There’s a long tradition of cultural cross-fertilization in action cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics influenced Sam Peckinpah’s westerns. John Woo’s Hong Kong gangland dramas echo styles and themes of French New Wave crime stories. Quentin Tarantino movies are barefaced orgies of multinational references.
So perhaps it’s fitting that the hottest talent on the international action scene is a Jakarta-based Welshman making Indonesian martial-arts flicks. Gareth Huw Evans is presently known only to a small band of cultish diehards, but he’s about to become a household name.
Delivering the kick-start for his fame is “The Raid 2,” the follow-up to his blistering 2012 breakthrough hit “The Raid.” The first film was a nonstop melee following a SWAT team through a high-rise full of bad guys.
The sequel, opening in Twin Cities theaters Friday, follows its two-fisted star, Iko Uwais, through an expansive “Godfather”-style saga of corruption, betrayal and warring crime families. Its bone-cracking fights sprawl across the entire city of Jakarta, from a mud-slick prison yard to careering autos to subway cars. Like its predecessor, “The Raid 2” was a smash at the Sundance Film Festival. Evans and I spoke there following the film’s January premiere.
“My dad pushed film into my life since I was a very young boy,” said Evans, who was born in 1980. “We watched a lot of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films together. Living in Wales, it was hard to find those movies, so he always searched around in video stores for the VHS tapes. He would always screen it first, even if it was something like ‘Commando,’ to make sure there wasn’t anything too strong for us, and when the film was finished, he’d always talk to us about the moral side of it. That was his responsibility as a parent and something I’ve always lived with.”
Evans’ wife is Indonesian-Japanese, and his in-laws live in Indonesia. Hired to do a documentary about the nation’s culture and its indigenous martial art, pencak silat, he moved to Indonesia for six months. “I kind of became obsessed by it,” he said. “I never thought I’d make a movie about it. I always thought I’d make European art-house movies.” But by the time he completed the documentary, he had met the remarkably athletic, camera-ready Uwais and had a mental outline for a thriller showcasing Indonesia’s unique style of combat.
“Silat was only on television, represented in a really terrible, mystical way. People jumping or flying in the air, turning into dragons or jaguars,” he said. “I wanted to do something that made it real again, which made you feel the real danger of the martial art.”
Uwais became an instant celebrity after starring in “Merentau,” his first movie with Evans. It also revived Indonesia’s action-film genre, which had been dormant since the 1970s. Evans’ movies, entering a film market that had neglected martial arts for years, found eager audiences across Asia.
Though he bonded with his father over their shared love of thundering fists and flying pigtails, Evans stressed that “I’m not a violent person. I’ve been in two fights in my entire life, as a kid. I won one.”
He sees film violence as “all make-believe.” Evans said he can’t watch ultimate fighting matches “because the idea of somebody on the floor, being hit repeatedly, bothers me.” While he concedes that his “aggressive” style of filmmaking “will play repugnantly to some people,” he argues that it’s every individual’s responsibility to make appropriate viewing choices and avoid what bothers them.
“Movie violence is choreographed. It’s allowed to be fun. It’s fake, escapism, a release from the normality of life,” Evans said. To create that illusion, he has put himself at considerable risk. Filming a car chase for his new film, Evans was nearly crushed by an SUV rocketing in front of his camera rig at top speed.
The audience reaction to such moments delights Evans. “It’s like in a horror film when there’s a jump moment, then a flitter of laughter. They’re not laughing that someone got slashed. They’re laughing because a roomful of people jumped, and you felt the same. It’s a good feeling.”
Evans still relies on his father’s input where film violence is concerned. “Every time I write a script, he’ll read it, every draft. Every cut of the film, he’ll preview it and give me comments on it. I put a credit at the end of the film to thank him for it. As long as I haven’t offended my dad, I’m OK.”
Evans hopes to avoid typecasting as an action filmmaker. “I’d love to do an old-school dance movie. I’m not interested in break dancing. For me, it would be like something from the olden days. I love the aesthetic of it. In a weird way, which negates what I’ve been doing in my movies, making the camera roll around to find the perfect shot, I love those ones where the camera just stays back to watch a guy dance. When you see that in one uninterrupted take, there’s something magical about it. With two fighters, shifting around and blocking the view, it’s harder.”