Those hungry for summer-blockbuster action entertainment last weekend were missing out when they chose between The Rock in “Hercules” and ScarJo in “Lucy.” The better choice was “The Raid 2: Berandal” on DVD.
There’s a lot of good old-fashioned practical stunt and effects work in “The Raid 2,” which makes it astounding in the way no CGI spectacle ever really can be again. I’ve often wondered why so few subsequent films really matched up to the two big pioneers of CGI special effects, “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park.” I think it’s because the new computer-aided visual effects technology was still a bit rough back then, so master visual craftsmen like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg had to work hard to sell it. Now CGI is mostly just lazy, and audiences are jaded by knowing they can see just about anything.
There’s nothing lazy about “The Raid 2,” which must have filled the emergency rooms of Jakarta with injured stunt men. Whatever visual trickery might be deployed by director Gareth Evans, it’s all in the service of getting your eyeballs onto some amazing things that are actually happening, played out by real people who will stop at nothing to make the insane action scenes work. There is no cheesy use of shaky-cam to obscure the action or make the stars look more incomprehensibly dangerous in close-ups, either. This thing is shot like a ballet. It is a ballet.
It’s an incredibly brutal film, too. The bone-cracking fight scenes are occasionally difficult to watch. With a few brief exceptions, every hand-to-hand battle is a fight to the death, and those hands aren’t usually empty. Among the many killers flung at our hard-pressed undercover cop hero are a mob hit man who uses a baseball bat (and baseballs!) to dispatch his prey, and his female partner, who tears people apart with a pair of claw hammers. It always takes a little audience indulgence to get excited when the hero of a film goes into battle, because you’re fairly confident he will survive. In “The Raid 2,” that indulgence is very easy to give, and it seems little short of amazing that the hero manages to limp along to his next ordeal.
That hero is played once again by the amazing Iko Uwais, who combines formidable martial-arts prowess with real screen presence. He’s a talented actor who can get to an audience despite the language barrier and its attendant subtitles or (rather horrible) English-language dub. You feel for him, and you don’t lose your sympathy even after he explodes, and you’re more than a little afraid of him.
The original film, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is a brilliantly simple tale about a team of cops who go into a dilapidated tenement in Jakarta to bag a drug kingpin, and find themselves fighting for survival after they learn the run-down building is a fortress where they have become trapped. (If that sounds a bit familiar, the recent Judge Dredd reboot starring Karl Urban used exactly the same set-up, apparently by coincidence. It’s a good sci-fi action movie, but “The Raid” ate its lunch.)
In “The Raid 2,” the setting is flung wider to give us Uwais as an undercover operative in the huge crime syndicate he’s exposed. It’s a much slower build, with some standard-issue drama about how the undercover cop befriends his criminal marks and is eventually forced to betray their friendship – although in this case, there’s no danger of the hero being subverted by the mob and growing sympathetic to them, because he hates these guys. The last reel is a non-stop string of “holy crap!” moments that illustrate just how much he hates them.
“How did they do that?” and “Hey, are those stunt guys even wearing safety pads?” are among the questions you’re likely to ask, as half of Indonesia is leveled during the climactic throwdown between Uwais and the mob. In the best action-movie tradition, the fights are like dance numbers that express the personalities of the combatants, and some of these guys are seriously messed-up. It’s a bit longer and initially slower than “The Raid,” but once it becomes full-speed action porn, “The Raid 2” is a worthy sequel and an all-time classic of the genre.