When the Indonesian action film The Raid 2 was scheduled to screen on a Sunday night during South by Southwest, the air was electric with anticipation.
The testosterone-heavy crowd at the Paramount Theatre — guys outnumbered girls like it was fraternity rush week — had been amped and primed for two years, since the first film, The Raid: Redemption, slammed into American theaters. With no star wattage, no special effects, no name director, no car chases and no English, the film — an exercise in brutal claustrophobia in which one man fights his way out of a high-rise full of thugs — was declared one of the best action movies ever put on film.
The appropriately named website Mancave cheered: “Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, and this movie proves it by beating up every single one of them on camera.” The New Yorker called it “as pure a shot of adrenaline as any Tarantino fan could wish for.”
So the capacity Paramount crowd — which had been whipped into a frenzy by pre-show appearances from director Gareth Evans as well as the film’s stars, Indonesian martial-arts experts Iko Uwais and Cecep Arif Rahman — was ready to rip the roof off the place. And then …
Technical difficulties pushed the screening to midnight Monday.
Amid an avalanche of crushed expectations, the action fanatics were forced to hold it together for another 24 hours. But when they came back Monday, they were not disappointed, often breaking into applause and war whoops throughout the movie.
In fact, The Raid 2 is even closer than its predecessor to being an action masterpiece.
Like a kick to the throat, it’s visceral, violent and impossible to ignore — especially in any conversation about the best action movies of all time. Like the best in the genre, it puts the move in movies, using film as a kinetic, cathartic thrill-ride. While action movies are often derided, with good reason, for their predictability, at their most persuasive, they stand in a tradition that goes back to the groundbreaking silent film, The Great Train Robbery, which shocked audiences in 1903.
The Raid 2, opening Friday, is an adrenaline-laced reminder of the power and promise of the genre. It also stands as the movie to beat in the hearts of action fans this year.
Spider-Man, X-Men, Godzilla, Transformers: You have been warned.
Straight outta Jakarta
For all the movie’s head-slamming pain, the men behind The Raid 2 aren’t threatening at all.
At their Austin hotel, Uwais and Rahman are quiet — their command of English is pretty rudimentary — while the director, Evans, is garrulously friendly. On the face of it, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would be popularizing an Indonesian martial arts form, called pencak silat or simply silat (pronounced SEE-lat), around the world. And it’s not just because, unlike the lithe, limber and small-framed Uwais and Rahman, he’s a big guy.
It’s mostly because he’s from Wales, roughly 7,000 miles from where silat was born.
Yet, here he is chatting about his love affair with this up-close-and-personal style of hand-to-hand, self-defense combat.
“What I loved about silat was the philosophy behind it,” he says, noting that there are two sides two it. “A lot of the design of the movements is about breaking bones and breaking joints [but] there’s a medical treatment angle. We went to a drug rehabilitation place that uses silat.”
His knowledge about silat goes back several years when, after turning out a low-budget thriller in 2006 called Footsteps, he was hired from the UK to film a documentary on the subject.
“I said, ‘What’s it about?’ Martial arts. Ah, cool, I like martial arts. ‘Where is it?’ Indonesia. Ah, cool. ‘How long is it?’ Six months. ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’ ” he recalls with a laugh. “There was no downside. The worst thing that would happen is I do six months work, I go off to a foreign country and learn about all these people and do something different.”
The beginning of a franchise
The doc was never released, but Evans found himself impressed with the personalities he came across, including Uwais (who supplemented his martial-arts career with income as a driver for a phone company) and Rahman.
“I came back to Indonesia about two or three months later and my goal was to move out there, set up a film company and start making these films,” he says, acknowledging he spoke no Indonesian at the time.
The result was the 2009 movie Merantau, starring Uwais as a fresh-from-the-village kid up against a cartel of big-city criminals. It was enough of a hit that Evans began dreaming up something bigger, something that would be a mesh of two of his favorite films, the 1988 Bruce Willis vehicle Die Hard and John Carpenter’s 1976 classic Assault on Precinct 13, about a police station under attack . And so was born The Raid.
In fact, what would become the ambitious 150-minute The Raid 2 was the movie he wanted to do first. “It was one of these situations where we tried to get the funding for that first, failed, and after two years we couldn’t get anyone to pay for it to be made,” he remembers. “And I knew with that one, I couldn’t cut corners and I realized we’re just not going to make it this year, [so] let’s do a Plan B project. And that’s what Raid 1 was.”
The more stripped-down The Raid: Redemption, as the first film was titled in the U.S., featured a simple premise: A SWAT-style police officer (Uwais) is cut off from backup and stranded in a high-rise controlled by mobsters and gangsters — and has to fight his way out.
Evans was shocked at how action fans embraced Redemption. “Me and my producer watched the print of it as soon as the film finished. We looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe we’ll get a couple of good reviews.’ That’s all we expected from it and it just blew up. … Now, with the sequel, we’ve lost that surprise element and we can’t shock people anymore,” he says, then laughs. “Well, we do shock them a little bit.”
After Redemption struck pay dirt, Evans had enough juice to make the more complicated movie he wanted to make in the first place. The Raid 2 would be set in the same universe as the first film, but with a broader cast of characters and more opportunities for visual razzle-dazzle than the interior tight spaces of the previous movie.
Not only does Evans up the action quotient — he pulls off a car chase that’s simply astounding — but he manages to add some depth of character in this story of a power struggle between gangs and within a crime family. It’s less a continuous rush than Redemption, though there’s plenty of it, and more of a showcase of tension and release.
It also reflects more of Evans’ action-movie influences.
“[Director Sam] Peckinpah, John Woo and Jackie Chan have always been the biggest [influences] in terms of the stuff we’ve done,” he says. “And [Hong Kong action director] Sammo Hung as well. Hung has that more aggressive choreography compared to Chan, who’s more playful. But when Hung directs Chan, suddenly [Chan] gets really aggressive and it’s interesting to see that shift. [I like] Woo purely in terms of the histrionics of it and the gunplay. And Peckinpah just for that sense of stoicism that leads up to the violence.”
As enamored of Indonesia as Evans remains — he’s now fluent in the language — he hasn’t totally written off his English-language side. He directed one of the segments in the 2013 horror film V/H/S/2 and has a couple of English films in the planning stages.
But, then, there’s The Raid 3.
“If we’re going to make a sequel, it should take you in a different direction and have something new in it. In the same way that Raid 2 is very different from Raid 1, and Raid 3 will be completely different from the previous two as well,” he says. “This is a dangerous analogy, but one of things I loved about Breaking Bad was that season to season there was a connective tissue, but it went in different directions.”
As eager as Raid fans are to see what Evans has up his sleeve, and for all the adoration he gets from fans as the next great action director, he doesn’t want people to place too much importance on it.
“It’s a movie at the end of the day, and I’m not out curing cancer. There are far more important things going on in the world,” he says. “I just want people to go out and don’t feel like they’ve wasted money on a movie.”