Burned-in violence: The Raid 2: Berandal

theraid2I liked The Raid. The huge praise for Gareth Evans’ out-of-nowhere 2011 Indonesian action thriller was pretty well justified. The martial arts sequences, the choreography, the editing, the camerawork, the stunts – it was all surprisingly masterful for a relative newcomer, particularly thanks to Iko Uwais’ stunning fighting skill. The clarity of the action was refreshing and exhilarating in a time when shaky camerawork and CGI refuse to show us what’s happening moment to moment.

The Raid was also extremely violent. Hardly surprising for an action film about police officers fighting for survival in a locked-down building filled with bloodthirsty underworld thugs. But while the grisliness was more excessive than it needed to be, the intensity, energy, and astounding rhythm of the action outweighed the ick factor. The climactic fight, between just three men in a room, is an incredible white-knuckle feat of suffocating tension, relief continually delayed by last-second escapes until a disgusting but triumphant final blow. The relative simplicity of The Raid’s story wasn’t a problem because the action was remarkable and thrilling in its own right. It was the very reason the film existed.

The Raid 2: Berandal is getting major acclaim, particularly from the high-profile blogger critics who were die-hard fans of the original. Some are calling it one of the greatest action films ever made. I went in expecting an incredible tableau of furious action against a backdrop of gangster intrigue. Sadly, I only caught a few glimpses of greatness.

I almost mean that literally. The staggering, intricately grisly violence in this film – vastly surpassing the original’s – all but obliterates its other accomplishments as you watch, burning an afterimage into your mind that obscures the characterisation, pacing, and virtually everything else. Even the physical and logistical triumphs of the action sequences feel diminished by the blood splattered across them. Unless you’re remarkably inured to on-screen violence – as many are, judging by the amount of laughter and excited clapping in my screening at even a cold-blooded execution – memories of The Raid 2 will be as elusive as the details of a bad dream.

Evans has mistakenly assumed that the gruesome sights in the first film were among its crowning achievements, and so he’s pandered to the gorehounds who considered it a hallmark. For example, to up the ante in the easiest way possible, Evans defines two new villains not by their personalities or fighting skills, but solely by their horrendous weapons of choice: hammers and a baseball bat. In another scene, one character slowly moves down a line of tied-up minions, slitting their throats with a stanley knife while he continues his conversation. As the camera lingers on each kill, you expect something else to happen with the final man that will move the plot forward. Nope, he just gets his throat cut a different way. By painstakingly pursuing the grotesque, Evans has undermined what could have been an incredible genre fusion, the Heat of martial arts movies.

Instead of a self-contained escape thriller, Berandal is a sprawling crime saga, as Uwais’s rookie cop Rama goes undercover with the boss of the first film’s villain to root out police corruption. Unfortunately, the ambition falls short because Evans’s storytelling skill doesn’t yet match his affinity for action filmmaking. The two-and-a-half hour runtime is far from packed with incident and action, with several dialogue-driven scenes dragging on too long. Yet some of the plotting is still largely serving the action, with one character seen for only two scenes before being targeted for execution in a lengthy fight sequence that’s supposed to resonate emotionally. Evans isn’t playing to his strengths by partnering a complex crime story with the meticulous and arresting action that was better served by the simpler platform of the first film.

Of course, the story may have been more engaging if the action and violence didn’t pummel it out of your mind, sullying the rest of the filmmaking. There’s a reason martial arts films tend not to be overly gory: unlike slasher films or Rambo-style gorefests, we don’t watch them for blood and guts. Their appeal is in the balletic skill of the fighters, the convincing stuntwork, the seamless choreography, and the balance between force and grace. A martial arts sequence can be an intense assault on the senses that leaves you breathless, but it typically doesn’t induce revulsion.

Many scenes in The Raid 2 are revolting, particularly in its second half. Most egregiously, they tar the awe-inspiring skill of Iko Uwais. As I watched the end of his final one-on-one fight, where he and his opponent cut chunks out of each other at high speed until the wet, grotesque conclusion, I realised that Evans has let his star down. The gouts of blood and viscera stain Uwais’ accomplishments and distract us from admiring them. Yes, martial arts fight scenes are inherently about violence due to the conflicts of the story, but martial arts itself is not solely about inflicting harm. That’s why gore has generally had no place in martial arts cinema, which The Raid 2 doesn’t understand. It thinks a hammer ripping out brain matter through the top of a skull and a man’s head exploding from a shotgun blast – on-camera with no cutaway – are typical of why we watch martial arts movies.

Based on the rapturous response the film has been receiving, it’s certainly why some people are watching it. But many who would appreciate The Raid 2 and its credible integration of crime drama and martial arts movie are going to reject the onslaught of violence. I imagine the two people who left my screening after the final kill may have done just that. With the film clearly in its closing minutes, they seemed to nonetheless be leaving as soon as they could. I sympathise with how overwhelmed they may have felt. I assume they had to be fans of the first to be there on opening day at one of the few cinemas screening it, yet they couldn’t even stay until the end.

That’s why this is a miscalculation by Evans, because by stepping up the gore he has overshadowed his other skills, which still manage to inject The Raid 2 with some astounding, adrenalising moments. This film feels like a new benchmark for excessive and misjudged on-screen violence, a firm warning that escalation is a poor substitute for innovation.

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