If Hollywood summer blockbusters leave you dissatisfied because of their unreal veneer of CGI effects, or if PG-13 ratings turn your stomach because you yearn for a hard R action flick, then you must watch The Raid: Redemption, an Indonesian action dynamo that raises the bar for raw kinetic energy per-screen-minute.
Set in the drably-lit slums of Jakarta, Raid tells the story of Rama, a SWAT officer who along with his team assaults an apartment complex on orders to nab a crime lord. At first things go smoothly for the police squad, until the gangsters lock down the building and turn the tower into a tenement death trap.
This is Welsh director and writer Gareth Evans’ third film, Raid feels like a consummate production with a tightly focused, successfully realized vision. Evans generates a tremendous level of tension by avoiding the pitfalls of extraneous plot (e.g. the convoluted and ultimately ridiculous narrative in Expendables) and too much distracting “epic-ness” (cough, Michael Bay 360s, or Marvel comic save-the-world scenarios). This film keeps it simple: the good guys must survive in a building full of bad guys.
Luckily, what Evans spends screen time on instead of fleshing out the admittedly skeletal story is delivering extended sequences of gripping combat. Even in an era of Avatar and other 3D species, or big-budget movies about Hasbro-toys-come-alive, the jaded moviegoer will be slack-jawed watching Rama disarm machete-wielding thugs.
Rama is played by an effective Iko Uwais, who also served as fight choreographer. The action sequences showcase the Indonesian martial art of Silat, which comes across as a no-holds-barred style that emphasizes speed and brute force blows rather than the graceful, at times balletic fight choreography moviegoers have grown accustomed to since The Matrix. The scenes developed by Uwais are not graceful, certainly not with the throat gashes and body pummels that are laced with dubstep crescendos. But they are undeniably riveting, taking the action genre to new places.
To be clear, Raid does have something of a story and even a few plot twists–some of which are predictable, others less so. The background for why the SWAT team is ordered to capture the crime lord is furnished during brief respites from the action, and in general provides a satisfyingly credible backdrop for what Rama faces. Evans also somewhat awkwardly inserts a family reunion, and the related redemption, in the middle of the movie (a bit like how that sentence read). Believability suffers, but plot points such as this do rescue the movie from becoming an arbitrary blur of men fighting. It’s also worth mentioning that Raid is nearly exclusively the province of male characters fighting one another—women only show up briefly, and only as vaguely elaborated symbols of home life.
In terms of the look, Evans situates the movie in a grimy world–nearly all the scenes are in the tattered rooms and corridors of the apartment building. The camera sometimes switches to the black and white CCTV set up by the crime lord throughout the building, heightening the contained, trapped feel. During the action, Evans keeps the camera involved and in the middle of the fight–but not too up close to a degree that movements are obscured. Similarly, the soundtrack ratchets up the intensity with staccato electro beats, but stays away from melodic overdrive that can detract from visuals. No Terminator-esque anthems here: just a protagonist punching, kicking, knifing, and shooting his way out of a hellhole.
Is Raid just another action flick? No. Other critics have compared the movie to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), but I think the appropriate reference would be to John Woo’s Hard Boiled, or the more recent Tony Jaa vehicle, The Protector. In fact, the crime lord’s head henchman (a badass in his own right) is called Mad Dog, the name of the head henchman (somewhat less badass) from Hard Boiled.
Either way, this movie hits hard.