Written and directed by Gareth Evans
If there is an art to the visceral brutality of cinematic violence, Gareth Evans may well be one of the new masters. His breakout 2012 feature, The Raid: Redemption, was a master class of simplicity, placing a rookie cop (Iko Uwais) in the middle of a high-rise apartment building full of criminals who are all ordered to kill him and his colleagues by the drug lord who reigns supreme on the top floor. That was all the plot Evans needed to craft an expert martial-arts action film, and it worked marvelously. The easy route for a sequel, perhaps, would be to offer more of the same: maybe a bigger building, or more fearsome bad guys in a similarly contained setting. Instead, The Raid 2 shifts into a different, more expansive, but no less relentlessly violent gear.
After his exploits in the high-rise, young Rama is sought after by an older cop who heads up a unit tasked with taking down corrupt cops and political officials. At first, Rama begs off, but when his brother’s mercilessly gunned down within the first 10 minutes of this new story, he takes the job in part to help exact revenge on his sibling’s murderer. So Rama is placed undercover, going to prison so he can get close to Uco (Arifin Putra), the callow and impetuous son of Bangun, the top mob boss in Jakarta. As Rama gets closer, he finds himself at the center of an impending gang war in which he may be overmatched by a fair deal. Much more so than with The Raid: Redemption, Evans fleshes out the characters supporting Rama; there’s a fair chunk of the second act where the focus shifts to Uco and his potential new partner Bejo, with Rama appearing only on the sidelines.
But, of course, anyone who saw The Raid: Redemption knows that what matters most of all here are the action sequences. Evans doesn’t shy away from letting blood rain down upon his characters, and though there may be a different ratio of action scenes to non-action scenes—The Raid 2 is 148 minutes long, a great deal longer than its predecessor, but with more dialogue than fighting—these setpieces are no less impressive and no less exhausting. Thanks, in no small part, to Evans’ up-close style of shooting, every punch that lands on screen might as well be landing on your own body in the theater; every kick is accompanied by a wince, every slash of a knife or other sharp object striking an equally painful blow. And even if each hit didn’t feel especially tough or rough (the sound editing and effects teams had their work cut out for them), there’s no shortage of gore in the numerous fight scenes. Mostly, Evans wisely has chosen not to replicate and hopefully top what success he had in the original; the memorable scenes here aren’t echoes of the past, but they are plenty horrific nonetheless. (A sprawling early fight in a rainy prison yard which calls to mind the muddy faux-reenactments in an early Monty Python sketch, as well as a montage of battles between Bejo’s gang and their rivals, are contenders for the most gruesome and grim scenes.)
The story around these sequences mixes and matches with a number of crime-drama tropes, from the undercover cop sweating the possibility that he’ll be found out, either by his own mistake or someone else’s inadvertent slip-up; to the spurned child who lashes out at his father in unhealthy and damaging fashion; and so on. These scenes work less because Evans is reinventing the wheel, and more because his cast is as able in dramatic scenes as when they’re trying to kill each other. Uwais, because of the demands of the role, is more low-key and internal, even more so than in the original; a flaw of his backstory is that we only get one or two reminders that he has a family–a young wife and child–on the outside. He does a fine job making that motivation clear when he has to, but it’s strangely infrequent. And Putra, in a more complex and outsized role, is a highlight, a young man who acts cocky on the surface but is clearly in the grips of crippling guilt, anger, and neuroses. There are, admittedly, a few moments around the action highlights where the drama flags slightly, but the editing (also courtesy of Evans) allows the film to move at a solid clip throughout, making it so any minor dip in tension is compensated for soon after with bloodletting of some kind or another.
The Raid 2 is, as most sequels are expected to be, bigger; if audiences responded positively to the action in The Raid: Redemption, its follow-up is happy to give them more of that action. Each time Iko Uwais has to kick, punch, jab, stab, or shoot his way out of a scenario, those physical movements are felt in the most violent and unrelenting ways. Gareth Evans has, in this anticipated second installment, delivered a truly grim and vicious picture. Without evincing an overload of shaky handheld cinematography, he has managed to make us feel like we’re next to Rama in an SUV, fighting his way out; or battling in the hallway next to a stylish kitchen; or grappling with violent inmates in a rainy climate. There is a primal, near-primordial sense to the battles, inward and outward, in The Raid 2; it’s too painful to cheer at the mental and physical violence waged in this film, but then, that seems to be the point.
— Josh Spiegel