The Raid: Redemption is one of the greatest action films of all time.
The first scene gave us the sympathetic protagonist, Rama – a SWAT rookie with a pregnant wife and a brother mixed up in the wrong company. The next scene gave us the mission, his earnest Sergeant, and his shady Lieutenant. The third scene gave us the bad guy. This all adds up to about seven minutes. Then for the next 90 minutes, action movie. Is there anything of note besides that? No. And that’s why it works so well. It’s a film that knows exactly what it wants to do, defines its small-scale parameters and naked black/white straightforward story accordingly without even a hint of subtlety, takes a deep breath, and then proceeds to give you one of the most epic shootouts and some of the craziest and most nuanced martial arts action setpieces you’ve ever seen – debuting for many, the existence of Pencak Silat – the street-intensive hybrid art of Indonesia (pronounced ‘pen-chack’ ‘see-laht’) – in a feature film.
Featuring a cast almost entirely made up of martial artists, The Raid has no further ambition beyond reveling in itself and it lets you know from the very beginning that if you want more than what it’s prepared to give, watch a different movie. It is one of the tightest and most perfectly shot embodiments of everything the survival-action genre has to offer. And it ROCKS!!!
It is interesting, therefore, that The Raid is a film created in frustration as a tiny half-thought by Welsh writer/director, Gareth Evans who wanted to make a bigger Indonesian action film but didn’t have the budget to do it. So with that meager $1.1 million, he made that instead. Now, with a bigger budget, Evans and star Iko Uwais are back for The Raid 2: Berandal – the larger and more sprawling mafia crime drama and action movie they wanted to make the first time.
The film is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the action setpieces are better than ever and they’re just as awesome as you’ve heard. On the other hand, the narrative stretches itself far beyond its natural limits, which makes for an empty middle section and a rather unforgivably lengthy 2 & a half hour film.
Berandal lacks the certainty and focus of its predecessor. There’s an admirable attempt by Evans to expand the story to a more meaningful at atmospheric crime drama, but it mostly falls flat, in large part because the cast just isn’t game for it. After a great first act, there’s no synthesis in tone, with the exception of Rama, who is painted here with a darker and more personal brush. A lot of character motivations are predictable from the beginning take too long to unfold, and there exist some scenes that the script appears to think are building character but really just don’t need to be there.
For example, there’s one character who is introduced and given a sympathetic backstory just so that the film can kill him not long afterward in a giant bar fight. Hey, movie? When you stage a fight where one guy takes on a hundred, I don’t need to know that that one guy is a lonely snowflake trying to find redemption for his life of sin in order to root for him. I’d root for him even if he was the bad guy, so long as it made for a fun fight.
So much of the script is spent trying to build its world and its character conflict, almost entirely through exposition ad nauseam. Some of the characters that we know are going to be major action players aren’t introduced until way later. They make a great impression as far as their skills and stylistic quirks are concerned, but the film doesn’t do anything with them beyond that. And when Rama takes a back seat, the narrative feels even messier. If that were somehow the point – that these mean-faced mongrels of violence are just peons in a larger game (something that is actually mentioned in a scene that’s more contemplative than forward-driven) – it might have been okay, but here, it’s just boring. It doesn’t help that it puts just about everyone playing a mafia boss way out of their depth. The overall expansion in scope just isn’t interesting or compelling enough in really any dimension to talk about further.
That problem is essentially why the action scenes feel so out of this world. To say they’re incredible would be an understatement. Berandal operates on an entire different plane of filmmaking when the chaos erupts. Gareth Evans may just be the greatest action choreographer ever. As dozens of people punch, kick, elbow, knee, stomp, strangle, slice, stab, bludgeon, shoot, run over, crush, and burn each other, the camera swoops and circles, giving exactly the right amount of everything with each take before cutting to the next. Even in tight environments like the inside of a sedan or a prison bathroom stall, Evans’ camera finds a way to move around and play with the angles. The action scenes are kinetic and organic, building and releasing their own tension and moving their own micro-narratives along in a way that made every big fight worth remembering.
And it isn’t like this movie is without action. There’s so much of it, I counted ten different fights and that was being conservative. And three of them are among the best fights ever filmed – freewheeling tornadoes of blood that end with every unlucky bastard leaving with their lives battered and skinned.
While the action is awesome, it’s too bad that in this film, they’re the story taking a break for another shot at spectacle. Berandal doesn’t have the pitch-perfect pacing of its predecessor, which was one big action scene that did most of the storytelling by itself, at least not until the end. The fourth act climaxes with an absolutely bonkers car chase that allows the film to find its proper footing. It’s only then when the script seems to remember what the film is – a Raid movie. The final act is one of the greatest and most well-directed action pieces ever, and it is very much worth the buildup. It’s enough to save the film, though not quite enough to put it above its predecessor as a woven masterpiece.
The Good: Iko Uwais, the Assassin, Baseball Bat Man, Hammer Girl, all the action.
The Bad: Gareth Evans is not the best as a writer & storyteller. He gets lost around the middle.
The Raid: “Give me the ball.”