Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"The Raid: Redemption": review

"The Raid: Redemption" is a 2011 film set in Jakarta, Indonesia; it's directed by Gareth Evans (not to be confused with "Rogue One" director Gareth Edwards) and stars an entire stable of martial-arts-trained actors including Iko Uwais as protagonist Rama, a rookie SWAT team member; judo expert Joe Taslim as Sergeant Jaka; Ray Sahetapy as Tama, the crime lord who rules over the dilapidated apartment building that is the main setting for the movie; Yayan Ruhian as Mad Dog, Tama's brutal enforcer; Donny Alamsyah as Andi, the "brains" of Tama's operation and, perhaps not coincidentally, the younger brother of Rama; and Pierre Gruno as corrupt Lieutenant Wahyu, who leads the SWAT team into the slaughterhouse.

"The Raid" has almost no plot at all. Like a 1980s porn movie, the plot—such as it is—is an excuse to get us from one intense scene to another. Director Evans had already been living in Indonesia for some time before developing this action film; at the behest of his Japanese-Indonesian wife, he had filmed a documentary about pencat silat, the indigenous martial art of Indonesia. This martial art was heavily incorporated into the fight choreography of "The Raid." From what I saw while watching the film, pencat silat is a highly kinetic fighting system somewhat reminiscent of both Indian kalaripayat (which combines wide stances and kicks with short, direct, close-quarter hand, foot, elbow, and knee strikes) and northern Shaolin kung fu. Although obviously exaggerated for the silver screen, this Indonesian martial art is alien enough to me to grab my attention.

Our story begins with Rama shown at prayer, then practicing pencat silat, then kissing his pregnant wife and saying goodbye to his father. He promises his father to "get him back," but we have no idea to whom Rama is referring. The scene abruptly shifts to SWAT team members in a truck, Rama among them, rolling toward an apartment building run by Tama the crime lord. Sergeant Jaka lays it all down, explaining the triumvirate of Tama the boss, Mad Dog the brawn, and Andi the brains. The team silently moves into the building, securing everything up to the fifth floor before their cover is blown by kids acting as lookouts (Lieutenant Wahyu shoots one kid through the neck). Tama tells the building's residents that he'll allow the residents to live rent-free in perpetuity if they rid the building of the police. From that moment, it's on, and just like in any number of action movies, the good guys get whittled down to just a few people, with our remaining heroes fighting their way upward in the building, video-game-style, until they reach Tama at the fifteenth floor.

One major plot twist is that Andi is, as mentioned above, Rama's brother: this is the man that Rama has promised to bring back to his father. Andi turns out to be more than just the brains, though: in a crucial scene, he proves himself to be almost as capable a martial artist as the indefatigable Rama is. Another plot twist involves the gray-haired lieutenant, Wahyu, who has cobbled together this SWAT raid for reasons of his own, and who is, it turns out, more or less in league with Tama, although that partnership doesn't end well.

The greatest joy of "The Raid" is, as you can imagine, the fight sequences, most of which are almost hilariously savage. If you've watched "John Wick: Chapter 2" (reviewed here) and witnessed the cartoonish brutality of that film's gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, then nothing about "The Raid" will surprise you in terms of the creative use of guns, blades, and sundry blunt objects. The pencat silat varies, from scene to scene, between the technical precision of taekwondo and the wild flailing of "swinging hands" kung fu (a fake style of kung fu whose only purpose is to make doomed henchmen look more energetic), but the action never lacks for fun. Two bone-breaking scenes in particular stuck with me, one involving a guy who tumbles diagonally across a wide stairwell to end up with his back broken by a banister, and another in which Rama grabs a baddie's head, launches himself backward into the air, and brings the baddie's neck down on a jagged length of torn-up wall, thus snapping his enemy's neck while also ripping it open. I was thoroughly entertained.

This isn't a movie with a moral or social point like, say, Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." You won't find any profound, "Tree of Life"-style existential messages here. You won't be moved to tears as you might be while watching "Terms of Endearment." Gareth Evans has described his film as "an "action-horror movie," which it sort of is, although I found myself laughing out loud at some of the more spectacular and egregious stunts. (Some see horror where I see comedy, I guess.) What you will find is a fast-paced, no-frills actioner that will wow you if you appreciate fight choreography, as I do.

And if you happened to catch 2012's "Dredd," you'll notice enough similarities to make you wonder just who was riffing off whom. Both movies are about police incursions into crime-infested buildings run by evil kingpins. "Dredd" (starring Karl Urban and reviewed here) is a remake or reboot of 1995's so-bad-it's-still-bad "Judge Dredd," starring Sylvester Stallone. But before those movies, Judge Dredd was a comic-book character in the series 2000 AD, with Dredd first appearing in 1977. This may simply be a case of cinematic cross-pollination, as when Akira Kurosawa claims to have been influenced by the sweeping Westerns of John Ford (later on, Sam Peckinpah would claim to have been influenced by Kurosawa), and when modern Hollywood actioners like "The Matrix" show an obvious Hong Kong influence. But maybe it's more, for parallels abound: in "Dredd," Lena Headey plays the sadistic Ma-Ma, a drug lord who is little different from Tama in "The Raid" (note, too, the phonetic resemblance between "Ma-Ma" and "Ta-ma"). Ma-Ma's apartment complex, Peach Trees, is much like the huge structure in Jakarta's slums—a character unto itself, and a massive action set piece. Andi's "Dredd" analogue is Domhnall Gleeson's cyber-eyed genius Techie (both end up betraying their bosses), and the two movies' plots follow very similar arcs, although they end quite differently, and the stories' protagonists are, admittedly, very different, with Judge Dredd being an older, battle-hardened dispenser of justice while Rama is apparently just a young, fresh rookie—but an especially vicious and competent one.

In the end, "The Raid" is eminently watchable. It's no one's idea of profound entertainment, but as a rollicking gladiatorial spectacle featuring some impressive fight choreography and stunt work, it's not the worst way to spend 100 minutes.


SJHoneywell said...

That's about right. You don't walk out of The Raid with some new philosophy or view on the world. There's no deep thought or edifying lesson here. There's just a lot of crazy ass-kicking and stunts, and that's enough. It's wildly entertaining, and plenty of times, that's all I really want. In that respect, it's kind of Die Hard with less plot. You don't talk about the interesting characters, but about great moments of violence in the aftermath.

I loved it, of course, and snapped up a Blu-ray the first time I saw one for sale. It's as much fun and as bone-crunchingly nasty on a rewatch.

Kevin Kim said...

Amen to all that.