If you keep up with people who keep up with action movies, a few years ago you might’ve heard of a film called The Raid: Redemption. Bloody, badass, and equipped with a killer one-sentence concept—a cop fights his way through a corrupt apartment complex to take down a slumlord—it grabbed the eye of action enthusiasts for its audacious fight sequences. More importantly, it became the latest inductee into a very important genre of film: The one with the kick-ass Asian dude.
These movies are less about plot than they are about watching a physically-fit martial arts prodigy weave, bob, and smash his way through hordes of unthinking brutes. Given the cult cachet of The Raid: Redemption, you might think that the sequel, which came out on Friday, would offer more of the same: another cop, another slumlord, another apartment complex to kick and stab one’s way through.
Instead, director Gareth Evans has delivered a multi-layered, two-and-a-half hour dramatic epic that capitalizes on the buzz of the original to create an emotional context beyond someone getting punched in the face. There’s plenty of that, yes, but to understand what The Raid 2: Berendal does differently and why it’s one of 2014’s best movies so far, we need to understand a little about what types of martial arts have typically succeeded in the West—and why it’s been difficult to break that mold.
BEFORE BRUCE LEE, KUNG fu didn’t really exist in the West. Brawling was mostly relegated to the kind of closed-fist, roundhouse swinging style popularized by John Wayne—the type of fight that comes down to who’s tougher, not who’s more skilled. But Lee brought a new kind of grace to on-screen fighting, where the form and flow of the body, and not necessarily the combat, was the spectacle worth coming for. With his movie-star looks and martial arts proficiency, Lee was a budding talent, poised to break even bigger with the release of Enter the Dragon before his untimely death. The kung fu influence he brought to Western cinema helped stars like Chuck Norris get across with movies like Breaker! Breaker! and paved the way for the crossover success of Jackie Chan a decade after his death.
Asian actors would be typecast as sexless goofs or overly stoic killing machines. Jackie Chan rarely got the girl; Jet Li rarely did more than stare ahead and punch whatever was in his way.
But crossover success for Chan and other spiritual successors like Jet Li was different than it was for Lee. Chan and Li’s Hong Kong movies were brought to Western screens in dubbed formats for our English-hearing pleasure, and they were often edited from their original format. When they broke into Hollywood proper, their excursions were often urbanized and dumbed down. (Not to get into an argument about the cinematic merit of Rush Hour and Kiss of the Dragon, but come on.) “I was there when Jackie Chan was told that no American audience would accept a movie with an all-Chinese cast,” says Ric Meyers, author of Films of Fury: The Kung-Fu Movie Book. “When he said ‘What about Bruce Lee?’, he was told that was an exception.”
Instead, these Asian actors would be typecast as sexless goofs or overly stoic killing machines. Jackie Chan rarely got the girl; Jet Li rarely did more than stare ahead and punch whatever was in his way. The list of Asian leading men in Hollywood slimmed down to the point where if you saw one of them on a poster, you could only assume he was there to beat someone up. (Or shoot someone, in Chow Yun-Fat’s case.)
On the other hand, Asian directors attempting to crossover were similarly forced into the same Western sensibility. Directors like Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, who made iconic action films at home like Once Upon a Time in China and City on Fire, respectively, were relegated to low-brow Jean Claude Van Damme flicks. John Woo had the most success with movies like Mission Impossible 2 and Face/Off, but bad experiences working with American studios eventually forced him back to Hong Kong.
As these Western-made martial arts movies were neutered, a new breed of martial arts movie arose in the East: movies that were influenced by the violence of the West but still built around the traditional, dynamic, hand-to-hand fighting that had disappeared. Whereas those Lee and Chan movies would often utilize wires and CGI to limit the strain on their bodies at the expense of believable visual grit—and after a lifetime of risk-taking, you couldn’t blame them—these movies featured martial arts phenoms in their physical prime totally willing to do the dirty work. With even less pretense of a story, 21st-century standouts like Ong Bak, The Protector, and Chocolate placed their heroes at the center of a paper-thin plot and let them punch their way out. While these movies would never be box-office hits, they didn’t need to be. With Netflix and digital downloads, lesser known but critically acclaimed movies became easily accessible, their buzz eclipsing that of any Western martial arts movie that came out in the same period, especially with the now-Western protagonists Lee and Chan aging into shells of their previously spry selves.
The Raid: Redemption followed a similar formula, which is how it first caught attention and justified the making of the sequel.
THE PREMISE OF THE Raid 2: Berendal isn’t complicated. Rama, the hero cop from the last film, has survived his fight against the slumlord. After a mob boss further up the food chain kills his brother in retaliation, he goes undercover, which involves going to jail and getting in with an Indonesian mob leader, in hopes of taking down the crooked cops who help enable such criminals.
It isn’t intensely original, either. There are cribbed elements from crime staples like The Godfather and The Departed, and you’ll spot the big reveals coming from a mile away. But a fitting air of fatalism surrounds the plot, with the characters acknowledging that they’re part of something bigger they can’t totally understand—that all the plans they make for themselves can be undone with one poor move. These aren’t outright villains, but resigned killers trying to provide for their children, mob leaders acting more like pragmatic businessmen, emotionally conflicted sons struggling against a family’s reputation.
And then there’s Rama. Utilizing a style of martial arts called pencak silat, he takes on dozens of men at once, snapping legs and smashing skulls into walls with the fluid, ceaseless motion of a cyborg. “Martial arts is now such a baseline element of film that the cultural and historical specificity of the form is occluded by its very prevalence,” says Harvey O’Brien, author of Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back. But Rama’s style of fighting is singularly vivid enough to transcend garden-variety martial arts—which we might see the cast members of The Avengers indulge in—and become the spectacle itself, as was the case with Lee, Chan, and all those Asian forebears.
A martial artist isn’t anything without someone to show him off, and director Gareth Evans relishes the task. The Raid: Berandal is a visual dream, filled with seamless montages, lavishly framed environments, and a steady hand for action sequences that move quickly without getting confusing. Evans is a Welshman who grew up on martial arts movies, absorbing them like an autodidact. He eventually went to film school, where he presumably learned how to translate such an incubated reservoir of reference into his own movie. The Raid was oppressively violent, and the sequel is no different. But it’s more economical with how the violence is ladled out, as more than half the movie is used to develop the plot, so that the ever-escalating violence doesn’t overwhelm all at once. Part of this is due to the studio, Sony Picture Classics, which acquired the film without forcing Evans to make cuts to get underneath an R rating. Contrast that with the Weinstein Company, who Meyers blames for neutering films like Hero and Iron Monkey.
While it may seem strange that a guy from Wales directed the next great, true-to-its-roots martial arts epic, as Meyers mentioned to me, that English is Evans’ first language probably helped him better navigate the treacherous waters of the movie business. Maybe it’s as simple—and as unfortunate—as saying that the language barrier helps English-speaking executives better get over on Asian directors. Something they were unable to do to Evans.
Still, it’s the story and not the fighting that justifies the movie’s ambitions. (In fact, Evans even cut a few fight scenes when they didn’t add meaningfully to the narrative.) From the two-and-a-half-hour run time to the set pieces, everything about The Raid 2: Berandal is bigger. Whereas The Raid was essentially a bottle movie, largely taking place in one giant building, the sequel bounds around an Indonesian metropolis. It doesn’t forget the regular citizens trying to eke out a life, either. It’s in the faces of the people on the train who run in horror when a fight develops between a hammer-wielding girl and a group of stooges and in the chefs working in the kitchen who wordlessly exit when the hero prepares to fight a final antagonist. In one pivotal scene, where the crime syndicate boss’ son meets with a trusted soldier at a club, we see the gleaming faces of white tourists—here to have fun, unaware of the all-encompassing presence of crime and corruption.
It’s hard to know how many similarly ambitious concepts were dumbed down by Western studios seeking something lighter, but it’s to Evans’ credit that he’s taken advantage of the freedom offered following the buzz of The Raid: Redemption. “It’s the ultimate action film,” Meyers says. “Name one that’s better. There are a lot of dramas, comedies, kung fu movies that come together. There’s not an action movie I can think of that comes together better than Raid 2.”
At the show I attended last Friday, the theater was packed with audiences young and old—Asian families among them, too. It only opened on seven screens, but took in $177,000 for an excellent $25,286 average per screen. (By comparison, that doubled the per screen average of Noah, which opened in first place.) Whether the movie will break for mainstream audiences is up to the market—the reviews are excellent, but you know how many excellently reviewed movies somehow fall through the cracks. Still, it’s an exciting step forward for the genre—and proof that Asian ass-kickers don’t have to be limited to just that.
UPDATE — April 9, 2014: In the dek, we originally wrote that director Gareth Evans was Scottish. He is Welsh.