In a hypothetical awards contest of epic martial arts smackdowns, "The Raid 2" would win in several key if obscure categories. It has the best hand-to-hand combat ever filmed inside a bathroom stall, the best claw-hammer fight ever shot inside a subway car, and the most intense four-on-one fight in a moving car.
Director Gareth Evans has exceeded the expectations set by his kinetic "The Raid," the story of an Indonesian cop fighting impossible odds in the seedy underworld of Jakarta.
Hot on the heels of a battle against a small cadre of gangsters in the first film, Rama (Iko Uwais) is drawn into a deadly undercover assignment. To protect his family members, who are in danger if his police identity becomes widely known, he volunteers for a short prison sentence to establish criminal bona fides with an eye to joining a politically connected gangland outfit.
The prison sentence, intended to last just a few months, sprawls into almost three years. Behind bars, Rama targets Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of a top mobster, as a prison ally and gets his chance to prove his worth in an epic prison yard battle royale, in which the guards, rival gangs, and people just looking to crack skulls meet in a muddy pit.
Mr. Uwais is a renowned champion in the Indonesian pencak silat fighting style, and his acting career was launched by Mr. Evans, who has made other films spotlighting the martial arts. Mr. Uwais gets to stretch out as an actor a bit more in "The Raid 2" than in the first movie, which dispensed with a lot of backstory and exposition in favor of out-and-out fighting. The sequel outlasts its predecessor by about 50 minutes, and a lot of that is taken up by underworld negotiations, brief interludes with family and a look into the resentful dark side of the underboss Uco, with whom Rama is aligned.
Briefly, Uco longs to emerge from the shadow of his powerful father, Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). To do this, he contemplates an alliance with the upstart Bejo (Alex Abbad), a half-Arab mobster who is looking to carve out a bigger spot for himself in the duopoly of Jakarta crime. Bangun shares power with Japanese boss Goto (Kenichi Endo) in a long-standing alliance that is disrupted by Uco's bid for power.
For Mr. Endo, a stalwart veteran of Japanese police and Yakuza movies, this is his first film outside of his native country. Mr. Pakusadewo is a fixture of Indonesian cinema. Mr. Evans does a wonderful job of integrating the performances of his more experienced actors with those of the trained martial artists. He also manages to extract an amazing fighting performance out of model-actress Julie Estelle as a deaf assassin who kills with a pair of claw hammers.
Mr. Evans also neatly glosses over the improbability of the action sequences. To get the most out of the choreographed fight scenes, throngs of criminal henchmen essentially wait their turn for a crack at Mr. Uwais, rather than overwhelm him en masse. In some contexts, this martial arts convention seems silly, but in "The Raid 2," it serves to draw out the action and expand the canvas for the artistry of violence that perpetually unfolds.
TITLE: "The Raid 2"
CREDITS: Written and directed by Gareth Evans
RATING: R for gory, close-up, though exquisitely choreographed martial arts violence; in Malay with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS