Hollywood should give writer/director/editor Gareth Evans whatever he wants. Three-picture deal, access to a private jet, any single actress' phone number, whatever. Because the traditional cash cow/popcorn pleasure that is the Hollywood action film is looking pretty feeble these days, saddled with CGI folderol and dim-bulb conceits and inexplicable inertness. But any action fan who watches the Wales-born, Indonesia-based Evans' new film The Raid: Redemption will recognize an epochal action prodigy/game changer at work and want him to make many more like it as soon as possible. To put it more bluntly, holy shit.
The essential story is established with such methodical economy that it almost takes more time to summarize it in print. Young Jakartan police officer Rama (Iko Uwais) is a badass (he pounds the tar out of a heavy bag for a morning workout), a good man (he prays before donning his uniform), and husband to a pregnant wife (here is a guy with something to live for). He and his fellow SWAT officers have been tasked to take down malignant crime lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy), who has turned a rundown apartment tower into his own personal fortress, full of tenants/minions loyal to him. We know this because team leader Jaka (Joe Taslim) flat-out explains it in detail during the drive over. There are those who will surely roll their eyes at such simple characterization and such blatant exposition, but character and plot in an action flick are like the binder in a crab cake—if your meat is good enough, you only need or want enough to hold the whole thing together. Plenty of good meat here.
The setup for the titular raid is fleet and suspenseful enough, but once the insertion goes down and the building is alerted to the cops' presence—Tama announces it by intercom, purringly encouraging the ruthless residents to "Please, enjoy yourselves" while taking out the team—Evans goes nuts. Full-auto fire in grimy stairwells, blind-side machete attacks, a pair of snipers who take out the officers standing guard outside. (When one of them only wounds his target, the other sniper snaps, "Let him scream.") In one jaw-dropping sequence, the cops flee into and bloodily clear a thug-stocked apartment to chop an escape hole in the floor to the apartment below, the camera whip-panning with each stroke. When an officer jumps feet first through the hole, a POV shot down through the hole finds him hitting the floor and being tackled by three more thugs, boom-boom, in as many beats. Unbelievable.
And unlike the many directors who fall back on the chaotic action editing style that grew in popularity in the wake of Gladiator, Evans shoots and cuts with a brutal clarity; even as an unarmed Rama takes on a dozen machete-wielding maniacs in a narrow hallway, you're never confused about who's doing what to whom where. Once Tama's bantam enforcer Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) enters the picture, The Raid evolves into a truly epic series of martial-arts battles featuring men fighting until they're sweaty with the effort, with no wirework or camera razzle-dazzle, just all involved going over the top in the best possible way.
That last phrase sums up a lot about The Raid. When two dudes beating the crap out of each other at length atop a long, narrow lab table covered with cocaine residue is a grace note in your symphony of ass-kicking, you have arrived at a new level of over-the-top. But what really makes The Raid so much fun is how well the binder holds the meat together. Evans' skills aren't only evident in action footage, they're also evident in the way he shoots Tama's finger extending toward a control panel and pausing (tap, tap, tap) before pushing a button that plunges the building, and the police, into darkness. Or in the way the camera tracks an edgy tenant searching for the harried cops, inching toward their hiding place while clanging a bloody machete against the wall like Freddy Krueger—only for Evans to cut away to another part of the building, creating incredible suspense.
Of course, suspense only really works when you care at least a little about the folks onscreen, and Evans manages that as well; his story and characters fare far better than mere binder, making the stoic Rama a hero worth rooting for and turning the machinations behind the real reasons for the raid into a genuine B-movie potboiler. There's a twist that anyone who's seen an Asian action film in the past 30 years will forehead-slap over once it pops up, but given that, Evans does a fantastic job of not tipping it early.
Seriously, whatever he wants.