Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fight, Fight, Fight: THE RAID 2

Writer, director, and editor Gareth Evans’ action film The Raid: Redemption was 100 minutes long and spent about 98 of those minutes in constant motion. It followed a brave Indonesian cop (Iko Uwais) fighting his way up and down a towering building controlled by a drug lord, busting heads and snapping limbs as he bloodily brought them to justice or something like it. Evans has clear exuberance for martial arts combat and the various configurations of combatants and circumstances had flashes of wit – I liked best when Uwais hides in the walls of an apartment as a baddie looking for him stabs into them with a machete. But the movie was way too much of a good thing; the nonstop violence and commotion grew monotonous. It’s an overdose.

Now we have The Raid 2, which runs a full 150 minutes. Wisely, Evans builds some downtime, spreading the action around in a film that’s larger in scope, but as claustrophobic in its inevitable bloody conclusions. I can better appreciate moments of gripping action filmmaking when I have time to catch my breath, let the bludgeoning blows stop ringing in my ears, and allow the gore to fade from my vision before it all starts up again. Unfortunately, Evans fills the spaces in between the action with a plot that’s conventional when it’s not convoluted. Once again, we follow the insanely talented fighting cop. Iko Uwais keeps an expression of deadpan disbelief and scowling determination while facing his fate. Here he agrees to go undercover in Indonesia’s biggest crime family and bring down corrupt cops on their payroll. It involves a lot of fighting. By the midpoint I had lost track of who was fighting and why.

The plot is made up of standard mobster power plays and double crossings, the better to baffle me as I lost track of everyone’s goals and why, say, a girl with two hammers (Julie Estelle) is fighting a group of knife-wielding men on a subway car. The scheming seems to chiefly concern a frustrated man (Arifin Putra) working for his father (Tio Pakusodweo), head of a mob empire. The son befriends Uwais and takes him along on trips to shake down local criminals for bribes. His real goal is taking over his dad’s job, so he negotiates help with shady elements like a guy (Alex Abbad) we can tell is bad because he’s never without his sunglasses, leather gloves, and flashy cane. The movie loses its whole undercover-cop thread, letting Uwais drift out of the spotlight for a while as we watch a confusing number of characters plot to start some kind of war between competing crime families.

Characters who lumber through the plot are thinly developed, recognizable not by their actions or allegiances, but by their murder weapons of choice. In addition to the aforementioned Hammer Girl, there’s a guy with a bat, a guy with hooked blades, and a homeless guy with a machete. He has a fight scene in which he uses the big knife only once; the rest of the time he grips it in one hand, beating down the oncoming combatants with the other. That’s the kind of thing Evans is serving up here, action memorably staged. I don’t know why the homeless guy was fighting, who he was fighting, or why this wasn’t just a deleted scene to enjoy on the Blu-ray. But I do remember how sparingly he used that machete.

Evans builds an entire movie out of such striking choices. He has a good eye for compositions and with cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono builds some great sequences out of memorable images. A prison riot takes place on a muddy field, guys slipping and sliding, colliding in the puddles of slimy dirt. An incredible car chase finds the camera slipping in and out of cars, sometimes in deceptively complicated unbroken takes. One shot starts on a fistfight in the backseat of an SUV, dips out the window, and moves backwards into the front seat of the car behind. (I fleetingly wondered what Evans could do with a Fast & Furious movie.) The climax finds our hero fighting wave after wave of attackers, each progressively tougher than the last, as he storms through a building on his way to the Big Bosses he needs to take out and finish his mission.

These Raid movies are like video games, and I don’t necessarily mean that pejoratively. The first was a compact side-scroller, all jumping, ducking, and punching, minimal context required. The sequel wants to be taken more seriously and so expands the point of view, getting loaded down with laborious cut-scenes in the process. So each Raid is frustrating and exasperating in its own way. Evans is not an untalented director, but I’d like to seem him put his inventive action to use in a good script. He increased variety and staged some memorable moments, but The Raid 2 is still a film of unrelenting repetitive brutality, sadistic in pursuit of kills that’ll make audiences audibly wince in unison. A particularly nasty moment finds a bat smashed so hard into a man’s head it gets stuck in the skull. But once you’ve seen one anonymous bad guy’s skull cracked open, you’ve seen them all. Without fail, the action scenes are lengthy, loud, bloody, and visceral, separated only by stretches of confusion and convention. Too thin and monotonous to sustain itself, it’s exciting at times, but adds up to a dull headache.

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