Wednesday, April 9, 2014

'The Raid 2' (2014) directed by Gareth Evans

The Raid was a fat-free film that hit the ground running and didn't look back.  A cop is stuck in a building with a bunch of gangsters and has to beat them all up to escape. The efficient brutality was a perfect match for the pared down narrative, every stomped on head and busted rib taking us a step further through the plot.  It still stands out as a distillation of everything that makes an action film great; and I figured it'd been put together with strict adherence to the philosophy that the plots of these kinds of movies are merely a vehicle to get to the next action scene.

I figured wrong, because where The Raid is fast-paced and muscular, The Raid 2 is flabby, unfocussed and (surprisingly for a film with this much ass-kicking) often kinda dull.  This is a damn shame, practically all of the things that made the first film so great are still present; the kinetic camerawork; technically stunning action sequences; the sense of restrained style leavened with dark humour - but all this is hamstrung by the insistence that we should care about a load of overwrought, cliched gangster rubbish.

Where The Raid was simple and straightforward, this sequel is convoluted and confusing.  Rama (Iko Uwais) is taking orders from a secret police corruption unit so he attacks a politician's son so he can be placed into prison to befriend a gangster's son so he can infiltrate a crime gang to... I guess take the gang down? Think that last sentence was poorly constructed?  You should see the rest of the plot!  What remains is a tangle of poorly defined loyalties, double-crosses and scheming that honestly doesn't make a huge amount of sense.   Sadly this is all a bit of a mess. And it's all stretched over two and a half hours. 

Thankfully when the fists start flying this sequel becomes a worthy companion to the original. Evans can direct the hell out of a fight, the camera whip-panning through the air as if synchronised to the movements of the participants.  Iko Uwais is the Mozart of handing dudes their asses, sure he's a bit limited when he's not punching a guy repeatedly in the mush, but who cares?  The stunt team are similarly brilliant, throwing themselves around with reckless abandon and making every blow viscerally count. An early mass brawl in a muddy prison yard is a stunning achievement in action cinema.  Evans' lens greedily drinking in ten or twenty individual tiny fight scenes, moving frenetically from beating to the next, a sense of omniscient timing allowing him to capture myriad tiny moments of violence.

The real stand-out is a cross-cut sequence showing two assassins moving through different environments. They're the marvellously named Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, and they metallicly bonk and bash a load of poor mooks into submission.  The sound design and score here is marvellous, the brittle jingle-jangle of the baseball bat on the pavement and the *thonk-SNAP* as bones break under hammer blows all in synchronisation with the score.  There's more than a touch of Edgar Wright to Evans' directorial style, a light-hearted pop-inflected playfulness that works as a great contrast to the gore and blood.

Despite having no lines (or personality) Hammer Girl is actually pretty great.
But you can have too much of a good thing and by the climax of the film I found myself more than punched out.  By way of illustration, this film has an awful lot of violent throat trauma in it - no throat goes unripped, with big gouts of arterial blood spraying everywhere at the slightest provocation. The 'correct' audience reaction to someone's throat being ripped out by the hero is a queasy cocktail of astonishment, disgust and exhilaration - it's brutal but it's exciting.  But by the end of the film you're accustomed to it - to the point where you see horrible things and take them for granted.  Feeling nothing at all when confronted with gory imagery just makes you feel like a psychopath.  Audience desensitisation to violence isn't a good thing and this inexorably leads to detachment and boredom.

Further blows are struck by the meandering run-time and unfocussed narrative, which rob the film of urgency and drain any emotional engagement.  In the previous film we cared about Rama on a basic level; he just wanted to see his wife and kids again.  Here his (and everyone else's) motivations are blurred, with the result that we don't particularly care who wins these fights. This means that while the action isn't really more extreme than The Raid, the tone is all wrong and it pretty much spoils the whole film.

It's a pity, because with disciplined screenwriting and some judicious editing this has all the ingredients to be a worthy follow-up.  But Evans, presumably wanting to take advantage of his new directorial freedom and a bigger budget, has bitten off more than he can chew.  The Raid 2 contains a hell of a lot of great stuff, but unfortunately this franchise has already become a victim of its own success - a textbook case of sequel bloat.


The Raid 2 is on general release from April 11th.

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