As a piece of cinema, it is a much better overall work than The Raid, those watching purely for the action may be a little disappointed, but it has nonetheless attracted great reviews.

Hollywood takeover

Due to the phenomenal success of the franchise, Sony subsidiary Screen Gems are currently in the process of remaking The Raid for American audiences, with Expendables 3 director Patrick Hughes, the Hemsworth brothers and Taylor Kitsch all linked to the project.

Despite Sony’s inability to resist trying to wring every cent out of a property, this remake seems of questionable necessity, even by Hollywood standards. The appeal of the original came in large part from the novelty and speed of pencak silat and its casts’ total mastery of it, whereas the details we have so far point to the remake consisting largely of explosions and bro-fisting.

Sony would be wise to look at the recent remake of 2003 Korean revenge flick Oldboy. In contrast to the critical success of the Korean version, Spike Lee’s 2013 adaptation was a universally slated commercial dud. The lesson here is that The Raid, just like Oldboy, is an amazing movie that does not to be reshot with a bunch of white dudes for western audiences to appreciate it. It’s ninety percent unintelligible screaming and heel-kicks anyway.

If you really want this franchise to make you some money, take every dollar you were going to put into a remake and give it to Gareth Evans for the third Raid film. I guarantee he’ll make better use of it than you will.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.