Deep in the heart of Jakarta, a small but brave band of cops stage a predawn raid on an apartment building which is also headquarters to the powerful crime lord Tama Riyandi (Ray Sahetapy). The team has only to ascend to the fifteenth floor to apprehend Him. While that task may sound simple in theory, the reality proves anything but. The other fourteen floors of the complex are under 24 hour surveillance by way of closed circuit cameras. The domiciles themselves are inhabited by residents who are fiercely loyal to Riyandi. Upon his command, they relentlessly pounce on the intruders. Armed with every weapon imaginable, they turn the building into Hell on earth. As the police find themselves being assailed at every turn, the young rookie Rama (Iko Uwais) receives a trial by fire.
After cutting a bloody swath through the film festival circuit, The Raid: Redemption at long last arrives on American shores. It does so amidst much prerelease buzz, as film critics and fans having been praising it to the heavens. It has also been previewed and teased to death via a bevy of red band trailers and clips. Now, after all of the hyperbole and hoopla, does The Raid: Redemption live up to all the hype? Is it, as many have claimed, a watershed event in the history of action cinema? The answer is a resounding yes.
The Raid: Redemption has mainly been looked at through the scope of action and martial arts cinema. That’s a rather limited paradigm, as the films mood and feel lend themselves just as much to the horror and suspense genres. You read that right. Though The Raid: Redemption is wall to wall with fight scenes and shoot-outs, it has the distinct feel of a horror film, or even a survival horror video game. It does so through its use of two crucial elements in both the action and horror genres: ferocity and intensity. The Raid simply does not let up, even during its “slow” moments.
That the action all takes place in a single location only amplifies the intensity. The lighting is dark to the point of being nonexistent at certain moments. When light is allowed to creep in, it’s mostly in the form of ashen greys and blues. That’s not to say that everything is obscured in grime, grit, and darkness. It’s just that even the indoor lighting has the hue of an overcast sky. A perpetual cloud of melancholy and sadness hangs over the proceedings, giving them a feeling of desperation.
Accentuating the feel of desperation are the action sequences. Though the choreography is amazingly intricate and features some of the most agile stuntmen I’ve ever seen, it remains locked in a mortal struggle with the camerawork. It’s as if the stunt team is constantly daring cinematographer Matt Flannery to keep up. This results in an odd but effective mesh of traditional action sensibilities with the “chaos cinema” aesthetic. As the actors transition from fisticuffs to ground fighting in the blink of an eye, the camera races to document the action. Much of it seems to have been filmed handheld, as evidenced by the lack of any static shots.
Adding to the visual ferocity is the violence itself. The finishing moves that close the fight scenes are insane. The fatalities in Mortal Kombat pale in comparison to some of the showstoppers featured here. At the same time, these moments bring the sadism of the film front and center. The Raid: Redemption reduces the characters (and by extension, the action genre) to its lowest element. In that sense, it plays even more like a guerilla war film than simply an action/martial arts extravaganza.
Amazingly, things like character and story don’t get completely lost in the mix. While The Raid isn’t particularly long on either, both are present. Most of what we know about the hero comes from the brief prologue. Rama is the proverbial man of few words, yet Iko Uwais infuses him with dogged determination and a will to survive. As the villain, Ray Sahetapy is like a mean spirited version of Inspector Gadget’s Dr. Claw. Although his face is shown throughout, he mostly sits in the main suite of his ivory tower, dispatching his minions and doling out cruel punishment. Like Rama, he exists mostly as a type, but works nonetheless.
The Raid: Redemption is one tough little customer. It distills the action genre down to its most elemental components: Violence, tension, steady escalation, and forward momentum. It does so with anger and relentlessness. It’s been a good long while since a “Hard R” action film of this sort been unleashed upon the public. American audiences, who’ve been weaned on heavily sanitized Blockbusters for the past couple of decades, might be a bit put off by it. True action connoisseurs, and perhaps even horror and war movie buffs, will appreciate what the film accomplishes. This is aimed at a specific kind of action fan, one who is willing to roll with punches and take the bruises.