One of the things I enjoyed most about Captain America: The Winter Soldier was its fight scenes. The face-off between Cap and Batroc on a hijacked ship early in the film is a highlight, as is the scrum when the hero takes on a dozen combatants in an elevator. In my view, the action is what sets this movie apart from the other Marvel films.
In interviews leading up to Winter Soldier‘s release, directors Joe and Anthony Russo admitted they were heavily influenced by The Raid, Gareth Evans’ 2012 cult hit in which a S.W.A.T. team storms a high-rise apartment ruled by a drug lord and his squad of thugs and assassins. The Raid‘s frenetic violence and elaborate, marathon fight scenes (with knife work that’s unsafe to view at work) set a high standard, influencing a variety of films and TV shows over the past two to three years. But if anyone was going to raise the bar, it was going to be Evans himself, not one of the directors his work inspired.
With his sequel, The Raid 2, Evans fulfills such expectations and does indeed set a new benchmark for movie action. The first film mostly limited the fights to narrow hallways and single rooms as rookie cop Rama (played by Iwo Uwais) and his fellow officers attempted to get to the kingpin on the top floor. But as the scope of Rama’s mission broadens in the sequel, so does the corresponding action.
After the events of The Raid, Rama is asked to work undercover, attempting to infiltrate one of the crime families that’s corrupted the police in Jakarta. This takes him from muddy prison yards to pornography studios to subway trains to restaurants (both dining rooms and kitchen) and, most memorably, city streets. You may think you’ve seen everything that can be done with car chases. But Evans tries his best to prove you wrong, staging a battle among four cars zooming through the streets of Jakarta, trying to take each other out by ramming them off the road or battering them with machine-gun fire.
Then there’s the fight that takes place inside a car. The Matrix Reloaded — as part of its own memorable car chase — had a fight between Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus and one of the ghost twins in a sedan. But The Raid 2 has Rama take on four thugs in a SUV, beating up adversaries in the back seat as well as the front. And just in case you think Evans has played with the dimensions of the SUV interior to create more room where none would really exist, there’s an overhead shot that shows the logistics of Rama being able to fight effectively in such close quarters.
The choreography among the cars and the staging of their chase is amazing enough. But what makes this scene even more memorable is how Evans moves the camera in and out of the cars, from one vehicle to another. The action doesn’t just cut from the exterior of the cars to the interior. As a result, we as viewers don’t feel like we’re just observing the chase and fights from a distance. We’re right there in the action. It’s truly impressive filmmaking that demonstrates how directing action is its own art form.
However, as you might expect, story does suffer in favor of the action. At the beginning of the movie, one of the gangsters named Bejo explains his motives by saying “it’s a question of ambition.” Perhaps Evans had the same feelings toward his screenplay. In The Raid, the story was just a delivery system, carrying Rama and the police from one floor of the high-rise to the next, on to the subsequent threat that presented another obstacle between the cops and their target. There was very little opportunity for character development.
Evans gives Rama a bit more to work with besides moving on to the next fight in The Raid 2. The consequences of leaving his family for months — and what turns out to be years to go undercover — are given some consideration. We see Rama explain to his wife why he needs to do this. Later on, while Rama is in deep, he calls his wife to learn how she’s doing — and more importantly, to hear the son he’s never seen. The movie doesn’t dwell on these moments too long, of course. There’s another fight to get to, and each set of adversaries presents a more formidable threat for Rama.
In trying to show just how far the warring criminal empires and the conspiracies they’ve created reach, Evans throws a lot of names, figures and families at us. It’s a bit difficult to keep track of everyone, though the film’s subtitles actually help with that. It’s also hard to follow who’s allied with whom, but I imagine that’s intentional on Evans’ part as the bad guys switch allegiances to serve their best interests. Plus, Rama might not be the only cop working undercover. That uncertainty raises the stakes of the story and keeps everyone on edge throughout. (Yet it also probably makes the film longer than it needs to be, especially compared to its lean, mean predecessor.)
However, a couple of the characters — notably assassins dispatched to take out anyone presenting an obstacle for Bejo — are easily identified by their weapon of choice. One is named “Hammer Girl” in the credits, and there’s really nothing else to call her. She wields a pair of claw hammers, using the forked end of them for much more lethal, eviscerating tasks than pulling out nails. Her partner — perhaps her brother? — is called “Baseball Bat Man.” He might have better bat speed than Mike Trout (at least in a fight) and also uses the batted ball to get anyone out of reach.
At the risk of being spoilery, the ending might leave some feeling unsatisfied. I wasn’t crazy about it, though I often like finales that are somewhat vague, leaving it up to the viewer to decide what may have happened. I see the point Evans was trying to make, and it’s consistent with the themes he touches on throughout the movie. But if none of the fights end on an uncertain note, why should the story do so? (Of course, the resolution might not be unclear to some. It certainly presents an ending.) That felt like kind of a letdown after the ride we take over two-and-a-half hours.
But maybe that just compels you to think more about those spectacular fights on the way out of the theater. Does it matter what happens to the hero? Just think about all that ass he kicked.