Gareth Evans tells Alistair Harkness how a lad from the Valleys turned his love of John Woo into an Indonesian action thriller that took the world of martial arts movies by storm
GARETH Evans is talking action cinema. More specifically, The Raid director is grilling me about where and when I saw John Woo’s kill-crazy cop movie Hard-Boiled for the first time (it was October 1993, at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, during my first week of university – in case you care). “It’s still the best action movie ever made,” beams the 31-year-old, Welsh-born filmmaker: “I’m insanely jealous you got to see it on the big screen.”
It’s really not much of a claim, especially given that the guy sitting opposite me has made an action movie that is being eagerly talked of in same breath as Woo’s Hong Kong classic.
Since making its debut in a rapturously received late night screening slot at last autumn’s Toronto Film Festival, The Raid, Evans’s frenzied, low-budget, Indonesian-produced martial arts/action movie hybrid, has become a genuine grassroots, word-of-mouth phenomenon – as revered by the hardcore genre fans attending this year’s Glasgow Frightfest in February (where The Raid made its UK debut) as it is by the New York Times, which recently gushed that it was a reminder of how bad American action films have become in comparison.
Set in Jakarta and revolving around an elegantly streamlined plot in which a police SWAT team is forced to fight its way out of a drug lord’s high-rise fortress after a raid on the building goes wrong, the film certainly makes a virtue of its fight scenes: delivering literal wall-to-wall action (and sometimes between-the-wall action too) in a large number of surprisingly inventive new ways.
This is partly down to Evans using pencak silat – a fast and fluid fist, foot and blade-utilising style of martial arts indigenous to Indonesia – as the basis for The Raid’s relentless combat. But it’s also down to Evans realising that his action scenes had to do more than merely showcase the revelatory skills of the film’s sure-to-be break-out star Iko Uwais. Unlike other martial arts discoveries of recent years – Tony Jaa for instance – you won’t see Uwais – who plays The Raid’s violent-but-virtuous hero cop (and who also featured in Evans’ previous Indonesian martial arts film Merantau) – performing elaborate mid-air triple kicks and twists.
“We wanted to keep our action choreography grounded in reality,” explains Evans. “As much as I enjoy being able to see how incredibly acrobatic some of these martial artists are, it’s only about the spectacle and it takes you out of the story because, at the same time that a person is doing a triple kick, you’re also looking at a stuntman who is preparing himself for that kick to land.
“Our fights mostly take place at their real speed. And once a fight starts, it doesn’t stop until one of them is on the ground.”
All of which should already have action fans salivating, though perhaps the final key to why this all seems so fresh and exciting is more rudimentary: you can actually tell what’s going on, something that can’t exactly be said about a lot of contemporary action-oriented cinema.
“A lot of modern films tend to do that quick-cut thing,” nods Evans. “You almost feel that most of the action is being delivered through the sound rather than the visuals. We wanted to go in the opposite direction. I thought if we’re going to work for three months on the choreography and the design of the fight scenes, we’ve got to show them. I think a lot of people have become quite disenfranchised with action films, especially when they hide the choreography with quick cuts and close-ups.”
At which point it seems legitimate to wonder how exactly a guy from the Welsh village of Hirwaun (population: 4,851) has not only ended up reinvigorating such a tired genre but helped put Indonesia on the commercial film-making map. It’s a story that has, inevitably, given the making of The Raid an irresistible hook, though the self-effacing Evans just laughs when it’s brought up.
“When people talk about this idea of being a Welsh guy from the Valleys who travelled off to Indonesia to make martial arts action movies, on paper, it sounds really bizarre. But because everything happens in real time for me, it’s just been a smooth process, it hasn’t been weird.”
Indeed, the only “weird thing”, he says, is that when he was trying to launch his career with a 2006 microbudget thriller called Footsteps (it cost £8,000, a quarter of which went on the camera) he really had “no inclination to do action at all”. This is despite his dad schooling him in the genre via Saturday afternoon trips to the video shop – from which they’d rent everything from Kurosawa films to Commando to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies – and the later teenage love of John Carpenter, John Woo and Japanese mavericks such as Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike that developed from this formative introduction.
After Footsteps, however, he says he just wasn’t motivated enough to get a foothold in the UK film industry and ended up working a nine-to-five job in Swansea, where he was living with his Indonesian-Japanese wife, Maya Barack-Evans (they met when they were both students). “She didn’t really settle, though, and she could also see I wasn’t really doing what I wanted to be doing, so she put in some calls back home and got me some documentary work in Indonesia.”
It was a fortuitous move. The documentary was about the aforementioned Indonesian martial art pencak silat and, through making it, he not only found the inspiration for his debut action film, 2009’s Merantau (the title refers to one of more than 200 styles of silat), he also discovered Uwais, who has gone on to become a sort of action muse for the director.
“At the time he was working as a delivery guy for a phone company, doing silat in his spare time, and representing Indonesia in competitions,” recalls Evans. “When we watched him perform we were just blown away. It sounds clichéd, and I hate saying this, but he had such a screen presence. So I kept nudging my wife, saying, ‘We’ve got to keep in touch with him and figure out if we can do something together at some point.’”
Having now made two successful action films in Indonesia through the production company he and his wife set up after moving out there (“She runs it, so she’s my boss 24 hours a day”), Evans’ plan now is to make Berandal, an epic prison movie that was due to be his second feature with Uwais, but will now function as a sequel to The Raid.
As for the lure of Hollywood, it should come as no surprise to learn that The Raid’s remake rights have already been snapped up and that other scripts are starting to come through his door.
“I haven’t connected with anything yet,” he says, “but to be honest, I’ve been dying to do that sequel to The Raid for so long now I’m going to take the opportunity to do it while I can and then hopefully I can develop something outside of Indonesia.”
He laughs. “So the plan is to do something in Indonesia, something in the UK or the US and then maybe go back and forth.”
Well, that almost worked for John Woo.
• The Raid is in cinemas from 18 May.
The Raid’s leading man Iko Uwais was discovered working as a messenger. Here are five more accidental action stars:
A student of Akido while living in Japan in his teens, Seagal opened his own dojo in Los Angeles and trained Hollywood super agent Michael Ovitz, who – vowing he could make anyone a star – landed him the lead in Above the Law.
The Swedish karate champion was spotted while working part-time as a bouncer in Sydney and subsequently cast as a henchman in Bond movie A View to a Kill.
A former championship diver, he was cast by Guy Ritchie in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels after Ritchie discovered he used to sell dodgy goods on the streets of London. Luc Besson recognised his athletic potential and transformed him into the all-round action god he is today.
This champion Muay Thai fighter and Mixed Martial Arts star was spotted by Steven Soderbergh, who thought her striking looks and striking abilities would work well in Haywire. She didn’t know who Soderbergh was.
A staple of 1980s/early 1990s martial arts B-movies such as China O’Brian and Martial Law, Rothrock was discovered in California doing a karate demonstration and brought to Hong Kong to work for the legendary Golden Harvest production company before returning to Hollywood and straight-to-video cult stardom.