Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A long film about killing

Welsh-born director Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption brought a dizzyingly high level of craft and invention to its martial arts siege movie set-up. Pretty much the entire film unfolded in a dilapidated Jakarta high-rise lousy with ultra-nasty criminals who would continually charge en masse upon our hero, Rama (Iko Uwais), a good cop in a bad, bad city, a guy with extraordinary fighting skills, sturdy morals and a family he’ll do anything to protect. Evans’ The Raid 2 picks up right where its predecessor left off, stylishly snowing us with exposition in an arresting and audaciously elliptical opening sequence that, in short, sends our poor battered Rama right back into the maw of danger. Though that high-rise mafia haven was conquered, it turns out that Indonesian corruption is far more rampant than we initially thought. The city is caught in the grips of organized crime, and plenty of baddies still need to be smoked out. (I couldn’t stop thinking about The Act of Killing while watching The Raid 2—that appalling and brilliant documentary of last year makes any movie about institutionalized violence in Indonesia suddenly seem a lot less fanciful.)

Rama gets sent to prison to make pals with Uco (Arifin Putra), an elder crime boss’ precariously hubristic heir. Upon release Rama becomes Uco’s bodyguard, just as Uco and rival crime boss Bejo (Alex Abbad), a wimpy Strangelovian dandy-sadist with shades, a cane and leather gloves, conspire against Uco’s dad and another Japanese crime family to start a turf war. Lots and lotsa fights ensue, many of them dazzling, many of them in unnervingly cramped spaces, such as a disgusting prison toilet or the backseat of a moving car. An especially memorable early sequence finds Rama in a massive brawl in a prison yard-turned-mud bath the colour of mocha gelato. So long as the fights go on, I promise you that The Raid 2 is 100% gripping. It’s all that other stuff—story, character, causality—that doesn’t work so well, or even make much sense.

The fact that every single character in The Raid: Redemption was a world-class fighter was a conceit I was happy to roll with, especially since everything about the film was so contained. Extending this conceit to the sprawling urban stage of The Raid 2 is just ridiculous—even tubercular Z-grade pornographers know how to fight like UFC champs. This sequel is bigger, badder, longer and more expensive-looking, but not even close to better. There are novelty act villains—let’s call them Bat-dragger and Hammer Girl—who show up to make certain scenes more protracted and more baroque than they need to be. At times Evans seems to be aping the films of Korean auteur Park Chan-wook—there’s a very silly scene in which dozens of thugs ambush an old master assassin in a nightclub and the old master’s demise is played as tragic opera. (I’ve no idea why, if they just needed him dead, they didn’t just shoot him.) At other times Evans makes sly nods to David Lynch’s taste in décor and accoutrements. I genuinely appreciate Evans’ impulse to expand his MO, but these influences are an awkward fit, playing against Evans’ strengths as a maker of furious, relentless, no-nonsense action sequences. Everything in The Raid 2 is already so busy and on such a huge scale, you have to wonder what could possibly come next for Rama. Intergalactic jujitsu mobsters? Whatever. Just make them fight. 

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