All the special effects and pyrotechnics in the world can't make up for a good physical stunt, but between overzealous CG and the increasing use of shaky-cam and quick cutting (to give chases and fights more "realism"), movies with these are becoming increasingly rare. The one genre where physical feats are still spotlighted is martial arts films, but these have been plagued by increasingly mind-numbing stories filling in the gaps around all of the acrobatics (films by Thai production company Baa Ram Ewe, which released Ong Bak and Chocolate, are the worst offenders).
Enter The Raid (or, The Raid: Redemption), a streamlined 101-minute ride of brutal violence and tension. With very little exposition (a pregnant wife, a concerned father, a little hammer torture), director/writer Gareth Evans swiftly sets up the conflict between 20 cops and a crime lord named Tama (Ray Sahetapy), who hides out in an apartment complex filled with thugs. The cops enter believing they've got a one-time chance to take Tama out, but it's a trap, and when Tama offers free lifetime residency to any of the hostile residents in exchange for killing the intruders, things turn bloody in a hurry.
One man stands between Tama and victory: Rama (Iko Uwais), the cop looking to get home to that pregnant wife and concerned father. When Tama turns the tables on them, he takes charge, hacking holes in the floors with a fire axe and pulling a trick with a refrigerator that should not be attempted at home. He's also the reason The Raid exists, performing a martial arts technique called Pencak Silat to take down hundreds of attackers. Silat combines the same bone-cracking elbow moves of Muay Thai with deadly knife skills, among other things, and Uwais' hands frequently move so fast punching and stabbing his opponents that the viewer's eyes can't keep up. When I reviewed Mandrill, I criticized the film for not making good use of its locations in the way the action sequences were designed, but The Raid also makes great use of simple apartment hallways, finding plenty of things to do with the space, in terms of both the camera placement and the violence itself (specifically, the use of a broken door is one of the craziest moments in the film).
Despite all of the action in the film -- and there is plenty of action -- Evans doesn't ignore story to avoid including a boring one. The plot at the heart of The Raid is not exactly Shakespeare, but Evans wisely paints it in big, basic strokes to avoid bogging the movie down in details that nobody is interested in. There are some stakes for the hero and moments that quickly and simply define his character (i.e., the way he treats one of the complex's residents), a couple of twists, and a few standout characters that are easy to keep track of. Rama spends much of the film separated from another group of surviving cops, and thankfully Joe Taslim's character Jaka is fleshed-out and interesting enough that his scenes aren't just a drag where Uwais isn't around.
Evans also picks and chooses his beats between the action sequences wisely, giving the audience time to rest after each adrenaline-pumping marathon, and includes a few remarkable scenes (specifically, one involving a machete and Uwais' face) that are all about tension without action. The movie's final fight, pitting Uwais against Yayan Ruhian as Tama's right-hand man "Mad Dog," goes on maybe a little long and gets pretty bloodthirsty, but this is a small blemish on an otherwise incredible, bone-cracking experience. Hollywood, take note: your action movies could learn something.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.