Film Review: The Raid

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

A technically good movie that’s nevertheless hard to recommend, “The Raid: Redemption” takes martial arts ultraviolence to thrilling new heights – or unsettling new depths, depending on your point of view.

It goes like this: Deep in the urban jungle of Jakarta’s darkest slums, Indonesian crime lord Tama Riyandi runs a kind of time-share condo building for the city’s worst criminals. Twenty stories high, Riyandi’s fortress is staffed by extremely hard men with extremely efficient weapons.

After sensibly avoiding the place for years, the police finally organize a raid led by rookie officer Rama, played by Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais. His 20-man squad must break into the criminal stronghold and work their way up, floor by bloody floor.

Following the initial exposition, “The Raid” delivers 80 minutes of relentless and brutal violence featuring, but not limited to: gunfights, fistfights, knife fights, machete fights, torture sequences, exploding heads, exploding refrigerators (don’t ask), stabbings, slashings, bludgeonings, plummetings, suffocations, lacerations, decapitations and a creatively lethal use of fluorescent light tubes.

In particular, the fights showcase the Indonesian martial arts style known as penchak silat, which encourages the use of handheld blades and makes the Jason Bourne movies look like halfhearted pillow fights.

From a pure movie-making perspective, it’s all extremely well done. Director Gareth Evans keeps the pacing and editing properly taut, and has a great ear for music and ambient sound cues. In some sequences, the score drops into a pulsing, almost subliminal hum that seems to rattle around in your rib cage. Instead of the usual goofy thwacks of Hollywood fistfights, we get the actual sounds of intimate hand-to-hand violence – wet and crunchy.

And the fight choreography truly is amazing. Evans uses the old-school martial arts movie approach of long, continuous takes that reveal the incredible athleticism of the performers. There’s a real art to pulling off violence this realistic – a precise combination of camera trickery, makeup and stunt work that dates back to the earliest Bruce Lee films. It’s hard to believe that some of these scenes got done without real people getting really hurt, which is some kind of testament to quality, I suppose.

Storywise, “The Raid” has the approximate depth of a “Street Fighter” arcade game circa 1988. The film has, literally, 10 minutes of set-up at the beginning and five minutes of wrap-up at the end. In between, you get a handful of story moments – a secret agenda here, a double cross there – but that’s it. I didn’t time it, but I’m guessing the end credits are longer than any nonviolent passage in the entire movie.

It’s just too much, in the end. By the 24th fight sequence, or maybe it was the 37th, I was looking into the corner of the frame, checking out the set design details and sneaking peeks at my watch. That’s never a good sign, no matter what kind of movie you’re seeing.

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