Gareth Evans, the director of Thai martial arts film “Merantau," returns with “The Raid: Redemption," a large-scale action film that ups the stakes from his decidedly ground-level earlier picture. He brings back “Merantau” leading man Iko Uwais as Rama, a SWAT team leader who leads his boys into a closed-off tenement to locate a rogue drug dealer who has made the surrounding area his playground. Because it is an action film, they get more than what they bargained for. Instant movie!
If only it were that simple. “Merantau” was a modest first effort, a film with kinetic fight choreography but only a sliver of a story, and a few stunts that sacrificed spontaneity for intensity. Sometimes this is a welcome diversion, like when an extra ladder in the way of Jackie Chan soon becomes a prop. And sometimes, in the case of “Merantau," it’s a sign that no one involved wanted to get too hurt, with safety measures seen everywhere. Given that watching Thai action films can sometimes feel like a doctor observing x-ray scans and searching for where bones break, this is probably a safer choice for all involved.
However, “The Raid: Redemption” shows off a bit of scale and expanded intention. Where in “Merantau," you worried for the health of everyone involved, “The Raid” features moments where you think, "Wow, that guy just murdered a stunt man." Evans has also strengthened his camerawork and armed himself with a better cast. As a result, the group dynamic and the sense of impending, suffocating doom recalls early John Carpenter, while the code of honor between cops and criminals and the highly choreographed gunplay harkens back to John Woo.
Of course, Evans, for all his flair, does not capture what made those two filmmakers so special. In the case of Carpenter, he’s missing that sense of humor. Carpenter knew when to press the needle down and when to relent, but Evans keeps things straight-faced and serious, constantly intense. Seeing the camera move through walls lost its novelty a decade ago, and utilizing it to capture fisticuffs occurring in a number of look-alike rooms proves to be visually repetitive.
As far as Woo, his films always featured highly stylized gunplay that skirted realism, but Evans won’t commit to that, instead focusing on actual Silat-based combat and messy, gore-filled gunfights. Seeing two equally-matched fighters go toe-to-toe has its rewards unless it’s in close-quarters for a certain period of time. At that point, unless there’s a serious difference between backgrounds, it just becomes a punching competition. Plausibility somehow becomes an issue rather than character or visual thrill, and after the fourth apartment building throwdown, there’s a sameness that kicks in for anyone who’s seen a few martial arts films.
Because of this emphasis on rather ugly brutality over visual flair, we’re forced to rely on star Uwais to carry the narrative. Just as “The Raid: Redemption” doesn’t feature the same delirious thrill as “Ong Bak” or “Chocolate," Uwais is no Tony Jaa. Smallish and with a nondescript face, Uwais, a good looking physical specimen, doesn’t “play” sexy, nor does he play confidence, excitement or dimensionality. He’s asked to bring a bit of nuance to a Woo-ish subplot involving a distant brother who long ago vacated the side of the angels, but the two actors, martial artists first, don’t seem to have ever been in the same room together.
“The Raid: Redemption” begins in a nasty hail of bullets, followed by a solid block of hand-to-hand violence. Unfortunately, given the dead-seriousness of the story, there’s no interesting escalation to the film’s floor-by-floor videogame structure, and by the fifty minute point, the film simply plateaus. Anyone who’s seen any martial arts films knows that this usually leads to a muted, emotional ending. Perhaps in the sequel, Evans can earn such an ending by writing an interesting character or two. [C-]