When The Raid: Redemption burst onto the American big screen two years ago, it was akin to watching the great Hong Kong action flicks of the 80s and 90s for the first time all over again. American action films seemed positively slow and lifeless by comparison. The film ruined action movies me for at least six months, so much so that the extremely similar Dredd felt like a hollow knock-off, though I have since warmed to the film considerably. So, to say that I was absolutely salivating at the prospect of a sequel is a bit of an understatement. I needed this movie like a junkie needs a hit.
A sequel to the first Raid is odd. The film is a very self-contained tale that hangs the barest of plots onto some of the finest action choreography done this decade. A bunch of cops storm a building and face heavy resistance and many punches to the face in order to take down a local crime boss. Expanding the narrative is the only way to go from there, another 18 levels of action madness, while undoubtedly amazing would be little more than a retread. Director Gareth Evans expands the story out to positively Scorsese-ian levels. The original was a mean 90 minutes of action, often suffering during the (scant few) non-fight beats. The Raid 2 clocks in at two and a half hours and there are long stretches where nary a punch is thrown. Evans’ aim is less lean, mean martial arts action movie and more epic Asian crime saga. To his credit, the film never drags. He populates the story with (some might say ridiculously) colorful characters and runs the risk of losing sight of what made the first film so special: absurd martial arts mayhem.
The Raid 2 picks up a few hours after the ending of the first one. When his brother, whom he finally reconciled with during the events of the last movie, is killed by a villainous gangster, Rama (Iko Uwais) goes undercover in an attempt not to just take down one punk thug in one building, but the entirety of organized crime in the city. To say that The Raid 2 overcompensates for the original’s lack of story is an understatement. Soon Rama finds himself in an Indonesian prison, aiding Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of one of the top crime lords. Like an an Asian remake of The Departed, the film is populated with the affairs of fathers, sons, double crosses, triple crosses, sleeper agents and, of course, a copious amount of bloodshed (had Scorsese’s Oscar winning opus had Damon and Leo engaged in elaborate fisticuffs…).
Evans’ reach extends his grasp. He has a beautiful eye for visuals and his fight editing is second to none, but there’s so much going on, so many people and subplots, in addition to the extended action scenes, that it overwhelms you until the end, you can’t be quite sure what’s going on, but you’re ready for the ride to be over. Do not mistake me: it’s a hell of a ride, but the various plot digressions and character introductions, such as the supreme badass Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian, who may or may not be Mad Dog from the first film), take away time that could be spent tightening the narrative. Evans is clearly a kid in a candy store. He tosses everything in there. Bitchin visuals? Check. Epic Asian saga? Check. Hot girl with a hammer? Absolutely check. Dude with a baseball bat? Got it. The mini-bosses are memorable, and will inspire dozens of cosplay ideas for years, but they almost belong in a different movie. Not a much different movie mind you, people do take an awful, awful amount of damage before dying, but a different one nonetheless.
The acting is as good as it can be considering the material. Unfortunately, Uwais, who also handles all the choreography for the film, isn’t leading man material. It is so clear that he wants to be Tony Jaa (don’t we all?), but for all of his action chops, he lacks a commanding presence on screen and is overshadowed by nearly everyone else on screen. Everyone else gets to enjoy their emotions and erupt, Rama remains very subdued and almost passive, save for when it’s time to fight, and then he erupts.
And when it’s time to fight, the film holds nothing back. Based heavily on the Indonesian art of pencak silat, you are going to feel every punch and kick thrown. You have never seen such frenetic, ‘holy shit’ action. It blows the original’s choreography out of the water. The highest of highlights is a muddy prison riot that Evans and co film, for a large portion of it, as a single unbroken take, the camera weaving in and out of the dozens of short stories, little bouts, that are swarming around the yard. Men fight and scramble and they die, some horribly. Your reaction will be a mix of cringe-worthiness and ‘man, wasn’t that awesome?’. At two and a half hours, the originality of the action starts to wear down. There is a lot of the tired ‘group of bad guys attack hero one at a time’ trope that is so often lampooned in Asian action cinema, but Evans keeps the pace quick enough and the violence brutal enough that it doesn’t affect overall enjoyment. The car chase, an addition previously unavailable to the filmmakers, is a shot in the arm, a wake up call. This Evans guy is the real deal and if he ever crosses shores, I look forward to seeing what mayhem he can drum up with a budget.
Calling something ‘the greatest action film ever’ when it has only been out in theaters for three weeks is a difficult proposition. No doubt The Raid 2 is a contender, but only time will tell. The action moments, all of them, are glorious, and while the rest of the film moves along at a decent clip and gets you caring just enough about the remaining characters, filling them with nuance, there’s an awful lot to get through to get to the action portion of ‘action film’. As for now, if you need a two and a half hour ass-whooping, blood-letting, fist-crunching, bone smashing, gun-shooting, knife-wielding, car-chasing adventure that threatens to spill off the screen and into the theater and then pummel you as it makes its way out to the parking lot, then The Raid 2 is absolutely the film for you. Best ever? Hard to say. Best of the year? Oh, it is absolutely a contender.