Fundamentally, I like The Raid more than the The Raid 2. The former film was more assured and confident in achieving its stated goals. It was lean, mean, efficient, and it boiled action filmmaking down to its brutal basics while elevating the genre to a ballet of human motion and brutality. It was about construction, form, filmmaking, and camera movement above any conception of character or narrative, and it was entirely aware of this.
The Raid 2 replaces this tight narrative with characters, characters, and more characters. It centers a much larger narrative about two crime families, one Indonesian and one Japanese, at a relative standstill until one of the don’s sons decides he wants to prove himself to his father, or something such as that, by wiping out the other gang. In the middle of all this, for reasons I don’t care to go into and which don’t always make sense, the first film’s protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais) gets himself involved. There are lots of characters, too many, and the narrative moves every which way over the course of 2 ½ hours somewhat aimlessly. It plays like a hopped-up Infernal Affairs (later remade in America as The Departed) that, while occasionally artistically assembled with flair, still largely amounts to a whole bunch of narrative sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s not a bad narrative, but it is undeniably too long and too full of itself to really succeed as efficient entertainment or as a grandiose crime opera to rival the better films it steals from. Twists mount and mount without any particular reason to care about their nature.
This sounds like a description of a mediocre film, and in a sense, I would entirely understand if people came away from this film disappointed at its misplaced ambition. It plays like director Gareth Evans (Welsh, but seemingly everyone else involved is in fact Indonesian) got it stuck in his head after the success of the first film that he could make something grander and let his reach exceed his grasp. Or perhaps he made the first film as proof-of-concept and then, bigger budget and self- satisfaction in tow, set out to make the film he really wanted to make. Either way, his skills with narrative and character are less assured than his skills with raw human motion and poetic brutality.
But there is one way in which this particular sequel makes an awfully strong case for itself. For every complaint I can muster, when I think of the film all I can immediately recall is “my god, those fight scenes”, and that is a worthwhile positive indeed. Although this film isn’t as consistently focused as its predecessor, when this sequel is “on”, it is glorious. Evans elevates his skill for bone-crushing to fleshier new heights here: unlike in most action films, the kills don’t seem packaged for “wow” moments or bro-ish cheering from the back seats. Everything hits hard, even disgustingly so, and it’s all constructed to make you feel it. This film hurts, plain and simple, so much so that it’s hard to imagine people weren’t really ravaging each other on set. It’s impactful and nasty, and in an era of desensitized violence, that’s worth something.
If Evans doesn’t feel the need to make violence fun, he also doesn’t need to introduce any sort of finger-waving critique of violence late in the film in an attempt to have his cake and eat it too. He knows this is an action film, and he lets his camera do the talking when it comes to constructing violence that scares and repulses even as it draws the eyes. And for the things his camera comes up with, all I can do is sit back in awe. The martial arts in this film must attain some new level of the form, playing out like a never-ending ballet of human aesthetic motion and uncontained shape. The film’s best fight scene, and its most artfully ambitious one, occurs during a mud-and-rain filled prison riot. I have not seen action like this before – constructed for maximum impact and yet still fluidly emotive, earthen and grounded but almost abstracted. Evans brings us into the trenches of the battlefield where the characters, literally covered in a mud which distorts their human features, become de-humanized and lose any sense of personal identity. It’s all wonderfully dirgey and profoundly visual. It’s at once downright painfully real and loosely, languorously, even distantly artful – I have no idea how it manages both, but this scene seems like Evans’ ultimate statement of principles.
Elsewhere, he reveals himself a master craftsman. A car chase late in the film is the best in many a-year, filmed like a parade of mouth-dropping shots that had me puzzling just how he was able to stage the whole thing time and time again. Two characters are especially notable: Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Boy, who come as-if out of an anime and do what they do with pleasingly terse directness and slightly funny monotony.
It’s almost impossible to not find fault with The Raid 2. The narrative is neither terribly well-written, well-acted, nor well-paced, and this is roughly half of the film. But the other half rises to such delirious heights, it positively kills. I still like its predecessor much more – I’ll take direct efficiency and pure filmmaking craft over lofty narrative ambitions any day of the week. But this film cannot help but manage to work in spite of itself. Junkies for the genre won’t be able to resist.
Score: Half of it is a 5 and half a 10, and the film is so literally and easily defined by this metric I can’t but give it a 7.5/10.