THE RAID 2: BERANDAL Review: When More Is Less
The movie sequel. Historically speaking, it’s almost as old as the movie itself. To make a sequel – especially one that follows-up a popular title or cult classic – is a temptation from both artistic and financial perspectives. The former can allow the creator of the original material to go places narratively that they might not have had the opportunity (read: budget) to visit with the original installment. Or maybe it can allow a new filmmaker to put their own spin on old material.
From a financial perspective, if a film is a hit, a sequel will (for the most part) guarantee an automatic financial draw from fans of the original installment, meaning the studio releasing the film is taking less of a financial risk. The film is the brand, the sequel its product.
And with every sequel comes the hope that the execution and reception of the film is closer to that of 1974’s The Godfather: Part II than it is to that of 1987’s Teen Wolf Too. In almost all cases, it’s somewhere in between.
According to MovieInsider.com, there are 30 major sequels slated for release in 2014. As of this writing, eight of those have already been released. As of this past Sunday, I had only seen one: the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As of this past Monday, I doubled that tally with a screening of The Raid 2: Berandal. The original film, 2011’s The Raid: Redemption, has the artistic punch and the rabid fan-base that has made it ripe for a sequel since the day the film opened. The new day – and the new film – has finally arrived.
Beginning mere hours after the conclusion of The Raid: Redemption, that film’s protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais), is recruited to infiltrate a mob family by endearing himself to the boss’ son, Uco (Arifin Putra). His incentive? If he doesn’t do it, his police mentor, Bunawar (Cok Simbara), cannot protect Rama’s wife, child, or father from the people who want to remove from existence anyone affiliated with the events of (the first film). Rama reluctantly agrees, but there is a problem: Uco is in jail, so Rama must get himself arrested and spend his two years behind bars – and away from his family, who has no idea where he is – making friends with the criminal. Once released from jail, Rama’s mission is simple: weed out corrupt cops from the inside.
Rama, acting as Uco’s right-hand man, soon learns more is going on than he bargained for. Uco is growing impatient to take over the family from his father, and making bad decisions to expedite that process.
Unlike more popular sequels of today (sequels that are probably better described as chapters of a greater overall story, like The Hunger Games and the MCU/Avengers franchise), The Raid 2: Berandal is a high-octane action sequel structured in the classic ’80s high-octane action sequel mold. It cashes-in on the popularity of its predecessor, it slaps a number after its title, you do not have to have seen the first film to understand the second, and it has a direct connection to the original film (by way of the lead character and a couple of peripheral characters). Like almost all sequels (’80s action or otherwise), though, this one is also inferior to its predecessor. Unfortunately, what diminishes it when compared to the first installment is what also hurts it as a stand-alone film.
One of the things writer/director/editor Gareth Evans attempts to do with this sequel is to make it bigger than the original – bigger in both narrative and visual scope.
In the original film, the plot is simple: Rama enters the building, fights his way upstairs, and tries to get the bad guy. There is a small but interesting subplot about police corruption, a pair of innocent bystanders who are placed at risk, and a compelling twist (no spoilers) that turns the film into more than a video game; there are real consequences for Rama’s actions other than his own safety and who wins or loses. The simple, straight-forward, and compelling story is just as critical to the film’s success as the action is because it never gets in the way of that action. Instead, it gives the action a vehicle.
Not so with the sequel. Evans opts to raise the narrative stakes by abandoning the intimacy found in the story of the first film and instead attempting to craft a major Asian crime epic. As a writer, he isn’t up to the task of that scope. The plot – about crime and corruption, fathers and sons, and trust and betrayl – has been done before, and often, and to greater effect, by filmmakers with far better storytelling skills (from in and out of Asia). Not only is the overall story here murky, the dialogue is uninteresting to the point of being forgettable and parts of the storyline are woefully underdeveloped or simply forgotten. But the greatest sin to this bigger approach is that so much time is spent developing the parts of the story where Rama is nothing more than a witness as opposed to being the protagonist. Any sense of what Rama is thinking or feeling about his predicament is mostly overshadowed by the larger dialogue-heavy parts of the story … until it’s time for him to fight, of course.
This clunky, sometimes arduous narrative (creating an unnecessarily doughy running time of 150 minutes) also gets in the way of the action, instead of advancing the story to the action. In the original film, breaks in action were moments for characters and viewers alike to catch their collective breath. Here, it’s mostly breathing that takes place, with spikes of action peppered in, at least in the first two thirds of the film (the final third is heavily action-loaded). Overall, though, the action falls victim to the same problem the story does: trying to go bigger.
The most mesmerizing aspect of the original film is the action, but not simply the volume and intensity of it all. What really sells it is how much action takes place in such confined spaces. The film is practically claustrophobic, with epic battles between scores of men taking place in small rooms and stairwells and hallways. In this sequel, that happens, and those are the best sequences in the bunch, but there are too few of these moments. There is an early confrontation in a bathroom stall, a fight in a hallway, one in a kitchen, and a fight inside a car. These battles are intense and even the car chase that follows the fight has great claustrophobic elements, as the streets are perilously busy. (That entire spectacular car sequence is one for the history books.)
But there are larger-scale battles, too – one in a muddy prison courtyard, one in a nightclub, one in the street – that lack any sense of excitement, and feel like they were put there as a way for Evans to show he can choreograph and film bigger battles. He can’t, or at least he needs to work on it; those sequences are the worst of the film and another detriment in a tale already encumbered with other issues.
Perhaps feeling unencumbered by the tight nature of his first film, Evans also throws in some things that feel like inserts for shock value (a gender-bending porn shoot) or gimmicky characters like Baseball Bat Man (who uses an aluminum bat and a baseball as his weapons of choice) and Hammer Girl (a deaf-mute who uses claw hammers as her weapons). Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl? This isn’t a superhero movie. Evans then gets too clever by half and takes Hammer Girl’s potentially spectacular train battle and all but ruins it when he edits it into pieces and interweaves it with the slower, sillier exploits of Baseball Bat Man.
Julie Estelle (HG) and Very Tri Yulisman (BBM) do very well as – what? – the Dynamic Duet, but for how intense the film is and how serious it tries to be, they feel like they should be in lighter, wire-fu fare. (Forgive me for mentioning this, but when Baseball Bat Man actually does the Babe Ruth point at his victim, I laughed out loud for all the wrong reasons.)
Let me be clear: Gareth Evans is a sensational martial arts director, and both Raid films contain some of the best fight choreography, direction, and (most importantly) editing that I’ve seen. The filmmakers even displays a nice artistic eye with some impressive wide shots and selective use of slow-motion in this installment. But overall, the film starts sagging 15 minutes in and doesn’t get mean and lean again until near the end.
The Raid 2: Berandal‘s inferiority to its predecessor is not for lack of trying. Unlike many sequels that look to milk franchises for money rather than attempt to make good films, this one actually tries – and hard – to be an improvement on the first. It simply doesn’t have what it takes to do that, substituting bigger for better, with the net result being a mediocre film with some great moments.