IF SOMEONE said Hirwaun was a sleepy village in a southeast Asian country, you might believe it.
It is home to Gareth Evans, the young director of the imperious new Indonesian martial arts flick, The Raid: Redemption.
But, as the name Evans suggests, Hirwaun is actually a small town in Wales. The most thrilling action movie for years has been made by a Welshman.
Since premiering at the Toronto Film Festival late last year, Evans’ action movie has built up a huge head of steam. It was greeted with delirious reviews in the US, when released there in March.
A month earlier, it won ‘best film’ at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, having ‘blown the minds’ of 600 viewers in the Savoy cinema.
Inspired by action classics like Die Hard and Commando, as well as John Carpenter’s impeccable siege flick, Assault on Precinct 13, The Raid’s narrative centres on a police assault on a drug baron’s high-rise fortress, an assault that goes badly wrong. Much punching, kicking, shooting, and blade-wielding ensues.
The film’s appeal is due to a number of factors. First and foremost, in an era when action movies have become banal rituals of rapid-fire editing and ludicrously impossible stunts, the show-stopping fight scenes in The Raid are captured with a gripping attention to the physical rough-and-tumble of combat. Evans’s filmmaking couches the graphic violence and explosive set-pieces in a dramatic narrative that — while conventional — is engaging and perfectly measured. Finally, in Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, Evans has discovered martial-arts fighters who are each graced with a charismatic and compelling screen presence.
The Raid has made the martial arts movie — a genre in decline for many years — relevant again. For Evans, who grew up watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan flicks with his dad in small-town Wales, being hailed as the saviour of a flagging genre has come as a major shock.
“It’s really strange,” he says. “We didn’t expect this at all. We finished post-production a week before the film’s premiere screening in Toronto, and me and my producer were so pessimistic. We were saying, ‘Well, maybe we’ll be able to get one or two decent reviews and pull out a quote for the poster.’ And that was it.
“That was all we hoped for. And then the film played and it got a good reaction and it’s just grown since then. It’s very overwhelming.
“It feels like a validation for the work we’ve been doing, but at the same time, while it’s so pleasing, we’ve kept our feet on the ground. When we watch the film, we see some mistakes in there and we know that those mistakes are still there.”
Having seen his prospects of a film career stall in Britain, Evans took the fateful decision to move to Indonesia with his Indonesian-Japanese wife, Maya, in 2007.
Maya had helped get him a job shooting a documentary about the Indonesian martial art, pencak silat. The gig introduced him to the sport and to his future leading man, Iko Uwais. The experience inspired his first action film, in Indonesia, 2009’s Merantau, made by the production company set up by Evans and his wife. This proved a modest success, and was enough of a calling card to raise the $1.1m budget for The Raid. A pittance by the standards of the Hollywood action film, in Indonesia $1.1m was still big money. Among other things, it meant The Raid would have to do reasonably well abroad to recoup its investment.
“It’s hard to get $1m back in the Indonesian market,” says Evans. “So we knew we had to sell internationally as well, and really this film was a make-or-break project for us. If it hadn’t have been a success, we wouldn’t be carrying on. That would have been it.”
To compete with American blockbusters, films for which $1m wouldn’t pay the marketing bill, Evans and his cohorts had to make every penny count.
“We stretched it thin,” he says. “We had to build a lot of the sets ourselves because we couldn’t find the right locations, and whenever we were done with one set we’d tear it down and re-use the wood in another set. I was joking that at least we could say the film was very environmentally conscious.”
If The Raid is the world’s first ‘green’ action movie, it’s also notable for bringing the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat to worldwide attention. The discipline had been a staple of Indonesian martial arts movies in the late ’70s and ’80s, but by the ’90s it was regarded as passé.
“For about 15 years, nothing was done in action film in Indonesia,” says Evans. “It was considered a genre that couldn’t make money anymore. Nobody touched it. So when we were making Merantau, everyone laughed at us and told us it was a stupid idea. At that time, silat was only on TV, and TV had made a right fucking mess of it. They were showing people flying in the air, turning into panthers, and spitting fireballs out. It was bullshit. I knew a lot of the masters and the fighters and I said ‘let’s do something that reclaims silat for you guys’.”
In doing justice to silat, Evans and his team developed fight scenes with a similar feel to classic Hong Kong martial arts flicks. “I grew up watching the films from Jackie Chan’s glory days — Project A, Police Story, Armour of God — and what was brilliant about those films was that you could see everything. So when we designed our fight scenes on The Raid, every shot was designed to showcase a specific movement perfectly. Also, I knew that I’d better do a good job capturing the choreography. Otherwise, they’d beat the shit out of me.”
With his star now on a rapid ascent, Evans says his next project will be a sequel to The Raid. Afterwards, he hopes to shoot a film in the UK or the US.
“At the moment, my interest is action and martial arts,” says Evans. “But I would love to do a Western at some point. A film like The Wild Bunch is one of the best action films ever made, but the thing I really love about Sam Peckinpah’s films is that the action always means something. It’s not just a visceral spectacle.
“It tells a story and it’s about character. There’s nothing more poignant than the ending of The Wild Bunch. Me and my dad, we watch The Wild Bunch a lot,” Evans says.
Well, his dad’s viewing habits have certainly served him well so far.
* The Raid: Redemption is released May 18