The Raid: Redemption – or, as any rational human being calls it, simply The Raid – was a bit of a revelation. An exercise in simplicity, buffed out to hulking proportions, the tale of a SWAT team trapped in a building filled top to bottom with criminals who wanted them dead. There was a pleasing matter of factness to the premise, and an intensity to the action that could only be described as relentless. To a fault.
Director Gareth Evans may have had a refreshingly clean, easy to follow approach to the filming, but his pacing was an assault on the senses that left one exhausted. It was the good kind of exhaustion, the kind you might experience after a marathon orgy, but it just kept going, and going, until one felt like politely suggesting that The Raid: Redemption should take a nap 2/3’s of the way through. Dredd, released later that year, exploited the same basic set-up but knew to take a breather now and again, so the action – though not as superlative as The Raid’s – would mean something when it picked up again. It’s the superior movie, perhaps, but not as memorable an experience.
With The Raid 2, Evans has grown up a little, expanded his repertoire and learned a valuable lesson about telling a story between all the outrageous fight choreography. That story is a by the numbers undercover cop tale, the kind familiar to anyone who’s seen a movie or two within the genre, but Evans treats it with the same respect as he does his countless punch and kick combos. It’s a slick production, finely acted, and shot with a painterly, almost Kubrickian attention to composition and smart transitions. It takes too long to get going, we don’t need nearly as many time jumps and exposition scenes to establish that Rama (Iko Uwais), the surviving hero of The Raid, is trying to infiltrate a mob, but once it does The Raid 2 moves beautifully, stopping just long enough once in a while to remind us why we should care before the action explodes.
There aren’t enough combustion metaphors to describe the eclectic and dynamic fight sequences in The Raid 2. Dynamite, detonate, boom… is kablooey a verb? Because the action is the kablooiest. The Raid 2 finds excuses to stage elaborate, gory and downright uncanny fisticuffs, including a prison riot inside a giant mud pit, a close quarters melee in a speeding car, and multiple instances of a single combatant doing away with a small army of assailants, emerging thoroughly scathed though mostly victorious, in a fashion just plausible enough to excite but exactly broad enough to feel superheroic.
The highlight of The Raid 2’s genius would be a sequence largely divorced from Rama’s own story, in which he befriends the son of a gangster whose ambition threatens to destroy the entire family. When said douchebag, Uco (Arifin Putra), makes a deal with a rival gangster Bejo (Alex Abbad) to start a war between his father’s family and the Japanese, Bejo sends his two assassins out into the world to take out high profile targets and force the Japanese to retaliate. Said enforcers are Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman, the most Tri Yulisman of all), Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman). Gareth Evans intercuts between their ruthlessly efficient murder sprees with ruthless determination and a disturbingly consistent momentum.
But The Raid 2 has to culminate in an actual raid, presumably to justify the title (it’s The Exorcist III all over again). By the time Rama has been pushed too far and begins ascending a luxurious hotel, dispatching one supervillain enforcer after another in an intricate game of death, The Raid 2 has cast its spell. The story may still feel like The Departed but the experience is uniquely Evans’ own: an impossibly slick production with the weight of a real drama, familiar though it is, and the impression of a punch to the face, followed by another punch to the face, and a knife sliding up and down your chest. The killing blows of The Raid 2 offer sweet release in the form of audible gasps and the unshakable awareness that we are watching something special, the evolution of a filmmaker who has somehow crafted something at once delicate and definitively violent.
Shades of early John Woo, reimagining the trajectories of bullets as melodramatic ballet, are easy to find and decidedly on point. With The Raid 2 Evans has escalated action filmmaking the same way that the gun fu classics The Killer and Hard Boiled did back at the turn of the 1990s. It now falls to everyone else in the action movie business to play catch up.