Geoff finally gets around to reviewing Gareth Evans’ action sequel on import Blu-ray
After the international success of The Raid, the Indonesian action thriller from Welsh director/writer Gareth Huw Evans, it was only natural that thoughts would turn to a sequel. Evans returned to a script which he’d written before The Raid – having made the smaller, cheaper movie first as a calling card of sorts – and he retrofitted it with the character of Rama, the idealistic rookie who [spoiler alert!] made it out alive at the end of the first movie.
Picking up the story literally hours after he’d battled his way out of the gangsters’ 15-storey stronghold, The Raid 2 begins with Rama (Iko Uwais reprising his role) being offered a new mission by Bunawar, the head of an anti-corruption task force: to go undercover in prison to get close to the son of a local crime boss, one who has further links with the dirty cops that Bunawar is investigating. Rama refuses, but Bunawar reasons that if the bad guys find out that Rama levelled one of their drug-production setups, then he – and by extension his wife and infant son – will be in mortal danger. Rama reluctantly agrees to forego his former life, not least because he’s also told that his brother Andi is dead and the man who put him in the ground is also mixed up in this whole bloody affair. And so ensues a sprawling crime saga full of double-crosses, epic fights and people getting killed with sporting goods.
The Raid 2 garnered some very favourable reviews upon release, but my first impression is that Evans’ ambition outstretches his ability, in a screenwriting sense at least. His well-worn story of warring crime clans has some glaring holes and telegraphs a certain twist much too early (not that it adds anything to the story anyway), and it spends too much time on trite characterisation for minor characters which has absolutely no bearing on the overall plot. Said plot borders on the impenetrable at times as the imprisoned Rama befriends Uco, the son of crime lord Bangun who’s coexisted for years with rival Bejo and a Japanese outfit, only Bejo wants Bangun’s turf so he enlists Uco to start a gang war with the Japanese on Bangun’s behalf, and then Bejo can step in when the smoke clears. Got all that?
As you can probably tell, Rama doesn’t actually have much to do with the overarching narrative, which is a natural consequence of the fact that it wasn’t intended to be a Raid sequel to begin with. It’s so different to its predecessor in terms of look and feel and scope that it’s like there’s a sequel missing; indeed, the much-publicised ‘Rama undercover in prison’ aspect is jumped over after about 10 minutes (‘TWO YEARS LATER’) and could’ve been a movie in itself. And when we find that Rama’s losing himself in the role of Uco’s minder by becoming more of a thug with each passing day, the movie lacks the heart and gravitas which is needed to make us care about his plight, because we’re quickly returned to the ‘gang war’ tangent as lots of imaginatively-titled goons (‘Hammer Girl’, ‘Baseball Bat Man’ and ‘The Assassin’) kill lots of people to advance the plot.
Speaking of which, the action isn’t quite as satisfying as it was before. The claustrophobic nature of the first Raid’s hallway setup meant that the action was mostly confined to small spaces, which was the perfect cinematic complement for the close-quarters style of pencak silat, Indonesia’s native martial art. Evans’ penchant for wildly inventive shots had to be reined in within those tight confines (though he did pull off a couple of stunners like the drop through the ceiling) so the staging had a palpable sense of weight and impact, whereas the larger locales of the sequel mean that the fight choreography is a touch more airy and Evans’ camera simply doesn’t stop moving, circling over/under/around the combatants (even through solid walls) instead of letting us concentrate on what the fighters are doing. The constant jiggling of the camera during the action scenes doesn’t help either, as instead of being ‘realistic’ it’s just plain ‘annoying’, at least it was to this writer.
People are killed in ever-more inventive ways in the Raid 2, but the level of ultra-violence often tips into cartoon territory because I just didn’t care for who was being killed and who was doing the killing, whereas the slaughter in The Raid meant something because death was hiding around every corner, so every time Rama slayed someone it’s that much more intense. There’s still some cracking stuff here, like the admittedly impressive camera work during the car chase and the gruelling final battle between Rama and The Assassin, yet there’s nothing to top the Rama/Mad Dog/Andi three-way that ends the first movie. The main baddies in The Raid, like Mad Dog, were stylised to a minor extent, but this time around they’re so batty (quite literally, in one case) that it feels like they’ve been parachuted in from a completely different movie universe. And when Rama gets around to fighting these oddballs there’s no connection between him and them so there’s no dramatic impetus whatsoever, apart from ‘they must fight now’. Heck, sometimes it borders on the pretentious, like when a character’s bloody murder is set to a soundtrack of Handel’s Sarabande whilst snow falls gently around them – snow which seems to disappear just as quickly as it arrives when we cut to the next scene!
Is it a bad film? No, because it’s competently acted, Evans’ direction is undeniably ballsy and there’s lots of crunchy bits for action fans to chew on, my complaints about which seem somewhat churlish when I consider that the action is still far better than anything Hollywood’s come up with over the last few years. It’s when the action stops that the movie struggles, and with a 150 minute running time it seems more than a little overindulgent. I freely admit to criticising the original in my 2012 Blu-ray review for not having much of a plot, but you know what they say: “be careful what you wish for”. Where there was next to no plot before, now there’s too much! However, upon reflection it’s clear that the first movie was very economical with its storytelling, which allowed it to deftly juggle the intertwining struggles of Rama and his brother Andi, whilst still hinting at the overriding conspiracy within the police force. The premise was ripe for expansion in a bigger, bolder sequel – but The Raid 2 isn’t it, because it’s a totally different story with the ‘crooked police’ device tacked on as an afterthought.
This is exemplified by the way that Evans couldn’t be bothered or didn’t have the time to tailor his Berandal script (it means ‘thug’ in Indonesian and was the original title before it became the Raid sequel) to fit in all the surviving characters from the end of the The Raid – so two get killed in the first five minutes and another is spirited away, never to be seen again, leaving only Rama. And yet, even if we judge the underlying ‘gang war’ narrative on its own merits by removing the Rama character from the equation, it can’t shake off the shackles of a hundred gangster movies which have gone before and done it better. The barnstorming action is enough to see The Raid 2 get over the line, but the bloated running time means that it doesn’t match up to the sheer intensity of the original.
Sony present the R-rated cut of the movie (it’s lost a few frames of gory detail here and there) on a region A locked US Blu-ray. The disc starts with several trailers which can be skipped over, including Appleseed Alpha, The Calling, Afflicted, House of Cards, A Fighting Man and The Raid.
The picture quality is a world apart from the first movie. Lensed on some cheap (though still expensive in consumer terms) Panasonic AF100 cameras, The Raid looked soft and lacking in detail, and displayed some noticeable banding, which was especially prevalent in the UK Blu-ray. Second time around they’ve gone all-out, shooting in 5K on the lightweight RED Scarlet and the RED Epic (with GoPro for select action shots in the car chase) for a 2K finish, and the resultant AVC Blu-ray encode is, to all intents and purposes, perfect. Framed at 2.40 widescreen (itself a departure from the 1.85 of The Raid) the image has a glossy big-budget sheen that yields sharp detail and superb blacks. The colour palette in general isn’t the most expansive you’ll ever see because the film still has a fairly subdued visual aesthetic with regards to colour and contrast, but there are bursts of intense primaries which are expertly handled with no noise or banding, and the same is true of the darker scenes too, there’s no crushing to ruin the shadow detail. It won’t be a ‘go to’ disc for showing off your TV, but the video presentation is impeccable regardless. Excellent stuff.
Where the sequel does share common ground with the first movie is with the terrifically punchy sound. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (available in original Indonesian with subtitles or dubbed English) has a lively and cohesive sound design, often resulting in a sheer wall of sound as the ominous music track threatens to overwhelm you. Discrete rear effects are plentiful, from the pounding rain in an early scene to the pounding of a bunch of thugs as they attack Rama inside a car, you can literally hear them beating on the car’s roof all around you. Bass is plentiful too, dropping very deep when it has to, and there’s a scene in a club with a punishing bass line that almost seemed to make my viewing room swell with the pressure. Dialogue is crisp and clean and it never gets buried under the other aspects of the mix. Again, it’s excellent.
The extras are fairly decent, starting off with several featurettes (The Next Chapter: Shooting a Sequel, A Violent Ballet: The Choreography and Ready for a Fight: On Location) that combine interviews and behind the scenes footage for an overview of things like the film’s story, how it differs from the original and what Evans’ methodology is. There’s also a very violent ‘Gang War’ deleted scene (which you may have already seen on youtube), a 44-minute Q&A with Evans, Uwais and music composer Joe Trapanese, plus an informative audio commentary from Evans and the theatrical trailer. (Note that the extras still carry the Raid 2: Berandal subtitle, but it’s been dropped entirely from this US version of the film.)
Evans is an articulate man, in that he’s able to readily describe what his thought processes are behind his work, e.g. I’ve criticised the outlandish characters like Hammer Girl, but apparently she uses the claw hammers as a sort of physical metaphor for a certain style of silat, so at least that character’s quirk comes from an organic place, even if she doesn’t fit stylistically with the world that the first Raid established. (Incidentally, in the Violent Ballet feature you can actually see the uncut version of the censored part of the Hammer Girl train fight!) But I had to chuckle when Evans dismissed modern action choreography being a mere ‘shake of the camera’, as even though his fight scenes are undeniably impressive, they too are afflicted with a noticeable case of the tremors.
The Raid 2 is a bold but ultimately flawed attempt by director Gareth Huw Evans at telling a larger, multi-layered story. But the action is what people have come for and it delivers in that respect, although this writer feels that the first film has the edge in that department. This US Blu-ray has very good picture and sound quality, bolstered by some quality supplemental material. The movie is slightly cut and is region A locked though, so bear that in mind if ordering from the links above.
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