As a critical reviewer, John Updike fashioned for himself a series of rules to abide by when assessing the work of another. First amongst these is:
“Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
I believe this to be an essential directive not only when critically reviewing a work, but even in experiencing it, talking about it, and remembering it. The most common tactic, it seems to me, in criticizing a movie is to address what it did not have. A musical can be enjoyable, but lack the deep pathos of a more somber picture. A war movie is gritty and nihilistic, yet without uplift or hope. Since it’s incredibly difficult for a motion picture to encapsulate everything and appease viewers of all sensibilities (except for maybe Back to the Future), I think Mr. Updike’s rule is pertinent and necessary when looking at a movie; does it accomplish what it sets out to accomplish?
This litmus test provides the most benefit to genre movies, which by way of constraining narrative outlines, the need to hit familiar beats and an already established niche audience, seldom possess the broad appeal of other, more praised ones. And The Raid: Redemption is, unequivocally, a genre movie. The genre? A hybrid of martial arts (incorporating an Indonesian style of fighting, Pencak Silat) and atmospheric, moody Carpenter-esque action pictures, peppered in spots with slasher-movie tension, all filtered through a vertical climb video game style challenge hierarchy of villains.
So, then, we have the following way to look at a movie like The Raid: Redemption: Does this mixed-genre movie accomplish what it sets out to accomplish? The answer to this relies on an appropriate definition of what this type of movie is setting out to accomplish. The director, Gareth Evans, has one previous feature to his name, Merentau, a movie I have not seen but from available descriptions and synopses is a similarly themed martial arts production, though the main detraction appears to be that it suffers from a slow, plodding plot. Indeed, a martial arts film carries with it expectations of kinetic battle and rapid pacing, though in that movie, apparently, the fights are few and far between. If that is the case, then The Raid: Redemption corrects that meandering vibe to an absurd degree.
The Plot: Elite group of Indonesian police (among them a young talent, a weathered veteran and a seemingly out of shape higher-up) are tasked with the raid (hey!) of a drug lord’s production and housing complex wherein all manner of criminals, including the operation’s respective brains and brawn, are at his disposal to eradicate this invasive capture attempt.
That’s pretty much it. So from what is known about the history of the director and the plot of the movie, one can surmise the goal of The Raid: Redemption is “to make a fast paced, frequently violent martial arts/action combination that puts on display Indonesian martial arts.” Does this movie succeed in that end? Very much so.
From a couple of minutes in the bloodletting begins, pausing occasionally for the audience to catch its breath and unwind some of the balletic assaults they had just witnessed in an attempt to process the physics of how, exactly, that guy threw that other guy through that window/table/floor/door.
Iko Uwais, as the rookie with otherworldly stamina, re-teams with Evans after Merentau and is aided by Joe Taslim, in the role of his skeptical squad leader, and Yayan Ruhian, the film’s fight choreographer, as the unsettling, clinical henchman “Mad Dog”. The physical abilities of all three performers, as well as the myriad extras and supporting cast, are simply dazzling. The same vicarious thrill that’s found in watching something like the Olympics is had in processing the dizzyingly quick movements of these men and, coupled with inventive use of edits, cuts, and camera positions, a tapestry of devastation is erected floor to floor, fight to fight, culminating in one of the most brutal, exciting, inspired choreographed fights in a long time.
While movies like The Dark Knight or Children of Men have brilliant set piece sequences which quiets the audience and draws the viewer in, these are only momentary injections. The Raid: Redemption attempts to capture more of what the second half of 13 Assassins does so exceptionally, which is strike a chord of awe and reverence for the action on screen and sustain that over a considerably long period of time. Evans and co. rise to that challenge admirably.
Not unlike how a movie such as In The Loop wields profanity as poetry, there is genuine, overwhelming pleasure to be had in appreciating that all these masters of their specific talents have been gathered together to illuminate your day, though a clever pun or well timed comeback is replaced here with a propane tank in a refrigerator or a face smashed along a tiled wall in 4 different places. You say tomato…
Does it seem excessive to apply the critical mission statement of a Pulitzer Prize winner to a movie where a man’s jugular is impaled on the jagged remains of a bashed in door?
Does it seem right to ask a movie called The Raid: Redemption to tackle socioeconomic disparity or costumed melodrama?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “A really great talent finds its happiness in execution.” All those involved with The Raid: Redemption couldn’t agree more, though execution, admittedly in this case, has a bit of a double meaning.