Exuberant and ultraviolent, “The Raid: Redemption” makes its martial-arts routines feel remarkably fresh. For most American viewers, one reason to be exhilarated is that this will be first Indonesian movie they’ve ever seen. The SWAT-team thriller, which opened nationwide Friday, is also the stateside debut of its star, Iko Uwais, and its writer-director, Gareth Huw Evans.
The latter, as his name suggests, is not a product of Indonesia. Evans grew up far from the tropics, in Wales. That might seem an odd background for Indonesian cinema’s new champion, but the Welsh filmmaker is at home with the role. While he’s lived in Indonesia only about four years, spiritually Evans arrived in Asia long ago.
“When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee and Jet Li,” Evans says by phone during a recent visit to the United State. “Gradually, I started to get into other filmmakers from Asia. In the early ’90s, I was into Takeshi Kitano and discovering Japanese extreme cinema, with Takashi Miike.”
Evans started directing Asian movies before he left Wales. His first completed short, “Samurai Monogatari,” was a film-school project made in 2003. “Monogatari” means “story” in Japanese, and the movie was shot entirely in that language.
“I was learning Japanese with a Japanese student in Cardiff,” he says. “I told her about the script. When I showed it to her, she showed it to some of her friends. They were from Japan as well. Before I knew it, I had a cast and my script was translated into Japanese. And my mum was making a kimono.”
Evans married a woman of Indonesian-Japanese heritage, also an exchange student, and the couple settled in his hometown, Hirwaun, in South Wales. They were there about 10 months before both became restless.
With his wife’s help, Evans got a gig in Jakarta directing a documentary series about silat, the martial-arts style featured in “The Raid: Redemption.” The filmmaker had studied karate and akido as a boy but admits, “I was always terrible at it. I wasn’t very disciplined. I had that thing where I thought, ‘Okay, one lesson and I’ll become Jackie Chan.’ ”
While making the documentaries, Evans met Uwais, a silat master who was working as a delivery driver. Evans soon enlisted Uwais to star in “Merantau,” the first feature the director made in Indonesia. In “The Raid: Redemption,” Uwais plays Rama, a rookie police officer who survives an assault on a high-rise tenement controlled by ruthless gangsters.
Before making “Merantau,” Evans says he studied silat for more than eight months, “just so I could have a better understanding of the choreography and the application of the moves we were going to use.”
Evans’ appreciation of the fighting style becomes evident in his latest movie. The action is kinetic, yet without the jittery editing of recent Hollywood action movies. “I work very closely with the guys on the choreography,” he says. “We spent, like, three months doing it. If we’re going to spend all that time doing the work, why would we want to hide it in the final version of the film?”
The more fluid and coherent approach also echoes Evans’ directorial models, all but one of whom are Asian. “I’ve always loved that, when you watch the action set pieces play out in a John Woo or a Sam Peckinpah movie, there’s a great deal of clarity and spatial awareness. You know exactly what the location is. You know where every corner of the room is. You know where your protagonist is. And you know where all the attacks are going to come from.”
Indonesia exported some action flicks in the 1980s and ’90s, making an international cult star of Dutch-Javan actor Barry Prima. Evans says he didn’t emulate those movies, because they now look dated compared to ones made during the same period in Hong Kong. “In ‘The Raid,’ there’s a lot of influence when it comes to gunplay from Peckinpah and Woo. When it comes to martial arts, it’s Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung [both from Hong Kong] and Panna Rittikrai from Thailand.”
But, Evans adds, Indonesian cinema today is “on the cusp of something big. It’s a very exciting time at the moment.”
Evans’ excitement could reflect the fact that he moved from a town of less than 5,000 to a city of more than 9,000,000. The filmmaker downplays the culture shock, however. “The thing I miss about my hometown is that, back in Wales, everyone knows everyone on every street. Whereas in Indonesia, I don’t really know any of my neighbors beyond my family that live nearby. But that’s like city life anywhere.”
The director says he’s picked up the Indonesian language fairly quickly. “I’m not 100-percent fluent yet,” he concedes. “But I can handle basic conversations, and I can handle insulting people. And that’s all you really need.”
Perhaps it helped that Evans was already bilingual before he switched hemispheres. In fact, his last job before heading south was teaching Welsh via computer. He doesn’t hesitate when asked which language is harder.
“Welsh!” he replies, laughing. “Indonesian is more straightforward. It’s all present tense. Welsh is a lot more complicated.”
Evans will likely be using English a lot now that Sony Pictures is releasing “The Raid: Redemption” in the United States. He’s planning two sequels to the movie, but plans to intersperse other projects rather than shoot the follow-ups in quick succession. He will also serve as executive producer of an English-language remake of his new film, to be shot in the United States with a largely American cast.
The director is sanguine about the remake. “They’re treating the original with a degree of respect, which I really appreciate,” Evans says. “My feeling is, whoever they get to direct the remake should be given the same freedom and flexibility I got.”
Besides, he adds: “It needs a fresh pair of eyes in the director’s seat. I’ve run out of ways to kill people.”
R. At Loews Georgetown and Landmark E Street Cinema. 100 minutes.