Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Raid 2 solidifies Gareth Evans' status as the next king of action

After winning over audiences and critics alike with The Raid: Redemption in 2012, Gareth Evans could've just done the same thing over and over and many would've been satisfied.  After all, the no frills story and brutal, kinetic action was so unlike the rest of the current action movie landscape that it seemed like he had carved out his own niche to explore.  But in between The Raid and its sequel, Evans proved just how versatile he could be by directing "Safe Haven," a 20 minute short in the horror anthology V/H/S 2.  It was there where he showed that he could translate the insanity of his action movies to horror, and his bugnuts short was easily the best entry in a very scattered series.

In The Raid 2: Berandal, Evans has done a similar thing, trading in the streamlined beat-em'-up style of the first movie for a sprawling crime epic.  While there may be a two-year gap between the two films, this sequel picks up two hours after the events of the first film.  The apartment block that he just fought his way out of was apparently only the tip of the iceberg, as Rama (Iko Uwais) learns of the deep roots of corruption within his police force.  He's forced to go undercover and infiltrate the complicated web of the Jakarta crime syndicate, in order to weed out the dirty cops who want the heads of himself and his family.  The film slogs through a mesh of exposition just to set up this story, and the resulting first 30 minutes are pretty slow and unfocused.  All of The Raid 2's scope gives it an ambition that the first one didn't have, but it also threatens to rob the sequel of what made its predecessor so special.  Evans gets far too bogged down in this fairly standard family crime story, chronicling the uneasy truce between the Indonesian and Japanese mobs that Rama finds himself caught in the middle of, and there are long stretches of the first half where its just a bunch of cliched politicking and no action.

But when that action does kick in, the film takes on a giddy energy that's much needed.  In the years between The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, Evans has improved exponentially as an action director, because the fight scenes exhibit so much more style and visceral thrills than in the first one.  There's a level of poetry to the bone-crunching, blood-spewing fights, which are presented at clear angles and distances from the combatants.  Unlike many modern American action movies, The Raid 2's fight scenes aren't shredded to pieces -- most of the shots last more than just a second or two and they're cut together in a logical manner.  It's a perfect mixture of classical and chaotic action: visceral enough to give the audience the feeling of being in it, but fluid enough to allow for a clear sense of geography at all times.

Not only does The Raid 2 provide better action, but it contains different action too.  Where the first film was handcuffed by its single setting, this installment takes full advantage of the open world it's set in.  Fights occur in mud pits, on trains, between cars -- the amount of inventive scenarios is nearly endless.  And though the 148 minute length may be a bit unwieldy, the spacing of the action does wonders for managing fatigue.  By the time the two-on-one fight arrived at the end of the first Raid, the audience had been through so much nonstop fighting that the impressive climax lost a bit of its power.  Here, Evans builds things more effectively, so that by time the bonkers thirds act rolls around, the audience is begging for it.

While the gore may be disgusting, the movie is actually one of the most gorgeous action films of the last few years.  An increase in budget and experience has allowed Evans to make the visuals as impressive as the choreography.  The film is full of vivid, crisp colors, which just make the action feel even more dynamic.  Coupled with the way the camera moves and contorts to follow the fisticuffs, the movie feels like a full-body sensory experience.  The Raid 2 is the work of a director who has honed all of the pre-existing tools in his toolbox and added a few along the way.  And unlike Rama, he's only just getting started.

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