Monday, December 22, 2014


The greatest superhero in movies today is Rama, the martial-arts policeman played by Iko Uwais in the Raid movies directed by Gareth Evans. His fight scenes, which Uwais choreographs along with co-star Yayan Ruhian, have the sort of relentless action comic book fans have always wanted in Batman movies but haven't yet seen. Rama doesn't have any more super powers than Batman does, but Evans, Uwais and Ruhian give their hero as much ferocity, resilience and stamina -- creative editing helps, too -- as American crimefighters have in comic books, but not on film. The Raid movies -- a third is most likely in the works -- are comic book movies, regardless of their gritty urban trappings. They take place in an Indonesia -- as I wrote about the original film, this may reflect reality in the country -- where guns are apparently reserved for the criminal elite, and the foot soldiers must rely on their feet, or their hands, or blades, or whatever's at hand. Raid 2 is even more a comic book movie than its predecessor because it has more blatantly gimmicky fighters. At one point Rama has to fight a brother-sister assassination team. The sister fights Oldboy-style, with hammers, smashing with the heads, slashing with the claws. Just for the hell of it, she's a deaf-mute. Her brother has a baseball fetish, fighting at close quarters with an aluminum bat or making deadly missiles out of batted balls.

We know they'll be formidable adversaries because we've seen them cut swaths through hosts of gunless bodyguards in pursuit of their gangster quarry. In fact, they give Rama trouble for a few minutes, but they only set the stage for our hero's mano-a-mano showdown with a nameless assassin who had taken him down with abrupt ease earlier in the picture. For action filmmakers Evans and his colleagues are great at dramatic pacing, since this one-on-one fight is the true highlight of a picture that has already given us several epic-scale mass melees, including a riot in a muddy prison yard that must have been an ultimate challenge to fight choreographers. Uwais and Cecep Arif Rahman are not dwarfed by the earlier spectacle; their fight is intimately epic in a Homeric way. Rama's victory may be inevitable, but Uwais earns it while allowing Rahman to shine; the bad guy gives as good as he gets down to the final seconds of the battle. The plot of the story remains to be resolved, but this fight can't help make the denouement look anticlimactic.

There's no raid in Raid 2. Instead Evans has opened his narrative up to encompass the archetypes of global crime cinema. Born out of ideas he had before making The Raid, Berandal quickly dispatches the surviving supporting cast from the first film and gives Rama a new mission. To root out corrupt cops in Jakarta, our hero must get himself sent to prison -- by beating up a politician's son -- to befriend Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of the local crimelord. In deep cover for two years, Rama becomes Uco's protector and is rewarded with a place in the organization of Uco's father, Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). He sees Uco grow impatient with his position as his dad's "bill collector" and with dad's apparent kowtowing to Japanese gangsters. As Rama watches, waiting for evidence identifying cops on the take, Uco provokes a gang war and puts himself on a parricidal path. Arifin Putra's performance as Uco holds the film together, making it something more than a highlight reel of fight scenes. There's something almost poignant about Uco's frustration, his bitter recognition of the contempt with which even bar girls regard him, and his need to prove himself to his father that can only be fulfilled by killing him.

Neither Putra nor Evans entirely holds the film together. At almost 2.5 hours, Raid 2 is about a half-hour too long. To be more precise, it's too long by the time it takes to introduce a character played by Yayan Ruhian (giving him two roles in as many pictures) and eliminate him. Ruhian's storyline comes across as a gratuitous addition designed only to give him some screen time. Apart from that indulgence, the pace of the action doesn't flag and the main story is compelling enough to keep us interested between the fight scenes. Berandal carries some of the artistic risks of the quest for novelty -- the sibling killers may seem silly to some observers --  but the rewards justify those risks and compensate for any awkward moments. Aided by Uwais and Ruhian, over the course of three films (I haven't seen the earlier Merantau) Gareth Evans has become just about the best action movie director on Earth.

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