It has a few slivers of dignity wedged painfully into the open lacerations that fill up its every frame, and it’s ostensibly about the perseverance of a certain honorable survival instinct in the face of rampant corruption. But there are no heroes in The Raid: Redemption, the new Indonesian nuts-and-bolts-of-fighting action spectacular, only people angling (their bodies) to survive. There aren’t, in the end, any serious ideas about survival or honor at all. There’s only Fighting, which in most of its scenes unmistakably resembles a highly-skilled dance.
It couldn’t be said that The Raid has its priorities out of whack. It opens with a quiet morning, a cop (martial arts star Iko Uwais) rising early, working out, praying, kissing his wife goodbye. Then an ominous scene, a ride in an armored police truck full of justifiably expository dialogue and a real sense of the danger that 20 police officers in combat gear are staring at. The truck pulls up a block away from the stronghold of an unnamed city’s most vicious crime lord. The cops file out, breathing heavily, covering their flanks with their automatic weapons. They sneak up on the building, take out its security guard, slip in, shackle a few suspects, then find themselves pointing their guns at a small child. Suddenly things go wrong: an alarm is tripped, the crime lord realizes he has visitors, he reacts accordingly. The 20 cops are pinned down. Things go wronger.
It’s a great setup, one that’s professionally designed to provide a vacuum-packed play area for fight choreography. The stabs at dignity are literally that, because, as the number of cops able-bodied enough to face off against the criminals dwindles, so do the guns, which leaves the survivors fighting one another with a supply of knives (K-bars, machetes, switchblades) and, when even those fail, feet and fists. In extreme closeup, there turns out to be quite a lot you can do to the human body with the edge of a blade. The Raid is intent on detailing all of it, and also (it seems) with setting a record for the number of knife wounds that can be inflicted in a single minute.
The problem isn’t the fighting (an impressively-performed Indonesian style called pencak silat), which in and of itself fulfills much of what’s promised by the setup. The problem is that the setup also promises something like an intricate plot, a few character justifications that might range deeper than “shutting down crime” or “loyalty” or “viciousness” or whatever. Meanings deeper than the extreme possibilities of intricate fighting never emerge. The Raid is one of those movies that requires you to shut down all but your most basic senses if you’re going to properly enjoy it, then ties itself in knots with superfluous justification, the kind that triggers a critical desire to root out deeper themes. They’re not there, and the whiffs of them the movie suggests are nothing more than distractions from ass-kicking. But long live ass-kicking.