I’ve been thinking about the old Russian Formalist idea of “the motivation for the device” a lot recently, ever since it came up in this (excellent) John Pistelli post about Darren Aronofsky’s work.
To quote Pistelli:
"What they meant by “device” was the actual form of a work of art, its colors, sounds, particular arrangement of language, etc. The “motivation” is whatever the artist uses as an excuse to deploy such forms—in other words, the content. So even a work that seems to be all content, according to the Formalists, just exists to put forth a certain way of experiencing reality. The Grapes of Wrath, for example, isn’t really about the Depression or protesting the treatment of the Dust Bowl migrants; it’s not about anything, because it is nothing less than the pleasure of the American vernacular, salty language, epic Biblical sentences, images of drought and flood and disaster."
This isn’t my default approach to contemplating art or entertainment, but it makes a lot of sense when you’re thinking about porn and martial arts movies, where everyone on both sides of the camera is there to enable a specific sort of stylised interaction between two or more human bodies.
The first Raid movie was a perfectly calibrated machine, with the story allowing for a series of fast and varied fights without ever slowing down - the composition of the film as a whole a mirror image of its face-smashing, knee-crunching fight scenes, Silat powered fight scenes. The sequel is more ambitious, and consequently more obstructive in this regard.
From the first scene on in, The Raid 2 positions itself as taking place in a world that is more complete and therefore even more dangerous than the one we found in the first movie. The trouble is that from that first shot of a shallow grave onwards, this bigger world is overbearingly familiar.
This is a sprawling, two and a half hour story about fathers and sons, about family ties and the naked ambition required to cut through them. Have you seen more than one gangster movie? Then congratulations, you can watch The Raid 2 on fast forward without worrying about losing the plot.
None of this would be a problem if the scenes dedicated to establishing and exploring this plot didn’t take up so much time for so little reward. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the blood red Lynchtones of the baddie’s restaurant, and the scenes where the camera moved in towards the main character (let’s call him “The Raid” in honour of our action movie addled childhoods) for what seems like forever are effective at conveying the sense that the plot just won’t stop closing in on him. Still, while there’s nothing actively bad in The Raid 2, there’s about an hour’s worth of material that gets in the way of the reason we were all gathered there in the dark to watch it: at points, the time spent on the motivation threatens to obscure the device.
When it comes, the action is red-raw and spectacular, and if the camera moves a little bit too much for my tastes, it doesn’t judder about enough to obscure the endless, grisly spectacle of the right scenes. While The Raid shed guns, knives, and batons as it went, climaxing in a three man throw-down that was all flailing fists and feet, its sequel is more focussed on the many inventive uses of broomsticks, hammers, baseball bats, curved blades and kitchen work surfaces.
Free from the claustrophobic setting of the first film, director Gareth Evans and his crew prove themselves every bit as adept at choregraphing car chases as fight scenes.
Here’s Chris Ready, breaking it down better than I could:
For his car crash setpiece, Evans has three distinct levels of carefully composed action competing for attention. First there’s a punch-drunk Rama stuck fighting heavies within the confines of a car. Chasing and crashing into them is mob lieutenant Eka, attempting to return the recent favour Rama has done him. Finally there are fleets of enemy cars and motorbikes hot on Eka’s heels. Evans flicks back and forth between these engagements, giving us an update then moving on to the next collision. This is the point Evans’ genre mash-ups work best. We get cramped martial arts, car crashes, and human level stunt work as fragile, injured people transfer themselves between speeding vehicles.
Chris’ thoughts’ on why that final Silat fight works are well worth reading as an example of how action scenes need not be the enemy of character and story, so you should probably go read his post if you haven’t already.
Even without the extraneous dramatic scenes, Berandal would feel excessive. The difference is that this excess would communicate far more excitingly and effectively than the pre-fab ganster drama around it.
The last time we see The Raid he’s standing there, bloodied and battered by the action he’s taken part in, the last man standing, struggling for breath. He declares that he’s "done" and, having watched him try to kill his way into a better world, we can only agree with his Daniel Plainview style confession. There’s no better world in sight here, just hours and hours of bracing, brilliant entertainment yet to be seen, and - presumably - several hours worth of gangster clichés yet to be reiterated.
Thankfully - like its protagonist - The Raid 2 is self-aware enough to acknowledge its limits in the end.