(On Cable TV, December 2014) I really thought I’d like this movie more. After all, I’m a big fan of the original The Raid, which managed to bring back the best in action moviemaking (long shots, focused premise, physical stunts from the actors) in a tight and intense package. I love the Asian tradition of action filmmaking, and The Raid 2 got rave reviews ever since its festival debut. Alas, and this may be more of a reflection of the way I have to watch movies these days, it quickly became obvious that The Raid 2 was going to be interminable. Clocking at a hefty 150 minutes, The Raid 2 seems lost in subplots, too-similar in its execution and diffuse when it should have been as tightly plotted as its predecessor. There are two or three prologues, far too many fights that look the same, and an overall blandness to it all. I was unexplainably bored through much of it, my patience (and available time) sorely tested by the results. Fortunately, there are highlights. In a film that’s too long, the car chase feels too short. Director Gareth Evans shows that he’s one of the best action directors of the moment by letting his trained actors show what they can do in a series of long shots. The cinematography is occasionally impressive, and it I had been in a mood to better appreciate the twists and turns of the sprawling plot, I’m sure I would have been a bit more upbeat about the result. While I reserve the right to change my mind after a more relaxed viewing, I reluctantly concede that The Raid 2 is a bit of a dud as far as I’m concerned: too long, to meandering and too unfocused to best serve the incredible action sequences that it contains.
(On Cable TV, April 2014) Once again, this anthology horror film defies the odds: I didn’t expect the first V/H/S to be any good (Found-footage anthology? Ugh!) but it was, and I didn’t expect the second one to be better, but it is. It sure sounds as if the directors of this sequel listened to the reviews of the first film, which identified two specific segments as being far more dynamic and interesting than the rest. As a result, a good chunk of V/H/S/2 is played at the same level of frantic manic energy as the best segments of the first film, and the result is a big thrill ride that overcomes the clichéd “And they all die at the end” trope of found-footage films. Even the framing story works a bit better this time around: “Tape 49” features two Private Investigators who get into a lot more trouble than they expected when they’re asked to retrieve a mysterious tape. The setup is identical to the first film, but the two characters are more sympathetic than the prequel’s sociopathic hoodlums, and the end horror fillip is quite a bit more successful. As a bonus, we get hints of a wider conspiracy, setting up future installments should the franchise want to move forward. The first segment, “Phase I Clinical Trials” features an ingenious rationale for the first-person perspective (a man gets an artificial eye, starts seeing ghosts) but the good setup and effective first scares eventually degenerate into big noisy nihilistic nonsense by the end of the segment (a weakness shared by most of the other pieces of the anthology), nullifying somewhat the first promising moments. What’s most to like about the VHS series so far is the way the short-film format allows stylistic explorations of one-note premises that would be impossible to sustain over longer films, and “A Ride in the Park” is a near-perfect example of such, featuring a first-person perspective of a zombie outbreak. While the film doesn’t put us inside the mind of a zombie, it puts us slightly above it, and shows that even stale subgenres can be explored from new perspectives. (Fittingly, it’s a segment co-directed by some of the same people who did The Blair Witch Project.) Compared to its predecessor, V/H/S/2 wisely chooses fewer longer segments (4 rather than 5) and “Safe Haven”, the strongest section of the film, cleverly uses up its time to set up an atmosphere of pure dread as journalists investigate a sinister cult, before unspooling everything in ten solid minutes of pure craziness. Again, the scares don’t cohere into a satisfying conclusion, but the apocalyptic succession of horrors is a high-energy race to the final disturbing images, and directors Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans (the mad mastermind behind “The Raid” series) have much to be proud of. After that, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” feels like a bit of a let-down, even if it uses the conceit of alien abduction for a frantic succession of hopeless chases, bright flashes and loud noises. (No, but seriously: the sound design is excellent in this segment.) Much of V/H/S/2 has the usual problems of found-footage films: poor image quality, headache-inducing direction and they-all-die endings. But the film does well within the confines of the form and manages to create a dreadful atmosphere that escapes slicker productions. It’s a step up from the first film (mostly by being as much fun as it is horrific, and having far more sympathetic protagonists), so much so that I’m definitely interested in seeing an eventual V/H/S/3.
(On DVD, June 2013) There’s been a surprising dearth of competent action-moviemaking lately; the rise of Bourne-inspired shakycam directing, coupled with the apparent decline of the Hong Kong film industry have led to more generic action movies without flair or excitement. But here comes relief from an unexpected source: Welsh expat Gareth Evans, working within the Indonesian film industry to produce a bone-crunching martial-arts extravaganza. The best thing about The Raid is its simplicity, as policemen stage a raid against a multistory mob safe-house. When things don’t go as planned, it’s up to a lone cop (Iko Uwais, quite credible as an action hero) to punch, kick and smash his way back out of the building, taking down a crime-lord along the way. (Yes, Dredd also worked along the same lines. In this case, similarity is not a bad thing.) The premise works best as a thread on which to hang the action set-pieces, all of which are directed with a generous helping of long takes allowing the action to shine. Those long takes also reinforce the brutal nature of the fights, the punishment endured by the characters and the sense that the stuntmen are truly earning their money on this film. There are a few extra flourishes of emotional connections here and there, but The Raid largely remains focused on the action scenes, and that works to everyone’s benefit. Lean and mean, The Raid is one of the strongest pure-action films of the past decade, and it brings to mind the heydays of the Hong Kong action film industry –high praise indeed.