When it comes to action blockbusters, it’s hard to think of a time before Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich and co brought their unique style of loud, mega-budget destruction to the masses. And while comic-book movies scratch a certain explosion-y itch, it’s been a long time since the action genre felt like it had a genuine edge.
Which is why The Raid 2 hits all the harder. Pun very much intended. Adrenalin-fuelled, gloriously CGI-lite, and with a scope and variety that belies its origins and budget, it’s already a heavy contender for the giddiest, most thrilling action ride of the year.
Its 2011 predecessor proved an effectively kinetic enough calling card for many to sit up and pay attention to Welsh director Gareth Evans. The tale of a drug bust gone hideously, bloodily wrong, it centred on one insanely brave cop’s desperate mission to scale and then take down a tower block full of psychotic criminals. How? By using the ancient art of punching people very hard in the face.
Yet while it was never anything but taut, spectacularly choreographed and wincingly violent, it also drew apt criticism for its narrative and conceptual simplicity. Part Assault On Precinct 13, part videogame beat ’em up, it was clear that a simple retread wouldn’t suffice for a sequel.
Kicking off straight after the end of The Raid 1.0, part two sees battered-and-bruised cop Rama (Iko Uwais) made keenly aware of how hollow his victory actually is. The crime lord he defeated was but a mid-level grunt in an expansive underworld.
To guarantee his family’s safety, Rama must go undercover – first in prison, to get close to Ucok (Arifin Putra), the son of a mob boss, and later as a trusted enforcer for the family he’s meant to destroy. Throw in Ucok’s own pretensions to his father’s crime crown, a burgeoning gang war with a rival Japanese dynasty, and an assassin-spawning wildcard intent on overruling all, and soon Rama realises he’s in way over his head.
On paper, this tale of fathers, sons, gangland crime wars, and undercover cops trapped by the corruption they’re trying to overcome isn’t anything new. A hotchpotch of Infernal Affairs and The Godfather, it may not be narratively original, but it’s bolstered by a host of dramatic performances that grip as easily as the action. A simmering stew of petulance, arrogance and daddy issues, Putra is a particular stand-out.
Then there’s returning-as-a-new-character Yayan Ruhian, excellent as a deadly, valiant vagabond. Both embark on emotional journeys that belie the simplicity of the set-up. Meanwhile, a host of eccentric, almost Tarantino-esque psychopaths entertain as swiftly as they shock (the petition for a spin-off featuring the brilliantly named Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man starts here).
True, certain secondary storylines get lost amid the politics: Rama’s motivations rapidly fade into the background, and the issue of who’s double-crossing whom and for what can occasionally confuse. But The Raid 2 essays an ambitious and admirable shift in genre, opening up a scope far beyond the confines of its predecessor.
Evans relishes the switch-up, crafting set-piece after set-piece guaranteed to have you scraping your jaw up off the floor. The sheer imagination on show, both in the cinematography and choreography, guarantees each brawl is instantly iconic.
A breathless toilet-based takedown (Rama, trapped in a cubicle against 20 bustling goons) is just the audacious start. Notable highlights include a freewheeling and visceral 30 to 40-person prison-yard brawl, a thrillingly crafted, bone-crunchingly destructive car chase, a wryly funny trio of gangland assassinations, and a tense, violently balletic kitchen-based finale that echoes Bruce Lee’s unfinished masterpiece Game Of Death (by way of a particularly narked-off Gordon Ramsay).
Immaculately edited, each traumatic, tensely tactile fight would blur into chaos if not for Evans’ pinpoint pacing – there’s an ebb and a flow to the aggro woven around the storyline. The director also flaunts a knack for turning sedate moments into explosive ones – something that refreshes all the more in the face of modern blockbusting’s tendency to start big and just keep getting bigger, until burnout.
The Raid 2 may not be the best action, gangster, or even martial-arts movie ever made. But as a combination of all three, it’s unparalleled in recent memory and offers a tantalising glimpse into a post-Bayhem action-movie world. Brutal, beautiful and brilliant.
Sumptuously shot, perfectly paced and flat-out exhilarating, The Raid 2 cements Evans as the best action director working today. Fight aficionados should brace themselves for a bruising, blistering ride.