On a crowded subway train, a group of men in dark suits stand in a huddle at one end of the carriage, nervously glancing around at the wan faces surrounding them. There’s a tension in the air; an eerie silence. Over in one corner, a young, slender woman, her eyes obscured by sunglasses, reaches down into her leather handbag, and stealthily withdraws a pair of claw hammers…
Like its predecessor, The Raid 2 excels not only because its fights are almost flawlessly choreographed, but also because director Gareth Evans builds up to them so creatively. Like the high-noon showdowns in old cowboy movies, the long stretches of brutality in The Raid 2 are preceded by moments of ominous calm, like the sea drawing back before a tidal wave.
It’s a talent Evans demonstrated in The Raid back in 2011, a lean, efficient martial arts thriller shot through with the gore and dread of a horror movie. About a group of elite cops storming a Jakarta high-rise and clashing with an army of gangsters within, it established Iko Uwais as a true indie action star: diminutive, sad eyed yet utterly lethal with his fists and feet, he was The Raid’s unfeasibly athletic Fred Astaire.
With The Raid 2, Evans expands his canvas far beyond the dingy tenement building that served as the previous film’s battleground. With an expanded budget, he lets the violence in his sequel spill out into the rest of Indonesia’s capital, and the result is his version of The Godfather, Infernal Affairs or Hardboiled – a lengthy, meandering, chaotic gangster opera.
The story picks up mere hours after the events of The Raid, and sees Uwais’ cop go undercover in an attempt to infiltrate the city’s most powerful gang. To do so, he assumes a false identity and ends up in prison, where he earns the trust of Uco (Aritin Putra), a smooth criminal who’s the son of super-rich kingpin Bangun (Tio Pakuseodewo). Gradually, Rama works his way into the syndicate, but finds himself in the middle of a complicated and exceedingly bloody power struggle between rival gangs and corrupt cops.
From the very first shot, Evans distinguishes The Raid 2 from its predecessor. The concrete and claustrophobia of the previous film are replaced by wide vistas and extravagant long takes. The slums and bare mattresses of The Raid are largely absent, and much of the sequel unfolds among the chrome and polished marble of exclusive nightclubs and plush offices.
Evans’ plot is similarly drawn-out. Gradually setting up a complicated tapestry of backstabbers and spies, The Raid 2 stands in stark contrast to the first film, which established a premise and let the bullets and fists fly. Some of the new characters are great, too, particularly Uco, the handsome, preening gangster’s son who dreams of power, and Cecep Arif Rahman as a silent, deadly assassin.
Because of all these characters and plotlines, the film’s much, much longer as a result (148 minutes versus the original’s compact 102), and it could be argued that Evans establishes one strand too many as the story reaches the end of its first hour. But while the film’s midsection is a little too convoluted, the sections on either side of it are absolutely sublime. The Raid 2 contains some of the best action set-pieces of any recent action movie, from a brutal fight in a pool of mud to an astonishing car chase that plays out like an 18-rated version of a celebrated sequence from Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
Uwais is again superb as Rama, and it’s to his credit that the actor makes his character so likeable even when the plot’s busy detailing the machinations of the gangsters that surround him. Like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan before him, Uwais can makes an otherwise nondescript killing machine into a hero you can root for, and that’s the mark of a great martial arts star.
Serving as editor as well as writer and director, Evans also asserts himself as one of the finest action filmmakers currently working. There’s something quite unique about the way he shoots what could be fairly run-of-the-mill scenes of combat; the violence is exhilarating, certainly, but there’s also a sense of ambivalence in Evans’ filmmaking. Just as David Cronenberg brought a primal sense of immediacy to the infamous nude knife-fight scene in 2007‘s Eastern Promises, so Evans brings his own razor sharp edge to The Raid 2‘s bloodshed. It’s breathtaking, certainly, but there’s something else there, too – a sense of apprehension, perhaps, where you’re not sure whether to be excited that a confrontation’s about to take place, or whether to be afraid of what’s about to happen next.
Evans also appears to have created his own cinema-going phenomenon, which we can only describe as “The Evans titter”. It’s the sound audience members blurt out, almost in spite of themselves, as yet another stand-off reaches its bone-crunching conclusion. The hammer scene mentioned at the top of this review provoked one such nervous chuckle.
Although not perfect in terms of plot, The Raid 2 is almost flawless as a pure action movie. We can only wait in slightly fearful wonder at what the director will bring us next.
The Raid 2 is out on the 11th April in the UK.
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