Directed by: Gareth Evans || Produced by: Ario Sagantoro, Nate Bolotin, Aram Tertzakian
Written by: Gareth Evans || Starring: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Tio Pakusadwo, Alex Abbad, Julie Estelle, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kenichi Endo, Kazuki Kitamura
Music by: Fajar Yuskemal, Aria Prayogi, Joseph Trapanese || Cinematography by: Matt Flannery, Dimas Imam Subhono || Editing by: Gareth Evans, Dimas Imam Subhono || Country: Indonesia || Language: Indonesian, Japanese
Running Time: 148 minutes
Today’s movie review will be an official re-evaluation, a re-review if you will, of one of my most beloved films in recent memory with the added benefit of a year’s hindsight and legacy served cold. This calm-downed review will be less enthusiastic than my initial review of Gareth Evan’s sequel to my favorite post-new millennium film, but keep in mind that I’m only rewriting my original review, dedicating two separate posts to one film, because I love both Raid films so much. I do it out of love, like a parent offering necessary constructive criticism to their offspring. I (over)analyze because I care.
With that out of the way, we can discuss The Raid 2, originally titled Berandal because there’s no police “raid” in the sequel. This film was originally meant to be an ambitious standalone crime epic before Evans ran into funding problems. The original Raid only got made because Evans couldn’t scrounge up the $4.5 million required to film Berandal (Indonesian for “thug,” or “delinquent”). When art was made from adversity, brilliant cult violence birthed almost by accident, and The Raid hit it big in the festival circuit, Evans established the street cred and marketability to film his original vision, which was later reworked and retrofitted to serve as a direct sequel to The Raid.
What most people had a problem with in Berandal was its indecisive and inconsistently paced story. I don’t think the story is that dense nor are its characters hard to understand, but its focus is indecisive and its editing isn’t the best. I’m not referring to the actual shot-by-shot editing or the construction of the action sequences, certainly, but rather the flow of the overall story and a couple key side-characters and subplots that could’ve been cut. I understand editing can be an excruciating process, but it’s important to filmmaking and an art form unto itself; Evans really should’ve let someone else handle Final Cut 7 program.
After watching the film numerous times since its release, I’ve noticed again and again how much the Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian)-subplot drags during the middle of the film. His character could almost stand to be in a separate film (a Merantau Pictures spinoff, perhaps?) and his impact on the story is negligible at best. No doubt Evans has such respect for the man (Ruhian co-choreographed both Raid films with Uwais and was originally set to be Berandal’s main villain) that he felt obligated to include him in a starring role, but the end result is Ruhian’s character is unnecessary in this film, and for action movie-pacing that is unforgivable.
Much criticism of the screenplay has surrounded the almost dual-lead roles of Arifin Putra’s Uco and Uwais’ Rama, but I didn’t have a problem with this. Uco plays like a combination of Sonny and Freddy Corleone from The Godfather films (1972, 1974) and, for the most part, it works. Putra’s a good actor and he handles the almost archetypal stock-gangster character just fine. To that end, Rama is very clearly the film’s main character, and the way Evans develops both him and Uco realistically and how they both make big choices in the story are the script’s greatest strengths.
Where Evans’ story runs into problems is balancing this huge cast of characters with appropriate screen-time. You have Rama’s mission, Uco’s larger ambitions and temptation by the veritable Devil-in-shades, Bejo (a great Alex Abbad), Bejo’s own villainous plot, Uco’s relationship with is father, Bangun (a perfectly cast Tio Pakusadewo), and the rival Japanese/Yakuza crime-syndicate. There is a ton of stuff going on in this epic crime drama, and Evans’ ambition is admirable; however, at the end of the day this is too much material to cover in one film, especially when you have unnecessary side plots like Prakoso’s further crowding the stage.
Complicated plots and character dynamics aren’t a problem in films like The Expendables (2010), the original Raid, or John Wick (2014) because those films are built purposefully generic to streamline their pacing and focus on the action. Something like John Wick is particularly efficient because it manages to tell a straightforward revenge tale while also building an enticing and rich universe around that central plot in 90 minutes. Berandal features an equally rich universe but takes almost two and a half hours to tell it.
What’s most frustrating about all this is that The Raid 2’s characters are so strong and well acted. Evans clearly cares about this universe and his film is impeccably cast. There’s a great story here, but it needed more room to breathe. For instance, I wanted to see more of Abbad’s antagonist and learn more about his backstory, what makes him tick, and what’s behind those classy shades of his. What separates The Raid 2 from most action films is that it neither simplifies its story nor tells a narrative that is overly convoluted or poorly acted. Berandal’s characters are strong, everybody has screen presence (even if they don’t say a word, like Cecep Arif Rahman’s “Assassin”), and the story has clear stakes that set up its action, not the other way around. It’s neither 2011’s Raid nor a convoluted, hackneyed Fast and Furious (2001-2015) flick, and that’s what makes its imperfect execution so disappointing. All that could’ve fixed this was a second screenwriter, a different editor, or second screenwriter, or a different editor. Do you get it?
Needless to say, the action itself is extraordinary and incredibly brutal. This semi-sequel manages to outclass the original Raid in terms of blood, gore, and creative, excruciating deaths. A big stylistic change that I liked is how Berandal’s visuals are clean, crisp, and diversely colored compared to The Raid’s monochromatic, dingy palette. Both styles are good in their own way, but the way Berandal embraces an almost graphic novel-esque flavor is creative and fun.
This film’s hand-to-hand combat and variety of close-quarters handheld camerawork is also superior to The Raid’s. The expanded scope of the story allows for more locations, more types of action (car chases!), and more characters equals more fighting styles. There are numerous long takes and insanely angled shots that are incredible. That being said, the absence of a constantly crowded, cramped setting requires much more suspension of disbelief as fighters continue to approach the starring characters one at a time, and it’s harder for Evans to keep extras out of the frame to help us ignore this.
One sequence where this is not a problem is the outstanding car chase about 3/4 through the film. Close-quarters combat, gun violence, and vehicular mayhem flow freely and fluidly from one to the next. The level of intensity in this prolonged scene (it’s about 6 minutes long) is something that a Fast and Furious film could only dream about. For the record, Evans almost got run-over filming this scene, so kudos to him.
In fact, what makes this sequence work so well is a good summary of my nitpicks of the rest of the film. Berandal features surprisingly few shootouts despite the amazing variety of hand-to-hand and melee-weapon action. The absence of firearms is less believable than parts of the original Raid, which still has much more (and better) shootouts, because Berandal features a full-scale gang war compared to a single police raid. Evans stages gun-battles well, so this overwhelming emphasis on Silat martial arts to solve any and all of our characters’ problems, particularly when they are outnumbered 20-to-1, is odd.
At the end of the day, I suppose I return to the rough state-of-mind and response I had when I first saw The Raid 2 in theatres on opening night. I had a blast with the film and still love it to this day, but rewatching it several (re: many) times over has helped develop and mature my overall opinion of it. It’s deliciously vicious and ambitious, far more so than anything Hollywood or Asia’s done in years, but its mediocre pacing and crowded screenplay bring it down a notch below its predecessor.
I guess it goes to show that “bigger, more epic” doesn’t always mean better quality, and in many ways, art from adversity, the financial “accident” that was The Raid, produced the better film. Expectations don’t always equal reception. Go figure.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Raid 2 is even more ruthless and bloodthirsty than the 2011 original. It’s scope in both action-scale and narrative breadth are expansive and ambitious. Cinematographically speaking, its determination pays off in spades. Iko Uwais proves he can, in fact, act, despite his primary training as an athlete; the supporting cast is arguably the best in any action film since Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991).
— However… Berandal tries to do too much with too many characters in too long a running time. Numerous scenes could and should’ve been cut, including Ruhian’s entire character and subplot. Uwais’ finale rampage lasts a little too long, or perhaps not long enough, as his three to four fights become exhausting back-to-back-to-back.
? “Were gonna change it [from Berandal]. I’m hoping not The Raid 2…” Two years later, the best they could do was The Raid 2: Berandal. Way to go, everybody.