Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: "The Raid 2"

Director: Gareth Evans
Runtime: 150 minutes

Gareth Evans' The Raid was never the sort of movie that demanded a sequel. In fact, the idea of a sequel seemed, at first glance, like a cheap cash-in on the success of the outlandishly entertaining first film. Yet where many sequels either cover the same ground (The Hangover 2) or simply fail to extend a story (Pirates of the Caribbean 4), Evans has hit the bullseye. The Welsh-born director's follow-up, hitting the US two years after the original, proves to be more than worth the wait. Evans has retained all of the good things from The Raid, while smartly changing the pacing and upping the narrative complexity. 

The Raid opened in the confines of Rama's (Iko Uwais) apartment, which was fitting, seeing as the majority of the film took place in a single apartment complex. By contrast, the sequel opens on a wide shot of a field. It was hinted that there was more going on outside of the self-contained crime empire from The Raid. In The Raid 2, we, along with Rama, are finally dragged into the bigger picture. Barely after the events of the first film, Rama finds himself roped into a dangerous undercover mission. He'll be placed in prison to befriend Uco (Arifin Putra). Uco is the son of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), an Indonesian patriarch and crime boss who has maintained a peaceful relationship with the competition, the Goto family from Japan. 

In the opening minutes of The Raid 2 Evans establishes more plot than the entirety of his first film. The Raid's narrative minimalism was a key component of its success. It allowed for an almost non-stop barrage of brilliantly executed fight sequences that never had to be broken up by excessive talk. Thankfully, Evans proves himself up to the task of widening the scope and changing his plotting format. The Raid 2 has plenty of action, but it also provides plenty of breathing room between melees. Evans' dialogue ranges from functional to melodramatic, but he never gives into to monologues or excessive exposition. 

Because, even with its added plot complexities, the real draw of The Raid's world has always been linked to its visual storytelling. Evans understands this as a writer, director, and editor (he has sole credit in all three departments, which is staggering). So even though the emotions and motivations are only marginally deeper here than they were in the previous film, Evans has once again provided enough to ensure that the combat-free scenes are worthwhile. 

And, frankly, it's a good thing that Evans decided to devote so much time to the plot in his sequel. The fights in The Raid 2 are just as fast, clear, and brutal, to the point where they can be exhausting. Evans and his pair of cinematographers keep a clear eye on the action, allowing the lightning fast fight choreography to actually shine. It takes a film like The Raid 2 to really demonstrate how gifted one must be to shoot and edit a legitimately compelling fight scene. Under different circumstances, these fights could have grown tedious after seconds. After all, they largely involve one simple character (Rama) fighting off nameless henchman. Even an intriguing brother-sister duo (he with a baseball bat, she with a pair of hammers) are given no development, and are only differentiated by being better fighters than the henchmen. There's minimal investment in Rama, and none at all in his opponents. By that logic, the film's fight sequences should be empty. Yet Evans' ability to highlight the high speed brutality of the choreography, coupled with truly outstanding sound work, ensures that every last punch, kick, and snap registers.

Where The Raid 2 starts to go astray is in its pacing. Evans builds the mayhem up to a point that feels like a solid moment to leave open for the already-planned part three. Instead, this moment is just another rest before the finale, which consists of three back-to-back battles. Thankfully, the fights themselves are varied, but the awkward shift feels out of place in a film that otherwise moves smoothly between drama and bloody mayhem. That said, Evans deserves credit for not lingering on the brutality longer than need be. Blood flies all over the place, but the camera hardly jams one's face in it. And, in a few instances, Evans pulls back and avoids showing the goriest details.

The Raid 2 also has flashes of humor that keep it grounded. The amount of violence that bodies take is insane, but the film compensates by having the blows hurt, and by not weighing its story down with self-importance. In doing so, Evans is able to achieve the epic scale he's so clearly wants to obtain. Where The Raid 3 can possibly go from here, I'm not sure. However, it's difficult to argue that Evans and his collaborators are onto something special with this story. By keeping the characterization straightforward and the action brilliant, they've hit a sweet spot that so many action movies could only dream of hitting. It's not high art, but The Raid 2 is a stellar example of action filmmaking at its absolute best. 

Grade: B

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