The Raid 2: Now we're just showing off
Wednesday 2nd April 2014
For all but the final frame of The Raid: Redemption, we’re stuck between walls. A quiet home, a police van, a 15-storey slum complex and the high walls that flank it. Tight, claustrophobic spaces made of concrete and wood and metal, many of them lit by grimy sconces and spattered with blood and muck. The camera negotiates these spaces with impressive athleticism, finding and occupying the few empty spaces by flipping, hugging walls and ceilings, jumping back and forth with every beat. We’re constantly aware of how small everything is; how linear; how inescapable.
The Raid 2: Berandal opens with a landscape shot of an Indonesian paddy field stretching on to the horizon. It’s a long take, too, hangs there for a good couple of minutes. “This isn’t The Raid,” director Gareth Evans seems to say. “This time I’m going HAM.”
When Berandal premiered at Sundance and SXSW, reviewers were quick to make big calls about Evans’ big film, scrabbling to pinpoint where it stood in the director’s five-strong filmography. It's his Goodfellas! His Aliens! His Game of Death! His Godfather!
Yeah, this was all hyperbole. But there was something in that game of comparison. Perhaps because Berandal invites it. The narrative, about an undercover cop struggling to keep tabs on his identity, is straight from Hard-Boiled and Infernal Affairs; a scene towards the end, shot in a symbolism-rich wasteland of ruins, is almost lifted straight from the latter. Its elaborate network of double- and triple-crosses owes something toThe Godfather (and headstrong heir-apparent Uco plays similar to the headstrong Sonny Corleone), but it owes more to Takeshi Kitano’s absurdist bloodbath Outrage and the melodramatic Infernal Affairs 2. Its production design alternates between A Bittersweet Life’s sleek modernism and the rich block colours favoured by Nicholas Winding Refn.
There’s even a hammer brawl in an enclosed space that vies for Oldboy’s crown.
Berandal almost – almost – feels like a survey of the last 15 years of Asian crime cinema, from Johnnie To to Tony Jaa. It’s derivative. Massively so. It so openly wears the influence of its ancestors that it’s hard to conclude otherwise. And the films it draws from? They all excel in places Berandal falls short. The Infernal Affairs trilogy is far more character-minded and tonally audacious; Hard-Boiled was much better at incorporating the set’s geography into the action (compare the teahouse shoot-out in that film to the body-focused kitchen brawl in Berandal);Outrage nails the kind of deadpan humour Berandal occasionally reaches for; A Bittersweet Lifehas a more charismatic, emotionally-complex leading man; Oldboy’s hammer fight is just plain better.
Berandal’s even outstripped by its predecessor. The Raid’s grimy aesthetic, its murky lighting and cheap construction materials, walked a tightrope between gritty policier and out-and-out horror, playing in the building's shadowy spaces and blind corners. And that aesthetic fed a blunt-force commentary about how inequality and class anxiety can breed exploitation and abuse of power. ‘Kill the police and you’ll live rent-free in this squalid 15-storey hellhole that’s constantly under surveillance from the upper classes on the top floor.’ It doesn't get less subtle – or more angry – than that.
Berandal doesn’t have any of this. It’s big and loud and convoluted and it has less to say and it’s so often the mimic.
Uwais is rewriting the rulebook for breaking necks and cashing cheques, Evans rises to meet him, switching between long takes and rapid-fire cutting with confidence and skill
Berandal is amazing. Gareth Evans does go HAM, and it’s brilliant. He tears pages out of action maestro Kim Jee-woon’s book and it pays off in dividends. His camera’s often wide, often moving, and it draws attention to the depth and scope of the gorgeous sets, not to mention the violence occurring within. It’s a massive shift from The Raid’s tight, dynamic camerawork, but it’s an appropriate one given Berandal’s emphasis on the destructive force of ambition left unchecked, greed left uncontrolled. Everyone in the first film was concerned with the now, with short-term goals; everyone here is looking at the bigger picture, and the spaces and the camera both expand to meet that.
And then there’s the thing that got you in the door – the promise of brutal violence, beautifully choreographed. Good news on that front: Evans and choreographer/actor Iko Uwais carpe diem the shit out of those fight scenes. With a bigger budget and a bigger canvas, the handful of en masse brawls are grand in scale and imagination (a garage brawl between tortured protagonist Rama and a heap of two-bit goons is probably the film’s crowning moment, playing with levels and techniques to fill a massive space with broken bodies). And while Uwais is rewriting the rulebook for breaking necks and cashing cheques, Evans rises to meet him, switching between long takes and rapid-fire cutting with confidence and skill. The rumbles between Rama and the film’s cartoonish rogues’ gallery are less satisfying, but at their best they make a good play for the perfection of the first film’s climactic three-way brawl.
The Raid 2: Berandal is nothing like its predecessor. But I’ll say this for it: this film feels like the one Evans and Uwais have been waiting forever to make.
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