Tuesday, April 17, 2012


There are more action beats per minute in The Raid: Redemption than any other movie released so far this year. I’d say it’s a safe bet that it ends the year with that status intact. This Indonesian martial arts movie written and directed by Gareth Evans has the gas pedal all the way down after only a minute or two of set-up and barrels through its remaining 100 minutes with a pace that never goes slack. It’s an exercise in just how much you can strip away from an action movie and still have a movie. The result of this experiment is a movie with good action that never turns into a good action movie. Its devotion to constant thrills leads it to monotony fairly quickly.

The plot is simplicity itself. A terrifying drug lord (Ray Sahetapy) has an entrenched base of operations on the top floor of a ramshackle apartment building where he gives free or low-income housing to his small army of thugs, flunkies, and other assorted enforcers. The police are determined to take him out so an elite team armed to the teeth storms into the building, determined to take it over one floor at a time. Easier said than done, obviously. The film then follows mostly undifferentiated police fighting almost exclusively unidentified criminals in a knockdown drag-out fight up and down the stairwells and in and out of windows and up and down fire escapes, the police making upward progress and the criminals knocking them back down.

The opening minutes of the film gives us our stock reasons to care about our entry point character, Rama (Iko Uwais). He’s a policeman who wakes up, does some crunches, says his prayers, and kisses his pregnant wife goodbye. Then he heads off to join his co-workers in the back of the police van loading their guns, strapping on their bulletproof vests, and solidifying their strategy. It’s the slightest of rooting interests with this ostensible protagonist. He’s a good guy, apparently, since he takes care of himself, is religious, is an expectant father, is prepared for his job, and gets along well with his colleagues.

But he never becomes more than our assumed hero, is never more than his physical prowess and competent charisma, just as none of the other characters become anything more than fighters. These are figures defined entirely by how well they can execute bone-crunching fight choreography. Unlike the best action films, even ones as spare and simple as this one, the people in The Raid: Redemption are never expanded or deepened through what we see of their physicality. Here, their actions are not revealing anything deeper about themselves or their situations. When a character kills an opponent in some new way, there’s no real impact on our understanding other than knowing that he possesses some heretofore-unseen killing skills.

The film is undeniably well choreographed. The cast is energetic, athletic, and with the peak physical capabilities to pull off sustained martial arts combat. But there’s a reason why Fred Astaire movies aren’t 100 minutes of tap-dancing. It’s the same reason why action movies, when they’re good, tend to rely on more than nonstop action. As the thin wisps of characterization and plot float away while the action grinds forward, the whole thing grows monotonous and the angry criminal hordes aren’t the only people to feel bludgeoned by the experience. The best moments are when Evans modulates the action with silence and tension. I loved a scene in which two policemen hide in the walls of an apartment and an enemy combatant searching for them stabs randomly through cheap drywall. I also liked characters’ clever retreat downwards by axing through floorboards. But those moments are both found in the first half of the movie.

There’s only so many times that you can watch people get sniped, sliced, macheted, hammered, shot, sliced, smacked, kicked, punched, chopped, garroted, exploded, flipped, stabbed and flung before it starts to wear you down. At first it’s all great bloody action, but it lost my interest fairly quickly. Once the film opens its bag of tricks and runs through each and every one, it can only repeat and escalate. As a whole the film has none of the impact of even one action sequence in Haywire or Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, just to name the two best action movies of the last year or so. It holds nothing back, and it’s all so amped up and hyper-violent with so little reason to care that, after a point, it’s all too easy to get left behind. 

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