Distributor: SinemArt (Indonesia), Sony Pictures Classics/Stage 6 Films (US)
Director: Gareth Evans
Writers: Gareth Evans
Composer: Fajar Yuskemal and Aria Prayogi (original score). Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese (English version)
Starring: Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno, Ray Sahetapy, Tegar Satrya
Genre: Martial Arts/Action/Thriller
Gareth Evans has built a career in the 2010s as one of the most in-demand action directors in international cinema. After moving from Wales to Indonesia, he worked with local actor Iko Uwais on a trilogy of acclaimed martial arts action films before returning to the United Kingdom in 2015. Since then, he’s directed the Netflix horror film Apostle and SkyTV’s new mini-series, Gangs of London. To celebrate his upcoming new projects like the upcoming action film Havoc, I went back and watched his breakout 2011 martial arts film, The Raid: Redemption.
Violence/Scary Images: Intense blood, violence and gore throughout. Characters are shot, stabbed, beaten, and crushed, with large amounts of blood splatter, bones breaking, and death.
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout including f***, s***, p**** and c***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters smoke cigarettes. Others are implicitly producing drugs.
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: The lead character is shown to be a practicing Muslim.
Other Negative Content: The film deals with issues surrounding corruption.
Positive Content: Themes of justice, honor and survival.
Most action movies do not have good stories. Some do. Others have efficient stories that compliment the real purpose of the movie, that being the epic set pieces, martial arts, or explosions. For the most part though, most action films aren’t so efficient. Most are cheaply produced films with superfluous stories littered with cliches, bad dialog, and long stretches of boring segments. Often the experience of engaging with these films is one filled with patient anticipation; watching for the few awesome scenes to bubble up out of the miasma to make the experience worth it.
There’s a reason then that The Raid: Redemption is held up so highly by contemporary cinephiles. It was THE breakout action film of the early 2010s and set director Gareth Evans as one of the most notable action directors in modern cinema. The movie famously displays some of the most well shot martial arts choreography in any contemporary action film arguably since House of Flying Daggers. At the very least, there hadn’t been an East Asian martial arts film that had broken out in the West as deeply in half a decade prior to this film. Since then, it’s opened up a huge market in the West for contemporary martial arts films like IP Man and Triple Threat.
So how does a singular action film make such a huge impact on international cinema?
Part of what makes that work is that the action is a perfect compliment to the story. The characters are simple—if very human—and the story setup is formulaic enough to be familiar and easy to follow. A group of Indonesian police officers are performing a raid against an infamously dangerous apartment block that’s held by a powerful kingpin. Things immediately go south, most of the officers are killed, and we discover that the police lieutenant knows more about why it went south than he immediately makes clear. As a result, the lead character, Rama, is left alone to climb the apartment block floor by floor, fight off waves of criminals, and survive long enough to find help and take out the kingpin.
It’s a basic story that wouldn’t be out of place in any other grindhouse/Cannon films/Hong Kong action film, but here it’s immensely streamlined and effective. Events have already hit the fan within ten minutes of the start of the film and by this point we have a solid understanding of who our characters are and how they’ll act when placed in a stressful situation. The movie earns your investment from the beginning of the film and delivers on its premise almost immediately. You aren’t forced to sit and wait an hour for some huge action set piece. The movie starts and it doesn’t stop for the remaining ninety minutes of its runtime.
The film really is a breath of fresh air to anyone who has seen their fair share of action films. The movie’s constant pacing and set pieces are relentless once the action starts. It never loses its intimacy or its stakes though. The Raid’s most famous contribution to contemporary action cinema was its reintroduction of clarity and geography with its cinematography. The camera draws back from the scene and gives a clear sense of visual clarity as to the physicality and consequences of these character’s abilities. This is true for a lot of martial arts cinema but here it’s specially true.
Film Crit Hulk summarized its cinematography well in his SXSW review from 2011:
“But what makes The Raid great is that it perfectly falls into a kind of middle zone between the two ends of the spectrum. The camera is always far enough away to make the action visible, functional and clear. And it is always close enough to give urgency to what we see. We never feel distant or like we’re watching the dance. It is intimate.”
This visual storytelling strength gives the film a clarity and tightness that most American action films at the time didn’t have (lest we forget the horrors of early 2010s shaky cam…).
In addition to its technical prowess, The Raid truly earns its place as one of the best recent action films for its earnestness and humanity. Director Gareth Evans was able to bring a great deal of authenticity to his portrayal of Indonesian culture. He spent almost a decade living there and learning the culture so he could work with people and portray them well, and the results show.
The series lead, Iko Uwais, was just a delivery man prior to Evan’s discovering him. He was, however, a master practitioner of the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat, and Evans saw him as a natural movie star. He wasn’t wrong. Iko’s portrayal of the series lead, Rama, is a revelation. He’s got amazing charisma and physical abilities on screen, and owns his role as the last good cop in a bad situation. Iko’s since become a professional actor, stunt coordinator, and international star in films like Man of Tai Chi (cameo), Mile 22, Stuber, Wu Assassins, Triple Threat and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (cameo).
The Raid wouldn’t work as a film if Iko wasn’t a compelling lead, but he was more than capable in the role. This movie only works dramatically if you care about the human beings caught within the grips of these cruel crime lords. There has to be tension and consequences to characters making decisions under difficult circumstances. Here we meet characters who have full lives and families to protect who will suffer tremendously if they make the wrong decision.
Take the hiding scene halfway through the film. Rama and his surviving partner are cornered and outnumbered in one hall, so they beg a resident to let them shelter in their room. The man has a genuine crisis as to whether he can afford to let these men in. If he’s discovered, he’s a dead man, and his wife will be murdered as well. Yet these two men are dead if he doesn’t help them. The following scenes of Rama hiding inside the walls of the apartment while it’s searched are some of the most terrifying in the movie.
The Raid is a film defined by its insanely efficient filmmaker techniques as much by its earnestness and humanity. It’s equal parts masterful filmmaking and slick storytelling. This is immensely difficult for a filmmaker, and most action directors simply aren’t capable of achieving this. Usually films like this choose to explore a more dense and complicated story (and fail), or put all of their focus on making the set piece moments awesome at the expense of story.
That’s what makes the film such a breath of fresh air. The Raid: Redemption earned its audience and fostered a genuine revival of the martial arts genre. It is what it is, and what that is is an action film in its purest state. It wants to make you excited, terrified, and gripping the edge of your seat. In that, it’s a masterpiece!
The Bottom Line