On April 15, Scott Mendelson of Forbes published an incisive little piece on the current economics of film. His premise: With 3-D spectacles filling theaters, fewer and fewer "smaller" movies achieve wide releases — even when they have big stars and appealing hooks.
Vermont movie fans know that all too well. We read gushing praise for films like Under the Skin all over the web, then wait weeks or months for them to appear in our theaters — if they ever do. (Blink and you missed Nymphomaniac's one-week Burlington run.) Don't blame theaters for this — blame the cautious strategies of distributors.
Case in point: This past weekend, Sony Pictures Classics bucked conventional wisdom and expanded the Indonesian action sequel The Raid 2 into nearly 1,000 theaters. Execs must have hoped for a strong turn-out from fans of martial arts champion Iko Uwais' whirling limbs, who made The Raid: Redemption (2012) into a cult hit.
Instead, the movie bombed. Conventional wisdom won the day. But, Mendelson argues, moviegoers in places like Burlington owe Sony their gratitude: "[The studio] had to know that a 2.5-hour, ultra-violent foreign language action film wasn't going to break out beyond the already converted," he writes. "They fell on the sword (or hammer) so that fans living outside of New York and LA could enjoy the film as it was meant to be seen."
Last weekend I saw The Raid 2 at Merrill's Roxy — with a total audience of perhaps four — and I am grateful. This flick features fight choreography more complex, immersive and exciting than anything you'll see in Captain America by several orders of magnitude. It deserves viewing on the big screen.
The Raid: Redemption, writer-director Gareth Evans' break-out effort, was a streamlined action pic about a police raid on a high-rise in the Jakarta slums. By the end, most of the cops were dead, and rookie Rama (Uwais) had established himself as a force to be reckoned with.
The sequel begins mere hours after the first film ended, with a big chunk of exposition that's more confusing than illuminating. Things fall into place once we realize that the events of The Raid actually don't matter that much to The Raid 2. Evans has simply relocated his hero into a classic gang-land melodrama.
To root out corruption in the police force, Rama is assigned to go undercover in prison and befriend Uco (Arifin Putra), heir to the city's ruling drug lord. Uco is one of those preening, dangerously ambitious favored sons, and the plot quickly evolves in Godfather directions; it's less about dirty cops than bad-guy internal politics. Because he's posing as mere muscle in the criminal organization, Rama is more often a witness than a driver of events — an odd position for a protagonist.
But when it comes to the down-and-dirty action that results from all that plotting, this undercover cop rules. And so does the movie. Uwais can plow his way through 20 opponents, landing punches and kicks with balletic grace, and almost convince you such things are physically possible. Among the film's applause-worthy setpieces are a literally dirty prison fight in the mud; encounters with colorful assassins who wield claw-hammers, baseball bats and baseballs; and a grueling showdown in a restaurant kitchen. Evans gives action cinema a pure shot of crazy creativity.
Granted, I can't recommend The Raid 2 to anyone who's not down with (a) bloody, bone-crunching violence and (b) subtitles. But if you belong to the small subset of people that tolerates both, or if you're fine with ignoring the plot and just watching the fights, I encourage you not to sit around waiting for Sony's American remake of The Raid. Go experience the real thing in a theater — if you can get there in time.