What’s most pleasantly surprising about Gareth Evans’ second film is that it’s a major step forward from his first effort.
‘Merantau’ was certainly a strong debut, taking time to establish and define its lead character, played by Iko Uwais, before moving ahead into muscular, pulvering, extended action sequences that distinguished themselves, in part, because of the underexposed Silat style of martial arts fighting, and to an even greater degree by Evans’ seemingly innate understanding of how to frame an action scene.
Uwais returns in ‘The Raid: Redemption,’ but this time we get only the barest glimpse of his character before he is plunged into chaos — we know he is Muslim, that his wife is pregnant with their first child, and that he has promised to bring someone back. And then he and his SWAT team comrades swarm into a high-rise apartment building, an upside-down Indonesian version of Dante’s Inferno, one where they must rise to the top to capture the drug lord who watches their every move through a plethora of security cameras and commands his own army of armed soldiers.
Building upon their experience in making ‘Merantau,’ Evans and Uwais (and their filmmaking comrades) expand the range of action. Even though it’s confined to a single building, the possibilities appear endless. Death may come swooping down from above, from a distance, through doors and walls and floors and ceilings, by knife or gun or bombs or fists of fury. It’s a nightmare, kill or be killed, with no margin for error.
Once again, Evans frames the action superbly, turning Uwais into Gene Kelly with a machete and a machine gun. Too often, modern action movies must rely on extreme close-ups and quick editing, not only as a stylistic crutch, but also because their lead performers are not trained martial artists and/or fighters. That’s not the case here, and Evans takes full advantage, showcasing the actors and fighters from head to toe, resulting in electrifying sequences that are fully involving before there’s a minimum of cutting; the eye follows the fists and hands and arms and legs and feet as they collide with faces and bodies, crunching and slicing and breaking as they go.
With all of the intense, extremely violent action, it would have been easy to lose sight of the characters, which is a common failing among martial arts films — great fights, weak characters. And though the characterization in ‘Merantau’ was arguably stronger, Uwais has improved as an actor and is better able to communicate emotions through his facial expressions and body movements. His character doesn’t need to say as much to let us know his desperation and determination to save his men, complete his mission, and return home safely to his family.
As it happens, that’s the only fault that I can lay against the film; as good and as intense as the fight scenes are, near the end I was more anxious to see how things might be resolved between the characters than I was to watch another battle sequence.
A second viewing solved that problem, and allowed me to better appreciate the marvelously fluid choreography and the driving momentum of the pace that pushes it past any rough spots.
If you only see one action movie this year, this is the one. It’s authentic, it’s wild, it’s different, it’s original, and it will make you want to stand up and cheer a brutal, engrossing picture.
‘The Raid: Redemption’ opens today at Angelika Dallas, AMC NorthPark, and Cinemark West Plano.