Audiences crave what they're not allowed to see. When you're a kid, there's an undeniable thrill in sneaking into your first R-rated movie, but even as adults we're suckers for the forbidden. That's why we can't get enough red-band trailers—oooh, extra swearing and nudity!—and why we'll buy the "unrated" DVD so that we can check out, supposedly, what was "too hot" for the theater.
While this gimme-more tendency largely applies to raunchy comedies and horror movies, action flicks work under a similar principle. For as much as some people complain about the amount of violence in action movies, studios actually curtail the goriness a little just so that they can make sure their films don't get an R, which would severely limit their potential audience. I'm speaking very generally, of course, but on the whole Hollywood action movies are "violent" without really being, y'know, violent. They're loud and frenetic with lots of explosions and crashes and shooting, but there's very little pain or blood or other things that would make you realize that violence in real life is not this much fun. This weekend's The Hunger Games is a perfect example: The movie's brutal fight-to-the-death games are mostly shown off-screen or shot in a way that we don't see much of anything. It's violent, but sanitized.
That's why I suspect a certain audience is going to love the hell out of The Raid: Redemption, a foreign action movie that's rated R and with very good reason. Where Hollywood action movies want to keep from scaring off people, this Die Hard-in-Jakarta revels in its bloodletting and gruesomeness. But despite the movie's all-out brutality, it's actually rather joyful. I laughed pretty hard several times, and I wasn't the only one in my screening who did so. It's not because we're all sickos—it's because there's a giddy freedom to the movie's unfiltered violence. It's weirdly liberating.
As a bit of background, The Raid: Redemption was written, edited, and directed by Gareth Huw Evans, a Welsh filmmaker who's lived in Indonesia for four years. Incorporating Pencak Silat, a form of Indonesian martial arts that has a balletic quality to it, The Raid: Redemption shows what happens when a handful of cops try to take on a building's worth of highly-trained baddies. Basically, it looks like this ...
... for 100 minutes. Yeah, it's epic. They ain't gonna do stuff like this in Battleship.
The Raid: Redemption premiered in September at the Toronto Film Festival (back when it was called The Raid). Toronto is a launching pad for lots of the serious Oscar contenders, but I heard as much talk about The Raid as I did about any movie: Even seasoned, seen-it-all critics just couldn't believe how awesome it was. In fact, that's the word I heard most often associated with The Raid—"awesome." And it's understandable why: We just don't get many action movies like this, movies where you actually see heads slammed into walls or shot at from point-blank range. Movies where the characters' bodies are properly riddled with gory wounds that reflect how much of a beating they've taken. The Raid: Redemption isn't great because it's a pillar of realism—I'm pretty sure the film's hero would have died of a brain contusion long before the finale—but because it's more honest about the pleasure that can come from a well-made, ultra-violent action film. By comparison, it makes American action movies seem pretty silly. (You have to think that at least somewhat explains why The Expendables was such a hit: While other summer movies bent over backward to make sure they got a PG-13, Sylvester Stallone unabashedly wanted an R so that it could appeal to hardcore action buffs.)
Of course, The Raid: Redemption is hardly the first film to go insane with its bloody action sequences. But it's funny how often these movies tend to come from overseas. Whether it's a moody South Korean thriller—like Oldboy or I Saw the Devil—or one of John Woo's old Hong Kong cop movies, cult audiences lap them up, partly because they offer a grownup intensity you can't find from Transformers. And because they're rated R and in a foreign language, these films will never reach a mainstream audience, which makes them feel like a secret that only you and your cool friends have discovered.
But even though The Raid: Redemption is an absolute blast, it also serves as a mild warning for the limits of ultra-violence. While the film's superbly executed fight scenes—which range from shootouts to hand-to-hand combat—are addictive, Evans could be accused of giving us too much of a good thing. As much as I loved every minute of this movie, it's also kind of exhausting. There's not much variation in its assault, and so its nonstop approach can leave you a little numb after a while. But considering that it provides the uncut excitement and intensity of which Hollywood largely deprives us, The Raid: Redemption at least will remind the prudes that, yes, action movies can be much, much more violent—and also a lot more fun.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.