Silver Screen: The Raid II ***1/2
A distinctive, hard-hitting style adroitly applied to a perfectly simple premise made the Indonesian martial-arts melee The Raid: Redemption the best action flick in years. The story was brutal and basic: Rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) is among a group of officers who infiltrate a highrise building in the slums of Jakarta looking to take out a crime kingpin. First they must fight their way to the top of the building; then they must fight their way back out. There are no extraneous characters, digressions, or diversions, just one-hundred minutes of bone-crunching fights, shootouts, and brilliantly choreographed carnage.
For the sequel, writer/director Gareth Evans takes an antithetical approach. The events of The Raid II stretch over the course of several years and encompass a large ensemble of supporting characters. With a running time just shy of two-and-a-half hours, the whole enterprise teeters on the verge of being bloated. The shift in storytelling strategy accounts for most of the movie’s missteps, but kudos to Evans for making such dramatic changes. The sequel may be messier than the streamlined, superb original, but it’s grander and more ambitious while still retaining the fighting spirit and dizzying camerawork of its progenitor. Evans could have pleased fans by simply repeating the formula, but instead he expanded it. The results might not be quite as compelling as the original, but The Raid II is its own distinctive, standalone movie rather than an encore cash-in.
The story picks up almost immediately where it left off. Rama is one of only a few cops to survive the high-rise slaughterhouse. During his debriefing, a superior officer explains that Rama, presumed dead, is in a unique position to strike at the source of the crime plaguing Jakarta— not the gun thugs who control the stash houses, but the corrupt cops and gang leaders who pull the strings.
And so Rama goes undercover and into jail as Yuda, a petty crook who catches the eye of Uco (Arifin Putra), the incarcerated son of crime lord Bangun (Tio Pakusodweo), by saving his life during a muddy, madcap prison riot. Uco eventually helps the man he calls Yuda get free and find work in his Bangun’s organization. But Uco is also power hungry and impatient for his father to grant him the power he thinks he deserves, so he plots with another gang boss, Bejo (Alex Abbad), to stage an assassination that will set off a turf war between Bangun and a rival Japanese gang and provide the stage for Uco’s ascendancy.
The Raid II’s plot has less in common with the original than it does with the twisty storylines of Japanese yakuza movies, with their Gordian knots of secret allegiances and betrayals. It’s probably too much— the characters can be tough to keep track of after the dump of exposition during the opening minutes, where a series of rival gangsters are name-checked in rapid succession only to reappear an hour or more later. I was halfway through the movie before I put together that the guy with the cane and the sunglasses and Bejo and the ultimate target of Rama’s investigation were all the same person.
The plot may be overcomplicated, but it’s manageable, and it does come to more than just a delivery system for a series of fights and shootouts. But oh, what fights and shootouts! The pacing is slower, but the action of The Raid II is every bit as intense and thrilling as it was the first time around. Slick camerawork and thudding, bone-crunching sound effects give every punch and kick maximum impact as casts of extras big enough for a Busby Berkeley extravaganza gone rabid attack one another with gory glory.
Uwais, in just his third starring vehicle, is a wonderful action star. His soft features and soulful eyes make him a reluctant bruiser. He seems weary of the violence, yet when the times comes he is the master practitioner, dealing out blurred flurries of punches and slinging himself through the air like a cannonball. He pounds on convicts in a muddy prison yard, fistfights through windows during an exhilarating car chase, and goes mano-a-mano with deadly thugs bestowed with nicknames like Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle).
Sure, The Raid II is a little overlong and overstuffed. But don’t expect any American filmmaker this year to make anything so artfully frenetic and viscerally thrilling.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.