The Raid: Redemption is being hailed as one of the best action flicks in years, and it does feature impressively choreographed martial artistry the likes of which I haven’t experienced in a theater since I saw The Matrix. Certainly, movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero include jaw-dropping martial acrobatics, but there is a grace to the martial arts depicted in those Chinese films that is different than the brutality of that in crime dramas like The Matrix and The Raid: Redemption. It is one thing to watch people dance-fight. It is another experience entirely to watch people try to pummel each other into dust.
Some people are negatively critical of the movie for its reportedly shallow story. This critique mystifies me. Granted, the story is simple – a team of police commandos stage an assault on an apartment complex housing a crime lord and his untold multitude of minions. One of the police commandos is the brother of one of the gangsters, and the policeman leading the raid may or may not be corrupt and have other motives for trying to take out the crime lord. It’s not a new story, but it’s not a bad story either, and it proves compelling enough to drive the almost unrelenting action along. The relationships between the characters even give the fight scenes the weight that fight scenes in movies should have, like when Luke Skywalker fights Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (as opposed to when Yoda fights Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones).
There is an economy to The Raid: Redemption in everything but the number of bad guys our hero has to fight, and the movie is stronger for this economy. The set-ups, stakes, and resolutions in this movie are clear, and this clarity lends the action greater visceral strength. Even camera tricks, like “shaky cam,” which take the place of true action choreography and cinematography and plague many modern action films are absent in The Raid: Redemption. I don’t think this is as remarkable as some viewers – after all, this is a martial arts movie, and the point of these kinds of movies is to watch the acrobatics – but the visual and narrative clarity is a welcome reprieve from so many messy action movies.
I don’t typically go see movies like The Raid: Redemption. I prefer fight scenes to be ancillary to the story being told in my movies instead of the point of the movie. I’d rather watch Gladiator, Die Hard, or First Blood instead of 300, Live Free or Die Hard, or Rambo: First Blood Part II. I decided to go see The Raid: Redemption for two reasons – a brief discussion of the movie on The Film Talk and because of the movies subtitle, “Redemption.”
The Film Talk is a regularly released podcast featuring film critics Jett Loe and Gareth Higgins discussing (most often) the movies currently in theaters. Jett and Gareth have different ways of interacting with movies. Jett has more of a filmmaker’s eye, keying in on the technical expertise present (or absent) in a movie, and Gareth approaches movies from a more philosophical, ethical, and, at times, theological perspective. Their differences in approach, critical lucidity, and clear respect for one another make for an engaging and enlightening podcast.
On their episode focused partly on The Raid: Redemption, Gareth (who hadn’t seen the movie) asked Jett to comment on the moral character of the pervasive violence depicted onscreen. Jett stated that The Raid: Redemption represented humanity at its most fundamental level, when we simply react with either “flight or fight.” Gareth took exception to the idea that at humanity’s core we are animalistic in this way, hoping instead that we might be capable of more humane and considerate response to violence, though he did grant that it seems it will take some sort of evolutionary leap for humankind to react nonviolently intuitively.
So, I went to see this movie with Gareth’s question and Jett and Gareth’s discussion on my mind, because I think the moral nature or moral quality of violence in movies is a question worth considering. Especially in the non-European world, we imbibe a lot of violence in the movies we watch, and we ought to take seriously our apparent penchant for such brutality. If The Raid: Redemption is really movie action stripped to its most elemental and thrilling core, it ought to prove a fine object for such consideration.
The violence in The Raid: Redemption is of, at best, neutral moral quality (neither good nor bad). At worst, the morality of the violence is non-specific (both good and bad). In either case, The Raid: Redemption neither praises nor denigrates its violence. Violent combat is simply the understood of the movie’s world, like the air everyone breathes. Violence has no moral quality unlike in the real world where any number of factors might bestow a moral dimension on any act of violence.
It is wrong, I think, to judge a movie by our real world morality. A movie creates its own moral universe. This is why we can praise the con artists of Ocean’s 11 for stealing from Terry Benedict when in real life we would be aghast at their thievery. The moral value at stake in Ocean’s 11 is loyalty to friends, and so we cheer those who are faithful and boo the turncoat (named “Benedict”). Certainly, there are movies that perpetuate and promote negative moral values, like Atonement, which suggests that an erasing and rewriting of the past is the only possible way to make up for past sins, or Million Dollar Baby, which suggests that there are limits to God’s grace and we are, therefore, utterly hopeless. The Raid: Redemption is not one of those kinds of movies either in intention or in actuality. This brings me to my second reason for seeing the movie – its subtitle.
The movie was granted a subtitle because the production company was unable to obtain the rights to simply call the movie The Raid. The production team decided to add a subtitle that reflected one of the movie’s thematic elements – the idea of redemption. How is “redemption” portrayed in this movie?
Central to the story is the relationship between the two brothers, one a police officer and the other a gangster. I suppose the redemption in question is the wayward brother’s, as he is required to turn from his criminal ways to help save his brother. Is this redemption? Of a kind, I suppose, if only a partial redemption at that. It’s a redemption similar to that experienced by Darth Vader in The Return of the Jedi when he decides to turn on the Emperor and save his son, Luke, but the wayward brother’s transformation isn’t as complete as Vader’s, probably because there are plans for two sequels to The Raid: Redemption, and we need a reason to watch the good brother kick, punch, and stab his way through more thugs.
Many, many movies are ostensibly about “redemption,” and this may be true but only if we consider the broadest definitions of the word. True, deep, lasting redemption isn’t just doing the right thing when before one has only done wrong things. Real redemption is being made right through and through. Real redemption is when the effects of all past wrongs are made to work for good in the lives of all involved. Real redemption isn’t a erasing of the past. It’s a rethreading of the past for different purposes. “What you meant for evil, God meant for good,” Joseph says to his brothers. “All things work together for good,” Paul writes even if the things themselves are terrible like creation’s groaning, the corruption of life, and all our infirmities.
I hope to see that kind of redemption in The Raid: Redemption‘s sequels. I hope to see it in the real world too. That kind of redemption makes all the blows and bruises worth it.