[This is a reprint of my review of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The movie, now entitled The Raid: Redemption, opens tomorrow in limited release.]
A good action movie is not simply throwing every single bullet, punch, slice, and explosion into a blender and dumping it onto a screen so it can punch you in the adrenaline gland. It has to be finessed. There has to be tension—the wind-up to the hit, the pull of the hammer. The Raid: Redemption writer-director Gareth Evans knows how to deliver some of the most magnificent action scenes in years, but more importantly, he knows how to build to those scenes. Working off a bare-bones, serviceable plot and characters built more for their fists than their personalities, The Raid is an action feast that keeps finding new ways to dish out inventive kills and fights, and keeps its blood-thirsty audience cheering.
The plot of The Raid is a glowing tribute to the “Keep It Simple, Stupid” principle. A SWAT team made up of mostly rookies is tasked with raiding a high-rise apartment building and arresting its crime lord, Tama (Ray Sahetapy). It’s not a particularly easy task, but matters become far more complicated and deadly (mostly deadly; lot of deaths) when Tama makes an announcement over the PA system saying that anyone who kills one of the 20 SWAT members gets free lifetime rent and a pat on the head. Since free rent in a shitty high-rise filled with other criminals is an ideal life, the tenants rain down hell on the SWAT team and the cops must fight for their lives to escape.
The murderous tenants are armed with guns, machetes, and twenty years of martial arts training, and the SWAT team is woefully outmatched. However, they do have one lethal weapon: Rama (Iko Uwais). He’s the first character we meet and we see him destroying a punching bag. It is a fantastic bit of foreshadowing to the revelation that every guy he faces will be that punching bag. It doesn’t even matter if the punching bag is armed with guns and machetes. When you face off against Rama, you are simply a bag of meat and a sack of broken bones.
But Evans wisely doesn’t jump into the action. He lets us see what happens to that poor, defenseless punching bag at the beginning of the movie and then we wait. We wait for the team to lay out their plan. We wait for them to infiltrate the building and take down the first few floors of drug addicts and perhaps some perfectly nice people who are just looking for a cheap place to stay. But then they’re spotted, the word goes out for them to die, and that’s when Evans pulls the trigger on his bazooka.
The Raid makes you feel every single hit and there are a lot of hits. The sheer madness of the action has to be seen to be believed. Yes, we’ve seen martial arts fights before. Yes, we’ve seen firefights before. Yes, we’ve seen explosions before. But Evans makes us feel like we’re seeing all of these things for the first time. The fight choreography is remarkable, the cinematography captures it beautifully, and the editing ties it all together with so much power that almost every hit is met with a sympathetic “Oof!”, “Ow!”, and “Holy shit!” from the audience.
Evans knows that his best weapon is the martial arts brilliance of his actors, but as with everything else in the movie, he bides his time. Like ammunition, Evans makes every shot count. Every moment where a punch isn’t being thrown or a bullet being fired is either a cherished moment to breathe or another moment to hold your breath. It’s in the drag of the machete, hiding in the walls so as not to be stabbed by a machete, the realization that there’s going to be a fight with a guy who has a machete. Also a requirement for living in the building: bring your own machete. But whether the battle is with machetes, guns, or fists, Evans always proves himself a master of building tension and then absolutely delivering on the mind-blowing action. Even when action fatigue starts to set in, Evans uses it to his advantage and our weariness matches up with Rama.
For The Raid, action is what it’s all about. The story and the characters are as lean as it comes. The objective is simple, the twists are predictable, and the performances are good but secondary to the fisticuffs. There’s no rule that an action movie should sacrifice the non-punchy-shooty parts in order to be successful, and Evans doesn’t brush off these scenes. Again, he knows when to take a breather and while there’s absolutely nothing original in the story, it’s paced perfectly and gets the job done.
The job: deliver one of the best action movies in years. Mission accomplished.