Like all film genres, the action movie goes through phases. Originally, it was wrapped up in the pageantry and precision of the past…and the sword. Then it went to war. Then Western. Eventually, it moved into areas of espionage and intrigue before finally becoming a high concept catch-all for anything with some stunts. Along the way, various dynamics were abandoned (the precisely choreographed car chase) while others became overused gimmicks (Hello, shaky-cam. We’re talking to you…). The result has been a redefinition of what makes for viable thrills.
Two decades ago, it was beefy men with big weapons. Then wire-fu won the day. Now, thanks to films like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and the new effort The Raid: Redemption, we’re getting a return to good old fashioned edge of your seat fun. Sure, the sleeper surprise from Indonesia is brutal and basic in its narrative, but it’s also explosive in its flashy fisticuffs.
A rookie SWAT Team member (Iko Uwais) is joined by several members of his police squad, their objective to take down a despotic drug lord (Ray Sahetapy). Standing between them is a 15 story apartment building loaded with like-minded criminals, including a pair of right hand men (Donny Alamsyah and Yayan Ruhian) who will do anything for their boss. On the side of right (?) is a corrupt senior officer (Pierre Gruno) who has a history with the thugs. With the initial assault a complete failure, there are just a few law enforcers left. Our reluctant hero, desperate to get back to his pregnant wife, therefore must literally work his way to the top, defeating floor after floor of bad guys, before the head honcho figures out how to kill him off once and for all.
Based around the Indonesian martial arts form known as Silat and set-up to be nothing more than 90 minutes of mind-blowing beat-downs, The Raid: Redemption is amazing. It’s not deep, and dwells in subject and storyline superficiality in ways that would make even the most brain dead Hollywood effort appear complex, but it still bests the West without question. While there is some clear character motivation (our lead wants to return home to his concerned spouse and there’s a family oriented plot twist toward the end) and some locational subtext, this is really nothing more than a clothesline production, the narrative only existing to hang some insanely impressive action scenes upon.
Yes, this is a movie where many will be discussing the brilliantly choreographed confronts, each one delivering intense, in your face ferocity – and it deserves the attention. Like John Woo, or perhaps more appropriately, Yuen Woo-ping, brutality is turned into a ballet, the balance of power shifting from fighter to fighter until a crescendo of death has been reached. There is inherent drama in these knock down drag outs, as well as a great level of directing skill. Transplant filmmaker Gareth Evans (he was born in Wales but now lives in Indonesia) understands the beauty in leaving the camera be. While there are a few instances where the lens goes loopy, the overall feel is a watchful eye keeping track of some creative chaos.
Of course, the lack of clear cut characterization and narrative complexity will bother a few motion picture purists. They will ridicule the message, and not the means. There is something pleasantly cathartic about watching well trained athletes doing the damnedest to entertain us, and the cast definitely does this. Uwais – a major league star in his home country – comes across as both vulnerable and invincible. We keep waiting for the moment when he finally breaks, when his 20 against 1 odds fall ostentatiously out of his favor. More importantly, he commands the screen, captivating us with his determination and his derring-do.
The bigger find here is fellow Silat expert and onscreen psycho villain Yayan Ruhian. Looking like an Asian leprechaun gone to horrific seed and never without a sinister scowl on his face, this wiry whirling dervish destroys everything in his path. He’s a constant presence during the first few fights, but during the finale, where he takes on Uwais and his fellow fall guy, Alamsyah, the intensity is electric. The entire last scuffle represents what has to be one of the best three man brawls ever committed to screen. The skill is spine tingling, the aggressiveness startling. As a matter of fact, the entire movie plays like a pair of defibrillator paddles, jolting us out of our typical genre malaise.
So if all you care about is nonstop mayhem, linear, goal oriented plotting, and a healthy dose of local color, The Raid: Redemption will be the perfect antidote to the West’s anemic action. It springs forth fully formed and reminds one of the moment they first discovered The Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li. While it’s all about the bloodshed and letting, there is something almost beautiful about how the fracases fall into place. It’s like a video game, except without all the goals and instant gratification. By walking the fine line between post-modern aesthetics and old world techniques, Evans and his formidable cast create a new kind of approach, one that will soon become a given in more mainstream cinema, guaranteed. Like any other changes in the genre, someone had to come along and slap the malaise out of the action movie. The Raid: Redemption does that – and a lot more