Friday, April 11, 2014

In Theaters: THE RAID 2 (2014)

(US/Indonesia - 2014)

Written and directed by Gareth Evans. Cast: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Tio Pakusadewo, Alex Abbad, Kenichi Endo, Ryuhei Matsuda, Julie Estelle, Very Tri Yulisman, Yayan Ruhian, Cecip Arif Rahman, Cok Simbara, Kazuki Kitamura, Roy Marten, Fikha Effendi. (R, 150 mins)

Welsh-born, Indonesia-based writer/director Gareth Evans caught the attention of martial arts fans with his 2009 cult film MERENTAU, his first teaming with Pencak Silat champion Iko Uwais.  The duo paired again for their global breakthrough, 2011's THE RAID, a riveting actioner and an instant classic in the "high-rise mayhem" genre, with Uwais as a rookie cop forced to fight his way floor-by-floor through a Jakarta drug lord's apartment-building stronghold.  THE RAID earned acclaim worldwide and was released in the US in 2012 as THE RAID: REDEMPTION (even though no one calls it that), becoming a rare subtitled foreign film to break out of the art-house shackles and open wide, and while it didn't exactly tear it up at the box office, it grossed a relatively respectable $4 million for Sony Pictures Classics on its way to becoming a big hit on DVD and Blu-ray.  Evans and Uwais are back with THE RAID 2, and let it be said here and now: they are not fucking around.

THE RAID was a perfect, self-contained B-movie but THE RAID 2 is just...bigger.  Not only is the action more expansive, but Evans has grown as a filmmaker. THE RAID was a B-movie, but THE RAID 2 is a film.  Evans has already proven that he's an expert action choreographer, but THE RAID 2 is on an altogether higher and more advanced level.  A few months after the events of the first film (some reviews say it begins a few hours after, but that can't be, since the hero's wife was pregnant in THE RAID and in THE RAID 2, the kid is a few months old), Jakarta cop Rama (Uwais) is talked into going undercover by his anti-corruption task force boss Bunawar (Cok Simbara), who knows police commissioner Reza (Roy Marten) is in cahoots with various crime organizations, but needs proof. Rama's assignment: get arrested, get convicted, and get sentenced to a few months in prison so he can get close to Uco (Arifin Putra), the incarcerated son of mob boss Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), and work his way into the organization to see just how many cops are involved in Jakarta's criminal underworld.  Fearing for the safety of his wife and infant son after bringing down the drug lord in the first film, Rama agrees and goes undercover as Yuda, but "a few months" turns into a two-year prison sentence, during which time he earns Uco's trust by saving his life in an attempted rubout in the yard. Bangun pulls some strings with the police to get Rama/Yuda released and Yuda becomes an enforcer in the Bangun family.  Meanwhile, ambitious, duplicitous would-be gangster Bejo (Alex Abbad) wants a bigger piece of the action and decides to shake things up by manipulating Uco and playing the Bangun family against the Goto (Kenichi Endo) organization, a Japanese outfit with whom Bangun has has ten years of peaceful co-existence.

Where THE RAID's action was limited to the claustrophobic confines of an apartment building, THE RAID 2, its inital premise owing more than a slight debt to DONNIE BRASCO, INFERNAL AFFAIRS and THE DEPARTED, allows Evans to make all of Jakarta his bonecrushing playground.  The fight scenes are longer, more intricate, and more violent (Evans had to make some cuts to avoid an NC-17), and by opening things up and resisting the ease of making an identical sequel, Evans and Uwais now get to expand their repertoire to include an epic car chase (watch Uwais stuck in a car with four other people, fighting them in the car, while it's being chased), a blood-drenched fight sequence on a subway with a Bejo hired gun called Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), whose weapons of choice should be self-explantory, and a long brawl in a muddy prison yard during a torrential downpour.  And those are just some of the exhilarating sights on display:  Evans pays obvious tribute to Scorsese throughout, especially in the way he makes two and a half hours fly by, but also to Stanley Kubrick in some of the ornate, expansive interiors. One vast cocktail lounge bears a striking resemblance to the Gold Ballroom in THE SHINING, and the tracking shots and production design in the restaurants and offices have that distinctly cold, antiseptic Kubrick aura. In these scenes, THE RAID 2 is often as stunningly beautiful as Nicolas Winding Refn's divisive Kubrick lovefest ONLY GOD FORGIVES.

But all that aside, fans of THE RAID are seeing THE RAID 2 for the action, and on that front, Evans and Uwais deliver, and then some. Rama/Yuda's late-film, restaurant-kitchen battle with a Bejo assassin (Cecip Arif Rahman) is one of the most jaw-dropping fight sequences ever shot in a film full of unforgettable, innovative set pieces.  Except for some sparingly-utilized CGI gore (and not the distracting, over-digitized kind), Evans goes practical and avoids the modern propensity for shaky-cam action and leaning on the crutch of CGI. Of course, it's there, but it's used to subtly, conservatively enhance rather than do all of the heavy lifting. The action is clear and coherent, and the characters and the viewer feel the pain of every blow.  Limbs are snapped, faces are shot off, throats are ripped out, people are disemboweled, one poor bastard gets hibachied, and heads scrape along the road as they're held out of a door that flies open during a car chase.  THE RAID 2 is gloriously, breathtakingly brutal, an action film for action fans who think they've seen it all, with an insane 40-minute climax that should be required viewing for any director working in the genre. While the set-up and the police corruption angle are nothing new, THE RAID 2 is the kind of balls-out action ass-kicking that fans have been awaiting for a long time.  I don't want Evans to come to Hollywood unless it's on his own terms.  He's doing just fine on his own in Indonesia.  THE RAID established him as a new voice in cinematic action. THE RAID 2 is a masterpiece.

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