'The Raid 2' Is An Ultra-Violent Endurance Test [Sundance 2014 Review]

Editor's Note: The following review was originally published on January 22nd 2014 after the film's premiere at Sundance. The review is being republished as the film is being released in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, and expanding in the coming weeks.

In the case of an action movie like The Raid, I can't fault anyone who wants to set plot aside and simply enjoy the action. With The Raid 2, that approach becomes impossible. Writer/director/editor Gareth Evans puts lofty goals fully on display in this sequel, which expands in every direction relative to the original. The action is bigger and more diverse, the story is more complex, and more emphasis is placed on dramatic performances even as the film's physical demands intensify. Where the first was a tightly controlled action film that jettisoned all but the skeleton of a plot, this sequel is a huge crime tale featuring several criminal organizations competing for power, the police trying to catch up, and one young cop caught squarely in the middle.

Premiering the film at Sundance in a prime slot is a strange experiment of sorts. The Raid 2 isn't a thing for general audiences; this is a hardcore genre movie. The swirl of Evans' dramatic ambitions are punctuated by ultra-violent choreography, like a machine-gun snare drum tracked into a piece of classical music. It's a tricky balancing act. The Raid 2 navigates the test awkwardly at best, because the story never connects as solidly as do the film's thousand punches.

There's barely a break between the end of The Raid and this film's opening. Idealistic cop Rama (Iko Uwais) has escaped the criminal anthill apartment block in which the first film took place. He's "safe" in police custody, but his controller on the force explains that Jakarta is under the thumb of two crime families. The best way to give the cops some leverage is for Rama to go to prison, where he can connect with the son of one big crime boss. The gangster son in questions covets power with ruthless zeal, and much of the story is propelled by his actions and machinations.

All the dealings of the crime families never add up to much, however; it's an ugly morass of death and deceit. That could be a solid thematic bedrock upon which to build the film, especially with the splash-page combat as kinetic illustration of the conflict. There's little sense that Evans has such a thing in mind, however, and the film plays like a tribute to crime movies rather than a thing featuring characters consumed by their own concerns. No one in their right mind would want to step into the ring with Uwais, but as a dramatic actor he's a lightweight. Indeed, only a few cast members have the dramatic chops to keep the deep gangland story moving rather than being subsumed into the outrageous violence.

And the violence... this movie IS violence. A theatrical release of the Sundance cut bearing an MPAA rating is almost impossible to imagine.

Parallel to his increased dramatic aspirations, Evans has elevated his action chops into the stratosphere. The Raid 2 features more action variety and far more brutality than the first movie. Evans and his team have concocted several showstopping setpieces; there's enough action here for three films. Prepare to see every bone in a human body broken, and some evilly creative uses for common tools and sports equipment. The baseball bat sequences hinted at in trailers play like cruelly balletic comedy. The punchline is inscribed on an actual baseball, thrown into the mix, because why not?

Given the chance to watch the film a couple more times, one could spend hours writing feature-length breakdowns of at least five sequences in the film — segments of this movie are master classes in staging hand-to-hand fights. You'll see intersections of bodies you've never seen before, and some that you might wish you hadn't seen, depending on your level of tolerance for twisted and broken limbs. There's a car chase that is simply spectacular, not only for the action taking place in multiple vehicles, but for the digital editing that allows Evans to float a camera into and through multiple cars in one "shot."

Uwais is an incredible close-quarters fighter. He fights four other guys inside a small, moving sedan in the car chase, and fends off a literal wave of attackers in a toilet stall. A muddy prison riot features dozens of men writhing in a dun-brown vision of Hell. The climactic one-on-one fight is determination and exhaustion incarnated through martial arts.

Frankly, as incredible as any one fight scene can be, the aggregate can be a lot to handle, as Evans goes with a "more is more" approach. (That's after trimming a couple action scenes, because even Evans thought they were too much.) While there's more variety here than in the first film, there's still just so much human destruction to process. Blended with the equally heavy plot, the concoction might be more palatable if the elements were more complementary, or felt more thematically united. The end doesn't feel like an exuberant triumph, but the conclusion of a long slog.

Then again, this isn't a film meant for casual appreciation; The Raid 2 is a challenge. It's a film make by people who seem like they were simply unable, or unwilling to stop. Now audiences can face the endurance test as well.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10