Director: Gareth Evans
Stars: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Alex Abbad, Oka Antara, Tio Pakusadewo, Julie Estelle, Cecep Arif Rahman, Yayan Ruhian, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kenichi Endo, Kazuki Kitamura
Running time: 148 minutes
Rating: R

People have been punching each other in the face since the dawn of the opposable thumb. It never gets old. Or so I used to think. In my younger days, I was an action movie fiend and fed my jones with everything from classics like Enter the Dragon, Conan the Barbarian, and Die Hard, to duds like Hulk Hogan’s No Holds Barred, which, in my Hulkamania, I believed to be an equally high-quality piece of cinema. If I wasn’t watching Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Lee, Gibson, Russell, Willis, Ford, Van Damme, Seagal, Dudikoff, Weathers, and their ilk, I was on the playgrounds of Brooklyn, swinging scrawny limbs, water guns, and sticks, reenacting John McClane’s gift-wrapped final draw, Frank Dux’s splits and finishing move grunts, and Nick Parker’s sightless swordplay (Blind Fury, FTW).

For the first time in a long time, I feel like practicing fight choreography in the park. That’s how exciting and energizing Gareth EvansThe Raid 2: Berandal is. And it makes me wonder why I don’t feel this way more often watching action movies.

When I screened the Welsh director’s The Raid: Redemption in 2012, it was instantly the freshest action movie I’d seen in years. Its plot and dialogue were paper thin—as part of a 20-man S.W.A.T. team, rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) infiltrates a tenement controlled by a cold-blooded gangster and must fight his way to the boss, floor by floor, through the thugs who live there—but it hardly mattered because the action was so inventive and relentless. Evans, Uwais, and fellow fight choreographer Yayan Ruhian packed 101 minutes with fast-paced, nearly non-stop close quarters rumbles that showcased the brutal beauty of the blade-and-body Indonesian martial art pencak silat.

Truth be told, the onslaught eventually exhausted me; I was so impressed by the movie’s earlier fights that Rama’s lengthy climactic showdown with head henchman Mad Dog (Ruhian) inspired less awe than it might have if the film had taken more than a breath to develop its characters and plot or diversified the action scenarios. But with an estimated budget of only $1.1 million, it’s understandable that Evans, Uwais, and Ruhian were, like their combatants, fighting their way out of a confined space, not yet able to realize the ambitious and audacious action drama that Evans had originally envisioned in 2009.

Berandal looks and feels better than most of the action movies Hollywood is dumping on audiences this year. I may spend the rest of my life chasing the high I got from it.

Berandal is that film. Following the success of The Raid, which earned over $4 million in the U.S. alone, Evans reworked his original script into a sequel, where a vengeful Rama leaves his wife and child behind to go deep undercover in the Bangun crime family and expose corrupt cops, and got “three to four times” as much money to make it. My two cents: Berandal looks and feels better than most of the action movies Hollywood is dumping on audiences this year. The strength of the U.S. dollar in Indonesia aside (I’m no economist, but I’m guessing $3–$4 million goes a long way there), what makes the movie stand out is its gorgeous visuals, amazing action set pieces, and incredibly developed fight choreography.

It’s rare that a movie packs a screening room full of industry professionals and turns them into giggling, ecstatic children. When I screened Berandal, grins were ear to ear and gasps and exclamations frequent. It's was a delight to watch Evans’ far more layered and human crime drama unfold from an opening fight in a prison bathroom, where Rama takes on a mob of inmates, cleverly using a stall door to his advantage, to a muddy prison yard brawl that makes magic of the chaos and slippery footing, to a nightclub where killers dance with each other and the furniture, to a car chase sequence (coordinated by the great Bruce Law) that ramps up the peril of both enclosed and wide open spaces. Cheeky sibling assassins Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) damn near had people squealing (you’ll never look at batting practice the same). I may spend the rest of my life chasing the high I got from Berandal.

Greatness doesn’t exist without wackness, but why is it that so many other action movies fall so short of Berandal and the best flicks that I grew up on? On April 4, 2014’s torrent of action blockbusters begins with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it will continue all summer with releases like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Hercules. I’m mildly excited for the Marvel features, mostly for X-Men: Days of Future Past, and I’m genuinely chomping at the bit for Godzilla, but, more often than not, movies that spend 10's and 100’s of millions of dollars on CGI to open up a world of imagination and transfix eyeballs become less striking and less memorable. In my mind’s eye, the colorful blur of Spider-Man swinging through NYC starts to blend with the rolling metal of Transformers demolishing whatever city Michael Bay has decided to level.

Bright filmmakers are capable of creating spectacles practically through brain power. Invention slid out of Necessity’s babymaker, right? Ingenuity always inspires more than throwing money at problems, because we all have nothing. What most of us do not have is $100 million in our back pocket. What Gareth Evans achieved with The Raid and now Berandal will no doubt inspire other creatives to do more with less, to write better characters and stories, to make every penny count. It’s already got one grown-ass man throwing on his Chucks to go practice some silat in the park.

Review by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)

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