The Raid 2 is the sort of film that really irritates me. It’s the kind of film that will demand the state of the art in technical terms–the action scenes are astounding to say the least–yet will settle for a story that’s predictable, cliched, and reminiscent of a thousand other films. The Raid: Redemption largely kept the story to a minimum, keeping the focus narrow and on the brutal, yet tightly choreographed violence. The result: a near-great film. Here, the focus is spread (geographically and temporally), and while the violence is still there, it’s no longer in the name of desperate survival, but of a gangland power struggle which we’ve seen before. So why did I give it ***? Read on.
Mild spoilers, though…really?
Immediately after the end of Redemption, Officer Rama (Iko Uwais) is recruited into an anti-corruption task force by Bunawar (Cok Simbara), who assigns him to go undercover and infiltrate the Bangun criminal family. which he must do by going into prison and allying himself with the Bangun family scion Uco (Arifin Putra). In prison, Rama saves Uco’s life during a prison riot, and upon his release two years later, Uco brings him to see Bangun himself (Tio Pakusadewo), who inducts Rama into the gang, putting him up in a penthouse and assigning him to be Uco’s enforcer/watchdog, since Uco is a hothead who desperately wants power, but Bangun knows he isn’t ready to handle it.
Uco, dismayed by his father’s lack of trust, begins to conspire with rising boss Bejo (Alex Abbad) to seize power and gain the upper hand in negotiations with the Japanese gangster Goto (Kenichi Endo). Suffice to say, much violence ensues, while Rama attempts to stay alive and fulfill his mission.
You’ll notice I forewent my normal detailed summary in favor of a couple of paragraphs. Partially I did this out of sloth, but largely I skimmed over the story because the story is easily the film’s weakest element. It’s almost like Avatar: almost every beat of the story can be called well in advance, and the film adheres to archetype so intensely it’s aggravating. To be fair, there’s no dialogue on display as bad as “A recon gyrene in an Avatar body…that’s a potent mix! Gives me the goosebumps!” The actual writing is unremarkable but passable.
But on a broader scale, the film feels very familiar. Uco is basically Sonny and Fredo Corleone mixed into one–the hothead who embarrasses his father and the wretch who wants to be “somebody”. Bangun is every veteran crime boss you’ve ever seen, Bejo is pretty one-dimensional, Rama little better…and it all follows a pretty standard narrative path, with the undercover aspect drawing heavily on The Departed (and, I’m sure, Infernal Affairs). The film as a whole offers few surprises, and that hurts it after a while.
But (and this is a big, big “but”), the film does not rest on its story. It rests on its action, on its grandiose displays of pencak silat, and when those take over…it becomes a hell of a movie.
The prison riot at the beginning might be the best fight scene in the film, though there’s ample competition. It’s made more interesting not only by the introduction of the prison guards into the battle halfway through, but by the fact that most of the battle takes place in the rain, in the mud, so it becomes a hideous free-for-all, with everyone soaked in the yellowish mud, fighting only for survival. It lasts…10 minutes, maybe? It goes on for some time, and never becomes boring, because it feels so uncompromising. It’s like the best parts of Redemption, where the fighting is motivated not by the plot, but by the need to survive.
Another issue I take with the film is its introduction of compelling supporting villains whom it makes little use of. If you’ve read about the film, you’ve likely read about Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), who…beats people up with hammers. Two normal claw hammers. And does she ever–her subway car fight with a number of goons (Goto’s, I want to say) is so absurdly bloody and graphic it’s almost comical. But not quite. It’s still horrifying. Unfortunately, beyond this scene, she has but one other fight before she’s dispatched. Kind of a letdown.
Hammer Girl’s brother, Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) likewise has only a few moments to shine, though he’s less impressive than Hammer Girl (there was a Hammer Time joke there that the film shamefully never makes). One of the most interesting characters is Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian, who was also in Redemption), a Bangun enforcer who regrets alienating his wife and son, but who lives like a vagabond when not killing Bangun enemies either single-handedly with silat, or single-handedly with his machete. He has a great fight scene in a nightclub where he dispatches dozens of goons, sustaining numerous injuries, before his own anticlimactic demise. It’s actually kind of a poignant moment, but his dying at the point in the narrative he does feels like part of the film’s adherence to convention. I really wished someone here had lived where archetype decreed they would die. Just to shake things up a little.
Better served is The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman), Bejo’s main enforcer, whose climactic battle with Rama is incredibly brutal and bloody as the Assassin continues fighting, his powers seemingly undiminished, even as he’s slashed half-open. When the battle ends, and we’re allowed to contemplate the gallons of blood that were spilled during this one battle, it underscores the themes of the film more effectively than anything in the script.
All these villains hold the screen as long as they’re allowed, but in terms of acting, it’s actually Arifin Putra’s Uco who gives the most memorable performance. As reminiscent of other, better characters as Uco is, Putra still invests him with a great deal of intensity and fearsomeness; one scene, where Uco intimidates a pair of prostitutes, is quite unsettling, and Rama, who’s trying to keep Uco from causing more trouble, is just as troubled as we are.
Iko Uwais continues to be a solid presence as Rama, and a hell of a fighter; his acting is quite adequate, given the limitations of the character, but it’s his skill as a fighter that really counts here, and he delivers. Tio Pakusadewo, as Bangun, has enough gravitas to keep his character from fading into the background; he’s no Vito Corleone, but he’s believable (To the film’s credit, the characters are generally played pretty realistically. No “Big NOOO”s or “Oh…my…God”s or any of that. You can actually buy into these people.).
While his writing leaves something to be desired, Gareth Evans is still an excellent director and editor. Though the film runs a hefty 150 minutes, it’s rarely boring, and generally quite exciting (though, a sequel being pretty much a foregone conclusion–Evans wants to make a trilogy–there’s not that much real suspense); the action scenes are not only brilliantly choreographed, but they’re ideally shot; no Hollywood jump-cut bullshit here. It looks good, too; the cinematography, by Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, might be a bit heavy on track-ins, but the images are well-composed and the use of color is often striking. And the sound design and sound effects–all the shots and body blows–are on the money. It’s a very accomplished film for the most part.
I wish I could overlook the weakness of the story and make The Raid 2 the **** masterpiece I wanted (and many have judged it). But as it is, it disappoints just often enough to push it down into the *** range–though, having thought it over, I do think it sits very near the top of that range. I don’t recommend as heartily as its predecessor, but any serious martial arts film buff needs to see this.