The first Raid movie (known in the United States as The Raid: Redemption) was a burst of pure, unfiltered adrenaline. Simplistic story, archetypal characters, lengthy fight scenes that stood out for being both painfully gruesome and wonderfully original. It was rightly received, by action junkies and film fans alike, as a modern masterpiece. The Raid 2 does not live up to the hype. But only because the hype is massive; director Gareth Evans takes his audience on a more roundabout route than expected but still manages to deliver one of the most enthralling action movies in recent memory.
First, the bad. Evans, who apparently went the bare-bones route with Redemption due to budgetary restrictions, used this sequel as an opportunity to indulge; as those things often go, that's not a good thing. There's no need for an action movie to be two-and-a-half hours, even if the bulk of those 150 minutes are spent in fantastic battles to the death. The first hour is largely setup with a few fun scenes mixed in; even if the final 90 bring us home with a bang, that's still a lot of sitting around.
And the straightforwardness of the first Raid is lost within the first three minutes; the plot bounces around, from present to future and character to character, asking you to remember faces and places and who hates whom. This is not a lot to ask, but it's also not entirely necessary. We embraced the original in part because it cut right to the chase; The Raid 2 chooses a windier path.
That's not to say the movie is hard to follow; the plot is actually standard action fare. After an out-of-context opening scene, seemingly designed to reward those who watched Redemption within the last 24 hours, we once again follow Rama (Iko Uwais) as he attempts to infiltrate the mob and expose the crooked cops who set the original's plot in motion. Because this is The Raid 2, that means kicking a whole bunch of people in the head.
This is where Evans shines. As the writer-director-editor of both Raid movies, he did not invent close-quarters combat in feature films. But he has perfected it. Our characters do battle in a prison bathroom, a SUV, narrow alleys throughout Jakarta. But he's not only a master of small spaces; we're also treated to brawls in a loading dock, a kitchen, a prison courtyard-turned-muddy lake.
Faces are smashed, throats are slit, legs and arms are broken in many different ways. Yet Evans doesn't bask in the blood for blood's sake, like an Eli Roth. The Raid 2 is not murder porn or even action porn; it's relentless combat between trained warriors, almost entirely hand-to-hand, and a celebration of pencak silat, the Indonesian martial art practiced by Uwais. The fight scenes feel like what would actually happen if vicious gangsters and expert martial artists squared off; they would beat and stab each other to death in a very violent manner. Innocents are rarely, if ever, harmed. Evans has a code in his work, and a method to his madness.
And his methods are astounding. It's hard to choose between Uwais's relentlessness, Evans's masterful camerawork or the unending inventiveness of his choreography team as the key ingredient that makes the magic happen, but you've never seen fast-paced yet easy-to-follow action quite like what both Raid movies bring to the table. A week after seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where the action is frenetic but the camera seems unwilling to commit, it's refreshing to see a director who meticulously crafts detailed, lengthy, visceral action sequences with what feels like creative abandon. And Uwais's Rama never feels otherworldly; no one (within the movie or in the audience) ever wonders why this one man can survive the endless foes thrown against him. He just does; he outlasts everyone with a inexplainable dose of concentrated realism. And it's a tribute to everyone involved with The Raid 2 that we're on the edge of our seats the entire time.
On my way out of the theater, a man stopped me to chat about the movie. At first it seemed like he was there with his wife, but he walked with me alone to the exit. Perhaps, as my girlfriend noted later, she was disgusted that he'd brought her to such an ill-chosen date movie. Regardless, he couldn't stop raving about what we just saw.
"I still can't believe my eyes!" he exclaimed. "I'm gonna have to see that goddamn thing again!"
I'm not sure I'd join him in paying $12.50 for another go-around. But I did agree wholeheartedly that, yes, The Raid 2 must be seen to be believed.