Gareth Evans’ “The Raid: Redemption” was one of those little films that could—an Indonesian martial-arts flick consisting of a series of fights in a high-rise building serving as a gangster headquarters, with a righteous cop named Rama (Iko Uwais) emerging as the sole survivor of a botched raid on the urban fortress by a team controlled by his corrupt superiors. Much of the picture’s bloody charm resulted from the sheer bravado of the script’s claustrophobic conceit and from Uwais’ astonishing physical feats, which rivaled Tony Jaa’s in the “Ong Bak” flicks and had a visceral impact that no CGI cloning can equal.
Evans’ follow-up is a much different affair. “The Raid 2” is a sprawling attempt at an Indonesian “Godfather” or yakuza blockbuster, epic in scale as well as running-time (some two-and-a-half hours). And in place of its predecessor’s grubby, parched visuals, it’s elegantly made, with many imposing, slow-panning widescreen compositions (from cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono) to go along with the elaborately choreographed fight sequences. It feels rather weighted down by its ambitions—its spry predecessor was much more exuberantly engaging—but on its more serious, somber terms, it’s pretty hypnotic. And it boasts some fantastic action, though the violence is ludicrously over-the-top.
The set-up has Rama, his wife and infant son imperiled as a result of his butt-kicking victory over the army of gangsters in the first film. So at the suggestion of his superior, he agrees to go undercover by getting himself imprisoned as a con named Yuda. After proving his mettle by fending off a “welcoming committee” of his fellow prisoners, he wins the admiration and friendship of Uco (Arifin Putra)—the volatile son of Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), the head of one of Jakarta’s top crime families—who’s doing a stint in jail by saving him from assassination in a brutal brawl in a muddy exercise yard.
Released after a two-year term, Rama/Yuda is welcomed on the outside by Uco, who introduces him to his father, who in turn enlists him among his soldiers as a right-hand man to his son, though under the watchful eye of Bangun’s chief lieutenant Eka (Oka Antara), who has secrets of his own. Rama/Yuda accompanies Uco on his collection rounds, some of which (like an encounter with a pornography ring) turn very violent indeed, as well as on his pleasure-seeking trips to brothels and bars, which can become pretty nasty too. It soon becomes evident that Uco is impatient with the pace that he’s being moved up in the organization, and irritated by Bangun’s insistence on maintaining a truce with a rival Japanese mob family, the Goto.
The catalyst in all that follows is a mid-level gangster named Bejo (Alex Abbad), an extravagantly evil fellow who limps around on a bad leg but harbors ambitions to become top dog. After executing Rama’s mobster brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) in a cane field early on, he seduces Uco to conspire against his father by luring one of the old man’s long-time associates, Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian), who looks like an unkempt beggar but is actually Bangun’s most formidable assassin, into a trap in a garish nightclub. His death—after a long, drawn-out fight, of course—leads to an escalation of tension between Bangun and Goto (Kenichi Endo), whose son’s loyalty to his father is as suspect as Uco’s is to Bangun.
If all this sounds complex, rest assured that it is; but it serves as nothing more than a skeleton on which to hang a succession of action set-pieces, most involving straight-on hand-to-hand combat between leaping, thrusting bodies but some more mechanically elaborate, like a high-speed car chase in which vehicles as well as mere humans clash. One oddity is that for much of the running-time firearms are studiously avoided, but as the story proceeds they’re abruptly introduced en masse—which makes one wonder why they simply weren’t employed earlier to settle matters without all those fisticuffs. (Remember how Indiana Jones handled that over-skilled swordsman?) But if bullets flew too frequently, we’d miss out on two elaborate bouts Rama has toward the close, one with a brother-and-sister pair of killers called Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman)—names that leave little to the imagination—and the other a protracted kitchen encounter with a fellow called only The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman), whose preferred tools of the trade are a couple of very sharp knives. That setting, with its pristine white walls, allows for splatters of red that Jackson Pollock might have envied.
It has to be said that there’s absolutely nothing socially redeeming about the mayhem of “The Raid 2.” Its cynicism about the world in which a lonely good man like Rama has to struggle to survive—even the police force is, of course, riddled with corruption—is pretty much complete, and at times the bloodletting is so extreme that the only possible reaction is laughter—though whether it’s an expression of exhilaration or derision will vary from viewer to viewer, and some will be moved instead to grimaces of revulsion.
What can’t be doubted are the skill with which Evans has staged the film, the acrobatic ability exhibited by Uwais and all the other combatants in the fight sequences, and the impressive physical production and visual effects. The score by Joseph Trapanese, Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal is so propulsive that when one scene is suddenly accompanied by the Handel sarabande familiar from “Barry Lyndon,” the effect is almost giddily amusing.
Some viewers, especially genre enthusiasts, will love “The Raid 2.” Others will be put off by the mindless carnage. You know which camp you fall into.