Film critic Roger Ebert once eloquently said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” The idea that the execution is ultimately more important than the actual elements of the story is one that has been illustrated time and time again throughout the history of cinema. Whether it’s the more than thirty loose adaptations of the 1929 novel “Red Harvest”, that includes such drastically different films (in content and quality) as Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai tale YOJIMBO and Albert Pyun’s sci-fi schlockfest OMEGA DOOM, or the seemingly endless interpretations of Bram Stoker’s horror novel “Dracula” to name just a couple of examples, different artists have always looked for ways to reinterpret ideas for their respective audiences.
One of the more common reasons this occurs is to “localize” a foreign film for domestic viewers. Hollywood is often criticized for this practice. The most common complaints thrown about are that the studios are “dumbing down” or “whitewashing” beloved films from other countries. The United States doesn’t have the only film industry that ”localizes” films though. It happens in every country that produces movies, and it can be a fascinating window into how that local culture differs from the original film’s own. It can also help illuminate the core reasons why a story works or not.
The latest example of a popular film from one country being reinterpreted for a vastly different one is the new martial arts action film RUSSIAN RAID (aka RUSSKIY REYD). The film is, as the title implies, a reimagining of the 2011 Indonesian action classic THE RAID. In the original film, a police force attempts a raid on a high-rise tenement controlled by local gangsters that quickly goes bad and spirals out of control.
Only the barest elements of that film’s story appear in its new counterpart. RUSSIAN RAID finds a former Spetsnaz (special forces) soldier, Nikita (Ivan Kotik), hired to lead a raid on a successful vodka distillery that is quite literally a “hostile takeover” by a competitor where they hope to strong-arm the owner into signing over the property and business to them. What the people who hired Nikita don’t realize though is that he is looking to settle a decades-old vendetta against a warlord who uses the distillery as a front for his criminal empire and Nikita’s participation in the raid is just his means to do so.
While there are shared elements between the two films: a stealth attack on a vast building owned by criminals, corrupt police, characters with hidden agendas, and (of course) numerous fight scenes based around intricate martial arts- the differences between the two films run deep. The team that Nikita is tasked with leading isn’t a militarized unit, for example. They are instead, humorously, mixed martial arts-loving, track suit-wearing hoodlums. Believing that the distillery guards have no firearms, the plan is to simply bully their way through the building, subduing any resistance along the way until they can corner who they think the owner of the building is. Of course, none of this goes as planned and things escalate quickly when the actual owners show up to defend their front.
The idea of the titular raid going badly leaving the protagonists out-matched and fighting for survival is reminiscent of the Indonesian original but the execution by first-time feature director Denis Kryuchkov gives even the familiar story beats a different vibe that distances it from the Indonesian original. Where Gareth Evan’s original film is gritty, somber, and dark; RUSSIAN RAID is surprisingly lightweight and even cheerful at times. There is a mischievous sense of fun to a lot of RUSSIAN RAID that feels very unique to its country of origin. Martial arts forms blending seamlessly with traditional Russian “Hopka” dancing, the side of a log cabin replacing a Wing Chun blocking dummy for striking practice, and other cultural shifts big and small give the film a very different, distinctly Eastern European, feel that only occasionally echoes its inspiration and even then it’s fleeting. It’s like catching a few musical notes from one popular song repeated in another at a different tempo. You could easily never notice it but it’s there if you are looking for it.
The focal point of RUSSIAN RAID’s narrative is the revenge-seeking Nikita and it is no exaggeration to say that this film likely wouldn’t exist without stuntman/actor Ivan Kotik in that lead role. Kotik has worked alongside action film stalwarts like Jackie Chan, Dolph Lundgren, and Scott Adkins on various films that have shot in Eastern Europe and their influence is apparent in the way his graceful movements meet with his stoic demeanor. He exudes a quiet toughness and determination that along with his rugged, unconventional features help him fit comfortably in with the bevy of real-life mixed martial artists who make up so much of the supporting cast. His acting is also relied upon heavily for a lot of the drama in the film to make up for the inexperienced performers around him as well. He does a good job of holding the film together, despite this being his first real time in that sort of spotlight. Kotik feels like an action star just waiting to be discovered by the larger film world and RUSSIAN RAID is a strong showcase for his talents.
The action on display is, of course, what will bring audiences to the film and for the most part, it delivers. The fights blend traditional martial arts film-style movie combat with MMA-flourishes for a touch of realism that is likely meant to appeal to local audiences in Russia where mixed martial competitions are very popular. The action scenes while not particularly innovative are energetic, well-choreographed, and filmed with a good sense of clarity and geography. It’s quality “meat and potatoes” fight work that will please diehard fans of the genre. Their only flaw, if you can call it that, is that the choice was made to use very natural sounds for the foley work during the sequences. So, while the fights sound realistic, they lose some of the rhythm and impact that more pronounced strike noises create in martial arts movies. It clearly was a distinct artistic decision, but it unintentionally removes a sense of urgency from the hand-to-hand scenes. That and the occasionally obvious CGI muzzle flash/bullet wound during the film’s firearm-filled back half, unfortunately, distract from the quality action work on screen.
RUSSIAN RAID also stumbles a bit in its plotting and character development. Every character is thinly sketched and the plot twists and turns more than it should. This one-two punch leaves a lot of the film feeling muddled narratively. The motivations in the original RAID were easily understood and the narrative was laser-focused. That is not the case here as the film meanders a bit midway through, with needless plotting and pointless conflicts, when it should be barreling head-first into its action-packed third act.
When taken as a whole though, RUSSIAN RAID is an enjoyable martial arts action film from a country not normally known for that sort of thing and that sense of freshness alone is more than enough to recommend it to any action fan looking for a new perspective on familiar tropes and to earmark star Ivan Kotik and director Denis Kryuchkov as talents to keep an eye on in the future. (3/5)