The best action movies succeed by crafting sequences with jaw-dropping visuals and physical stunts, hopefully with characters that we care about and in a way that advances the story. More and more often, action movies in this century lean hard on the crutch of CGI to dazzle us, and usually they are happy to dispense with the story and characters in favor of large explosions, cartoonish monsters, and entire sequences “filmed” in a computer program. Used well, CGI is a powerful tool which can instill a film with detail, and acts to enhance that which appears on the screen – but we seldom see such restraint (the revelatory Mad Max: Fury Road is the most recent exception). In light of this trend, it is an absolute and almost visceral pleasure to experience The Raid from director Gareth Evans. The Raid (aka The Raid: Redemption) is a hybrid between your standard crime film and a martial arts escapade with a story semi-reminiscent of Dredd: an elite police team stages a raid on an apartment building controlled by a crime lord, but things go horribly wrong about six floors up, and the team is forced to fight their way out and struggle for survival as the crime lord’s henchmen descend upon them,
Iko Uwais stars as both the main character Raka and one of the fight choreographers for the film, which showcases the Indonesian martial art silat. Silat is a collection of various styles found throughout southeast Asia and especially Indonesia, and emphasizes maintaining a stable foundation while in motion, regardless of the surroundings. The main characters in the film, both good and evil, are absolute master practitioners of the art form, which makes for some eye-popping fight sequences. But, the film succeeds beyond flying fists and firefights. Evans appears to be a master of using action to forward plot details, provide characterization, and even create tension within scenes. No fight feels extraneous, and all take advantage of the space and show true creativity from the combatants. Almost every fight scene contains at least one moment which warrants an audible gasp, and whenever Raka gets his hands on a weapon, you start to feel sorry for his assailants.
The climax of the film pits Raka and an ally against the right-hand man of the head crime boss in a two-on-one fight. The brilliance of this particular scene is that it is entirely earned in a narrative sense. The previous action sequences build up the characters, their motivations, and even the general theme of the film, and this final fight delivers the thesis of the film, so to speak. As the preamble of the fight unfolded, I found myself rubbing my hands together in expectation, because I fully understood what was at stake, thanks to the masterful weaving of plot and theme (yeah, that’s why I call it that) by the filmmakers. The fight is remarkable in its own right, but the slow-boiled tension that leads up to the fight makes it something special. To completely understand the emotional weight, character motivation, and raw power of this sequence, you will have to earn it by watching the full story unfold. Fortunately, in doing so, you will experience one of the best action movies of the millennia. Figure out a way to watch The Raid, as this film sits comfortably among the likes of Die Hard, Terminator 2, and the other great action movies of our lifetimes. Plus, it will adequately prepare you for the sequel.