Gareth Evans is this generation’s go-to action film auteur. With just four feature films under his belt, it seems the Indonesia-based director is gunning for a spot alongside James Cameron, John Woo or even Sam Peckinpah. The Raid 2 suggests that perhaps Evans might not be confined to the action genre exclusively. This is a sprawling crime drama punctuated by increasingly visceral and inventive sequences of violence and action. That said, despite its ambitions, the sequel to the 2011 low-budget martial arts brawler The Raid does not quite meet those ambitions. This is a flawed and messy film for sure, but it gets by on defying sequel conventions and creating a completely different film than what came before even if it does not quite carry the assuredness and efficiency of its predecessor.
The genius of The Raid was that it was essentially one constant action scene. It followed a similar structure of the first Die Hard movie and barreled from set piece to set piece, only ever taking a breath to define its characters and dramatic stakes. The fight scenes showcased extraordinary combinations of beauty and brutality, much so that many recent action features (like the most recent Captain America film) have come to emulate their style and pacing. It was a good “one and done” action feature so it begs the question: how do you follow that up? What ended up happening was Evans repurposed an older script and fit it into the continuing story of the first film, sort of. The protagonist of the 1st feature, rookie-cop Rama (Iko Uwais) is the only point of connection between the two films and his character feels “cut & pasted” from one film to the next, his presence in the proceedings of the sequel seems awkwardly retrofitted into this film.
Rama, now an undercover cop, is in the heart of Jakarta’s criminal underbelly. There’s a shaky 3-way “truce” between an Indonesian crime-lord Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), the Japanese Yakuza represented by Goto (Kenichi Endo), and finally newcomer Bejo (Alex Abbad) and the film is primarily interested in exploring the machinations and motivations of each of these men and their “families.” The crime saga aspect of the film recalls Erik Matti’s On the Job or even early Scorsese in terms of complexity and character drama. It is so compelling that it becomes all too easy to forget what Rama is doing in the film.
Opting to switch genres and scale has freed Evans from the confines of the 1st film’s single location. Violence explodes everywhere and anywhere, from a kitchen fight that must top the list of greatest fight scenes of all time to an inventive car chase, a subway slaughter and a bloody battle in the snow. Every fight scene is unique and exciting; Evans never allows the action to ever feel even remotely the same. Almost every fight has not just a place in the narrative – every action scene serves a purpose, whether it is to establish character or advance plot. Evans has staged these sequences to have narratives within themselves. A one-on-one fight between Rama and another unfolds in acts as Rama and his opponent feel out each other’s style, pause and continuously adapt – the advantage swings back and forth between them before it crescendos into pure bloody brutality when both fighters become increasingly desperate to end the fight. Fight scenes are never a random flurry of exchanging strikes; they are a careful series of build-ups and climaxes. It also helps that Evans uses nearly every trick in the cinematographer’s handbook to shoot the action. He combines long, gliding takes, cuts close when appropriate, has that chaotic shaky-cam (when appropriate) and pulls the camera back for some gorgeous wide-shots. Rest assured, no viewer will ever have trouble discerning what is happening on screen, or who is there and every scene is framed as necessary. If Evans had merely placed his camera in one place we’d no doubt still be impressed by the skills of the fighters, but he never settles for that and instead consistently brings different cinematic ideas into the fights.
All this action would be meaningless and empty without any sort of care and empathy given to the characters involved in the carnage. I don’t mean to say that EVERY character is a fully-formed, deep, nuanced human being but rather most characters that populate the film are distinct in style, appearance and attitude. There’s a man who hits baseballs at his opponents. There’s “Hammer Girl”, who wields two claw hammers. There’s the knife-master who is such an unrealistically hyper-competent “badass” he gets to be completely generic in appearance. Finally here’s the homeless-looking hitman (played by Yayan Ruhian, Mad Dog from the first film) who is the only “fighter” aside from Rama who gets a fully-formed backstory and subplot. The rest of these characters never get a ton of screen time, but each makes an impression immediately. It’s the Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)school of immediate, indelible character creation, and Evans has wisely chosen such an approach. The mafia/gangster characters on the other hand, are given all the complexity and focus befitting them as the one’s driving the story; Uco (Arifin Putra), Bangun’s conflicted son/successor is given one of the most standout character arcs on screen.
Many critics complained that The Raid was all action and little story. The Raid 2, responds to this by being heavy with story. There are times that the story seems to drag the film down and many of the characters and actions get lost in the shuffle. The saga teeters between complex and convoluted at times but just barely manages to avoid the latter. The film clocks in at two and a half hours and is most certainly a bit too long at times. Evans may have mastered the art of pacing and timing action sequences but the way he handles the quieter, slower and more intimate moments leaves a lot to be desired. A few of the emotional beats are telegraphed quite nicely but more often than not, Evans can’t seem to stick the landing of certain dramatics. Rama’s relationship with his wife (or lack of one) is a good example of this. Speaking of Rama, while he tends to fade into the background of the story; silently observing its proceedings but rarely participating: he is our eyes and ears for the film. It’s understandable for Evans to take this approach to the character, but it falters during attempts to give Rama his own plot and arc which seem borrowed from another film entirely. On a whole though, this is definitely an Asian crime epic to behold if only for its creative blend of elaborate crime-drama and perfected martial arts action.
There definitely looks to be a Raid 3 in our future, as this film’s successes far outweigh its failings. There’s definitely untapped potential in Evans as a director and screenwriter as well. Getting by on expertly crafted action, stunning camerawork and frame composition and a complex crime fable holding it all together this film did not quite manage to top The Raid, if only due to lack of focus but not for lack of ambition. The real success of the film is that it is completely different from its predecessor (a rarity for 2010s predilection for sequels and reboots), but it is every bit as utterly badass.