(Gareth Evans, 2011)
Gunfire is a tricky thing to get right. Not many movies do.
The more weaponry and gunshots in a movie, the less likely any of it is to have an impact. That applies in Gareth Evans' The Raid just as much as it does in any John Woo or Hollywood action movie, where gunfights often devolve into a loud aural and visual backdrop to the primary action. But a gun - and the lethal threat it implies - should be a big, terrifying presence in any action movie, much as it would be in real life. The difference between action and violence is something fudged by many action movies. The Raid is very much an action movie, but it dabbles in actual violence - let's define that as a violent act which is shown to have realistic consequences as opposed to action, which is a violent act with more cartoonish or heightened consequences.
The now-legendary gun battle in Michael Mann's Heat is terrifying from the first shots because Mann is intent on the exact damage all that lead does when it fills the air. Car doors jump and shudder under the impact of rounds, windows explode, human flesh is pulped. People die, obviously. The noise rends the air.
The early - and massive - gun battle in The Raid is deafening, and claims perhaps a dozen lives. But it has none of that weight. It has more in common with the 1980s tv show The A-Team, where violence never had any consequences besides bruises.
This seems problematic in a movie which is, to some extent, about violence. Evans later shows an almost schizophrenic attitude to onscreen violence; his action scenes are typical martial arts sequences in many respects, with combatants taking massive batterings with little damage. But then occasionally he includes a moment of shocking (and almost giddily hilarious) gore: a man's neck impaled on the broken surface of a door, a man falling onto a metal stair-rail.
There are other problems. The lack of a plot or characters, for starters. The premise is streamlined and simple: a team of armed Indonesian police invade a tower-block owned by a Gang Boss. Their aim is to clean it out and arrest him. But once the alarm is raised they find themselves trapped halfway up, without hope of reinforcements and with dwindling numbers, surrounded by criminal residents charged with eliminating them.
At that point the film begins to resemble a video game as our hero (Iko Uwais) has to fight innumerable opponents in the corridors. Evans stages and choreographs the martial arts scenes brilliantly and Uwais is nimbly magnetic as a physical performer, fighting with knives, nightsticks, machetes and fists and feet. Unlike many modern films, these scenes are spacially coherent, clear and classically shot. They are also generally witty and viscerally thrilling, and climax in a relentless, exhausting fight with the villain's henchman Mad Dog, which is a satisfying conclusion to so much mayhem.
Perhaps more successful than the carnage, however, are the few scenes of suspense as the remaining cops hide and the gangsters hunt them. These scenes are familiar and devastatingly effective: men concealed within a partition wall while a hunter stabs it with a machete, for instance. The action, when it comes, serves as a nice release after so much tension.
But the scenes of exposition and character development are filled with cliches and bad dialogue - our hero has a pregnant wife at home, Mad Dog lives for the thrill of killing with his hands, a corrupt cop is a craven coward etc - which are only barely balanced out by the quality of the inventive action scenes.
Evans directs it all slickly with a good eye on pacing, but its generally an ugly little b-movie, elevated in places by a clear-eyed, exciting approach to action with little else to recommend it.