With The Raid: Redemption (also known as just The Raid or Serbuan Maut), writer-director Gareth Evans has distilled the action thriller to its bare essentials: a hero, a villain, a henchman, a wild card, an extended fight sequence, some cannon fodder, and lots and lots of spectacle. Some will no doubt view this as an achievement, but, to me, it comes across a little like going to a car dealership and having the salesman push the latest model on you: a cog on four wheels.
The plot as it were: Rama (Iko Uwais), a rookie cop in the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia, is assigned to the raid of an apartment building filled with heavily armed criminals who, for some reason, have all learnt Muay Thai boxing. The operation goes awry, of course, and it falls on our hero and his superior martial arts skills to take down sadistic drug lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy) and lead his fellow squad members (or what little is left of them) out of the thirty-story death trap. Think of it as the final act of a John Woo flick stretched to feature length by way of mindless repetition.
Mind you, the movie starts off well enough as the squad takes control of the first half dozen floors with ninja-like efficiency. Then the villains inevitably strike back, and all sense of suspense goes out the window, presumably fleeing the relentless roar of their machine guns. The two sides take turns shooting at each other for half an hour before either getting bored or running out of ammo. I couldn’t say for sure because my mind started to wander, thinking up kooky metaphors to describe the experience. Third on my notepad: “two Rammstein cover bands playing at opposite ends of a seesaw”.
The problem lies in The Raid: Redemption providing no setup beyond a pep talk in a police van, no character insight beyond a two-minute scene in which Rama proclaims his love for his pregnant wife, no twist or subplot beyond the shifting allegiances of two supporting cast members, and no reason to care beyond the macho desire to see bones get crushed in spectacular but increasingly monotonous ways. Imagine ordering a yummy hamburger combo only to realise the buns, condiments, sides, and soft drink are also made of ground beef.
Admittedly, I find ground beef pretty tasty, and some of the fight choreographies left me in awe of Evans’ cinematic creativity. Take, for example, the sequence tracking our hero as he jumps down one floor, dispatches a baddy, and somersaults away while Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim) leaps over him to provide cover. The whole thing gets done in one shot, leaving anyone who’s felt the weight of a camera wondering, how did they do that? Sadly, the same kinetic approach becomes somewhat obnoxious when the characters aren’t defying gravity. A few minutes prior, when Rama hacks at the floor to make a hole, the film follows the tip of his axe up and down, leaving anyone who’s felt nauseous in a roller-coaster wondering, why did they do that?
The answer is simple: The Raid: Redemption pertains to movement, not storytelling. Consider the climactic bout with Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), who follows the long-standing henchman tradition of forgoing an easy kill that could effectively end the movie in favour of an acrobatic martial arts sequence that will surely spell his death. Iko and Yayan prove gifted athletes, but they pummel each other for so long one can’t help but ponder the likelihood of either standing on his feet after losing ten to fifteen pints of blood. It’s like watching an endless round of Mortal Kombat wherein both players are using cheat codes.
If you’ll allow me one more crude analogy, action cinema is a bit like making whoopee: the expository buildup serves as foreplay, the escalating stunts as intercourse, and the climactic explosion as, well, climax. Without the rhythm of James Cameron’s calculated epics, the romance found in Luc Besson’s pulp fantasies, or the joy inherent to Jackie Chan’s kung fu adventures, The Raid: Redemption comes off like the manic performance of a sex addict on Viagra. At some point, one just runs out of lubricant.