Dredd, The Raid, and the Power of Formula
“Everything’s the same!”
Such is the rallying cry for those that disparage modern media. There exists a certain group of people who think that, in the past, there was a rampant creative period of almost nothing but original ideas and that most media released in the past twenty years has been merely riding its coattails. Perhaps their most common complaint is how far too many movies today are dependent on formulaic storytelling, leading to an age where almost all creative works are similar enough to be interchangeable. In 2011 and 2012, these detractors gained even more ammunition for their assault on modern media with the release of two films, The Raid: Redemption and Dredd, both of which had an eerily similar plot and certainly used the same formula.
However, much to many people’s surprise, both movies received both critical acclaim and cult classic status, seemingly in spite of their similar formulaic backbones. Critics praised their focused and brutally efficient execution and they are now considered modern classics of the action film genre. In the case of these two movies, the use of formula did not work against them. In fact, one might even say that their adherence to a particular formula led to its biggest strengths. Even if the detractors of formula are right about modern media being more formulaic now than in the past (which they aren’t), the still make the mistake of seeing formula as an inherently bad thing. In the face of common opinion, the quality of these two films shows how the use of formula in storytelling can be a good thing instead of the end of all creativity as its detractors would like to think. Both The Raid: Redemption and Dredd show that there is a place in modern cinema for formula.
Exhibit A: Dredd
In the many years following the disastrous Sylvester Stallone-led first cinematic outing of the famous 2000 A.D. character Judge Dredd, many fans still wished for the ruthless yet fair law enforcer to make it back to the silver screen without the PG-13 flair that plagued the previous entry. Luckily, around 2006, writer and producer Alex Garland put forth an effort to give the honorable Judge his next outing in theaters for the first time in the new millennium. Garlan, aided by director Pete Travis, decided to take a different approach than the earlier, sprawling blockbuster style of the Stallone version because of the limits imposed by the relatively small budget of $50 million. Because of those imposed limits, the filmmakers decided to create a story set in a single location along with a straightforward plot, reminiscent of other action movies.
Dredd follows the story of the eponymous Judge Dredd (Karl Urban)–a one-man SWAT team in the future dystopia of Mega-City One. During a routine investigation, he is trapped in a 200-story high-rise building controlled by ruthless drug kingpin Ma-Ma (Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey) along with his new rookie partner, Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Throughout the movie, Dredd is faced with wave after wave of criminal foot soldiers, limited resources, and even corrupt Judges as he tries to make it to the top floor where Ma-Ma is waiting for him. Already, this sounds like a very formulaic action movie plot that requires very little setup and has been done innumerable times since the 1980s, but Dredd received critical acclaim–receiving 78% approval on Rotten Tomatoes–for its tight and focused plot and characters, which worked as a strong skeleton to build the stylish yet visceral action scenes around. Instead of spending the inordinate amount of time spent on worldbuilding required for most modern Sci-Fi movies, Dredd cuts to the chase by putting the characters–and the viewer, in turn– right into the action. Instead of wasting time and effort on building a structure of its own, it takes advantage of a familiar one in order to build a unique movie around it.
However, by the time Dredd hit theaters in 2012, it was beaten to the punch by an Indonesian martial arts film with a similar plot–The Raid: Redemption.
Exhibit B: The Raid: Redemption
The Raid was a project conceived by Welsh-born director and writer Gareth Evans, who originally wanted to make a sprawling crime epic with the added injection of martial arts action–The Godfather mixed with Fists of Fury. However, being a relatively inexperienced director, there was no way he could secure the funds necessary to have this vision become a reality. Instead, he decided to make a smaller, more focused movie that would put all of the emphasis on the action, an approach extremely similar to that of Dredd.
The Raid: Redemption tells the story of Rama (Iko Uwais, who also co-choreographed the action scenes), a member of an elite police squad in Jakarta, who is sent in with his squad to take out a powerful drug boss in control of a high-rise building. Of course, Rama and his squad are trapped inside and are forced to fight their way out and take out the drug kingpin. However, this simple setup is the vehicle for the real star of the show, the Indonesian martial art known as Pencak Silat. The abundance of the excellent action scenes that the movie is known for is allowed by the use of formula because it relies on the audience’s familiarity with its simple action setup in order to not spend as much time building it from the ground up. Because of this, The Raid: Redemption also gained critical acclaim–85% approval on Rotten Tomatoes–because of its intense and pulse-pounding action scenes that look just as bone-crunchingly visceral as they would in real life. The success of The Raid’s first outing led to Evans finally getting the financial support needed to make his original vision of an action epic a reality in the sequel, The Raid 2: Berandal, released earlier this year.
Any person with even a tiny bit of knowledge of action movie formulas can instantly see the similarities between The Raid: Redemption and Dredd, but just because they have an extremely similar plot structure, there are also a large number of differences that allow each of them to stand on their own. For example, the action in Dredd is primarily focused on stylized gun play while The Raid focused on the aforementioned Pencak Silat with a bit of gunplay thrown in to change up the pace. The Raid even takes Dredd’s cut-to-the-chase approach even further by only showing a short scene in the beginning to introduce our main lead immediately before starting the mission.
What do these two examples show?
It seems to be no surprise that some of the most notable examples of popular movies that make use of a formula are action movies. Action movies, with their often single-minded desire to show as many explosions, gun fights, and martial arts showdowns have received notoriety for relying greatly on formula; one might even say too much. A more cynical person would compare the entire action film genre to pornography, with everything from sets, characters, and plot merely being a vehicle for the action (in all senses of the word). However, many of the most acclaimed films of the genre made great use of formula. Perhaps the most famous and best use of formula is the classic 80s action film, Die Hard. The now-classic set-up of an everyman forced to deal with an enemy with legions of foot soldiers has gained a unique position as the main formula used in action movies, with movies as disparate as Speed, Air Force One, Snakes on a Plane, and even Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It has even received the dubious award of being recognized by TvTropes, now recognized as “Die Hard on an X.”
The success of Dredd and The Raid: Redemption seems to be part of the next evolution of action formula. Both movies seem to revolve around a permutation of the Die Hard formula, keeping some elements (enclosed spaces as a setting, limited resources as a plot point, etc.) while jettisoning some others (most notably the everyman protagonist). This shows that, while the presence of formula may mean that individual movies may seem to be similar, there is always room for the formula itself to improve to meet the needs of the action. Just because something uses a formula does not mean that the formula can’t change.
In conclusion, while many would be willing to criticize the use of formula in a film, they may be getting ahead of themselves by presuming that formula is a bad thing. By watching recent, successful films like Dredd and The Raid: Redemption or classic action flicks like Die Hard, one can easily say that a simple formula leaves more than enough room to make a fantastic film. While there will always be filmmakers who use storytelling formulas as a crutch (as the deluge of Hero’s Journey films has shown us), great filmmakers like Gareth Evans, Alex Garland, and Pete Travis use a formula in the same way a Jazz musician would use the notes on a page of music to make a work of great art.
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