Friday, April 11, 2014

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (2014) - A Review
This picks up two hours after the events of the first film, so we'd better start there...
The Raid: Redemption (2011) was all about an elite group of police officers in Jakarta who are tasked with taking down a crime boss who is holed up in a high rise apartment building - or, as the tagline for the film said: "1 Ruthless Crime Lord. 20 Elite Cops. 30 Floors of Chaos." The good guys soon find that getting into the building was easy, but that getting out is extremely difficult, since the bad guys lock down the entire building once they're in. This leads to an hour and a half of non-stop action and mayhem, at the end of which only two of the good guys walk (well, limp) away. One of those two is Rama (Iko Uwais), who we meet again two hours later...
...When one of his fellow police officers explains that, since Rama (Uwais again) is alive, the bad guys from the first film will want to hunt him and his family down. So it's pitched to him that the best thing he could do is to immediately go undercover - in prison, no less - to infiltrate the Jakarta syndicate and help bring them down from the inside. Rama is understandably reluctant to do so, but, because he fears for his family's safety, he agrees. He's told he'll only have to spend a few months in prison to establish himself with the crooks. Cue the title card that says it's two years later...Rama gets sprung and taken into the fold of the mob run by Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). Rama had saved Bangun's hotheaded son, Uco (Arifin Putra), from being killed during a riot in the prison, an act which made Bangun grateful to Rama, even if he doesn't trust him entirely.
Of course, Rama isn't getting much help from his contact on the police force, either, and he's still furious that he wound up spending two years in prison. So, stuck in his new role for the duration, Rama tries to navigate the Jakarta underworld from the inside - and tries to keep Uco from breaking the truce between his family and the Japanese Goto clan.
There's more to it than that, but I trust you get the idea. At two and a half hours in length, this film unfolds in an unhurried fashion, yet is always moving forward. Films longer than two hours are a tough sell for me, but I was engaged with this all the way through. Yes, it is extremely violent in parts, but it's nothing like the essentially non-stop carnage in the first film. Other than continuing with the character of Rama, this is a very different film from the first one, which is a refreshing change from the usual sequel that is often just a remake/retread of whatever came before.

As with the first film, this was written and directed by Gareth Evans, who is inexplicably but wonderfully a Welshman working in Indonesia (again), this time with a cast that is pretty much all Indonesian and Japanese. Though I really, really hate how blurry digital photography looks whenever there's swift movement, I give Evans credit for doing a good job of keeping things fairly easy to follow, even in the midst of chaos. Even in the prison riot sequence, in which everyone involved is instantly covered in mud, Evans makes it clear who is who, and how all the flailing, fighting bodies relate to one another spatially. I also give him credit for avoiding action movie clichés in his soundtrack (no cliché grating loud rock during fight scenes) and for often choosing to slow things down for a spell, rather than try to keep the entire film going at a hectic tempo.
But hectic moments do occur fairly regularly, and action fans (like my wife, who squealed throughout the film) should be very pleased with this. There are car chases, gun fights, knife fights, hammer fights, and all sorts of very impressive martial arts work and hand-to-hand combat (co-choreographed by Uwais, a professional in pencak silat, or Indonesian martial arts). Much has been made of the elevator fight scene in the recent Captain America sequel, with Cap fighting a whole gang of baddies in that tight space. Well, Uwais totally tops that here in his first big fight scene - a fight in which he takes on about a dozen angry inmates in a toilet stall. There's also not one, but two fights in cars; a fight in a mom and pop restaurant, and in a big commercial kitchen; a fight in a subway car; a fight in a nightclub. The action scenes (though blurry) are really impressive, and very physical in the truest sense of the word.
Actually, comparisons to the new Captain America movie are appropriate. Both are second films in a series. Both are lengthy action films containing many of the stock materials used to construct such things (fist fights, gun fights, car chases, etc.). And both focus on lead characters who are unquestionably good, but who are stuck in a position of fighting evil on one hand, while quite possibly being undermined by some of their so-called allies on the other side as well.
But whereas the second Captain America feels like product turned out for an increasingly global market, The Raid 2 is full of the energy and passion of people creating something that they love. Though its central storyline is one that has been used many times before, the film feels fresh, alive and vital. As pure spectacle, the (mostly) real bodies used to create the impressive (mostly) real action in The Raid 2 absolutely trumps the cliché, CGI fireballs and flying ships that provide so many of the "thrills" in massive and expensive Hollywood film product. The fact that Evans and Uwais were able to turn out such an utterly ballistic and satisfying film on a budget that had to be a tiny fraction of what they spent on Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also worth noting, and something to give them a great deal of credit for. 
I was delighted to see that this was coming to our local multiplex. In the year that I've lived here, I have never seen them buy an ad in our local newspaper - until today, when I spotted a small ad just for this film. My wife and I went to the first show. Besides us, there was just one other person there. I suspect that the theater booked it because of the large number of Asian and international students that we have here. Unfortunately, this is opening here the same weekend that many of the Asian student associations are having their big annual events (India Night, Japan Night, Vietnamese Night), keeping lots of said students busy. Hopefully the attendance will pick up, because this is a great film that deserves to be seen, and to do well. As soon as we were out of the theater, my wife said she'd like to see it again. I would too.
P.S. - "Berandal" means thug...

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