Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Raid 2 Radiates Excitement

     As I mentioned in my last review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one film has soured the taste of nearly all modern American action films: The Raid: Redemption. Its incredibly brutal and realistic hand-to-hand combat and blood-squirting violent gun and knife play has propelled the film into cult hit status, satiating the dying hunger of action fans who are tired of confusing quick-cut fight scenes and over-the-top characters and corny gore. The story of Rama and his floor-by-floor fight to the top of a crime and thug-ridden apartment complex was all set up for bone-crushing punches and kicks. But there wasn't too much of a story: it was a 100 minute adrenaline pill. The sequel, The Raid 2 (sometimes shown with the subtitle, Berandal), fixes that issue. Continuing the story of Rama (Iko Uwais, a man you just have to root for) after he escapes death at the apartments, The Raid 2 is a much bigger story with complex relationships. There is downtime between the action this time around (other than the last hour), but it allows for even more building of intensity. If the first Raid is a small watercolor painting of pain, The Raid 2 is the Sistine Chapel: big (2 and a half hours), beautiful, and utterly breathtaking, especially when the action kicks in.
     The Raid 2 is one of those rare films, a sequel that is masterful at exploring the themes of the first while exceeding every expectation along the way. Rama is back, and he has to go deep undercover and get involved with a dangerous mob, gaining trust with the leadership to gain vital information about crooked cops. The Raid: Redemption was confined and claustrophobic--all of the action took place in one building, and only in the beginning and at the end did the film leave the confines of four walls and a ceiling. But the sequel takes the story in some fresh directions (even a masterful car chase battle) with numerous memorable locales. The film gets room to breathe, though much of it will leave viewers breathless.
     Some two hours have passed since the end of the first film, and Rama becomes convinced to get thrown in prison to buddy up with a son, Uco (a charming Arifin Putra), of a powerful crime lord. When Rama proves his worthiness during a muddy prison riot, Uco gives him a job working for the family once Rama gets released. The story is pretty intricate--you will read a lot, unlike the sparse dialogue in the first Raid--and all characters and crime factions have different motivations. The main tension deals with three groups: Uco's local family, a rival Japanese gang, and Bejo (Alex Abbad) and his cronies, a rising group of gangsters that threatens the power struggle between the two violent families. The story is stellar and serves the action well, but let's be honest: that's not what we're here for.
     Much of the first half of the film deals with Rama's slow rise from the henchman in Uco's family. The action and tension is there: but it comes in short frenetic bursts that spike your heart rate in a teasing fashion, cutting you off at peak moments of excitement. During this first half, you might find yourself itching for a little more fighting, a little more payoff for the growing story. But just wait: The Raid 2's slow build eventually reaches its threshold of pressure and it explodes into a frenzy of some of the best action in film since...well, ever really. The characters are memorable, funny, and scary: a fan-favorite machete-wielder from the first Raid who has become long-haired and homeless, a deaf woman whose skill with a pair of sharp hammers puts Kill Bill's The Bride to shame, a dangerous thug who bashes skulls in with an aluminum baseball bat (and sometimes a baseball, too)--these fights reach a crescendo of action poetry that is unrivaled in modern fight films.
     And the credit really goes to director (and writer) Gareth Evans, a Welshman who become fascinated with film making and the Indonesian martial art called pencak silat which is prominent in his films. With The Raid 2, Evans has propelled himself to the forefront of action directors working today. His ability to make you feel like you're in the middle of the fight--with the innovative camera angles, jarring direction changes, and brutal efficiency--rather than just watching a fight is incredible. No American film will match the excitement of the last hour of The Raid 2 this year. It's essential viewing for any un-squeamish movie fan: a choreographed master-class in excess and excitement.     (A)

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