More or Less, by David Bax
If you haven’t seen The Raid: Redemption or you haven’t seen it in a while, you may want to do so before you see the first ten minutes of The Raid 2. Director Gareth Evans drops you right back into the world of the previous film. Only about two hours have passed in the interim. You will be completely at sea (much like the body of one of the two people who get murdered at the film’s start) if you don’t remember how things left off. But, again, that’s only for the first ten minutes. After that, we may as well have started fresh. This is essentially a standalone story contrived into a sequel to the buzziest action film in years. That movie’s success gave Evans more money to work with and, along with it, a vision that is both grander and more mundane. In expanding his scope to include a dozen shopworn crime story clichés, Evans has spread thin, leaving gaps in the undeniable acceleration that marked The Raid: Redemption. What we’re left with is a sequel that is both bigger and more meager than its predecessor.
After dealing swiftly with the aftermath of the previous entry, The Raid 2 places our cop hero, Rama (Iko Uwais), undercover in prison, where his mission is to befriend the incarcerated son of one of Jakarta’s biggest gangsters. He succeeds and, once released, is embedded in the daily goings-on of the crime family. If this reminds you of The Departed, then you will also find familiar the large servings of stoic and ultimately empty moral angst that also marked Scorsese’s similarly oversized trifle.
The original film had bits here and there of that same existential hand-wringing but the balletic violence never paused long enough for them to weigh things down. The Raid 2 is nearly an hour longer but doesn’t seem to contain any more action. In fact, the self-serious dramatic padding rather gives the impression of far less action in total. Presumably, we’ve come to the theater to see a new volume of one of the most celebrated action films of the century so far but those expectations are thwarted time and again. Evans has increased the scope and decreased the fun.
Of course, there are plenty of attempts at fun but they are so self-conscious and winking, they cheapen the whole affair. A blind woman who fights with hammers is corny enough to be a villain in a James Bond movie. But her scenes are practically docudrama compared to the guy who carries a bat and baseballs, whacking them with pinpoint accuracy at his prey. That’s just cartoonish, not to mention glaringly inappropriate alongside the general sadism (bad guys who aren’t killed occasionally have their Achilles tendons sliced to incapacitate them). I had problems with some of the logical inconsistencies of the first Raid but that one also used its setting and premise to explain away some of the martial arts movie tropes. Most of the attackers were actually poor residents of the apartment tower. They had no guns, little training and there were plenty of them, all completely expendable to the villain. This time around, Evans seems to pick and choose at his own convenience when firearms are an option and offers no explanation as to why the crime syndicate has so, so many men it’s willing to sacrifice. It is, technically, a business they’re running, right?
Complaints aside for just a second, one positive element carried over from the original (besides the excellent choreography, of course) is the quality of the acting. When a film’s raison d’etre is fight scenes, other facets tend to suffer. But Uwais remains the sympathetic tough guy while Tio Pakusodewo and Arifin Putra – as the gangster and his son, respectively – imbue their stock characters with a potent familial tension. Behind the camera, cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono imbue Jakarta with the same stark and imposing beauty Wally Pfister brings to Christopher Nolan’s films. Still, it’s not clear what all of this is for. When it comes to themes, Evans borrows from more than just The Departed. There’s the generational discord of The Godfather and the “everything changes/nothing changes” malaise of The Sopranos. There’s also a weird emphasis placed on when characters do and don’t choose to have a drink but that peters out, as do the hints at a comparison between Indonesia’s urban and rural populace to be found in the fact that Rama’s cover is that of a nobody from the countryside. Only one allegory resonates. As in the first film, we are never allowed to forget that Rama has a family. He gets to spend almost no time with them in either installment but we know they’re what he’s fighting for in the end. His family, his city, his country; Rama is the selfless protector against the dangers that perpetually encroach. I truly hope that Evans sees this through in the inevitable third installment.
I nearly forgot to mention that the score is also an improvement (given that the first film was released in the States with music by Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, it would almost have to be). Rather than the work of one guy behind a laptop, it sounds like it took a large room full of people with instruments to make and it sounds like it cost some money. The increased budget is all over the screen, from the expansive and lush sets to the admittedly freaking astounding car chase sequence. There also appears to be more CG blood this time around. That digitized, pricey fakeness speaks to The Raid 2’s underlining problem. It’s scaled way up in size but not in substance.