10 Years Later… THE RAID is the most influential action film of the modern era

It’s a good day to be alive Kings and Queens because we’re talking about a very important film called The Raid.

The Raid is a 2011 Indonesian martial-arts action film directed by Gareth Evans. The Raid turns 10-years-old this year, and I am specifically talking about it today because of a vote from my supporters for what I should review next. If you’d like to vote on the next movie I review, feel free to check out the details in the description or watch this video until the end.

The Raid is a movie that made a splash to the few people who saw it when it was first released, but it has grown in renown through spirited word-of-mouth in the action genre community. The status of The Raid is raised every time a new film comes out that has clearly taken inspiration from it — which at this point might be every action movie made. The Raid may not be the best action film, but it is easily one of the most influential.

I haven’t seen this movie since it came out, and returning to it a decade later was an interesting experience. It remains a movie that’s clear-eyed about its identity and what it does best, but so much of the movie has been absorbed into the mainstream filmmaking it doesn’t have the same spark of magic in once did. If you haven’t seen The Raid already, but you’ve seen movies inspired by it — you may not be able to experience it in the same way that made it so influential when it was first released. But it is undoubtedly a movie that deserves to be preserved in history for the impact it made on action filmmaking.

There are three things I want to talk about with this movie:

I want to talk about its minimalist or nonexistent storytelling. I want to talk about the action choreography which will make up the bulk of this video. Then I want to talk a little bit about the production of this movie and how it may have impacted its original critical reception.

Background

Before we talk about this movie though, it’s really vital to understand the context of the action genre when The Raid was released. To put it bluntly: action movies were in a bad place.

In 2011, the defining action style was the infamous shaky-cam — the shorthand phrase for a handheld operated camera with shakiness applied intentionally. Originally seared into audiences’ minds by the Blair Witch Project, shaky cam was later embraced by director Paul Greengrass who heavily relied on it throughout the Bourne trilogy. The Bourne series showed even Matt Damon could look cool if you shook the camera enough. It also had the added benefit of making the fictional world seem “realistic.” Shaky cam sequences didn’t have the distinct shine of planned-out big-budget set pieces. Therefore it was a technique that was not only an innovation in camera operating but conveyed a sense of chaotic realism that defined this era of cinema. Throughout the mid-2000s there was a trend of gritty realism in film largely due to the prevalence of shaky cam. You can see some very appropriate usages of this style in movies like 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men, or I Am Legend. But the shaky cam went from popular to parody when it became a crutch for filmmakers who didn’t understand why it was used in the first place. Shaky cam is great at setting a chaotic mood or intentionally disorienting the audience, so if you don’t want to do either of those things… it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use it. Yet during this era there were many movies where more-than-capable action stars had their talent squandered by a style meant to obscure what the audience could see. Movies like The Expendables, Quantum of Solace, and Transporter 3. Of course, the reason these movies used shaky cam was because it was something new to liven up a genre that had largely stayed the same for decades.

Prior to the gritty realism of the 2000s, action movies were defined by a glossy professionalism, often carried by charismatic stars cracking jokes and skulls in equal measure. This was such an established formula, Hollywood had practically engineered the perfect action star and copy/pasted them three separate times. That’s how we got Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Sylvester Stallone — among others. Each had their own claim to fame in Conan the Barbarian, Die Hard, and Rambo. These movies are still celebrated as genre classics, but like any trend it eventually fell out of favor. These stars from the 1980s were forced to experiment in the 1990s with various degrees of success. I think the story of each of these actors speaks to the stagnating appeal of the action genre. Schwarzenegger was the most willing to court more cerebral filmmakers and found a lot of artistic and commercial success in movies like Total Recall, Terminator 2, and Last Action Hero. In fact, Last Action Hero was very much an ironic criticism of the genre that hadn’t changed in years and even that movie was more than a decade old by the time The Raid came out. Bruce Willis seemed to abandon the action genre entirely, instead transitioning to the film equivalent of a pop star. He seemed to take whatever role was handed to him — which may have worked well enough, but the point being his career wasn’t flourishing because of an innovation in action movies but rather his decision to leave them behind. It wasn’t until later in his career he went back to the genre with significantly diminished returns. Meanwhile Stallone’s career most embodied someone sticking to their guns as he continued to release very traditional action movies like Judge Dredd, Rocky V, and Demolition Man. All of these are footnotes though his declining career… though I actually like Demolition Man.

All of this is to say, by the 2000s the laurels of big explosions, one-liners, and muscular dudes weren’t something the genre could rest on any longer. It also couldn’t recreate these stars no matter how hard they tried to replicate them in The Rock, Vin Diesel, or Jason Statham. Because like many American trends, the commercialization of the action genre had become so much about the branding that it lost its soul. And the soul of the action genre has always been in Asian martial arts. 

Today we see martial arts as a stylish version of violence, but the precursor to the modern action film was the martial arts film. These movies were not necessarily violent so much as showcasing an artform. The concept of an action movie came out of films marveling at the incredible feats of people like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The true appeal of martial arts is witnessing a beautifully choreographed display of human strength and agility. Of course, it helps it culminates with someone getting kicked in the face. It was ultimately the artistry of martial arts that created a sense of awe for viewers and inspired a fandom for the genre. Hollywood discovered the awe of martial arts could be replicated with stunt work, special effects, and whatever else money could buy. This worked for a little while, but by the late 90s movies like Con Air and The Rock were still trading in the cheap currency of explosions and corny jokes. Meanwhile movies like Face/Off or even Rush Hour managed to inspire some sincere appreciation among audiences. It’s also why martial arts stars like Jet Li, Donnie Yen or Tony Jaa could be celebrated as successors to the legacy of martial arts — but the same could not be said for American action stars active in the same time period. Even the de facto Western action hero — James Bones — had gotten so dull that series was outdone by the Bourne trilogy.

The genre had become so hollow and derivative, any tiny bit of innovation had the potential to influence the entire industry. This is why the Bourne series’ approach — with its very specific gimmick — was misapplied to a bunch of movies which had no business utilizing shaky cam. Filmmakers were willing to try new things because knew they needed to rejuvenate the genre, but it was more than that. The reality was the genre had needed saving for a long time.

And that is when The Raid came out.

Premise / Minimalist storytelling

Typically, I give a premise of the movie I’m talking about instead of going through its story because I think too many reviews just mindlessly recite narrative beats as if that conveys some judgement on the quality of a movie. The Raid is unique because there is no story. There is only a premise. The main character is named Rama — not that you’d ever know that by watching it — and he is a member of a special forces unit sent to raid a tenement owned by a drug lord. The raid on this building goes bad and he has to fight his way to the top to take out the drug lord. By the way, the drug lord has two associates: Andi and Mad Dog. Mad Dog is the more apparent antagonist in the story and Andi is Rama’s brother, not that that matters.

I’ve always believed the narrative of an action movie should exist to serve the action of the movie. This is a point that often gets lost whenever there is something I liked disproportionately more than general audiences. For example, I have a very high opinion of movies like Crank, Desperado, and Lucy. You might say you don’t like those movies because they are idiotic. I would not argue against that, but they are all movies that have a clear understanding of their purpose. You want a movie with constant action? Ok here’s a guy who has to keep his heartrate up or else he dies. You want a movie about a badass guitar player who shoots guns? Ok, we put a gun inside this man’s guitar. You want a power fantasy? Ok, here’s a lady who gets exponentially more powerful until she… whatever happens at the end of that movie. These movies have a purity to them. More importantly they never slow down for an asinine narrative no one cares about. Does anyone really care about the romantic interest or is that a cheap attempt to attract female audience members? Does anyone really care about saving the world or is that an excuse to make an action movie in the first place? The Raid has no sense of obligation to the tropes of the genre and it is better for it. It is a movie about cops and robbers shooting each other and that’s all you need to know.

I like that this movie doesn’t waste its time on unnecessary plot details, but it’s worth noting this was the prevailing criticism of the movie at the time. Roger Ebert was one of the critics who said the movie doesn’t have a plot but only “plot markers.” He also said The Raid was more comparable to a video game — which anyone who knows Ebert’s views on video games will interpret that as a slight on The Raid’s legitimacy as art. If you’re one of those people who see action movies as all mindless violence, I can understand how the lack of narrative elements may lead you to believe The Raid is some gross fetishization of violence. However, that reductionist view of The Raid misses its greatest accomplishment which is innovating on cinematic action.

Action choreography

The Raid’s biggest innovation in action filmmaking is such an obvious creative decision that you wonder why it took so long for someone to figure it out. Although, you could argue it’s how the genre started and it took this long to go back to the roots. Rather than cast a charming lead actor and sending them to stunt boot camp for months, The Raid casts established martial artists with a lot of experience doing action choreography. This is what the action genre did originally when they took advantage of the talent of Bruce Lee and put him in film. The main character of The Raid is played by Iko Uwais and prior to working in film, Uwais was a delivery driver for a company not unlike Fedex but for South East Asia. He practiced martial arts as a hobby and was by no means an aspiring actor. Director Gareth Evans met Uwais when he was working on a documentary about martial arts in Indonesia. This is also true for Yayan Ruhian, the actor who plays Mad Dog. Ruhian was a martial artist by trade, working as a trainer and referee before he was brought on to The Raid. While the Director Gareth Evans is the person who put together the entire production, a lot of the fight choreography was done by Uwais and Ruhian — including scenes with neither of their characters.

The martial arts background of the cast and production is what gives The Raid’s action such a unique feel. It was a style that was antithetical to the action genre’s obsession with shaky cam at that time. The camera shots in The Raid show very clearly what is happening in the fights. The movie can do this because the stars don’t need a handicap to sell the action. The Raid doesn’t have any of the classic tricks of working with stunt professionals like exclusively showing a character from the back, or intercutting close-ups on their face to distract the audience from recognizing there’s a body double being used. These are conventions that were in place for so long, I’m not certain filmmakers or audiences realized just how limiting they were to the action genre’s potential. The Raid executes its action without these limitations providing a spectacle many people had never seen before. You’re not suspending your disbelief and imagining a fight taking place, you’re seeing one happen in real time.  

The action choreography does the heavy lifting but the camera work and editing play a significant role in The Raid’s success. I said before The Raid was antithetical to shaky cam, but it’s worth addressing the movie does have a lot of shaky cam. There are some production reasons for this — mainly to create the chaotic atmosphere of a mission going bad — but a key difference between The Raid and other movies is its willingness to string together its stunts into a cohesive fight. You never get lost in what I refer to as “the geometry of the scene,” which is a way of saying: am I getting lost in what’s happening? Getting lost in the geometry of the scene means you have no sense of place, you’re confused by what’s happening and you don’t understand how characters get from one shot to the next. Geometric challenges are not exclusive to action movies. Amateur filmmakers often get this wrong because they don’t know about basic continuity like the 180 degree rule. If you compare two movies with different views on the geometry of the scene, any viewer can feel the difference even if they can’t articulate what it is.

Take this bank robbery scene from Michael Mann’s Heat. There are multiple characters in a huge open room but there are several shots designed to give you your bearings. You have a clear sense of the size of the room. You know where each character is standing. You can see how far away they are from each other. You have a general sense of who is in the scene and the film editing is practically invisible. You’re watching to see what will happen next.

Compare that to the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time which uses long lenses and a lot of close-ups so you don’t get anywhere near the level of familiarity of the scene as you do in Heat. This constriction is very obvious to the viewer — even if you can’t describe it how I just did. As a result, you’re yearning for additional information from the movie. Where are these characters? What does the room look like? How many people are there? The Safdie Brothers are doing this intentionally because they want the audience to feel uncomfortable in this scene. The point is — intentional or not — the filmmaking makes it difficult to understand the geometry of the scene. Many action filmmakers create the same effect in their movies, but it’s not intentional it’s just sloppy.

The Raid goes out of its way to maintain the geometry of the scene. One of the most effective ways it does this through consistent transition shots between one stunt to the next. In traditional Hollywood action, the filmmaking is driven by obscuring the magic of filmmaking — specifically the presence of stunt professionals. You’ll have a shot of an actor approaching someone they are about to fight, then a hard cut to the actual fight performed by a stunt double, and then another shot after the fight is over. Obviously that’s a huge simplification, but you get the idea. There is a practical reason for this, but it makes it easy to lose track of what’s going on if you have an inexperienced filmmaker or editor. Some of the decisions that lead to losing the geometry of the scene are in service to hiding stunt professionals. In fact, after shaky cam became popular, some action films took the approach of drowning the action in an avalanche of quick cuts so you’re never certain when a stunt begins or ends. The Raid does not take that approach. Since the stars are capable martial artists, you don’t need to fool the audience through a lot of cutting. There’s actually more cuts during a stunt than in between them. This may not be obvious to the ordinary viewer, but try paying specific attention to this one detail: count the times the film shows an uninterrupted flow of Rama finishing with one foe and beginning with another. It’s pretty frequent and as a result you always know what’s going on. You can always see where he’s coming from and where he’s going next.

Not only does The Raid keep the geometry of the scene, but it’s uniquely aware of the fact these stunts take place in an actual world with characters who want to use everything they can to their advantage. I can’t count the number of times an action movie explains why a character can’t just shoot everyone or why they’re fighting with their fists instead of using a weapon of some kind. The real reason is the people designing the choreography on these films aren’t necessarily afforded the luxury of incorporating props or expanding the budget for flashier maneuvers. They have to contain their stunt work to the bare essentials and that’s evident in a lot of action movies. Whereas The Raid’s fights use the environment quite a lot, tossing guys into walls, using shards of glass from broken lights, or — in what is one of the more memorable moments of the movie — performing a finishing move on a broken doorway. The action of The Raid understands the potency of short-term gimmicks like incorporating a unique weapon in a fight or responding to the floor falling apart. It uses enough of these gimmicks to liven up the stunts beyond constant fisticuffs and it makes sense given the world of the film. Random thugs would use whatever advantage they can to get one over on a trained commando. The prevalence of unpredictable elements contribute to the believability of the world while providing an extra spectacle of danger to all the action.

The achievements of The Raid’s action go beyond above-average competency in camerawork and choreography, there are also some fun shots throughout the film. A lot of these more memorable shots are a result of the cameras utilizing fig rigs — a kind of circular piece of metal where the camera is placed in the center of the rig and operators hold on the outside. This rig allows operators to whip the camera or rotate it with a lot of accuracy. The most common fun shot is when Rama or someone else does a spinning kick and the camera movement adds a greater sense of inertia by following that movement in sync. Another fun shot is when the camera passes through a hole in the floor, which is actually a practical effect rather than an editing trick. One camera crew is lowering the rig to another. This is only possible because the rig is small enough to allow for that type of transfer.

The Raid’s chief interest in serving the action of the film results in a movie cast by capable martial artists, with the support of a production crew that knows how to get the most out of that talent. It was this keen understanding of how to maximize the return of the movie’s best elements that made it such a groundbreaking film. With all that said, I do want to take a minute to address some elements of the movie that haven’t held up as well as its main draw.

Production elements

One of the weaknesses of The Raid is its uninspiring post-production work. Most notably its dull gray color grading that saps any personality from the movie. I want to be clear and say this is not a criticism of setting the movie in a location that’s supposed to be depressing and gross. I understand the desire to portray a drug lord’s headquarters as an undesirable location, but there’s a way to do that without making the movie look like shit. On this very channel I have reviewed movies like Leviathan, which are all about drenching the audience in a sense of hopelessness and some of that comes from the drab environments of the story. And I can think of plenty of other movies that portray locations like the one in The Raid but they don’t look anywhere near as bad. Hell, even Dredd — the movie people claim is basically an adaptation of The Raid for American audiences — that movie uses high contrast and selective bright colors to effectively portray the grimy ugliness of the slums. Whereas The Raid is defined by low contrast and washed-out colors… honestly this movie might as well be in black and white.

I think this lifeless visual style is what attracted so much negativity around The Raid’s violence. It’s not just that the movie is violent, but it creates an atmosphere of coldness that makes it easy to assume the filmmakers are masochistic and revel in the dark cruelty of violence. Personally, I believe this was simply the result of new filmmakers experimenting with their style. Unfortunately for them, this particular style is a detriment to what the movie wanted to accomplish.  

I’m also not a huge fan of the music in this movie. I had a joke in here saying it sounded like imitation Linkin Park instrumentals, but I looked up the composer and discovered it was Mike Shinoda. Who is… literally the guy from Linkin Park. I guess that’s why it sounds like that.

Closing thoughts

Anyway, like any truly groundbreaking work, The Raid has a collection of flaws that may make it difficult to enjoy for normie audience members but make no mistake — it is the movie that changed action for modern filmmaking. Even though I can probably make an argument that whatever The Raid accomplished was also accomplished a decade earlier in The Matrix… that would be overlooking how The Raid had a fraction of the budget, no star power whatsoever, foreign language barriers, and literal “guy off the street” choreographers advising the stunt work and yet it was still incredibly successful.

I don’t think The Raid’s influence on the industry can be understated. If it were not for The Raid the identity of some of the best movies in the past decade would be remarkably different. Movies like Mad Max Fury Road, Kingsman, Fast and Furious, or Alita Battle Angel would not have the technical proficiency and visceral action that The Raid paved the way for. This is without even acknowledging the existence of the John Wick franchise — which is almost certainly an extension of what The Raid accomplished. I think I can even argue someone at Disney saw The Raid because the action sequences in Captain America Civil War and Iron Man 3 are incredibly different from the first installment of both of those franchises. The latter installments have clear inspiration from The Raid’s focus on coherent technical stunt work rather than the smoke and mirrors superhero movies typically relied on.

Of course, the greatest legacy of The Raid is its sequel The Raid 2 — which is frankly a better movie by every possible metric. The cinematography is beautiful, the action choreography is just as visceral, there’s actually a story with memorable villains, and it crafts an epic tale rather than a 90 minute distraction. Since the first movie had no meaningful story, it’s reasonable to skip it and go straight to the sequel if you’re just looking for something good to watch. But as someone who loves movies — specifically as someone who loves action movies when they are done well — The Raid deserves historic recognition for basically saving the genre from irrelevancy.

It helps that the production crew of The Raid are so humbled by its success. Gareth Evans is actually a Welsh director — he’s not from Indonesia or anything, he just happened to be shooting a documentary there. And it’s not like he had a pedigree of films before making The Raid. He saw an opportunity to work with some talented people and pursued it. In kind, the stars of this movie saw an opportunity to make something fun and they just went with it. And now they’re scattered across Hollywood with Iko Uwais appearing in other Hollywood action movies, and Yayan Ruhian is now active in Asian cinema. So not only is the purpose of The Raid relatively pure, but it’s creators have a similar purity.

These creators weren’t descendants of famed martial artists or renowned Hollywood directors. They’re just regular guys. This may not be obvious to people watching this, but if you’re making martial arts documentaries in Indonesia — that’s like the film industry equivalent or working an office job. You get assigned a project and by the time it’s done you may have enough to file for unemployment until the next mercenary job is assigned to you. And some of these guys were literally working in the gig economy before they got the opportunity to work on something cool. Each creator had their own interest in the project and they brought their passion and ideas to the film. Some of them wanted to distill action to its core essentials and some of them wanted to showcase the martial arts they had performed all their life. They worked well together because they were all in it to make something they were proud of.

And as a result, they changed the action genre forever.  

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