Gareth Evans’ Indonesian action movie The Raid: Redemption was pretty much a perfect action movie. The actual story was pure minimalism – there was exactly enough to sustain the movie, and not a drop more than that. The story wisely took a back seat to the action sequences, which were some of the greatest martial arts fights of all time. Now Evans and his star, Iko Uwais, are back for the sequel, The Raid 2: Berandal. It’s absolutely brilliant.
The Raid 2 sees the director handling a bigger budget, granting him access to more martial artists, more actors, and more effects. The way he makes this sequel feel unique, while also sticking to the same formula that made the first film so perfect is nothing short of fantastically impressive. The first film has one of those simple plots – cops clearing gang members from an apartment building – that make sequels too easy to botch. How many action movie sequels in the past have simply gotten away with increasing stakes or switching environments? If your first movie was a boat heist, then the next will be a plane, or a bigger boat. Boom. Instant sequel. Gareth Evans is too smart for this sort of fill in the blank premise. On the surface, The Raid 2‘s premise could actually be seen as a variation on the first; instead of clearing a building, Rama has to clear out corrupt cops. Of course that’s the sort of thing that’s easier said than done.
In order to effectively identify which police officials are corrupt, Rama has to get close to high-ranking members of a local gang. This prospect alone is so complicated, so stressful, so involving, that we never see Rama really make any specific moves towards unveiling corrupt cops. Instead Rama himself becomes too close to the gang. The stakes so quickly become personal (and separate from the issue of police corruption) that it’s very easy to see why the one other cop with undercover experience we meet was marked as a turncoat. Sure Rama has to get to corrupt cops, but first he has to commit a crime and go to jail for years. Then he has to prove himself to the gang. This alone requires a few dangerous actions. Most importantly he gets caught between the gang leader and his son’s power struggle, which eventually spirals out of control, getting increasingly complex.
By the end of the film the audience can’t help but suspect everyone, having been every bit as bogged down by the complications as Rama. Indeed the movie ends with Rama exhausted and realizing he can no longer live like this. Instead of the original film’s occasional twists, this film presents a sprawling and epic story about what one man is willing to do for his family, for what he perceives is right, for revenge, and for his friends. The Raid 2 doesn’t just have more story than The Raid it has a whole lot more on its mind. The story not only works well, it’s well designed. There’s not a trace of “and then this happens” storytelling but rather a whole lot of cause and effect (something of which more modern blockbusters could take note). The characters are compelling and have actual arcs and motivations, which again seems like a basic thing but is something so many movies completely forget about. The story could best be described as brilliantly effective. Everything about the story (with the exception of maybe one plot point that didn’t necessarily need clarification but maybe would have benefitted from it) just works exactly as well as it needs to. It even seems to follow an almost Shakespearian act structure, which was a perfect choice. The first movie may have made its name because of the fights, but Gareth Evans proves he’s a lot more than that.
Which is not to diminish the action sequences, because they are some of the best I’ve ever seen. This film’s larger scale brings a lot of variety to the fights, including new characters and some brilliant sequences. The coolest new characters are obviously the boy with the baseball bat and the girl with the hammer, both of whom are mysterious and compelling. I can still hear that ringing sound effect that accompanied the aluminum baseball bat. One of the most impressive sequences comes entirely courtesy of the new budget – the car chase sequence. It seems like an over simplification to call that scene a car chase, because there’s much more than that going on. It’s an incredible sequence, and it’s not even the best fight (that honour would have to go to the kitchen fight at the end). This is one of the ways that The Raid 2 took the right lessons from the first film. In the original, the fights get less and less complicated as the movie progresses. What begins with heavily armed police fighting armed crooks, becomes knife fights, becomes three men fighting in an empty room. The Raid 2’s far less direct plot means this structure doesn’t work verbatim, but the last few fights scale down wonderfully, until the last one, which is just two guys in a kitchen.
The design and choreography alone elevate the action sequences in The Raid series above the crowd, but that’s not the only reason the action is so effective. The series’ secret, or not so secret, weapon is Gareth Evans, who doesn’t just conceptualize and design the action sequences, but edits the film as well. His editing is absolutely perfect and beautifully strings together the shots that make up the fight scenes. The shots and angles and beats flow together precisely, making each and every motion crisply defined and clear. There’s not a single action that looks false, not a single moment where the spatial relationship of characters becomes confusion, not a single moment where the frequent cutting makes the action seem false. This is a challenging prospect at the best of times, let alone when there’s so much handheld camera work. Of course Gareth Evans brilliantly offsets these intense flurries with fixed and wonderfully composed shots, preventing the action from feeling too overwhelming.
The Raid 2: Berandal is pretty much flawless. It’s so intense that there was a walk out after the first death, in the theatre I was in (though that was super weird, and I suspect there was some sort of story there). There were only around twelve people in the theatre and, at certain moments (the last shot with the baseball bat, for instance), it sounded like a full theatre’s worth of people reacting. It’s an excellent movie, maybe even better than the first (which is on Netflix and you should totally watch it if you haven’t). It is a spectacular piece of cinema, one well worth seeing in theatres.