When was the last time you saw an absolutely badass Indonesian movie? The world’s fourth most populous country — and its largest Muslim nation — has made a remarkably small footprint in the movie world. That’s partly because its film industry dwindled to almost nothing in the 1990s, thanks to the Suharto dictatorship and a population that preferred to watch pirated movies from Hollywood and Hong Kong. However, Indonesia today is more open, tolerant, and hospitable to filmmaking, and the crackling martial-arts flick The Raid: Redemption is both a product of that place and a sign of its cultural ambitions.
The story begins with Rama (Iko Uwais), a highly trained Jakarta cop and a devout Muslim who’s about to become a father. He’s one of 20 heavily armed elite officers who conduct an early-morning raid on a 15-story apartment building that serves as headquarters for Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy), a crime lord who shelters murderers, drug dealers, and other miscreants by renting them rooms. When the bad guys kill the support team on the ground and trap the cops between the fifth and seventh floors, it becomes clear that the raid is a setup. With Tama’s gang and almost all the tenants gunning for the cops, it’s up to Rama to lead the survivors from his decimated unit to safety and figure out who tipped off the kingpin.
[pullquote_right]When was the last time you saw an absolutely badass Indonesian movie? [/pullquote_right]Martial-arts fans will flock to this movie just to see the practice of pencak silat, a fighting technique native to the Indonesian archipelago that trains in both barehanded combat and combat with edged weapons. We see both of these performed at dizzying speed by the talented actors here, and writer-director Gareth Evans (an expatriate Welshman who has adopted Indonesia as his home) makes sure we feel every bone-crunching hit. There are a lot of hits, too, with guys being variously killed by close-range bullets, hammers, explosions, and a railing. One criminal has his head slammed into a wall six times, and it happens so quickly that you don’t have time to wonder whether that might be excessive. The extensive fight sequences are carried off with a brio that’s sometimes missing from similar action movies made in Hollywood and parts of Asia farther north.
The movie’s confusing title was caused by copyright issues in America that forced the filmmakers to tack on the subtitle Redemption. Evans’ script offers up nothing in the way of humor and makes a few stabs at social commentary about Indonesian corruption that mostly go astray. The drama barely deserves to be called that. You won’t be surprised in the least at the identity of the traitor in the cops’ midst, or when the most sympathetic member of Tama’s gang (Doni Alamsyah) is revealed to be Rama’s long-lost brother.
Yet the onscreen talent isn’t just proficient at martial arts. The principal actors are personable, too, including Joe Taslim as the steely-eyed sergeant in charge of the raid. The chiseled Uwais has the quickest fighting moves here — watch him take out a hallway full of armed assailants — and he projects a decent aura of upstanding heroism. The show is stolen, though, by Tama’s main henchman Mad Dog. He’s played by Yayan Ruhian, who also choreographed the movie’s fight sequences along with Uwais. Framed by lanky long hair, Ruhian’s beagle face harbors a pair of psychopathically dead eyes, and though he’s a great deal smaller than most everyone else onscreen, he’s convincing at snapping the necks of men much larger than himself.
It’s no surprise that this movie’s low-budget viscerality is so reminiscent of Hong Kong’s thrillers from the 1990s. Much like those films, The Raid: Redemption is the first crack in an eggshell, the first stirrings of life in a cinema culture that’s being reborn for a new age. That’s always good for a few extra thrills, even if an action picture with energy like this one scarcely needs it.
Now, I have just one more question: Where are the great movies about capoeira, Krav Maga, and hapkido? Some other countries need to get cracking and make movies featuring their martial arts.
The Raid: Redemption
Starring Iko Uwais, Doni Alamsyah, and Yayan Ruhian. Written and directed by Gareth Evans. Rated R.