“The Raid 2”: Another Rendezvous with Rama

Iko Uwais, "The Raid 2"

An imprisoned Rama (Iko Uwais) prepares for the most creative use of a broomstick since the Harry Potter series.

Midlife Crisis Crossover calls The Raid 2 the Bloodiest Film of the Year!

A safe bet, considering I stopped going out of my way for horror movies years ago and I’m not part of the macho-demographic target for Schwarzenegger’s post-political film career. But one of my guilty pleasures is an infrequent indulgence in films that I can best describe as tough-guy ballet. For me the Indonesian martial-arts flick The Raid: Redemption — which I watched a few months ago, a former Redbox disc I bought for a buck at a Family Dollar store — had been on my radar after reading online recommendations that piqued my curiosity. Between its straightforward obstacle-course premise and slickly shot martial-arts choreography, it was ideal Saturday afternoon programming for any discerning fight-scene fan who’s cool with subtitles and appreciates how the (comparatively) small screen trapped and shrank all that violence to minimize the ick factor.

After Redemption pulled in a modest $4 million in its 2012 art-house run, I was surprised that the sequel opened in quite a few screens ’round town this weekend, albeit without its original overseas title, The Raid 2: Berendal, which I suppose for us simple Americans might read too confusingly as a subtitle that needs its own subtitle.

Short version for the unfamiliar: In the first installment, Redemption was a short, hyperballistic race by a cop named Rama (Iko Uwais) and his vastly outnumbered squad up a bullet-riddled high-rise gauntlet to bring a notorious crime lord to either justice or pain, whichever was more manageable. (This plot was immediately recycled for another little flop of a film called Dredd.) The sequel picks up not even a day later as a battered, disillusioned Rama is strong-armed into training for a deep undercover assignment that will extend his separation from his family but potentially give him the chance to get close to the same crime lord’s overlord and root out their corrupted connections within the police force. Rama will have to become a believable malcontent, go to prison, cozy up to the overlord’s son Uco (Arifin Putra, an Indonesian sitcom actor who’s more fierce than funny here), gain the trust of said overlord Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), and try not to get killed by the erratic incompetence of the police boss who seems kind of terrible at running an undercover sting.

The movie discards the Mouse Trap structure of the original for something more closely related to Infernal Affairs and John Woo’s old Hong Kong classics, but the elaborate foundation that’s deliberately laid over the first hour-plus leads up to another 90 minutes of gunplay, advanced pencak silat (read: Indonesian martial arts), Bournesque car crashes, trained assassins with peculiar weapons specialties, and general mayhem that just. Does not. Stop.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: If you were hoping for a surprise cameo from James Franco, you came to the wrong theater. I was surprised to recognize one face besides Uwais’: professional fight instructor Yayan Ruhian, who played the wiry swordsman in Redemption‘s most ferocious bout, returns as a different character with the same specialty and stamina. At first I was confused and straining to think how in the world he could possibly have survived this long, but I confirmed later that he’s playing a separate swordsman here.

Nitpicking? Discounting Best Picture nominees, I’m sure the last few dozen films I watched in theaters were all PG-13 and/or animated. My tolerance for cinematic bloodletting has waned a bit since my teenage years and consequently I think I flinched a lot more often than any other guys in the house. I imagine much of it was accomplished through practical effects, but the end credits confirm that, as in The Walking Dead and other similar worlds of today, advancements in CG visual effects have opened up a whole new realm of realistic exsanguination that requires fewer prosthetics and more illustrative anatomy courses. For some viewers, I suppose this counts as an achievement unlocked. In a few scenes the carnage becomes such a high-velocity track-‘n’-field event of swiftly tilting angles and hurdled glass-shard thresholds that I’m pretty sure some of the splattered blood came from the cameraman.

To that end, Rama accumulates so much damage during the final hour that I had to wonder if he’d grabbed himself a video-game power-up that gave him infinite health, or if he kept an emergency transfusion kit in his back pocket, or if he’d been injected with the same Super-Soldier Serum that enabled Captain America to survive the rigors and fusillades of The Winter Soldier.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Before the melees ensue, writer/director/editor Gareth Evans (the same Welshman behind Redemption) and his brave crew (including two cinematographers and four assistant directors) show a penchant for poetic imagery, with numerous still frames of singular objects or people against wide backdrops that let us catch our breath for a split-second, providing ample sense of grand-scheme-of-things scale, from busy Jakarta rush hours to deceptively elegant restaurants to filthy back alleys to even filthier prison life. More than a few of the frames here would make an impressive coffee-table art book.

The usual underworld-drama plot movements are there, though it’s refreshing to see that old man Bangun is more self-aware than the average elderly crime lord, wise enough that he can just tell when his own son is turning into a trope. Iko Uwais is likewise a powerhouse of a young leading man, putting as much gravitas into his angst over his distant wife and son, or his frustration with his virtually nonexistent fellow cops, as he does into plowing a path through a horde of rioting convicts or engaging in those synchronized, super-speed street-fighter tournaments. A few more showings like this, and it won’t be long before Hollywood carpetbaggers come a-calling for Uwais and he finds himself lured by big buckets of American dough into costarring with Johnny Depp in Pirates 6 or Owen Wilson in Shanghai Anxiety.

Beyond all that: mostly, everyone’s here to fight and fight and fight. At two-and-a-half-hours, it’s an overlong smorgasbord of punching, kicking, dodging, weaving, leaping, slashing, bludgeoning, and hammering that’ll take up a significant gap in your day’s schedule. To Evans’ credit, I’m a big, big fan of this old-school method of shooting and editing that allows for up-close nonstop parrying, continuous takes that are measured in seconds rather than frames, and choreography dictated by actual fight choreographers, as opposed to being trickily created from scratch by a beleaguered editor who wistfully wishes that the director had shot more usable coverage. American films rely a lot less nowadays on hand-to-hand showdowns as audiences have become too eagerly thrilled by impersonal, large-scale battles between thousands of soulless CG minions.

In that sense, the fight scenes here hold more quote-unquote “meaning” for me than the overpriced, mostly animated skirmishes in your average $200 million summer blockbuster. All told, I found myself in a rare moment of nostalgia.

So did I like it or not? For the sort of thing it is, The Raid 2 is astonishingly well-crafted with an artisan’s eye and an aficionado’s affection despite its low-by-American-standards budget (just over $7.5 million U.S.). I expect I’ll continue drifting away from this sort of intensely bloody fare as I get older and stodgier, but I can definitely say it left me stunned and exhausted by the end, purged all real-world concerns and stresses from my mind for a while, and is making it really hard for me to look at a hammer as an innocent tool anymore.

How about those end credits? There’s no scene after The Raid 2‘s end credits, just a special dedication to Evans’ father for reading every draft of the script and watching every cut of the film. The music section also notes the propulsive soundtrack includes two instrumentals from Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV.

For those who like organized credits, instead of stacking all the stuntmen’s names into a single pile, they were nice enough to itemize them in groups by scene. On the downside, I feel sheepish admitting I watched a film that includes a cast credit for “Porn Den Fighters”.

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