Every time you think The Raid 2 can’t possibly top itself, writer-director Gareth Evans goes “Oh, yeah? Watch this.” Most of 2011’s The Raid: Redemption took place inside a tenement raided by a SWAT team to apprehend a mobster and his squad of killers holed up inside. Practically no one survived the movie — the violence was astonishing — but the contained setting and the idea of having events grow hairier for the good guys the higher they went in the building gave the tight 101-minute movie a sense of compressed, relentless action. Now comes The Raid 2 (known as The Raid 2: Bernadal in its native Indonesia), which is far more expansive and complicated, and runs almost 2 ½ hours. Miraculously, the new picture makes the old one feel like Evans was just warming up.
Rama (Iko Uwais), the rookie Jakarta cop who proved his mettle the hard way last time around, is now assigned to go undercover and spend a few years in prison so he can infiltrate a crime syndicate in cahoots with corrupt cops. Rama, who may be one of the most gifted martial-arts actors since Bruce Lee, has a curious screen presence: Quiet, friendly, easygoing and not all that threatening. He’s not even all that physically imposing. But when he bursts into action and starts doling out the pain, Rama has few peers. He can even take on 35 guys inside a bathroom stall, all at the same time.
The slightly convoluted plot of The Raid 2 involves several big-time gangsters fighting for power and a son who wants his father to promote him to boss status. The plot is fine, if a bit boilerplate. But if you want classic storytelling, go read some Austen. The Raid 2 is about what happens when people stop talking and start whaling away at each other with whatever happens to be handy, and Evans puts Hollywood to red-faced shame by staging one staggering setpiece after another, often showing you things you’ve never seen before.
There’s a prison riot in which everyone is fighting in a muddy courtyard, their bodies covered with thick sludge, making them look like golems. There is a prolonged chase in which Rama takes on four guys inside a cramped car speeding at 60 miles an hour. There is an assassin who wields a hammer in each hand as she’s taking out an army of enemies (she makes the protagonist of Oldboy, who also wielded a hammer, seem like a very old boy indeed). There is another assassin who kills his victims long distance, by batting a baseball at their heads (he never misses).
And then there are the hand-to-hand fights, which are furious and exciting and unusually clear to follow because Evans choreographs his camera moves to match the movement of his actors (a fight inside a restaurant kitchen, which must run something close to 10 minutes, is one for the ages). What is it about Evans (not to be confused with Gareth Edwards, who directed the upcoming Godzilla) that makes his filmmaking so thrilling and fluid and distinct, as if he were inventing the martial arts genre before your eyes? One possibility is that he doesn’t rush his action like Michael Bay does, letting you savor the excitement of what you’re watching. Another is that he understands the speed at which our eyes process images and, like Spielberg, understands spatiality must be clear and maintained, even in the midst of chaos.
At a time when most studio action pictures center on superheroes running around in tights or featuring aging actors pretending they’re still 35, The Raid 2 feels like a smackdown: This is how it's done, guys. Evans immerses you in a world that is real yet slightly heightened, so even though preposterous things often happen, the story remains grounded in a gritty reality. The movie is incredibly violent (the film had to be slightly trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating), but the outrageous blood and gore is never exploitative or gross. Instead, it’s part of the fun, like confetti thrown around at a party where everyone is trying to kill each other. Action fans, rev your engines.
Cast: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Tio Pakusadewo.
Writer-director: Gareth Evans.
Producers: Ario Sagantono, Nate Bolotin, Aram Tertzakian.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 148 minutes. Vulgar language, extreme violence, gore, sexual situations, adult themes. In English, Japanese, Indonesian and Arabic with English subtitles. Playing at: area theaters.