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With any luck, The Raid 2: Berandal will do for action choreography what The Bourne Supremacy did for action cinematography: not just raze the existing conventions, but reinvent them so thoroughly that other filmmakers will have no choice but to follow in director Gareth Evans’ footsteps.
A sweeping, Shakespearean opus that expands and deepens what the writer-director accomplished in The Raid: Redemption, the sequel announces Evans as one of the world’s preeminent action filmmakers, combining the tightly packed, meticulously constructed nucleus of its story with a sprawling ballet of violence that resonates with emotional meaning even as it provides irresistible, visceral thrills.
The indefatigable Iko Uwais (The Raid: Redemption) returns as Rama, the One Good Cop whose survival of the events of the first film has sadly jeopardized his safety on the police force and endangered his family. Offered an unenviable deal in exchange for protection of his wife and son, Rama goes undercover in prison to win the loyalty of Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of a crime boss named Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo) whose organization he must infiltrate. But when Uco brokers a deal with ambitious upstart Bejo (Alex Abbad) to force his father to launch a turf war with his Goto (Kenichi Endo), Rama is forced to juggle the criminal demands of his fake bosses while supplying information to his real ones.
At two hours and 30 minutes, The Raid 2 is almost an hour longer than its predecessor, and yet it breezes by almost effortlessly, thanks to Evans’ skillful plotting. As exposition-heavy as the first 10 minutes may seem, they literally set up the whole film – where Rama came from, who he’s dealing with, what his task is, and why he can’t refuse it. It’s a risky but shrewd move, because the film demands no further explanation to be understood: Each new development unfolds as a direct consequence of the previous one, and each action scene both serves the machinery of the plot and escalates the intensity of Rama’s journey. And amazingly, the result is a movie that boasts incredible, elaborate fight sequences almost from start to finish and none of them seem superfluous or self-indulgent.
If The Raid was an Indonesian Die Hard, Berandal is its Infernal Affairs/The Departed, which should give you a sense of the complexity (and emotional underpinnings) of Rama’s plight. The difference between Uwais’ character and, say, Leonardo DiCaprio’s, is that his undercover activities exorcise his personal rage – his own appetite for vengeance – rather than merely torturing him, although they do that too. But the actor handles the drama as effectively as he does the action choreography, and the cloud that descends over Rama’s initially clear-eyed view of morality becomes a powerful subtext to battles where his opponents may or may not actually be his enemies.
As for the action, there are few films in the past decade, including its predecessor, that maintain an energy like in The Raid 2 – one that’s both balletic and visceral. Evans’ maturity has appreciated since the first film, and with each set piece he seems to have a more comfortable grasp on how to stage fights rhythmically, shoot them clearly, and capture their emotional energy. Some of the sequences, of course, are simply breathless and riveting, but others are tragic, poignant, even cathartic. There’s an amazing level of proficiency he demonstrates – sometimes using quick cuts and others creating long takes – which legitimizes Uwais’ skill as a fighter and choreographer even as it bolsters his own authority as a storyteller.
With another installment yet to come in the Raid series, one can only imagine what Evans has cooking for audiences, as this film seems designed to pummel them senseless, in the best possible way. But ultimately that’s what’s great about his filmmaking, and The Raid 2 in particular: Where the first film felt like a gritty, hardcore tribute to the martial artists and films that inspired it, this one blooms more fully, not only feeling like its own entity, but offering much thrills that are significantly more democratic.
If you simply want to see expert choreography performed expertly – down-and-dirty kicks and punches, traded with power and virtuosity – the film delivers. If you want big characters and bold ideas – people with special, idiosyncratic, even iconic skills – they’re built into the story. And if you want an adventure that has real dramatic resonance and personal intimacy, it has that too. Ultimately, no matter how violent, outlandish or devastating it eventually becomes, The Raid 2: Berandal is a rare sort of action masterpiece, because it allows you to trade places with its hero emotionally as well as physically – and like him, you feel battered and exhausted at the end, and are still ready for more.
The Raid 2: Berandal opens today in select cities.