Gareth Evans is possibly the first director I’ve ever wanted to simply know.
I’ve been watching movies pretty much my whole life, and throughout all of them, I’ve never felt as compelled to get into the mind of a director as I have with one Welsh ex-patriot, apart from Ivan Reitman. This is what has compelled me to listen to the director’s commentary for The Raid (called The Raid: Redemption in the US for some damn reason) and why I’m listening to the commentary of The Raid 2 while I’m writing this.
The Raid 2 also came into the world with its own subtitle, Berandal. Unlike Redemption, it actually has a point to be here. Berandal was the title Evans wanted to produce as his next feature after Merantau, the first film he did with Iko Uwais. He couldn’t get funding for that, so he turned around, took inspiration for Die Hard, Assault on Prescient 13 and video games to create the first Raid. With that film making near nine times its budget back, Evans was able to make the film he originally wanted to…with a few alterations here and there to make it a sequel to The Raid. This was more than likely for the best, since it gives a rich layer of continuity to the film and expands on all that police corruption business almost no one recognized from the first film since the fight scenes were kicking their asses so much.
Speaking of which, I’m going to be focusing on the Raid 2 exclusively here. You want know what happened in the first one go read David Demoss’ write up for it, which is how I originally was tuned to looking it up. Or better yet, go watch the Raid films (subbed is the best way to go, but we’ll get to that later). They’re both excellent examples of the action genre from people who know that there’s artistry to making an action movie. That’s something the genre (hell, every genre) needs more of.
Our story centers on Rama (Iko Uwais) idealistic rookie SWAT officer who just escaped the worst day of his life (i.e. The Raid: Inexplicable Subtitle). He’s able to take himself, one other surviving SWAT officer and a corrupt senior officer to Bunawar (Cok Simbara), the head of a special task force dedicated to routing out police corruption. Sadly, Bunawar is that special breed of Obsessed Cop™, wanting Rama to come in and go deep undercover for him. To this, Rama says “F#%& that noise! I’ve got a pregnant wife at home and there’s not a damn thing you can say to keep me from her!”
Thankfully (for the audience), Rama’s given motivation by Bejo (Alex Abbad), gangster and winner of Jakarta’s Obvious Super Villain awards, killing Rama’s brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) in the opening minutes of the film. With that old motivator Lord Vengeance moving him forward, he joins Bunawar’s team and goes deep inside one of Indonesia’s finer correctional facilities… for several years, much to our hero’s surprise and dismay. While in stir, Rama buddies up with Uco (Arifin Putra) pretty boy hothead and son of Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), boss of bosses for at least half of Jakarta. Problematically, Uco has all the whininess of an uptight rich boy and the violent tendencies of a sociopathic would-be king, making him an easy target for any smooth talking man in a suit who, I don’t know, wants to start a gang war between Uco’s family and the local Yakuza representatives the Gotos (Kenichi Endo and Ryuhei Matsuda, respectively). Will a war break out and throw Jakarta’s underworld into chaos? And will Rama be able to survive it all long enough to exact his revenge?
As you can tell from the fact that it took two paragraphs to describe this film in minor detail, this is a much more obviously complicated plot than The Raid 1, which boiled do “One poor bastard must fight his way through an apartment complex to both survive and see justice done.” I haven’t even mentioned Oka Entara’s Eka or Yayan Ruhian’s Prakoso or the three super assassins that Bejo has under his command. But I don’t want this to run any longer than it has to. I will say that the whole thing, which I’ve heard compared to combining Infernal Affairs and a kitchen sink martial arts movie, does fell a little over-stuffed at times. An extra half hour would have been appreciated by me, but I do suspect that the pacing would probably be shot. And besides, the movie’s already two and a half hours long; I know that I’d be up for a three hour Raid film, but I don’t know if the rest of the world could stand that.
As I stated before, there is artistry in making an action movie, and these people have an understanding of that in way most mainstream action directors don’t seem to. They know that we’re not just here for fight scenes or scores of stage blood. We’re here to see those fight scenes staged well, with characters we actually give a crap about. Since Uwais and Ruhian are back and functioning as choreographers as well as acting in it, we can safely say the former is going to be a given. Since its Rama we’re following throughout this picture we can safely say the latter’s accounted for as well. Seriously, special props need to be given to Iko Uwais for portraying possibly the most human nigh-superhuman protagonist of an action movie outside of Steve Rogers. When, for example, he sees Bejo for the first time while spying on Uco’s late dinner with him, you can just feel the rage and pain from just how he acts. It’s a damn fine performance, and makes me wish that the guy would get ridiculously big.
In fact, the entire cast is damn good. Everybody involved, from the main guys to the super assassins to the special guest Yakuza are all professional cats, knowing exactly what to bring to the table. Special mention goes out to Arifin and Yayan, who give their characters the right amount of humanity for a whiny/violent jackass and lonely hit man, respectively. Tio and Kenichi play the part of old gangsters with the kind of gravitas that can really only come from guys who’ve been in the acting game for years. And sweet hell, does Alex Abbad sell the hell out of his proto-supervillain Bejo. I could literally see this guy trying to establish himself in Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen…or Gotham City.
Speaking of Batman’s stomping grounds, I can safely say this: Dave if you’re reading this, the feeling you had was right. Jakarta in these movies essentially is a pre-Batman Gotham City. With all the pervasive corruption, ultra-violence and near total domination of the mob going on, you’ll feel that ol’ Gotham wind blowin’ on you even before the super assassins (played by Very Tri Yulisman, Julie Estelle and Cecep Arif Rahman) show up, busting out their claw hammers, baseball bats (and baseballs) and those curved knives that I don’t know the proper name for to kill wave after wave of men. If a little bit of that kind of … “hyper reality” I think is the word… isn’t your bag, well go somewhere else. We don’t like your kind ‘round here.
(It also makes me hope that The Raid 3 will go the full superhero route, forcing Rama to take up the fighting crime as Jakarta’s own dark knight.)
This brings us back to the directing, and my shameless tongue-bathing of Gareth Evans. In the commentary of The Raid 2, Gareth claims to actually not be a fan of ultra-violence. If so, the man at least knows how to use ultra-violence to his advantage; bringing it up when he wants the audience to feel the chaos of the bigger fight scenes, like the prison riot scene. Same thing goes for his use of shaky-cam. He also knows when to pull back be breathe for a while, letting either the true tragedy of a character’s situation (that scene when Rama finally gets to call his wife after three years inside) or the horror at what a character’s done (Uco’s scene in a restaurant bathroom near the climax). Hell, with the one car chase scene at near the two hour mark, the man makes a more exhilarating movie than any of the Fast and Furious movies I’ve ever seen. This man is possibly the best action directors working today and most definitely needs to be working more.
Before we go, let me tell you about a certain scene. It’s the one where Prakoso is sent to kill “the asshole son of an asshole politician” as Bunawar puts it. As he goes in for the kill, we see a bloody machete run through a wood fence… then we see the bloody wound that said machete made. As my mind was calling out “100% Jason Voorhees Approved”, the wound leaves frame as the asshole son falls limp to the ground, moving past the hole in the fence, leaving only Prakoso to be seen through it. I can’t ever say I’ve seen something like that before. And honestly, just makes me want to know even more about this wild Welshman.
Oh, and P.S., AVOID THE DUBS! The actors they got to do them all sound like escapees from a late Nineties OVA. I mean really Sony, there are plenty of hard working voice actors out there who could have delivered this dialogue with some talent! Why not drag them here instead of some rejects from Manga Entertainment’s heyday?