For once, the phrase “nonstop action” accurately describes the movie at hand. Only in the opening and closing moments of this Indonesian import is there any letup in the film’s assaultive action. The action is massively violent, imaginatively choreographed, gut-punchingly visceral, and “astonishingly kickass” (to quote Marc Savlov in his Chronicle interview with director Evans, which ran in conjunction with the film’s screening at SXSW Film earlier this month). The body count is off the charts; bloody bodies are strewn everywhere in the apartment building where virtually all the film’s action takes place. And the fighting is mano a mano, martial-arts combat; there’s very little impersonal, distanced gunplay, which is even more surprising considering this is the story of a SWAT-style police raid on an apartment building where the criminals rule the residents – and their kingdom – from the top floor of the infected structure.
There’s hardly anything more to the story than this cops vs. criminals angle. There’s a brother of the de facto lead cop Rama (Uwais), who works for the other side, and, of course, there’s a dirty cop. But The Raid: Redemption never pauses to soak in either of these dramas. In the opening sequence – the film’s only quiet moment – we see Rama silently performing his morning practice of pencak silat, Indonesia’s indigenously developed martial art, before kissing his pregnant wife goodbye as he leaves for work. Although a multiplicity of martial-art forms appear throughout The Raid: Redemption, the foregrounding of pencak silat, a fighting style which uses bladed instruments, is one of the things that sets this movie apart from the action herd. Due partly to an enfeebled national film industry, pencak silat has been little seen in martial-arts movies, so its prominence here adds to the film’s uniqueness. However, for those unschooled in the finer points of the various styles, a bloody nose and broken bone look the same no matter the method used to create the trauma.
Welsh-born director Evans evidences a visionary wisdom in his exploitation of these Indonesian talents heretofore unappreciated in the West. His star, Iko Uwais, is also his fight choreographer, and Uwais had never worked in film prior to his previous collaboration with the filmmaker on Merantu. Also, Evans handles the action in the film’s one-set location with an ingenious aplomb that announces the arrival of a striking new talent. So why, despite all this, does The Raid: Redemption feel like a monotonous barrage? The sparse dialogue and absence of character development are, for me, the culprits. I desire more of a rooting interest in a leading character than the mere knowledge that he has a pregnant wife at home. Feeling pummeled and thoroughly abused, I curled up in a defensive ball (my indigenous fighting mode) halfway through the film and waited for the onslaught to stop. Other viewers, especially devotees of action films, will be energized by the mayhem and thrilled by its inexhaustibility. The Raid: Redemption definitely delivers everything that international action fans want. The question I have is whether the laws of supply and demand are adequate tools for evaluating a movie’s worth.For Marc Savlov’s interview with Evans, see “Bruises Easily,” March 9.