It was easy to miss The Raid 2 when it opened in theaters stateside a few months ago, considering the sequel to a 2012 action movie from Indonesia — a country that hasn't otherwise made much headway exporting its cinema into the U.S. — is the work of Gareth Evans, an up-and-coming Welsh director who's made Jakarta his home.
The movie's star, Iko Uwais, actually worked as a driver for a telecom company before Evans put him on screen, which is all the more interesting because The Raid 2 isn't just one of the best, most bruising action flicks of the year, it's a throwback to an era when a movie could be built around the incredible physical skills of its performers. The hero of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, for example, is able to swing with impossible limberness between the pylons of a power station in his big fight because he's computer generated — a triumph of technology, not athleticism. But The Raid 2's main special effects are Uwais, who practices the traditional Indonesian martial art of pencak silat. He and his fellow flesh-and-blood co-stars battle in prison courtyards and luxe nightclubs, crashing through windows and having wild shootouts while speeding down a road in colliding cars.
Here's why the movie, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today, is a reminder of the pleasures of old-school action.
1. The action fills the frame.
Movies these days tend to favor shorter shots and quicker cuts that bombard the viewer with visual information, but things like fighting or dancing look much more impressive when they're given the full range of movement and audiences can see a stunt hasn't just been pieced together in an editing room. Evans and his cinematographers. Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, shoot the action sequences in longer, fluid takes, so you can see where people on screen are in relation to one another — all the better to appreciate how deftly Uwais' character Rama snaps some guy's tibia.
A scene in which Rama tries to protect someone in the middle of a muddy prison riot finds the camera tracking through the brawl, turning briefly away from Rama to catch two men trying to make a run for it and another flinging a guard to the ground, where prisoners immediately start kicking him. Though the events are chaotic, the filmmaking, choreography, and sense of space are very precise. As people are fighting in The Raid 2, their full bodies are usually in the frame, and the camera follows the action in some innovative ways — when a man gets flung through a window, it's there on the other side to catch his body arcing to hit the ground.
2. The fights get bigger and badder as the movie progresses.
Non-stop action can get numbing, a charge you could level against the first Raid, which took place entirely in a criminal-infested apartment building and included a video-game-style series of clashes up the various levels. But The Raid 2, which picks up a few hours after the first installment left off, expands massively in scope by throwing Rama undercover in the midst of a war between corrupt cops, a local gang led by Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo) and his impatient son Uco (Arifin Putra), some Japanese mobsters, and an upstart criminal named Bejo (Alex Abbad). The crime epic stretches over the course of years, and therefore, the film has more space to modulate the fighting, which builds from prison melees to fee-collecting forays to much deadlier disputes.
Uwais isn't a bad leading man — he's more comfortable and expressive in this film than in the last — but The Raid 2 also distributes the physical duties among other cast members, including the wiry Yayan Ruhian, one of the choreographers, whose character was killed off in the first film but who was too good not to be brought back to play another character in the sequel. And a trio of formidable assassins who favor unconventional weapons mean the movie ramps up into some phenomenally brutal final sequences, with Julie Estelle stealing the show as a hammer-wielding killer who uses the claw part of the tool to bloody effect.
3. Its hero may be tough, but he's far from invincible.
The neatest sign of growth for Evans in The Raid 2 is the way that Rama takes on physical and psychological wear and tear as the movie goes along. He's not having a grand adventure — he's out of his depths, separated from his wife and child, and he's reporting to a man who doesn't seem terribly concerned with his well-being. The fight sequences in the sequel may be a marvel of human agility and talent, but the film foregrounds human fragility. Bones break, cuts leave scars, and when someone's head is smashed into a wall, there's blood. Yes, The Raid 2 is hilariously violent, but it's not cartoonishly so, and the violence exacts its toll on our hero.
Rama doesn't get to shrug off wounds — the last part of the film is a wince-worthy collection of scenes in which people try very convincingly to kill one other, and there's no walking away unscathed. But his experiences weigh him down psychologically as well. Uwais is a solemn actor who manages to look sad-eyed even as he is holding someone's face down on a sizzling griddle. Plus, he's frequently posed with his head down, as if girding himself for what's next. Rama may have a gift for brutality, but he doesn't enjoy it, which makes the crescendo toward the end of the film more impactful — trauma is trauma, even when you're partly its cause.
For a movie that leaves bodies piled up, The Raid 2 doesn't dull the impact of the violence it gleefully and thrillingly depicts.