It isn’t the sort of film we usually equate with Sundance. Movies like slow-burn drama Another Earth, cult-escape character study Martha Marcy May Marlene and the under-your-skin quality of Animal Kingdom feel like the movies that have come from the prestigious independent movie showcase, but a kinetic action film with minimal plot, balletic martial arts, blazing gunfire and more blood than a Saw sequel? Just what did director Gareth Evans think he was doing at Sundance with The Raid?
“I always wanted to do a classic martial arts film but never had a chance to get into the industry,” he says from his native UK, a long way from the Jakarta set of The Raid. “I was in Indonesia for six months working on a martial arts documentary and I always loved watching kung-fu movies. I just became obsessed with the martial arts industry, the traditions and the culture.”
Chalk it up to the guilty pleasure Sundance movie – every festival has to have one. And before you worry about the blistering violence you might have heard about in The Raid, barely ten minutes in it’s clear you’re watching a fantasy with little basis in fact but a love of Eastern cinema-style violence firmly on its sleeve.
Machine guns pepper victims with gay abandon, showers of blood erupt all over the walls of the dingy apartment block location, and just when you think participants in the at-times beautifully-choreographed fight scenes can’t go on, they stagger back to their feet for another bout of bone crunching. In one scene, one of The Raid’s scariest characters keep on going despite having a broken fluorescent tube jammed into his neck.
It harks back to the 70s Hong Kong film industry era, where audiences were expected to stomach a lot more than modern Hollywood film fans. The violence feels like the pivotal aspect, but did it ever give Evans the feeling he was going too far? “I wanted the violence to be on a certain level,” he says, “very exaggerated and hyper-real, as you can see in the length of the fight scenes. Plus in many instances you don’t realise until later but often we cut away to something else before the worst of it happens. So there’s a sucker punch, that’s the culture of Eastern movies I wanted.”
Like all major festivals, the machinations of Sundance is to exhibit a film and cross your fingers a distributor will like it, buy it and release it. If that happens the film belongs as much to them as the director or producer. In buying such a bloodthirsty film, surely the American distributor (Sony Pictures Classics) will cut it mercilessly. Thankfully Evans says the studio appreciates the film is made for a certain audience and that to try and tone the carnage down will eviscerate it (pun probably intended). He’s more circumspect about local good taste gatekeepers, however.
“It’s might play differently after regional censorship,” he says. “Like with every distributor we want to release it the way it is, but censors have to do their job. Fingers crossed we can get it shown the way it was intended.”
The Raid is one of those movies for which the experience of watching isn’t about the story as much as the visual thrills. A SWAT team enters an apartment block run by a brutal crime lord to take him down early one morning, and find themselves overwhelmed, hopelessly outgunned, and locked in an urban warzone once inside.
With what seems like a good half hour filled with nothing but martial arts scraps, it must have been the easiest script to write, and Evans confirms you can’t be so specific on the page. But because he was the director as well, he had a vision he carried through from beginning to end.
“In terms of the action sequences you can’t really write too much,” he says. “Gunplay and stunts are created from the script, but when it comes to martial arts we just have a sense of the fight’s structure and outcome. You take note of the locations and props and how you can use them. The blocks and punches and thrashes and kicks all come from workshop sessions with the fight choreographer, the actors and I. A few of us would get together and play around with crash mats and a handycam and come up with something that looks good.”
It’s not until you see a fight in real life that you realise how incredible – in the literal sense of the word – movie fights are, and that’s just where Evans was looking when it came to his influences. “I’m inspired by directors like John Woo and filmmakers who do fights which are flashy but classical. I’m also a big fan of awareness of the location, and because of that we looked at a lot of stuff from Jackie Chan because it’s so clean and crisp and goes into a lot of location detail.”
Thanks to the massive Sundance buzz, the most predictable development in the life of The Raid might be the announcement of the inevitable American remake. Might it be Evans’ ticket to bigger and better things if he were to redo his own film with the bigger budgets and wider scope Hollywood offers? Although he’s listed as executive producer of the 2014 movie, Evans isn’t interested. “I think I did what I wanted to do with my version,” he says. “You spend over a year of your life on something and that’s a long time to re-do something you’ve already done.”
So while The Raid is being released theatrically across the world over the next few months, Evan’s filmmaking stock is sure to rise. He might not revisit the blood-splashed Jakarta apartment block, but you’ll certainly see his name again.