By Jacob Mertens.
A SWAT team skulks up a staircase in a rundown tenement, shrouded in the unnatural glow of dim fluorescents. Their movements are precise and silent, and they strain their ears for the faintest sound. Loud speakers are attached to the stairwell and the hallways, begging for a burst of static, the promise of conflict. They remain silent. The team slowly ascends up the stairs, past the squalid hallways and cramped rooms of the tenement. No one wanders the halls, but we soon learn the rooms are inhabited by the dregs of Singapore, those who have no alternative but to try and coexist in a building that has fallen under the control of a merciless crime lord. When a young child spots them on stairs, the men spring into action, trying to kill the child before he can set off the alarm. They fail, the loud speaker sparks to life, and the authoritative voice of Tama (played by Ray Sahetapy) rasps over the speaker. He calls on both his own men and the denizens of his tenement to dispatch of the SWAT team, offering a great bounty for their deaths. Within these first few scenes of The Raid: Redemption (directed by Gareth Evans), the tenement has become a death trap, with Tama waiting on the top floor for an off-the books act of vigilante retribution that may never manage to reach him.
As a gruesome tale of carnage, gunplay and martial arts begins to unfold before the audience, they follow both the stalwart SWAT chief Jaka (Joe Taslim), who remains clear headed and capable when his small assault squad of twenty men find themselves in the midst of an ambush with no means to call for back up, and the rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais), who gets separated from the group in his effort to protect one of their wounded. Immediately, the viewer knows that the action will fall largely on Rama’s shoulders because the film has only given expository information about him leading up to the conflict: the obligatory scene of Rama kissing his pregnant wife before leaving for certain death or Rama training at a punching bag so the audience can somehow justify his insane grasp of martial arts.
Additionally, the sole narrative impulse of the entire film lies on Rama’s shoulders, as he is driven by the need to confront his brother, who sits as Tama’s right hand man. Like many action films, the narrative elements are crude but efficient, giving us a sense of stakes so the violence does not slip into meaningless monotony. In fact, in many ways The Raid succeeds where other kindred films like Ong Bak 2 (2008), Chocolate (2008) and District B13 (2004) have failed, because while the story remains simple it never devolves into an act of incomprehensible meandering, in which the film blindly staggers from one action set piece to the next, relying on the spectacle of martial arts to sell the film. It is for this reason that the audience can forgive the fact that the final conversation between the two brothers feels completely unearned by the film’s end, or that the betrayal of the team’s shifty-eyed lieutenant can be seen coming from the outset. The bar for storytelling has been set low, and so long as the film delivers on the action, any narrative coherence merely offers the viewer a pleasant perk.
With all that said, even if The Raid’s plot was completely baffling to the audience, Evans’ bizarre kung-fu gunplay machination of gore would still stand as one of the greatest action films ever made. In one inspired scene, Rama integrates knives into his Kung Fu, and each blow lands a vicious spout of blood as he fights for his life in a cramped hallway, trying to keep his fellow injured SWAT member from harm. In another scene, the vicious criminal “Mad Dog” has the broken shards of a fluorescent light bulb jammed into his throat and continues to pummel his assailants as they struggle to get him to his feet and twist the shards in deep. In yet another scene, chief Jaka blows up an entire floor of the tenement with a refrigerator, literally. Not only does the violence up the ante on every action film made to date, even topping the gleeful carnage at the end of fellow SXSW alum Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010), but the experience of seeing this film in a theater packed to brim with action film aficionados is unmissable.
Left in the dark of the theater, each new death causes the audience to exclaim in alarm and delight, satisfying that primal need for violence that lies in us all. The trick is for the film to know what its violence means. In this case, The Raid’s joyful procession of death embodies a base, escapist thrill that remains both unrelenting and devoid of moral ambiguity. Gareth Evans pits the prototypical good versus the prototypical evil here, and provides a self-awareness and a morbid sense of creativity that allows his film to attain greatness. As the audience reaps the rewards, they are briefly transported from the theater to the Colosseum of Rome, all at once a mob demanding death and destruction without the pesky considerations of reality left to interfere.