Review: Berandal

Gareth Evans’ intended magnum opus doesn’t quite live up to expectations…

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If you read my preview for Berandal (a.k.a. The Raid 2), then you’d know I was rather excited for Welsh director Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his groundbreaking 2011 Indonesian action picture, The Raid. In fact, it’s fair to say excited was probably an understatement. Berandal was the film I was looking forward to the most this year and, on 11 April, opening night in North America, the long wait was finally over. Beginning two hours after the conclusion of the first film, Berandal once again follows Rama (Iko Uwais), who transforms from plucky rookie to ruthless undercover cop in a bid to avenge his brother, protect his family and expose police corruption by taking down the Jakarta underworld from the inside…

As much as it pains me to say it, I may as well just get it out of the way – don’t get your hopes up. Whilst there are numerous aspects to like from a technical standpoint – mainly to do with the action direction – story-wise the film as a whole is a little too complex for its own good. Evans attempts to give both the gangster and action/martial arts genres equal billing, but the gangster story and general character development simply aren’t engaging enough. Nor do they inspire enough emotion or empathy for you to care about the characters’ individual plight, which detracts from the fight sequences and lessens the film’s overall impact.

Simply put, the action isn’t as entertaining as it should be as you’re not too bothered about who wins out. This isn’t helped by the fact that not only do many of the fights go on for too long, but also that Rama is practically indestructible. In The Raid his character was a raw rookie SWAT team member having to rely on his training and instinct to win through, but at the same time always vulnerable and in real danger at every turn. Here he’s essentially a superhero. Only outrageous numbers can subdue him, and even that’s limited to the toilet cubicle and prison yard fight scenes, which take place early on. After that you have little doubt that he’ll triumph without too much of an issue. The action’s still enjoyable sure, but in the back of your mind the tension has already been dissolved. Gone are The Raid’s intense moments such as the near discovery of Rama and co. in the wall. Berandal’s Rama would have no problem breaking out of the wall and destroying the intruders in the blink of an eye. When Rama squares off hand to hand (very cool by the way – a classic kung-fu flick throwback) with Bejo’s (one of too many lead antagonists) main henchman, although you’re excited you’re not engaged to the level you were when Rama and Andi were about to face Mad Dog. At that point, even though it’s two against one, you have no idea if both brothers will get out alive. It’s action filmmaking 101 – a simple story and engaging characters make for the subsequent creation of tension, which is key during the action sequences.

The film is an epic, no question about it. Prior to The RaidBerandal, a sprawling martial arts-infused gangster flick, was Evans’ original vision. It was planned and ready to go. However, time and budget constraints forced Evans and Uwais to first of all produce a showcase for their abilities that was simple in terms of production, but would potentially put them on the map internationally. The result was The Raid, and the rest is history. With The Raid’s success came the freedom for Evans to make his intended magnum opus. Unfortunately, the two films represent a classic case of art being born of restraint (The Raid) and dying of freedom (Berandal). In other words, bigger is not always better. Whilst the action in The Raid is extravagant to say the least, its brutal, claustrophobic nature always has you on the edge of your seat because the build up to each fight scene from a story perspective is seamless, allowing you to focus solely on the battle without having to figure out what the fuck they’re fighting about exactly. In contrast, Berandal relies on the cool imagery and the reputation of its younger brother to validate what’s going on without really ever doing enough to justify its own hype. As a result the film lacks the intensity of its predecessor, primarily because the action scenes do not inspire the tension required for them to do their cinematic duty.

Although Berandal is flawed due to the director’s willingness to try and do too much, in the end it’s a Gareth Evans action film. This means there’s still plenty to like about it. Although a lot of the fights do go on for too long there’s so much action crammed into the two and half hour run time that a few gems inevitably emerge. Whilst analogue technology and single camera limitations meant the art of camerawork was arguably more important than the fighting technique on display during the pioneering days of Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, now the two can be seamlessly combined in anyway the director desires. In many post-millennium action films this has led to creativity overload (again, art being born of restraint and dying of freedom), but not with Evans, who has mastered the merging of fight choreography, editing methods and modern shooting apparatus with great aplomb.

The first major set piece, a mud-drenched prison yard brawl, sets the tone from a technical standpoint. Evans is arguably the best action director working today and he shows why here, demonstrating marvellous use of editing and, along with his cinematographers, Matt Flannery and Dimas Subhono, skilled use of camera speed and camera placement. Some of the shots are magnificent with no technique wasted. Crane and wide shots are used to their full potential to add scope, before close-ups and sweeping pan shots take you into the heart of the brutality. Whereas things later become a little stagnant at times when certain fights become too drawn out, here the choreography excels early on in battle royal format. The stuntmen are on top form throughout the picture but at this point they really get a chance to shine alongside Uwais as they literally get down and dirty in the midst of the action. All in all it’s a wonderful scene and, due to its placement near the beginning of the film, the audience is still fully engaged, adding to its impact.

The other standout sequence is the car fight/chase, in which Evans takes things up a notch by having those fighting within the vehicles constantly interacting with the high-speed chase itself going on around them, resulting in cuts back and fourth and then crossovers between Rama’s skirmish in the back seat and Eka’s road war. Again the combination of camerawork and stunts complement each other perfectly, creating another rare scenario in which it’s almost impossible not to be completely drawn in by the action, regardless of what’s going on story-wise. Seeing Evans take his first big budget and use it to jump straight into vehicle stunt work with such originality and fervour is refreshing, and credit should go to his team for pulling it all off.

In terms of individual fight scenes, the winner is Rama vs. Hammer Girl and Baseball Dude, a sibling duo and two of the more interesting villains, who take care of business in rather brutal fashion using claw hammers and a baseball bat respectively. Occurring during Rama’s final assault on Bejo’s headquarters, the fight’s narrow corridor setting means it’s short, sharp and brutal, with a genuine emotional touch to boot, giving the flagging film a well timed boost in the action stakes late on. It also features one of the best uses of black comedy during an action sequence, which Evans uses well at times but probably too much overall as after awhile it only adds to the dissolution of tension.

All in all Berandal is a mixed bag. Go and see it for sure, but don’t expect it to be better than The Raid because, quite frankly, it’s not. On the one hand it demonstrates the arguably unparalleled ability of Evans as an action director and shows his willingness to progress both on the action front and as a general filmmaker, but on the other it shows that when it comes to producing a genuine epic he’s not quite there yet, mainly because he’s trying to do too much, too soon. The complicated double-crossing storyline is unnecessary when the action will inevitably be the star of the film anyway. The best gangster flicks to come out of Asia in the modern era, such as Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002), Johnnie To’s Election (2005) and Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (2005), all primarily emphasise story structure and character development. Any action and/or brutality serves to enhance those factors rather than become the main focus. In Berandal it should have been the other way around, as was the case in The Raid and Tony Jaa’s follow up to 2003’s Ong-Bak,Tom-Yum-Goong (a.k.a. Warrior King, 2005), in which the Thai superstar wisely used the same formula as his debut hit, but sought to enhance every aspect. Such an approach allowed him to continue producing groundbreaking fight scenes whilst making sure the rest of the film was well made and engaging, but not overbearing to the extent that it detracted from the emotional aspect of the action.

One of the few directors who’s been able to push the limits of story and action to the point where they both standout but also begin to combine flawlessly is John Woo, and it took him a good few films before he was hitting the mark regularly in Hong Kong during the mid-late 80s/early 90s. Evans showed he could do it with The Raid, but he needs patience if he’s to hit the same heights consistently. I understand how such a thing can be difficult in the age of social media and the current rapid progression of cult international filmmakers from hipster chat to mainstream box office draws. The unprecedented success of The Raid and the wild anticipation for Berandal before production ha even begun, which only increased during the post-production stage (I myself am guilty of this, as my preview suggests), perhaps gave Evans too much freedom, causing him to go over the top. It shouldn’t be an issue, more of a learning curve – Jackie Chan went berserk on 1982’s Dragon Lord due to the freedom he was given, before reeling himself in, going back to the drawing board and making Project A year later, which turned out to be a masterpiece. The difference is that while Dragon Lord underperformed at the Hong Kong box office as audiences and critics struggled with it’s bloated, experimental approach, Berandal has and will continue to receive mainly blind positive reviews based on a few fight scenes and cool shots, whilst at the same time earning a lot of money on a global scale. Hopefully Evans will himself take a step back and take note of the constructive criticism in amongst the praise. If he keeps his head, ignores the hype and remains focused, he no doubt has the potential to be one of the greatest action directors of all time. With a third film set to complete the trilogy, Evans’ star will only continue to rise. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops as a filmmaker in the process.

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