Part of me doesn’t want to give attention to The Raid 2, a fugue state of a film in which each action scene tries to outdo the one that preceded it until the film pushes past realism entirely into a kind of impressionistic reverie of violence. I would rather focus on gentler films, quieter films, more meditative films. I would rather we all went and saw those kinds of films too, because then the people who make movies would make more of those kinds of films, and we could all see more of them. Gradually, the world would become a gentler, quieter, more meditative place, and the fugue state of violence we seem often to be trapped in would end. We can’t fight our way out of fighting, no matter what the movies may say. Make no mistake–the only way to end violence is to trust in the deeper good—of God and in people—and turn the other cheek.
But if we’re going to keep going to see action movies anyway (the latest Captain America movie has grossed over $200M as of this writing), we might as well see action movies that exhibit true cinematic ingenuity and flair. The Raid 2 is perhaps the most thrilling combat-centric action movie I’ve ever seen. The same as its predecessor, titled The Raid: Redemption in the U.S., The Raid 2 is an Indonesian martial arts film. Since the martial arts are the point, the cinematography focuses on the blows. Unlike in most American action films, the hits aren’t implied. They’re delivered. The actors even had to learn to control their speed and strength so that they could actually land their punches on camera without killing each other.
The Raid 2 is mesmerized by the way these men and women move. Some might compare these fight scenes to a kind of dance. Indeed, there is remarkable choreography on display here, and the actors move with astonishing grace and fluidity. I’d rather liken it to an athletic competition though, as the points scored seem to be the point. It’s not just about how these bodies float. It’s about how they land and what it means when they land.
The violence in The Raid 2 is the Platonic ideal of gratuitous. Faceless flunkies are flung far and wide as our hero battles his way toward the film’s conclusion. Most of these minor minions are dismissed more than they are dispatched. They serve little purpose other than to be in the way. A few mid-level baddies are introduced mid-way through so that we’ll know both to fear them as our hero approaches them and to cheer when they meet their demise. Unlike the first film in this series, there is more of a story at work here—an homage, of sorts, to every mob and undercover cop movie you’ve ever seen—so when some of these punches land, there’s a bit of narratively created emotional resonance, but really, even these story scenes are simply set-up for what the film is really interested in–the action.
As I reflected on this film, I came across this quote from Lesslie Newbigin in his essay “Evangelism in the Context of Secularization.” Writing about the pitfalls of a secular society (a descriptor I don’t find very helpful very often), he writes, “If there is no answer to the question ‘What is human life really for? What is the purpose of human life and of whole creation?’ people will seek to fill the void with the search for instant pleasure in drugs, in sex, in mindless violence through which one can express the sense of meaninglessness.” That quote could serve as an apt review of The Raid 2. To which, you might reply, “Then, Elijah, why see The Raid 2 at all?”
My answer is that I have done Lesslie Newbigin a disservice by pulling only one of his sentences out of an entire essay. His further point is that we do not actually live in a secular society, no matter what some might argue. Rather, we live in a pagan world in which we have created multitudes of non-gods to fill the voids created by secularization. Our world is remarkably religious, and it is to that world we Christians are sent bearing the Gospel, the anti-religion, as Christ casts it, freeing us from law and dogma to live in a grace-flooded, new creation.
Our task then is to discern where God is at work in the world already and join in. So, when we watch a movie like The Raid 2, we have to look for God’s activity. I see it in the attention the movie pays to the bodies of its characters. It revels in the glory of human dexterity, agility, strength, and fragility. The Raid 2 is astounded by how humans move, by how alive they are, and by how easily that life-spark can be extinguished. We humans are fearfully and wonderfully made, suggests The Raid 2, knit together mysteriously and sustained by skill and what seems like too much luck to be called luck any longer. We’ve got to call it grace.
Were I to evangelize The Raid 2, I’d start there. I’d applaud its attention to the human body, the way it focuses on how bodies move, the ways its cameras move with those moving bodies, the way its cameras stop suddenly when those bodies are stopped, their life snuffed out by the corner of a curb or a hammer’s claw. I’d stand agape at the movie’s post-modern blood paintings on kitchen tile floors, because the movie knows blood is beautiful–it is the substance of life and the evidence of life poured out.
I’d consider the movie’s most uncomfortable moment, when a newly recruited hit-man is made to stand naked before his new boss, so the boss can scrutinize his body and check for anything indicating unfaithfulness. Nope, nothing unfaithful here, he finds. This is a body built true. The scene is uncomfortable because it is the closest the movie ever gets to what it really cares about without a screen of explicit violence obscuring the truth–this is a movie about looking at bodies and determining their fitness for a cause.
I’d say yes, humans are amazing. Yes. they’re fit for a purpose. Thank you for showing me that, The Raid 2. Show me more. Furthermore, if you long for an escape from violence like you say, let me introduce you to Christ. Life isn’t meaningless. There is purpose both for you and for the world. You’re close to it, The Raid 2, when you show your hero longing for his family. Let me introduce you to a family more faithful than any your camera can conjure, to a father more formidable than any mob boss, to a brother who came to save you instead of the other way around.
I can’t stress strongly enough how violent The Raid 2 is. It was more than I could handle at some points. But if you see it, look closely. Figure out what the movie thinks is beautiful. Decide if you agree. Take it from there.