I will admit that I have not seen every movie that has ever been made. I have not seen every action film, martial arts film, or even all of the most revered of the action and martial arts films. I’ve seen my fair share, but there are gaps in my knowledge.
But you know what? That doesn’t matter. Even with my critical blind spots, I can say with conviction something that I know in my heart of hearts to be true: The Raid 2: Berandal is the best action film ever made.
The Raid 2: Berandal
Director: Gareth Evans
Release Date: March 28, 2014
First, a history lesson: The Raid wasn’t supposed to happen. Director Gareth Evans wanted to make a prison-centric gang film called Berandal (which means “Thug” in Indonesian), also starring Iko Uwais, but although they produced a pretty awesome teaser (a fight scene in a bathroom between Uwais and a whole bunch of baddies), production halted when they realized that there simply wasn’t enough money to make whatever it is that the film was supposed to be.
So instead, Evans and his team made The Raid, a film with one primary location that was complicated only in its stellar choreography. The film was a massive success, and Evans got the money he needed to make the Berandal he had always dreamed of.
For the purposes of this review, I’ll be referring to the original film as The Raid and this film as Berandal. I will be doing some direct comparisons a lot. If you haven’t seen The Raid, go fix that immediately, come back, and then salivate at the thought of just how much better this film is.
You can just look at the run time and know that you’re in for something epic. While the original concept may have focused on a prison gang, Berandal goes so much further than that. This isn’t The Raid in a prison; there is a big world out there, and plenty more people for Iko Uwais to punch. Berandal gives him the chance. In fact, Berandal is like the anti-Raid, because that film’s simplicity was kind of the point. You knew from the beginning who the characters were, what their goals were, and what the stakes were. Everything made perfect sense and there were no real surprises. The single location and linear timeline made everything extremely easy to follow. You could just sit back and enjoy what you were watching.
Berandal is not that. Berandal is a big, epic, reasonably interesting crime story, and as with any big epic crime story, it’s complicated. Two hours after the chaos of the first film, Rama (Iko Uwais), his injured comrade, and his traitorous boss meets a cop who tells him some bad news: he messed with the wrong guys, they want him dead, they will kill him, and remember that wife and kid of his? Yep. Them too. But the cop is willing to keep him safe if he’ll join an undercover operation, get in with an Indonesian crime syndicate, and help take down the corrupt cops that allow them to thrive (specifically Reza, brought up in the end of The Raid as the traitor who backed Tama and his operation).
But Rama doesn’t want to be a part of this operation. Until he finds out his brother has been brutally murdered by Bejo, a new face to the seedy underworld and a man with aspirations of grandeur. Then he wants revenge and joins the underworld, to the detriment of every person who had ever thought being a gang member might be an intelligent career path.
I didn’t have that much trouble following the film after the first fifteen or so minutes. The opening scenes go through three different time periods with no real indication of what is when, which makes it somewhat difficult to manage, especially compared to The Raid. But once it gets into it, the intrigue and betrayals and layers of characters and tensions and histories aren’t actually too hard to follow. You just have to pay attention, lest you end up like some of the people at the screening I attended, who were having a pow-wow about who was who and what they were trying to do. At some point, they must have zoned out, and in that moment the film lost them. It's not the most intellectually stimulating story, but it works well enough.
If you’ve seen the trailers (and you should, because they don’t spoil anything and are awesome in their own right), you will have some sense of the variety of locations, but it doesn’t really strike you like the film’s first image does. Right then, I was in for something different, something big (as if the 148 minute runtime didn’t clue me in). Where The Raid took place exclusively in tight spaces, Berandal opens with an extreme wide shot of a massive field. There’s green everywhere, something the first film lacked entirely (although the colors are as muted as ever).
It looks impressive, but you don’t realize just how vast this location is until a tiny little sedan appears in the lower left corner. Then you realize that the little ant thing digging a hole nearby is actually a human. Then you see a man with a bag over his head pulled from the car and brought towards the whole in the ground. Then you realize that that hole is about to become a grave.
And then you think, “Gareth Evans, you have my attention.”
As a counterpoint to The Raid, it is literally perfect. In fact, it’s one of the best opening shots in recent memory. And that’s important, because Berandal is the film that proves that Gareth Evans is not just a one-trick pony. The Raid is a spectacular martial arts film, and a completely serviceable narrative one. But simplicity was both a blessing and a curse: In 100 minutes, The Raid rings basically all of the creativity it possibly could out of that one location. But even so: it’s a run-down apartment complex. It makes excellent use of the space, but that run-down apartment is only new and exciting for so long (Evans’ first collaboration with Uwais, Merantau, is a more interesting film to look at due to its variety of colors and locations, even though it’s massively inferior in every other way).
Berandal takes the good looks of Merantau and the general quality of The Raid and cranks them both up to 11. With shots ranging from extremely wide to extremely close and with a color pallete that would impress Kubrick, there is always something exciting to look at.
The violence is stunning (and stunningly graphic). The Raid pulled few punches; Berandal pulls none. That opening scene ends with a point blank shotgun blast to the side of someone’s head, but it doesn’t cut until after the face has started to disintegrate. If you can’t stomach gore, Berandal is going to hurt you, and it’s going to hurt you badly.
Remember in the opening scene of the first film when Tama, the ultimate target of their operation, hit that dude with the hammer? No you don’t, because the camera whip-panned away from the action as he struck. To make up for that one moment of hidden violence, Berandal gives you a young villainess who fights exclusively with a hammer. Actually, two of them. Her and her aluminum bat-wielding buddy make for some of Rama’s more colorful opponents in the film, showcasing their own prowess on subway trains and sidewalks, each taking on hordes as big as any found in The Raid.
Also in the cast is Yayan Ruhian, who played Mad Dog in the first film, which is... problematic. While he is presented differently, my first thought when I saw him was, “Seriously?” I didn’t even consider that he might have been playing a different role, because that makes no sense. His near-invincibility in The Raid was almost comedic, and I wondered if somehow he had recovered in the two years that Rama was in prison. And because of his dumb beard, I couldn’t even see if there was a scar on his throat or not representing the lightbulb that (supposedly) took him out. That he has a name doesn’t help, because obviously “Mad Dog” isn’t a name.
So why is he in the movie at all? Well, because he’s one of the fight choreographers, along with Uwais. Having him play a part, then, makes it a lot easier for them. Also, he’s generally awesome. I can totally understand wanting him to be there, but my mind took the return of Mad Dog to a dozen places that the film didn’t end up going, because it wasn’t Mad Dog. Considering the bushy hair and beard, people who haven’t seen The Raid as recently (or as frequently) as I have may not even notice, but for those who do, here’s your warning.
But as odd as it was that Ruhian played a role, I’m certainly glad he worked on the film. He is a fantastic martial artist, and clearly one of the best fight choreographers working today. As a team, he and Uwais are basically unstoppable. Berandal proves that, because the scale of these brawls is beyond belief. The first fight in the film, less than 15 minutes in, pits Rama against at least a dozen random guys in a bathroom stall (it’s a recreation of the original Berandal trailer, actually, though a hell of a lot cooler). Even though it’s relatively short, the bar is already raised; none of the one-on-many fights in the original film can match it. And then it gets better. And bigger. And crazier.
In fact, the scope of these fights is so massive that there isn’t a real one-on-one fight until the last battle of the entire film (the last shot of the trailer sets it up). It takes place two hours and fifteen minutes into a two and a half hour movie, and it is every bit as awesome as you would hope (imagine Jaka vs. Mad Dog on steroids and you’ll still have no idea).
But it’s not all buttercups and rainbows, because Berandal has seams where its predecessor does not. Perhaps it’s because I never saw The Raid in theaters and cuts were hidden by the smaller picture, but I noticed a lot more little editing quirks to make certain strikes work in the sequel. I don’t mean that every other move I saw some missing frames or anything like that. It’s important to note, though, that I was also looking for mistakes. I wanted to pull back the curtain and see how these shots were done. I wanted to see the master at work. Some of these cuts were tiny, slight shifts of the action by maybe an inch (of a theater screen), but they’re there. If you aren’t looking, though, I can’t imagine you’d see them.
It’s almost certainly a consequence of Berandal’s most impressive aspect: the length of its shots. There aren’t any shots quite as long as, say, Oldboy’s hallway fight (although one moment during the absolutely massive prison fight certainly had shades of that), but there are times where the camera just keeps on rolling. And it was sometimes in those shots that I saw those tiny cuts. Mistakes are made during long takes, and just as reel changes were masked in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, many long takes nowadays are composites of multiple shots. It seems plausible that the shift from one take to another could be the reason for some of this jumpiness. The reality is that the use of weapons like hammers and knives that pierce through dozens of people means that some of what you’re seeing has been digitally altered, adding gore or non-retractable blades or what have you.
But that does nothing to take away from the brilliant choreography, shot composition, or performances. So many of the things that Evans and his team pulled off in this film boggled my mind. There are shots that I can’t explain, moves that make no sense, and entire scenes that should not work but do. And in those moments, you understand that Berandal is in a class all its own. Honestly, there never could have been a film like Berandal before now. Like Gravity, it is a showcase for what the digital revolution has allowed filmmakers to do. Gareth Evans couldn’t have made Berandal when he tried a few years back. Nobody could have.
But now it’s been made, and we’re in a new era, a post-Berandal world where the bar has been set so astronomically high that anyone hoping to match it should probably just give up and do something else with their life.
So, Mr. Evans, you have my attention. Let’s see what you’ve got planned for The Raid 3.
Mike Cosimano: While I don't agree with Alec that Berandal is the best action movie ever made, it's certainly up there. For a movie where so many people are getting bludgeoned, stabbed, kicked, shot, and otherwise murdered, I consider it a high compliment that I never got tired. Most action movies with this amount of brutality are just exhausting. But Gareth Evans knows how to space out the punching and let the film breathe. It's a lesson filmmakers of every genre could learn. Sometimes you have to give your audience a chance to process what they've seen.And there's a lot to process in Berandal. Every scene is expertly crafted, right down to the dialogue. I'm really looking forward to drooling over high-def screenshots once this flick hits Blu-Ray. If my press junket hadn't told me about Evans' filmography beforehand, I would have bet actual cash that he was an old pro.
I saw this movie a couple weeks ago, and I've had a difficult time getting it out of my brain ever since. Alec was dead on with his assessment of the opening scene. It's gorgeously shot and immensely memorable, but that's a fair descriptor of the whole film. When you see it, go with friends and make sure you've got a bloc of time freed up afterwards for digestion. You'll be yelling at each other excitedly for a couple hours at the very least, slowly realizing that you just saw an instant classic. 89 - Exceptional
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