My theory on why pure action movies have become less prevalent in American theaters even as we are living through a golden age of competently made, lovingly crafted and comparatively easy-to-find action films can be summed up by two movies, one of which is Gareth Evans’ film The Raid (released in 2012 under the title The Raid: Redemption). The other, which hit the States that same year and which dealt just as violently with the crime lord of a high rise, was Dredd.
Both of these movies are great, and I will inject anyone who says differently with a bullet time drug and then drop them from the penthouse suite. But one of them, The Raid, made modest waves upon its release here (though it would go on to quadruple its budget of $1.1 million, a comparatively paltry sum for the quality on display in this non-stop, brain-meltingly fast and intricately shot movie), while the other was an ignominious flop: Dredd cost $50 million to make and didn’t bring in a dime despite the fact it was-I say again-great.
The lessons learned from these two seem to be that dropping major Hollywood bucks on an action property, even one tied into a known comic book property, just doesn’t yield returns (just look at Punisher: War Zone a few years earlier for another example). And accordingly, none of the big tentpole films that dominate theaters right now are pure action films in the way The Raid is. The special effects in movies like The Raid are meant to heighten the practical effects and martial arts action that’s already on display, whereas the effects in action films that make it onto big screens most often in the past decade are more fantastical. (Even 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the best action movies of our young century, didn’t perform quite as well as its studio hoped).
I guess I don’t know what American audiences want if the aforementioned films don’t really do it for them. As always, though, money makes things happen, and when movies like Dredd flop and movies like The Raid are successful, it seems the folks who make them learn some lesson from it (even if it’s not always the right one). The movies’ main differences are in how they financed their respective stories of a rookie commando storming a high-rise while under fire from about a million and a half bad guys under orders from a sinister crime boss. By virtue of the fact it raked in a sizable return from the most modest budget imaginable for such quality, The Raid’s legacy is the one that lives on.
Rama (Iko Uwais, in just his second credit in a major production) is a young SWAT team member, part of a crew of (let’s be real) obviously doomed commandos on their way to raid a high rise in Jakarta. His commanding officer Jaka (Joe Taslim, who is finally getting some exposure on this side of the Pacific) connects him with higher ranking cop Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), who knows the high rise well, but even as the squad moves to from floor to floor taking out spotters, none of the principal characters believe they have all the details about why this raid against the nigh invincible crime boss who runs the place has been ordered all of a sudden.
Of course, the grunts have been kept in the dark, and of course their seemingly drama-free effort to capture and hold the first handful of floors of the high rise has all been a precursor to getting mowed down by the tenants on orders from Tama (Ray Sahetapy), who rules the building with an iron fist. All exits are closed off, nearly all of Rama’s squadmates are dead and no help is coming. All the young cop has got going for him is his insane Silat skills, with which he rips and tears his way through the building and dozens of guys wielding everything from machetes and knives to machineguns.
Uwais was a delivery man before Evans cast him in 2009’s Merantau. The Raid was their second collaboration and Uwais is already a ruthlessly capable action star in it, with Evans already a confident and purposeful director. Good action movies are the ones that understand not just the actors and the fight choreography, but the sets—and then efficiently communicate all of that stuff to the viewer. It is why The Mask of Zorro is a masterpiece: It spends entire scenes establishing the spaces where its big fights are about to happen (while other plot stuff is happening!) so that when those big fights go down, the viewer already has a mental layout of the guard barracks or hacienda or hidden human trafficking gold mine Antonio Banderas is about to wreck.
The Raid does this just as well, and with an even fiercer economy. In a handful of scenes, the viewer has a clear understanding of the high rise layout: Which parts of the building can be glimpsed from other parts of the building, where the elevators and stairwells are and what they connect to, and how the hallways and the apartments that branch off of them are arranged. Details set up in the initial run on the lower floors pay off later in the movie, as Rama and his small group of survivors figure out what to do and where to go next.
Because all of that is so deftly handled, there are no questions in the back of your mind as you watch Uwais force-feed Sahetapy’s minions their own teeth in setpiece after meaty setpiece. When he hides in a stairwell and yanks a guy over the edge, when he bowls a guy through a window and lands on the fire escape below (directly into sniper fire), or when he begs for a tenant he helped earlier to please open the door before the bad guys round the corner from the elevator, it’s all consistent with what you already understand about the building. The only cognitive dissonance you’re likely to feel, in fact, will stem from wondering why so many guys keep coming at him, considering they often need to dance over the corpses or groaning prostrate forms of their dozens of fallen comrades.
After Merantau, Evans and his collaborators, including Uwais, were set to film a sweeping gangster flick, but a year and a half into the production found that they couldn’t make it happen, and pivoted to a leaner and meaner movie that became The Raid. Accordingly, every other aspect of The Raid you can think of was done on the cheap: Evans and his crew used handheld digital cameras to stay portable and to cut costs. The weapons in the movie are all pellet gun replicas of actual tactical gear, and any muzzle flashes or shell casings or cycling of actions was added digitally during post-production, with nary a squib detonated. It affects the quality of the end product not at all: If you come to The Raid looking to see fools get owned by a guy who is really good at fighting, you are getting more than you paid for.
The film’s success kicked off a mini boom in Indonesian action cinema, and made Uwais and Taslim in particular into stars. But even as it did, the general dynamics of The Raid’s success and the other, Hollywood-made action movie failures of the late 2000s and early 2010s seem to have relegated that particular brand of action to streaming releases, just as that format was beginning to become truly ubiquitous.
For all Hollywood’s money and access to top-tier talent, it simply does not produce action movies with the breathless pacing, gruesome inventiveness or calculated brevity of something like The Raid. It’s possible for big-budget films to feature a dozen fight scenes in them, none of which give you much sense of danger, and few of which you’ll remember that clearly afterward. Ten years on from The Raid, I can’t understand why studios—and apparently audiences—are willing to settle for so much less.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.