Among my circle of friends, the release of the sequel to 2011’s Indonesian action-stravaganza The Raid: Redemption has been looked forward to with the same manic anticipation as the second coming of Christ is in certain parts of the deep South. The first film came out of nowhere, a little-known foreign beat-em-up that became an international sensation, and since the announcement that director Gareth Evans and breakout star Iko Uwais would be returning for a sequel, with a much greater scope and budget than the first, the excitement’s been palpable, with some fans no doubt palping themselves on a daily basis.
The sequel starts off mere hours after the ending of the first film, with Iko Uwais’ Rama entering into an undercover operation to weed out corrupt cops. In order to do this, Rama is sent to prison to befriend the son of a prominent crime boss, the end goal being to gain entry into his father’s organization and uncover enough evidence to take out every corrupt police officer in one sweep. But you don’t go to an action movie to see everything work out exactly as planned and go off without a hitch, just like you don’t go to a strip club for prudence and carnal forbearance, and the organization is soon caught in a gang war with the local Yakuza family, with Rama caught in the center of it.
One of the worst things a sequel can do is try and ape what made the first one popular, repeating the formula with only minimal augmentation and trying to bring back as much of the scenarios and characters that made its predecessor work as possible. The Raid 2, for its faults, can at least be said to do the exact opposite, as the opening scene in which a major character from the first film is given a handgun lobotomy demonstrates. While the last one had a very gritty, dirty, almost DIY feel, The Raid 2 feels more polished and primped. The claustrophobic sets and locales of the previous film have been traded in for almost self-consciously expansive and open locations and compositions. The extremely simple narrative is gone, replaced by a more traditional cop thriller storyline, undercover cops, rival gang families, loyalty, betrayal, etc. It doesn’t feel like a continuation of the last film, more like a completely new movie that just sprang from the first, a change of gears that keeps things from getting stale or repetitive.
The thing is, I’m not entirely sure it’s quite a change in the right direction. While the middle and ending of the movie feel just about right for what I went in expecting, tightly paced and with a minimum of fucking around, the middle act could take home the gold in the Fucking Around Olympics, narrowly beating out myself when it’s time to write important final papers. A minor character who should barely be in the movie at all is given a needless backstory, details that should be minor are lingered on and scenes staunchly refuse to end, plonking themselves down on the floor like a spoiled kid pulling a tantrum in a Toys R’ Us. And while I can respect that director Evans clearly knew he couldn’t top himself in terms of sheer wall-to-wall fight scenes and wanted to try telling a more involved story, I can’t shake the feeling he went a bit too far in that.
Of course, when the movie remembers we’re hear to see people have their internal organs turned into red paste, things take on a more familiar shape. The action scenes are hard, brutal and usually incredibly fun. I say “usually” because the dark specter of shakey-cam will occasionally raise its devilish head to ruin our fun like Skeletor crashing an Eternian picnic. Thankfully, this only really becomes a problem a few times, and for the rest of the film the hand-held camera work never totally managed to obscure what I was seeing. The final fight scene is downright comprehensible, and easily the best fight in the entire film, and other scenes like the debut of mini-bosses Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man similarly stand out.
What made the first Raid such a singular and unique experience, bone-crunching fight scenes aside, was how much of it was driven by tension rather than excitement. The characters were alone, isolated, trapped in an environment so hostile that it often that the walls would take a swipe at them if given the chance. It lent the film a sense of urgency, an energy that kept the viewer interested. It’s that mood that gave the film most of its character, really. For Evans to try and re-create that, concocting some reason for Rama to be trapped in another desperate, high tension situation would have been foolhardy, and the decision to go for an entirely new vibe for this film was well advised, but possibly poorly executed. While the first film had that drive, that urgency, Raid 2’s crime thriller story often feels like it’s dragging its feet. The film could have counteracted this and managed to preserve a lot of the drive and energy of the first one by cutting down the overly long running time and quickening the pace of the movie, but as it is, Raid 2’s worst enemy are the numerous dead spots dotted throughout the middle act.
Of course, none of this is to say The Raid 2 is a bad movie, it’s still really, really good. The fight scenes and action set pieces are mostly excellent, and I when the film picks up for the final showdown, it never stops….but the sad truth is, it’s one of the latest in a long line of sequels that doesn’t totally live up to the original. It’s still a great fight movie and not a half bad crime thriller on top of that, but the breakneck pace that made the first film what it is is gone for a lot of the film, and it suffers for it.