Violence is such a constant in movies that we rarely appreciate when it's done well. The smallest hint of sexual content or nudity lands a film an R or a dreaded NC-17, but summer action blockbusters can inundate us with shootouts, explosions, car crashes, and off-screen deaths, and as long as there's no blood, they'll still get an all-access PG-13 rating. But that rampant, neutered mayhem desensitizes us to its shock, its impact. It just becomes this stuff that we see and never think about, so no wonder action scenes tend to be dished out with such careless abandon and edited together without much coherence or elegance.
The Raid 2 has other things going for it, but at its most elemental level, it's an action-thriller that turns violence into art. Even better than its predecessor, 2011's The Raid: Redemption, the sequel wants to wow us with its bloodshed and pummeling assault. In this movie, people get hit by fists, feet, doors, bats, baseballs, metal poles, swords, hammers, knives, cars, and water jugs. There's also gunplay, but not a lot: These characters mostly do battle through intimate face-offs. People who turn their nose up at movies with such high body counts are going to tsk-tsk this one, too, calling it numbing, excessive, or irresponsible. The Raid 2 may be morally reprehensible, but it's also smart and made with care—and unlike a lot of action flicks, there's a sense of weight and consequence to it all. Better this movie make a billion dollars than the next Transformers.
Where The Raid: Redemption was a martial-arts Die Hard—mostly confined to a building overrun with a crime lord's well-armed henchmen—The Raid 2 goes for an expansive, crime-thriller tone. The action still dominates, but now it's buttressed by a story that's a little less video-game simple. The new movie picks up right where the last one ended, as rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) recovers from everything he endured in Redemption to learn that his criminal brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) has been murdered by a ruthless gangster named Bejo (Alex Abbad). Plus, Rama's superiors want him to go undercover to infiltrate a crime syndicate ruled by taciturn, levelheaded boss Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo) and his spoiled, temperamental son Uco (Arifin Putra).
Rama's destiny puts him on a collision course not just with Uco, but also Bejo—who wants to disrupt the carefully orchestrated peace between Jakarta's crime families—and you can be sure that collision course will result in plenty of casualties and broken body parts. As with the first film, The Raid 2 was written and directed by Gareth Evans, a Welsh-born filmmaker who became interested in Indonesian martial arts (also known as pencak silat) several years ago. There was plenty of this balletic, hand-to-hand combat in Redemption—fight scenes were ferocious but also graceful, like a gruesome dance between combatants—but the first film was also exhausting, repetitive to the point of tedium.
The Raid 2 expands the original film's world, giving it more grandeur and scope, and at the same time figures out how to amplify the violence. Rama doesn't just fight people hand-to-hand: There are stunning how-did-they-do-that? car chases, nifty gunfights, and a stronger sense of taut tension even when the characters aren't trying to kill each other. (Rama has to maintain his fake identity within Bangun's syndicate, but also stay a step ahead of his police contacts, who may not have his best interests in mind.)
As a mayhem-maker, Evans definitely falls on the giddy-Tarantino side of the spectrum. (He's not amping up the carnage to serve some pointed critique; he wants us to fully enjoy the cracked skulls and acrobatic beatdowns.) But although The Raid 2 has its fair share of over-the-top moments—one baddie get his face grilled on a hot plate, others get their throats slit slowly one-by-one—the intelligence of the filmmaking is such that the gore is abundant without feeling excessive or oppressive. The Raid 2 is almost 50 minutes longer than Redemption, but it actually seems swifter than its predecessor, Evans pacing the movie so that you can take a breath between the action scenes, and so that the stakes can rise for Rama.
Buoyed by Redemption's success, the director also takes more risks here, and they almost all pay off. For example, I've seen The Raid 2 twice now, and I'm still not sure if one of its best action sequences is some sort of elaborate dream, partly inside the character's mind, or just completely defiant of logic because Evans decided it would look cooler that way. Redemption's unchecked audacity could elicit laughs; The Raid 2 might inspire a similar reaction, but only because Evans' confidence is infectious. Referencing not only Tarantino but also Nicolas Winding Refn, Stanley Kubrick, and Bullitt, he doesn't just want to make the greatest action movie ever, he also wants to make the darkest, most epic crime-thriller ever. That's an impossible task, but he's hellbent on trying.
The Raid 2 is horribly visceral, but it's fitting for a milieu in which everyone is a different shade of horrible except for Rama, the movie's one sliver of goodness fighting against a seemingly insurmountable tide of evil and corruption. I don't know how several of the actors playing Rama's punching bags don't have permanent brain damage or severed spines, and I also don't know how a movie with this much savagery got an R. (If Evans cut anything from the film since premiering it at Sundance, I didn't spot the changes.) That double-standard between sex and blood onscreen remains annoying, and The Raid 2 definitely uses the injustice to its advantage, but I won't fault it for that. If we're going to be inundated with violence anyway, let it be done as brilliantly as it's done here.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.