The Raid kicks ass.
I almost want to leave the review at those four lone words; they convey all of the meaning needed to either sell you on The Raid or inform you that your time would be better spent elsewhere. But I can’t get away with that sort of smirking plebian criticism, and besides, it’s not as though I have a dearth of insight to offer into why Gareth Evans’ martial arts is completely great. Taken at face value, The Raid (incomprehensibly saddled with the Redemption subtitle for its American release) marks what may end up being the action film of 2012, a nearly non-stop relay race of broken bones and battered flesh through a Jakarta slum owned by a merciless, craven crime boss; for an hour and forty minutes, it devotes itself to ensuring its audience never for a moment feels bored.
Beyond all of that, The Raid exemplifies all of the better characteristics that define quality action cinema. It’s sharply choreographed. It’s staged almost impeccably. It’s shot cleanly, with an emphasis on precision. In short, The Raid puts everything it’s got into making its central element of action look absolutely amazing, and if you ask anybody– be they an action aficionado or otherwise– what draws people to action movies in the first place, they will almost certainly answer with “the fight scenes”. (Or some derivation of that response.) So, again, a glance at The Raid represents the best of its genre, but it also highlights the necessity of smart, economical writing for making all of the good stuff– the action– really sing.
A caveat. I’m not, in the slightest, praising The Raid‘s script as refined, nuanced, or highbrow. Professors will never, ever point to Evans’ efforts at the keyboard as an example of fine-tuned screenwriting; it’s basic, stripped-down stuff. But that doesn’t mean that the choices he made in stitching together his screenplay aren’t bright and do not ultimately serve the focal points of the film– the fight sequences– for the better. If The Raid‘s narrative cannot wow us with inventive artistry, it at least handles the fundamentals of storytelling with respectable simplicity; you could call the film many things, but you certainly can’t call it fussy.
That’s courtesy of Evans refusing to mess around with plot complexity. The Raid details a police foray into the aforementioned slum, carried out by a group of Jakarta’s finest. Among their number there’s Rama (Iko Uwais), a soon-to-be-father and rookie cop– our emotional anchor in the fracas, an honest and just man born to put the hurt on droves of bad guys. The idea behind the operation is simple: infiltrate the building, incapacitate the tenants, and bring down the criminal overlord who plays host to them. But, of course, nothing is ever simple, and not long after the mission begins the policemen find themselves outgunned as the entire residency comes down on them with only bloodshed on their minds. The set-up’s familiarly elegant in its modesty; someone out there undoubtedly is crying foul over having seen this movie before. Woefully, they’re missing the point.
By how wide a margin, though? It’s almost impossible to say; even the most well-versed action connoisseur probably hasn’t experienced something contemporary that matches The Raid‘s caliber. In other words, the dynamics of the plot aren’t the film’s selling feature. What Evans and his team of actors, stuntmen, and martial artists do within the confines of that plot, however, is. This is a tricky line to walk; I’m a hair’s breadth away from articulating the opinion that things like plot and character do no matter in action cinema. But they do. Of course they do. Even when a film’s raison d’être is to showcase the martial and athletic prowess of its cast as they take turns beating the tar out of each other, these things always, always, always matter.
And Evans seems to realize this implicitly. Unbeknownst to many, the trick to action films lies in getting viewers to care. A filmmaker can orchestrate impressive mayhem on-screen through an escalating order of slugfests, beatdowns, brawls, and melees, and they can make each of them look great. But– speaking generally– more needs to go into a fight scene than just a flurry of fists and splintering woodwork. Like in anything, emotion is essential to the success of truly great choreographed violence; not in an overwhelming sense, mind, but just enough for us to be invested in what’s happening. The Raid doesn’t want to reaffirm your belief in the goodness of humanity, but it does want you to feel enough for Rama and his cohorts that when the mission goes south– and continues to go south from there- you respond empathetically. And so it does, in minute, obvious, clear-cut ways.
After accomplishing this task, The Raid kicks into high gear. Extra character beats are sprinkled here and there throughout the rest of the movie but they’re dwarfed by the sheer jaw-dropping excellence of the many, varying bouts Evans and his cast have assembled. The action here is kinetic, propulsive, fluid pugilism at its best, and the film takes every opportunity to highlight the beauty and power of its movements in crisp detail. Maybe the movie’s most compelling detail stems from how Evans has cinematographer Matt Flannery capture the fighting– rather than shoot from afar, as many other Asian action films do, or up close, as many American action films do, Flannery splits the difference and records each sequence at a range in between the two. The Raid gives us distance while putting us in the fray, and the film honors our proximity by conveying the geography of each participant in the action and the arc of each blow using nearly perfect visual grammar. In the end, maybe we do watch action films just to see humans assail one another for an hour and a half, but The Raid proves that that pursuit shouldn’t followed at the expense of craft.