[23 March 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
It’s early morning. A clock is ticking. As rookie police officer Rama (Iko Uwais) prepares for his day, he goes through the usual action-movie-montagey steps: he does pull-ups, hits a heavy bag, and practices the precise moves of the Indonesian martial arts style pencak silat. He kisses his pretty pregnant wife goodbye. And he prays to Allah.
Rama’s Muslim faith is incidental to the plot of The Raid: Redemption (Serbuan maut), which focuses intently on the pow-pow combat between his Jakarta SWAT team and the horde of craven killers they unearth during a raid on a 15-story apartment building. At the same Rama’s faith makes him like and unlike those American action-movie cops who keep Bibles on their night tables: he’s introduced with a sign of where he’s from, a sign that shapes your understanding of the grand heroics he’s about to perform.
These heroics are generic, of course. Following his early morning rituals, Rama and his team ride over to the building in a police van, weapons ready and jaws set. Their target is the brutal crime boss Tama (Ray Sahetapy), “something of a legend in the underworld,” and his building has been a “no-go zone for police.” While it might occur to you to wonder—and know—why the raid is ordered now, the cops themselves plunge ahead, apparently oblivious to the corruption in their midst. And by the way, they might keep their eyes open for Tama’s significantly named enforcer Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) and his equally dangerous tactician Andi (Doni Alamsyah).
Thus instructed, the police, led by Lt. Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), enter the premises. For a minute, they remain undetected, making their way toward a drug lab where they think they’ll find a hostage and gain access to Tama. The plan pretty much immediately implodes when the inevitable surveillance cameras reveal their whereabouts. The bad guys are more than prepared for the raid, pummeling the invaders with what seems monumental firepower.
Listening to the gunfire and explosions in other parts of the building, cops crouched in shadows begin to look around at one another. Asked “Who else knows we’re here?”, Wahyu doesn’t have an answer: he hasn’t informed his superiors what he’s up to. And with that bad news, the situation deteriorates yet again: Tama promises tenants lifelong free rent for killing the invaders, and these tenants emerge from their apartments with guns and machetes and very mean faces, the fates of the cops are all but sealed.
It hardly matters that you can guess at who’s going to die and who’s allied with whom—and who will betray those same alliances. You’re not watching The Raid: Redemption to dig into characters’ relationships or decipher complex histories. You’re here to see shooting and kicking, neck snapping and back breaking, flips and falls, as well as a series of brilliantly choreographed battles. These are rendered in terrific long takes, as well as carefully edited combinations of surveillance footage and speedy but still legible handheld camerawork, showing perspectives of prey as well as predators.
It’s soon revealed that Rama and Mad Dog are well matched with regard to taking on whole squads of opponents, and so their fights on different floors both mirror one another and lead them towards each other. To its credit, the film makes clever videogamey use of the apartment building’s architecture to exacerbate and prolong this encounter: the players proceed from room to room, crashing through doors or floors, peering around corners and (in a remarkably tense and admirably weird scene) hiding behind walls. Here, the space matters, beyond providing hallways to run down or balconies to climb, tables to smash and windows to shatter. As the foes scheme and scope, they can also hear the ruckuses on other floors, helpful whether they’re hiding out or hurtling into a next round with a next adversary.
This brutal rondelay makes clear that the fighting per se—whenever, wherever, involving whomever—is the movie’s primary interest. If Rama is a standard moral center, the guy who makes the right (not cowardly, not crooked) decisions and can make them work out. He’s handsome and quietly charismatic, the bloody cuts on his only enhancing his striking cheekbones. And he’s Muslim too. He’s not conflicted about his faith, he’s built on it. According to director Gareth Huw Evans, “It’s just there, it’s a part of his character, and it’s a part of his everyday life—and he’s the hero of the film.”
Even as Evans and Uwais are planning two more films in a proposed trilogy, Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Raid‘s American distributor, Sony, is negotiating for the rights to remake the film. We can only guess at how the generic heroics will be changed.