The Raid: Redemption (2011) – Directed by Gareth Evans – Starring Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno, Tegar Setrya, and Ray Sahetapy.
I had heard so much about how THE RAID was the greatest action movie in years that I actively resisted seeing it. Even when I decided a few weeks back I was going to do a run of action movie reviews once I finished the reviews for the upcoming ATOMIC REACTIONS: SCIENCE-FICTION MOVIES, VOLUME 1 collection, I placed THE RAID a few slots down in my Netflix queue. It was one of those odd bits of timing that sometimes happens that all of the movies ahead of THE RAID were out when my turn to get them came up, and so it was with some surprise that the highly-heralded Indonesian actioner arrived in my mailbox.
I’m glad it did.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION is a stunning action movie with a minimalist plot. I have all the respect for Roger Ebert in the world and he has every right to dislike THE RAID because it is “almost brutally cynical in its approach.” Ebert writes that “there’s obviously an audience for the film, probably a large one. They are content, even eager, to sit in a theater and watch one action figure after another pound and blast one another to death. They require no dialogue, no plot, no characters, no humanity. Have you noticed how cats and dogs will look at a TV screen on which there are things jumping around? It is to that level of the brain’s reptilian complex that the film appeals. The Raid: Redemption is essentially a visualized video game that spares the audience the inconvenience of playing it,” and I agree with that – to a point. There is little dialogue, little plot, the barest characterizations, and little humanity, and yet the film undeniably works for me.
Where Ebert sees the lack of humanity as a drawback, it actually works for me that this is such a bleak film with such thin characters. We get the all the characterization that I need to understand what’s going on and I think more characterization would hurt this particular movie rather than helping it. There’s a drug lord and his two lieutenants, one is the brawn and one is the brains. Do we need more? Not really. It almost feels like THE RAID is cheating when it introduces the plot twist that the brainy lieutenant is actually our main protagonist’s brother.
Rama (Iko Uwais) is a young cop on a dangerous mission. As the film opens, we see him working out while his pregnant wife sleeps. I appreciate this approach because it doesn’t treat action movie fans like idiots. We know the stakes Rama’s job forces on him; perhaps fans of other genres would want more characterization in these scenes but I don’t think showing us the loving young couple having breakfast or sex in the shower adds anything. The wife is simply present in order to contextualize Rama for us, giving him something to fight for beyond the mission at hand.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes movies don’t give us details and the end result is negative, but writer/director Gareth Evans’s approach is minimalist, not absent. Maybe you prefer Faulkner to Hemingway (which is cool, I often prefer him, too) but just because Hemingway’s sentences are shorter doesn’t mean they worse. While Evans’ approach to action is “more is more,” in terms of characterization, he is definitely from the “less is more” school here, and he uses it to great effect. After that brief, opening sequence highlighting that Rama has a wife, we get some brief animosity between the cops in the van on the way to the apartment building where the drug lord is holed up, and then it’s action-action-action for pretty much the next hour, non-stop.
Evans artfully builds in a slow-down moment at that point where we learn of the connection between Rama and Andi, the brainy lieutenant (Danny Alamsyah), and then some dissonance between the cop in charge of the mission and his superior: Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim) and Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno). Jaka’s role in the film is two-fold: 1) he calls on Wahyu, and 2) he’s the sacrificial lamb to show us how bad-ass Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), the drug lord’s bad-ass lieutenant is when he kills him in a really solid fight sequence.
One aspect of the film that I really liked was how, at the end, it was Andi and Rama who teamed up to take down Mad Dog. This wasn’t a case where the single hero had to overcome a million foes, but rather where the villain was so powerful that it took two heroes (or, one hero and one anti-hero) to stop him. It’s another great fight sequence, enhanced by the narrative’s temporary unification of Rama and Andi.
I like the ending, too. Wahyu was never ordered to undertake this raid, as he was getting paid off by criminals to take this drug lord out, and he’s captured by Rama. It’s the walk out of the building that makes the ending of THE RAID so special, though. Rama tells Andi to come in with him, to give up the life of crime, but Andi says no, telling his brother that now that he’s ascended to top of this apartment building and taken the position as head of this criminal enterprise, it’s Andi who can protect Rama, while Rama cannot make the same promise to him.
In a narrative that doesn’t bother with a whole lot of characterization, this moment is given greater impact. It also reifies the bleak nature of this world. There is no fairy tale ending. Rama gets sent back to his family with a dirty cop in tow, but the criminal organization keeps churning. It’s the criminal that promises to protect, a clear symbol of how broken this society has become. Rama gets to survive, he gets an arrest, he gets to be a father to his child, but he does not get to affect real change in society.
Much like the film, it’s a bleak and powerful ending.
In my movie watching lifetime, there have been two action movies that I rate above and beyond all others: Die Hard and Casino Royale. THE RAID isn’t as good as either of them. Rama simply isn’t as interesting as John McClane and the story is several hundred levels below the characterization of Casino Royale. This is an extremely good film, though, and if you like your action pure and your plot and characterization minimal, then there are few movies better than THE RAID: REDEMPTION.