Midnight Madness swept the Toronto International Film Festival last year and the clear winners were the audiences who saw The Raid: Redemption, the martial arts actioner from writer-director Gareth Evans. The Raid introduces Rama (Iko Uwais), a rookie SWAT team officer prepping for his first full-scale assignment, an early morning raid on an apartment building that serves as the stronghold for a ruthless drug lord (Ray Sahetapy). Rama works out, kisses his pregnant wife and heads off during the opening credits.
Rama and his unit of 20 arrive at the scene, enter the building and then find themselves facing not just the drug lord and an anticipated army of henchmen but nearly every single inhabitant of the building. The Raid combines the aesthetics of Battle Los Angeles (minus the aliens) and Black Hawk Down with some of the street combat elements of District B13 and its sequel.
But Evans is also trafficking in James Gray territory, that dark realm where brothers — in this case, Rama’s brother Andi (Doni Alamsyah) is the brains of the criminal outfit — find themselves caught on opposite sides of the divide. Think of the civil wars of crime and punishment because that is the place where redemption is necessary and must be paid for in blood.
The Raid glances in the direction of We Own The Night, Gray’s Mark Wahlberg-Joaquin Phoenix vehicle that cast the two leads as brothers, one a cop, the other a bad boy prowling the dark streets and alleys of the night. The inevitability of the collision course the film tracks is the kicker for the audience; the tension comes from the creeping yet accelerating pace towards the climax between the two who, we are shown, are little more than a two-headed coin.
The Raid, though, isn’t so worried about the coming clash between the brothers. Instead, that plotline takes a backseat to the steady and unending attacks from all the other fronts. Bad cops playing one another, the right and left hands of the drug lord eager to claim victory and usurp the other as the heir to the underworld throne and the armed-to-the-teeth tenants seeking to gain free rent through the bounty on the infidel SWAT team.
Yes, I compared the SWAT team to infidels seeking to impose their will on the land and rights of an oppressed people. That is an easy critical angle handed to us on a silver platter. And, if we dare to think it through further, we will see and appreciate the fact that the movie also forces us to accept that there is no simple solution, no clear win and end to the battle. In today’s combative world, “victory” is unattainable.
So the movie punches forward. It is bruising and violent, but never as cartoonish and over-the-top as a cheesy B-movie from Hollywood or a star vehicle from the latest action stud (the McQueen-to-Stallone-to-Willis-to-Statham continuum). The automatic fire is immediate and explosive without the lingering gaze on the aftermath — no one has the time for such appreciation of the kills because there is always another enemy stepping up for his shot. And even the choreography of the hand-to-hand combat sequences, while balletic and graceful, captures the drive to maim and kill.
In an Esquire anniversary issue from close to 20 years ago, I remember an essay by Norman Mailer, a tough guy piece on boxing. Mailer spent hours training in an old gym with real pros and other wannabe pluggers and he talked about how the training — the heavy bag work, the speed ball and the sparring — focused on breaking down the innate urge in Man to not hurt another person. The training, he believed, stripped away at a core piece of the boxer’s humanity, easing the internal struggle.
That struggle disappears when you are fighting to survive. You will do anything, use whatever is available, to remove the threat before you and, if there is enough adrenaline pumping, you will likely do things you couldn’t even dream of in ordinary circumstances. Action becomes Jazz-like, improvisational in those moments, and that is exactly what The Raid gives us. Evans has replicated Mailer’s prose with a healthy dose of Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry interplay and the physicality of Bruce Lee remixed for a critical contemporary global Hip Hop audience. This is what it means to be human in that moment when your inevitable end is not a possibility on the horizon. Death is probable and likely about to greet you before the next blink of an eye.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION
opens Friday at The Esquire.