To paraphrase Idiocracy, we used to care whose head was getting slammed into the Hibachi grill and why. As if to answer that question, The Raid 2 takes a substantially different tack from that of its 2011 predecessor, adding a convoluted plot and only intermittently attending to the sort of acrobatic ass-kicking for which the original became a global smash. Indeed, until its spectacular final act, the movie scans as a generic Asian Extreme gangster saga, whose endless double-crosses owe much to Infernal Affairs, Takeshi Kitano’s yakuza smackdowns, and Johnnie To’s triad films. The result may be a reversal of fandom: Those who (heresy alert?) felt benumbed by the first movie’s relentless gamer onslaught now have a bit more story to grab ahold of. Those who show up exclusively for the beat downs will have to contend with existential hand-wringing, as hero cop Rama (Iko Uwais) goes undercover to infiltrate the organization of mob leader Bangun (Tia Pakusadewo). As in Infernal, whether he’ll ever extricate himself from his fictions is an open question.
Leaving his family behind (if not putting them out of risk), Rama assumes the name Yuda and spends two years in prison befriending the big man’s son, Ucok (Arifin Putra), proving his aptitude by singlehandedly taking out Ucok’s protectors in a wall-smashing, muddy jailhouse brawl. The underworld scion resents his father’s conciliatory attitude toward encroaching Japanese crime families, and forms an alliance with another rival (Alex Abbad), who’s first seen administering a Casino-style desert execution over a thudding soundtrack. Director Gareth Evans frames each pool of blood like a chef who’s fussed over a plate, but his sense of proportion is off. Over a wildly unjustified 148 minutes, the betrayals are belabored and inflated. The movie even takes time out for the marital woes of Bangun’s giant-haired hitman (Yayan Ruhian), in a digression that admittedly has an emotional payoff. Shot with a sleek geometry, the father-son business dynamic is regarded as if it had the gravity of Barry Lyndon; a particularly treacherous assassination sequence even quotes that movie’s use of Handel’s “Sarabande.”
Which, again, at least varies the content a bit. But what sets The Raid 2 apart, albeit in more prudently parceled doses this time, is still its artfully choreographed combat. The movie saves its best wares for late in the game, including a subway hit at the hands of a character called Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and a show-stopping finale—a balletic, 20-minute sequence in which Rama cuts his way through hallways and a kitchen to the top of the gangster hierarchy. The action is at once horrifying and absurdly cartoonish (a baseball bat yields a particularly gruesome coup de grace), but Uwais’ dexterity inspires awe; more than in the first film, there’s a sense of his exhaustion as the action grinds on and his wounds grow more gaping. It’s hard not to break a sweat at this gorgeously sustained filmmaking—the first time in the movie when Evans seems to rediscover the concept of pacing. Still, like Rama, it’s also tempting to wonder whether it was all worth it.