Above: Boys will be boys!
I want to start with some expectations management: as great as it is, The Raid: Redemption does not belong in the top echelon of action movies. Compare it to Die Hard, another movie about an overmatched cop trapped in a building with a bunch of lowlifes, and it's easy to see why. The Raid doesn't give us a sharply drawn hero, a memorable villain, or much of a story. Its faceless henchmen are just that, faceless, not like Die Hard's unforgettable team of Eurotrash terrorists, each of whom had a clear role and identity. When I say that The Raid is the best action movie I've seen in years, that's both high praise for the film, and an indictment of the current state of the genre.
What The Raid does offer, in spades, are fight sequences that are choreographed with aplomb and photographed with confidence. In an age when most cinematic action scenes are comprised of cartoonish CGI, incomprehensible blurs, and weaker impacts than touch football, here is a movie that radiates authenticity with every bone-crunching hit. It feels real -- not in the sense that you believe a real-life person could have the stamina that these characters have, or go the whole day without once having to go to the bathroom, but in the sense that you believe the people onscreen are getting hurt. The squalid tenement where the action happens feels like a real place, not a movie set. And as our hero faces down one frothing bad guy after another, you believe, despite the accumulated knowledge of a lifetime of moviegoing, that he might not make it through this thing.
So, no, The Raid doesn't have much in the way of a story. If you've seen the trailer, you've pretty much got it. A team of cops is set to infiltrate a high-rise and arrest a crime boss who acts as a landlord to the city's worst criminals. Naturally, about halfway up the building, the cops are ambushed and cut off. The ruthless efficiency of the gangsters would make a private equity firm proud. The crime boss calls in snipers from adjacent buildings to cover the windows, and their marksmanship is shown in detail. It's a small touch, but an important one -- the cops won't even be allowed to flee with their tails between their legs.
From then on, the movie is one mostly unbroken string of action scenes. Everybody runs out of bullets by about the 30-minute mark, both cops and criminals, leaving them to contend with batons, knives, machetes, and whatever impromptu weapons they can find. It's here that the movie hits its stride. Working mostly in an identical series of hallways and stairwells, director Gareth Evans and his co-fight choreographers (stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian) wring almost endless variety from their battles. I have read criticisms of The Raid that decry the repetition of the settings, but given the martial-arts chops on display, I wonder who even took the time to notice. Besides which, criticizing a low-budget movie for recycling sets is like slamming a sonnet for only having 14 lines.
Evans isn't a showy director who tries to dazzle audiences with fancy camera tricks. His m.o. here is to stick with medium shots and let his performers do the work. We're treated to full-frame displays of physical feats that are all the more impressive for appearing to be done without the aid of special effects. No one in this movie can fly or deflect bullets. The action is fast, yes, but it's comprehensible, and while there are plenty of cuts, they are all made in service of letting us know where the combatants are in relation to one another, and what they are doing. As viewers, we are grounded at all times.
With two other features under his belt, Gareth Evans is already showing growth as a director. His first collaboration with Uwais, Merantau, also featured kick-ass fight choreography, but it was slow to start and dragged for long stretches. (However, Merantau also features a fight in a service elevator between Uwais and Ruhian that is worth the price of admission alone. It's on Netflix streaming. Watch it.) The Raid gets started faster, is better paced, and has a sneakier sense of humor. But I think Evans can do even better.
What I'd like to see from him next is a movie that takes seriously its obligation to give us characters we care about, and a storyline that is about more than just the next plot point. I don't think that means easing up on the action. For instance, imagine if our hero in The Raid didn't lovingly kiss his pregnant wife goodbye before leaving for the disastrous mission, but left in a huff after a dumb argument. Imagine if, fighting for his life against a quartet of machete-wielding miscreants, in the back of his mind he knew that the last thing he may ever have said to his wife was an insult. None of that would require any more dialogue, or less screen time devoted to people kicking each other in the face and chest. Yet it would make him more of a character and less of a type.
All that said, if Gareth Evans just keeps making movies as awesome as The Raid, then we're in good hands for years to come. I hope other filmmakers are taking notice.