Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Review: "The Raid: Redemption"
I do not conceal my disdain for martial arts films. Privately I refer to them as "kicking movies," since that's all it seems they contain: I kick you, you kick me, I kick again and it goes on until we're all kicked out. The fact that they usually contain wooden acting and slender plots hasn't endeared them any further.
But "The Raid: Redemption" is a cut above the standard chop-socky flick. This Indonesian drama/thriller contains plenty of bone-crunching fight scenes, but also some distinctive characters and a fairly meaty storyline.
If most martial arts films feel like an over-spiced appetizer lacking any complementary flavors, then this movie is more of a complete meal.
Part of the reason it's successful is that it doesn't initially present itself as being part of the martial arts genre. It's about a police SWAT team infiltrating a towering apartment building to take out the crime boss living in the penthouse, ruling it like a king in a castle who's untouchable by the authorities.
They're armed to the teeth with assault rifles and body armor. But the raid becomes a trap, as the team faces an army of the mobster's minions. The bullets soon run out, most of the police officers are killed, and it's up to the small band of survivors to fight their way out in brutal hand-to-hand combat.
The main character is Rama (Iko Uwais), a young rookie with a wife and a baby on the way. He's the proverbial shining knight in a system where many on the police force are taking bribes from Tama (Ray Sahetapy), the crimelord they're after. Tama sits in his command center, watching an array of video surveillance monitors and giving orders to the building residents over the PA system. We get the impression he's like a snail in his shell, never leaving this protective cocoon.
Other members of the raid team include Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), the older lieutenant who ordered the mission; Jaka (Joe Taslim), the fiery sergeant giving the orders; and Bowo (Tegar Satrya), the slightly unhinged veteran who's always popping off.
On the opposition side are Tama's two main underlings. Writer/director Gareth Evans (a Welshman) performs a little misdirection regarding the duo, having the sergeant explain to his men prior to the mission that one of them is a martial arts master, while the other is the quiet cunning one. But when we finally meet them (Yayan Ruhian and Donny Alamsyah), it's deliberately left uncertain which is which.
The form of martial arts employed in the movie is Pencak silat, which is native to Indonesia. I couldn't describe how it differs from karate or kung fu or any other discipline, other than the movements are very fluid and beautiful to watch, even as the men bash each other to a bloody pulp.
Evans has a fine eye for capturing the intricate choreography of the fights, especially when Rama is fighting multiple enemies at once, making such confrontations seem if not totally believable then at least plausible. The director uses the confined spaces of the building's corridors and small rooms to his advantage, putting his camera in corners or at an overhead angle to best capture the kinetic ballet.
One terrific sequence has Rama and a wounded teammate hiding in the apartment of a helpful resident, pursued by a machete-wielding gang. They hide behind a loose piece of wall, and the gang leader starts skewering holes in it with his sword. The trapped men can do nothing but watch as the blade draws ever closer ... and then the tension gets ratcheted up a little further.
I retain my old objections about the lack of reality in martial arts movies, which are not dissimilar from my complaints about boxing films: people who get hit that hard fall down after one or two blows. They don't keep fighting on and on. It doesn't matter how much physical training a person has; the human body can only take so much punishment before it shuts down.
But the extended fight scenes in "The Raid: Redemption" are more palatable -- in part because they're executed so well, and partly because there are more than paper-thin characters doing the punching and kicking.
3 stars out of four