Running 148 minutes, Gareth Evans’ sprawling crime actioner The Raid 2 doubles down on the impressive martial arts that were integral to The Raid: Redemption’s success.
Iko Uwais plays Rama, the earnest new rookie cop from The Raid: Redemption, who has just had the worst day of his life and gotten out of a botched raid on a drug den high-rise barely intact. A betrayal by a superior officer from the events of the first movie leave Rama with his faith in the police force shaken. With few he can turn to, Rama approaches a special investigative unit with what he knows.
When asked to go undercover, Rama refuses. He’s not the criminal type and he cannot bring himself to leave his family. That is, until his brother is killed and Rama almost instantaneously changes his mind. What follows is everything a hard R action fan wants.
Rama is largely on defense in The Raid: Redemption, but as an undercover criminal in the second film, he is tasked with a lot of indiscriminate killing. By the end, he works more on the offense, walk-in-a-room-and-kill-all-the-people-in-it type stuff. He spends years in prison to establish his cover. We know that he is a harder, darker Rama afterwards. How he squares his actions internally we may never know.
This character flatness is shared by all the other iconic assassins that the movie supplies. There is a girl who uses hammers and a guy who kills with baseball equipment. The most interesting developments, and where most of the actual agency in this story exists, is between the crime lord Bangun played quietly by Tio Pakusodewo, and his son Uco. Arifin Putra makes the most of his screen time as Uco memorably playing up the crime prince’s seething arrogance.
Their relationship and the conflict between Bangun’s old ways, Uco’s new ambitions, growing opposition from upstart criminals and a long standing treaty with their enemies, is what Rama is thrown into. Rama’s job is to find out about corruption in the city and which police officers are crooked. He barely gets to do anything up this avenue, planting a grand total of one bug and getting zero evidence as far as we can tell in the whole movie. While this leaves room for a third movie and gives us some idea of what’s next, it makes Rama less central and a victim of the story sprawl alongside peripheral characterization.
It’s hard to overstate how violent The Raid 2 really is. Bones shatter into oblong protrusions, at least one face gets blown off, and blunt trauma proliferates in the numerous fist, knife, baseball bat, and hammer based battles in this movie. This is a movie for someone who saw 2009’s Taken and thought that Liam Neeson should take off the kid gloves and really embrace his role of puréeing bad guy flesh into some kind of human smoothie sauce. The Raid 2 will inspire bearded fedora-men everywhere to make and compare lists of “favorite kills.” This is that kind of movie. Suffice it to say you could fill a small lake with the blood shed in this film.
However, lots of violence does not necessarily make good storytelling or action. Luckily for any action fans, Gareth Evans’ camerawork is just as good as the fighters he is filming. While many action films are content to either let the camera sit and watch the beauty of the choreography or cut fast to avoid showing the audience that not much is actually going on, The Raid 2 employs both visually interesting compositions and camera movements that emphasize the best of the action. In particular, the film makes great use of shooting fights from directly above. Early on, 20 guys corner the protagonist in a prison toilet stall and he slowly piles up the bodies behind himself as he dispatches man after man. This particular angle is also used many other times like when Rama finds himself in a car with assailants reaching through all the windows with knives, a similar shot of a fight inside a car during a chase, a prison riot ending with Rama and Uco knocked out in the mud, and another time when someone is killed in a light snow, the victim slumping to the ground and bleeding out into the indent of his killer’s footprints. It is quite striking imagery.
The brutality of events actually helps offset the natural beauty of martial arts choreography. There was never a point that I feared the combatants were just dancing. Fights felt tactical and hits felt painful. The camera sometimes moves as if repercussions of landed strikes reverberate to affect its position, jostling as if struck itself. If any fighter goes through a window or is thrown sideways you can count on the camera to follow and mimic his motion. The action really is superior in The Raid 2 versus The Raid: Redemption. Part of this is the freedom and larger budget production values and locations that were available for the sequel, and it’s worth noting that The Raid 2 has some great looking sets for the actors to be in. Whereas The Raid: Redemption was largely grayish hallways and rundown apartments, The Raid 2 gives a look at the good life that crime provides upper class gang royalty filled with its expensive penthouses, clubs, and fashionable design.
The architecture and look of the two films is a good example of how they differ. The first film was concise. Its first scene is a ticking watch. There is time pressure from the very beginning and the whole film takes place over the course of a single raid into a block apartment complex. Things are shot tight and the camera establishes the building but you never get any grand wide shots. The second film opens with a huge vista and in the corner we see a tiny car and some mobsters getting out of it. The wider shots available here showcase beautiful banquet halls, hotel rooms, and as in the opening shot, the countryside. The Raid 2 has scope that the first movie just does not but it is definitely weakened for how far it stretches. This weakness is mitigated on repeat viewings once focusing on digesting the dialog, largely subtitled, and processing the information you need to know about the plot is less taxing.
All in all, the movies are about equal quality. The first Raid works better for mainstream audiences as a sort of cop movie with a martial arts bonus while the sequel is an all-out martial arts movie with the police aspects taking a back seat to facilitating as many great fights as possible. For someone who is not too keen on martial arts films but is still with me this far in the review, I would suggest catching The Raid: Redemption on Amazon and it will probably convert you or drive you away. Anyone who has seen the first will like the second.