Sony Pictures Classics
“Good, we got here early enough to stand under the awning.” It was 10:30pm on Monday evening, just after the first weekend of SXSW 2014. This was our second trip to the iconic Paramount Theater to see one particular movie, the festival favorite and highly anticipated Indonesian actioner The Raid 2. In total, this site’s chief critic Rob Hunter and I had, at that point, invested almost 5 of the past 24 hours in service of seeing Gareth Evans’ follow-up to the breakout action hit of 2011. Sunday morning saw us rising at 7:00am, fueled by 3-hours of sleep, to head down to the Austin Convention Center to secure “express passes” for that evening’s screening. Said passes would allow us to get to the front of the line, where preferred seating was our reward. Two hours were spent standing in line, chatting up friends and neighbors, yawning. There was no way we were missing out on this one, despite the fact that Rob had already seen and reviewed The Raid 2 in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Later that evening, another hour was spent waiting in line to gain entry into the theater. Everything was coming together nicely. As festival programmer Jarod Neece took to the stage with unprecedented energy to introduce Evans and his film, I could feel that my most anticipated movie experience of 2014 was within reach.
What happened next was somewhat unexpected…
The lights went down and the SXSW festival bumper was played – something involving a bird gruesomely murdering a festival-goer who had been standing in line. This is the usual, but inspired fare seen at a festival such as South by. The first few moments of the film involved a group of men dragging another man out into a field for some interrogation. Almost immediately, there was something off about it. While the interrogation went on, it was hard not to notice the lack of subtitles to go along with the lack of English being spoken. Something was wrong. “Perhaps the first scene isn’t meant to have subtitles,” I wondered to myself from the third row. Moments later, after the loud and proud title card proclaimed that we were watching “THE RAID 2,” another scene began and once again, no subtitles. It wasn’t long before the crowd began to get restless. Not long still – about 2–3 minutes – before the house lights went up and director Gareth Evans emerged on stage once again.
“We’re having some technical issues,” explained the obviously unnerved action auteur. “I thought about translating it for you live, but I’m not sure I could get the delivery right.”
For several minutes, Evans held an impromptu spoiler-free Q&A session with the audience, all of whom waited patiently for the theater manager to turn the movie back on. Some called out that they’d watch it without subtitles, others walked up to the stage to ask questions about the stunt work from the first Raid film. One guy even asked if Evans was the same director who made the first film. It was slightly bizarre, completely awkward and not entirely unprecedented. In fact, Mr. Hunter and I had experienced something similar during a presentation of the 70s-themed sci-fi dramedy Space Station 76 a few nights earlier, wherein director Jack Plotnick stood amongst the audience and held an engaging Q&A session while the projector’s server was rebooted after the film cut out 4-minutes into the world premiere. Between Plotnick and Evans there was never an ounce of ungraciousness, they weathered their storms with good humor. Sadly, only one of them would see their movie return to the screen after a few moments of downtime.
As the audience began to grow restless, Evans created one of the more memorable moments of the entire festival. Inviting two of the film’s stars – our hero Iko Uwais and the film’s nasty assassin Cecep Arif Rahman – to the stage, he proposed a live martial arts demonstration. The result was awe-inspiring to see in person, despite the sinking feeling that all this stalling was in vain. The folks at One of Us captured the moment:
A few minutes later, after more Q&A and audience rowdiness, the screening was cancelled. It did not go over well with the pumped-up audience.
Which brings us to Monday evening. As cold rain came down all around us, there we were back in line for The Raid 2. It’s exemplary of the film festival experience – when you really want to see something, no amount of rain or wait-time is going to get in your way. I spent the afternoon watching Twitter, where Gareth Evans had sent out updates about that night’s rescheduled screening:
Ok SXSW folks – just got back from a tech check… first up – we have fucking subtitles now!!!!
— Gareth Evans (@ghuwevans) March 11, 2014
With the screening due to begin at midnight, we took time to talk to people around us. Many had been disappointed the night before, but all were reticent in their desire to see the damned thing. Mr. Hunter didn’t hesitate to remind us that he’d seen it already, and that we weren’t about to be disappointed. In fact, I remember clearly an email exchange he and I had post-Sundance. “I look forward to sitting next to you while you watch that one,” he explained, fully aware of what kind of movie it was and what kind of effect it would have on yours truly.
It would be like being kicked in the head by Hammer Girl (but in a good way):
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The Monday night screening went off without a hitch. And as ever, the buzz was right on the money. It’s a rare occurrence, especially while trapped in that film festival bubble, to see a film get so much of the audience’s anticipatory energy and actually pay off beyond expectations, but The Raid 2 is that rare kind of movie. Where the first film was bone-crunching, this one was bone-obliterating. Where the first film spent just around a million dollars to create a chaotic, close-quarters action movie with a ton of inventive violence; this one used a budget closer to $5 million to create an expansive world of corruption, complete with at least five action set pieces that each would have cost an American studio more than $5 million on their own. Evans and his sinister cabal of stuntmen, choreographers, cinematographers and practical effects experts have created without-a-doubt the most impressive action film in years, perhaps in a generation. Once The Raid 2 gets to spilling blood, there’s no end to the ways in which it elicits “oohs” and “ahhs” from its audience.
In one of the film’s most impressive sequences, our hero Rama (Uwais) is trapped in an SUV with four armed men who are taking him to a very unsavory spot where they will likely put an end to him. With only his fists and feet as weapons, he has to disarm the men, take them all out, not crash the car as it’s speeding through the city and ultimately attempt to jump to another car where an ally is waiting. It’s a scene you think you’ve witnessed before, but not like this. With a combination of close-quarters camera work and a clever bird’s eye view with the car’s roof cut away, Evans and cinematographer Matt Flannery capture one of the most chaotic and beautifully choreographed sequences we’ve seen in a long time. The work of Uwais is confined but acrobatic. When he hits one of his targets, we’re sold on the fact that he wants them to feel the pain. It’s as if Evans and his cast have mastered the psychology of each scene – the fighting styles match the motivations of the characters, as does the intensity of each fight. Add to all of this the high-energy score from composers Joe Trapanese, Fajar Yuskemai and Aria Prayogi, it creates a heart-pounding sequences of pure action cinema bliss. It’s the kind of blood-soaked, crowd-pleasing action that American companies wouldn’t touch with a 30-foot pole. It’s unsafe, hyper-violent and ruthless. The kind of cinematic trauma that wouldn’t get past a big studio’s insurance company, let alone a ratings board.
To put it simply, all the waiting around in the rain was absolutely worth it.
For those who traveled across the desert of despair, through the cancellation and the cold rain of SXSW’s premiere of The Raid 2, the reward was great. A series of special moments that amount to a memorable 48-hours in downtown Austin. For those who were unable to see the film at Sundance or this past weekend at SXSW, the wait continues. But rest assured, fellow lovers of 20-minute long knife fights, the wait comes with great reward.
To spell some of the hardship of the wait, you’ll find an excellent 10-minute behind the scenes featurette below. This is part of the film’s push toward its limited release on March 28. It will open in LA and NYC theatrically at first, then roll out to other cities in the weeks to follow. For more information, follow The Raid on Twitter or check out the film’s official website.
Remember… it’s not over.