Here is the original draft of this review:
Here is a formalized version:
The Raid 2 is a colossal step forward for Gareth Evans’ apparent franchise, and that’s a good thing. However, be forewarned: aside from the bone-shattering hand-to-hand violence, this is a very different movie. Where Evans’ 2012 film was a masterpiece of bare-bones action cinema, a film that offered clean-cut, abbreviated exposition that only appeared when absolutely necessary to move the film between its litany of jaw-dropping scenes of rapid-fire martial arts, The Raid 2 is his epic. The criminal underworld that only existed in The Raidthrough allusion is brought to lustrous life here, and the result is the best (and most coherent) version of the movie Takeshi Kitano has been trying to make for some time now.
Just a few hours after the bloody building siege of the first film, Rama (Iko Uwais) is shuttled off to a safe house, where he’s told that the battle has only just begun. Apparently the ill-fated raid only took out one corrupt cop and one lower-level operator within Jakarta’s gang system, and his superiors want him to aim higher. Rama is quickly put into prison to gain the favor of Uco (Arifin Putra), the entitled son of Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), one of Jakarta’s most feared bosses. Rama isn’t there to flush out gang operators, because in this world their identities aren’t a secret. He’s there to sniff out their political ties, their police ties, the allies that keep them insulated from punishment. What Rama finds is a Byzantine web of assassins, crooked cops, dirty politicians, turned undercover agents, and a brother and sister team of hired murderers named Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl.
And that’s just scratching the surface. The Raid 2 introduces more story to the series within about 15 minutes than the first film offered in its entire runtime. Instead of leading to bloat, though, the uptick in both context and stakes instead renders The Raid 2 a far more accomplished, richly populated piece of work. Not only does Evans’ camera appear to be liberated by his expansion in scope, setting the film’s action against one memorably picturesque backdrop after another, but the film has something far less expected for a movie like this: memorable performances. As Rama, the ostensible moral compass of the universe, Uwais shows a range that he wasn’t previously called upon to explore. When he starts becoming more and more involved with the film’s maze of corruption and sadism, his roots as a family man wanting to create a better world are challenged. Uwais’ face ages and hardens as the film goes on, while still maintaining traces of the idealist that got into this mess to make a difference.
It’s a great leading turn in a film that’s better off for it but wouldn’t necessarily need it. Where Rama gets a full arc, The Raid 2 repurposes Evans’ knack for lean, economical storytelling in order to fashion a universe full of characters whose single traits get across everything you need to know in a way that never feels cheap or like a shortcut. Some stand out, such as the delightfully Warriors-esque, weapon-wielding brother-sister tandem previously mentioned. Or Uco, whose devilishly handsome looks and imposing political presence mask a petulant child with a proclivity for grand acts of chest-beating brutality. And it’s a good thing, because sooner or later the film has to sync its many plotlines and characters with the fast-paced Silat violence that the first film introduced to the world. But when it gets there, it does it with vigor. Oh man, does it ever do it with vigor.
The violence is meted out with more discipline this time around, but that doesn’t mean the film loses anything in transition. On the contrary, the ballet-like bursts of shocking violence hit way harder when you have a chance to breathe in between. From a muddy prison throwdown to a climactic bloodbath of blades and fists set inside a state-of-the-art kitchen, The Raid 2 uses its setpieces not only to dazzle viewers, but to convey Rama’s evolution from scrappy survivalist brawler to superhuman punching machine. It’s true that limbs still get angled in directions that limbs never should, and a lot of people are sliced and stabbed (seriously, there’s so much lacerating in this movie), and Uwais can still punch faster than any human being should be able to. This time, though, it’s all in service of one of the best crime dramas in a while. Because for all the warp-speed fisticuffs, The Raid 2 is about Rama, a good man who by film’s end will do some awful things to get back to the light. And in its final shot, it asks the kind of question that’ll leave audiences salivating for a third installment: Can he?