By: Tom Magennis
Have you seen The Raid, and The Raid 2: Berandal? Have you? If not, why not. I speak no hyperbole when I say that the two ‘Raid’ films are probably the most perfectly realised movie series in the history of Cinema. Are there better films? Possibly, but I’d debate it. Are there films that explore deeper issues, provide better windows into the agonies of the human condition? Undeniably. But is there a movie that more flawlessly achieves its own goals? That so effortlessly and marvellously does what it set out to do? That so surpasses every other example of its genre, for less than half the price of one of its rivals’ boring generic explosion-fests? Not even a bit.
The Raid, the first one that is, is a fantastically tight, rounded movie. Nothing is in there that doesn’t need to be, and what is there is polished to a mirror sheen. There isn’t much room for dialogue, or character development, but characters reveal their depth through deeds. There’s a touch of mystery around a few of the Big Bad’s henchmen, but no unnecessary intrigue that might otherwise slow down the lightning-fast pace. The Raid is not a film about subtle details, but the details are all on point. It’s nothing but pure, no-nonsense filmmaking. And you can see that filmmaking in all its glory in every single one of the action scenes that take up most of the film’s taut one hour and forty-minute runtime.
So, we arrive at the crux of the issue. The fight scenes in the ‘Raid’ films are some quite simply the best in modern film. (And they’re better than all the pre-modern films, too, come to think of it.) The hand to hand fighting is near flawlessly choreographed, to the point where they don’t seem choreographed at all. Fast flowing, visceral, fist fights, knife fights, and whatever-bludgeon-comes-to-hand fights as well. Each punch, each kick, each eye watering stab, is presented in breath-taking realism, supported by the film’s exquisite sound design. The violence seems so real you can almost feel it, yet is so primally cathartic that you can’t help but enjoy seeing it inflicted on somebody else.
The gunfights are hardly what you’ve come to see the film for, but even they are exquisite. Bare-bones, high-impact, there is little sacrifice made to style that would otherwise diminish their graphic directness. A far cry from the drab, bloodless gunplay that litters many modern action releases. But the most noteworthy thing about The Raid’s action scenes, is in fact the thing you notice the least. Well, only notice subliminally, at any rate. The dedication to geography in The Raid is uniformly stellar. As opposed to the swirling mess of unintelligible explosions that Michael Bay has the temerity to call ‘action’, in The Raid, a combination of sterling set design, masterful camera work, and inch-perfect attention to detail means that you can follow every fight flawlessly. You know precisely where everybody is, and you’re acutely aware of just how they intend to mercilessly butcher their fellow man at any given moment.
This is really important, because it’s such an intricate detail, and even when a movie does get it right, you don’t really notice it unless you’re looking for it. Because it’s so hard to achieve for relatively low payoff, at least with the average film viewer, action geography is so often overlooked, but in The Raid, they decided to go the extra mile, and it absolutely pays off. The inventiveness and brutality of the fight scenes is one thing, but the sheer attention to detail that director Gareth Evans puts in to every single frame, ascends them to a class of their own.
But hang on, Tom, you said this essay was about both Raid films, and so far all you’ve done is talk about the first movie as if it were an exceptionally violent Second Coming. Oh, reader, if only you knew. I have not even begun to shill.You see, as much as I love The Raid, as much as I see it as nearing the apex of action filmmaking, its sequel, The Raid 2, Berandal, improves on it in almost every single way. And it’s damn magnificent.
The Raid 2 is the apex of sequels. It improves and expands on the original, brings its ideas to fresh new places, while still very much retaining its spirit. It takes the first film’s 30-foot tower block of chaotic action, and turns it into an entire city filled with mystery and intrigue, with characters now coming onto the screen fully developed and utterly fascinating. There’s actually a plot more complex than “Come here, punch stuff, mild twist, boss fight”, and what’s more terrifying, it’s actually rather good. A succession crisis, a foreign interloper, and an undercover cop. It’s a classic gangster plot, spiced up by Iko Uwais’ ceaselessly excellent performance as Rama, the series’ hero, and a fantastic cast of colourful characters, most notably Bejo, the Chinese Gangster seeking to usurp the throne of the Jakartan underworld, and his henchpersons, Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl, who, despite their rather dull names, are ceaselessly fantastic. Yayan Ruihan, a return from the previous film, albeit in a new role, is a special standout. The tragic story of an immensely skilled hitman who just wants the best for his family, which could well be a film in its own right, here simply serves as a subplot that gives the stellar story even greater depth.
But surely, now that the action has improved, the quality of the action must have degenerated to make room for it, right? Oh, heavens no. The action in The Raid 2 redefines action. It uses massive, genre-defining set-pieces most movies would be based entirely around the way most gangster films would use a simple shooting. I could name almost any fight scene in The Raid 2, and I can’t think of a single movie who would even have a climax that would compare favourably to it. There’s the Prison Riot in the mud, a titanic mass brawl that is made truly epic by the returning virtue of splendid geography. Hammer Girl’s Debut on the Train makes Old Boy’s hammer scene look tame by comparison, and Baseball Bat Man’s fighting style is delightfully unique, given what a generic weapon he’s using.
But the car chase. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better mix of inventive combat and almost miraculous cinematography. I don’t know if you’ve seen that video of how they managed to get a camera from outside the car to inside of it, to outside it again, in a single shot, but if you haven’t, you should get that in your eyes too, but when you see it, remember that this movie was made for less than five million dollars. I feel that’s worth repeating there. Less than five million dollars. That’s less than the price of five minutes of Batman v Superman’s joyless, drab, uninteresting runtime, and look what they did with it. Redefined the action genre and created a slew of action scenes upon which you could base an entire semester of Film School. Oh, wait, and there’s also that one fight in the nightclub with Prakoso. That’s really good as well.
Now, obviously, I was being facetious earlier. This isn’t just a simple shill. I’m not just telling you to see these movies because they’re excellent. I mean, they are, and you absolutely should, but that’s not the point. The point is that these movies aren’t just good, they’re important. They’re a near-flawless demonstration of just how cinematic action should be done. They are a series that knows exactly what it wants to do, and then proceeds to do all of these things with such intricate precision as to make them seem effortless. I don’t believe I’ve seen a set of films quite as essential and ground-breaking as these for a long damned time, and I can only hope the upcoming sequel lives up to their frankly immense promise.
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