[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The Raid 2 opens today in limited release.]
When Gareth Evans’ The Raid premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, audiences were floored. It was as if someone had smacked us in the face about 800 times, and showed us that the action being churned out by Hollywood wasn’t half as effective as it could be. No amount of CGI could ever pack the punch of a perfectly choreographed, perfectly shot, and perfectly edited fight scene. The original’s barebones plot allowed the movie to mainline the action and get the adrenaline pumping. It also created high expectations for The Raid 2. Whereas the first movie was mean and lean, the sequel is epic and explosive with a twisting crime drama serving as the backdrop for some of the best action scenes you’ll ever see. The violence is brutal; the set pieces are brilliant; and the movie hits so hard that your grandchildren will have bruises.
Picking up where the first film left off, Rama (Iko Uwais) has brought in corrupt cop Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), and is now being offered the chance to go after the big fish that are ruining the city. He’s reluctant to join the cause, but when the increasingly powerful gangster Bejo (Alex Abbad) kills Rama’s brother, the super cop agrees to go undercover and bring down crime boss Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo). Rama goes into prison, befriends Bangun’s son Uco (Arifin Putra), and once they’re released, he gets into the organization. However, Uco’s reckless ambition sets up a series of double-crosses that threaten to engulf the underworld in an all-out war. Also, there’s a lot of fighting and even a car chase.
From its opening shot, Evans signals The Raid 2 will be bigger. The first movie was in the close quarters of a rundown tower. The sequel opens with a wide shot of a green field with storm clouds hanging overhead, and in the foreground we see an open grave waiting for an unknown victim. It’s a nice, subtle way of informing the audience that death will still be prevalent, but this time we’ll be working from a much larger canvas. That canvas not only applies to the action, but to the narrative.
Because action is the driving force of the film and the reason people are even showing up in the first place, Evans decides to make the story as big as the set pieces. It’s almost difficult to keep up with the various players, motives, and double-crosses as Uco and Bejo maneuver to wrest control of the city away from Bangun and fellow crime boss Mr. Goto (Ken’ichi Endô). Eventually, the larger story begins to become convoluted, and poor Rama starts getting lost in the shuffle. The action is so big that the fights need fights, and we’re watching people we don’t know brutally murder other people we don’t know. The plot doesn’t get foreshadowing, but the fights do. Evans has no pretentions about The Raid 2, but the plot always feels like dressing on the blood-splattered window.
Like the first movie, the story is serviceable enough to get to the action scenes, and taken solely on the basis of the individual set pieces, The Raid 2 is one of the greatest action movies ever made. It’s a movie where afterwards you’ll argue with your friends about which set piece was the best. Maybe it was the prison riot in the mud, or maybe it was the car chase/fight scene hybrid, or maybe it was the slaughter on a subway car featuring a character whose name is (I kid you not), “Hammer Girl” (guess what she uses).
They’re all masterful and it all comes down to preference. The fight in the mud is impressive for the technical skill involved since mud isn’t going to agree with complex fight choreography, and I was wondering how many takes it took for Evans to get some of the longer shots. The car chase is unlike anything we’ve ever seen as Evans puts fights inside of vehicles and then uses the vehicles and the road as weapons. The Hammer Girl sequence is noteworthy for its bloody violence, and that’s saying something in a film that should easily get an NC-17 from the MPAA (assuming they choose to actually exercise common sense). It is gory beyond all reason, and these are only three of the film’s numerous fight scenes.
Evans is clearly one of the best action directors working today, but to tack on “action” is slightly dismissive of his immense talent. He treats his action movie like a composer treats music, and as any musician will tell you, the silence between the notes is just as important as the notes themselves. Even when the film is going through the motions of forwarding the plot, the visuals are still lush and vibrant, and the use of sound is phenomenal. Action is Evans’ element, and his technical bravado is abundantly clear in the set pieces, but viewers should also admire what he does outside of the fights.
He lets us know every time we’re about to head into a set piece. We can feel the action start to rise, and every time I had that feeling, a big, goofy grin spread across my face. On my way back to the hotel after the screening, I did a bit of soul searching about why I found such gratuitous violence so exhilarating, but then I decided not to wrack my brain over why I should feel guilty about this enjoyable experience. If you ever sit next to me during this movie, be prepared for me to actually move my body with some of the hits, and shout “Oh!” and “Oof!” on a regular basis. Evans’ mixture of editing, choreography, cinematography, and sound is too powerful to deny. The fact that he has a cast of immensely talented performers led by the exceptional Uwais doesn’t hurt either. The hurt comes from what the cast does on screen.
The Raid 2 subscribes to the sequel school of “Bigger Is Better”, and since the action in the first movie could already be described as “insane”, “more insane” isn’t a great description. Evans has far surpassed the original in terms of action, and his attempt to match the scope of the sequel’s story with the size of the set pieces is admirable, although it ultimately ends up becoming a distraction. However, that’s a minor complaint because while I can point out the story’s shortcomings, I can’t deny the film’s pure, visceral impact. It’s been over two hours since I saw The Raid 2, and my blood is still pumping and my nerves are still vibrating.