The Raid: Redemption is an adrenaline-drenched achievement that stands head and shoulders above any action film you could name. This visceral experience could not be more ready to consume, but only for those who can stomach its ferocity.
In the ghettos of Jakarta towers an aged and white-washed apartment building. Tama, a ruthless crime lord played by Ray Shayetapy, has stationed himself on the top floor renting out the levels below to all manner of lowlife, including his own gang. One quiet, overcast morning a 20-man SWAT team is instructed on their ride over in an armored van: Secure the building one floor at a time, get the boss, and watch out for his two guards, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) and Jaka (Joe Taslim). We have only spent a brief previous scene with one of the crew, Rama (Iko Uwais). He is a young cop hand-picked for this undisclosed operation. A pregnant wife at home is all we need to know to make him our protagonist. A simplistic premise such as this is nothing close to novel. Many critics have dismissed The Raid as nothing more than a plot for a video game (this is fast becoming an irrelevant comparison as that medium evolves, but this is neither the time or place for that discussion). To be fair, even those who praise The Raid (as I’m about to do, big time) must point out this concept is unquestionably utilized as vindication to stage one brawl after another. But when a film absolutely delivers in what it is aiming for, impressing me every step of the way, I cannot fault it one bit.
As a screenwriter myself, how can I love a movie with a storyline as elementary as The Raid? Because great stories have never been dependent on their complexities or sophistications. Where the medium of motion pictures is concerned, showing is more important than telling, something editor/writer/director Gareth Evans and his duo of cinematographers clearly recognize. The cold opening of E.T. or the entirety of The Red Balloon are immediate examples of straightforward imagery to take us to miraculous places. We have decades of silent pictures to cite as well. Film is a way of storytelling that was born through motion and made for action. This independent Indonesian production builds upon the century of cinema under it and assembles one of the greatest action films ever made.
The Raid erupts into what becomes a wall-to-wall (they use their walls so well) war. The actors and camera explore every inch of space as both sides of the fight rally in the halls, over the balconies, behind the walls, and tear through the doors and floors. Naturally the fights become stapled to the environments they go down in as desperate characters utilize what they have around them. After seeing the film you can perfectly picture the rooms the key events took place in. That is a strength in filmmaking, a luxury that this genre does not always have.
When the lead actors are all performing their own stunts and fighting, many of whom are teachers of the distinct Indonesia martial art pencak silat, the result is tremendous. Iko Uwais puts The Expendables to bed as he takes on one harrowing situation after another. This guy is Jet Li infused with Jason Bourne, but hardly gets the privilege of using a gun. Resourceful, gutsy, noble, and punishing – he is everything we would want as we climb up the tower of terror. The situation grows even more compelling when we see what he is up against in the likes of Yayan Ruhian’s Mad Dog, a force like I have never before seen on the screen. Each scene in which Ruhian demonstrates his power deserves a standing ovation. I marvel at the accomplishment of these two actors in particular. They have mastered their craft like any you’d see at the Olympic games, but their exhibition hall for the world happens to be this movie. It may seem counterintuitive to celebrate the combat, but these sharpened skills are called martial arts for a reason.
The cinematography is as choreographed as the combat. We never miss a beat or a beating. The Raid is a bare and violent film. It occasionally pulls back by cutting to the next scene when some acts are unearned (usually in quick exchanges with a weapon at hand), but when it pits one man against a hallway of thugs (best scene of its kind since Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy), we see the struggle play out in real time. The result is completely comprehensible yet very visceral, proof that you don’t need to shake the camera and then cut the hell out of it in post to get a gut reaction.
As if the visuals and exact sound design were not enough to put us on edge, the film’s soundtrack intensifies each skirmish with a throbbing original score by Joseph Trapanese and Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park). The tracks are catchy and spread our attentiveness even further. In what I consider the crowning fight of the film (an unforgettable 2-on-1), you can feel the music climax as one side finally gains the upper hand and slams it all the way down.
The Raid takes place in one day to make the situation even more manageable for audiences and the filmmakers alike. Some stereotypical twists await in the spiel, but one is used as a parable that is fully expressed in the film’s closing minutes. Despite what myself and others have said, the movie is not a nonstop dogfight. There are moments to catch your breath (trust me, you’ll need to) and others that turn high-strung in their tenseness. Rama hiding in the wall from his machete-toting hunters is just as memorable a moment as when the pencak silat is going down. Many tastes will not care for such a brutal experience as The Raid, but for those looking for the quintessential action film, look no further.
J.S. writes about all things film over on The Film Tome. Enter the tome and you will find reviews, news, trailer analyses, lists, essays, an official podcast and more.