by Patrick Bromley
When I reviewed Gareth Evans' new classic The Raid: Redemption in 2012, I disagreed with it being called one of the best action movies of all time. It is a great movie and has some of the best action scenes of all time, but lacks some of the elements that make the greats truly THE GREATS.
As if to prove my point, Gareth Evans made The Raid 2.
It's early -- I'm still less than 48 hours out from my first viewing -- but I suspect The Raid 2 is one of the all-time greats. Any issue I might have had with the first movie (which, again, is a movie I love) has been answered to and improved upon in a movie that's bigger, richer and, yes, better. It's fucking incredible.
Picking up just moments after The Raid ends, part 2 (known as The Raid 2: Berandal in the marketing but not in the opening titles) finds surviving Rama (Iko Uwais) being recruited to go undercover and expose further corruption in the police department. To do so, he must infiltrate the Bangun crime family by getting close to Uco (Arifin Putra) the boss's son and heir to the criminal empire. The catch is that Uco is in prison.
Two years after going in, Rama is finally released and goes to work for Bangun just as things are beginning to fall apart. Ten years of peace with the Goto crime family from Japan is beginning to crumble as Bejo (Alex Abbad), a gangster who's rising to power independently, starts mucking things up and Bangun's son Uco grows tired of waiting to seize power. Oh, and there are a couple of colorful assassins on hand, including Baseball Bat (Very Tri Yulisman) and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), who kill lots and lots of people with their weapons of choice.
Only God Forgives could have been if it was exciting or alive.
But where The Raid 2 truly succeeds is in opening up the scope. By pacing it differently and spreading out the action set pieces, the film is able to breathe in a way the original couldn't. While the nonstop, exhausting approach of the first movie's fight scenes will possibly never be topped, the action sequences in The Raid 2 are even better because each one has a different build up, a different set of stakes. Each one takes place in a new environment. While The Raid had to make do with endless fighting in a single apartment building location (which wasn't a liability as much as its own kind of asset), the sequel has the entire city of Jakarta as its backdrop. That means we get action scenes set in the street, action scenes set in restaurants, action scenes set in prison yards. We get a kickass car chase. And because Gareth Evans is so goddamned determined to create action scenes we've NEVER seen before, he stages entire fight scenes in the back seats of cars and in bathroom stalls. The movie is able to go small even when it's going big.
Maybe it's not fair to keep comparing The Raid 2 to The Raid. Gareth Evans leaves me little choice. His action movies are so far beyond what most genre filmmakers are doing that they can only be stacked up against one another. Case in point: just a week ago I was busy being impressed by (most of) the action scenes in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which were often innovative and shot in longer, wider takes (not the first scene; never the first scene). Seeing The Raid 2, I now realize I was grading Winter Solider on a curve. Sure, many of the action sequences were good for a Hollywood blockbuster. The Raid 2 is working on such another level that it's almost unfair to consider them both within the same genre. Everything else seems kind of cute or quaint in comparison to the inventive brutality Edward and fight choreographer Uwais coordinate.
A word about Iko Uwais. Though Rama remains an underdeveloped character, I like the way that Uwais' performance and Evans' screenplay emphasize his vulnerability. He is constantly scrapping his way towards survival, whether it's punching his way out of an apartment building or desperately clinging to his cover and lying his way out of being discovered. Because the film's scope is so big and so many characters need to be serviced, Rama actually disappears for sections of the movie. His throughline is never lost, though; he remains our entry point into this world of larger-than-life criminals and insane bloodshed. Like Jackie Chan, Uwais is able to play the underdog despite demonstrating over and over that there is no fight he can't win.
Much has been made of the movie's length. At two and a half hours, it is long. So is nearly every summer blockbuster that gets released these days. I would much rather sit through a movie as beautiful and thrilling as The Raid 2 than Man of Steel or Transformers or The Dark Knight Rises, which is even longer than this one. Everyone's mileage may vary. #HeavyAction fans wouldn't dream of complaining about too much of a good thing.
One's preference for The Raid or The Raid 2 will ultimately come down to what we want from an action movie. If we want incredible fight choreography and as much of it as possible, The Raid is our masterpiece. I prefer The Raid 2. There is less action but more payoff. Fewer fights but more money shots. It is a better movie -- one about how systems and people can rot from the inside out and how we can sell our souls without even realizing it. It is the rare superior sequel, one of only a few truly great Action Epics and one of my favorite movies of the year.
Yes, The Raid 2. I will marry you.