First the good news. The Raid 2 expands on its predecessor in almost every possible way. The scope is way broader, the fistfights and melees are way crazier, and the title is even more inaccurate — whereas 2012’s The Raid: Redemption did manage to shoehorn in a plot thread about somebody getting redeemed, Raid 2 features nothing that could strictly speaking be called a “raid.” Which is fine. A sequel whose implicit mission brief is to outdo one of the greatest action films of our young century can’t afford to get hung up on semantics. There are fans to be serviced. You want to see Welsh action auteur Gareth Evans’s first car chase — which, in true Evans style, is a car chase that also includes a full-on backseat fistfight, and unfolds in a series of hanging-out-the-window handheld shots you won’t believe didn’t cost the production the price of a Red camera or the life of a DP? You got it. You want to see Halloween 2014’s Gogo Yubari today? Meet Julie Estelle as the mute assassin ID’d in the credits only as “Hammer Girl,” who looks like she walked out of a J-pop version of Oldboy. Even Yayan Ruhian, who played a merciless henchman named “Mad Dog” in the first film and died at the end, gets to come back as a new character, fighting off a 50-man ambush in a two-story disco while sporting an amazing wig that makes him look like Gandalf the Homeless.
Maybe I should back up. Maybe you’ve chosen thus far to deny yourself the subtle pleasures of the original Raid. Maybe you’re waiting to share it with the guy or gal you’re gonna marry. All you really need to know is this: It’s a movie about a squad of Jakarta policemen who attempt an unsanctioned assault on a grimy high-rise apartment building controlled by a murderous drug lord and a small army of thugs. This plan goes smoothly for the first few minutes, and then very, very badly thereafter, leaving the remaining cops — including a rookie officer named Rama, played by Iko Uwais — to shoot and punch and kick and groin-knee their way out of a succession of ever-tighter spots. And at some point there’s redemption. Shot for just $1.1 million — reportedly less than the cost per minute of the third Transformers sequel — the original Raid was an ingeniously staged fight flick that understood its limitations and worked bloody, femur-shattering magic within those constraints. It was the best worst-day-ever movie since Black Hawk Down and the best Die Hard–in-a-building movie since, well, Die Hard. Even the addition of a score by one of the dweebs from Linkin Park couldn’t ruin it.
Great backstory, too: Evans married an Indonesian Japanese woman, quit a job producing web content for people learning Welsh, and moved with his wife to Jakarta. While working on a documentary about the Indonesian martial-arts discipline known as pencak silat, he discovered the man who’d become his muse: Uwais, a compactly built silat champion who was working a day job driving a delivery truck for the phone company. Evans cast Uwais as a Sumatran wanderer who runs afoul of human traffickers in 2009’s cult hit Merantau; Uwais and costar Ruhian choreographed the fights, as they would on both Raid movies. Initially, Evans hoped to follow Merantau with an epic prison-gang film called Berandal, which sounds exotic and mysterious until you learn that it’s Indonesian for “thugs.” When that project proved prohibitively expensive, he knocked out a script for a self-contained, low-budget film in which 20 cops ill-advisedly kick a high-rise hornet’s nest.
The Raid, released in the U.S. in 2012, was easily my favorite action movie of that year. My second-favorite action movie of that year was Dredd, which came out months later but was basically the exact same story, except with Karl Urban as a scowling, helmeted futurecop. Since the Alex Garland script for Dredd had been kicking around on the Internet for a while, it’s not totally clear who had the idea first. Maybe it’s just a moving, universal story that everyone who’s ever been in love can relate to, just like Assault on Precinct 13 or Donkey Kong, the archetypal narrative of a lone man trying to level up while the man upstairs throws shit at him. Or who knows, maybe Evans did steal the idea. Who cares? Beating your, um, inspiration into theaters on a fraction of the budget is kind of the greatest trick an exploitation-film can pull off, especially if the movie’s also better.
Raid 2 begins with the widest shot in the history of the franchise — a lush, green sugarcane field under threatening clouds. It’s a lovely image, even taking into account the freshly dug grave in the lower-left-hand corner of the frame, where one of the few plot threads left over from Redemption will momentarily be buried. It’s been two hours since the end of the first film, and Rama’s bruises haven’t healed, but the hard-ass anticorruption task force commander wants to put him back out in the field. Specifically, the hard-ass anticorruption task force commander wants him to fake his own death and enter prison under an alias, in order to infiltrate a powerful Jakarta crime syndicate and catch it paying off dirty cops.
If we know one thing about Rama from the first movie — and basically we do only know this one thing, because Evans does not exactly lavish his characters with meaningful backstory — it’s that he has a pregnant wife at home. So of course he says no! Because when some guy you’ve never met before shows up with a mustache and tries to pitch you the same “you-won’t-paid-like-a-regallah-coughp” idea Martin Sheen talked Leonardo DiCaprio into in The Departed, you say no. But then someone close to him turns up dead at the syndicate’s hands, so he says yes! And goes to jail, under the name “Yuda,” for two years, which gives Evans an excuse to pack his whole prison movie into a few short, gloriously insane scenes.
The appetizer involves an unarmed Rama fighting an entire cellblock’s worth of screaming prisoners who want to murder him without ever leaving his bathroom stall; the main course is an exercise-yard riot that makes the bathroom-stall scene look polite. By that point Rama’s started cozying up to Uco (Arifin Putra), whose father Bangun runs half of Jakarta’s underworld. One rainy day, he takes down a prisoner who’s about to shiv Uco in the yard, and suddenly a bunch of guys covered in mud are fighting a bunch of other guys covered in mud. And yet it’s never hard to tell what’s happening to whom, because the choreography — all the choreography, both the fight itself and the way Evans moves us through it — tells the story so elegantly. The camera’s moving the way a participant in the brawl might, but it never succumbs to Bourne-y incoherence. Evans has real martial artists committing real non-CGI’d acts of pretend violence in these shots and wants us to know it; it’s as if he’s developed a post-post-Bourne action-scene grammar just to let his stuntmen stunt.
Uco stands to inherit Bangun’s empire when his father dies, but because that’s taking too long, he’s also conspiring with a half-Arab gangster named Bejo, who wants to provoke a war between the Bangun crew and its chief rival, a Japanese mob family run by Goto (Takashi Miike regular Ken’ichi Endô). The police corruption angle falls by the wayside in favor of a sprawling and often discontinuous narrative, like Kinji Fukasaku’s absurdly convoluted “Yakuza Papers” films from the ’70s, whose general claustrophobic craziness this movie could have used a little more of. Meanwhile the soundtrack thrums with ambient boiler-room noise, as if Jakarta itself is some vast infernal machine that’s about to blow a gasket. At one point, someone tells Rama that “none of us are spiders — we’re just a small part of a big fucking web,” which I think is symbolism indicating that there’s going to be a Raid 3.
The problem is that all these new layers of plot don’t add much in the way of emotional impact or moral conflict. Without the built-in structure and tension of the high-rise setting, it’s suddenly really clear that none of these characters are exactly scintillating company, except maybe Uco, who Putra turns into a memorable psycho-Hamlet douche. Rama’s supposed to have two personalities — the family-man cop and Yuda, the goon — but there’s no evidence he has even one. (I blame the script and not Uwais, but I admit that’s mostly because after only two movies, Uwais is kind of becoming my Liam Neesons.) In a 101-minute action movie like The Raid: Redemption, stripping character development down to bullet points feels almost virtuous, like cutting down on carbs; The Raid 2 is two-and-a-half hours long, and at that length the flatness just feels parsimonious. Does it make Rama sick to fuck people up for money? Does he actually enjoy it a little? Is every cop a criminal, and every sinner a saint? Shouldn’t Rama have felt bad about melting that guy’s face on a hot stove even before the guy turned out to be a plainclothes cop? And most important, what is this experience doing to him, and can it ever be undone? That last question seems like it should be the crux of the movie; instead it’s barely a story beat between beatdowns.
But good heavens, what beatdowns they are. If all you want from a movie is one elaborately-yet-viscerally-staged scene after another of folks really going to town on each other with their fists and feet, not to mention clubs, knives, bats, hammers, bottles, chairs, cleverly hidden shotguns, and the occasional watercooler jug — and I will never judge anybody for only wanting that from a movie like this — you will limp away from this one feeling dopey and vicariously bruised, in a good way. And if you’re determined enough to find the humanity in this movie, maybe it’s right here, in these fights. There’s an elegance to them, even a kind of poetry, like a tango might break out at any moment. This is an absurdly violent film, but it’s too in love with the physical genius of its actors to really feel sadistic. We’re one week out from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the official start of CGI-movie season; Raid 2 is far from perfect, but savor its artisanal violence while you can.