I feel there are two types of successful foreign martial arts movies out these days. There’s the colorful, character-based movies that owe more than a little to the Shaw Brothers films of old and Hong Kong 80s action cinema—Donnie Yen has been putting out a lot of great examples of these lately. On the other side, you have the very focused, action-heavy savage dudes-tearing-up-dudes type of action, the most famous modern incarnations are probably those movies Tony Jaa made before he went crazy. Today we talk about the latest example of the latter.
The Raid: Redemption is an Indonesian martial arts film directed by Gareth Evans, the first in a planned trilogy. It starts Iko Uwais as a young rookie cop named Rama brought along on a dangerous raid. The SWAT team, 20+ men, are all being gathered to infiltrate a ramshackle apartment building in Jakarta, the home of a crime lord who has turned it into an apartment complex for criminals, murderers, and drug producers. Their goal is straightforward: get in, arrest everyone they can, kill those who resist, and take down the man in charge. It’s absolutely straightforward, and the movie’s greatest strength and weakness are both how little it deviates from this clear, singular goal.
The movie manages an incredible amount of tension in its first half, as the SWAT team makes it up the first few floors of the apartment building without incident, stealthily breaking through doors and cuffing unaware tenants without incident. It’s only when they fail to catch a spotter that the alarm’s sounded, and the trap is sprung. Forces from the surrounding buildings are called up into the building, and the SWAT team find themselves pinned between makeshift armies above and below them. It’s there that all hell breaks loose, and how.
A lot is made about the action and violence in The Raid, and it absolutely doesn’t disappoint on that front. When the shit finally does hit the fan, it does so in spectacular fashion, wracking up a bullet-and-machete riddled body count that quickly climbs into the dozens. It feels like no punches are pulled, both story-wise and on screen, as nearly everyone ends up wounded or dead within minutes of the initial battle going down. This is, like everything else, both good and bad: it’s impressive to see so much action have fatal results, but it quickly becomes obvious that everyone save for the hero and the three main villains is ultimately expendable. And the body count expands so rapidly that individual victims quickly lose their impact. It takes a hallway explosion that wipes out dozens to finally slow the violence down.
It’s here that The Raid‘s weaknesses really become apparent, however. The movie ends up dumping most of the gunplay that made up the first half, and replacing it with martial arts. While Uwais is an incredible martial artist, and he cuts through the remaining forces it becomes obvious quickly that the steam the first half of the film built up is never going to be matched. And Uwais, for all his athletic and artistic capability, is still just a guy fighting small groups again and again in hallways and small rooms. The joy of the fighting itself aside, the pace of the action itself quickly falls into numbing repetition with the winner of every bout clear from the beginning.
And that’s the problem with The Raid. Is it a movie with great action and a clear premise? Absolutely. More action films could learn from that kind of focus, the clear villains and the constant motivation everyone has. But there’s absolutely nothing else to it, and by the time the movie drifts past the one hour mark it’s shown all it really has to show and has to be content to show it all again, but harsher. Diminishing returns come really rapidly with a movie like this, and by the final big two-on-one fight in a basically empty room the whole thing seems utterly pointless. Sure, the choreography is great, but these men punch and kick and elbow each other far past the point of interest, and beyond the endurance of even a fan of action films.
This ultimately ends up being the problem with the entire film. It does one thing well, but that one thing isn’t enough to justify 100 minutes of screen time. The few twists the plot tries to take are obvious and superficial, to the point where a third act reveal by the villain to one of the cops is essentially completely superfluous to the plot as we’ve been presented with it for the last hour and a half. It’s the kind of floundering that feels like stretching to fill the time, and the movie definitely suffers for it.
The problem with these all-action-all-the-time style films is that it’s very hard to maintain interest so long. It’s why I still maintain that The Killer is a better movie than Hard Boiled, despite the improvement of production values and scope: you can’t make a great action movie when all you have is action to put in it. The Raid doesn’t even manage the setpieces of those films, however, by limiting it’s location to a single, repetitive structure that almost never unfolds into anything more interesting than hallways and simple rooms. There’s a lot of chaos, but it all ends up samey and contained, and none of it particularly inventive.
That isn’t to say I didn’t like The Raid. Like I said, the action is absolutely great, and the first half alone justifies someone who is interested in the genre seeing it. There’s a level on which I can appreciate martial arts the same way I would appreciate dance or musical performance: it’s people doing something incredibly difficult incredibly well, and that’s always going to translate to something worthy of ones time. But the part where it’s a film, with a narrative and flow and sustained interest? The Raid is a lot of bluster and very little payoff, and I can’t help but feel like it’s ultimately a second stringer compared to the violent epics that obviously influenced it.