More so than any other movie described as such (besides The Protector), The Raid: Redemption is a truly non-stop action piece. It begins when a twenty-man police force raids a fifteen-story gang hive, quickly realize that they’ve been set up, and more than half of them are eliminated. Those who remain struggle to escape. Virtually everyone dies in the process.
In most action movies, the main character is crazy powerful. We know that even if everyone else dies, this guy will make it out because he bulldozes everything. For instance, in The Protector, the odds are constantly stacked higher against Tony Jaa’s character, so that we can watch him do increasingly badass things. He takes out guys on motorcycles, extremely skilled fighters, guys with guns, hordes of men attacking at once, and, towards the end, a small gang of giant men.
Without question, Tony Jaa is the biggest badass in the movie. No matter what the odds are, he always emerges as champion. The Raid: Redemption flips this on its head, even as it plays it straight.
The main character, played by Iko Uwais, begins as a lion in sheep’s clothing. Though the movie doesn’t have much to go on, he is remarked as being the newest member of the team, and others see him as a liability. It doesn’t take long for him to emerge as easily the most powerful and intelligent member of his team, nor does it take long before it becomes apparent that if anyone besides him were to survive, they’d have him to thank for it. He bulldozes most of the minor adversaries, but somehow doesn’t seem all-powerful.
That’s because the bad guys are stacked like crazy against him and the rest of the raid group. Most of the group is eliminated almost effortlessly by enemies who are better-prepared and more skilled in general. Uwais’ character doesn’t simply destroy everything, but has to hide and tactically plan his way around. Moreover, the idea of doing what he came to do is quickly rendered obsolete. He does not brave up to go take on the final boss despite the crazy odds. As a matter of fact, he isn’t even really there to do that in the first place: he actually came to try and retrieve his brother, who works for the enemy. When his brother refuses to leave with him, it’s still a matter not of fighting to the top, but of trying to escape with as many of his living teammates as he can.
To stack things even better, the villain’s right-hand-dragon is actually exponentially more powerful than Uwais or anyone else in the movie. In his establishing fight, this guy forces the police squad leader into a room at gunpoint, then willingly disarms himself so that they can fight hand-to-hand. Not only is the squad leader armored, but he’s nearly two feet taller than the dragon (as I will call him from here on out). After a lengthy and intense fight, the dragon emerges victorious.
Uwais is not capable of killing this dragon. In the penultimate fight, Uwais and his brother team up to fight the dragon, who is again shorter than both of them, and Uwais is still lightly armored. It remains a struggle even for both of them to take this guy out, and then it’s still a matter of escaping the place, aided by the clusterfuck it’s altogether become.
I found this interesting, because I think it’s the first time I’ve seen a main character who was genuinely less powerful than the enemies he was facing. I’ve seen many short guys fighting numerous, much taller dudes, but never has that been the bad guy.
This is part of how The Raid is so much about action with absolutely no frills. The movie has only enough dialog to establish context for everything that happens, which serves the purpose of fueling combat. While Uwais is heroic in trying to save his companions and not trying to escape on his own, he isn’t painted as a single giant hero taking on all the bad guys. Had one of them not been his brother, he would never have made it out alive, and almost no one else indeed does.