Director Gareth Evans delivers a cinematic adrenaline shot straight to the cerebral cortex in The Raid: Redemption, a bone-snapping orgy of machete-fu mayhem that raises the bar for every action film to follow. Watching determined hero Rama fight his way up through 15 floors of psychotic, blade-slinging baddies, we get the same rush we did the first time we saw Tequila blast his way through a burning hospital in Hard Boiled or gripped our seats as John McClane took back an L.A. office building from terrorists in Die Hard.
A police raid on a tenement building in Jakarta, Indonesia, turns into a nonstop bloodbath when the drug dealer who owns the location unleashes a furious barrage of fists, bullets, and blades, leaving the few remaining survivors of the invading SWAT team to fight their way up to the top and end the psychotic criminal's violent reign once and for all. Expectant father Rama (Iko Uwais) is an honest cop with deadeye aim and killer fighting skills. Following orders from his lieutenant -- a respected police veteran and the mastermind of the ambitious raid -- Rama leads his heavily armed team into the building silently and stealthily. Their mission is to take down Tama (Ray Sahetapy), a vicious criminal kingpin who uses the building as a shelter for both his many customers and his small army of loyal dealers and killers. Even the bravest cops in the city have never dared to breach Tama's fortress, and once the team's cover is blown, it quickly becomes apparent why: Almost immediately, half of the team is shredded in a vicious barrage of gunfire and machetes. The exits have all been blocked, and with Tama's men closing in fast Rama's only hope is to keep going up and take out anyone who gets in his way. Meanwhile, Tama realizes that some of the cops have managed to survive the initial assault, so he unleashes two of his best men to stop them dead in their tracks. With his team cut down to a mere handful and his munitions exhausted, the determined Rama vows to complete his mission by whatever means necessary.
It's been easy to grow cynical lately about the state of contemporary action cinema. With tight shots, a little creative editing, and a few jostles of the camera, anyone can be an action hero and directors needn't be bothered with such pesky complexities as coherent choreography or spatial relations. In recent years, Thailand in particular has waged a commendable battle to reinvigorate the genre, but it's been nearly a decade since Tony Jaa stormed onto the scene with Ong Bak, his career subsequently hampered by lackluster sequels and highly publicized personal problems.
Meanwhile, Hollywood continues to churn out largely uninspired sequels that coast on the current trends rather than striving to break new ground. Of course, no one would ever accuse The Raid: Redemption writer/director Evans of breaking any new ground as a storyteller -- the plot of the film can easily be summed up in a single, concise sentence, and the dialogue probably amounts to a dozen pages of the screenplay -- yet his flair for fluid action and bold, vivid camera work gives the film a truly epic feel. Combined with the screen presence and formidable physical abilities of charismatic star Uwais, it's a recipe for sheer excitement -- the kind with the power to make an entire auditorium of viewers create a collective vacuum in the room as they all gasp in sudden unison. Likewise, in addition to crafting action sequences with the power to shock, Evans also proves adept at sustaining tension, such as in a scene involving Rama and a wounded comrade hiding behind a wall as the villain's henchmen ransack an apartment in search of them.
The Raid: Redemption (the additional title seemingly added by someone at Sony Pictures Classic seeking to justify their job) is pure, undistilled action populated by archetypical characters: the virtuous good guy, his conflicted brother, the ruthless villain (an unforgettably ferocious Sahetapy), and his psychotic right-hand henchman (Yayan Ruhian, living up to his character's fierce reputation with a climatic fight scene that's worth the price of admission alone). But the talented cast take their characters seriously, a factor that helps the audience stay connected to the story during the occasional (though unusually rare) expositional lull. Uwais may be the revelation here, but the rest of the primary supporting cast (intense Joe Taslim, brooding Doni Alamsyah, and bug-eyed Alfridus Godfred) deliver memorable performances as well, while composers Joe Trapanese and Mike Shinoda back the action with a pulsing electronic score that occasionally recalls John Carpenter, yet still retains its own unique edge.
At the Detroit screening of the film, the Sony Pictures Classics logo that preceeded the titles drew giggles from the critics, one member of which drew chuckles from the crowd by playfully joking "Merchant Ivory presents!" One hundred minutes later, as the lights came up, the laughter in the theater was a different sort -- the kind where your brain has been racing to keep up with the images flooding into your eyes and failing, and all you can do for 30 seconds or so is laugh as your cranial processor spins back up to speed. It may not be a stuffy costume drama, but make no mistake -- The Raid: Redemption is most certainly a classic, and one that fans will be marveling at, frame by frame when they finally get the opportunity, for years to come.