We open with a very brief scene of Rama (Iko Uwais) training, saying goodbye to his heavily pregnant wife and exchanging a few somber words with his father. That makes up the majority of the character building seen in The Raid, yet it makes every scant second count. We see a man of great discipline and skill and a man of immense compassion and determination. It's all there on the screen, yet it doesn't feel the need to belabour the point and waste half of the opening act getting there.
We see Rama, with the elite tactical unit he has joined, moving to a high-rise apartment complex that is run by a ruthless druglord (a gleefully scummy Ray Sahetapy). The objective is to get in there, neutralise any security and capture the target. This simple set up is delivered in a few minutes of efficiently paced exposition before we even arrive at the apartment.
From here, The Raid becomes an ever-increasing exercise in tension building and pay-off. It has a handful of plot twists but I would be overstating it by saying the film had an meaty story. What it has is an excuse. That's all a movie like this needs, a solid reason for men to stab, shoot and beat each other to death for our entertainment. The Raid makes good on that excuse for every intense, bone-snapping minute that remains.
In term of action, The Raid has that same relentless, rabid perseverance that made Takashi Miike's finale to 13 Assassins such an incredible experience.
You will see gunfights, explosions, you will see hand to hand combat so fast and furious that their limbs should be sent speeding tickets, you will see men dodging machetes that pass their faces by mere centimeters (even a prop machete would do some damage at those speeds). Who needs an effects budget so big it could bailout Greece, when you have a stunt team as fearless and skilled as this?
There is no doubt that many of the fight scenes (albeit choreographed and blocked to perfection; director Gareth Evans has found some refreshing ways to depict brutal fist fights) must have resulted in some serious injuries on set. That noticeable level of danger gives the action a visceral charge. The illusion of film is broken down, it no longer feels like a rehearsed routine, it becomes real before your very eyes. Every hit, every snapped ulna or cracked rib carries real weight, I imagine a D-Box seat programmed for this movie would lead to compound fractures of many a coccyx.
The cast are strong, each role handled with light strokes to keep things moving. There are some personal arcs drawn out for the leads, as the story progresses, but they never interfere with the films ferocious momentum, they only really exist to give some of the later fights an extra boost. No one gives a dud performance but it's not their thespian abilities you care about; it's their capacity for awesome violence.
The Raid is an action movie devoid of pretension, there is no deeper meaning or grandiose subtext, there is only the thrill of seeing some of the greatest badasses in cinema history beating the living hell out of each other in exhilarating and unique ways. If you want to see an action movie that feels dangerous and unpredictable, not the usual micro-managed, risk-free fluff that Hollywood rolls out, then The Raid is your must-see of the weekend.