Empty Balcony: The Raid

A million bucks must go a long way in Indonesia. That’s all the money writer/director Gareth Evans had on hand to film The Raid (released in the U.S. as The Raid: Redemption). Despite that tiny budget, Evans constructed a spectacular action flick, packed so full of visual and auditory stimuli that just watching it can make a viewer feel a little drained by the end.

Iko Uwais plays Rama, a young SWAT team member whose team has been tasked with entering an apartment building controlled by Tama (Ray Sahetapy), a local drug lord. When Tama finds out that the police are in the building, he sets loose an endless stream of bad guys to try and kill the team members. If that sounds familiar, that’s because this film tracks very closely to the film Dredd, which was released some months later. There are so many similarities between the two films, in fact, that Dredd has been accused of being a ripoff. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but having seen both of these films, Dredd detractors have a point. The similarities include:

  • Plot — a police raid
  • Location — an apartment building ruled by a ruthless drug lord
  • Music
  • Bad guys — the baddies in both films are analogous to each other
  • Cinematography (with the exception of use of color; Dredd is saturated, while The Raid is drained)

The similarities are impossible to ignore, which is why I mention them, but that’s the last time I will do so. Both films are good, and both stand on their own merits.

The plot in The Raid is periphery to the action, but it has added complications that bring it inline with other cop stories from Hong Kong or South Korean cinema. It’s not enough that there’s a drug lord who has to be taken down. There’s also a family element, with Rama’s estranged brother, Andi (Donny Alamsyah) being one of Tama’s lieutenants. Rama knows Andi is in the building, so part of his motivation is to make sure Andi stays safe, and possibly get him to abandon his life of crime. Andi, for his part, thinks this is ridiculous. The odds are very much against the beleaguered SWAT team, putting Rama in a very poor bargaining position.

As convoluted as this is, the plot doesn’t take up much of the film’s running time. The rest is spent in massive gunfights and endless martial arts choreography. The hand-to-hand stuff is frenetic, and, taking place in the close confines of an apartment building, intimate. Iko Uwais was an action choreographer, along with Yayan Ruhian, who played another of Tama’s lieutenants, Mad Dog. The actors and stuntmen worked very hard to create their violent and noisy ballet, and it shows. It straddles the line between fighting and dance, while having enough of an improvisational feel to maintain a viewer’s suspension of disbelief. To be clear, no one, anywhere, would fight like this in real life, but so what? If this flick was about realism, then everyone in it would have run out of bullets before the end of the first gunfight.

Being filmed in the Indonesian language, it’s a bit hard for me to pick out bad performances. Also, any acting in this film takes place in the rare instances where there’s no fighting. But Sahetapy as Tama and Yayan Ruhian as Mad Dog are very fearful characters. Ruhian in particular is the last person I’d want to meet in a dark alley. I feel that if the film was character-focused rather than action-focused, these two would still have plenty to offer.

The Raid is a master class in action filmmaking. It comes from a part of the world that’s a blank spot on the map for most American viewers, but if one happens to be a fan of action flicks, then The Raid is a film one should seek out. Despite having a reasonable running time, the action is so overwhelming that it comes close to being a wearying experience. But whereas in some films I’ve found myself just wanting the filmmakers to move things along, in The Raid I was rapt. The film is violence as art form.