With video game profits now far exceeding movie green, it is no wonder so many films are beginning to mimic the look and feel of the next Call of Duty, and the thrill-a-minute Indonesian action film The Raid: Redemption is just one of those new-jack game-boy entertainments. The film has the propulsive momentum and body count of interactive entertainment, with a dash of John Woo for good measure.
The set-up for The Raid is ridiculously bare bones. A team of Jakarta cops, most of them wet-behind-the-ears rookies suited up in riot gear, storm the 15-story lair of drug kingpin and all-around scumbag Tama (Ray Sahetapy), who is introduced point-blank icing a quartet of men tied to chairs. The hero within this sea of cops is Rama (Iko Uwais), seen early on in his home saying goodbye to his pregnant wife. She’s having a boy. Rama has a lot to lose.
The Donald Trump of this vertical ghetto, Tama has outfitted his apartment building with little boys to sound the alarm when cops get too close, closed circuit surveillance cameras, and a seemingly endless domino chain of barefoot gun- and machete-bearing henchmen. There are also snipers to take out any cop unwise enough to stand in front of a window. Once Tama realizes his fortress is under attack, he uses his surveillance cameras to keep track of the action and intercoms to announce to the apartment residences that if they kill one of the cops they will have free rent — forever. Let the mayhem begin.
While Tama is holed up in his scurvy penthouse, absolute chaos thrives on the floors below. But it’s not all bang-bang. Much of the mayhem involves the Indonesian martial arts form of pencak silat, which is wicked cool and also surprisingly dance-like. The set for the film is an endless series of staircases and open courtyards at the center of each floor, perfect for dropping bodies over or leaping from one level to the next. The very architecture of the apartment block, with its grimy hallways and doorways from which legions of villains perpetually leap, feels more game world than action-movie mise en scene. With the logic of a video game, the cops battle dozens of bad guys who spill from their criminal lair like cockroaches, or like targets in a fairground shooting game.
Conspiracy yarns and us-against-them dialogue isn’t exactly untrod territory in action films. Contemporary action films often feature a renegade hero acting out against his corrupt, white-collar handlers and the power establishment. But there are so many references to cops on the take and dirty cops in The Raid, it begins to seem less like a genre convention and more like a pointed political critique. Such details give The Raid a whiff of the exotic as the claustrophobic, entrapping apartment building seems even more oppressive when you begin to ponder the corruption outside in the real world.
The action is ridiculously non-stop and the blood-letting copious, but while it’s over-the-top and ludicrous, The Raid is often also quite fun. Villains die in absurd ways, impaled via lightbulb, dispatched with a gunshot to the eye, or their backs broken in a nasty tumble from one of those open apartment staircases. Still, there are some vaguely humanoid bits of business amidst the scissor kicks and blaze of gunfire. Turns out Rama’s brother is one of Tama’s minions, and he’s having second thoughts about hanging out with sociopaths. There is a bespectacled man with a sick wife who shelters some of the cops in his apartment, and there is the strange and fascinating Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), a pint-sized powerhouse with an almost sexual manner of propositioning the cops into marital-arts battle. Setting down his gun, he tells one of them that there’s no thrill in gunplay anymore. He prefers the one-on-one face time of pencak silat. His desire to get up close and personal is almost cute.
The Raid‘s Welsh director Gareth Evans is clearly an action junkie less enthralled with matters of plot. As a result, his film overstays its welcome. Some of the fat should have been trimmed, with perhaps one or two fewer fight sequences. Like too much cotton candy, even things that are delicious can become cloying when one overindulges.