Poor Rama. The last time we saw the baby-faced Indonesian rookie cop in 2011's excellent The Raid: Redemption, he had just fought his way up a 15-floor apartment building filled with violent criminals. All he wanted was to get back to his pregnant wife alive. But within the first few minutes of The Raid 2, Rama is forced to go undercover in a prison to infiltrate a powerful crime family. If he doesn't, he'll risk the lives of his young family. Things only get worse from there.
Welsh-born, Indonesia-based filmmaker Gareth Evans had a similarly crappy choice to make with this sequel. One of the best things about Redemption was the unrelenting action—the start-to-finish stunts and gore that left viewers alternately grinning and wincing as star and fight choreographer Iko Uwais delivered a master class in the martial art of pencak silat. Evans could have followed a similar format here and pleased many fans, but the final product never would have been as good, and both he and Uwais might easily have faded back into obscurity faster than you can say "Ong-bak 2." Instead, the filmmaker has taken the bigger budget and longer production time he earned from the original's unexpected international success and attempted something much grander and more ambitious.
When Redemption was released, it was often compared to a video game, with Rama working his way up the decrepit apartment building, level by level, bad guy by bad guy, to finally face the boss. You might liken it to the original 1993 version of Doom—a contained world with minimal plot and character development.
The Raid 2—originally subtitled Berandal, an Indonesian term for "thug"—has more in common with a modern title like Grand Theft Auto V or Far Cry 3. The story is sprawling, encompassing three different criminal organizations with multiple plots and major characters. The formerly one-dimensional Rama gets a bit more personality, changing fundamentally as he gets deeper inside the criminal underground and the ethical lines of his assignment become increasingly blurred. If The Raid 2 were indeed a video game, it would have multiple playable characters, allow free-roaming all over Jakarta, and have several possible endings—none of them entirely happy.
This adds up to a lot more downtime between fight scenes, sacrificing the brutal pace that made the first film so much fun. But it also gives Evans the opportunity to prove he is a filmmaker capable of far bigger things, and Uwais—who was a delivery driver before Evans put him on the big screen—the chance to show he has the acting chops to pull them off.
And while there is less action, the bigger budget means the fight scenes that do take place are even more gloriously graphic and over the top. One particularly epic prison-yard brawl exceeds anything in Redemption in both scale and entertainment value. Uwais continues to impress with his jaw-dropping combat skills, as well as his delightful penchant for creative weaponry—this time around, claw hammers, baseballs, a hot plate and soy sauce bottles are all employed in the service of killing and maiming.
If The Raid 2 is not quite as consistently compelling as its predecessor, it holds much more promise. If we have to sit through a few scenes of old Indonesian men arguing about their drug-dealing operations to get more of these guys on U.S. screens, I'm glad both Rama and Evans chose to take the tougher road.
Critic's Grade: B+
SEE IT: The Raid 2 is rated R. It opens Friday at Cinema 21, Movies on TV, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Bridgeport, City Center.