Film Reviews

Cops Versus Thugs in High-Powered High-Rise Fight Flick "The Raid"

Indonesian martial-arts film The Raid: Redemption lives up to its viral hype and the buzz. It's lean, fast-moving, and filled with game-changing fight sequences that are brutally beautiful — or, maybe better put, beautifully brutal.

Rama (Iko Uwais) is a rookie member of an elite special-forces team that has been sent to rout a decrepit high-rise of its vicious crime lord and the small army of socio- and psychopaths who do his bidding. Nothing is quite as it seems, of course, as the covert mission turns out to have murky political goals, and Rama's connection to one of the crime lord's major henchmen threatens to derail the whole undertaking.

That the viewer is able to guess many of the plot twists and story revelations in advance is beside the point. We are introduced to Rama as he kneels on a prayer mat, immediately cuing us that he is a truly wholesome hero. Before he embarks on his deadly task, he kisses the round belly of his beautiful, pregnant wife — a scene that will be revisited in flashback at a crucial moment when he feels he can't go on. But the film doesn't play these moments for the cheap ironic laughter of American films — straightforward sincerity is part of what makes the whole thing work.

Once inside the building, the film quickly settles into a tense groove of sharply choreographed fight scenes that leave the viewer breathless and squirming. It's a live-action cartoon: Bones are broken, bodies are pulverized, blood sprays walls, and still the combatants rise. Rama also manages to get in some dazzlingly precise knife work in addition to his lightning-fast punches and hard-swinging kicks.

Gareth Evans wrote and directed the film after becoming fascinated with the Indonesian martial-art form pencak silat. There's a seamlessness to the way the action unfolds and only a few noticeable cheats (where a dilemma is solved by the editing bay and not by the onscreen action). Raid's neatest hat trick, though, is the way it serves up the barest of plot and character development but makes you care about the characters anyway, in part because the casting is so dead-on. Uwais' deadpan choir-boy features remain unflappable no matter how intense the action and convey a core decency; Indonesian judo champ Joe Taslim plays Jaka, commander of the special forces, with no-nonsense coolness; and Yayan Ruhian, who co-choreographed the film, plays arch villain Mad Dog with arid depravity. Before delivering an unnerving beatdown, Mad Dog puts his gun aside in favor of his fists, saying coolly, "Squeezing a trigger is like ordering takeout."

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Ernest Hardy is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group and its film partner, the Village Voice. VMG publications include LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.