by Callum Petch
Well, holy crap.
Look, despite anything bad I have to say in this review, I loved The Raid 2. I got out of the cinema last night extremely giddy at what I had witnessed. Said feelings only grew the longer I stayed awake and they are still here the day after. If anything, that film keeps rising in my estimations the more I think about it. When it officially releases on April 18th, I will be going to see it again. If it were in the cinema again before that date, I would drop everything and see it again. It is, in a word, amazing. Unfortunately, there are legitimate problems with The Raid 2 and I can’t switch off my critic hat to ignore them. So, regardless of whatever negative words I attach to this gushing session, you should not let it get in the way of going to watch The Raid 2 the very second it drops. Promise me that and I promise you that you won’t regret it. It really is that good.
OK, now to get professional. Real Talk: I was not a fan of The Raid. Well, maybe that’s a poor way of phrasing it. I thought it was alright. The first half of the film was great, it was tense, exciting and a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the film really ran out of steam by about the midway point. It attempted to force in a plot that was immediately forgettable, slowed the pacing to a crawl and had a final fight scene that, whilst undeniably badass, went on for so long I could see the seasons change outside my window by the halfway point. There was half of a great film there, and half of a dull slog weighing down the back end.
The Raid 2 does not have that pacing or interest problem. Even with its much-publicised two and a half hour runtime, this is not a film that drags at any point. OK, maybe the opening crams too much exposition into too long of a time frame before the real fun starts, but once it does start, the film knows how far apart each of those fight scenes should be. It knows how to make the plot-oriented stretches of the film feel as propulsive as the rest of it so that, even though I was never 100% certain as to who everyone was and what was going on (more on that in a moment), I was still as enraptured by villains secretly scheming with one another as I was when a man’s face was being forcibly applied to a hibachi grill. There are actual peaks and troughs, here, and the film wisely holds off pitching its action scenes to 11 until the final hour (save for an absolutely stunning prison riot at about the 25/30 minute mark) to keep that section of the film, the cathartic and climactic release, from feeling like an extended sequence of “been there, done that”.
That being said, The Raid 2 still does not need to be two and a half hours. The scope is much wider, this time, more resembling a sprawling crime drama except that any and all problems are solved by extended bouts of extreme violence, but it’s a bit too wide for its own good. Following straight on from the first film, Rama (Iko Uwais) is sent undercover in order to help root out corruption on the Indonesian police force by cosying up to Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo) who runs Jakarta’s biggest crime syndicate. That goal, however, rarely comes up again and Rama himself spends most of the film being shoved to the side-lines as the slowly-becoming-more-disgruntled Uco finds himself tempted by another rising crime boss in the shape of Bejo (Alex Abbad) who is trying to raise his stature in the criminal underworld by stirring up trouble between Bangun’s group and a Japanese crime syndicate led by Goto.
Seem a little bit too muddled yet? Well, throw in about another 10 or so characters, each with less of a personality than the last, all of them affiliated with one side in some way shape or form and some with full-on subplots of their of their own, and a whole bunch of betrayals and double-crosses and you have the plot of The Raid 2. You can’t fault writer-director-editor Gareth Evans for trying to address the original’s lack of plot, but he’s honestly not there yet in terms of keeping everything coherent. It’s a bit too wide-reaching, there are too many characters running about (as cool as every fight sequence involving them are, Bejo does not need three separate gimmick-based assassins doing his dirty work in-story) and the overall aim and direction becomes a bit muddled, especially for Rama. The ending of the film does strongly tease a sequel (and Evans has stated he wants to make this series a trilogy), so maybe some of the bloat and needless character work in this film will pay off in two or three years’ time, and again it’s a testament to Evans’ growing skills as a filmmaker that I was always thoroughly engaged during the plot stretches, but I can’t help but wish it were 20 minutes shorter and tighter in its focus.
Because, and I mean this with total sincerity, if the story being told were clearer and the scope reigned in just a bit, The Raid 2 would be near-perfect. In fact, let’s stop beating around the bush and just talk about the fight scenes, already. They start with a group of about 50 prisoners all trying to bum-rush Rama who is sitting in a locked prison toilet stall. That’s how they start and, by the end of the film, that one is positively small-scale. However, although there are many scenes of one man fighting his way through a seemingly endless horde of metaphorical red-shirts, the film doesn’t just decide to start at, say, 9 and go higher from there. There are just as many shorter fight scenes of one guy fighting his way through, say, four or five metaphorical red-shirts or a fight involving just two guys that’s over in seconds instead of minutes. Again, it all comes back to the film’s airtight and propulsive pacing. Evans and his fight choreographers (star Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian) know when to reign it in and when to go big, which makes the big moments that much bigger.
And of those big moments? Let me put it this way, The Raid 2 will fill up all top three slots on your Best Action Scenes of 2014 list and they will stay there until the end of the year. Seriously, they’re that good and it’s not just down to some stunning choreography, which manages to be showy yet relatively realistic with extremely fast exchanges of strikes and no shortage of painful-looking limb breakages. Although he still employs shaky-cam at several points, Evans seems more confident in his fight work or direction in general, because most every fight is shot super clearly and shots last much longer than in Hollywood action films. Not once did I lose track of who was hitting who, where they were in relation to the rest of the scene and what else was going on around them; there’s excellent scene geography going on here.
But that’s not to say that the camera isn’t getting in on the action. In fact, the sheer dynamism of the camera is why I’m stunned at the fact that the scene geography is so well done. During an extended prison riot, the camera rarely stays in one place for long, running all over the scene to keep an eye on what else is going on around the fringes. Quick whip pans help keep up energy and camera shakes help sell some of the more painful collisions of heads with scenery. Sometimes the camera is almost literally flung about the scene, too; a chase with an escaping gangster has the camera move with him so that it crashes through a window at the same time he does. It’s kinetic, frenetic and masterfully done. Also, it must be said, even outside of the fight scenes there are some gorgeously composed shots going on here. Big credit should be given to the film’s cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, they knocked it out of the park, here.
Yet that is nothing compared to how this film sounds! There is some exceptional sound work throughout this thing. Every hit sounds like there’s real force in its delivery, every stab from a weapon sounds painful, every bone snapped is physically wince-worthy and every gunshot is a deafening roar. The fight scenes are excellent as is, but the sound work creates fights that have real impact and that only adds to the effect. As for the score, barring an absolutely killer end credits theme, its mostly content help drive the action. It doesn’t particularly call attention to itself but it fits the events on screen brilliantly, often with nice thumping energy and good builds to natural crescendos. It’s one of those scores that you can’t necessarily hum individual tunes for but, in the moment, you know that you’d rather have nothing else backing it.
Now a moment to address the violence. Yes, The Raid 2 is exceedingly violent. It is even more violent than the original and, yes, that is more than possible. One of the film’s smaller-scale yet best fights involves a single mute deaf girl carving her through six guards on a subway train with only two claw hammers. Baseball bats are brutally buried in people’s faces. Throats are ripped or stabbed or gouged or many other rather horrible things I’d prefer not to think of. Shotguns utterly demolish faces. Hibachi grills burn off half off somebody’s face. Blood flows like wine at a party where everybody is too smashed to hold their drinks properly. It will be too much for many people and some will claim that it’s all too gratuitous and meaningless, due to their aforementioned lack of coherent plot issues. And taken on its own, yeah, maybe the violence is too much.
But when combined with the choreography, the cinematography, the sound work and the pacing it serves a true purpose: to create fight scenes with real impact and thrills that are rarer in modern day action films than I’d like. It’s visceral, it’s uncompromising, it’s 900 other clichéd words you’ve heard from pretty much every other reviewer on the planet by this point but it works. It works. I was wincing at the more painful moves, laughing at some of the pitch black humour that litters the film, silently begging them to use that thing that was lying about the scene and then cheering when they did, on the edge of my seat during some of the closer fights and gasping in amazement at certain violent flourishes or impressive moves. So was everyone else in my screening. The Raid 2 delivers thrills aplenty during every single one of its action sequences (without wishing to spoil, the action scenes are not just hand-to-hand fight after hand-to-hand fight).
It also, and this is how confident I am in my opinion here that I am willing to go on official record with this, has my favourite fight scene of all time. In one absolutely heart-in-mouth beautiful sequence, everything in the film goes up to 12. The choreography, the sound work, the score, the camerawork, the violence and the pacing all come together to create a piece of ridiculously exciting, jaw-dropping and all of the available words in a thesaurus that still don’t quite adequately get across just how f*cking awesome it is. Wisely, the film saves it for the end and doesn’t even try to wrap up the plot with something close to its level and it absolutely justifies the ticket price and 2 hour build-up alone. Holy crap.
So, as you may be able to tell, I loved The Raid 2. It is not perfect, its plot is too convoluted, it has too many characters and strands that don’t go anywhere and it is 20 minutes too long by virtue of that too-wide scope, but I honestly don’t care. I am still high off of the energy I got from seeing it nearly 24 hours ago as I type these words. When it is on, almost nothing else comes close to the level that The Raid 2 is operating on and I order you to go and see it. I don’t care if extreme violence turns you off of films, I don’t care that you don’t want to read subtitles and I don’t care that you’re not old enough or don’t have any money, right now. I am ordering you to go and see The Raid 2 and to see it in cinemas. So do so.