By Jacob Mertens.
The Raid 2 opens with a wide shot of a man kneeling beside a freshly dug grave. Facing his inevitable death, the film captures him as a small creature unable to influence the pendulum swing of fate. When the camera moves in, viewers see that this poor soul waiting at the gallows is a character who was something of a giant in Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption (2011). Andi (Donny Alamsyah), who served at the right hand of Redemption‘s main villain, and who was revealed to be the protagonist’s brother, lasts about two minutes in the film’s sequel. Even so, his death serves an important purpose, causing his brother Rama (Iko Uwais) to go undercover and root out the man responsible. With this initial premise, The Raid 2 engenders a compelling motivation for bloodshed and a feeling that something personal is at stake. The sequel is longer, darker, and more complex than its predecessor, but more importantly it is a film that builds on what made The Raid: Redemption great: the creative expression of violence. For those uninitiated, there’s no great need to see the first film beforehand, mostly because the plot was paper-thin. For those who have seen Redemption and have heard how different the sequel is, be assured that if you come to a screening looking for blood and grisly kills, you will undoubtedly find what you seek.
Without getting too much into the overall story, Rama gets sent to prison so he can befriend the son of a crime boss. He leaves his wife and his newborn son in protective custody, and after emerging from a three year stint behind bars he starts a new life as an enforcer for petty drug deals. However, the film soon swerves into an epic turf war between crime syndicates, while Rama quickly abandons his ruse and sets out to single-handedly destroy both clans. In so doing, he looks to dismantle the corrupt infrastructure that ultimately destroyed his brother and sate his lust for vengeance by killing the man who actually pulled the trigger. The story is competently told, delivering on genre staples that made the likes of Infernal Affairs (2002) and The Departed (2006) popular, but it does nothing to reinvent the modern crime film. Instead, the creative impulse can be found in the fight sequences themselves, which often lend to greater emotional impact and showcase a singular grasp of controlled chaos.
For instance, the first fight in the film happens in a cramped prison bathroom, in which Rama essentially fends off fifty-odd men who try to force their way into a five-by-five foot area. In the moments before the fight, Rama waits for the inevitable. He listens to the door strain and buckle against the weight of a mob, and to their frenzied cries for blood. He readies himself for the brawl, composed and without fear. Then the camera contrasts this moment of claustrophobic anticipation with an aerial shot that shows both Rama standing in the back of the bathroom and a score of angry men wailing on the door that keeps them apart. As they break through, this same vantage point shows the men flood into the room, and the insurmountable nature of the fight becomes vividly clear. Rama defends himself, he beats back wave after wave of flailing bodies, but ultimately he is overwhelmed. As the violent throng subsumes Rama’s defenseless body into their anarchic host, the futility of his struggle forces the audience to question the certainty of his mission. In other words, the way Evans stages the fight actually effects the way the audience experiences the narrative.
Other sequences have less impact on the story but still illustrate a rare form of visual—and, for lack of a better word, structural—inventiveness. This can best be observed in a chase scene on the highway, in which the camera must negotiate between different planes of action. In this scene, Rama has been taken captive by a group of thugs and sits in the backseat of an SUV, kept in check by the barrel of a gun prodding his side. As he waits for the thugs to spirit him off to some remote hideaway, whereupon he will likely be killed and disposed of, an ally of his speeds after the car and rams it from behind, freeing Rama to knock the gun out of his captor’s hands and begin a desperate fight for survival. Within the confines of the SUV, Rama flits between the front and backseat, effectively attacking four different men, while the driver weaves perilously through traffic. Behind them, Rama’s friend keeps the pressure on until he is sideswiped by two cars acting as the SUVs entourage, then must evade them and continue his efforts to free Rama. The entire chase becomes an entangled tug-of-war for Rama’s salvation or damnation, and the camera follows each plane of action with a clarity that would seemingly contradict the frenetic pace. And yet, throughout the sequence, the editing does not allow for a moment of unintended confusion, with each shot lasting just long enough for viewers to orientate themselves within the film.
Perhaps The Raid 2 has been made for genre junkies alone, a gun-fu hybrid meant to push the physical boundaries of bodily harm while retreading a familiar story of vengeance. If so, the film will still have its share of detractors either way. Some will thumb their noses at a padded plot that merely delays the inevitable rapture of violence. Others will look at that same extended storyline and see in it a failed attempt to make this series into something meaningful. For my part, I believe Evans has created a more complex sequel, and the storytelling does help to contextualize the inherent conflict at play, but it will never be the film’s main draw. As I stated in my review of The Raid: Redemption two years ago, and as I continue to maintain today, this series acts as a glimpse into ancient Rome. Much like its predecessor, The Raid 2 is the Colosseum, it is the roar of the crowd at each glimpse of carnage, and it is a spectacle. The film may not be for everyone, but for those who seek action in its most unrestrained form, all roads must lead here.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.