Friday, April 18, 2014

The Raid 2: Berandal

Alternate Title:  Ass Kicking 2:  Ass Kick Harder

One sentence synopsis:       A decorated Indonesian SWAT officer goes undercover into the middle of a three-way organized crime war.

Things Havoc liked:  Looking back, I suspect I was a little too harsh on the original Raid, an Indonesian Martial Arts film released stateside in early 2012. I criticized it primarily for spending too much time on a throwaway plot, which was fair, and for not having martial arts quite at the level of the state of the art movies, which ultimately I believe was not fair. Raid's fighting was, on further viewing, better than I remembered it, and I think I might have been reacting to the fact that the movie's weakest section was its last third, a terrible idea for any action film. But that said, I did enjoy the original Raid quite a bit, and was eager to see what the sequel had to offer, hoping that it might improve on the flaws of its original and deliver me something special.

I do so enjoy it when my hopes are rewarded.

The Raid 2, written and directed by Welsh filmmaker Garreth Evans (as was the first) is a serious step up from what was already a very solid martial arts film base, a movie that elevates well beyond the simple-but-effective structure of the original film to become something truly special. It is a glorious ode to the fine art that is filming men beating and slicing the crap out of one another in the most cinematic ways possible, presented with the verve of a true connoisseur showing off his finest collection. Where I compared, fairly or not, the original film unfavorably to the masterworks of the genre, Sat Po Lung, for instance, or Ong Bak, I make no such claims this time. The Raid 2 is worthy of inclusion in those lofty heights, a panoramic bloodfest of orgiastic proportions, splashed upon the screen with skill and charm, sure to delight any who glory in the violent, spectacle side of martial arts.

Rama, played once more by Iko Uwais, has been through a rough couple of years. No sooner has he escaped near-certain death at the hands of the drug gang from Raid 1, than he is recruited as an undercover agent to infiltrate the largest organized crime syndicate in the un-named Indonesian city. Initiating a complex plan involving being sent into prison to get close to the son of the boss of the crime family in question, Rama is plunged into an escalating series of martial arts brawls, ones which start at the level of the fights from the first film and elevate from there. As the action is the focus and the draw here, it's worth mentioning once more just how good the action in this movie is. Frenetic and bloody, the film showcases nearly a dozen different fight sequences, each with their own signature moments, wherein a stone badass dismantles dozens of mooks intent on killing them, or alternately two of said stone badasses battle one another in a solo contest of skill and poise. Nothing new, save the fantastic skill of the sequences in question, better and more athletic than the original, and worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of amazing martial arts films. Fights are inventive and staged in a complex manner, with plenty of 'signature' characters and weapons, including a deaf girl who slaughters her enemies with a pair of claw hammers, and a baseball-bat-wielding maniac who, for once, kills people via the intended purpose of such objects. Best of all, the fights are staged in such a way that the film moves through them, by and large, in order of impressiveness, until by the end of the film, there are engagements worthy of any duel found in the finest exemplars of martial arts on film.

But there's more to this movie than simply the customary violence. The Raid 1 was advertised as an action film without a plot, and I, for one, was somewhat disappointed when the film did not live up to this promise. The plot of the original film was somewhat tacked on, a lackluster, formulaic entry, that marred the last third of the movie and brought it down from the heights of action awesomeness. The sequel, while still formulaic (action films are simple movies, ultimately), is a much more layered narrative, integrated fully into the plot so as to give weight and context to the acts of brutal violence that we are witnessing. The plot is complex and labyrinthine, involving well over a dozen major characters with their own motives, betrayals and twists, gang wars and false-flag attacks. I won't claim the plot is anything revolutionary, but there is room in film for a classic-style story told well, and the narrative this time round is used to buttress the main attraction of the film extremely well. Though nobody here should be in contention for Indonesia's equivalent of the Oscars, there are standout sequences, particularly anything involving Bangun, the elderly head of the crime family in question, whose instincts are for peace at any price when it comes to mob war, or Bejo, a crippled, half-Arab up-and-coming crime lord hellbent on upsetting the proverbial apple cart, and sowing chaos so as to profit off the mayhem.

Things Havoc disliked: The film makes a rather touching series of assumptions about the nature of its audience, one of which is that they have, of course, seen the first Raid. That much is fair enough, as I do prefer it when sequels do not spend the first half of the movie rehashing their previous installment. But this film doesn't just expect you to remember the Raid, but to remember it in incredible detail. Characters from the first movie, last seen by me two years ago and portrayed by actors I've not seen before or since, form important elements of the plot, all without the film reminding us who in the hell they are, relative to one another, a practice that is not helped by the film's use of un-announced flashbacks. To make everything even more confusing, several actors from the original film appear in this one playing completely new characters, leaving us completely unsure as to what, if anything, any of the characters (save for the main one) have to do with the original. Fortunately, the plot does not rely heavily upon the actions of these characters, but it took quite a while for me to realize that the answer to all of my questions was more or less irrelevant, and that I could simply get back to the business of watching the film.

Final thoughts:   The Raid 2 is a triumph, a spectacle in every sense of the term, bloody and gorgeous in all the right ways, instantly positioning itself in the ranks of great action movie sequels such as Terminator 2 and Aliens. Though it may not be a revolutionary film in the way the aforementioned ones did, it is one of the finest exercises in its genre, a crime caper fight-fest of glorious proportions, exceeding its original in largely every way, and elevating its star and director/writer from "good prospects" to "must-watch candidates". Much hay has been made recently about the decline of "pure" martial arts films, and the lack of forthcoming titles from China or Hong Kong, the traditional homes of such things, but based on this film, permit me to suggest that the dearth of great Chinese martial arts is not due to some collapse of the industry, but to a process much more familiar to us in everyday life: Globalization.

Or perhaps practitioners of Silat are simply more badass than those of traditional Kung Fu. Personally, I suggest empirical tests be run to determine this. I also suggest they be filmed.

Final Score:  8/10

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