An Unadulterated Shot (A Stab, Kick and Punch) to The Heart of Action Fans
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Midnight Madness swept the Toronto International Film Festival last year and the clear winners were the audiences who saw The Raid: Redemption, the martial arts actioner from writer-director Gareth Evans. The Raid introduces Rama (Iko Uwais), a rookie SWAT team officer prepping for his first full-scale assignment, an early morning raid on an apartment building that serves as the stronghold for a ruthless drug lord (Ray Sahetapy). Rama works out, kisses his pregnant wife and heads off during the opening credits.
Rama and his unit of 20 arrive at the scene, enter the building and then find themselves facing not just the drug lord and an anticipated army of henchmen, but nearly every single inhabitant of the building. The Raid combines the aesthetics of Battle Los Angeles (minus the aliens) and Black Hawk Down with some of the street combat elements of District 13 and its sequel.
But, Evans is also trafficking in James Gray territory: that dark realm where brothers – in this case, Rama’s brother Andi (Doni Alamsyah) is the brains of the criminal outfit – find themselves caught on opposite sides of the divide. Think of the civil wars of crime and punishment, because that is the place where redemption is necessary and must be paid for in blood.
The Raid glances in the direction of We Own The Night, Gray’s Mark Wahlberg-Joaquin Phoenix starrer, which cast the two leads as brothers, one a cop, the other a bad boy prowling the dark streets and alleys of the night. Although The Raid isn’t so worried about the coming clash between the brothers. Instead, that plotline takes a backseat to the steady and unending attacks from all the other fronts. Bad cops playing one another, the right and left hands of the drug lord eager to claim victory and usurp the other as the heir to the underworld throne, and the armed-to-the-teeth tenants seeking to gain free rent through the bounty on the infidel SWAT team.
Yes, I compared the SWAT team to infidels seeking to impose their will on the land and rights of an oppressed people. That is an easy critical angle, handed to us on a silver platter. And, if we dare to think it through further, we will see and appreciate the fact that the movie also forces us to accept that there is no simple solution, no clear win and end to the battle. In today’s combative world, “victory” is unattainable.
In an Esquire anniversary issue from close to 20 years ago, I remember an essay from Norman Mailer, a tough guy piece on boxing. Mailer spent hours training in an old gym with real pros and other wannabe pluggers and he talked about how the training – the heavy bag work, the speed ball and the sparring – focused on breaking down the innate urge in Man to not hurt another person. The training, he believed, stripped away a core piece of the boxer’s humanity, easing the internal struggle.
That struggle disappears when you are fighting to survive. Action becomes jazz-like, improvisational in those moments and that is exactly what The Raid gives us. Evans has replicated Mailer’s prose with a healthy dose of Ornette Coleman-Don Cherry interplay and the physicality of Bruce Lee remixed for a critical contemporary global hip-hop audience. This is what it means to be human in that moment when your inevitable end is not a possibility on the horizon. Death is probable, probably about to greet you before the next blink of an eye.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com