The Raid: Redemption was a mean, lean, ass-kicking machine, with a barebones plot that allowed for its jaw-dropping action choreography to do most of the talking. Indeed, instead of developing characters through dialogue, the story is told almost entirely through brilliantly executed martial arts. Each major character, whether on the side of the police or the side of the mobsters, had a distinct fighting style, an identity, and the longer they fought, the clearer it was. That’s not to say the characterizations were thick or complex, but The Raid: Redemption was the Hemingway of martial arts mayhem. In other words, great impact is caused through simplicity and blunt force. Its genre was the claustrophobic action thriller, which began with Die Hard (although the trope seems so classic surely it predates the action classic), and continued more recently with 2012‘s criminally underrated Dredd. By comparison, its sequel, cleanly titled The Raid 2: Berandal, echoes William Shakespeare. Set on a grand stage, the operatic ambition of the film is evident from the film’s opening shot: a wide shot gazing over a vast, lush field that minimizes humans into small specks in the frame. They’re standing over a recently dug grave that’s waiting to be used. Rather than using Shakespeare outright, it draws from the genre of cinema that might be most indebted to the master of stories, a genre where great families rise and fall almost as much as friends, brothers, and lovers betray one another in the temptation of power: the gangster epic. But don’t let the narrative trappings of the crime genre deceive you, The Raid 2 is a fierce adrenaline rush of action porn on a level you've never seen. The film, like most everyone in it, is a killer.
Borrowing its plot from The Godfather as much as from The Hong Kong favorite Infernal Affairs (which went on to be adapted into The Departed), it thrusts itself to wrestle with the big boys without batting an eye. The Raid 2 was never going to equal its nearly impossible narrative ambitions, but it comes closer than you would think. It’s possible to summarize the plot to The Raid: Redemption in a paragraph without skipping a beat. The Raid 2: Berandal is an exponentially more complex film, where the ins and outs of the narrative may not be totally clear by the film’s end. Part of this is a compliment to writer, editor, and director Gareth Evans’ ability to spin a sophisticated tale, but it’s also because the film occasionally gets lost in its own complexity. Characters come and go without so much as an introduction, so their (admittedly spectacular) deaths defy real meaning. One exception is the tragic portrait of a vagabond assassin, and his small story is emblematic of the script’s wide reach. Unlike The Raid: Redemption, where a rookie chews through the ranks of a closed-in apartment complex full of murderous tenants, The Raid 2 is character first, action second. Action comes as a consequence of the story, not at the expense of it. As a result, the pacing is more relaxed and trusting of its audience to follow its lead, and it’s a considerably more dramatically engaging film because of it.
It’s possible to follow the story of The Raid 2 without having seen the first feature, but it is recommended to see The Raid: Redemption first. Taking place 2 hours after the previous film finished, rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais), now a seasoned killer after the exploits of the first film, has been asked to go deep undercover to exploit corruption in the police force. His mission? Go to prison for several months and infiltrate the Bangun crime family. He’s to gain the notice and friendship of fellow inmate Uco (Arifin Putra), Bangun’s (Tio Pakusodewo) only son and thus heir to the family business. After he gets out, he's to go up the ranks of the crime family. Given the tropes of the story, it isn’t a spoiler to say Rama is successful, following his handler’s advice to cause enough trouble to get noticed, but not enough to be condemned to the hellish conditions of prison forever. His progress is shown in a sequence that perfectly demonstrates Evans’ rule that action is only ever corollary to the plot. The turning point of Rama’s mission occurs in the first of the film’s sensational set pieces. In a massive prison courtyard, two rival prison gangs go to war. The stakes? Rama has to alert Uco he’s looking out for him without making it seem like a contrivance.
The level of planning and choreography in this fight sequence is bewildering. Rama lands what seems like an endless number of powerful strikes, kicks, and flips all within a single a shot, and he makes Jason Bourne look like an amateur MMA enthusiast that’s sluggish after having a couple rounds. It must have taken baffling levels of physical skill and planning to capture this one moment successfully (at least, to my mind), but that isn’t what makes the scene so thrilling. The shot doesn’t cut. It travels from Rama and dips from prisoner to prisoner and duel to duel, each with comparable levels of physical exactitude and mastery. This extended brawl (with a huge number of highly trained extras) is comprised mainly of long takes like this one, and as dazzling as that would be on its own, again, this is not what gives the sequences its real blood pumping power. It’s that this daunting feat of corporeal precision happens in the slippery gunk of feet-deep mud.
Most filmmakers avoid shooting complex choreography in certain environments. Water is one. Mud is another. Why? They’ll slip or slide, and the chance of making a mistake rises a hundredfold. But Gareth Evans laughs at impossibility. He stages his huge riot scene in an unimaginable setting, one executed with extraordinary detail by a massive crowd of muddy extras, and his perfectly controlled handheld camera revels in making it real. His tremendous cast doesn’t skip a beat. It confounds the mind how he and his highly capable cast pulled this off, and it’s a joy that this is only one of several moments that invite this reaction.
Last year’s Gravity had a lengthy opening shot often called a spaceship ballet, a compliment due to the elegance with which spaceships and astronauts maneuvered around one another. The same type of compliment can be paid to The Raid 2, where the elaborate martial arts moves, gruesome and bloody though they can be, often show the intimate exchange of energy depicted in modern dance. The fight scenes are beautiful and even poetic, shown by how fighters exchange emotion through their punches as much as they exchange blood. The prison scene concludes with a high angle shot of the courtyard, and it has a painterly quality: brushstrokes made by bodies, colors mixed with different shades of grey, brown, and rusty red. In The Raid 2, artistry is as important as the buzz from battle.
It’s also important to say the story works on its own. It’s dramatically gripping. Cut away the tremendous action scenes from the film’s core, and you’ll find there’s still plenty pumping life into the film. Its heart is in its characters, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Iko Uwais gives another nuanced and physically stunning performance as Rama, and Arifin Putra plays the slightly psychopathic son of Bangun with enjoyable verve. Really, the film is about these two men most of all, and they carry the weight of the narrative without breaking a sweat. In the words of the hipster youth: there are feels. I’d be remiss not to mention the film’s two characters most likely to please Quentin Tarantino. They both feature names that exhibit their skill set. One goes by the name of Hammer Girl, and, well, use your imagination. The other’s name is Baseball Bat Man, who can hit a baseball right into an enemy’s skull, and one wishes The Bride had a chance to duel them both.
The film’s most jaw-dropping feat of action has so far been unmentioned, and I won’t say much about it or any of the others, though there are four, maybe even five, scenes that are unreservedly up there with the greatest feats of action cinema in the history of cinema. I don’t say that lightly, and I haven’t made a similar claim about any scene from any film in years. Maybe since the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible 4. As the film’s second act finale, Evans has what looks like the most dangerous car chase filmed in decades. The fights move in and out of accelerating cars, and, in one of the film’s most spellbinding moments, the camera tracks from inside one speeding car to inside another. How did he do it? I don’t know, and it’s the rare piece of behind-the-scenes trivia that I don’t want to. Evans captures the magic of moviemaking in a way elusive to most of Hollywood, and flawed though his latest picture is, he’s proven he’s better than Hollywood. Most of it, anyway.