Great films have moments in them that make you think, “This is something special.”
There is a moment in the opening of Saving Private Ryan during the Normandy Beach invasion scene where the audience realizes it’s in for level of violence that it’s not prepared for. Likewise there is a moment in Donnie Yen’s film Ip Man where the normally peaceful grandmaster mows down a group of Japanese black belt karate students in front of his captors, with the intent to maim. Then there is the famous hammer scene in Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy where a brutal hallway fight involving knives, sticks, and the aforementioned hammer turns into an altogether different art form not unsimilar to dance. For me The Raid 2: Berandal brought to mind moments from all three of those films. The only thing that keeps it from being a masterpiece is the lack of an emotional tie to the characters.
Director Gareth Evans follow-up to the film The Raid is sheer spectacle. Before its exhausting marathon of broken bodies hits its crescendo there have already been five fights that would’ve been marquee set pieces in any other film. Serious martial arts fans should go see it in the theater immediately.
For everyone else whether or not you should see this film is solely dependent on your tolerance for on-screen violence. The body count is exhausting. More people are killed on-screen in its 150 minute run time then an entire season of Game of Thrones.
What keeps the film from becoming tedious is the amount of thought Evans has placed into each fight scene. The martial arts on display are so meticulously choreographed that comparisons to Fred Astaire are apt. Each combatant is given a moment to display their style whether it be cartoonish like Bat Boy and Hammer Girl, or deadly serious like Koso and The Assassin.
Then there is the star of the mayhem Iko Uwais, who plays Rama a SWAT team member who fresh off a botched operation in the first film is now convinced to go undercover for the sequel. When Uwais is in motion, whether bashing heads in a muddy prison yard melee or fighting four assailants in a high speed car chase, he is a pleasure to watch. Given the right career path he could become as popular as Jet Li or Jackie Chan. Converse, which Uwais appears to sport throughout, should give him a sponsorship after this film with the tagline: “Chucks: When you need to kick 80 people’s ass and not slip in the blood once.”
Unfortunately Uwais still does not yet have the acting chops to carry the quieter plot driven scenes even when compared to the often wooden Jet Li. The moments he has with his family are more wince inducing then any of the mayhem.
The blame can be partially placed on Evans. He is going for Infernal Affairs or The Godfather style machinations and it simply doesn’t work. It’s the equivalent of asking ballet dancers to stop and read Shakespeare in mid stride. Incorporating more plot actually hurts the film. While the dialogue is not painful and the acting is serviceable, what’s on screen is surpassed by any television crime show on currently. It’s easy to forget, given the technical mastery in the fight scenes, that this is only Evans’ fifth film. He is still figuring out how to make the quiet moments more than derivative.
But let’s not pretend you are here for plot.
How were the fights?
Well the prison yard melee is easily the best melee in a martial arts film. It’s even better than comparable scenes in serious films like Henry V or Gangs of New York. Bat Boy and Hammer Girl’s respective fights were fun and even better when paired together. Koso, played by fan favorite Yayan Ruhian who was the character Mad Dog in the first film, is unfortunately a little short shrifted. Evans wisely features Koso in a nod to fans I have a feeling a large portion of his fight, which ends in a random “when did it snow” scene, was left on the editing room floor.
That leaves the crescendo fight between The Assassin and Rama. The Assassin is played by Pencak Silat practitioner Cecep Arif Rahman, in his film debut. Rahman’s speed is a perfect counter to Uwais’s power and their fight is better than the final fight in the first film. Especially when the blades The Assassin uses, which look like portable velociraptor claws, come out. It’s so visceral odds are your palms will be sweating. Easily the best fight in a film filled with great ones.
The crowd at the showing I attended had lost all modicum of proper film etiquette by the last half hour and were simply shouting expletives at the screen with each bloody and ferocious exchange. See it now.