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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: The Raid 2

Gareth Evans' The Raid: Redemption made some big waves in the action movie community a few years ago. There've been mumblings about it's sequel pushing legendary status as "one of the greatest action movies ever made". Does it live up to such high praise?

In short, it absolutely does.

Way back in episode 36 of the GeekRex podcast, Cal listed The Raid 2 as one of his most anticipated films of 2014. At the time, I hadn't heard of the first one (a big thanks to Cal for the spot on recommendation!). I got a chance this weekend to watch the The Raid: Redemption just before seeing The Raid 2 at the Atlanta Film Festival, making it a full night of killer martial arts action.

The Raid: Redemption had been hyped up to a pretty high degree before I watched it, and that undoubtedly had an effect on how I took it. While I enjoyed it for a number of reasons—great martial arts, brutal action, a good score—it lost a lot of points in my book for having just about the flimsiest story, even by action movie standards. There was little or no character development, so seeing the good guy beat the bad guy didn't really pack the emotionally satisfying punch that it could have. Even so, it overall was a great action movie, one that I would recommend to anyone looking for some badass fights.

The first thing I noticed about The Raid 2 almost immediately is the staggering leap in quality, both in terms of the look of the film and the story. The budget is literally more than four times the amount of the first film, and it shows: the sequel is almost twice as long, has much higher quality film (shot on RED, from what I hear), has a larger cast, and most of all has dozens upon dozens more sets and locations. Whereas The Raid: Redemption all takes place in one building (in which every room and hallway look essentially like all the others), The Raid 2 takes us from a muddy prison yard to a urban highway to a hip dance club to a restaurant kitchen.

The story, which took a backseat to the action in the original, really stands out here as well. Instead of the simple set up of the first, here we get a very complex, compelling crime story: Rama, the lead character, has just survived the incidents of The Raid: Redemption, but he is convinced by his superiors to pretend that he had died during those events so that he can go undercover to root out all the corruption in the police force once and for all. To do so, he must be arrested and befriend Uco, son of the crime lord Bangun. This begins an epic tale of betrayal, gang warfare, and family drama that spans several years and racks up a considerable body count.

But what everyone wants to hear about—and rightly so—is the action. And it is utterly spectacular. It's hard to find comparisons to make, but it is definitely up to par with classics of the genre, from T2: Judgment Day to Hard-Boiled. The sheer amount of action and the diversity of it all is a good place to start: there are at least six major action sequences that I can think of off the top of my head. They range from a massive prison riot with dozens of prisoners fighting each other as well as the guards in the pouring rain and the mud, to an impressive car chase with carefully choreographed fighting going on both in and outside the cars involved, to a simultaneous attack by one gang on all the holdings of another using specialized assassins that wield hammers, a baseball bat and ball, and small curved blades respectively. Each scene has its own feel, and each is unique in structure, choreography, cinematography, and setting.

More importantly, while the action is outrageously awesome, it never feels gratuitous. It's always necessary to move the plot, and the stakes feel high. Much of that is owed to the fact that these are characters that I care about. Most of the villains of the film are given enough backstory as to earn them a little sympathy; although most of the assassins are cold, quiet killers, those who control them are more often than not at least a little grey from a moral standpoint. And, like all good undercover cop stories, Rama begins to have an actual friendship with those he is gathering evidence on, which muddies the waters even further.

But these fights, even without the story behind them, are simply astounding. All of the main players are incredibly talented, but Iko Uwais (Rama) and Cecep Arif Rahman (The Assassin) are particularly impressive. We're talking about guys who make a scene in which someone is practicing their punches by striking a chalk outline of a man on a prison wall a true sight to behold; Uwais is punching so fast and with such precision that the theater literally erupted in oohs and ahs at the sheer spectacle of a scene that would be a throwaway in any other movie.

Their talent wouldn't be worth anything if the movie wasn't filmed and edited intelligently, and Matt Flannery, Dimas Imam Subhono (cinematography), and Gareth Evans (director, editor, writer) deserve some serious applause here. The cameramen must have had some serious physical training, because the view we get has just as much movement as the players themselves. They are continually finding interesting angles to take that keep things fresh and doing some great crosscutting between theaters of the battle, but the best bit of cinematography/editing comes in the incredibly complicated long takes that happen at a few spots. In the car chase, the camera goes from a birds eye view looking into the car where Rama is fighting off four men back to the car behind them, through one window of the car and out the other, and back to another car at the back. This is all done seamlessly, with extremely clever use of GoPro cameras (you can read a bit about it here), and it keeps the action feeling very intense and real.

It's hard to stress how great this film is for action fans. It's a crime epic on the scale of The Departed, infused with some of the greatest action ever filmed. It's stylish and beautiful while maintaining the brutal and bloody nature of the original. Despite it's 2.5 hour length, it doesn't feel drawn out because it is so captivating. This is the kind of movie that, if it was in English, would shatter box office records, but even in its native Indonesian it is bound to become an instant classic, easily in the top three greatest action movies of all time.

I would give it an A+.

The Raid 2 is playing in select theaters in the U.S. now.
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