It's only April, but The Raid 2 is the action movie of the year
FILM There are action films. And then there's The Raid 2. One need not have seen 2011's The Raid: Redemption to appreciate this latest collaboration between Welsh director Gareth Evans and Indonesian actor, martial artist, and fight choreographer Iko Uwais — it's recommended, of course, but the sequel stands alone on its own merits.
Overstuffed with gloriously brutal, cleverly staged fight scenes, The Raid 2 — sometimes written with the subtitle "Berendal," which means "thugs" — picks up immediately after the events of the first film. Quick recap of part one: a special-forces team invades an apartment tower controlled by gangsters. Among the cops is idealistic Rama (Uwais). Seemingly bulletproof and fleet of fists and feet, Rama battles his way floor-by-floor, encountering machete-toting heavies and a wild-eyed maniac appropriately named Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), as well as his own older brother, who's a high-up in the organized crime world. Rama also realizes he's been unwittingly working for a corrupt police lieutenant, who's got a personal beef with the bad guys. The Raid's gritty, unadorned approach (streamlined location and cast, gasp-inducing fights) resonated with thrill seeking audiences weary of CG overload.
"Before we'd screened the first movie anywhere, we watched it to do a tech check on it. After we finished, we thought, 'Ok. We have ... something,'" Evans recalled on a recent visit to San Francisco with Uwais. "But we just kept kind of focusing on, 'There's pixellation here, the picture's not great there.' We were looking at all the problems that you do when you're deep into production on something. Then, when [the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival] happened, it was like, 'Holy shit!' We had no idea it was going to get received like that. And it kept growing! For us, it was this weird experience where something that we'd made within our own little creative vacuum was suddenly being accepted by people."
A second Raid film was inevitable, especially since Evans — who became interested in Indonesian martial arts, or pencak silat, while working on 2007 doc The Mystic Art of Indonesia — already had its story in mind: Rama goes undercover in the underworld, a ploy that necessitates he do a prison stint to gain the trust of a local kingpin. Naturally, not much goes according to plan, and blood is shed along the way, as multiple power-crazed villains set their sinister plans into motion. Evans originally wanted to film it after making 2009's Merantau, his first action film with Uwais, but it proved too costly for the then-unproven team.
"For two years, we were looking for financing, but were not able to get it. So we did the first Raid because it was lower budget. It was like a plan B," Evans said. "After that, our investor was willing to help finance the second one. It bought us better equipment, more time to shoot, better sets. All of that stuff that we spent extra money on went up on the screen."
With a fan base established by the first film, Evans — himself a lifelong action movie lover — knew expectations were high. Somehow, he'd have to top The Raid. "It couldn't be The Raid 2, except now it's a bigger building," he joked. "So, what can we do differently? Expand the universe, and expand the characters. Explore different territory and be able to try different action beats: Car chase! Prison riot! And using weapons that we hadn't introduced before, like the curved blades. It's one of the weapons in silat. So it's like, 'Ok, this thing exists. Why haven't we used it yet?' We kind of hinted at it in Merantau — but we never really used it. Indonesian fans of that movie complained, but I was like, 'Hold tight. We will use it.' It's such a violent, aggressive weapon that it wouldn't have felt right in Merantau. But in The Raid 2, it felt right."
Evans was also concerned that the "element of surprise" would be lost for audiences who had seen the first film. When asked to elaborate — because Uwais' character is a mild-mannered nice guy who, surprise, is also an explosive killing machine? — he broke it down.
"[In the first film, audiences] got a taste for our choreography. We try to differentiate ourselves from other martial artists and filmmakers that do this type of stuff. Not in a way of like, 'What we do is better.' It's more a case of, everyone packages their films differently," he said. "We're big fans of what Tony Jaa has done, and Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, and Jackie Chan. But we have certain rules that we just don't break. We never do a replay of anything when it comes to a stunt or an action sequence. It's all one flow, and it never breaks rhythm — it keeps going until the thing is finished. In terms of slo-mo, we only ever use it to tell something dramatically within a fight sequence. We never use it to show off a movement. Which segues into, no acrobatics. Because as soon as you do that, you've got a stunt guy waiting to get hit. And that takes you out of the scene straightaway."
Presenting the fight scenes as realistically benefits more than just the audience. "On TV in Indonesia, silat is represented in the most bullshit way possible: people jump into the sky and fly, and turn into jaguars, and shoot fireballs out of their eyes. I'm not exaggerating! When we first went to gather money for Merantau, we'd say, 'We're gonna make a silat film!' and people would be like, 'Aw, silat? That's that stupid thing on TV,'" Evans recalled. "But I'd met Iko, and his gurus and teachers, and silat is such an integral part of their lives. [It was important to me that] if we made films about this martial art, we had to do it in a way that reclaims it from what had been done before. We wanted it to be real, and true to what they study."
Though the actual fighting is realistic, the settings were carefully chosen for cinematic impact. Both of those ante-upping "action beats" Evans mentioned — the car chase, in which Uwais' character batters his opponents inside of a moving vehicle, and the prison riot, which is muddy, bloody mayhem — are standouts.
"A lot of people responded to the idea of claustrophobia in the first one, because of all the enclosed spaces," Evans said. "I wanted to find a way to still have these tight moments in the second one, even though the scope was much wider. Even within a car chase, we could dive right inside and have this super claustrophobic fight in the back seat."
Uwais estimated that each fight scene required three or four months of practice — and even more for the car stunt. "Standing and fighting is very different than sitting and fighting," he pointed out.
The collaborators, who have an easygoing rapport, have conflicting memories when it comes to filming the sloppy prison brawl — though they agree it was far and away the least fun scene to shoot. (Evans: "We shot that for eight days straight." Uwais: "Eight days? It was 10 days." Evans: "The guys were caked in mud all day." Uwais: "From 6am to 5pm." Evans: "More like, 4pm." Uwais: "5pm!" Evans: "Ok, 5pm!")
As The Raid 2 prepares to open wide, Evans is ramping up plans for the third film in the trilogy. "Whereas The Raid 2 starts like two hours after The Raid finishes, The Raid 3 starts three hours before The Raid 2 finishes," he revealed. "So there's a scene toward the end where a certain group makes a decision on something, and part three's gonna follow the consequences of those actions. The Raid 3 is going to be way more streamlined than part two [which runs 148 minutes], and it's going to be an homage to certain styles of cinema that I love that I really want to try and play with."
And yes, there's an American Raid remake in the works. When asked "Whyyyy?", Evans was ready with an answer. "I've been a huge fan of Asian cinema ever since I was a kid, and I used to have that same feeling: 'Oh my god, they can't remake that!' But in this case, nothing takes the original away. If anything, people who see the remake might get introduced to the original now, because they didn't know it existed before."
THE RAID 2 opened Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.