Friday, April 20, 2012

The Raid: Redemption — Leaves you breathless!

The Raid: Redemption (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and relentless strong, brutal violence 
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.20.12

This sucker hits the ground running — literally — and never lets up.

Cinema has a grand tradition of stylish few-versus-many action thrillers, with notable highlights including Zulu, Rio Bravo and John Carpenter’s career-making remake of the latter, Assault on Precinct 13.

Having battled his way into the lab where a local crime lord processes drugs,
rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais, left) discovers that the chemists — rather
vexingly! — also happen to be dangerous martial arts experts. The resulting
skirmish is merely one of many stylish interludes on route to Rama's climactic
confrontation with this story's Big Bad.
The Raid: Redemption is just as likely to make a star of writer/director Gareth Evans. This is the third feature helmed by the Welsh filmmaker, and the second set in Indonesia, amid the nastier elements of Jakarta’s underworld.

It’s also Evans’ second collaboration with Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais; the two met at the latter’s pencak silat martial arts school, when Evans was scouting Indonesian locations in 2007, while making a documentary. To say that Evans was impressed would be an understatement; he and Uwais have been a filmmaker/actor team ever since.

Plenty of martial arts champions have embraced acting, but success in that realm involves more than smooth moves; one must possess camera presence ... not to mention the ability to credibly deliver a line. It’s also a collaborative art; a good director is necessary, in order to frame the performer in a manner that makes him — or her — look iconic.

No surprise, then, that many answer the call, but few achieve the fame of, say, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li or Tony Jaa. Uwais reminds me of Jaa; both are grimly ferocious fighters, well able to tailor their jaw-dropping moves within the confines of a camera frame.

Not that Uwais needs to worry much about confines. Evans and cinematographer Matt Flannery move the camera as inventively and aggressively as a given scene demands, traveling through windows — and doors, walls and floors — to keep pace with the action. But — and this is important— without the irritating “shaky-cam” jiggle that has become so ubiquitous these days.

Evans also handles the editing, and he knows when to temper the frantic pursuit of a chase with fixed camera placement, so we can better appreciate the explosive physical mayhem. Most importantly, he doesn’t “build” fight scenes in the editing bay, with sharp cuts; as with Fred Astaire’s best dance scenes, the pandemonium here unfolds during extended takes, so we can better appreciate the physical talent on display.

The premise is simple: Uwais stars as Rama, a rookie member of an elite police special-forces team we meet en route to their covert mission: The group, led by Commander Jaka (Joe Taslim), has been assigned to extract a brutal crime lord — Ray Sahetapy, as Tama — from the 15-story slum apartment building that serves as his headquarters.

Unfortunately, while the building itself is ancient, it sports modern enhancements such as surveillance video cameras and radio-equipped “alarm boxes” that allow lookouts to warn of intruders. The cops manage the first few sentries — and floors — without incident, quietly climbing each exposed stone-and-metal staircase, but inevitably their luck runs out.

Once alerted, Tama summons snipers to eliminate the police guarding the street, and then employs the radio to broadcast an invitation to the building’s tenants, many of them thugs and drug dealers eager to curry favor with their landlord. Eliminate our uninvited guests, Tama promises, and you’ll be able to live rent-free.

Game on.

The building itself is a marvelous setting: tall glass windows (the better for those snipers to frame an unwary target); cramped, creaking elevators; and a veritable maze of long, dimly illuminated corridors that stretch into gloom, with closed doors on both sides that wait to burst open without warning. Evans never tires of utilizing the latter, and “edge of the seat” isn’t sufficient to describe the tension that results as our heroes try to make their way down any given hallway.

The corridors aren’t the worst killing ground, though; that honor belongs to the central open space where all hallways converge, on each floor, and look down to the lobby below. The slaughter begins when Tama douses the lights and gun-toting goons silently assemble a few floors above where the police have taken refuge in this central area, unaware of the danger above.

One illumination of gunfire from the police — like lighting a cigarette in a foxhole — and the thugs above will know precisely where to shoot.

Twenty cops arrive, as the assault commences; their numbers dwindle rapidly. What follows owes much to Assault on Precinct 13, a film Evans acknowledges as an inspiration. The difference: Instead of half a dozen good guys trying to prevent numberless waves of bad guys from getting in, our heroes here are trying to get out.

Uwais co-choreographs all the fight scenes, collaborating with Yayan Ruhian, who co-stars as Mad Dog, Tama’s berserker bodyguard. Ruhian is short and slight, seemingly not much to look at, but he well earns his character’s name when unleashed.

The melees make excellent use of “found” items in each locale, whether hallway, apartment or drug-processing lab. Jackie Chan perfected that trick; Uwais and Ruhian obviously paid attention. Chairs, tables, broom handles and even refrigerators come into play quite inventively, as do knives, machetes and axes.

Be advised: This is a very violent film. While Evans doesn’t dwell lovingly on hacked-off limbs, as Quentin Tarantino did so often in his Kill Bill epics, the characters here — good and bad — endure plenty of abuse.

Tama’s bona fides as a bad guy are established, for example, when he executes four bound and gagged underlings with point-blank gunshots to their heads: a gruesome sequence to begin with, which gets worse when Tama’s gun runs out of bullets before he can kill the final victim. No matter; he quietly retreats to his desk, and then returns with a hammer.

Yup. We’re dealing with that kind of villain.

But Evans more frequently suggests the worst physical atrocities, rather than gruesomely depicting them in the manner of a hack horror flick; the camera always cuts away at the last nanosecond, leaving the worst to our imaginations. That’s still plenty awful, though, because our imaginations run riot throughout this entire film.

The bare-bones plot gets additional juice when a few characters are revealed to have hidden agendas, which introduces paranoia to the mix. Bad enough that Rama and Jaka have landed in a killing zone; suddenly, they don’t know who to trust. Nor is everybody in the apartment complex automatically evil; some residents — such as Gofar (Iang Darmawan) and his wife (Umi Kulsum) — simply can’t afford to live anywhere else, and therefore try to keep a low profile amid their dangerous surroundings.

Evans’ sole misstep involves the placement of the film’s best stunt and action sequence, as a weaponless Rama, exposed in a hallway, must deal with an endless assault of thugs who keeping popping out of apartment doors, and from around corners. This is breathtaking, bravura mayhem, on par with Tony Jaa’s determined, similarly relentless march through all opponents as he makes his way up a long spiral staircase in Ong Bak 2.

Unfortunately, this spellbinding sequence arrives midway through the film; none of the subsequent skirmishes comes close to matching it. That’s a bit of a letdown.

The Raid: Redemption has collected numerous nominations and some awards at various film festivals, including a People’s Choice win at the Toronto International Film Festival, and official selection status at both Sundance and SXSW. Evans has been tagged a “director to watch” by Variety, and it’s easy to see why; he’s an inventive, down-and-dirty filmmaker with a strong sense of style and an excellent eye for maximizing the visual snap of any given scene.

My best endorsement? More often than not, I kept forgetting to eat my popcorn, a handful often frozen, halfway to my mouth. Evans definitely knows how to hold the viewer’s attention.

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