“The Raid 2: Berandal”
The battle may have started in a single dilapidated high-rise (“The Raid: Redemption), but the war will be waged across the streets, restaurants, nightclubs, warehouses, and prisons of Jakarta (“The Raid 2: Berandal” (translated to “thug”)). Whatever ambivalence Rama had about the first Raid he seems to have sternly quieted now—whatever had consumed him then was then, but now he is all in, beginning with a two-year stint in jail to gain the favor of one of the princes of the syndicate. One drug lord tamped out, one corrupt policeman exposed, one family relationship rekindled. The last fight was merely a vein; this time Rama’s on a mission towards the heart.
Gareth Evans, back directing, seems to have upped the ante for himself too. His display of pencak silat, the stealthy, erratic, and hypnotizing Indonesian martial art form helped to stoke the murmuring that “The Raid: Redemption” was the redefinition the action genre needs, a standout among the crash and bang of Bruckheimer, Bay, and the gaggle of superhero movies over the past decade. Mr. Evans’s scope expands for this next raid, even if he does not waver from his three self-imposed idiosyncrasies of martial art-film craft: no acrobatics, no killshot replays, and scant (if no) slow motion. The film opens with an expansive shot of cornfields, a far (and wide) cry from the grimy, closet-like apartments of last time; and used as a hidden gravesite for the mob, no less symbolic of evil deeds. Mr. Evans has more to play with, more area to let his creativity wander.
As a spectacle for stunts, theatrics, and rip-rousing hand-to-hand combat, the “The Raid 2” dazzles. The camera neatly tucks in the performers, but gives them enough room for their swift and angular contortions. While at times you may want to slow down your eyes to process the choreography, you may be best served just letting the quickest scene wash over you. One of the final battles crescendos to such ferocious pitch that it means to leave you feeling like a limp punching bag, translating for us the exhaustion of such wrangling. On top of that, any and every object in the vicinity may be used as a weapon: a broomstick handle, a course concrete wall, a dining room chair, even a car, swiping at bodies like the tail of a crocodile. If it is Mr. Evans’s goal that his fight scenes to feel organic, he also does not shy from showing his coltish side.
Nor does the film exhibit much sensitivity to gore. Movie violence will always have its objectors, but the realism of CGI and makeup is cause for awe for many moviegoers. An uninterrupted point-blank shotgun blast to the face is impossible without modern technology. Whereas early martial arts films depended wholly on stuntmen and camera cuts to exhibit their brutishness, Mr. Evans retains the animalism of the fight, using technology to bridge the barrier from makeshift just long enough that the effects are neither distracting, nor in some cases noticed at all. Even more refreshing is Mr. Evans’s apparent desire to downplay the sensationalism (e.g., the car slicing through a roadside trailer is impressive in its audacity to buck a similarly-created graphical one). But you came for pyrotechnics, and in a way those most naturally rendered are those that pack the most power.
The story revolves around ascension-to-the-throne and gang rivalry tropes, but much of it is unconvincing and languid. The principle weakness is the ‘why’ and ‘how’ the underworld operates by. We’re not given enough backstory to know whether an all-out war could erupt, and the film devotes a confusing amount of time to humanizing the primary villain, mostly through conversations in lavish settings fit only for those at the top of the hierarchy. The amount of time these men keep talking about their feelings softens the level of ruthlessness the film wants to attach to them. “The Raid” took place within a cesspool of grime and poverty with one goal: get the guy at the top of the building. “The Raid 2” stays far from depicting the crime these men dabble in, acknowledging the need to create a more complex story. Perhaps it is the glossiness of the filter that Evans settled on that makes these men too polished to elicit revulsion, but the amount of screen time dedicated to family dynamics is not worth the return. The way the film unclothes double-dealers and reveals twists can be a mess, and not of the bodies-stacked-up-in-an-alleyway sort.
There are plenty of sight gags amid the fighting, topped off generously by three cronies each with his or her own shtick (baseball bat, hammers, half-moon shaped daggers). It is at these times when “The Raid 2” hints that it has hit another peak, a flurry of demonstrating the human form and testing our reflexes. Luckily, we get to partake while siting in our cinemas’ seats.