I’m pretty sure that director Gareth Evans has earned the respect and admiration by now of every studio, critic and fan alive today who are witnessing the magic happening over in Indonesia with his star, actor Iko Uwais. Following the 2009 action adventure thriller Merantau came the production of their second stint together for Seruban Maut, a.k.a. The Raid. I saw the film on a whim back in 2012 at a last-minute discovery while sifting through movie listings, and lucky enough as I was to have caught it in my local theater, for this, I was also invariably overjoyed and overwhelmed.
Only a small handful of people were in the theater with me where I attended, but it was one of the most unforgettable big screen martial arts action spectacles I had ever witnessed. That same evening, I left the theater completely fulfilled with high hopes that a quality director like Evans was out there making great movies like this, and I didn’t have to wait for them to come on DVD to see it. And two years later on the heels of seeing the already highly heralded sequel, that sentiment remains to this day more than ever.
The Raid: Redemption starred Uwais as Rama, one of a team of unsuspecting rookie tactical officers assigned under their commanding officer, Jaka (Joe Taslim) to take down a Tama (Ray Sahetapy), a ruthless criminal landlord in charge of a 30-floor tenement building. For a few minutes, everything goes as planned until their cover is blown and Tama calls for open season on the entire team, with his men nearly killing all but a surviving handful. As the mission continues to unravel, Rama’s secondary agenda to reunite with his brother, Andi (Donny Alamsyah), is mired by Andi’s employ as one of Tama’s two main enforcers, in addition to his own refusals to come home. Meanwhile, the truth of the mission unravels into a dauting discovery of potential police corruption with their lieutenant now under scruitiny. But time is running out, and the ultimate battle has just begun with Rama and his brother in a final battle with Tama’s remaining forces in a brutal, bloody fight to the finish.
From there, we go into the sequel the mission ends with Rama walking away as one of the only few surviving members of his slain team. Unfortunately, the mission is far from over, as the reality of his actions finally sets in and his family is thrust into potential danger, forcing him to go undercover as a means to isolate the source of the very corruption plaguing the police force while protecting his wife and son. Locked away in prison for longer than he was prepared for, his new mission sees him befriending the son of a crimeboss who takes Rama under his wing upon being released from prison. But with criminal politics and personal ambitions taking over, and the looming threat of gang warfare spilling onto the streets, it’s up to Rama to stay alive long enough to see this dangerous mission through to the end.
Evans places a lot of focus on character development, enhancing the dramatic as much as needed, and there is never an embalance of any kind during this process while delivering the appropriately-timed action. On top of Uwais, The Raid: Redemption introduced a slate of really talented physical actors, including Joe Taslim who has since made a gradual transition to Hollywood co-starring in Fast And Furious 6 last year, with another lead role on the way very soon. For many, watching Taslim act and perform on the set of such a spectacular film was a first, featuring in one of the most brutal cinematic fights in movie history with Merantau Films regular, Yayan Ruhian, whose own acting, choreography and screenfighting capabilities continue to be pivotal in designing the very brand of action Evans presents in his films.
Sahetapy and fellow actor Pierre Gruno do an amazing job as the antagonistic backbone of the first film setting up the very narrative of the franchise as a whole for Uwais, whose transition as an actor since Merantau has granted him a continually evolving skillset as a premier action star who knows how to design fight sequences as well as act. And it certainly shows in both movies, especially in some of the more poignant split-scene moments with actress Fikha Efendi who plays his wife, as well as scenes with Alamsyah who plays Rama’s estranged brother, Andi.
That chemistry continues further in the sequel with actor Arifin Putra, whose character, Uco, knows no limits with how far he is willing to go to take the place of his crimeboss father, Bangun, played by Tio Pakusadewo. Here, compared to the first film, much of that drama is laid out for us in full epic crime-saga fashion, with Bangun joined by Goto (Kenichi Endo) as the respective leaders of two crime families at even ends of a longstanding truce, which ends up threatened by another power-hungry gangster named Bejo (Alex Abbad).
The story’s expansion in the sequel is layered with so many variables, with interpersonal relationships and friendships on display that invoke a lot of the intricacies that exist in the criminal underworld, particularly with the unique friendship shared by Bangun and Uco with loyal family friend, Prakoso (Ruhian), whose scruffy appearance may lead you to believe him of a lesser civil, more brutish killer than that of his previous achievement as Tama’s insane right hand man, Mad Dog in the first film. Instead, we are offered an extremely flawed-yet-sociable character whose toxic, conditional interpersonal relationships and struggles are the only real thing he has going for himself; It is just this kind of poignancy that helps further drive the root of the film, drama, and not necessarily added as a mere attempt to bring empty drama into an action film. And adding to this is actor Oka Antara‘s portrayal of Eka, whose supporting role as one of Bangun’s men proves influential in its own way toward the sequel’s climax, as well as that of co-star Ryuhei Matsuda who plays Keiichi, one of two of Goto’s lieutenants next to Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura).
Through all of the story build-up and the intense moments of hearty drama,are the action sequences–all of which are nothing short of exhilarating, from the contained fiery gun battles in cramped rooms and edge-of-your-seat close quarters fight scenes to some of the most exciting car chase sequences ever shot on film. Evans has a true eye for shooting and directing action, especially when it comes to his hands-on approach while working with Uwais and Ruhian, the two men responsible for the cheerful howls heard all day everyday in a theater playing one of their movies.
While Merantau introduced the world to a pure, solid action drama to fans with a martial arts style in a way that was largely never before seen, it would eventually be the follow-up, The Raid: Redemption that would set a new standard for how to deliver a film of this kind. Evans has a specific formula that allows him ways and means to work around specific challenges on set, while adding a his own brand of glorious, self-sustaining, brutal, bloody and pulsating action magic in the process, and on budgets smaller than most Hollywood blockbusters. It’s what sells movie tickets and DVDs to action fans, puts butts in seats and keeps the fans wanting more, and most action film fans, purveyors and professionals alike wouldn’t disagree. Inarguably it’s quite the opposite, and it was enough to land Hollywood its own American version of the film.
The action in the first film pushes boundaries and techniques to places that have not been exhibited on the big screen in a really, really long time, most notably in age where watered-down PG-13 action seems to dominate the executive decisions of most film studios. As for the sequel, Evans and his team took what they did in the first movie, and they let out all the stops, with more set pieces and bigger locations to suit a much larger scope for the action and story alike, with a level of choreography, violence and action performance that, in my filmgoing history, has not generated such a level of noise within the crowd since Jet Li intimidated an entire police station in the 2001 thriller, Kiss Of The Dragon; While watching The Raid 2, there were even points in some action sequences of the new sequel where I was literally screaming “BUT THAT’S HIS FACE!!!” before I digressed and said to myself, “Well…at leaat that used to be his face! :-/”.
One thing I want to add before I continue is that the selling point for the action wasn’t just Evans, Uwais and Ruhian. Like with all action movies of this nature, you need fresh faces, and that’s where the deadly killers come in with actress Julie Estelle, and actors Very Tri Yulisman and Cecep Arif Rahman distinctively known as Hammer Girl, Baseball Bat Man, and The Assassin, respectively. And I certainly hope to see these three performers in other memorable and iconic roles in future, especally Rahman, who I really feel needs to get back on the big screen with Ruhian once again, and that is all I will say about that without spoiling anything.
Between The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, each dialogue scene is adequately written and paced with no fluff or spam, and each moment brings a sense of unique intensity with great music and every moment building to something bigger and larger. Moreover, our lead star, the ever humble Iko Uwais continues to expose himself as one of today’s foremost leading men in action cinema history. And with a movement that continues to grab just a little bit more of the world’s attention every year, Gareth Evans has earned his place as a key player in bringing a much-needed rebirth to a genre that was once thought to be dying, if not dead.
I will even go as far as to say this: If Picasso were a Southeast Asian gangland enforcer before he became an artist and decided to tell his life story on canvas, that is exactly what The Raid and The Raid 2 have accomplished, and that is no exaggeration either. When you read reviews about The Raid and its new follow-up calling it a “masterpiece”, you are talking about a film from a director that has taken the genre world by storm and redefined what it means to direct an action movie. And the results have proven to be more than prudential.
Additionally, despite all of their successes, it is clear that the people at Merantau Films and XYZ Films continue to remain grounded in their efforts. Sure, we can only imagine what goes on once everything is taken behind closed doors to the cutting room floor, and for some films, studios have given action fans their fair share of reasons to worry. But not this crew. They understand their audience and what sells and works for them, and for the most part, you’ll be hard pressed to hear any voices of dissent, if not a mere whisper of a dimly-audible few.
Not to undercut what some PG-13 flicks have been able to achieve in terms of action; sometimes for certain films, after all, what works works. But in other cases, what doesn’t work won’t. And fortunately, Merantau Films and XYZ Films figured this out early on. Hardcore genre fans want gritty, unabashed R-rated action in a film that simply hits all the right notes in all the right places (some harder than others). The ever-increasingly uplifting and positive responses to Evans‘s work in the last five years should serve as a mighty example of that. And to the aspiring director/action aficionado out there who feels she or he can own up to the task of creating something equal in force and delivery, if not better: consider yourself challenged!
The Raid: Redemption is one of the best films I have ever experienced in my life, from the drama and the music to the signature fight choreography and intensity leading into its franchise. On that note, it is still surprising that there are people who have not yet seen this film. In which case, if you fit that category and you are reading this dual review, I certainly hope you will take my advice and go see The Raid: Redemption, because you are definitely going to want to see The Raid 2. It really is everything it has been hyped up to be. And considering that we are expecting a third film in the next three years, you will be thankful you caught up.
The Raid: Redemption is out now on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD. The Raid 2 is now playing in select theaters in New York and L.A.. Head on over to Sony Classics to learn when and where to catch your showing this month!