(Gareth Evans, 2014)
Given a bigger budget and a lot more confidence, Evans returns to the world of The Raid, taking his hero (Iko Uwais) and placing him in an undercover cop story which starts off as a prison movie, then transforms into a gang war story, never once losing sight of the fact that at heart, its really a martial arts fight movie.
It has the same flaws as the original. Evans writes, directs and edits, and two out of three ain't bad, but he's not much of a writer. The plot here is simple - a hoary old tale of jealousy, betrayal and turf disputes - and yet Evans manages to make it bafflingly opaque and difficult to follow. It doesn't help much that there are no real characters. Uwais' Rama is the good guy, and that's about all the personality he's given. The villains are defined by their props - the dangerous young half-Arab Bejo (Alex Abbad) wears shades, gloves and carries a cane - or, in a Tarantino-esque notion, by their weaponry. Except Evans doesn't write dialogue or personalities like Tarantino, so the fact that he features a deaf girl who fights with a pair of hammers and her partner who uses a baseball bat like its a samurai sword works only in the fight scenes.
But then that does seem to be all he cares about. And some of those fight scenes are extraordinary: unbelievably violent, hilariously extended, cartoonishly gory...and yet; beautifully choreographed and brilliantly shot and edited. People fight with fists, knives, machetes, guns, cars. They fight endlessly.
Everything is grotesquely bloated around those fights - Evans seems to believe that his film is somehow deeper than it actually is - but those fights make this film worthwhile. They go with many of the cliches of martial arts cinema, just as The Raid did, but they work despite those cliches, almost by overloading them. Evans goes further and more outrageous than most filmmakers would dare. He flips cameras upside down, follows people through shattered windows and into tumbling cars. He manages to use shaky, immediate handheld cameras in some scenes for visceral impact but rarely sacrifices coherence to do so.
It's everything else that lets the film down. Truly great action films feature great action scenes, of course. But they make you invest in those scenes. You care about who wins, who survives, what happens. Evans isn't quite capable of that just yet. You watch his action scenes dazzled by the technical virtuosity and the physical feats on display. But you don't really care about anything beyond that.