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Hey, nice to see Chalk Opponent in a movie again.

If The Raid was raw, lean, and hyperkinetic then its sequel could be described as methodical, precise, and operatic. In every way conceivable, The Raid 2: Berandal is a bigger movie than its predecessor. It’s nothing short of an epic and often feels like the kind of film that Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese would make together, mostly because there are shout outs to the films and style of both those directions in Berandal. Among other homages.

If you had to compare it to another movie, I’d stop short of going to The Raid and start with The Departed. Gareth Evans who wrote, directed, and edited this (and the first one of course), seems to know where to use well-worn tropes like “undercover cop” deftly, with a minimalist touch that keeps the focus on the ride more than the pathos. This works well in Berandal‘s favor and the film is allowed to have more genuine emotionality and depth than its muscular predecessor did. The Raid‘s story was simple, straightforward, and minimalist enough to serve the point of the film: a crazy amount of action. But by the end, it surprised you by adding a layer of depth with its underlying tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law. In Berandal, the story and characters are as much the focus as the martial arts choreography and Evans’ trademark eye for authentically brutal violence.

Because it tops The Raid in sheer quantity of fights, chases, shootouts, and “holy fuck” moments of camera/choreographed wizardry, it has to take the belt as the new “pretty much greatest action  film ever made”. But saying that about The Raid required some qualifying due to its tight focus on being just that. Berandal requires no qualifiers. I’ll always have a soft spot for The Raid and perhaps prefer rewatching it over Berandal (but who really knows), but Berandal is the greatest action film ever made.

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This movie has way more characters and moving parts in its relatively elaborate story.

While watching Berandal, it’s easy to notice that you’re watching a movie. Action sequences of this kind sort of make you take a figurative step back and marvel at them, at the technical aspects as much as the visceral effect. But Berandal is also a movie where, if you’re taking that step back, you might also marvel at the intricacy and confidence of its story. By no means is this tale of gangland Jakarta some revolutionary new take on the genre, and like I said before: it owes a lot to other movies. That said, though, it’s just fresh enough and totally well told that you may be surprised that you’re just as excited to see how the threads are going to come together as you are to see some more ridiculous ass-kicking.

On a thematic level, Berandal is mostly about generational angst. In this film’s Jakarta, there’s been peace between the major crime syndicates for ten years. Mostly because Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo) maintains respectful ties with his main rival, Japanese import Goto (Ken’ichi Endô). The trouble is, Bangun’s son Uco (Arifin Putra) is ambitious, petulant, and reckless… and he wants his turn at the big chair to come sooner than his father does. Bangun knows what his son is, and it’s hard not to feel sympathy even for a big evil crime boss when you see his resignation over it manifest itself in every interaction they have. Outside of the power dynamics between Bangun and Goto, there’s a new up and comer with a colorful and dangerous entourage. Bejo (Alex Abbad) is the new kid on the block. He’s frail, composed, and feels like a character straight out of Kill Bill (there’s a lot of that in this movie) or a Park Chan-Wook movie.

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In the opening minutes of the film, Bejo shows how much he thinks about Bangun’s slipping authority.

Rama (Iko Uwais) is picked up minutes after the events of The Raid and convinced by a duplicitous senior cop to go undercover and get the corrupt police who let guys like Bangun and Bejo play their games and ruin the whole city. Rama is super reluctant, for understandable reasons, but he has to do it to protect his family. The only trouble is, he’s asked from minute one to do pretty bad things in order to get this done. That means that the incorruptible morality and conscience that were his defining features up to this point start off pulled apart. He beats a guy who got Uco thrown in prison and gets tossed there himself, his supposedly months-long assignment getting turned into years as he does everything he can to protect Uco and get a reputation as the dangerous, but loyal Yuda.

Rama is, on paper, a similar character to Billy in The Departed or even Nikolai in Eastern Promises. But rather than dwelling on the existential question of how far is too far in order to protect his identity and still get the job done, Berandal eventually eschews any question of Rama going native and instead focuses on a more unusual question: why is he really doing this? It’s subtle and a bit undercooked due to how much attention this film has to pay to other characters and story beats, but it seems clear to me that Rama is caught between conflicting motives. Sometimes it’s his desire for revenge against Bejo, who killed his criminal brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) in the first minutes of the movie. Sometimes it’s protecting his family, especially his son who is now a toddler he hasn’t been around for. Deep down, though, I think the movie lands on that morality and conscience. Rama can’t let the cops or the criminals hurt people just to achieve their goals. Rama is like a throat punch to that familiar narrative of moral compromise, gray justice, and so on.

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The prison riot scene is fucking crazy.

By the end of the film, you’re not really sure where you’re going to be left. Bejo and Uco manufacture a war between Bangun and the Japanese, putting everyone at risk and forcing Rama to do what is necessary to stay alive and clean house. I was surprised by how cleanly Berandal tied up its loose ends. You might have expected it to sequel bait for The Raid 3 (already being discussed as a likely project) but it doesn’t go for that. It has a real ending instead.

Along the way, the ride is just insane. You almost get fight fatigue from the sheer range, intensity, and thrill of this film’s action sequences. Every time you think that’s it, they can’t top that… they go and do. Especially the final sequence, where Rama’s position on all this nonsense coheres into a need to fight everyone. So then he does, and it’s the kind of thing where you’re hoping it will happen, but very aware that the movie could very well go less over the top than you feel ready for. This is a way, way more over the top film than The Raid, but it also knows exactly how to satisfy its audience. So yes, in other words, Rama fights Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) at the same time. Then he fights this movie’s version of Mad Dog, The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman) like immediately afterward in what has to be the most brutal, tense, and kinetic knife fight ever put to film.

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These guys feel like they stepped out of a different film and landed in this one, but because Bejo is so theatrical, the movie makes them work.

Because of the increased budget and expanded scope, something worth mentioning is how often Evans uses setting and environment to inform his fights. Many critics, myself included, described the fights in The Raid as having narrative arcs, as being mini-performances and stories all their own. Good fights tell a story, and are usually composed in “moments of no return” (also called Acts) just like any book, movie, or comic. In The Raid, this element was probably more noticeably due to the sparseness of the environment. Here, the environment also informs the story and many of the set-pieces feel almost like characters. The hallway where Rama fights HG and BBM, the kitchen where he fights the Assassin, and especially the nightclub where Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian who also played Mad Dog in The Raid) is assaulted by an army of machete-wielding thugs.

Prakoso is actually a good example of how Berandal adds layers to its characters and narrative. Bangun’s top hitman, Prakoso is basically a homeless man who only kills for the money to support his son and his ex, who understandably disapproves of his lifestyle choices. Prakoso is a sad, but loyal man and Berandal offers up that portrait so that you care about him when Uco uses him as a sacrifice to fuel the gang war Bejo convinces him to start.

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He looks like an Indonesian Harold Perrineau, and he’s having a baaaad day.

At the end of the day, you watch The Raid 2: Berandal for the fights much like some watch romantic comedies for the tension of will they/won’t they. The appeal of a movie like this magnifies when it bothers to tell a story, let alone an exceptional one. The fights, in other words, are better if they’re in service to something. This makes Gareth Evans’ Indonesian films the proper successors to the Hong Kong action cinema of yesteryear, where similar attention was often paid to story, even if the tropes are familiar to us. There’s a reason why this shit works.

There’s also a reason why it continues to be an embarrassment to the infinitely more expensive films cranked out by Hollywood committees. That said, The Winter Soldier shows what Hollywood can do when projects are in the right hands. Berandal shows that there’s a world outside that, and that it may very well be the more exciting if your areas of interest align with the hard work and passion of guys like Gareth Evans and his crazy outfit of actors, fighters, and choreographers in Indonesia.

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Yeesh.

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