The Raid and The Raid 2 are very successful action films, perhaps the most successful we’ve seen in years, because the filmmaking style embodies a physicality that is matched by the key players. If you have seen The Raid, then you know what I mean, but if you haven’t then know this; this is a film that is almost unparalleled with its depiction of human movement. One has to go back to the Bruce Lee films to see something as purely kinetic (and dizzyingly frenetic).
On their own, the athletic achievements of the main actors (Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Cecep Arif Rahman, Ryuhei Matsuda, Marsha Timothy), would be just that; achievements, and notable ones at that. But the director, Gareth Evans, and his cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, have conspired to frame the action around a film that matches their movement. This requires a tricky use of perspectives, but since the film is rooted largely in the perspective of the main character, Rama (Uwais), it grounds itself in his.
Take any one of the many corridor fight scenes in this film; they are punctuated with a moment where, having dispatched one bad guy, another appears from just around the corner. Instead of cutting to an establishing shot, it instead shows Rama looking down the corridor, and the camera then looking down, to see the bad guy running towards him, then the camera whips back to Rama’s face, and then the bad guy enters the frame once more when he comes up to attack Rama.
These tricks litter the two films. And they are not limited to Rama; there are a few instances where, at the climactic moment of a battle, the camera takes on the perspective/movement of a weapon being used, such as a machete, or a baseball bat, or a hammer. It’s a style of filmmaking that tends to be the hallmark of any great action film (The Matrix, Terminator 2, the best JCVD films, and more recently Dredd, and to a lesser extent John Wick), where form and content meet their synthesis.
I have written about the meeting of form and content being something of a formula for a successful film, but I think that no more is that more necessary than in an action film (and also the musical). An action film is a genre film before it is a film, which some critics have historically taken to discredit them snootily, but really it means it is all the more impressive when an action film succeeds, because it means the director has managed to create something balletic, something physical, something that involves the viewer on a primal level. These sound like base, perhaps even ugly words and concepts, but they are instead inherent in people. There is a reason that young children are drawn to action films above all; they invoke something natural in us, and a good action film involves us inherently.
This is, of course, not meant to defend all action films, since there are vast swathes of them that are completely braindead and without merit (along with Westerns and horror films). But just as for every John Wayne B-feature hashed out on a discarded set on a backlot, there are “The Searchers”, “High Noon”, a Leone, and just as for every schlocky piece of horror drivel with the most notable name being a makeup artist, there is an “Exorcist”, “Braindead”, a Raimi, so too, for every piece of Movies4Men garbage, there is a film like The Raid, The Raid 2, Aliens, and so on.
Make no mistake; if it hasn’t made itself obvious by now, I absolutely adore these two films. I love how they shake you by the lapels and make you actually comprehend what’s going on in an immediate sense. I love how, The Raid 2 in particular, was the first film since I smuggled copies of A Clockwork Orange and Fight Club into my room at the age of 13, to actually make me sit up and notice the violence, to register that this was a violent film, violent in a way that shouldn’t be made accessible to younger people, violent in a transgressive, shocking way. I love the way the actors move, their physical tics and flourishes, and the way these people are telling stories they love (like the way they bought back Yayan Ruhian for a different role in the second one despite his character dying in the first).
I love how The Raid has the form of every “police in a criminal building” film ever, but transcends it gloriously. I love how The Raid 2 is like every undercover cop film ever, but transcends it gloriously. I am aware that the films have flaws; women are given horribly short shift, and in 2 the digital cinematography feels a little washed out in a way that doesn’t so much suggest conscious stylistic choice as more “we couldn’t find the right lighting area so we settled for this”. But these don’t matter, because look at the way the camera moves, and breathes, and the actors commitment to these parts.
The only criticism I refuse to accept is the one levelled at the film that the characters are two dimensional, and barely characters. This can only be sidestepped by viewing the two films as one whole. The arc of Rama is ultimately a tragic one; he does the job of twenty men singlehandedly, only to have his death faked to go undercover, his brother gets killed, he becomes effectively estranged from his wife, he becomes forgotten by Bunawar, the cop who put him undercover, cops start attacking him in the street, and he becomes basically an informant to the top brass of the mob. Study the very final scene of the film, and look at the way Rama looks morally, as well as physically, exhausted. The film may not have detailed or signposted it to the viewer, but Rama’s will has been incrementally chipped away, and he is left a shell of a man. One envisions him returning home to his wife, only to find her living with a new man; and that would be fair enough.
This is not me transposing some higher Greek reading of the film to try and give it significance that isn’t there; I’m simply saying that it’s there if you look for it. Indeed, it’s the more immediate achievements of the film that make the emotional content so hard to find on first watch. But that’s no criticism, because if you’re looking for immediacy, The Raid and The Raid 2 are an almost titanic accomplishment.