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Monday, December 10, 2012

There are some movies that beautiful and true chiefly in their purity: they are, and they pretend to be, one thing only. Such it is with The Raid: Redemption, an Indonesian action movie written and directed by a Welshman, Gareth Huw Evans. An action movie, and nothing at all but an action movie: insofar as the film has anything like a "plot" to speak of, it seems awfully ashamed of it, and insofar as it develops its characters, it is mostly to justify specific beats in the action to come.

No, this movie is about one thing: gun and knife battles. Two things, then. And it has an irresistible conceptual hook upon which to hang these battles: Rama (Iko Uwais), a supercop, is part of a team led by Jaka (Joe Taslim) and Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) infiltrating a high-rise Jakarta tenement building where druglord Tama Riyada (Ray Sahetapy) runs his empire. Very shortly after the police squad enters the building, they are spotted, by sheerest accident, by a boy in Tama's employ, who raises the alarm, and causes Tama to send out a message to the entire building to the effect of, "there are cops, and I want you all to kill them". Which means that instead of sneaking up floor-by-floor, the cops are now obliged to fight their way through an army of drugged-out thugs and Tama's special pair of lieutenants: Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) and Andi (Donny Alamsyah), the latter of whom has a secret past that concerns Rama. And since the film very quickly kills off or incapacitates everybody but Rama, forcing him to fight his way single-handedly to Tama's lair - I said he was a supercop - a showdown between Rama and Andi is clearly in store.

Even that, though, is more than you really need to know: "cop fights his way through an apartment building of disposable henchmen" is enough. Because that's the only part of The Raid that really matters: its depiction of fight sequences of less or much, much more violence and intensity. The peculiar thing is that it really does matter: the film might be selling an extremely limited product to a very self-selecting audience, but as action movies go, by God, it is one of the very best and most important in an age. Not simply because it is largely unflagging: after the 10-minute mark, this 100-minute film doesn't really bother with anything other than setpieces, or the brief lulls between setpieces that only represent a minor dip in momentum and severity. Though certainly, as there are more and more action movies that spend more and more time slowing down with the characters to little real effect, that alone is reason to give the movie a spin.

Mostly, the film is good because, well, it's good: not merely the quantity, but the quality of the action scenes is at a level rarely met these days, and despite the incredible quantity of blood that gets splattered around throughout the film - the visual effects are just persuasive enough that you never doubt the movie's reality for a second, though it's also never disgusting or prurient - Evans takes a downright classical approach to staging the action, which is considerably more intelligible and thus more engaging than the reigning style in most contemporary Hollywood films, where editing used less as a tool to increase the intensity and force of the action, but to cover it in a thick layer of inscrutable style, attempting to suggest hectic momentum by turning the film itself into an assault, rather than trusting the on-screen action itself to keep us invested and excited. The Raid is certainly not light on style, but its main approach is as old-fashioned as a '30s musical: show as much of the human body doing impressive feats as you can manage. True, The Raid is cut at a fairly machine-gunned rate when compared to a Fred Astaire number, but it's also a good deal slower than something like the manically lifeless The Expendables 2, or any of the big, pulverising comic book movies you could name.

Certainly, Uwais, a martial artist whose only other screen credit is Evans's Merantau, makes for a terrific action star, flinging himself around as needed to make the action seem as visceral and savage as need be; but the movie does everything in its power to frame him in the best possible light. It is a wonderfully holistic action movie, if that phrase makes any sense at all: the editing cuts on all the right beats to make punches and gunshots land with a crack of doom, the camerawork (the film has two cinematographers, Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono) is furiously ragged - handheld hasn't been this well-used in a long time - doing the job of making things seem wildly chaotic and unstable that other films try to do with editing, but it works out much better here. Best of all might be the sound design, among the best in any movie I've seen in 2012, comfortably blending a hellish barrage of gunshots and explosions with the sound of men talking, screaming, and grunting.

Or, I should take that back - best of all is the ingenious way all of this is staged, with some of the most impressively creative moments I've seen in an action film, maybe ever: there's a shot of cops dropping through a hole in the floor where the camera plunges right on with them that is, legitimately, as well-executed as any single camera movement that I have ever seen. A lot of this is only looking to score cool points, which doesn't speak terribly well of the film's depth or intelligence; but it's a film that wants to be cool, and it gets there without any irony or detachment, like its American cousins. In fact, most of the cleverest, coolest moments are also the most impactful and visceral - another highlight is a sequence that find Rama hiding in a wall to avoid death-by-machete, and the moment when he receives a nasty cut to the face and has to swallow down his scream is one of the best human-sized moments in an action movie in years - and while the film can be accused, rightfully, of being all about style, that style is strictly meant to draw us further into the film, not give us a haughty way to stand above it. This is, in fact, as deeply involving as any equally shallow action movie I have ever seen, which maybe means that it's no so "shallow" as all that, anyway. Just because it's not a human story doesn't mean it can't be about living, bleeding, relatable human beings.

9/10

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