Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Counterfeit Action – The Raid 2: Berandal

 Iko Uwais (left) returns as Rama, in The Raid 2: Berandal

The Raid: Redemption came as a surprise to action cinema fans when it surfaced in 2012, combining a rarely-seen Indonesian martial arts style with a ballsy, hyperviolent tone. The film didn’t bother much with plot, filling most of its runtime with intense and brilliantly-shot fight sequences, and it made a name for itself as an example of action purity; if you were going to make a movie filled with nothing but action, then your action had better be as jaw-dropping as The Raid’s. The entire film took place in one apartment block and focused on a rookie SWAT cop (Iko Uwais) who had to ascend each floor of the building, fighting through waves of baddies, until he could find and confront the head honcho. Other films – notably the overlooked Dredd (2012) – have used this video game-inspired formula, but few to such visceral effect. Curiously, The Raid 2: Berandal mostly abandons this simplistic structure in favour of a “reluctant undercover cop” narrative, which proves to be ill-suited to the style established by the first film.

The Raid 2 begins two hours after Rama, the hero of the first film, is recovered from the wreckage of the apartment complex. His boss pulls him aside and somehow convinces him to go undercover and infiltrate the heart of the biggest crime family in Jakarta. If there was any explanation as to why Rama was the proper candidate for the job – he’s still battered and bleeding from his apartment building ordeal, remember – it completely passed me by in a rush of rapid Indonesian dialogue, and the film jumped right into his goodbyes to his family, and his admission into a disgusting Jakartan prison. This leads to one of the film’s more memorable scenes as a brawl breaks out in the prison yard, where (what must amount to) half of the inmates brutalize each other in a slurry of mud, bodies, and blood. The camera sprints to catch up with the action, following an inmate until they are killed and then spinning around to focus on another fight happening simultaneously. It’s all so quick and thoughtless – and has so little of the shock and awe of The Raid – that I almost immediately disconnected from what was happening onscreen.

The Raid 2 passes through its overly-generous runtime in a blur of hyperviolence and heightened emotion, and I struggle to recall individual scenes or sequences in retrospect. I feel the film’s central martial art may be partially to blame – for the entire runtime, I was under the impression I was watching muay thai, famously showcased in the memorable Ong Bak (2003), which represented the “new wave” of martial arts cinema at the turn of the century. Muay thai is, of course, a Thai martial art, while Indonesia actually has its own traditional fighting style known as pencak silat, and this is the style used in The Raid 2 and its predecessor. The similarities to muay thai – prominent aggressive use of elbows and knees, lots of grappling, etc – were what confused me, but a reaction like that (especially from a martial arts film fan) doesn’t bode well for the form on the world cinema stage. Pencak silat has too few defining characteristics that differentiate it from other fighting styles, making it hard to develop a singular “look” for the camera, and worse, it just isn't as inventive or visually compelling as the more established cinematic forms of kung fu, jeet kune do, or karate. Any attentive viewer could probably distinguish between the fluid, elegant kung fu of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and the angular, choppy karate of Champion of Death (1975). Only an aficionado would be able to identify The Raid 2’s style, and that’s not good. The Israeli disarm-and-defend practice of Krav Maga may be highly effective in the real world, but it makes for a dull and simplistic spectator sport, with almost no flair or finesse, and it’s therefore rightly excluded from the martial arts cinema scene. Pencak silat is just the same, and though its full-body physicality and stuttering speed work to create (mostly) engaging fight sequences, the form lacks a unique visual identity, and that makes it a poor candidate for the next “new wave” of martial arts cinema (which is clearly what director Gareth Evans has been aiming for with these films).

Another crucial component in making a martial art a household name is a star who embodies the form, and can become the “face” of that particular style. For Western audiences, the trinity of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-Fat defined what we know as traditional kung fu, personifying the fluid adaptability (Chan), balletic grace (Chow) and devastating power (Li) that the form represents. Bruce Lee went a step further in personifying a form by actually inventing his own, jeet kune do, which became utterly synonymous with his trademark intensity and cobra-quick speed. Even Ong Bak’s star, Tony Jaa, brought muay thai into the global consciousness through absurd athleticism (in one video, he can be seen high-kicking a target hung almost twice his height above his head). The Raid 2 offers Iko Uwais as an answer to these virtuosos, who looks like an Indonesian Eric Bana but wields a tenth of the charm, and is an enthusiastic but characterless martial artist. He is positioned as a relatable cop forced into violent circumstances, but he dispatches gangsters with the cold precision of a hardened assassin, and the way he employs the already-unremarkable pencak silat form fails to impress. Uwais gamely puts a forgettable face on a forgettable martial art, and I find it difficult to include him alongside these other masters of cinematic combat.

Ironically, the best parts of the film are well outside the realm of action or fighting; I found the high-energy camerawork and the music (such as the unnerving dissonant drone in most dramatic scenes) to be excellent. Some performances are decent – Arifin Putra as Uco, the heir apparent to Jakarta’s criminal empire, is quite good, bringing the same arrogance, insecurity, and desperation for his father’s approval that Vincent Cassel brought to 2007’s Eastern Promises – and the antagonistic Japanese gangsters are incongruously compelling, speaking in the grave tones of ronin who are lost in this world of directionless violence. Their gravitas outshined all the other actors in the film, almost to the point where I wished I was watching a different movie in which they were the stars.

As a sequel, The Raid 2 it doesn't offer very much over its predecessor, and on its own it feels counterfeit – few performances are convincing, and the ever-present violence becomes upsetting instead of exciting. For all its excess, however, the action isn’t gleeful (even the ridiculous, Tarantino-esque “Hammer Girl” and her brother “Baseball Boy”, who murder people with claw hammers and a baseball bat, respectively, are played oddly straight). In its attempts to add a twisting undercover-cop storyline (feeling like a low-rent version of Scorsese’s The Departed) to the established video game style of The Raid, it winds up a schizophrenic, inconsistent film – dour and gravely serious one moment, and ludicrously over-the-top the next. The Raid 2 might appeal to a less discerning genre enthusiast, but doesn’t recommend itself to general audiences, or anyone who values a true martial arts spectacle.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kongmachine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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