Evans Matches 'Redemption' With Brutal, Resolute 'Raid 2'

Directed by: Gareth Evans; Runtime: 150 minutes
Grade: B+

In all its lengthy and bloody glory, The Raid 2 ends up being about as reputable of an answer to the question, "How could Gareth Evans top The Raid?", as one can imagine, which is no small feat. With a budget just barely north of a million dollars, the director orchestrated a furiously-paced rush of adrenaline with the original, based on the constrained geography of a narrow apartment building, the unyielding threat of organized gangsters populating its near-dilapidated floors, and the intensity of Indonesia's pencak silat martial-arts style. For this sequel, Evans doesn't take the easy way out by shoving lead-character Rama into a second traditional "raid" on yet another building, instead using the original film's success as a springboard for developing a thematically richer, if familiar detour into the realm of obligatory undercover police work. The gory, relentless action that hallmarked the first returns in these elevated stakes, culminating into one of the year's hardest-hitting action films.

Evans didn't initially intend for this story to branch off from The Raid: Redemption, though, modifying a script that he'd been previously developing into an extension of the first film's narrative. You wouldn't know it by the way the plot elements weave together: in a roundabout way, the events in The Raid 2 occur mere hours after Rama (Iko Uwais) -- and a few other surviving officers -- made it out of the apartment building on the steam of his martial-arts training, armed with recorded evidence and looking for legal blood against corrupt cops. Given the sensitivity of the material, he meets with a trusted member of a covert internal affairs task force, who presents Rama with the opportunity to investigate the city's organized crime and police force ... at a price. To do this, he'll have to covertly land himself in prison and build a relationship with the son, Uco (Arifin Putra), of one of the city's prominent drug lords, Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), in hopes that the stint in jail will put him in a trusted recon position against the factions, dirty cops, and another rogue crime lord, Bejo (Alex Abbad).

The polished simplicity of the original has been abandoned for larger, more dynamic aspirations in The Raid 2, broadening the scale and emotional tempo by taking Evans' brand of action outside the confines of a single building. Evans attacks his story with observable influences from other films featuring long-job undercover cops and power shifts in criminal organizations: there's a lot of Infernal Affairs in its DNA, along with Scorsese-like gangster depictions and the stylistic flair of South Korean revenge cinema. He's also ruthless in the lengths he's gone to elevate the stakes around Rama and to give the story its own merits, swiftly annihilating several key characters in the film's first couple of minutes and glimpsing at a distressed Rama trapped in his dark prison cell with only his fury to keep him company. Where The Raid was dark on a physical and perfunctory level through thug mercilessness, the sequel takes the hero's mentality into bleaker terrain as he chooses to sacrifice his livelihood -- and push his boundaries -- for the sake of his family and the desire to clean up the city.

Once The Raid 2 moves out of the prison and into Indonesia's urban jungle -- shared between Uco's father's organization and the Japanese yakuza -- the plot twists and turns towards conflict built around the third-party manipulation of the territory's major players, with Rama as the rookie underling who's observing and caught in the machinations. Evans' dedication to establishing an engaging backbone for the resulting action is to be commended, especially for a martial-arts film, where he explores Uco's hasty desire for responsibility and the personal sacrifices Rama makes to protect his identity. That said, the plot also sprawls across two-and-a-half hours of largely foreseeable conclusions to its (figurative) backstabbing and the personal nature of family-owned organized crime, needlessly dragging out the storytelling through scenes of karaoke gone wrong and mustache-twirling plan discussion. Also, the film dips into almost Tarantino-esque caricatures with its villains this time around, namely a mute girl wielding hammers and a guy who uses baseballs and a bat as his weapons of choice. This uptick in entertainment value and dramatic complexity comes at the expense of some of the vivid, genuine energy powering the original, even becoming a tad puzzling when one major actor returns for a new role (even if his fighting capabilities become a welcome sight).

Despite juggling this extended runtime (which was even longer early on in the editing process), Gareth Evans clearly understands momentum and the necessity for visceral beats, which the film delivers in spades whenever its action-film adrenaline, especially its kinetic choreography, takes over. The stark appearance of The Raid's nearly-grayscale aesthetic has been replaced by vividly grimy, visceral imagery in the prison -- including a dazzling mud-drenched brawl -- and the syndicate's ramshackle production buildings, as well as the faintly glamorous settings of a stylish restaurant and multi-floor nightclub. Along with brightly-lit stretches of subway trains and streets in Indonesia, the versatility of these locations in The Raid 2 surround Evans' signature bloodshed with touches of inventive splendor, where clever photography and tight editing elevate its rapid punches, spilling blood, and traumatized flesh into an unexpectedly artful collage of carnage. The martial-arts brawls appear just as weighty and credible as the original, only with engaging shifts in geography that keep the violence fresh, including one insane chain of car-chase sequences.

Evans proves that he knows how to end his films, too, as The Raid 2 caps off its interwoven scenes of combat and gangster drama with a brutally gripping finale, merrily reflecting on the strengths of the original film's premise while systematically, if unsurprisingly, tying up the sequel's loose ends. While the extent of Rama's capabilities and limitations swing somewhat arbitrarily based on the demands of the story, Iko Uwais' intense gazes and fluid, terse movements against his aggressors reinforce the perception that he's this weather-worn force of nature who -- even with a heaving chest and scattered wounds across his body -- could feasibly land the blows he delivers. What started out as a detached story from the universe of The Raid transforms into an admirable evolution in his character once everything's said and done, with the door still left wide open for another sequel regardless of the immense finality of what goes down. While the next film could benefit from a more concise runtime, Evans and the Merantau crew have proven their mettle in such a way with The Raid 2 that I'm greatly anticipating a comparable follow-up.

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