Review: 'The Raid 2' delivers visceral thrills on an epic scale
PARK CITY - What makes a great action filmmaker truly great?
Is it just the ability to orchestrate and shoot mayhem? If so, then David Ellis would have to be considered one of the greats simply for the highway crash sequence in "Final Destination 2," and pretty much every other scene he ever shot would negate that idea. And if pure mayhem is what makes you great overall, then the destruction of Chicago means that none of Michael Bay's weaknesses as a filmmaker matter, right?
There are a number of directors out there right now who deserve more credit than they get as action filmmakers. Isaac Florentine does fantastic work in conjunction with various great fight choreographers like Larnell Stovall and Tim Man and working with action stars like Scott Adkins, for example, and I love the films that Ernesto Diaz Espinoza made with Marko Zaror, who should be a gigantic star just based on his physical presence and both the fun and the elegance of the way he fights.
Starting with "Merantau," though, Gareth Evans has, film by film, made the case for himself as the best working action filmmaker. I don't say that lightly, either, considering George Miller is in post-production on a Mad Max film even as we speak. I would say Miller is the closest comparison I can make in terms of overall skill set to Evans, although they make radically different types of films. When I saw "The Road Warrior" for the first time, there was a feeling that kicked in about halfway though that something above and beyond was happening. Miller managed to get the mythic Western vibe of Leone's work and he jammed it together with a kinetic approach to car violence that made me feel like I was witnessing something real. Miller's movie, shot to shot, features some of the best compositions in any action film, and there are stunts in that film that would seem to be completely impossible, although accomplished before the age of CGI. What has impressed me since then is the way Miller can create that same sense of thrilling engagement no matter what the subject matter. There are scenes of people researching a disease in "Lorenzo's Oil" that still manage to impart that same sense of urgency, and there's a great chase involving a bunch of dogs in "Babe 2: Pig In The City" that is laugh out loud funny while still feeling like the stakes are life and death.
In "Merantau," Evans told one of the most basic martial arts stories there is, the tale of the innocent country badass who shows up in the big city and who has to fight for some reason. There's a reason that story ends up being the way we're introduced to action icons like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa or, in the case of "Merantau," Iko Uwais, and it's because it leaves a lot of room for action without having to focus too much on plot. The thing I thought worked so beautifully about "The Raid" was just how lean and efficient the set-up was, and how well the building worked as a closed environment, creating one opportunity after another for fights that built from scene to scene. Even within each sequence, Evans is always thinking as a storyteller, and not just as a bruiser looking to leave a mark. "The Raid" is incredibly direct, yes, but from room to room, floor to floor, fight to fight, we are seeing the evolution of Rama, the cop played by Iko Uwais, as he realizes just how merciless the enemy really is. By the time he and his brother face off against Mad Dog near the end of the film, it matters because of who they are, not just because it's time for another fight.
"The Raid 2: Berandal" is a whole different game, though, and with this movie, Evans establishes that he can handle any sort of action sequence, not just ones that involve hand-to-hand combat. There's a car chase in this movie that is tremendous fun, and there are a few moves he pulls that are so technically accomplished that I'm not actually sure what I saw. I can't wait to dig in and start to take apart the magic trick, but only because it actually makes me admire Evans more, not less. That was certainly true with "Safe Haven," the segment from "V/H/S/2" that he co-directed. That is a very slick piece of work that was crafted in a way that was carefully designed to not look slick at all, and there are parts of it that I watched four or five times once I had the film at home, just so I could understand what it was he'd done.
Picking up mere moments after the end of "The Raid," the sequel finds Rama (Uwais) ready to walk away from the events of that movie, disgusted at having learned that his own police force was corrupt. Instead, he's offered a chance to help dismantle the entire corrupt system, and in order to pull it off, he's told that he will have to vanish into an undercover identity. He will not be able to see his family. He will have to go to prison, where he is expected to get close to Uco (Arfin Putra), the son of a legendary gangster named Bangun who was the power above the guy who owned the building in "The Raid." It's a lot to ask, but when Rama learns that his brother, who he helped save in the first film, was killed, he realizes that he has no choice.
If you're a fan of films like "The Departed" or the Hong Kong "Infernal Affairs" which inspired it, you'll probably dig the narrative end of "The Raid 2." The film is 2 1/2 hours long, and it never seems to be in a rush. Evans takes his time to show you how the entire ecosystem works. First we see how Rama adjusts to life in prison, starting with a bathroom fight that really is just a warm-up, as well as a major riot sequence that takes place in a muddy prison yard during a rainstorm. Once Rama is released from prison, though, the real plot kicks in, and we see how Uco brings Rama into his world. At the same time, an aspiring crime lord named Bejo (Alex Abbad, giving good scumbag at every turn) begins his own series of chess moves as he tries to pit Bangun against the Goto clan, the Japanese gangsters who also have a major stake in local crime.
One of the things Evans does well here is establishing colorful supporting characters as eventual adversaries for Rama. After all, if everyone else is just a faceless fighter, it doesn't really create any sense of rhythm for the movie. To that end, we meet Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman), two characters who may not have a lot of screen time, but who suggest a whole series of insane action adventures that happened prior to this film. The nature of their relationship, the history of how they earned their names… none of it is overtly stated, but I feel like I got the bigger picture anyway, and that's all because of how Evans fills in the small details. Then there's the simply-named The Assassin, played by Cecep Arif Rahman, as great a boss-level bad guy as I can name in recent action cinema. When he finally finds himself face-to-face with Rama, we're ready for what threatens to be a battle royale, and that's even before we see what sort of special advantage he gives himself as the fight wears on.
Iko Uwais was impressive as a physical performer in his first film with Evans, but with each movie, he becomes a better actor. Here, we get a sense of the emotional toll that his mission takes on him as years go by, and in one brief moment midway through, there's a terrifically sad grace note in which the full weight of everything he's lost in terms of time away from his family lands on him, and Uwais plays it perfectly. I also want to make special note of the performance by Yayan Ruhian this time. He's one of the fight masters on the film, along with Uwais, so he is intimately involved in every bit of bad-assery we see here. In "The Raid," he played the character aptly named "Mad Dog," and he's got a great bad guy presence. Here, though, he plays 'Koso, a long-time assassin for Bangun and his family, and based on his first scene, I thought he was basically just going to do a riff on Mad Dog. Instead, there's a scene in a restaurant that is very quiet, a conversation with his wife, and I thought it was heartbreaking and beautiful and perfectly played. Even when the next big action scene erupts, it's not just the impact of the punches that matters. It's the realization that sets in for 'Koso as the scene unfolds. It's the heartbreak that comes with the battle. I think he is spectacular here, and it's because of scenes like this that I think the movie registers as more than "just" an action film.
Then again, I don't really like that word. "Just." Is "Singin' In The Rain" just a musical? Is "The Blues Brothers" just a "Saturday Night Live" sketch? Is "The Road Warrior" just about car chases? Is "The Exorcist" just a movie about the devil? Is "South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut" just a foul-mouthed cartoon? When you use the word "just" to describe a film, and particularly a genre film, you are intentionally reducing it to certain elements. You are making genre seem like something that has firm restrictions and boundaries, and I would argue the opposite is true. Genre is where we begin a conversation about a movie, particularly a great movie. It is a way of giving someone a general sense of what something is before moving on to a more articulate and complex description. "The Raid 2" is remarkable filmcraft, first and foremost, and it tells a solid, compelling cop story in a way that left me physically shaking. I cannot wait to see it again, and I am genuinely concerned that the MPAA is going to savage the version we saw because of the profound level of graphic violence it contains. It is a savage world that Evans portrays, though, and any attempt to tone that down will, oddly, make it more conventional and make the violence more generic. By pushing as hard as he does, as far as he does, Evans makes a point about Indonesia that is, in its own sly way, just as pointed as the work that is being done by Joshua Oppenheimer right now. This is a corrupt system, and there is no one person you remove to make it right. Instead, as Rama comes to believe, the only solution is to burn it all down and start again, and the righteous rage that drives him through the last act doesn't feel like an empty pose to me. It feels just as earned as the anger that underscores the "Elite Squad" films or John Woo's "Bullet In The Head." This is pure action cinema with both heart and head as engaged as the fists and the feet, and I can't wait to see where Evans and his remarkable collaborators go from here.
The Eccles shook tonight, and I feel privileged to have been there.
"The Raid 2" arrives in US theaters on March 28, 2014.