Over the last decade or so, Midnight Madness audiences have been privileged to encounter some extraordinary events. We were doled out barf bags for the screening of ICHI THE KILLER, and witnessed an unprecedented cinematic onslaught. We were there when ONG BAK took the Uptown by storm, throwing the tired martial arts genre on its head with prompt kicks in the forehead. Of late, films like SUPER whipped the audience into that collective euphoria that has made this bastard child of regular TIFF programming internationally celebrated.

This year, we start with one of those films belonging in the pantheon, one of the “I was there when it played” moments. THE RAID is smart, beautifully shot and choreographed, with impeccable action mixed with strong dramatic performances by the cast. Like ONG BAK did for Muy Thai, THE RAID’s (inevitable) success is sure to bring the Indonesian martial art of Silat to a wide audience.

Director Gareth Evans, a Welsh-born ex-pat, has captured I think that magic something that certain genre films embody. Structurally, it’s another in a long line of commando raid movies – the bad guys are holed up on the top floor of the building, the cops are entering from below, and as they make their way up the challenges get more and more complicated. It’s a trope common to almost every 80s video game, yet with Evans’ work, we get something different. Quickly we learn that not everyone on the cops’ side is good, and not everyone on the defenders’ side is bad, but all seem gifted with the ability to inflict pain on one another. While the ensuing carnage is both well shot and executed, it’s this strong character development through the action that elevates the work. The film doesn’t stop during the ass pounding, it’s actually critical to the drive of the narrative. It’s perhaps not much to ask for, but in a genre that often has as much subtlety as a common porn film, with action sequences interrupted by cloying, pedantic and trite “plot”, we’re given an actual, honest-to-gosh real narrative to care about these characters and their plight. Even the so-called “Mad Dog” (Yayan Ruhian) exudes a level of quiet professionalism that makes his martial capabilities all the more enthralling.

From the opening shot, where our hero does his morning prayers and kisses his wife goodbye, there was a brief moment where I feared this would lead to little more than tacked on scenes, there strictly for clunky manipulation of the audience. Instead, these types of real, human moments occur throughout, continuously enriching the story.  In retrospect, while obviously a common occurrence to native Indonesian audience, the sight of our hero, clearly devout, clearly Muslim, resonates very differently in the West where perceptions of this religion and culture are dominated by very different imagery.

In the end, though, what would the film be without some ass kicking? And, lordy, does THE RAID ever deliver. We are treated to wave after wave of epic, bone-crunching scenes. Bless Evans and his collaborators; we’re actually treated to wide shots (!) where the action is allowed to actually play out on screen, rather than bombarding a numbed audience with a flurry of cuts and whip pans. There’s hand-on-neck action, fun set pieces with machine guns blazing, and key scenes with a trio of fighters that’s simply jaw dropping.

The pace of the film is very well executed, with the balance between moments of calm and brisk onslaught that shapes the audience’s emotional reactions. When the film does crescendo, it rocks it at full volume, moves both balletic and brutal, exposing the unique visual flair that Silat is able to provide. The film occasionally, and brilliantly, sneaks up on you, and when it does so you feel it, like a knife in your chest, almost winded by the insanity on screen.

THE RAID is both an exceptionally well made action movie and a fantastic good time, its mélange of mayhem and introspection a clear antidote to lesser works within the genre.  It maybe superficially a DIE HARD-meets-OLD BOY formula, but it comes pretty darn close to surpassing those prized films. This is one of those rare times where you can witness the emergence of young, fresh talent , Evans and co. (including Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais) have successfully brought the house down with this flick.  THE RAID is, quite simply, an absolutely badass film, an instant classic, and a hell of a way to kick of this year’s slate of MM fare.