By Brian Lafferty
August 29, 2012 (San Diego) -- Watching The Raid: Redemption is like watching someone assemble a house of cards: one mishap and the structure crumbles. I'll start with the tone, a major balancing act for first-time director Gareth Evans. He militantly adheres to a serious tone. A few times the film comes dangerously close to slipping into the Realm of the Not So Serious, but through sheer will, Evans maintains the desired disposition. The same extends to the action scenes, the backbone of The Raid, and among the best executed I've seen since I became a film critic: not a single shred, inch, or drop of laziness. Otherwise, it would be close to worthless, no better than the offensively manufactured video game drivel that Hollywood is so content to pump out to American audiences.
"Our mission is simple," says the S.W.A.T. leader to his team as they converge on a tenement run by a cruel mobster and his henchmen, "We go in and we take him out." It’s easier said than done. Things go horribly wrong and the badly outnumbered men now must battle hordes of violent thugs on their way to the top. Among them is Rama, (Iko Uwais) who is married and about to become a first-time father. Don’t concern yourself too much with the plot; it’s all about the action and mayhem.
“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “Doesn’t this sound like the video game movie you just criticized?” The term “video game” doesn't have a positive connotation when applied to film criticism. Generally speaking, I consider a “video game” movie one imbued with a point-shoot-click mentality, as if the director guides the action with a game controller.
To answer your question, this is not a video game movie. Not even close. As the S.W.A.T. team tiptoes its way into the tenement, the camera follows with slow and precise mobility. Each track, pan, and dolly has purpose. It complements the otherwise static camera, building tension and suspense with a touch of earned style.
The camerawork is even more impressive when the action commences, captured with a shaky, yet restrained, handheld camera. The camera doesn't jerk around too far left, too far right, too far up, or too far down. Whenever the camera moves, it's always when something important occurs in the frame. It never looks like the director has a game controller in his hands, having the camera and characters do his virtual bidding.
The fight scenes aren’t flashy or showy…and that’s a welcome relief. Every movement is organic and realistic. The actors’ use of their fists and legs are creative, unpredictable, and expert. Again, signs of “pointing and clicking” are absent; the actors let their fisticuffs unfold their own way. Despite the high body count, The Raid isn’t a bloody movie. What makes the violence stirring is the sound design and mixing. The sound transfer renders every bone crunching and neck breaking loud, clear, and distinctive. I'll bet the foley mixers for The Raid couldn’t wait to come to work every day
Cinematographer Matt Flannery limits his color palette to only a few cool colors, mostly purple, blue, and lavender, each very dark in tone. He also uses heavy shadows that sometimes silhouettes the actors; in a way it’s similar to, and as effective as, the creative shadow casting seen in Leos Carax’s 1986 film Mauvais Sang. This creates effectively suspenseful scenarios, like the first assault in which only the available light - from the guns - is used. Despite the wall-to-wall darkness that pervades each frame, it's very easy to see and comprehend what's going on.
Stylistically speaking, The Raid scores high in every cinematographic category. I’m hard-pressed to remember a more technically well-executed action film in 2012 other than The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games (I list these two films only from the top of my head). Those two films got A-‘s while this one gets a B. Why? I felt something missing in The Raid. It doesn’t have the same emotional impact or epicness. Maybe it’s the story, maybe it’s because it was a victim of overhype. Whatever the case, it’s a film I admire for its visual and technical prowess than anything else. But what a piece of technical artistry it is!
A Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. Director: Gareth Evans. Screenplay: Gareth Evans. Original Music: Aria Prayogi, Joseph Trapanese, and Fajar Yuskemal. Cinematography: Matt Flannery. Cast: Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Doni Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno, and Ray Sahetapy. 101 minutes. Rated R.