Tag Archives: Alfonso Cuaron

Martial Arts, Gangster, and Action Movie in One — “The Raid 2”

Raid 2 Hammer Girl

If Stanley Kubrick were to have directed a martial arts movie, you might get something like The Raid 2. It’s an Indonesian movie by a Welsh director, sequel to 2011 surprise hit The Raid: Redemption. It’s OK if you haven’t seen the first – it’s like seeing the second Godfather without seeing the first. The two build on each other, but they’re each their own animal.

The first Raid followed an Indonesian SWAT team’s assault on a drug lord’s tenement building. It was brimming with enough gunplay, explosions, and martial arts to put it alongside Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard as one of the best action movies ever filmed.

The second Raid follows the first movie’s hero, Rama (Iko Uwais). It is an incredible action movie, but it’s an even better gangster thriller. Rama is convinced to go undercover, get arrested, and befriend the incarcerated son of a Japanese gangster who owns half of the capital Jakarta. Needless to say, few things go as planned. Rama begins discovering that being an undercover officer doesn’t mean he’s a wrench in the gangster’s works. He’s merely additional leverage in the business relationship between the gangs and Jakarta’s police.

The Raid 2 field

There are a range of decisions that make the fight scenes some of the most effective ever put to screen. Director Gareth Evans builds his film using old-fashioned suspense techniques, and his martial arts scenes – using the Indonesian style Silat – are more than just impressive choreographic sequences. He makes every fight a plot point, communicating through action the kind of relationships and character history other films explain in dialogue.

Evans shoots in long, unbroken takes, not unlike Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men). Where Cuaron’s style reflects a character’s perspective, Evans’s style anticipates a characters intent. It can be hard to communicate how someone thinks in a fight – martial artists train to slow down a situation in their heads, so a response is entirely mental. The physical action that follows is just muscle memory. You learn to plan several moves ahead. It’s incredibly difficult to translate this in a full-speed action movie to a movie theater full of people, but Evans’s approach comes the closest. It offers a unique glimpse into the strategy martial artists employ, which allows you not just to marvel at the athleticism on display, but to understand the chess match that goes on behind a fight.

The Raid 2 prison

These longer takes demand incredible feats from choreographers and actors alike. The more complicated the stunts – as in an early prison riot in a mud pit – the longer his shots are likely to be. There are unbroken fight sequences that made my jaw drop at their audacity and ambition.

No matter how easily a character might be described – Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) is deaf and uses hammers as weapons, for instance – Evans always reveals a visual detail or line of dialogue that gives us a brief window into each henchman’s soul. It transforms characters who would be one-note villains in other films into complex figures. When Rama defeats a henchman, his own moment of heroic triumph also feels like the tragic ending to somebody else’s story.

This is how a martial arts movie laden with fight scenes speaks against violence, and this is one of the most violent movies you’ll ever see. The fight choreography may be impressive, but time and again it communicates mutually assured destruction and the toll such violence takes not just on the body, but the soul as well.

The Raid 2 chess match

A vignette in the middle of the film, during which we break away from Rama, tells the story of Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian). He is a lifelong assassin who lives on the street and gives all his earnings to his estranged wife and child. His story is a heartbreaking half-hour that could stand as its own short film, culminates in an incredible fight scene, and serves as the keystone to the rest of the plot.

Prakoso’s story is also an opportunity to condense one of The Raid 2‘s underlying themes: the plight of the everyday laborer. This is the 95% of everyone – American, Indonesian, Japanese, whoever they might be – who just try to live their lives well, go to work, and do right by their families. Prakoso is an assassin, but these others are not, and they occur in scene after scene, constantly apologizing to gangsters for not groveling well enough or serving them fast enough. It’s a bitter message from a country rife with organized gangs peddling drugs, sex, and violence. It’s obviously important for the makers of The Raid 2 to communicate to the rest of the world – and to their own citizens – that crime and corruption may be what they endure, but it’s not what defines who they are as a country or a people.

This is an exciting action movie, an accomplished martial arts film, and an epic, intelligent gangster tale with a lot to say. There are treats in here for aficionados of any of those genres, and I haven’t even hit on how beautifully The Raid 2 is filmed, or how lush its design is. Be aware this is an exceptionally hard-R rated movie for its violence and a moment of sexuality.

The Raid 2 heartbreak

Should You Watch? ‘Believe’

When I was growing up, you had two seasons when new TV shows premiered: Fall and Spring. And we hiked uphill in the snow to get to both. (The summer was for re-runs.)

Now we have so many channels and so much turnover, there’s a new TV season every two months. Well, it’s March, and we’ve had three major premiers in as many days: Believe, Cosmos, and Resurrection. I’ll handle the first today:

BELIEVE
Pilot”

Believe 2

Imagine, if you will, that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been the show you wanted it to be, following a rag-tag group of specialists sharing with each other only on a need-to-know basis while protecting and facing people with super-powers they couldn’t begin to understand. It might even have an interesting cast and fight choreography not done by a three-year old. Now imagine the very best episode that show-in-your-head might have, the kind of once-in-a-season nailbiter that offers enough answers to make you appreciate the mysteries it raises. Now you’ve got the pilot for NBC’s Believe.

In the pilot, we meet Bo (Johnny Sequoyah), a little girl with powers she can’t quite control but that involve telepathy, telekinesis, seeing people’s futures, and commanding animals to get downright feisty. A mysterious billionaire named Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan) is out to get her – to train her as a weapon, we’re told – and it’s up to an ill-funded underground operation to protect her. Bo’s newest foster parents are assassinated in the opening sequence, in one of those trademark long-takes that director (and co-creator) Alfonso Cuaron does so well. Cuaron’s coming off an Oscar for his direction of Gravity, but he adjusts tone well to television – there are shades of grittiness akin to his Children of Men, but by and large, Believe is a unique creation.

One thing about having Cuaron and executive producer J.J. Abrams (Lost; Almost Human) on board is that they’ve attracted top notch TV talent. It’s up to the enigmatic Winter (Delroy Lindo) and his protege Channing (Jamie Chung) to find a replacement to protect Bo. They choose an unlikely candidate in Tate (Jake McLaughlin), a death row inmate we meet just a few minutes before his scheduled execution. It’s up to him to rescue Bo from the first of what I’m sure will be many spies in the assassin Moore (a wicked Sienna Guillory). Most of the pilot is an enjoyable extended chase, involving two very well-done fight sequences, clever set-piecing and superb choreography.

The Cast

Believe 1

Lindo is constantly underrated in B-material (most notably David Mamet’s Heist). It’s fun for a cinephile to think of him going up against Kyle MacLachlan (made famous by David Lynch in Twin Peaks). Lindo plays Winter so earnestly that it’s hard to tell if he’s just that good of a guy or if he has his own ulterior motives for Bo.

Chung and Jake McLaughlin, as the two younger heroes, have been working their way steadily to this sort of gig for years – Chung through thankless chauvinist dreck like Sucker Punch and The Hangover series, McLaughlin as supporting characters in Warrior and Savages. In just a handful of scenes, Chung communicates Channing’s near-religious awe for Bo and, by extension, Winter. McLaughlin plays rough and ready-to-rumble well, while balancing Tate on the fine line between charming and smug.

Sequoyah is key to the series, and she invests her role as a maybe-prophet with the flightiness and curiosity of a normal little girl. It makes for a compelling character, but one who we need to understand as more than a MacGuffin before we’re ready to take a season-long ride with Believe.

Much as Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human feature African-American and Latin American protagonists, representing the cultural makeup of today’s United States in a realistic fashion, I also applaud Believe for featuring a Native American, an African American, and a Korean American actor as three of its four good guys. All three of these shows are associated with J.J. Abrams or his producing tree. That’s no mere coincidence. However much of a problem fans may have with how Lost ended or how Star Trek got rebooted, he’s pretty much the only producing force on network TV whose shows regularly feature minorities in roles of heroism and leadership.

Should You Watch…

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…the pilot? Absolutely. It’s a fantastic hour of TV. I’d be shouting this one from the mountaintops save for two things.

Thing the first: Alfonso Cuaron directed the pilot episode. It’s tense, energetic, and just a touch gritty. He’s obviously not directing past this, so this may be the best episode we get for a while. On the list of future directors, the one that jumps out is Roxann Dawson. She’s most recognizable as an actress from Star Trek: Voyager, but has directed episodes of various Star Treks, Crossing Jordan, Cold Case, The Closer, and – most recently – the best Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet (“Eye Spy”). She’s a go-to contract director on genre fare. Stephen Williams, a director of 26 episodes on Lost, also gives me hope.

There’s some neat stability – the cinematographer across the first several episodes, Gonzalo Amat, is a Mexican short film director hand-picked by Cuaron. Production designer Lester Cohen has created clean, evocative set design for both White Collar and Suits. Make-up head Patricia Regan held the same position with the fantastical Pan Am and the realistic Girls and her looks – especially for McLaughlin and Guillory – are creative and enticing while being just a touch off-putting. That shows me that the behind-the-scenes talent is being given the room to get creative and spread their wings here. That’s promising, so long as the direction of the show itself remains tight.

Thing the second: if movies are the director’s playground, then TV belongs to the writers, and the first episode gets schmaltzy. Now, I like a bit of schmaltz now and then, but there’s noise made about Bo to the tune of: “Think how many people she’ll help along the way.” The show is better set up as an episodic action-adventure than as a miracle-of-the-week. They need to keep the chase the priority and humanize Bo – these two things will let them get away with any Touched By An Angel dynamic they want to work in, but it’s got to be action first if they want it to function.

The directors and writers are rounded out by a smattering of Battlestar Galactica vets and writers on BBC dramas. That sounds like…I don’t know what that sounds like. If there’s a show that combined gritty action and schmaltzy philosophy so simultaneously annoying and provocative as Battlestar Galactica, I haven’t met it. The banter between Tate and Bo is wryly promising. That and Delroy Lindo should keep things very watchable, but this pilot isn’t the kind to tell you where the show is headed yet. I’m being a bit hard on Believe because, even though it’s so promising, you can see the potential pitfalls a mile off…and we’ve been disappointed enough by the Heroes and Agents of recent years. Hopefully, Believe has learned the lessons of these other shows. With a first episode this good, it’s hard not to be cautiously optimistic.