Nothing could be simpler, more pat and shrink-wrapped, than the plot of The Raid: Redemption, a new Indonesian beatdown flick by writer/director Gareth Evans. Like a plain wire hanger holding up a Dior cocktail dress, Evans’ screenplay pitches just enough narrative ballast to support this breakneck epic of cops and bad guys indulging in an orgy of wham-bam gunplay and jittery fisticuffs (and karate chops, eye gouges, head butts, pile drivers, evisceration, vivisection and defenestration).
Which is not to say that the story driving The Raid — driving it like a greased bowling ball rolling down Mount Merapi — is insufficient; it does its job, swift and economical, and then gets the hell out of the way: Wake up, kiss pregnant wife, hop in Hummer, enter Jakarta slum’s version of Cabrini-Green, get systematically bamboozled, bushwhacked, ambushed, assholed, gutted, garroted, jacked up, gunned down and fucked-in-half, all before our hero — the lone good cop (Iko Uwais as Rama) — is forced to rescue his criminal brother (Tegar Satrya as Bowo) and fight every mad-dog, including, well, Mad Dog (the terrifying Yayan Ruhian) as well as sociopathic crime lord Jaka (the even more terrifying Joe Taslim) just to escape with nothing but his precious life.
The Raid, which suffered at the hands of an inept marketing campaign upon its release earlier this year, has been lauded by many critics as the best action movie in decades. This, however, is something of a misnomer. The Raid is not an action movie; it is a smashmouth masterpiece of urban guerilla warfare — an utterly unrepentant ballistic siege on the senses, gritty and violent and exhilarating, splitting its time between the Spielbergian chaos of gunplay and the unreconstructed ballet of brutal hand-to-hand combat, both of which are as expertly executed and stunningly rendered as anything you’ve ever seen.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously claimed that there are no second acts in American life, but can we make an exception for a foreign S.W.A.T. movie written by a Welsh director with an intimate knowledge of the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat? Pencak Silat: Just saying it aloud leaves bruises. The wild fight sequences in The Raid were choreographed by Evans and Yayan Ruhian, the same team behind Evans’ 2009 film Monster, and they are a miracle to behold, a fluid complication of homicidal engagement.
Two noteworthy aspects of The Raid serve to raise it well above the recent tide of martial arts movies: The cast is excellent, especially Uwais, who possesses both preternatural physical skills and a dramatic aura of defiant vulnerability that is totally compelling; and the cinematography, by Matt Flannery, is groundbreaking, a kind of thrilling but not-nauseating handheld zoom-along that captures from every angle the breathless fury of martial expertise without jumping the tracks. Because of these qualities, The Raid, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, should — all things being equal — cross over into the mainstream. It’s that good.
The Raid opens Friday, May 18, at the Bijou.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION: Written, directed and edited by Gareth Evans. Cinematography, Matt Flannery. Music by Aria Prayogi, Joseph Trapanese and Fajar Yuskemal. Starring Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Tegar Satrya and Eka ‘Piranha’ Rahmadia. Celluloid Nightmares, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012. R. 101 minutes. Four stars.