Action movies that hit with the blunt force impact of The Raid don't come around often. When the film arrived two years ago it causes an immediate shockwave that rippled throughout the festival circuit (I kind of loved it) and eventually into the sweaty hands of eager genre fans, becoming an instant classic. That kind of success and fan devotion comes with expectations for the sequel; damn near impossible expectations, really. But not only has director Gareth Evans met those expectations with The Raid 2; he's put together one of the great sequels in recent history.
Part of what made The Raid a success was the simplicity of it; toss a bunch of cops and bad guys in a tower apartment and watch the fur (and bullets) fly. Evans has greater ambitions for The Raid 2, taking it out into the open air and adding a murky mafia plot that seems ripped out of a John Woo movie. While expanding the story is a welcome change, there's no doubt it removes some of the immediacy. The constant threat of danger isn't always there, in favor of a great deal of set-up. Clocking in at over 150 minutes, the 30 minutes of tough-guy talk is a little tiresome but is a blip in the overall scheme of things.
Taking place mere minutes after the prior film, Rama (Iko Uwais) is still covered in blood and bruises when he comes to realize his mission to root out police corruption has only just begun. Approached to go undercover in a prison to befriend Ucok (Arfin Putra), the son of Jakarta crime-lord Bangun (Tio Pakusdewo), Rama again finds himself surrounded by enemies with no recourse but to bash in a few dozen (or hundred) skulls to survive. Saving Ucok's life during a muddy prison riot that looks like a WWE battle royale, Rama gets out of jail two years later and joins Bangun's organization as an enforcer.
And enforce he does, often and with tremendous impact. The action sequences are simply unreal; bigger, faster, and more lethal than in The Raid. Evans puts the greater budget to maximum use as the film looks incredible. It's not enough to use the word "gritty"; there's a visceral energy to the way Evans shoots violence, using any number of kinetic camera styles to capture bone-crushing impact in crazy ways. Taking the story to multiple locations has also given Evans a freedom to show just how creatively he can choreograph the carnage. A stunning car chase/fight sequence received a round of applause at the screening I attended; the first time I've ever seen such a thing. Another memorable battle has Rama fighting off waves of enemies in a bathroom, using the enclosed space like Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae.
Uwais was a savage force of nature in the first film but here he's allowed more room to breathe and actually act, proving himself to be a capable and charismatic lead. Knowing he had a good thing with Yayan Ruhian (he played the fearsome Mad Dog last time), Evans brings him back as another tornado of violence, only with much wilder hair. Better still are the two flashiest additions: Julie Estelle as the blind warrior Hammer Girl, and Very Tri Yulisman as the hilarious Baseball Bat Man, who resembles Shoma from the Capcom video game "Rival Schools". Whatever you do, don't give him back the ball.
Once the momentum picks up and the bones start breaking, it never really stops, and it's fair to say this may be the most violent movie ever that isn't a deliberate horror. Evans doesn't shy away from any of it, instead making sure we are thrust right in the middle of every punch and kick, using every bit of the surroundings to maximum effect. While action movie directors are rarely given their due, anyone who has seen the work Evans has done will have to admit he's one of today's most exciting filmmakers. And to think this is only the second part of the trilogy. What in the world can Evans possibly do to top the first two movies? If the expectations were high for The Raid 2, they are astronomical for The Raid 3.
NOTE: This is an edited reprint of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.