Writer-director Gareth Evans' new action flick The Raid: Redemption could benefit from a more descriptive, less pretentious title, like A Bunch of Indonesian Guys Whooping Each Other's Ass for 90 Minutes. Because that's what this movie gives you.
There's nothing inherently wrong with grimy, single-minded genre exercises like The Raid; they can be as cathartic and exuberant as dumb comedies, horror films, or even — perhaps especially — animated kids' movies. Yet even when approached and examined on its own narrow terms, The Raid: Redemption doesn't live up to its hyperbolic billing as "The Best Action Movie in Decades." (Did that caption artist miss 13 Assassins and The Adventures of Tintin last year?)
The film's willingness to jump headfirst into the chaos is impressive, though. Evans limns the backstory of his hero (Iko Uwais) in record time: one pre-title, pre-dawn montage sequence establishes that 1) he stays in sick shape, 2) his wife is pregnant, 3) he trains every morning in between Islamic prayer sessions, and 4) he's a cop. Any questions? Five minutes into the film, Uwais and his SWAT team are bumping along in their armored assault vehicle, psyching themselves up for an attack on an apartment complex where a legendary crime boss hides out with a small army of criminal pals. Five minutes after that, the SWAT team gets inside the complex. The battle begins. And it doesn't let up until the closing credits.
Since the cops and robbers duking it out in The Raid: Redemption ain't got time to bleed, the film's success comes from the way it evokes and updates the half-remembered formal pleasures of USA Network's Kung Fu Theater. It has, after all, been awhile since an art-house film reveled in the dance-like swish-swoop of smartly choreographed hand-to-hand combat. It's also delightful to see the genteel civility with which gangs of weapon-wielding rapscallions wait their turn and attack outnumbered police officers one at a time. Plus, if the sounds of urban guerrilla warfare turn you on, there's plenty to listen to during these big brawls, from the brittle eructations of automatic weapons to the grunts and shouts of men intent on pulverizing each other.
Before the extended silat fighting fantasies really get going in the last half-hour, the film even promises some stylistic innovation. One early sequence involving the fatal flash of a gun barrel bends and shifts time. Another sequence featuring a machete, a crumbling wall, and a cop's face is so well-paced and cannily edited that it threatens to turn the film into a body-horror nightmare worthy of David Cronenberg.
What's weird about The Raid: Redemption is how enervating it becomes: As the bodies mount, the dearth of individual characterizations mean that all the numbers add up to nothing. Eventually, a wild-haired fan of old-school fisticuffs (Yayan Ruhian) declares that "Squeezing a trigger ... is like ordering takeout" and imbues the movie with some much-needed personal style. But, by then, the sweaty, claustrophobic atmosphere is too dull and oppressive. Someone — carefully — needs to open a window in this movie.
The Raid: Redemption
Opening Friday, April 13th