Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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Straight To Hell Returns

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Alex Cox returns... Straight to Hell

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I like a good action movie. I really like good fight choreography. And if the fight requires some bloodshed, then give the movie an R rating and give me a ticket.

The Raid: Redemption teaches me that not everyone likes action movies for the same reasons. For some people, the bloodshed is primary; grace and choreography are secondary. It is those people who will most enjoy — though I confess I can’t see how “joy” comes into it — this import from Indonesia.

Setting up the Chess Board

Rama kicks a man when he's down
Rama kicks a man when he’s down

It all starts like a promising B movie. After a perfunctory introduction to a fresh-faced, fit young cop (Iko Uwais) and his pregnant wife (over the opening credits), the police captain (Joe Taslim) sets up the parameters of this movie’s scenario. A squad of sixteen riot-gear-clad cops must sanitize a dilapidated high-rise apartment building. The building is owned by a feudal drug lord (Ray Sahetapy) and inhabited by junkies and minions.

In the police van we meet a few broadly drawn personalities — the intense captain, the knowledgeable veteran — and we get a caricature of the bad guys they are going after. We understand that they will have to sneak their way to the top of the building, floor by floor, and that if they are spotted, they will have to fight.

“Our mission is simple. We go in and take him out.”

Got it.

Graceless Persistence

The first ten minutes on site are intense and nerve-wracking. The squad sneaks up to the building and into the ground floor. They stealthily kill a guard, then encounter a civilian carrying medicine for his wife. They sneak into the building and begin the methodical process of clearing a room, a hallway, and then a floor.

But before too long, things become chaotic. The bloodshed and brutality begin.

If this were my kind of action movie, there would be a more even balance between the cat-and-mouse of the warlord and the cops. Die Hard, for example, allowed both cop and villain to show some intelligence. But the heavy emphasis in The Raid: Redemption is on fighting, bloodshed, and brutality.

Brutality per se doesn’t spoil an action movie. Ong Bak was brutal, but it was balanced by Tony Jaa’s amazing grace and skill. Not so in The Raid: Redemption, where the violence tends to be bloody but joyless. You can marvel at the characters’ persistence, but that has less to do with the performers’ physicality than with the costless storytelling of the screenwriter. Anyone can write about persistence. But you need a Jackie Chan, a Bruce Lee, or a Buster Keaton to actually prove it in front of a camera.

Or is it Grindhouse?

I’m not a student of grindhouse. I do like the work of Rodriguez and Tarantino, but I recognize that they are adding a second level of homage and self-knowledge to the exploitation films they honor. I’m much less likely to enjoy grindhouse at face value, which is where The Raid: Redemption seems to live. Exploitation filtered through the second level of an artist is interesting, it has something to say. But pure exploitation for the appeasement of testosterone junkies... that’s not so interesting.

The Raid has some redeeming qualities. The setup is effective and promises some tight thrills. And there are revelations throughout the film that reveal deeper motives on the parts of some key figures. The script is smart about painting the cops into a corner that prevents them from calling for backup. The Raid could have been a decent B movie aimed at an appreciative niche audience.

But the movie’s overwhelming impression is one of methodically brutal violence. I frequently found it ironic that the word “redemption” was in the title, as there seemed no hope that any of the relentless beatings would be redeemed by some moral lesson or artistic quality that could make it all worthwhile.

This movie will find its audience. But when it comes to action movies (and horror movies for that matter), I like a little brains with my brawn. Or at least a little grace. Something to redeem the blood. For me, The Raid: Redemption doesn’t have enough redemption.