THE RAID 2: BERENDAL Movie Review – Sprawling, Ambitious Martial Arts Epic
The Raid 2: Berendal arrives stateside three years after its predecessor, The Raid: Redemption (The Raid elsewhere), wowed action-oriented critics and moviegoers alike. While The Raid: Redemption barely made an impression at the box office here, it did significantly better outside the U.S. Between Scottish-born Gareth Evans (Merantau) assured direction and martial arts star Iko Uwais combination of charisma and physicality, The Raid: Redemption represented action fiction filmmaking at – or near – its finest. Working with a modest budget, a straightforward, videogame-inspired premise, and ever-tightening tension, ever-escalating stakes, The Raid: Redemption also epitomized brute-force, economic storytelling. The Raid 2; Berendal, however, is everything The Raid: Redemption isn’t: It’s wildly ambitious, epic-scaled storytelling, but with that ambition and scale comes creeping bloat, awkward character and story choices, and an overlong, ultimately exhausting running time that could have been easily trimmed by 20-30 minutes to better reflect Evans’ thematic preoccupations and keep moviegoers consistently, compellingly engaged.
When we last saw The Raid: Redemption’s hero-protagonist, Rama (Uwais), he was bruised, battered, but definitely not beaten, having survived a hellish, nightmarish encounter inside a gang-infested tenement building, the result of a botched take-out attempt by Jakarta’s finest law enforcement. Rama and two others walked away, leaving his criminal brother, Andi (Donny Alamsyah), as the new, de facto leader. The Raid 2: Berendal picks up almost immediately afterward, but quickly dispenses with the dangling plot threads (and characters) left over from The Raid: Redemption. Given little choice by Bunawar (Cok Simbara), the ruthless head of an anti-corruption force, Rama reluctantly agrees to leave law enforcement behind – specifically due to the risks his family faces from corrupt cops and assorted criminals – and go undercover, ostensibly to ferret high-level police corruption.
Rather than attack the corruption problem directly, Bunawar gives Rama an entirely new identity as a hardcore criminal, and sends him to prison to gain the trust of a mobster’s son, Uko (Arifin Putra). Saving Uko from an orchestrated prison yard attack – the first in a series of The Raid 2: Berendal’s ultraviolent, exhilarating set pieces – during a rainstorm gets Rama inside the Indonesian mob as Uco’s bodyguard (and friend). Uco’s father, Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), shares Jakarta with a Japanese gang led by Goto (Ken’ichi Endô). An uneasy, years-long alliance keeps the gangs from letting their differences spill over into violence. Between Uco’s hot-headed temperament and open unwillingness to wait his turn to take over the gang and the activities of another ambitious gangster, Bejo (Alex Abbad), the uneasy truce between the Indonesian and Japanese gangs eventually ends, with Rama in the bloody, gory, violent middle.
Drawing inspiration from familiar sources like Donnie Brasco (Rama’s undercover work), The Godfather (dueling crime families, hot-headed heir to the illegal family fortune), The Departed/Infernal Affairs (Rama again), A Fistful of Dollars/Yojimbo/Red Harvest (Bejo’s machinations to set up the crime families against one other), Oldboy (claw-hammer hallway fight), countless Hong Kong action films (e.g., John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To), and, of course, martial arts films, The Raid 2: Berendal rarely rises above the sum of its many influences. Evans – who not only wrote and directed The Raid 2: Berendal, but also edited it – seems so eager to show off the countless influences on his film that he often loses sight of the central storyline or Rama’s presumed centrality. While Rama was rarely offscreen for more than a minute or two in The Raid: Redemption, here he disappears for 10-15 minutes at a time, a disservice to Rama’s character development and Uwais’ screen presence.
The Raid 2: Berendal’s intricate, multi-character, multi-subplot structure often overwhelms Evans. While he’s more than capable of shooting and editing complexly choreographed set pieces, including one of the better car chases in recent memory, the same can’t be said for the film’s overall narrative shape and focus. Lingering too long on one scene is, at most, a minor, even forgivable problem, but combined with superfluous characters and subplots, like one involving an assassin, Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian, The Raid: Redemption’s secondary villain, Mad Dog, and co-fight choreographer), not to mention the clumsy handling of exposition early on (characters mentioned repeatedly before they’re introduced), and it’s difficult not to conclude that Evans’ ambitions outstripped his ability – at least this time out – to make a dramatically and emotionally satisfying crime film, rather than just another well-choreographed martials arts film.
Whatever his faults as a long-form storyteller, Evans’s skills as a filmmaker are at their sharpest when he’s directing one of The Raid 2: Berendal’s many (perhaps too many) set pieces. Evans intrinsically understands both the need for variety within each set piece and between (and among) different set pieces. Every shot, every edit is not only thought out and rehearsed thoroughly in advance, but constructed with spatial geography and spatial geometry as primary values, not secondary or tertiary ones, as most Hollywood-based action directors generally do. Hollywood directors could (and should) take note. As for Evans, a co-screenwriter or even working from an original script might be what he needs to take him to the next level of a promising career.