Monday, August 18, 2014

THE RAID: REDEMPTION (Serbuan Maut, 2011)

The decade's new standard for martial arts movies was set by a police thriller combining Indonesian performers and a Welsh director. Gareth Evans's Raid is the sort of action movie that may compel some American viewers to suspend disbelief as it segues from conventional cop action to martial arts mayhem. Where did the guns go? There's plenty of shooting early, but as the raiding cops, having no hope of backup and actually set up, fight their way up a tenement tower, practically a panopticon of peril, to the lair of crime lord Tama, we go from guns to machetes and finally to feet and bare hands. The transition is nearly seamless if you know what you're getting into, but Evans, who writes as well as directs, overplays his hand just a little when he has Mad Dog, one of Tama's sub-bosses, make a speech about how much more he enjoys beating people to death with his hands than he enjoys shooting or stabbing them. All pretense of urban realism falls away in that moment and The Raid stands revealed as pure pulp fiction. Anyway, Indonesia probably isn't as much of a gun culture as the U.S. or some other places. As The Act of Killing ably illustrates, people of the peninsula are often quite inventive about dispatching their enemies.

The Raid remains very much a cop film after it shows its true genre colors. Its behind-the-scenes subject is the treacherous politics of policing. The raid's commanding officer, Wahyu, doesn't tell his men until they're already in too deep that they can't expect backup because his is an unauthorized mission, his rogue action to kill or capture Tama. Wahyu's agenda is so close to his vest that he's ready to betray his men to the ultimate extent. Yet he proves a dupe, or so Tama claims when he tells the officer that he'd been tipped off about the raid and invited to kill a troublesome cop, the rest being a bonus. One gets the sense that the Jakarta police are authoritarian, ruthless and corrupt, except for an honest handful, many of whom end up sacrificed to the ambitions or rivalries of higher-ups. I could see an American film on the same subject, except it'd be guns all the way to the top floor.

I'm not complaining about The Raid, because the martial arts lived up to the film's already-lofty reputation. The highlight and instant entry in the best-fight-scene-ever sweepstakes is the two-on-one climax pitting the aforementioned Mad Dog (fight co-choreographer Yayan Ruhian) against a surviving cop and another sub-boss who happens to be the cop's brother. Again, Mad Dog takes the story into preposterous pulp territory; he has his erstwhile partner chained and is pummeling him like a heavy bag when the cop shows up. There's a pause while Mad Dog frees his captive, who proves hardly worse for wear, so our villain can test his might against two antagonists. Fastidious Mad Dog even raises the chain back up the ceiling so it won't impede the action or be used unfairly. If that sounds silly in the description, especially when I mention how the brothers wait patiently for him to finish, it's also a brilliant way for Evans to build anticipation for a battle that justifies the wait. For all the all-out mayhem he directs, Evans also proves himself quite good at suspense. He's happy to bring things to a halt after a gangster has plunged his machete repeatedly through a flimsy wall like a magician running his swords through the magic trunk with the girl in it. Our cop hero is behind the wall with a wounded partner and has just had his cheek sliced by that machete when something distracts the criminal. He has to stand there with that blade literally in his face, and he has to make sure somehow that there's no blood to tip off his pursuer when the blade is finally withdrawn. Nicely done.

Remarkably, Evans has not yet been assigned a Hollywood tentpole -- the Godzilla people went with a different Gareth -- though he did contribute to last year's portmanteau film V/H/S2. Instead he released The Raid 2 earlier this year and has announced a Raid 3, while an American Raid is reportedly in the works with little if any input from the original director. Evans may simply prefer to work in his adopted homeland, and it's not as if he hasn't made a name for himself worldwide from that base. Watch this space for a review of Raid 2 before the year is out; that should give some idea of whether Evans bears further watching.

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