This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.
There are two instructive moments early in The Raid, a film which gained the subtitle Redemption for its American release, but never really troubled to justify it. The first is when the Jakarta PD assault team busts into the tenement apartment building run by criminal mastermind Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy) and kicks off their police action by immediately shooting a criminal lookout – by which I mean a child – to death as he runs to alert his superiors, succeeding in his final mission right before the bullet passes through his neck and spine, ending his life before he hits the floor. A corner boy, a child soldier, an innocent pawn, put to the usual use of children lured into the black market drug trade: an energetic instrument of information, transit, violence, and limitation of criminal liability. This child is innocent, of course, of everything but growing up poor, but there are others who come to harm in this film through no fault or specific action of their own just because they happened to be home when the police arrived to turn it into a war zone.
“What was that?” demands Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim), who can hardly believe what his Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) has done. “Necessity!” Wahyu shouts back. He’s lying, of course, but it hardly matters. All hell breaks loose in short order, and by the time 30 minutes have passed, the bullets have mostly run dry, and the knives and Indonesian Pencak Silat martial arts come out (this is the second moment of clarity). It quickly becomes clear – and stated in dialogue – that this is not a movie presenting hero cops (except for maybe one or two), trying to do good. They’re just here to have a raucous good time punching their way through the bad guys, and as most of the cops are unceremoniously killed, it’s clear that there is no redemption to be had here. Only blood.
The One Good Cop (besides Jaka above) is Rama, played by Iko Uwais, who serves as fight choreographer along with with “Mad Dog” actor Yayan Ruhian. And holy lord, it shows, not just in the epic boss fights performed by each of these characters (as hero and villain respectively), but in the sheer complexity of martial arts on display in an environment which, by all rights, should not be able to showcase this much variety and visual interest. The martial arts action in this movie is unparalleled in quality, making brilliant use of the environment: staircases, windows, doorways and doorframes, walls, and the topography between floors, along with bats, bombs, guns, knives, and machetes cascading in endless combinations, with a flurry of blows that land with such frequency and ferocity that you can practically feel your innards bruising. Multiple people get swung around like baseball bats themselves in this film, with supernatural strength reminiscent of the vampire antics of Blade 2, but in this event, it’s all real stuntwork, filmed in-camera. As for Rama himself, there’s not much else to him besides a stoic badass. Before he goes off to war, we see him pray to Mecca and kiss his pregnant sleepy wife of no other definable characteristics goodbye. While his family stakes get a bit more muddled as the film goes on, this is very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of character, with religion and family beats that would feel at home in any other cop film, albeit with Islam (the majority religion of Indonesia) taking the superficial spot usually occupied by Christianity in American cinema.
Is it bad that I don’t have much to say about this film, apart from, “It’s still awesome, go watch it”? This has only happened one other time, when I revisited Kick-Ass and found that my opinion on the film remained virtually identical to when I first saw it. This is shaping up to be one of my shortest 10YA retrospectives ever, because this was a near-perfect action film in 2012, and it remains one to this day. Uwais, Ruhian, et al have gotten a few more showcases for their skills (after being paid handsomely to appear in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and do…almost nothing). Gareth Evans, the Welsh director who brought The Raid and its sequel to life, has returned to the UK with his family and is now the creator of a series called Gangs of London, which is well-regarded by all accounts, but I haven’t seen it. I did, however, join genre fans in watching Karl Urban in Dredd later in the same year, and made fun, superficial comparisons between the two. What I’ve always liked about this comparison is that I haven’t met a single person who actually thinks the films are identical – they just have a number of structural details in common, insofar as they’re both about cops invading a building full of criminals run by a mastermind who orders their demise by intercom as they fight their way to the top. Dredd is also quite fun, albeit significantly more focused on gunplay than martial arts. The interest in these films has always felt less to me like a competition and more like a second slice of cake.
What the films do have in common is that they both ostensibly showcase the state monopoly on violence being unleashed upon villains so cartoonish, so indefensible, so over-the-top evil, that we can cheer on their eradication even as we can look around the world (and at home) to examples of that very same force being used exclusively to punish the poor and downtrodden for petty crimes and stepping out of their place, as the wealthy and powerful plunder, propagandize, evade taxes, invade their neighbors, and cook the world without a hint of consequences. Perhaps we even fantasize about the merits of this same gang of gun-toting heroes sorting them out for us, because as humanity has always known, calling on disinterested gods for intervention and violence is always easier than solving society’s problems ourselves. But it’s not as if The Raid isn’t aware of all of these things. As with every cop drama before it, the cops are the most crooked and powerful gang in this city, in whatever city, and with the exception of one or two that act as audience surrogates and escapist heroes, they’re all as likely to deservedly die as the nameless hordes that they spend the film mowing down for our amusement. While my interest in cop dramas has waxed and waned over the years, I didn’t enjoy this movie any less this time through. I can maybe see why enjoying these films is perhaps not the most psychologically edifying activity to be engaged in. But whatever, neither is reality TV. Sometimes I can just let people have their fun.
FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10