American action movies are almost entirely defined by cutaways, blaring music cues and grunts. "The Raid: Redemption," a hyper-energetic Indonesian martial arts movie, delivers an effective rebuke to that meek norm. Bones break, blood flows and swift, excessively complicated fight choreography puts virtually everything released in North America since "The Bourne Ultimatum" to instant shame.
Director Gareth Evans makes a strong case for the genre as a kinetic means of illustrating the precise traits that distinguish cinema from other art forms: These moving pictures seriously move, and remain tethered to reality as they do, with each jarring thud or crunch a reminder of the consequences.
Could the planned American remake, announced just a few weeks after "The Raid" premiered to great acclaim at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, come anywhere close to replicating this experience? Don't get your hopes up.
"The Raid: Redemption" (a title updated from simply "The Raid" after Fox refused to license the name it owns from a 1954 release) stands out not only because of the speed of its execution but the number of onscreen deaths portrayed with relentless unease. Evans exploits violence for the sake of entertainment along with the best of them, but never makes it easy to watch. I swear my face hurt coming out of the theater.
The tense story revolves around an elite task force's attempt to permeate a safe house filled with criminals in the slums of Jakarta. Evans is relentless in his quest to keep the forward motion in flux; fists and bullets fly in equal measures; the description "bone-rattling" never felt more appropriate than it does here. However, "The Raid" evades pure image-based insanity, stretching beyond the constraints of "chaos cinema" that became a talking point among critics several months back: Evans' screenplay has strong characters, particularly Rama (Iko Uwais), the leader of the Special Forces team intent on taking out the druglord watching their battle to the top floor from a group of monitors in his lair. He has a pregnant wife at home and an estranged brother working for the bad guys. In other words, he has multiple causes to fight for.
Still, the backdrop is trim enough to take its set pieces into the realm of allegory. Even before the druglord hops on a loudspeaker to let his goons know about the SWAT "infestation" invading their abode, Evans has already established an analogy for their assault by peering down at the faceless wave of armored assailants from the top of a stairwell and depicting their coordinated movement as if it were an onslaught of insects, hiding in walls and scrambling for whatever cover they can find.
Because these conventional forces of good embody an ugly metaphor, they never take on heroic qualities. Evans makes their survival tactics increasingly engaging, but not glamorous, partly because nobody knows the entire purpose driving their mission. "We're not here for good reasons," one of the officers says, hinting at the possibility of police corruption that may have lead them into an impossible battle.
But just because the team has been positioned to fight a losing battle doesn't mean they'll go down quietly. Instead, their vigilantism meets MacGyver-like innovation: Backs repeatedly crack on hard surfaces ranging from desks to stairwells; at one point a fridge is used to deliver grenades through a closed door. The cops hide in various crevices, dodging blades and breaking necks with such calculated movements that in order to follow them you have to physically involve yourself in the proceedings.
It's painful to watch (eyeballs are not designed to move this fast), but "The Raid" has powerful implications because the spectacle doesn't glorify the mayhem no matter which side enacts it. "The Raid" confronts the nature of movie violence and comes to grim conclusions, but it also makes peace with the inherent appeal of the genre. Intense escapism is still escapism. A telling scene finds two men, one a prototypical "good guy" and the other "bad," in a hand-to-hand battle to the death; it's easy to assume which side must win in this scenario and when he doesn't, "The Raid" provides a rebuke to the prospects of movies providing a safe distance from onscreen brutality. Here, it has ramifications that draw you closer to the action.
At a recent Museum of Modern Art press screening for "The Raid" ahead of its New York premiere at the New Directors/New Films series, many of the senior members of the audience walked out after the first half (it only gets worse, or better, depending on your perspective). I took their flight to imply a mixture of shock and disdain, exactly the ingredients that "The Raid" conveys without compromising the energy holding it together. Evans, now overseeing one or possibly two sequels while anticipating the remake, digs into the psychological connection between viewer and product until it bleeds. There's no telling exactly how the American version will play out, but it will probably play it safe.
"The Raid" isn't the only foreign release set for an English-language translation; the French action-drama "Sleepless Night," another fast-paced ride set to open next month, was snatched up by Warner Bros. for a remake last fall. Both movies rely so heavily on a precision of editing as well as nimble displays both by the camera and in front of it that the idea of replicating them sounds both tricky and useless. More than that, however, remaking these films threatens to overwhelm the source material, no matter the result.
As it stands, "The Raid" demonstrates an understanding of violent extremes while pushing those limits at the same time. If the remake can't do that, it misses the point. Anyone passionate about the action genre should see "The Raid" before the remake homogenizes the very forces the original critiques.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics is releasing "The Raid: Redemption" this Friday in New York, L.A. San Francisco, Chicago and Washington D.C. (it also plays in New York as part of New Directors/New Films). The film has collected enough buzz over the last several months to attract genre fans in all of those major markets, which bodes well for its box office performance over the next week or two; meanwhile, it should do a good job of setting the stage for the sequels.