The history of action cinema has a long tradition of international cross-cultural pollination, as films from one country inspire filmmakers from another. Directors such as Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino learned and borrowed from one another, adding to the vibrancy of the genre.
So why shouldn't one of the freshest, most exciting new voices in martial arts action be a Welshman living and working in Indonesia?
With his new film "The Raid 2," filmmaker Gareth Evans — credited as director, writer, co-editor and action choreographer — confirms himself as a force in international action cinema. In the film, a cop named Rama (Iko Uwais), having fought through a high-rise full of murderous drug dealers in 2011's "The Raid: Redemption," is sent to prison to go undercover, becoming part of a dangerous underworld in which warring gangs are locked in a bloody power struggle.
Along the way Evans stages a large-scale prison riot, a dazzling car chase and assorted battles of varying sizes most anywhere people can fight, utilizing hammers, guns, blades and plain old fist-to-body fighting, building to an extended one-on-one showdown in a restaurant kitchen.
The film opened last weekend to strong reviews and a per-screen average of more than $25,000, the best of the weekend, on its way to expanding to some 1,200 screens on April 11. It also had the biggest opening day of all time in Indonesia.
Yet for all the bloody mayhem and intense martial arts action, Evans also keeps the complex matrix of shifting allegiances of the film's dramatic storytelling at its forefront. It's as if "The Raid 2" is both a grungy Asian action film and its classy Hollywood remake fused together, "Infernal Affairs" and "The Departed" rolled into one.
"For me it has to work as a story first," said Evans during a recent stop in Los Angeles. "It doesn't work if the action is just kind of thrown in.... What I wanted to try to do in this one is make sure each action scene, each beat, would be in response to the plot and push the plot forward. There would be character arcs within the fight scenes."
Born in Wales, Evans initially didn't envision himself as a martial arts action filmmaker, but rather something in the mold of classic European art house cinema, before making his debut with 2006's little-seen "Footsteps." His wife, Rangga Maya Barack-Evans, an executive producer on "The Raid 2," is half-Indonesian and provided Evans his first real contact to Indonesian culture. They traveled there for six months to make a documentary on martial arts, 2007's "The Mystic Art of Indonesia," and more or less never left.
It was while working on the documentary that Evans first met Uwais, his future star and collaborator, and a practitioner of the martial arts style known as pencak silat.
"Silat for me just looked so cinematic," said Evans. As for Uwais, then working as a messenger, Evans thought to himself, "This guy needs to be in films."
The pair worked together on a 2009 film, "Merantau," but it was when the first "Raid" opened the Midnight Madness section at the 2011 Toronto film festival, winning an audience award, that Evans and Uwais really announced their arrival on the international genre scene.
Uwais choreographed the martial arts fighting in "The Raid 2" along with Yayan Ruhian, also in the film, with Evans overseeing and handling other action. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to a rapturous response, Uwais put on a brief demonstration during a post-show Q&A to answer an audience question as to whether he could really move that fast. (Answer: yes.)
Not that the question is unreasonable. As Uwais said in a later interview in Los Angeles, "There's a scene where I hit the wall very fast, that even I couldn't believe. I asked Gareth if he sped it up or did a camera trick and he said no, he hadn't touched anything."
Though Uwais pulls off the dramatic demands of the role quite handily, he added, "I'm afraid to be considered an actor. An actor has to be able to play many kinds of roles; I can only play a fighter."
The ambitious film went more than 20 days over schedule, with a total of 130 shooting days on a budget of $4.5 million. For the film's calamitous car chase sequence, Evans had only 10 cars total, a few of which had to be held back as replacements in case of crashes or mechanical problems. So rather than a typical smash 'em up, he created something different.
"I wanted to create almost like a game of chess with the cars," said Evans. "I said I want to focus on the people inside the cars rather than the car itself smashing. I wanted to be able to feel what's going on in the car."
Two crowd-pleasing additions to the new film are the characters of "Hammer Girl" and "Baseball Bat Man," played by Julie Estelle and Very Tri Yulisman, who are exactly as they sound — a pair of assassins whose weapons of choice are claw hammers and a bat and a ball. Evans intended them to push the boundaries of reality, just to the point of breaking.
"For me, 'The Raid 1' and 'The Raid 2' are not martial arts films," the filmmaker said. "'Raid 1' is survival horror, but the action is martial arts. And 'The Raid 2' is a gangster crime movie, but the action is martial arts. That's it. In 'The Raid 1,' what I wanted to do was try suspense, thriller, horror, action, gunplay, martial arts and fuse all these things together. For 'The Raid 2' it was can I take gangster tropes, yakuza elements, the crime drama, and bring in a comic-book style without pulling the boundaries of logic too tight."
When Evans introduced the film's premiere at Sundance, he noted to the crowd that the film was being shown to them "before the MPAA has a heart attack." Yet with only minimal changes, the film did receive an R rating — "I was pleasantly surprised there weren't too many notes," Evans said, considering the visceral intimacy of his body-ripping, bone-breaking style.
"For me if there's a certain amount of beauty you can find in something even if it's brutal," Evans said. "They way the camera responds to it, the way the edit comes out, it can be both graphically violent and beautiful.... When you get to the nitty-gritty of a fight, its grubby, it's dirty and it's violent. It's extreme but it also feels real."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times