The Raid is easily one of the most intense action movies I have ever seen, but perhaps more than that it's one of the most unrelenting action movies I've seen. The action is fast and brutal takes up most of the run time; action scenes are long and intense and there's just enough time between them to catch your breath before the next one comes along and outdoes the last. It's this pacing that is perhaps one of the movie's strongest points: if they'd spent less time between action scenes you might get "desensitized" and it would end up with weaker context and possibly tension, if they spent more it would get bogged down and lose it's momentum and intensity.
The martial arts is fast and brutal, and very different from what I've seen in Hong Kong movies, feeling like less of a beautifully choreographed dance and more of a gritty and believable scramble for survival. It does remind me of Ong Bak, but that's probably more to do with it's brutality and the fact that they are both different to more traditional kung fu movies, as the two martial arts styles are quite different.
Pretty much the whole movie takes place in a single building, and while this may sound like a limitation, the film turns it into a strength, as it creates a feeling of hostility and claustrophobia that is a big part of what gives the action context and makes the movie work, of what makes it so memorable in fact. When you talk about this movie years from now, it will be "you know, that one where the whole thing takes place in that one building, remember?". It makes the movie unique and helps it stand out. And yes, Dredd did have almost exactly the same set up, but it came out later and is a very different kind of action movie.
It's natural to assume that a movie that focuses so heavily on action would have a bad plot. While the plot of The Raid is rather minimal, I wouldn't call it bad; it does a good job of setting the scene and giving context to the action, without falling into the trap of thinking that "the plot doesn't really matter so it's OK if it's bad, it just needs to get everyone from point A to point B", the way many action movies do. I would say it does exactly what it needs to and doesn't overstay it's welcome, allowing the true strengths of the movie to shine.
I want to take a moment to talk about the main character. I like that when the movie opens he's already chosen to be part of this extremely dangerous undertaking. No, it's not something he's looking forwards to, and we do see him dealing with the emotional weight in his own way, but the point is he's not dragging his heels and whining for the entire movie about how it's not his fight in the tired Reluctant HeroTM cliche that every Hollywood movie seems to think is a brilliant and revolutionary new way of creating a deep and relatable character that has never been done before. No, our hero is actually far more impressive than most, not because he's so much better at hitting people, but because he has the courage and sense of duty to shoulder a heavy burden without complaint, rather than whine and and try to pass it off to someone else.
Overall it's a 10/10: one of the best pure action movies of all time and almost certainly the best action movie of the last few years.
OK, a solid 10 may seem too much for a movie with very little plot or character development or, well, anything that doesn't involve people being grievously wounded, but the thing is that it is possibly the pinnacle of it's genre: a pure action movie. It spent enough time on other things to make them work, if it spent more then that would likely take away from the intensity of the action. It knows what it wants to be, it focuses on it, and pulls it off spectacularly.
The Raid 2
Let's not beat around the bush: I didn't think this one was as good as the first. It did most of what the first did, and arguably better: there was at least as much action, if not more, which was at least as intense, if not more so. But it didn't manage to pull off one of the more characteristic features of the original: the unrelenting non-stop pace that was a big part of what made it so memorable.
The biggest problem is that this movie has a lot more story, but while the story is not bad, it mostly revolves around characters who we don't really care about; the main character is quickly relegated to a bit player in his own movie. I'm not even exaggerating; for most of the movie the hero pretty much just does what he's told while all the other characters drive the plot. He barely even has any lines for much of it, while everyone else is running around yelling at each other.
As a result we don't really care very much about the story, and it ends up just being padding. Worse, it breaks the flow; while the first one gave us just enough time to catch our breath between action scenes, this one gives us enough time to drift off. As a result it loses it momentum, each fight feels isolated and almost unrelated, it just doesn't sustain that intensity that the first one had.
What's more, what little we see of the main character is unfortunately cliched. That's right, in this one he's just another Reluctant HeroTM. This time he doesn't want to be there, he would walk out if he could and indeed tries to twice, but he is denied that luxury, and as a result he just mopes around doing what's immediately necessary pretty much up till the end. What's more, the first movie took the time to give us a chance to like the character by showing him helping others, even in the midst of seriously high-stress situations when his comrades are too focused on the herculean task at hand. Here, all we see him do is hurt people, he never really has a chance to come off as any more than just a thug, if you hadn't seen the first movie you wouldn't have any reason to see him as being any better than the crooks he's surrounded with. Well, OK, it's true they show him missing his wife and son, but they also show a mass murderer who kills for fun and profit "missing his wife and son", so clearly that's not a sufficiently strong indication of virtue or morality.
Another unfortunate issue is the change of setting. While the first one's setup and setting led to a memorably claustrophobic movie, with a practically tangible sense of being trapped and surrounded by hostiles, this one has far more varied settings that, perhaps counter-intuitively, make it less memorable and more generic. It lacks a strong theme or style, and turns into just another martial arts movie in a generic city (no offense to Jakarta intended, it's just that it's, you know, a modern city).
Should I be surprised that the sequel does not reach the same heights as the original? Normally I wouldn't be, but I was hearing good things about this movie even in spite of my refusal to read any reviews or watch any trailers, and despite my usual caution I ended up allowing myself to hope it wouldn't forget what made the first one so amazing.
But I think the series has become something of a victim of it's own success, as many do. You see, part of what made the original so great was arguably the limitations; limiting the scope to a single building with minimal plot made it unique, and now that they've expanded the scope it's basically ended up doing, well, what everyone else does when they don't have to work under strict limits. I believe I first heard Terry Gilliam describe the phenomenon, and one has only to look at the video games market to see it in full force; the big developers with the big budgets keep making the same games we've seen before, only a little better, while the tiny indy developers with no budgets whatsoever are the only ones producing games that are new and innovative and stylistically different.
So is there anything good about this movie? Well, the acting is pretty good, the cinematography is great, and did I mention the BLOODY AMAZING ACTION? The martial arts is stunningly intense and brutal and even more inventive than in the first. Despite all my whining and complaining, this is an amazing action movie. Period.
Overall I'm giving it an 9/10. The plot may be a little boring but it's punctuated by some of the best martial arts action there is.