Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Raid 2: Upping the ante

The Raid 2 (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong, bloody violence, gore, profanity and occasional nudity

By Derrick Bang

With 2011’s The Raid, writer/director Gareth Evans was just flexing his muscles.

Anticipation is everything: Our hero, Rama (Iko Uwais, left) endures considerable
punishment before his climactic confrontation with an opponent known only as
The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman), but the wait is justified. Director Gareth Evans
unleashes a battle royale that must be seen to be believed.
Having now released a sequel, Evans’ master plan has become clear: He’s going for an underworld crime epic that’s the martial arts equivalent of Sergio Leone’s 1984 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America.

Evans is nothing if not ambitious, and he delivers. The Raid 2 is a bravura display of action mayhem, delivered with superbly choreographed panache and layered with enough simmering sub-plots to keep this narrative percolating not only through this sequel’s 150 minutes, but well into the already planned next installment.

Evans has the additional benefit of the ideal acting collaborator in Iko Uwais, who wears his tortured nobility like a shield. Uwais’ Rama is the superlative hero: Jakarta’s last and best honest cop, whose trial by repeated fire pushes him to horrific extremes not merely to save his life, but — far more importantly — also his soul.

We’re dealing here with crime fiction’s ultimate moral imperative: Is it possible for a good man to remain pure, while doing the dirty work required to combat evil?

Tormented angst is well and good; it’s always nice to identify with our protagonist. But Evans also knows how to please the martial arts fans who’ve hungered for an audacious, densely layered follow-up to Quentin Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill epic. Rest assured, The Raid 2 satisfies that itch, and then some.

This new film’s narrative kicks off seconds after the events in the previous film, which left Rama’s rookie cop the lone survivor of a special-forces assault on a 15-story slum building laden with thugs taking orders from their brutal boss on the top floor.

Unfortunately, bad as that guy was, he was merely a mid-sized predator in a much larger food chain. If Rama is hailed as a hero, he and his family will be executed as a warning to other potentially honest cops with virtuous notions. Instead, Rama’s boss — clandestinely doing his best to root out departmental corruption — concocts a dangerous plan that begins with the very public announcement that the aforementioned raid left no survivors.

Rama is given a new identity as a low-level thug named Yuda, who establishes his rep by beating up a local politician’s son and getting tossed into prison. Once incarcerated, our hero must figure out a way to cozy up to Uco (Arifin Putra), son of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), one of the two Jakarta criminal kingpins who’ve ruled the city via a mutual truce that has lasted for years.

The other half is held by the Japanese yakuza, led by Goto (Kenichi Endô) and his son, Keiichi (Ryûhei Matsuda). As it turns out, both sons are irritated by this status quo, and eager to advance their respective causes — and show their worthiness to their respective fathers — by increasing clan territory.

Enter an interloper, Bejo (Alex Abbad), slowly advancing through Indonesia’s bloody underworld, who cheerfully plays both sides against the other, to his own gain. During a brief prologue, we also watch Bejo kill Rama’s brother, Andi (Donny Alamsyah), which ups the ante rather grimly.

But taking down the two clans, if that’s even possible, isn’t the ultimate goal; Rama has been ordered to wade through this hierarchy of competing forces until he can identify — and entrap — the corrupt politicians and upper-echelon police officers who tolerate and even participate in this festering cesspool of fraud and sleaze.

Got all that?

Things get murky once folks start double-crossing each other, but the constant peril of Rama’s double life never wavers. Sadly, his moral conviction also becomes murky, as the need to maintain his cover requires an escalating degree of vicious mayhem.

Martial arts films historically rely on a cliché that often seems silly: the fact that baddies generally attack our hero one at a time — allowing the camera to focus on ferocious mano-a-mano combat — rather than more sensibly overwhelming him en masse. Granted, there’s something to be said for the choreographed adrenalin rush that results from watching a lone warrior sequentially picking off his opponents in wide open spaces, and Evans certainly indulges in such scenes.

But he also finds inventive ways to prevent a group assault from all sides, thus forcing head-on confrontations that allow no more than one or two opponents at a time. The first such skirmish occurs shortly after Rama lands in prison, as he is forced to prove his toughness. He waits in a locked bathroom stall, Evans teasing us with increasingly tight close-ups of the flimsy slip-bolt, as a massing mob on the other side of that door grows louder and more frenzied.

We’re literally breathless before anything even happens, anticipation building as the lock shakes, rattles and slowly gives way. Then, finally, the door bursts inward, but the belligerent thugs have no choice but to rush inside individually.

Brilliant set-up, awesome staging.

Evans also edits his films, and he knows precisely how to squeeze every ounce of fury from his imaginatively conceived action sequences.

Tight quarters play a similar role in another fight scene, later in the film, which takes place on a crowded bus ... but I’m not about to reveal anything about that mind-blowing fracas.

Arresting as they are, these sequences are mere warm-ups; Evans wisely parcels out his action scenes, impressively increasing the tension and mayhem as the story proceeds. In other words, he doesn’t front-load the action in the manner of less talented directors, who leave themselves with nothing for the second and third acts. As was the case in Tarantino’s Kill Bill entries, Evans finds ever-more-daring settings and “styles” for his various combat scenes.

One amazing melee takes place in the rain-muddied prison courtyard, involving scores of thugs making a move on both Rama (Yuda) and Uco: an already frenzied battle that becomes even crazier as the expanding hoards of prisoners also turn their attention to the guards who attempt to break up the fight.

At the other end of the scale, a nightclub sequence involving Bangun’s favorite assassin, Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian), displays more of the balletic grace and moody lighting  generally associated with a Jackie Chan film, with a nod toward, yes, Uma Thurman’s restaurant battle against the Crazy 88.

Speaking of Chan, Uwais’ fighting style often involves a similar mastery of “found” objects as weapons: broom handles, wine bottles, chairs or anything else at hand. And while Evans never ventures into Chan’s purely comedic territory —events here are too grim for that — he’s not above mordant touches of dark humor.

After all, we can’t help chuckling when introduced to the almost entirely silent characters of “Hammer Girl” (Julie Estelle) and her older brother, “Baseball Bat Man” (Very Tri Yulisman), both of whom earn their nicknames for obvious reasons. But we certainly don’t laugh long, once they begin their ruthless work.

Be advised, by the way: This film is aggressively, copiously, gleefully violent and vicious, and definitely not for the faint of heart. The level of gore increases as the story proceeds, reflecting Rama’s descent into spiritual darkness; the final half hour is, well, a sight to behold.

As is Rama’s climactic fight with a character known only as The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman), an amazing sequence that opens as an echo of Bruce Lee’s final battle in Enter the Dragon, but continues — seemingly forever! — to become the most furious mixed martial arts fight ever caught on camera. It’s a cinematic game-changer.

And heck, I haven’t even mentioned the wow factor of Hong Kong stunt coordinator Bruce Law’s exhilarating daytime car chase/fight scene — inside one of the vehicles — through Jakarta’s busy streets.

Uwais is every inch the seasoned warrior, persuasively delivering and enduring punishment. Rama never escapes unscathed from a skirmish, and we see the emotional toll on Uwais’ face, as his character gets ever more bruised and battered. Frustration mounts, as does desperation; the most agonizing scene comes when Rama unwisely calls his wife and asks her to hold up the phone so he can listen to their young son laugh in another room: a painful reminder of the domestic bliss he can’t share.

Putra is perfect as the unwisely impulsive Uco: outwardly immaculate and all smiles, but far too quick with his impatient temper. Pakusodewo’s Bangun, in deliberate contrast, is calm and commanding: a veteran crime lord who understands that strength comes from controlled fury and the threat of reprisal, rather than rash behavior.

Abbad is memorably slimy as the scheming Bejo; Oka Antara has an intriguing role as Eka, Bangun’s trusted lieutenant, who possesses hidden depths of his own.

Ruhian, Estelle and Yulisman make the most of their stony silence and ’tude.

Evans, art designer Tomy Dwi Setyanto and cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono maximize the visual pizzazz of numerous eye-catching locations, from commercial malls and hotels, to snow-covered alleyways, high-ceilinged abandoned buildings, and an entire rubble-strewn apartment block that seems left over from an actual war.

In lesser hands, a 150-minute movie would be self-indulgent, verging on tedious. But Evans never loses control of his narrative or momentum, whether establishing the first-act groundwork or building to the spectacular mayhem of the extended third act. This is a level of intensity we rarely find in American cinema, and I’m left with only one question:

How can Evans possibly top himself again, with the final installment in this trilogy?

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