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Entries in Raid 2: Berandal/The [2014] (1)

Friday
Apr042014

The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)

Redemption for The Raid

While riding the train into Chicago for a screening of The Raid 2: Berandal, I realized I'd never looked up its run-time. On this particular Thursday, I was slated to watch four movies, mostly in different locations, and I'd somehow forgotten to see how long each one was. My heart sank when I saw "148 minutes" on IMDb; could the sequel to a movie I hated really be forty-five minutes longer?

I understand why the first Raid is so popular, I just don't share the enthusiasm. Personally, I find it to be the equivalent of watching a group of friends play a very well-executed, very repetitive video game--literally moving up generic-looking levels of increasing difficulty, while fighting faceless hordes to get to the big boss. The brothers-on-opposite-sides-of-the-law plot has as much substance as cut scenes, and serve only to trick the audience into believing they're participating in art--instead of haute couture Street Fighter.

If you're new to this site, and wonder why I'd even bother watching The Raid 2, let me explain how this works: I give every movie a fair shake. No matter my experiences with previous installments, or the filmmakers involved, there's nothing I won't see.* I may have doubts; I may complain with each step leading to the theatre. But when the lights go down, even the sketchiest flick is Citizen Kane waiting to happen. It's a hard policy to maintain, and a masochistic one, certainly, but it allows my mind to be blown sometimes--as with writer/director Gareth Evans' downright amazing new movie.

The brilliance of The Raid 2 is not just Evans' expansion of a universe few thought needed to be explored, but the fact that the sequel makes the original wholly unnecessary--not the other way around. I confess to having purged most of Part One from my brain, so when the follow-up began, it took a few minutes to catch up. There's no hand-holding here; no flash-backs or expository voice-over. If you don't know why the gang of mobsters is hauling the roughed-up thug into a remote field for some Casino-style loose-ends management, that's your problem.**

We pick back up with Rama (Iko Uwais), the bad-ass cop-in-shining-armor who'd just killed his way up the food chain of Indonesian corruption. Instead of a hero's welcome, he's told by the head of a secret police task force (Cok Simbara) that he hasn't gone far enough in exposing the web of crookedness strangling their city. To do that, he must go deep undercover and cozy up to the son of the big boss's boss--who, in turn, runs a vast criminal enterprise fueled by shady political deals and a shaky truce with rival Japanese gangsters. In short, Rama's job becomes the grand-scheme equivalent of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded universe.

He takes the assignment, and lands himself in the maximum security prison that houses Ucok (Arifin Putra), son of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo). What should have been a rough couple of months away from his wife and child stretches into a two-year sentence, during which he's relentlessly intimidated and attacked in the lunchroom, the bathroom, and the prison yard. Because he refuses to affiliate with a gang, Rama must fend off thugs from all sides, using beautiful and deadly pencak silat techniques. After saving Ucok from an assassination attempt, Rama earns the trust of his family, and lands a job in Bangun's army upon release.

You've seen the broadest outlines of this story play out in dozens of other movies: undercover cop befriends villain, leading to death, betrayal, and a fundamental question of loyalties. Evans knows this, I think, and does for the story what he did for the premise of his last picture: forcing the audience to navigate increasingly complex levels on our way to the big showdown at the end (which, here, turns out to be as much of an emotional catharsis as it is a showcase for practical martial artistry--and some of the most eye-popping violence you'll see this year).

Every single character who has more than two minutes' screen time is given a rich back story that's implied beautifully through actions and interactions. For example, Ucok is such a handsome, charismatic guy that we wonder why his old man is so reluctant to groom him for promotion. Over the course of The Raid 2, we find out precisely why, as his personality takes on more facets than a diamond; the pretty-boy Ucok reveals himself to be much more (and much less) of a man than those outside his family suspect.

The real stand-out, though, is Yayan Rhuian, who plays Bangun's chief assassin, Prakoso. Rhuian was a heavy in the first Raid, but plays a different character here. That's unfortunate because, had "Mad Dog" survived part one and been gifted with this storyline in the sequel, his would have been one of the best character arcs in modern action cinema (as it sits now, the story's still pretty great). I won't spoil what happens, but suffice it to say, Prakoso's fate helps expose yet another fetid layer of The Raid 2's underbelly--in fact pushing it into the realm of a Tarantino-style comic-book movie. Just as Rama's conflict with Ucok represents the complex shades of good versus evil, Prakoso must contend with a younger, more flamboyant criminal element that all but leaves honor and humanity behind in a quest for ultimate, amoral power. Imagine having to side with The Dark Knight's Joker because the alternative is just too sick to comprehend.

Evans' picture succeeds because he doesn't ask us to choose between inventive, adrenaline-hammering action scenes and heady, well-performed drama. Uwais occasionally defaults to the non-presence, action-movie stylings of Channing Tatum, but that's okay here: Rama's role in The Raid 2 really is as a witness to the depths of depravity and greed from which he desperately wants to protect his family. When he switches on during the fight scenes, we can feel the hard-charging spirit of his ultimate goal. The villains get as much chance to shine and show their many colors, as the film constantly toys with our expectations of who they are or what they'll do next.

In short, this isn't just two-and-a-half hours of people beating each other up. Granted, when Evans and co-cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono do throw down, the results are epic. Outside the drab walls of the first film's apartment building, they do wondrous things visually and practically within various, opportunity heavy environments. Car chases, gang pile-ons, narrow hallway and subway battles with hammers--the filmmakers throw in just about everything you've ever seen or wanted to see, and tweak them with signature touches at turns humorous and horrifying. Had you told me a month ago that The Raid 2: Berandal would be an early contender for my "Best of 2014" list, I probably would've punched you in the mouth. But there it is.

*Priority is another matter, though. If I say, "Sure, I'll check out that new Jingle All the Way sequel, starring Larry the Cable Guy", I'm telling the truth; just don't expect a review within the next decade.

**In fairness, it might have nothing to do with the first Raid: I didn't recognize anyone on-screen, but that's mostly true of the original, too.