By James Rocchi | The Playlist January 22, 2014 at 12:25PM
When “The Raid” started on the festival circuit in 2011 in Toronto, it was a bloody blast of fresh air, with incredible action sequences throughout an energetically and expressively shot film with amazing stunt work and bone-crushing fight scenes captured with fluid camerawork, long takes and a giddy sense of the new. Last night, the Sundance premiere of “The Raid 2” presented filmgoers with a mix of good news—indeed, great news—and bad in that the fights, action and stunt choreography in the sequel are all a quantum leap forward thanks to the tireless and exhausting work of writer-director-editor Gareth Evans and his leading man Iko Uwais, who also designed the fight choreography alongside Yaya Ruhian.
At the same time, though, with its spread-out timeline, who’s-betraying-who undercover cop plotting and tangled web of power plays and police corruption, “The Raid 2” lacks the compressed, concentrated one-bad-day-in-one-awful-place form and function of the first film. “The Raid” was 110 minutes of Oh-my-God action; “The Raid 2” has at least 110 minutes of Oh-my-God action … and also has around 30 minutes of bloat and blubber weighing down what could have been a sleeker sequel.
“The Raid 2” picks up so soon after “The Raid” that Jakarta cop Rama (Iko Uwais) is still bloodied and raw from the fight to survive in the first film. While Rama has done well, there’s still a rotten power-structure in the city where the most corrupt of cops coddle the most genteel of crime lords. Rama’s going to be erased from the police records as a dead man—and then put into prison with a false history so he can better befriend Ucok (Arfin Putra), whose father Bangun (Tio Pakusdewo) controls the city in an long-standing truce/arrangement with Japanese crimelord Goto (Kenichi Endo). Rama helps Ucok survive, and after a title-flash explains it's two years later, Rama leaves prison and goes straight to the heart of Bangun’s organization at Ucok’s side as his friend, confidant and protector …
And while the plot of “The Raid” was nothing new, it at least had the functional purpose of containing and directing all the kill-or-be-killed action so that constant waves of adrenaline left you with no time to think and washed away your nagging doubts. “The Raid 2” feels shaggy and shapeless, plumped up with filler that drags it down as a thriller. And while duplicating/re-tailoring the bottled-up action of the first film to a new sealed location—A mall! A boat! A hockey game!—wouldn’t have been an answer, some unifying and directing structure and purpose would be appreciated. Evans has added a series of new-character death-dealers and scene-stealers; Julie Estelle is the aptly-named Hammer Girl, a whirlwind of death, and Very Tri Yulisman gets some great action bits (and a great visual joke) as a killer whose combat weapons are a baseball bat and a ball. Even Yayan Ruhian—who played the late killer Mad Dog in “The Raid”—is back as another new long-haired assassin, Prakoso. And while Putra’s Ucok and a silky would-be crime lord played by Alex Abbad, Bejo, may not take part in the fight scenes, they give great performances full of natural charisma.
I know it sounds like fault-finding or nit-picking to note the borrowed-bits plot here; one sequence echoes, strongly, the five families wipeout from “The Godfather,” while there are also nods to “Game of Death” and a general air of John Woo-esque loyalty-vs-law themes. But “The Raid 2” offers wave after wave of death, dismemberment and limb-disjointing action, and it’s also that rare action film precisely as beautiful as it is brutal, from the set design to the lighting to the way the film zooms between dirty back-alleys to gleaming penthouses. And while Uwais’ Rama is the protagonist, he’s also back-seated by the plotting and planning between Ucok and Bejo against Bangun and Goto—and a little under-written, frankly. Sure, Rama is a good man, tough cop, loving husband and caring father … but four adjectives and four nouns are no substitute for an actual character.
With its long takes, clear camera work, sublime set design and how-did-the-stuntmen-live? action-scene insanity, “The Raid 2” makes most American action films look like the over-edited stunt-doubled CGI-laden child’s play that they are. And yet, again, better fights can’t make up for a too-familiar and over-long script that lacks the snap, pop and purpose of the first film and skimps on character relationships and plotting so that it might better present a death-and-dismemberment toll comprised of hundreds of faceless minions. Yes, “The Raid 2” brings the noise, but length, repetition and too much space also make it a slightly reduced echo of its predecessor. [B+]