Evans Matches 'Redemption' With Brutal, Resolute 'Raid 2'

Directed by: Gareth Evans; Runtime: 150 minutes
Grade: B+

In all its lengthy and bloody glory, The Raid 2 ends up being about as reputable of an answer to the question, "How could Gareth Evans top The Raid?", as one can imagine, which is no small feat. With a budget just barely north of a million dollars, the director orchestrated a furiously-paced rush of adrenaline with the original, based on the constrained geography of a narrow apartment building, the unyielding threat of organized gangsters populating its near-dilapidated floors, and the intensity of Indonesia's pencak silat martial-arts style. For this sequel, Evans doesn't take the easy way out by shoving lead-character Rama into a second traditional "raid" on yet another building, instead using the original film's success as a springboard for developing a thematically richer, if familiar detour into the realm of obligatory undercover police work. The gory, relentless action that hallmarked the first returns in these elevated stakes, culminating into one of the year's hardest-hitting action films.

Evans didn't initially intend for this story to branch off from The Raid: Redemption, though, modifying a script that he'd been previously developing into an extension of the first film's narrative. You wouldn't know it by the way the plot elements weave together: in a roundabout way, the events in The Raid 2 occur mere hours after Rama (Iko Uwais) -- and a few other surviving officers -- made it out of the apartment building on the steam of his martial-arts training, armed with recorded evidence and looking for legal blood against corrupt cops. Given the sensitivity of the material, he meets with a trusted member of a covert internal affairs task force, who presents Rama with the opportunity to investigate the city's organized crime and police force ... at a price. To do this, he'll have to covertly land himself in prison and build a relationship with the son, Uco (Arifin Putra), of one of the city's prominent drug lords, Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), in hopes that the stint in jail will put him in a trusted recon position against the factions, dirty cops, and another rogue crime lord, Bejo (Alex Abbad).

The polished simplicity of the original has been abandoned for larger, more dynamic aspirations in The Raid 2, broadening the scale and emotional tempo by taking Evans' brand of action outside the confines of a single building. Evans attacks his story with observable influences from other films featuring long-job undercover cops and power shifts in criminal organizations: there's a lot of Infernal Affairs in its DNA, along with Scorsese-like gangster depictions and the stylistic flair of South Korean revenge cinema. He's also ruthless in the lengths he's gone to elevate the stakes around Rama and to give the story its own merits, swiftly annihilating several key characters in the film's first couple of minutes and glimpsing at a distressed Rama trapped in his dark prison cell with only his fury to keep him company. Where The Raid was dark on a physical and perfunctory level through thug mercilessness, the sequel takes the hero's mentality into bleaker terrain as he chooses to sacrifice his livelihood -- and push his boundaries -- for the sake of his family and the desire to clean up the city.

Once The Raid 2 moves out of the prison and into Indonesia's urban jungle -- shared between Uco's father's organization and the Japanese yakuza -- the plot twists and turns towards conflict built around the third-party manipulation of the territory's major players, with Rama as the rookie underling who's observing and caught in the machinations. Evans' dedication to establishing an engaging backbone for the resulting action is to be commended, especially for a martial-arts film, where he explores Uco's hasty desire for responsibility and the personal sacrifices Rama makes to protect his identity. That said, the plot also sprawls across two-and-a-half hours of largely foreseeable conclusions to its (figurative) backstabbing and the personal nature of family-owned organized crime, needlessly dragging out the storytelling through scenes of karaoke gone wrong and mustache-twirling plan discussion. Also, the film dips into almost Tarantino-esque caricatures with its villains this time around, namely a mute girl wielding hammers and a guy who uses baseballs and a bat as his weapons of choice. This uptick in entertainment value and dramatic complexity comes at the expense of some of the vivid, genuine energy powering the original, even becoming a tad puzzling when one major actor returns for a new role (even if his fighting capabilities become a welcome sight).

Despite juggling this extended runtime (which was even longer early on in the editing process), Gareth Evans clearly understands momentum and the necessity for visceral beats, which the film delivers in spades whenever its action-film adrenaline, especially its kinetic choreography, takes over. The stark appearance of The Raid's nearly-grayscale aesthetic has been replaced by vividly grimy, visceral imagery in the prison -- including a dazzling mud-drenched brawl -- and the syndicate's ramshackle production buildings, as well as the faintly glamorous settings of a stylish restaurant and multi-floor nightclub. Along with brightly-lit stretches of subway trains and streets in Indonesia, the versatility of these locations in The Raid 2 surround Evans' signature bloodshed with touches of inventive splendor, where clever photography and tight editing elevate its rapid punches, spilling blood, and traumatized flesh into an unexpectedly artful collage of carnage. The martial-arts brawls appear just as weighty and credible as the original, only with engaging shifts in geography that keep the violence fresh, including one insane chain of car-chase sequences.

Evans proves that he knows how to end his films, too, as The Raid 2 caps off its interwoven scenes of combat and gangster drama with a brutally gripping finale, merrily reflecting on the strengths of the original film's premise while systematically, if unsurprisingly, tying up the sequel's loose ends. While the extent of Rama's capabilities and limitations swing somewhat arbitrarily based on the demands of the story, Iko Uwais' intense gazes and fluid, terse movements against his aggressors reinforce the perception that he's this weather-worn force of nature who -- even with a heaving chest and scattered wounds across his body -- could feasibly land the blows he delivers. What started out as a detached story from the universe of The Raid transforms into an admirable evolution in his character once everything's said and done, with the door still left wide open for another sequel regardless of the immense finality of what goes down. While the next film could benefit from a more concise runtime, Evans and the Merantau crew have proven their mettle in such a way with The Raid 2 that I'm greatly anticipating a comparable follow-up.

Frustrating, Uninspired Found-Footage Navigates 'Jungle'

Directed by: Andrew Traucki; Runtime: 84 minutes
Grade: D

The found-footage horror genre has taken a beating over the past fifteen years since its spike in popularity, due to both critics of the gimmick and filmmakers who have overused it. Films such as Europa Report and The Bay prove that there's still plenty of inventive life left in the concept, though, if those behind the camera think outside the box about what their particular film will do differently -- both in theme and terror -- than its predecessors. The Jungle, an Australian import from The Reef's Andrew Traucki, is a prime example of going entirely against that train of thought towards novelty, instead adhering so precisely to a template that it legitimately feels like watching a movie you've already seen before with all the accompanying flaws and frustrations, only with a few details swapped out for the sake of posterity. Familiarity saps the film of the dread it could've produced due to the predictability of what's around each bend, making it difficult to suspend disbelief and soak in the atmosphere accordingly.

The Jungle initially flirts with a few dissimilar ideas, where an Australian conservationist, Larry (Rupert Reid) embarks on an observation venture to Indonesia, aimed at capturing a rare breed of leopard in its natural habitat for government reference. With his brother behind the camera and a government-appointed tracker to assist in their journey, a group of four set out to Indonesia's tropical jungle, armed with relatively high-tech recording devices and precautionary gear (read: a rifle) to navigate the wilderness. Lo and behold, Larry and his team decide to visit a shaman before their search mission begins to gain some cultural perspective, who warns them of a werewolf-like demon that prowls the area where they'll be photographing and exploring. Not one to react to superstition, Larry dismisses the warning and leads his team into the area. When odd sounds start to surround them outside their tent at night, however, they all start to wonder whether it's the work of big cats ... or something else.

Exchange the Indonesian folklore with rural Americana occultism and The Jungle would basically transform into a derivative remake of The Blair Witch Project, only with a cursory lead character whose skepticism towards the supernatural comes from it being a nuisance towards his agenda instead of a compelling phenomenon. From stumbling onto spooky props scattered about in the woods to breathlessly staring into the nighttime forest when they're not trembling in the tent, it's discouraging to witness such blatant emulation without doing much to spice up the unfolding of events. It gets to a point where you can actually play a guessing game as to whether the film's going to do this or that next -- Will the passionate documentarian verbally badger a spooked-out companion? Will they get lost in the woods? Will they discover human remains? -- and the film conforms to those projections almost on-cue through faintly less-shaky and zoom-heavy cinematography. That monotony kills the mood, even with the lights dimmed and the sound cranked up for full effect.

Areas where The Jungle actually does try to change things up, namely in building atmosphere with the tools at the crew's disposal, are purely mechanical and do little to elevate the dread looming in the shadows. Rehashed scenes of pinpointing sounds in The Jungle's dark expanses and bickering over fears of the mythological aren't really aided by the film's glances at creepy black-and-white digital "evidence" captured by their cameras, though the night-vision goggles do capture a very slim number of eerie moments clawing their way onto the screen. What The Jungle lacks, ultimately, is a sense of purpose and intrigue: instead of Larry seeking the truth behind backwater witches, alien life, or trolls like in Trollhunter, the fable of the beast jeopardizing his crew's livelihood merely stands in the way of his preservation goal. Larry lacks curiosity and investment as a result, where the thing loudly going bump in the night becomes little more than a legend he now regrets shrugging off so casually, leaving those watching the footage of what happened to the crew just as detached.

Tucci, Eve Trade Bitter Barbs on Unpleasant 'Velvet Morning'

Directed by: Neil LaBute; Runtime: 84 minutes
Grade: C+

If asked to pick out a pair of actors to portray two disagreeably antagonistic ex-lovers at war with one another in the confines of an apartment for an hour and a half, Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve might not be at the top of many people's lists. While Tucci has the disturbing nature of a child murderer under his belt with The Lovely Bones and Eve has her moments of darker manipulation in Crossing Over, their portrayals of inherently likable characters in other mainstream films -- The Hunger Games and Devil Wears Prada for Tucci; Star Trek Into Darkness and She's Out of My League for Eve -- are what typically dominate one's first thoughts when they come to mind. Neil LaBute's Some Velvet Morning offers the chance for Tucci and Eve to push their boundaries through a smaller-scale setting involving the nature of a crumbling marriage and gender power-play, directly centered on the erupting conflict between a freshly-separated lawyer and his hesitant once-flame. While their performances are a testament to their versatility, a strained and unjustifiably provocative script weakens the foundation for their brutal duel of words.

After many years of marriage, Fred (Stanley Tucci) has finally packed up his things and moved out of his house, landing on the doorstep of his mistress, Velvet (Alice Eve). Instead of being excited to see him, however, Velvet seems cautious and distant towards Fred's appearance, which isn't exactly what many would expect of a couple who finally have the freedom to be with one another. That's due in large part to the natural assumptions that Some Velvet Morning allows the audience to arrive at based on the scenario, until the back-and-forth exchanges between Fred and Velvet gradually replaces that conjecture with facts about who they are, what they do, and the nature of their relationship. Hostility fills the air of Velvet's apartment as Fred's disappointment takes over their conversation's tone, leading the story down a grimmer path as accusations and insecurities fly that force Velvet into a state of panic and fear. Whether Velvet led him on or if Fred picked up on mixed signals, or neither, slowly comes into focus.

Some Velvet Morning unravels a bit like a romantic mystery, where a steady stream of information about the truth behind their relationship reveals itself like the rind around an orange being peeled to the pulp. It's unconvincing at first, though, where that intentional awkwardness upon Fred's impromptu arrival drives the audience to scour their interactions to figure out the details, and not in a good way. It sparks questions early on -- Why is she surprised? Why didn't he call in advance? Why is keeping her lunch plans so direly important? -- that are tangentially answered with each layer of conversation, yet we're given so little substance to work with in the beginning that it feels frustratingly formless instead of compelling. Eventually, the film gets over that hump and lures the audience into putting the pieces together once they've got a grasp on Fred and Velvet, but that unease towards the characters at the start works against the film's outlandish twists, involving Velvet's gray-area employment and Fred's son.

As LaBute's film progresses entirely within the walls of Velvet's narrow, multi-floor flat, it veers further away from the initial undertaking of observing an extramarital couple's clear-cut adjustment to the situation following Fred's abandoned marriage. With its added context in tow, Some Velvet Morning taps into claustrophobic bile and gender-driven intimidation, built around this vague four-year jump in time and how Velvet's tendencies have changed -- and stayed the same -- during their separation. Stanley Tucci reaches an elevated, extreme caliber of menace for Fred, where his instinctively agreeable demeanor meshes with a petulant lawyer's bruised ego for unsettling dramatic displays. Alice Eve's melancholy, submissive yet sharp-tongued turn as Velvet responds well to Fred's oppressive presence, if a bit skittish and tolerant. Their extended conversation is incredibly reactionary and theatrical, though, with both actors struggling with the script's gawky fluctuations in harshness, manifesting into a gradient of unpleasant emotion that's too broad for the tone's own good.

Some Velvet Morning gets dominated by constant reactions and vulgar pushed buttons between Fred and Velvet that simply seems like it's trying too hard to instigate, crossing peculiar boundaries in regards to Fred's family and the "how" and "when" behind their relationship. Turns out, once the film reaches its willfully traumatic climax and finally peels the last layer away to reveal the full truth of their hostile relationship, director LaBute deliberately pulls the carpet out from under the audience's expectations and awareness of what the pair means to one another. Fred's acerbic dialogue, Velvet's discomfort upon his arrival, the situation appearing strained and off-kilter... it all takes on a different meaning through the lens of the film's final minutes, and, quite frankly, I'm not sure whether to applaud LaBute for his trickery or to feel cheated and alternatively disturbed by the outcome. The film itself is an unsavory stream of oscillating fury that ultimately ends on a bizarre note, incautiously mixing reassurance towards their characters' integrity with distaste over the roles they've filled in Velvet's apartment over the course of a few hours.