Saturday 7 December 2019

James Demspey: If Tim Burton's latest dollop of gothic macabre isn't for you, try out The Raid instead

Johnny Depp starring in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows
Johnny Depp starring in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows

PERHAPS you’re not the kind of person who seeks out obscure Indonesian films in specialist arthouse cinemas of a Sunday evening? Each to their own, as the proverb says. No no, don’t worry about it, honestly. The Raid may not be for you. Have another slice of American Pie. Go see that new Tim Burton one, you know, the one with Johnny Depp in it. And Helena Bonham Carter. In period setting. With a hint of gothic macabre. Pale make-up. Camp humour. It does look different.

Foreign film can be a hard sell to western audiences. After all, one man’s exotic masterpiece is another man’s subtitled stupor. If the thought of another navel-gazing drama starring someone you’ve never heard of – nor whose name you could sound out with any reasonable certainty – leaves you nonplussed, braving the consumption damp of our early summer to trek all the way to the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield may seem out of the question.

But you would be missing out on what is arguably the best action film of the year.

Forget about demigods and science nerds in spandex, not to mention the kids from that meddlesome reality TV show. With The Raid, Welsh director Gareth Evans has shed nine lives off of Katniss and kicked the Hulk slap bang in the goolies, and all for the tidy sum of $1.1m. In this epically entertaining action-thriller Evans treats audiences to a gritty and brutal action flick that’s sparse on dialogue, unsurprising in plot, but which gets your heart pumping with its berserker brawls of fist-punching fury.

On paper, to be fair, it sounds rather dull, with a plot that reads like the set-up to countless tawdry tails of martial arts cinema; a Jakartan drug lord has set up base in the penthouse of a 15-story apartment complex – resplendent in its Ballymun brutalism – and a crack squad of SWAT-team police officers, complete with our rookie protagonist, have been charged with capturing him and bringing him to justice. Things go wrong, alliances will be tested, 3rd act twists you’ve seen coming a mile away come twisting like they did last summer (and the one before that, and the one before that), but oh… the action.

It’s called Pencak Silat, and, as a friend of mine said, it was like watching a brutal ballet, a choreographed melee of kicks and punches – not to mention prolonged screams of rage and ache. I had to disagree; The Raid wasn’t ballet, it was down and dirty hip hop, a grungy fusion of bare-knuckle street fighting and techo that united the packed screening I was at in collective winces, did-they-just-do-that gasps and giggles of incredulous spectacle. There were spontaneous rounds of applause as baddies got battered by the film’s diminutive star, Iko Uwais. Screen violence probably shouldn’t be such fun.

Pencak Silat may not be a form of martial arts you’re familiar with, it being the catch-all term for a hybrid of fighting styles practiced across the Indonesian islands, but this historic form of tribal warfare is about to explode across the silver screen. It was while making a documentary about it that Gareth Evans realised the action-packed potential of Silat, as well as unearthing a new star in delivery boy turned baby-faced ball-buster Uwais. A sequel is in pre-production, and a remake’s been greenlit.

The film is not without its flaws, with some noted critics coming down hard on its wafer-thin plot. For them, it was like watching a computer game, a tiresome journey of the hero moving up each level before the inevitable finale with the boss. For me, it was like watching the most fun computer game I’d ever seen, like being 15 again and buzzing off adrenaline and the crunchy sherbet inside of a Refresher bar. It doesn’t hold its punches, and combined with playful cinematography and edited in such as way as you can feel every cracked rib, The Raid simple delivers on its simple premise.

Perhaps you’re not the kind of person who seeks out obscure Indonesian movies on a Sunday night, but trust me when I say the Raid is worth the risk.

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