This Indonesian martial-arts film is the sleeper action flick of the year, and with good reason — it’s a truly relentless assault, one that begins the second the opening credits end and which barely pauses for breath afterward. Here’s the plot, which will take as long to read as it takes for the movie to set up: An evil drug lord (is there any other kind?) moonlights as an evil slumlord, renting out a low-class high-rise apartment complex to the scum of the earth, thus minimizing competition and simultaneously getting a free tug job from the invisible hand of the underground marketplace. A SWAT team is sent in to clean the place out.
That’s it. The rest of the approximately 100 minutes is devoted to the Indonesian martial art of silat (which this film was created in order to popularize), not to mention lots of good old-fashioned Western-style gunplay, knifeplay, hammerplay, and furnitureplay. Human bodies are crippled, maimed, and mostly killed in just about every way one might imagine. (For a SWAT team in an apartment building, anyway.) It’s set up like a reverse Fort Apache: The Bronx, but it plays out like the last scene of Scarface. Over and over again.
The effect is brutal, but not brutalizing on the audience, and that’s because Welsh expat writer-director Gareth Evans has wisely chosen to forego lots of Hollywood bullshit — which he couldn’t afford anyway, since he apparently had a lot less budget to work with than he first thought. No slow-motion bullet cams, no gravity-defying leaps, no ridiculous feats of strength get in the way of the beatdowns; The Raid, which is the first in a planned trilogy, does for action what Hostel did for horror, reducing it to its most primal elements and fearlessly shoving it directly in your face. There are times when the note-perfect soundtrack, a mix of industrial, dubstep, and traditional Hollywood score, seems designed to not to augment the action but provide a necessary distancing from it, so that you don’t feel trapped — the original draft of this baby was set in a prison, and Evans keeps that claustrophobia going to great effect.
Toning down the effects is only half of what makes Redemption so redeeming, however. A couple of deft plot twists keep the alliances shifting, and the occasional breathers the film takes to reveal those shifts give it just enough time to reveal the humanity behind the carnage. Blurring the traditional lines between good and evil like a classic spaghetti western, The Raid keeps you rooting for the heroes no matter how thoughtlessly they slaughter like villains, and it also translates the appeal of the hellhole they’re stuck in, so that you understand it even as you long to be delivered from it.
Shot entirely with handheld Panasonic AF100 cameras — that is, the kind used by war journalists — the fights are incredibly kinetic and involving, mixing the silat tradition, which incorporates both dance moves and bladework, with standard Western shoot-’em-up set pieces. Thanks to Evans’ examination of the nature of good and evil, and his refusal to beautify the war between the two, The Raid: Redemption lives up to both halves of its title, in the process creating a framework for future action films in the era of the post-war first-person shooter. Its overarching irony is the way in which it uses technology to make violence seem more human than ever.