I have, I think, a fairly unusual appreciation of kung-fu movies. It’s not just that I enjoy them, but that I’ve invested so much in them in terms of personal mythology. Like wrestling and like comic books, kung-fu movies are, at heart, a battle between Good and Evil. The characters within the genre are interchangeable, the level of violence variable. Fight sequences act as a kind of hand-to-hand chess match—the winner isn’t often the clear-cut best fighter, but the man or woman who has the best read on the board, who better anticipates his opponent’s strategy. Good defeats Evil, as it must, but Evil gets plenty of good licks in before the end of the film, looks sexier, feels more dangerous.
The Raid: Redemption is perhaps more violent than most martial arts movies. Hearts are stabbed, arteries cut, brains blown against the wall. The cops and gangsters use handguns and shotguns and automatic weapons, knives and machetes, fists and feet, chokeholds and throws. Many of the blows suffered by Rama (Iko Uwais)—the rookie cop along on a doomed mission to raid a gang-controlled apartment complex—would outright kill most video game protagonists, let alone most men. That doesn’t mean that The Raid doesn’t appreciate the mythological proportions of the kung-fu movie. On the contrary. It knows the expectations of the genre so well that it feels free to drop all pretenses and just let loose. All it lets you know before the police storm the building: Rama’s a good man who trains hard, has a pregnant wife, and is determined to make good on a promise to his father. The rest it fills in along the way.
Rama is part of an elite police squadron tasked with storming the stronghold of Tama (Ray Sahetapy), a crime lord so ruthless he’s considered untouchable even by other crime lords. They’re led by Jaka (Joe Taslim) and Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), a good cop and a potentially corrupt one, respectively. If these characters sound like archetypes to you, that’s because they are. Also familiar: Andi (Doni Alamsyah), the whip-smart right hand man of the crime lord, who carries a dark secret, and Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), a fighter so good and so zealous for the punishment he doles out that one accepts his name as a state of being. At one point, he compares shooting somebody to ordering takeout. In many ways, he’s a throwback to old-school martial arts killers who are masters of their feet, their fists, and who possess complete control of their body. In The Raid: Redemption‘s Die Hard like world, he’s an anachronism. The movie’s plot is simple, tightly constructed and wound as a timepiece: Tama is on the top floor, the police start at the bottom, Andi and Mad Dog are sent hunting for Wahyu, who ordered the hit. There is fighting. A lot of fighting.
That, ultimately, is what one must wrap their head around while watching The Raid. Modern Hollywood blockbusters have cowed us into accepting CGI superheroes throwing lumbering haymakers at CGI villains, but here, though assisted by CGI and despite the tremendous abuse suffered by every character involved, the film’s big fight sequences pop like fireworks, encouraging the audience to, mouths agape, go “OHHHH” and “AHHHHH” as Rama cracks another skull, slices another artery. Enjoying these sequences on the merit of their looking good, being bloody, and depicting an immense, sick brutality is one way to watch the movie, and may inspire a sort of fanboy churlishness when asked about, say, a weak plot, poorly developed characters, or “video game violence.”
But I keep thinking back to my childhood and the already ancient-looking Shaw Brothers kung-fu epics that, like the spaghetti westerns that garner much more critical praise and attention, featured same-ish characters battling to prove the supremacy of their faith, ideals, and fighting acumen. The protagonists and antagonists of these movies are devout men and women; Buddhists, sure, but their adherence to practice and form is a kind of devotion unrivaled by even the most devoutly religious. They practice and fight and evaluate other fighters with such dedication that the very best adherents have a kind of foresight, are able to block and parry an opponent’s incoming strike with the slightest of gestures. The film, in its opening moments, establishes Rama as a devout Muslim, but the purpose of that scene—coupled with the brief moment he shares with his wife, the promise he makes to his father, his training regimen—is, to me, less a move to cheaply add layer and nuance to a character who, otherwise, is mere archetype than it is an attempt to cast Rama as an evolution of the solemn kung-fu monk. That Andi is revealed as Rama’s brother also stands as firm tradition: Estranged friends, missing brothers, former lovers—The Raid doesn’t play with these traditions the way Tarantino’s Kill Bill does, but it celebrates them just the same.
I have, of course, given some serious thought about whether my sense of nostalgia led me towards genuine appreciation of the film or if, in my own way, I am propagating a fanboy’s take on The Raid, using my biases and experience as a kind of smokescreen to justify liking something that’s really only trying to appeal to my sense of bloodlust. If you take away kung-fu mythology, you’re admittedly not left with much of a film. The characters are weak, the plot is thin, and its entirely possible that the movie ends with nobody finding redemption—it’s a beautiful demo reel of an obscure fighting form, and little more.
But I can’t shake my childhood, I can’t deny that there’s something genre-shatteringly cool about seeing a martial arts movie dressed up like and constructed with as much austerity as the One Man… movies I grew up devouring. Yes, the sets are cheap. Yes, the characters leave something to be desired when held up for examination. Yes, the film functions mostly as an exercise in creative violence. But there’s something honorable in that, something that, quite frankly, just connects with me. The Raid: Redemption is not ashamed to be what it is, does not dress itself up in Bostonian accents, phony Judeo-Christian moralizing, or uncompromisingly cool and handsome macho tough guys, as today’s action vehicles do with an almost alarming single-mindedness. The movie knows its roots and suspects that you know them, too. Yes, The Raid is staged as an orgy of violence. But it takes place on such fertile ground.
The Raid: Redemption. Directed by Gareth Evans. With Iko Uwais (Rama), Joe Taslim (Raka), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Donny Alamsyah (Andi), and Ray Sahetapy (Tama). Released March 23, 2012, by Sony Pictures Classics.