Friday, April 4, 2014

THE RAID 2 Is a Total Knockout

THE RAID 2 Review:

- How to put this? THE RAID 2 is off-the-rails awesome. If you dig action movies, at all, go see it. Of course, first make sure that you check out The Raid, last year's out-of-nowhere game-changer. Only then will you be at least somewhat prepared for the insanity that awaits. Emphasis on somewhat. The Raid 2 is just that crazy.

For the uninitiated, The Raid - the first film - is an absolute must-see. Directed by Welsh-born Gareth Evans, the Indonesian-set flick, in my view, raised the bar for martial-arts action cinema. The movie had a simple but effective premise: a ruthless crime lord was holed up on the top floor of a multilevel building, and an elite squad of cops had to break in, clear the building of hostiles floor by floor, and take out the boss. The simple, videogame esque plot was the backdrop for some of the most spectacular action sequences ever put to film - some of the most jaw-dropping gun battles, fist fights, and battle royales I've ever witnessed.

THE RAID 2 ups the ante by combining the incredible fight scenes of the first film with an epic crime-saga storyline that makes this sequel feel like some sort of acid-trip mash-up of The Godfather and Enter the Dragon. In truth, the film's plot owes more to Infernal Affairs (which in turn inspired The Departed), as it sees The Raid's sullen hero, Rama, forced to go undercover in a dangerous criminal organization in order to root out police corruption. Picking up immediately after the events of the first film, The Raid 2 quickly ties up some loose ends from its predecessor (in predictably bloody fashion), only to then see Rama go straight to his next mission. It seems that the first film's Big Bad was just a smaller piece of a much larger puzzle - as Jakarta is currently being ruled by two rival crime families, one of which is being protected by corrupt cops. In order for Rama to embed himself in the crime family, he must assume a new identity, get himself arrested, and, while in jail, befriend the charismatic-yet-troubled son of the syndicate's leader. And so it goes - Rama saves the son's life, and upon release from jail, becomes a trusted enforcer for the crime family. All the while, war between Jakarta's two rival families - who have enjoyed a tenuous truce for years - is brewing. Rama hopes to fulfill his mission and go home to his family, but he also can't stand by and watch his city burn.

The rhythm of The Raid was just nonstop action that only escalated with each new sequence. But if The Raid was speed-metal, The Raid 2 is an epic power-ballad. The film is surprisingly, methodically paced - with dramatic, character-driven scenes spaced out between the action. It's certainly a much different beast than the original movie. And I'll admit - for the first stretch of the film, I sat in my theater seat feeling slightly baffled. Was I watching The Raid 2, or an Indonesian version of Donnie Brasco?

But then, once Rama is in prison, and once he's formed a tense relationship with his mark, Ucok (the prodigal son of crime boss Bangun) ... well, there's a prison riot. And what erupts from that prison riot is one of the most insanely glorious, most unbelievable action sequences I've ever seen. Evans bobs and weaves his cameras through the mud-packed prison yard with violent grace, giving a you-are-there feeling to a sequence that simply must be seen to be believed. And as this scene played on - just getting ever more intense and crazy as it went - the audience in my theater couldn't help but burst into applause. Hell yeah, this was THE RAID, and there could be no doubting its ownage.

The rest of the film proceeds in this manner - a grand, melodramatic story of crime, corruption, and broken families - punctuated by action scenes that seem to literally erupt from the framework of the plot and never fail to leave you in a state of catatonic shock. What's so impressive is that Evans just keeps one-upping himself. He once again delivers the sorts of visceral, hardcore melee fights of the previous film, but also goes to places that The Raid never dared. The Raid 2 not only contains martial-arts action like nothing you've seen ... but it's also got one of the most insane car chase firefights in cinematic history. Trust me, I've seen it all when it comes to action, but some of the sequences in this movie are just next-level.

What also helps elevate the action is that there are some truly memorable adversaries for Rama to face off with in this installment. By far the most kickass of the movie's combatants are a pair of assassins - known simply as Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man. Simple enough, right? Well, hot damn, these two do things with a hammer and a bat that are just wrong. So wrong it's right, baby. Not since deadly schoolgirl Go-Go Yubari wielded a mace against Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill have we seen such memorably, insanely badass sociopaths engaged in such gorgeously-choreographed mayhem. Who, I have to wonder, is Julie Estelle, who plays Hammer Girl as the ultimate femme fatale ass-kicker? Where did she come from? How did she get to be so awesome? Spin-off prequel, please. Meanwhile, the movie's climactic duel, in which Rama engages in an extended one-on-one battle with a deadly, hook-wielding chef, is a five-star fight - an absolute mind-melter that, again, yielded exuberant audience applause. And, oh, remember how badass "Mad Dog" was in The Raid? Well, the uber-talented actor/martial artist who played him - Yayan Ruhian - is back, as a new character: a criminal lifer named Prakoso who ends up hunted by his own organization. Prakoso - a grizzled, shaggy man who's seen better days - is a much different character than the quietly confident Mad Dog. But damn, Ruhian once again rules it. He should be a part of The Raid franchise for as long as they keep making 'em.

As for our hero, Rama ... well, this movie solidifies him as an all-timer. Star Iko Uwais may not be a particularly colorful leading man, but he's so quietly and intensely badass - and so skilled at kicking ass - that by the end of this movie, I officially counted myself as a member of the Rama fan club. When it comes to combat, Uwais is in a class all his own - the guy is simply a machine. But hey, in The Raid 2, Uwais does some pretty serious acting as well, and I came away convinced that he may well be the next Jet Li. He certainly deserves to be called the undisputed heir to that mantle.

Speaking of solid acting, the entire cast is actually quite good here. The thing is: the movie's sprawling crime-saga story could have been a real drag if not done well. But it's actually really good, and the plot slowly builds until it's evolved into quite the epic by the third act. I give a lot of credit to Uwais for anchoring things, but I've also got to mention Arifin Putra as Ucok, who is fantastic. Ucok as the privileged son prepped from birth to one day inherit his father's criminal empire, but who now grows angry and restless as his father refuses to hand over the reins. And Putra brings a ton of slick charisma to the role - a sort of James Dean vibe that makes him an antihero at first, but eventually a full-out villain as we begin to realize the extent to which his sadistic streak runs. Some of that is revealed in Ucok's scenes with Alex Abbad's Bejo - an up-and-coming gangster who partners with Ucok in a bid to take over Jakarta's criminal underground.

It's compelling stuff, and it all unfolds with operatic scope. Evans proves that he's not just a great action director, but a great director, period. After the one-two punch of The Raid and The Raid 2, I think he's got to be considered in the upper echelon. I can only imagine what this guy could do with a big budget blockbuster, or with a Marvel or DC event film. Suffice it to say, with indie budgets, Evans is working absolute wonders.

THE RAID 2 is long and sprawling, but it's phenomenal entertainment from start to finish. Gareth Evans brings an ingenuity and kinetic quality to his action scenes that's unmatched. Despite the movie's hardcore violence, there is something that's just plain joyful about the way that Evans continually seeks to impress us with crazy, jaw-dropping stuff that we've never, ever seen done before on-screen. I see a lot of movies, and even when I really dig a film, it's rare that a movie of this sort just leaves me awed and in disbelief at the awesomeness of what I've just seen. But man, THE RAID 2 is that damn good - an epic action flick that once again raises the bar, with all others now forced to step up their game and follow its lead. It's a cinematic knockout punch if ever there was one.

My Grade: A

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