Welsh director Gareth Evans astonished audiences in 2011 with his second film, The Raid (known in the U.S. as The Raid: Redemption), which introduced Western moviegoers to the Indonesian martial arts form known as pencak silat. With The Raid 2 (original title: The Raid 2: Berandal), he’s delivered the same hyper-intense action and violence that the first film did, while expanding his story and fleshing out his characters just enough to make a movie that feels at times like a genuine crime epic.
The Raid took place in one setting, a dismal, labyrinthine apartment block in a Jakarta slum through which a team of police officers had to fight their way floor by floor to reach the crime lord ensconced at the top. The plot was simple and blunt, propelled mainly by the nonstop onslaught of bloodshed, gunplay and hand-to-hand combat. But the ending of the film hinted at larger things, as rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) learned that higher officials in the police department were in cahoots with the crime boss Tama. These threads are picked up in The Raid 2, which begins moments after the ending of The Raid and develops the story into a larger web of corruption.
Rama faces a decision almost as soon as leaving the apartment block: continue his investigation and go undercover into the criminal underworld – where he can finally lay bare the connections to Jakarta’s political structure – or risk losing his family and his life when those same higher-ups send their minions after him. The choice is clear: Rama adopts the thug identity “Yuda” and gets sent to a brutal prison, where he ingratiates himself with Uco, the vicious and petulant son (Arifin Putra) of a prominent crime boss.
Once they’re out of prison, Uco recruits Rama into their organization, where the undercover cop quickly impresses the boss, Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), and rises in the ranks. As he climbs into the inner circle, however, Rama becomes enmeshed in a deadly struggle for power between father and son that involves both local criminals and the powerful Japanese mob that has ruled the city’s underworld peacefully with Bangun – until that peace threatens to collapse.
To be sure, Evans (who lives and works in Indonesia) is not doing anything groundbreaking plotwise: you can see where he lifts from both The Godfather and The Departed in equal measure. But more time is devoted to giving the characters some breathing room. Bangun is the weary overlord who just wants to run his business and avoid any violence, while Uco is the son whose feelings of being underappreciated by his father make a toxic mix with his own greedy ambitions. You can see where it’s all going, but Evans keeps everything moving so quickly and smoothly that the well-worn story sucks you in anyway. He aids his cause with some terrifically bizarre supporting characters, including the dapper, up-and-coming gangster Bejo (Alex Abbad), Bangun’s loyal hitman Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian, The Raid’s Mad Dog) and the brother-sister assassination team Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman).
And then, of course there is the action and the pencak silat. Perhaps mindful that some of the novelty may have worn off from The Raid, Evans stages his action sequences in different, inventive ways this time, switching from handheld, in-close shots to wider, almost painterly compositions, such as one striking image of cops and prisoners writhing in the mud of the prison yard. He expands the range of action as well, delivering a car chase that is simply jaw-dropping not just because it’s all done practically but because there is a separate, ultra-violent fight happening within the confines of one of the cars as it barrels down a Jakarta boulevard with several other vehicles in pursuit.
That car sequence is pretty hard to top, so by the time we get to the climactic battle – in which Rama, naturally, must fend off one assassin after another on his own – you might expect a little battle fatigue may set in. But it doesn’t, and I was somewhat surprised to learn that we gotten to the end of this very lengthy film (148 minutes) so relatively quickly. Evans never lets the energy flag, his performers are all committed (especially the tireless Uwais, who also choreographed this thing with Ruhian) and the incredible and complicated ballet of violence and martial arts that is the movie’s backbone provides one visceral thrill after another. The Raid 2 is certainly not for everyone – the violence can get quite stomach-churning at times, even for hardened viewers – but it cannot be dismissed as mere exploitation. It’s often extraordinary filmmaking, and leaves me curious about where Evans will go in the future.