The Raid 2 (2014)

aka The Raid 2: Berandal

2016 #90
Gareth Evans | 150 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Indonesia & USA / Indonesian, English & Japanese | 18*

I wasn’t as impressed as some were by The Raid when I finally got round to watching it two years ago — in my review I said its action was merely equal to other Asian fight flicks, asserted that Dredd had done the same story in a more rounded fashion, and compared the whole thing to Mamma Mia. To use a term that came up in my comments recently: where Mamma Mia is a chick flick, The Raid is definitely a dick flick. That’s probably why it’s taken me this long to get round to its sequel, which was at least as well-liked by the viewing public, if not more so (it has a higher rating on IMDb) — but I couldn’t trust that last time, so why this time? However, it turns out The Raid 2 is an entirely different kettle of fish.

That’s certainly true of the plot — this may be the least “just a rehash of the first film” sequel ever made. Starting mere hours after its predecessor finished, the sequel begins with good cop Rama (Iko Uwais) being co-opted into an anti-corruption internal affairs unit. It’s not just about doing the right thing, though: Rama wants a shot at Bejo (Alex Abbad), a rising criminal who murdered Rama’s brother. Rama is promptly asked to leave his wife and young son behind to go undercover in a prison with the aim of getting close to Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of powerful mob boss Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). Unfortunately, instead of being sentenced to a couple of months as promised, Rama is given years in jail. Nonetheless, he manages to ingratiate himself with his target, and upon his eventual release is immediately granted a position in Bangun’s organisation. And, look, this is meant to be a review, not a plot summary — it all just spirals from there.

Where the first film was an efficient, simple thriller designed almost solely to link the startling action sequences, here writer-director Gareth Evans has created a sprawling crime epic. Anyone who’s seen the kind of gangster actioners Hong Kong cinema has produced since the ’80s or so will feel in familiar territory. That’s no bad thing, however, just a point of genre comparison. By expanding the world he’s created out in every direction, Evans has created a work that is not only bigger in a literal sense, but also deeper, more complex, and more interesting than the straightforward adrenaline rush of the movie that made his name.

That’s not to say The Raid 2 skimps on the action front, mind. Oh no. Far from it. If anything, the physical displays here are even greater, and certainly more varied. A free-for-all riot in a muddy prison yard brings to mind the church fight from Kingsman in its crazed frenzy; the first film’s Mad Dog, Yayan Ruhian, is back as a new character who gets a remarkable battle around a multi-level nightclub; the instantly iconic and aptly named Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) gets a showcase on a subway car, and later double teams with her chum Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) to take on Rama; and that’s not even the climax, as our hero goes toe to toe with knife-wielding henchman The Assassin (Cecep Arief Rahman) in a kitchen-set rumble that has to be seen to be believed.

But as incredible as each of those are — and indeed they are — the highest of highlights is surely the car chase. There’s a chance you’ll have heard about this even if you’re not especially interested in the film: a bit of behind-the-scenes detail about how they achieved one particular shot went viral a couple of years ago. If you haven’t seen that, nor the film, then don’t seek it out — it actually kinda spoils it a little bit, knowing how it was done. (Without spoiling it, it was all done practically, whereas a Hollywood blockbuster would undoubtedly have done it with CGI — and spent as much on that one shot as Evans and co have on this entire movie.) The sequence is more than just one technically-impressive shot, however, but an exciting and innovative action scene all round, that definitely pushed the boundaries of the filmmakers’ capabilities (they had to get in a specialist outfit from overseas to help realise their ambitions).

Those are just the highlights — there are numerous smaller but no less accomplished sequences elsewhere, too. To be precise, there are 19 fight scenes, featuring more complex choreography than the first film — and it’s one of the fight choreographers who said that, so it must be true. The two-and-a-half hour running time may mean The Raid 2 isn’t the unrelenting action-fest that the first film was, but those memorable combats are just as much a part of the film’s DNA. I don’t think anyone’s going to feel shortchanged.

From a filmmaking point of view, it’s even more accomplished. Evans demonstrated he knew how to lens action in the first movie, but here the whole movie looks more polished and more expensive (even though it only cost $4.5 million). There’s greater ambition on display in every facet, including both the choreography and the camerawork. Most Hollywood blockbusters seem to push (or exceed) the two-and-a-half hour mark these days, and even when it fills that time, it feels like it’s partly because no one quite knew when to cut back. The Raid 2, however, feels suitably epic — just as you think a film that’s two-and-a-half hours long ought to feel, really.

For me, The Raid 2 outclasses its predecessor in every possible way, from the deeper and more involving story, to the jaw-dropping feats of choreography and performance, to the more assured and polished filmmaking. An instant action classic.

5 out of 5

The Raid 2 will be available on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK from tomorrow.

It placed 2nd on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

* The MPAA insisted on 4½ seconds of cuts to get an R rating. The UK version is uncut. ^

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Raid (2011)

aka Serbuan maut / The Raid: Redemption

2014 #58
Gareth Huw Evans | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | Indonesia / Indonesian | 18*

The Raid“20 Elite Cops. 30 Floors of Hell.”

So proclaims The Raid’s marketing. Except most of those 20 cops are explicitly stated to be rookies, and the big bad baddie is on the 15th floor. This is indicative of the whole problem with The Raid a couple of years on from its release: it’s become a victim of its own hype.

The plot, such as it is, is well summarised in that tagline. A group of heavily-armed coppers stage a dawn raid on the high-rise HQ of a crime boss. A no-go locale for the past decade, this mission is a Brave and Daring thing. It all goes smoothly at first… until a lookout spots them, warns the (literal) higher-ups, and all hell rains down. Never mind completing their mission, will any of them get out alive? Cue lots of shooting, stabbing, punching, kicking, jumping… and not much else.

In this regard, perhaps the other film that The Raid is most like is Mamma Mia: a perfunctory plot that exists purely to link together the bits we’re really here for — Abba songs. Or “fights”, in The Raid’s case… though, let’s be honest, how much more original and interesting would it be if they were fighting to Abba songs? A lack of story isn’t necessarily a problem, however: much as some people basically wanted an excuse to sing along to a bunch of catchy pop tunes, some people just want to watch well-choreographed punch-ups. The only issue I have with the slight storyline is that the climax leans on it: Bloody henchmeninstead of ending with our hero duelling our villain, a fight with the top henchman is followed by a bit of plot clean-up between the villain and a supporting character. It’s the very definition of anti-climactic.

That aside, the film coasts along on its lengthy action sequences. They’re pretty good on the whole, if a little numbingly repetitive by the end. The style is largely of the punching-and-kicking variety — no parkour-esque leaping about here — but the speed is impressive, even if that means you sometimes can’t quite keep up. Still, at least you can see the people fighting — the direction and editing by Welshman (a whole other story, that) Gareth Evans isn’t based in the Hollywood school of extreme close-ups and super-fast cuts.

A lot has been made (by some) of that US comparison. It’s true that the fighting is leaps and bounds ahead of your standard American actioner, replete with done-for-real stunts, long takes of fast-paced choreography, and no ShakyCam close-ups or single-frame editing designed to create the illusion of someone who can fight for real — these guys can fight for real. But it’s ultimately an unfair comparison, because Asian movies do action differently to Western movies. Put The Raid with its true brethren and, while it doesn’t come up short, it’s not quite as impressive. Leading man Iko Uwais and his fellow duellers are undoubtedly very skilled, but there were no “wow!” moments like I’ve had from the best of Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Tony Jaa, or others. The sequences offered here mean The Raid can sit comfortably in their company, but does it outclass them in a way that merits it being a break-out hit? No.

Tis but a scratchAnother way it’s pleasingly unlike its current American counterparts is the lack of focus on gore. There are plenty of stabbings (of a blood-stain-on-shirt variety), and a couple of sliced necks, but none are lingered on. Things like a hammer beating or repeated machete strikes take place either just off screen or just after we cut away. It’s unquestionably a violent film, but it doesn’t revel in the gory aftermath of that violence in the way many US films increasingly seem to.

While we may not have to endure ShakyCam in the fights, an awful lot of it is still shot handheld — the sea-sickness-inducing close-ups we’re so familiar with from a decade-and-a-half of 24-inspired quick-to-shoot photography are certainly present. Indeed, all of the cinematography is ugly. Maybe someone massively over-compressed it for the BD, but I suspect it may be due to low-budget digitally-shot roots. The image is distractingly laced with banding, weird bursts of colour… And even ignoring such technical issues, the palate is unrelentingly brown. Whole frames are just slightly varied shades of dark murky brown, perhaps with a splash of grey, and maybe some blue streaks where one technical element or another has gone awry.

You’re likely aware of the fuss that was kicked up when the trailer for sci-fi comic book actioner Dredd was released a couple of years ago, and a lot of people said it looked like a Raid rip-off. Such comparisons are largely superficial: the similarities are more pronounced in trailers than in how the full films feel. Comparing the finished results, however, I found Dredd to be more entertaining. It can’t boast the realism of The Raid, both in the level of bloody gore and in the way the action was achieved, with highly trained professionals and thorough choreography; but the 2000 AD adaptation still features effective, exciting action sequences delivered on its own terms, and alongside those offers greater doses of story, character and humour, He kneed'ed thatto make for a much more rounded experience. The fights in The Raid may have blown the minds of people who haven’t seen enough Asian action flicks, but I’d argue Dredd is the better film as a whole. And if you still insist on accusing one of plagiarising the other… well, let’s put it this way: Dredd had finished shooting, and its screenplay had leaked online, before The Raid even entered production.

Sadly, by this point, The Raid doesn’t really live up to the hype — probably because it’s been laid on so thick. The fights are impressive, but not the most incredible ever, unless your action diet is purely American. Plus, those looking for a solid story with the odd punch-up need not apply: what plot there is — and it’s a thin one — exists to service some action, which will drag on and on (and on) if that’s not your thing. For genre aficionados, however, it does still merit your time.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Raid is tonight at 10:55pm on Film4.

* The international release was cut by 10 seconds for violence, thanks to two short MPAA-mandated excisions to gain an R certificate. The uncut, US-unrated version is available on Blu-ray, and is the one I watched. ^