Movies Without Pity

Indie Snapshot: The Raid 2

by Ethan Alter March 26, 2014 3:13 pm
Indie Snapshot: <i>The Raid 2</i>

It brings me no great pleasure to report that the The Raid 2 is to The Raid as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was to the first Transformers: it's longer, flashier and bloated well past the point of tedium.

After scoring a critical (if not Transformers-level box office) hit with the first installment -- as well as his gangbusters V/H/S 2 segment "Safe Haven" -- Gareth Evans adopts the same indulgent "bigger is better" ethos that drove Michael Bay to think that blowing up the Pyramids and making room for a pair of jive-talking robots named Mudflap and Skids would be a great idea for a Transformers sequel. The first Raid boasted a simple, clean action movie set-up: a crew of cops bust into an Indonesian high-rise and engage in a pitched, floor-by-floor, gun-to-gun, hand-to-hand battle against the drug cartel that runs the place until only one of officers, Rama (Iko Uwais), is left alive. It's Assault on Precinct 13 tricked out with the punishing and oh-so-cool-looking moves of Pencak Silat, the martial arts discipline that Evans showcased in the film.

For The Raid 2, Evans expands his scope to fit an entire city and, unfortunately, gets lost in the process. Taking its cue from The Departed, the film sends a still banged-up Rama deep undercover to infiltrate a major criminal syndicate and expose its ties to a corrupt police department from the inside. While Rama's doing his undercover thang, the petulant heir to this syndicate is growing tired of his father's conservative ways and allies himself with a small band of outlaws to shake up the underworld map. Though it sounds like a fairly straightforward plot, it's been so padded and stretched to fit the movie's super-sized 150-minute runtime, it just barely makes sense on a scene-to-scene basis. (And, not for nothing, but The Departed -- as well as its source material Infernal Affairs -- benefits enormously from casting actors who can fight as opposed to fighters who can't really act.)

Like Bay, Evans uses the greater creative and financial freedom offered by directing the sequel to a popular film by indulging in some of his worst tendencies, whether it's going overboard on the smug sadism (which was also present, but less showy in the first movie) or "balancing" the casual misogyny with which he treats the rare female characters by trotting out the equally tired trope of the bad-ass, but personality-free warrior woman. Even the action sequences lack the same punch this time around; they're still executed with impressive precision (I appreciate the way that Evans refrains from chopping up the fights willy-nilly, allowing each blow to land before cutting away), but the parade of carnage is wearying instead of invigorating. That said, Evans does stage a few set-pieces that got the blood flowing (both literally and figuratively), including a mud bath battle, a nightclub brawl and the climactic destruction of a restaurant. But those are three genuinely fun scenes out of a two-and-a-half hour movie; the rest is more of a chore.

Also a chore: watching Diego Luna's paint-by-numbers biopic Cesar Chavez, which feels like a movie you've already seen in high school history class, even though it's ostensibly a new film. The great character actor Michael Peña plays the titular labor organizer, who made crucial strides towards improving the working conditions and pay for California's farm laborers. In a smart move, Luna telescopes the narrative to focus on one period in Chavez's life, specifically 1965 to 1970 when he successfully led a campaign against the state's grape-growers, represented here by John Malkovich's fictionalized heavy, Bogdonovitch, the head of one particularly powerful -- and highly reactionary -- company. But even with its relatively compressed timeline, the film strains to pack in too much, especially whenever it turns its attention from Chavez's work to his family life. Luna has a bad habit of initiating storylines -- such as Chavez's reluctance to let his wife, Helen (America Ferrera), participate fully in the movement and his estrangement with his eldest son -- and then promptly letting them fade into the background, unremarked upon. Other players in the central drama, meanwhile, barely get an introduction, whether it's Rosario Dawson as one of Chavez's devoted disciples, Dolores Huerta; Wes Bentley as crusading lawyer, Jerry Cohen; or Gabriel Mann as the heir of one of the biggest grape-growing clans. The jittery storytelling is complemented -- and not in a good way -- by Luna's serio-documentary visual style, which captures the procession of public rallies and speeches as well as the rare private moment in a manner that aims for immediacy, but plays as unfocused. The one purpose that Cesar Chavez does serve is reminding us of the vital role that brave leaders like Chavez played in standing up for working class rights in the face of corporate (and government) opposition and, furthermore, that this particular battle was fought and won not so long ago. Too bad the film itself is a mediocre monument to a major historical figure.

Drake Doremus's breakout feature, 2011's romantic drama Like Crazy, proved surprisingly divisive as viewers clashed over whether the central couple, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, were a pair of young kids in love or young idiots in love. I fell into the latter camp, but that's actually one of the reasons I liked the film; it was about two in-over-their-head lovers who allowed their intense, youthful passion to trap each other in a relationship that wound up stifling their personal growth. In that way, the narrative smartly ran counter to so many teen romances, which relentlessly peddle the idea of soulmates and eternal love. But there's no excusing Doremus's follow-up, Breathe In, which re-teams him with Jones, this time playing Sophie, a foreign exchange student who comes to live in upstate New York with a family that includes music professor Keith (Guy Pearce), his wife Megan (Amy Ryan) and their college-bound daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). A frustrated cellist who fell into teaching as a way to support his family, Keith finds an outlet for his sudden on-set mid-life crisis in his new houseguest, whose raw talent, impressionable mind and lovely smile drive him well past the point of distraction. She's drawn to him as well, largely due to "stranger in a strange land" syndrome and because the high-schoolers around her are so immature and downright dickish. A tentative romance flowers that's neither all that romantic nor that convincing, and while Doremus appears to avoid assigning blame for this affair, let's just say that it's Keith, rather than Sophie, who is ultimately painted in a more sympathetic life. The thoughtful message of Like Crazy was "Maybe the person you fall in love with at 18 isn't the person you're meant to spend your life with." The blunt, obvious message of Breathe In is "Don't f--k your students."




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