Lean, fast-moving, and filled with game-changing fight sequences that have a brutally beautiful (or beautifully brutal) quality, Gareth Evans's Indonesian martial arts film The Raid: Redemption lives up to its viral hype and the buzz it generated at last year's Toronto International Film Festival.
Rama (Iko Uwais) is a rookie member of an elite special-forces team that has been sent to rout a decrepit, 15-story high-rise of its vicious crime lord and the small army of socio- and psychopaths who do his bidding. Nothing is quite as it seems, of course, as the covert mission turns out to have murky political goals, and Rama's connection to one of the crime lord's major henchmen threatens to derail the whole undertaking.
That the viewer is able to guess many of the plot twists and story revelations in advance is beside the point. Evans slavishly adheres to genre template even as he tweaks it. So we are introduced to Rama as he kneels on a prayer mat, immediately cuing us that he is a truly wholesome hero. Before he embarks on his deadly task, he kisses the round belly of his beautiful pregnant wife — a scene that will be revisited in flashback at a crucial moment when he feels he can't go on. But Evans doesn't play these moments for the cheap ironic laughter of American films — straightforward sincerity is part of what makes the whole thing work.
Once inside the building — whose artfully distressed interiors and air of despair vaguely recall David Fincher's Seven — the film quickly settles into a tense groove of sharply choreographed fight scenes that leave the viewer both breathless and squirming. It's a live-action cartoon: bones are broken, bodies are pulverized, blood sprays walls, and still the combatants rise. Rama also gets in some dazzlingly precise knife work in addition to his lightning-fast punches and hard-swinging kicks.
Evans wrote and directed the film after becoming fascinated with the Indonesian martial art form pencak silat, subject of his 2009 film Merantau, which also stars Uwais. But while his direction in Raid is taut and impressive, his skills as its editor are perhaps the most valuable here. There's a seamlessness to the way the action unfolds, and only a few noticeable cheats (where a dilemma is solved by the editing bay and not by the onscreen action). Raid's neatest hat trick, though, is the way it serves up the barest of plot and character development but makes you care about the characters anyway, in part because the casting is so spot on. Uwais's deadpan-choirboy features remain unflappable no matter how intense the action, and convey a core decency; Indonesian judo champ Joe Taslim plays Jaka, the commander of the special forces, with no-nonsense coolness; and Yayan Ruhian, who co-choreographed the film, plays arch villain Mad Dog with arid depravity. Before delivering an unnerving beatdown, Mad Dog puts his gun aside in favor of his fists, saying coolly, "Squeezing a trigger is like ordering take-out."