Brea Grant is a filmmaker/actress best known for her roles on Heroes, Dexter, and Friday Night Lights. Her first feature, Best Friends Forever, an apocalyptic road trip movie, premiered at Slamdance in 2013. She is currently writing and acting in the series Real Housewives of Horror on the Nerdist channel.
Over the first two weeks of January, Talkhouse Film is running the “What We Missed” series, comprising pieces on notable movies from 2014 which were not previously covered, (almost) all of which were released prior to the launch of this site. — N.D.
Earlier this year, sitting in a dark theater and absorbing the sounds of every punch, hit and hammer throw of The Raid 2, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. But when attempting to detail to anyone who will listen the specific reasons why Gareth Evans’ Indonesian martial arts crime film is one of my top recommendations, I am at a loss for words. And as anyone who knows me can attest, that’s a rarity.
There’s an idea in filmmaking that we gravitate towards certain pieces of media because we see ourselves represented in them. See the 2010 Sex and the City 2 debate if you need proof; women came out in their Manhattan-sipping hordes to see that movie. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I sat in the theater alongside them as Samantha got in trouble for being too slutty for Abu Dhabi.
But my love for The Raid 2 doesn’t fit into this mold.
The reason I love The Raid 2 is because it defies my imagination. It puts me on another planet of filmmaking. To be honest, I think it’s magical. It’s like being a kid watching someone pull a dove out of a hat. You don’t know how that dove got in that hat, how the magician pulled it out with just a wave of his wand, or if there are more inside.
And when I can’t comprehend the production of something, I just have to assume it’s magical.
As I’m sure you’ve read, the action sequences are beyond spectacular. My eyes have grown weary of the slick, over-polished action most American filmmakers are barfing onto the screen. It’s pretty. It looks good. But it’s actually quite dull. It’s been a real bummer this year to see the lack of innovation in the world of action movies (with the exception of a few films such as Edge of Tomorrow and Guardians). I love seeing a big action movie on the cinema screen. It’s why we go to the theater — to see the giant movie with giant explosions and giant monsters/ghosts/killers/bad guys duking it out 50 feet high.
Now, I won’t compare Evans’ action sequences to a butterfly or a snowflake but the film is so unique it lives in its own action category (I suppose using this analogy, that would mean Michael Bay films are stuffy houseplants that require too much watering). As a filmmaker, I understand how to write stories, shoot a comprehensible sequence and edit it together. Those skills seem as though they have nothing to with what Evans is doing; it’s a different universe from what I can do, and as far as I’m concerned, what 99 percent of filmmakers can do.
From the much talked-about prison mud scene, where we see a massive group of inmates fight each other to the death while splashing through grimy, sloshy soup, to the elegant, brutal fight scene between the main character, Rama (Iko Uwais), and The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman) in a stark white kitchen, Evans’ fight choreography feels real and grounded while somehow seeming beyond what a normal human could do. And that’s where we get into the magic. We see people do things we cannot. And as humans, I think we like to see people defy the limits of speed, endurance and coordination.
The Raid 2 also comes out of the gate with an emphasis on plot. We feel for Rama as he leaves his wife to go on this journey. He’s the textbook good guy. Sure, he kills a lot of people but, according to what the movie tells us about the world of Indonesian crime, this seems like a small price to pay. He’s fighting to survive, to get back to his wife and to do the right thing. Iko Uwais is incredible to watch. He is sympathetic and hardened, angry and relatable, all at the same time.
The characters in the film are familiar, but are not without their own intricacies. Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of a powerful crime lord, is dissatisfied with his position as his father’s gofer. And I can see why. He’s dealing with petty drug dealers who live in squalor while making pornos in the backs of their warehouses. What kind of life is that for our chief villain?
And sure, there’s not a lot of women in The Raid 2, which I suppose is the biggest reason I should not be in a theater enjoying it and should instead be next door watching Wild with a handkerchief in one hand and chocolate in the other (which I plan on doing very soon — I love me some Reese). But the incredible creation of the Hammer Girl, whom we only spend a small amount of time with but learn to love very quickly, put me on the edge of my seat, giddy with her comic book-style antics. After she destroys a subway car full of suited men with only her two hammers, we know she’s a badass. But only when Rama accidentally knocks off her sunglasses in their epic fight scene, revealing a destroyed, mangled eye, do we really get to know the pain of being Hammer Girl.
The difficulty in giving action movies redeemable and interesting characters with real arcs and real heart is obvious. We mostly pick between heavy action or heavy plot. But Evans manages to win me over with Rama immediately. I get his struggle. I get his problems. I’m interested in where this is going outside the brilliant action sequences. And that’s hard to do.
Lastly, Evans does something that makes me want to be a better filmmaker. He includes the most beautiful and poignant details in his storytelling. And he doesn’t have to. He could focus on the action that we are all there to see and we would walk out satisfied, but by giving us small visual glimpses into his world, he elevates his filmmaking to a higher echelon.
In the first major action sequence, we see Rama alone in a bathroom stall in a prison. He’s not happy with still being locked up as he thought his sentence was only going to be a few months. Then the bathroom doors starts to vibrate. We see it. We see Rama’s ears as he hears the screw from the bathroom door fall to the ground. We watch it fall, knowing that this is not good for Rama. It’s with these details that Evans justifies the onslaught of violence to come — the rush of jailed men ready to rip Rama apart. The final moment in the bathroom is beautiful. Prisoner after prisoner piles onto Rama, drowning him in a sea of arms and legs as we float away, reminding us that he’s no superhero. He’s just a guy trying to do the right thing.
Evans makes me want to digest my surroundings more fully and to pay attention to the things that make up my world. He sets up a scene perfectly, not just showing us the fast-moving limbs of our protagonist but the bits and pieces of his world. The sadness of a karaoke room. The bloody end of a knife as it stabs a man through a fence. The small locket a killer carries to remind him of his humanity.
See? Fucking magical, right?
It has to be magical. We have to buy into the fact that this rookie street cop can kick the asses of 20 guys at once. We have to buy into one man’s insistence on fighting for what’s right, no matter what the cost. And we do buy into it all because it’s an amazing film and that’s what amazing films do for us, right? They take us away from our world and put us in another one. And I don’t need to be a cop, or Indonesian, or in prison, or know martial arts, or be a man, or know a goddamn thing about filming a high speed car chase. I can just sit back and trust that Evans knows about all those things. And he’s going to pull them out of his hat like a dove and magically release them.