Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, 2012)

It cannot be denied that the fight choreography in Gareth Evans' The Raid: Redemption ranks among the finest ever put to film. A showcase for the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat, The Raid plays a attention-deficit version of Die Hard, replicating that film's sense of economic progression through the floors of an enemy-controlled building but cutting out even the slightest pauses. In theory, it's the perfect film, not wasting any time on plot or even characterization before moving into a police raid on an apartment complex serving as a haven for Jakarta's criminals. The film barely even makes time to establish why an elite squad is about to kick in the doors of this building, and it says even less when they start kicking in heads.

In practice, however, this lack of any establishing narrative swiftly turns The Raid into a tedious exercise, a repetitive display of martial arts prowess that gradually changes from thrilling to dull to, finally, vaguely offensive. Never has the case been more clearly made for the necessity of the storytelling that action fans find a hurdle to surmount before getting to the killing. Late in the film, the crime lord (Ray Sahetapy) at the top of complex immediately throws off the imminent threat of a plot emerging by dismissively saying, "I don't give a shit about 'why' anymore." If he ever did, that puts him one up on Evans.

The first act of The Raid flows without much of a hiccup, the irritating shakycam mildly forgiven by Evans' pacing. The first stage of the titular raid of the building is handled beautifully, with a methodical sweep of the lower floors rolling into a tight montage of the cops silently gagging and cuffing residents. Then it all goes wrong with equal deftness: a child spotting the squad and running into the next room to alert a friend before a bullet strikes him in the neck. Evans almost lets a sense of dread build up, with shots of Tama up in his monitor-filled quarters calmly speaking into the building's PA system and matches of speakers on the floors below booming out his elegant, lightly taunting call to arms. It's such a well-handled moment that the resultant carnage feels something of a letdown of this moody potential.

But damned if the fights aren't amazing. With the moving space generally limited to a narrow corridor or cramped apartment, the choreography manages to find a place for the floods of criminal residents who swarm the small squad who cannot hope for reinforcements. The best fighters, naturally, are the two choreographers, Iko Uwais as the fresh-faced, expectant father Rama and Yayan Ruhian as Tama's brutal henchman Mad Dog, a vicious fighter who purposefully avoids guns so that he might relish a bare-handed kill. Their organization of various sequences, including Rama elegantly dispatching thugs with a tactical knife and Mad Dog taking on a tough sergeant removed from the rest of the team, are initially thrilling. They're so good, in fact, that it would be nice if Evans would let us see any of it. Instead, he erratically cuts around each blow, though his long takes may be even more incoherent, with the camera so roughed up it barely catches anything.

After a time, though, even the fights become so absurd that they lose their splendor. The endless parade of kicks, stabs and gunfire turns what would started out as a brilliantly stripped-down effort into a variant of the Simpsons rake gag with internal bleeding. Indeed, the sequences eventually turn downright comical in their interminable length. Nowhere is this more evident than when Uwais and Ruhian, so excellent in their isolated scenes, come together for a climactic fight that drags on for so long I kept expecting a bikini-clad woman to occasionally walk in front of the camera brandishing a round number on a sign. And though the matching concrete floors and walls facilitate some clever axis inversion on Evans' part as his camera bucks and turns, the drab uniformity of the slum building only makes the parade of martial arts moves more repetitive and droning.

But what truly kept nagging me as the film wore on was the question of why I was supposed to be thrilled by the police stomping out these nondescript people in this building. I wouldn't call it fascistic, per se, certainly not in the way that, say, The Elite Squad is (this is perhaps the one area where the film's lack of story works; if it had even a whisper of one it would likely be in support of this police brutality). There is something, though, unsettling about how gleefully the film moves into a brawl, especially given that the first building resident the audience meets is a decent, meek man just trying to get medicine to his wife. How many others like him are caught in the crossfire of this raid?

The film even makes it clear that the authorities should not even be there, yet it continues to glory in their fight to escape. The last straw, though, is when Evans attempts to toss in some plot twists near the end in a pathetic sop to those growing weary of the senseless fighting. Of course, you can't really have plot twists without a plot to begin with; how can you have any pudding if your don't eat your meat, etc., etc. The Raid is such a hollow exercise, one in which the mastery of its choreography is surrounded by the mediocrity of every other aspect of its design and execution. Lamely propelled by Mike Shinoda's score with all the enthusiasm of someone roped into carting a friend's armoire up a flight of stairs, The Raid embodies the perfunctory, meaningless, hyperviolent slog it charts. Who would think that a film of nothing but action could be so utterly boring?

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