After the beginning of the new millennium it would seem that the martial arts genre has mostly been dominated by extremely stylised, Matrix-like movies such as House of Flying Daggers, Hero and perhaps most prominently, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, while the low budget martial arts movies like Fist of Fury, The Street Fighter and Enter the Dragon so dominating in the seventies and eighties have all but disappeared into the ether.
It’s a shame really. While I immensely enjoy some of the more modern takes on the martial arts genre, in particular the excellent and completely ludicrous Hero, there was a brutal physicality and kinetic energy to those old classics that the modern wire-frame, CGI-fuelled action of the newer movies completely lack. In this sense the Indonesian, martial arts movie The Raid: Redemption from 2012 is almost like reuniting with an old friend who has been gone for far too long.
Like most of its predecessors, The Raid’s plot is almost criminally undercooked and perhaps best summed up in the poster’s tag-line” “1 CRIMELORD. 20 ELITE COPS. 30 FLOORS OF HELL.” It follows a day in the life of rookie cop, Rama, who together with 19 other police officers, are sent in to clean an apartment complex of the notorious crime lord, Tama and his gang of gun toting, machete-wielding henchmen.
After the bust goes horribly wrong, leaving only five cops alive, he has to fight his way up to the aforementioned crime boss, capture him and get the hell out of dodge. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the movie basically has the exact same plot as Dredd 3D, a movie that came out around the same time as The Raid.
Both even feature a speech around 30 minutes in, in which the crime lord declares that the cops are basically doomed and that everyone who helps gun them down will be rewarded greatly – thus creating the overarching conflict for the rest of the movie.
Although where Dredd 3D is more of an homage to American action movies from the late eighties – namely Die Hard and Robocop – this is more in line with old school martial arts movies, in particular the 1974 cult-movie, The Streetfighter, starring Sonny Chiba in its brutal hand-to-hand combat scenes. In other words, the similarities between the two movies pretty much start and end with their plot synopsis. That and both movies are quite possibly some of the best examples of modern takes on action movie tropes in each of their respective subgenres.
With such a thin plot, the movie pretty much gets all of its story and character development out of the way in the first 20 minutes, where after it mostly revolves around Rama and a couple of other stragglers, hiding, getting spotted by guards, punching and stabbing said guards in the face, hiding again, confronting one of Tamas’ main henchman, kicking the living shit out of said henchman, hiding some more, and so on and so forth. There’s a bit more to the story, mostly in the form of a couple of people switching sides during the raid, but their motivations are weak at best and with no real characters to speak of, it’s hard to really care.
Of course it’s not the story, but the action that should draw the audience to a movie like this and as a pure action flick, this is one of the most adrenaline-pumped, exciting movies I’ve seen in a long time. That’s mostly due to the excellent direction from Gareth Huw Evans and the lead character, Rama, played with a great, stoic presence by professional martial artist and first time actor, Iko Uwai.
The 7-9 really big fights the movie throws at the audience are all perfectly choreographed, with an emphasis on crowd control. The camera is held steady during fights which make the location of each fighter easy to follow, yet the frantic editing keeps them from feeling stale.
They also have a certain air of desperation in them that I really appreciated: While Rama is extremely capable singlehandedly taking down tens of bad guys during the movie, he is still vulnerable. He gets hurt, fatigued and often has to rely on others to make it through a fight. He is like the John McClane of martial arts except less charming and more… punchy. As an effect this makes the fights feel more real, more impactful and more exciting.
If there’s one area in which these action sequences somewhat stumble, it’s in the frequent use of digital blood effects. While I can understand and respect that the already complicated stunt choreography would be even more troublesome to shoot with the added complication of practical blood effects – and that the movie no doubt works on a limited budget – it nonetheless took me out of the otherwise stellar fights. This is especially true in the gunfights, which makes the otherwise brutal executions the movie features feel somewhat… flat.
Even so, with the directing chops of Evans’ great stunt work from everyone involved, every punch feels visceral and every stab makes you cringe. But it’s the variation of fighting techniques that makes the movie entertaining all the way till the 96 minute mark.
From cops sweeping in the apartment complex taking down criminals one by one, desperate shootouts in dark hallways and staircases, knife fights and hand-to-hand combat, no two fights feel alike and it helps the movie overcome its own drab, mediocre plot. Because once you’ve accepted that it’s basically just a vehicle to get the characters from one fight to the next, you realize that the story-element is completely obsolete.
The Raid: Redemption may be low-brow, action entertainment, but its low-brow, action entertainment of the best kind: Brutal, to the point and absolutely unrelenting. Comes highly recommended.