In fall 2011, a splendidly violent martial-arts film called The Raid popped up out of Indonesia and blew the heads off film festival audiences at midnight screenings around the world. Dumbly retitled The Raid: Redemption for its U.S. release, the flick boasted 101 minutes of almost nonstop hand-to-hand combat and gunfights in a story about a SWAT team taking down a crime lord in his well-fortified apartment building. The plot was unremarkable (the usual dirty cops and personal vendettas), but the action was some of the best that fight aficionados had ever seen.
In The Raid 2: Berandal, writer-director Gareth Huw Evans demonstrates that he had more confidence and a higher budget this time around. Picking up right where the first movie left off and then spanning years, this is an epic-size crime saga, as heavy on plot as its predecessor was light. It's still packed with bone-smashing violence, but at 148 minutes, it's packed a lot more loosely.
Iko Uwais, an obscenely talented fighter and not a bad actor, returns as Rama, a righteous cop on an increasingly corrupt Jakarta police force. Going deep undercover as a prison inmate, Rama earns the trust of Uco (Arifin Putra), a pretty-boy gangster whose cold-blooded father, Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), is one of the city's top crime bosses. After serving two years in prison (that is seriously undercover) and beating the living hell out of countless inmates, Rama gets out and joins Uco in working for Bangun's organization. Rama is hoping to catch the old man colluding with high-level cops and bring everything down. In the meantime, his excellent fighting skills make him a valuable employee.
That's all the plot an action movie usually needs right there. But Evans is more ambitious. He adds an extra dynamic by pitting the hotheaded, reckless Uco against his father, whose throne he is impatient to inherit, and by filling in some of the details of the syndicate's operations for our amusement. (There is, for example, a fight in a porn factory.) There's an almost Tarantino-like side story about an old hitman friend of Bangun's (Yayan Ruhian) -- a story that could have been removed entirely but that provides more opportunities for dazzlingly executed, large-scale fight scenes. There are two other assassins straight out of comic books, a man and a woman, each with a preferred weapon that's not a knife or a gun. Rama, the main character, sometimes gets lost in the sprawl of the plot.
Evans employs two visual styles. Non-fight scenes are artfully shot, the camera moving more elegantly and the shots composed more carefully than is the norm for non-fight scenes in a fight film. He shoots the fight scenes in the jittery fashion common in the last 15 years -- not Bourne-level shaky-cam, but artificially frenetic, and not my cup of tea. You can still tell what's going on, though, which is crucial, because what's going on is fairly awesome. Evans employed dozens and dozens of skilled fighters for these battles, a logistical nightmare that plays out with satisfying mania on the screen. There isn't a punch or kick in the whole film that looks pulled, no reaction that doesn't seem genuine. It's easy to forget how hard it is to film martial-arts combat convincingly without actually letting your actors beat each other to death. "No stuntmen were killed in the making of this film" would not be an unwelcome disclaimer.
Occasionally the violence gets too gruesome to be enjoyable (your threshold may vary), but it's mostly the kind of thing you're accustomed to seeing in martial-arts films, just in higher quantities. When the fists, bullets, knives, hammers, and bats are flying, the results are some of the sharpest fight sequences in moviedom, as impressive for the athleticism they capture as for the cinematic techniques that bring them to life. (Sound effects are key.) The story surrounding it all is convoluted and messy, longer than it can justify, and hindered by a lack of characters we can identify with. But some of these fights are worth sitting through anything for, and you could do a lot worse for things to sit through than over-ambitious crime sagas.