"The Raid: Redemption" (2011)/"The Raid 2" (2014)
It kills me that a third Raid movie probably won't be made for several more years, if at all.
For the uninitiated, The Raid films individually represent the best technical action filmmaking in the world right now, set apart by their tone and pacing. Together, they form an idiosyncratic story that I want to see to completion. They're films that are so great at what they specifically do that it's hard to even compare them, despite being part of the same chronology. The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 are the Alien and Aliens of the hand-to-hand action film world. I know that's a hell of a comparison, but it's pretty apt. Alien and Aliens are separated by their tone and shift in genre (Alien being an atmospheric horror film and Aliens being a hardcore action-thriller) while maintaining continuity. The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 similarly shift in tone but maintain strong continuity between films and are most definitely at the top of their class.
It's worth noting that The Raid 2 was intended to be the first film in the series and when director Gareth Evans couldn't get funding for that script, he wrote The Raid: Redemption as a cheaper alternative to build his way towards his original concept.
That's definitely the reason these two films feel so separate from one another in terms of tone and scope: The Raid: Redemption was literally designed to be a "small" test of Evans' skills behind the camera. While Gareth Evans had already cut his teeth in the martial arts film world with Merantau, The Raid: Redemption was an entirely different animal. While Merantau feels more like a traditional martial arts film, The Raid: Redemption is a gritty action film with a bottle film setting. However, Merantau is notable as a spiritual successor to The Raid films because it's where Gareth Evans discovered Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian.
Iko Uwais is unquestionably the star of The Raid films. A skilled practitioner of Pencak Silat, Indonesia's leading martial art, Iko Uwais made his acting debut in Merantau and by the time he was in The Raid: Redemption, he was a pretty damn good actor. He has a natural screen presence and stoic intensity that makes him the perfect leading man for The Raid films. But Yayan Ruhian is also a Pencak Silat practitioner and ended up being the fight choreographer for both of The Raid films (he plays two separate characters in The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, and without spoiling too much, his characters aren't exactly related to one another).
With Uwais and Ruhian in tow, Evans created one of the best modern bottle action films ever. If you're wondering what "bottle" means in this context, it refers to a limited setting. The Raid: Redemption almost exclusively takes place inside a single apartment complex over a relatively short period of time (it's not a bottle film like Locke, which takes place completely inside a single car), kind of like the original Die Hard or the recent sci-fi action film Dredd (which incidentally has an incredibly similar plot to The Raid: Redemption).
Speaking of plot, The Raid: Redemption has a minimal setup. Police officer Rama (Iko Uwais) is part of a S.W.A.T. team that's sent into an apartment complex to take out a local ganglord. The apartment complex is mostly filled with criminals, drug addicts, and generally dangerous people, which is why the S.W.A.T. team finds themselves especially screwed when they're discovered by the tenants. The ganglord informs everyone in the building that if they kill a cop, they get to live rent-free for the rest of their lives. Cut off from the rest of the world by shady circumstances, the team attempts to survive while Rama embarks on a personal quest.
For all of the amazing hand-to-hand fighting in The Raid: Redemption, it has some really great gunplay early on. But once the S.W.A.T. team runs out of bullets, the martial arts prowess of the film's stars really gets to shine. When you describe a movie as "a martial arts film," that's what people come to see and The Raid: Redemption delivers some of the most hyperviolent fighting in the business, made even more unnerving by its relative realism in its depictions of gore (and there's a LOT of gore to show). What's kind of surprising though is how The Raid: Redemption does build a solid intrigue story about corruption and brotherhood into its proceedings. Are story beats like Rama remembering his wife and soon-to-be-born son back at home clumsily inserted at points? Yes, but not so clumsy that it's outright bad.
The only other complaints I have come from the film's color palette and the way it cuts back and forth between scenes occasionally. The film is extremely blue and gray throughout, but the handheld cinematography is too damn remarkable to even comprehend. I've talked about the idea of "geography" in film terms before, but I'll do a quick refresher here: Geography refers to the ability a film has to put characters, objects, and settings in relation to each other. It's pretty difficult to maintain a sense of geography when a film is shot on handheld due to the shake of the camera, but Gareth Evans is a next level filmmaker who carefully crafts shots in such a way that the film feels more organic than some of its locked-down camera counterparts.
While the editing inside of these action scenes is literally some of the best in the business, the movie does get occasionally lost in its sense of time, awkwardly cutting between scenes in a way that makes you wonder what the hell characters were doing for the last five minutes between scenes. It's a minor complaint, but in a film so technically sound in almost every single way, it does stick out a little.
The Raid: Redemption is the actual film definition of "lean mean fighting machine," which especially applies to its runtime of an hour and forty-one minutes. As a raw experience, there's almost nothing like it.
Except for The Raid 2.
Where The Raid: Redemption is the aforementioned lean mean fighting machine, The Raid 2 is bigger, denser, and crazier than its predecessor. While The Raid 2 picks up mere hours after the previous film ended, The Raid 2 takes place over the course of several years, opting to create something like a crime epic with massive brawls throughout. It's a film that constantly tops itself about every ten minutes or so, showing a new unholy destruction of people, buildings, vehicles, and more. It's the kind of film where a late one on one duel between characters feels ten times more brutal than a prison yard riot.
The Raid 2's plot finds Rama in a dire situation. He might have survived the apartment complex, but his newfound notoriety forces him to join the undercover unit of Indonesia's police. There, Rama embeds himself into a crime family to try and track down corrupt cops from the inside. Rama's timing couldn't be worse though, because by the time he's close enough to the family to make a difference, he finds out that a war between the family and the Japanese run Yakuza is imminent. spurred on by a mysterious third party that employs a trio of deadly murderers, the Assassin, Baseball Man, and Hammer Girl.
You read that last sentence correctly. While The Raid 2 often feels like a crime epic (and a pretty interesting one at that), those serious elements do feel at odds with some of the best parts of the film, namely the Assassin, Baseball Man, and Hammer Girl. The introduction of these three characters is an all-time action scene that perfectly cross cuts between the carnage of the trio, with the Assassin taking care of business in a farm field, Baseball Man marauding his way through a building, and Hammer Girl berserking her way through a subway train.
Rama inevitably faces them, but not before engaging in some truly incredible set pieces. The prison brawl is definitely a highlight, but basically every action scene in The Raid 2 is a highlight. They're all so magnificently nightmarish and violent at every turn, but I will say that The Raid 2's car chase is truly phenomenal. It stands out from the other action scenes and has a totally different flavor and energy to it, but afterwards it eventually leads into a warehouse brawl to end all warehouse brawls.
As awesome as the action scenes are, it's really surprising how well the "serious" stuff actually works. Gareth Evans directs dramatic scenes with a locked-down flair that's uncomfortable and beautiful simultaneously, whether it's a verbal confrontation in a karaoke room (a scene that might sound amusing in this context but I will assure you is NOT amusing in the slightest) or Rama speaking to his wife on the phone for the first time in years.
The end result of packing this much into the film is a runtime of two hours and thirty minutes, a far cry from the first film's runtime. Again, they're different beasts entirely in tone and execution. While The Raid 2 maintains the gritty nightmare inducing violence of its predecessor, the color palette is massively expanded. While the usual street scenes are in blue/gray, the film's nightclubs and restaurants offer beautiful visuals, and one of the film's final fights is set in a sterile white kitchen that quickly gets covered in debris and blood.
So, you might be asking yourself, which film do I prefer? To tell you the truth, I prefer The Raid 2 for its ambition and nastier set-pieces, but there's a lot to admire about the simplicity of The Raid: Redemption. Again, it reminds me of Alien vs. Aliens. I ultimately enjoy Aliens more, but that doesn't mean Alien is a lesser film by any means. They're going for something totally different, and in my eyes, The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 are equals.
Whether or not a third Raid film is ever made, we have these action masterpieces to study. The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 are nearly perfect action films, each connected but separated all at once.
Now, one last thing that's loosely related to the topic at hand:
I know Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens was overstuffed with scenes and ideas during development, but they should have found a better use of Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian in that film (and yes, they're in it, along with Cecep Arif Rahman, the Assassin from The Raid 2).