Tuesday night, following the premiere of The Raid 2 at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Twitter exploded with mouthwatering, hyperbolic fanboy glee, with attendees comparing the film to everything from The Godfather to The Dark Knight Rises and Children of Men. Welsh writer-director Gareth Evans broke out with his stylish Indonesian-set action film Merantau in 2009, but his follow up, 2011's The Raid: Redemption, was unexpectedly (and unrelentingly) brutal: a claustrophobic nightmare turned action-lover's dream, with quicksilver action star Iko Uwais battling his way through an entire building of mobsters and thugs, cracking skulls and bathroom tiles with vicious elbows, knuckles and knees. The hallway fights and stairwell stand-offs seem so painfully real, you didn't just feel sorry for the actors – you felt sorry for the walls.
Redemption was a landmark of tight, pressurized action filmmaking, and Evans immediately earned his reputation as one of film's finest directors of old-school, hand-to-hand visceral violence. The Raid 2, in theaters March 28th, feels like what happens when all that contained fury is released on a much larger scale.
Running over two-and-a-half hours, the movie picks up with Uwais shortly after the end of the last film. An internal affairs cop asks him to infiltrate a crime syndicate by getting himself arrested, so he does. From there, the film marries the criminal scope of The Departed (or Infernal Affairs) to a kind of virtuoso, kinetic violence that goes far beyond shock-value torture porn. No matter how carefully the shots are framed and planned, every fight is dirty, and even the hundredth wincing, messy, eye-gouging, jaw-ripping entanglement feels like a rebuke to the over-choreographed ballet of so much of Hollywood's stylized, CGI-driven effects.
There's a prison riot, a gangland succession struggle, several hospitals-worth of blood splatter, a girl who one-ups Oldboy by wielding two hammers, a guy who finds himself face-to-grill with a hibachi and a how'd-they-do-that chase scene in which a camera passes in and out of two cars while fists fly. Most of the film's best shots are done in-camera with no CGI, and very few moments where the action is sped up. (Even the trailer's dramatic shot of Uwais furiously punching the wall is shot in real time.) In short, action cinema's been waiting for its next great talent. And with this film, Gareth Evans stakes his bloody claim. We spoke to him yesterday morning, after the raves started pouring in.
You finished the film 48 hours before its Sundance premiere. What was that like?
That was stress magnified. Unreal, man. Getting it done was hard and tough, but you could at least see progress. But the 24-hour wait before the first screening was nerve-wracking. Awful. The worst. I'm glad it seems to have played well.
The Raid: Redemption was a huge hit for action fans, but the scale was small. Did you set out with a goal to top that film with the two-and-a-half hours of The Raid 2?
It's a weird thing. There is that pressure. And we do want to make sure that everything we do is bigger and better than what we did previously. The biggest thing was to make sure that we don't repeat ourselves. We didn't want it to be contained in one building with the same structural layout. We wanted to expand the universe – to have a much bigger atmosophere and scale of production. And not just in terms of action. We wanted the scale of the drama, too.
It's also even more gruesome and brutal than Redemption, which you once said was partly a reaction to the fanboys who felt that the violence in Merantau was too soft.
The brutality is not an intentional thing, really. We design scenes according to whatever makes sense within the context of the film. The brutality comes from the characters, rather than us wanting to show something fucked-up.
The MPAA hasn't rated it yet. How do you know when it's going too far?
I don't know. I don't really have a very good filter when I'm planning like that. "What's violent or not? I mean, on a ratings level?" I just try to make sure everything feels very instinctive or organic. It's really not for shock.
Twice in the film, someone says, "There's no clean war." That's a pretty good summary for your style of action, where it's choreographed but also very damn dirty.
Well, everyone on every corner of that film is steeped in this world of violence. There's no moment in any of these characters lives where they're sitting down on a Saturday night watching TV and having a glass of wine. Violence is in their lives on an everyday, every moment level.
How do you decide when to push it?
I want to question the audience: "How far will you follow this protagonist? What if he starts to do stuff that is worse than what the bad guys are doing?" I hope it makes you guys, the audience, ask: "Is this still my hero? Even if he's corrupted almost entirely by his experience?"
As a fan, who are the action directors you keep returning to?
It's always been John Woo, Sam Peckinpah and Jackie Chan. The way they orchestrated and shot action has always been the biggest influence. Because of my editing style – I edit my films and I'm not flashy – I can't do graphics and all the special stuff. I just like straight cuts and a more classical approach. And that lends itself more to the old style of action choreography and presenting action like Peckinpah or John Woo did: You establish the geography of the place. You don't get lost in a sea of edits. You leave enough breathing space to see where the choreography is going.
In that sense, your style is very different from the hyper-kinetic cross-editing of Christopher Nolan and Paul Greengrass. Are you responding to that style?
I shoot what I prefer to see and that's not it. I enjoy the hell out of the Bourne films, but the way I want to see it is different. I want to get that detail and have that clarity.
What scene was most satisfying to pull off?
The final fight in the kitchen – and the prison riot [Ed. Note – visible in the trailer above]. For that, we designed the shots to be able to be cut together and flow through the prison yard like it's a long single take, when in fact those shots are composed of six-to-eight or eight-to-ten shots. We shot for ten days, with 120 extras, in miserable, muddy conditions. I was by the monitors, but I lost my boots in the mud.
The sound design is sick. And sickening. How do you make it sound so real?
I tend to like to focus on the small details, and that can be as simple as the sound of a rip or splash of blood. All those little details have to be in there to give it extra focus and attention, and it all comes together to make the action choreography feel real.
I kept cringing. Which hit worked best for you?
I love the guy who gets kicked in the side of the head, goes flying and then his head is stopped by that concrete bench. I saw that head crack and thought, "This is really going to fucking work."
You invented the character of Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man. Where did the idea for them come from? Are you a big baseball fan?
God no! If any of those came from anything personal, I'd be worried about my safety. They're figments of my imagination. Hammer Girl was an extension of the harimau, or tiger style, of silat martial arts. It involves open palms and clawing. I was looking for another weapon and thought, "Why not a couple of claw hammers?"