Gareth Evans’ Indonesian action movie The Raid: Redemption (original title Serbuan maut) opens on a static shot of a wristwatch and a gun. It’s an important opening shot because it tells us two things about the film: it’s going to be precise, and it’s going to be violent. The Raid, as you’d expected, revolves around a raid – specifically, a police raid on a stark, cold apartment building that serves as headquarters for an imperious drug lord, Tama (Ray Sahetapy). The rooms of the building are filled with countless undesirables, many armed to the teeth with machine guns and machetes, all with some degree of loyalty to Tama sitting on the fifteenth floor, surrounded by banks of monitors attached to the cameras that pervade the building.
The film begins with its focus on the police officers who storm the building, equipped with bullet proof vests, high-powered weaponry and a combination of professionalism and ruthlessness. Early scenes are defined by economical film-making; the framing is generally side-on and rectilinear, the cuts are crisp and there’s a sense of efficiency that matches the cops’ organised and methodical entry to the ramshackle concrete fortress. Not for the last time, the camerawork is perfectly matched to the action; precise photography suiting the precise policework.
This isn’t Zero Dark Thirty, of course; shit goes south, quickly, and that squad of policemen are soon reduced to slack bodies to be piled up outside the building. The slaughter is conveyed with rough, dizzying handheld camerawork that’s disorienting without being incoherent. A handful of survivors remain, including the Bruce Willis of the picture, Rama (Iko Uwais), an honest rookie cop, and two superior officers, one of whom has less than honourable motivations for entering Tama’s stronghold.
As the surviving lawmen strive to make their way out of the building alive, the action shifts from the exchange of automatic gunfire to close quarters combat, armed combatants engaged in vicious contests not unlike the famous hallway scene from Oldboy (no, not the remake). Action fans love to celebrate impressive displays of martial arts, but while The Raid is full of displays of striking athleticism, the true success of the film lies in its direction. Whether staging a tense cat-and-mouse contest or a full-on brawl, Evans captures the raw, frenzied desperation of life-or-death fighting while ensuring the audience knows exactly what’s transpired (my only real complaint is the use of CGI blood, which I still find unconvincing and distracting).
The Raid is a straightforward film. Its chiaroscuro lighting is apropos for a moral framework that brooks no ambiguity; you’re either a criminal, or a cop – or a corrupt cop, which is even worse. Early in the film, Rama tells a terrified civilian, “You’re either with me, or you’re with him,” and that’s how the script sees it too. This isn’t to say the film is unsympathetic to its criminals. Some of the strongest moments in the film comes with a brief close-up allows us to see the doubt and fear in a hoodlum’s eyes moments before he charges into a confrontation from which he will not return. There’s plenty of unpredictable moments throughout, although sadly no moments or levity to provide relief from this grim ordeal. While there are no laughs, there is a kind of morose, wintery poetry to be found in the film’s closing scenes. The Raid ends without a sense of victory or exultation, only exhaustion.
The Raid deserves its reputation as one of the best modern action films around, thanks to thoughtful composition and the memorable, claustrophobic apartment building setting. Like other classic action films – Die Hard and Aliens – there’s recognition that a confined setting is an incredibly effective locale for action. Unlike those films, there aren’t any rich characters or humour to elevate the film. This is a bare-bones film, which is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. But falling short of Aliens or Die Hard is hardly harsh criticism; this may not deserve to stand alongside those films, but it’s in the same league, which can be said about very few action films from the last decade.