Asian action cinema remains a top draw (if not the top draw) for action film junkies all over the world because it delivers a visceral, dangerous impact that is hard to find elsewhere. This impact comes from the fact that these films still utilize the kind of stunts and no-cutaway fight direction that Hollywood is too risk-averse to emulate. As a result, they are able to convey the reality of pain in a way that makes their fight sequences crackle with excitement and tension.
The Raid: Redemption is the latest example of this kind of bone-crunching thrill machine from the East. Like any action-intensive film, the plot is built around a few simple hooks that you can hang endless fight scenes off of: in this case, the story revolves around a top-secret raid by a Indonesian special forces squad into a multi-storied tenement building that houses a crimelord (Ray Sahetapy). Our hero is Rama (Iko Uwais), a stand-up guy who has to put aside concerns about his pregnant wife to tend to the job at hand.
Unfortunately for Rama and his colleagues, they have walked into a hornets’ nest. Not only does the crime lord use this building as a base of operations, he has also bought up most of its apartments as housing for his criminal squad. Once the special forces men infiltrate the building, the boss quickly becomes aware of their presence via his lookouts and security cams – and he offers a huge reward to his men to take down the cops. Rama and his rapidly dwindling fellow cops must fight for their lives – and the torrent of bloodshed that follows forces a few secrets on both sides of the conflict out into the open.
In short, The Raid: Redemption is built on a lot of archetypal elements, right down to the surprise character reveals in the 2nd and 3rd acts. Some mainstream film critics have used this as a reason to shrug off the film as more of the same but this merely shows how such critics don’t understand how to read genre fare. The Raid: Redemption works because it achieves a carefully balanced blend of action, fluid visual storytelling and simple building blocks of plot that hold it all together.
In fact, The Raid: Redemption plays like gangbusters because everyone involved makes a serious investment in their work. Director/co-writer/co-choreographer Gareth Evans leads the way, affecting a style that mixes John Woo with early Walter Hill: the color-desaturated cinematography and punchy editing seem to embrace the action with romantic fervor, drawing the viewer directly into the middle of the brutal life-and-death stakes the fight scenes and shootouts present.
The film pulls off this sense of immediacy by making the viewer acutely aware of the pain that comes with its intense action. One of the most unforgettable moments in The Raid: Redemption arrives when a seriously wounded cop drags himself across a floor littered with broken bodies, stifling a scream of pain with gritted teeth until one of the injured men tries to attack him. At that point, he stabs his attacker frantically as he lets out an animalistic howl that is equal parts pain and rage. That’s the kind of operatic tension and release this film is built upon and it really sells the physical side of the danger the characters face. It creates a tangible feeling in the audience that makes them gasp and yell during the fights – and it works every time in The Raid: Redemption.
There’s also a subtler, oft overlooked element of The Raid: Redemption that works in lockstep with the obvious power of the action: the earnest performances of the cast. Not only do they physically commit to their work by performing the bone-crunching fights but they go about their dramatic duties with an irony-free earnestness that helps make the archetypal plot work. Uwais anchors the film as the stalwart hero but there are also fun turns from Joe Taslim as a brave commander and Doni Alamsyah as the crime lord’s mysterious, smart assistant.
There’s also some colorful evil in the form of Sahetapy as the boss, who seems eerily comfortable with being so nasty, and Yayan Ruhian as the boss indefatigable enforcer. If there was an Oscar for the most epic and frightening display of martial arts brawling in a film, Ruhian would win it, hands-down. He’s like the Energizer Bunny of ass-kicking in this movie and watching him go through his brutal paces is exhausting in a delightful way.
Simply put, The Raid: Redemption is what you want to see when you check out an Asian action flick: a veritable buffet of acrobatic fights and stunts supported by a decent plotline and delivered with precision, focus and a refreshing sincerity.