There’s a scene in Matrix Revolutions where Morpheus, Trinity and Seraph go to meet with the Merovingian in an attempt to free Neo. They go up an elevator in the club, the door opens and all hell breaks loose … in a scene that looks and plays a lot like the scene from the original Matrix where Neo and Trinity go in an attempt to free Morpheus, enter the lobby of an office building and all hell breaks loose. It was bizarrely redundant, maybe an attempt by the Wachowskis to comment on the repetitive nature of life, that when you continue the same violent patterns, you get the same results. If so, it was unnecessary, particularly in a film trilogy so laden with symbolism and depth of story-telling that it could have used a little more lightness, if anything.
To me, that’s what The Raid felt like: A well-made action film packed with bizarrely redundant fight scenes. After the initial assault on a drug lord’s bunker-like apartment building goes haywire, the SWAT team and none of the dealers seem to have guns or ammo. So on the one hand, you end up with this bad-ass trudge up story after story as our hero cop, Rama, whips one hardcore gang fighter after another, hoping to finish the job and return safely to his family. On the other hand, you have this incredibly redundant set of hand-to-hand fight scenes limited by the setting. It’s not that some battles don’t stand out, but by-and-large it just seems to be a lot of the same moves over and over, something more akin to video games than film. It doesn’t hurt the movie much, mostly because the fight scenes are so well choreographed and because Raid: Redemption moves quickly, not giving the viewer much time to dwell on it. But after watching it once, I felt no compulsion to see it again.
Flash forward to my viewing of The Raid 2.
Oh. My. God.
The scene linked above is amazing. It’s key to the plot, as Rama is now undercover, trying to insinuate himself into the inner circle of Uco, the only child of a gang chief. He has to keep Uco alive in prison, which is hard to do because Uco’s pretty high-profile and very much an asshat. And Rama has to keep himself alive, as he’s already dealing with a target on his own back. The fight itself is amazing, the choreography, the mud and the fact that the bulk of the scene is long, uncut, single-shot action. Director Gareth Evans and cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono show off in the least showy way possible, making the story and action the focus, not drawing attention to the fancy stuff they can do with a camera even as they do it.
And that scene may be the third of fourth best action/fight scene in the film. Let that sink in.
Edwards, who also wrote the script, is freed here. It’s pretty obvious that the success of Raid: Redemption gave the filmmaker and muse/fight choreographer Iko Uwais, who plays Rama, the cheddar to get crazier on the second one. The car chase fight is worth the price of admission, something you can do with the kind of money and time Edwards and Co. likely didn’t have with the original. It’s nice to see a director who gets an opportunity and doesn’t just add more violence, more gunfights and more explosions, but better violence, better gunfights and better explosions.
The writer-director also doesn’t just limit improvements to the look and action of the film. The cast is broad and the story is more intricate than its predecessor, mixing clean and dirty cops, Idonesian and Japanese gangsters. All of this revolves around the simplicity that guided the first film. Rama is a man who worships God, loves his family and believes fiercely in justice. That is all that drives him in the first film, and all that drives him in the second. He has no politics, no desires, is incorruptible. From that simplicity springs a story that is part The Godfather, part The Departed, and quite possibly results in a film than is better than either.
I know, that last part sounds like heresy. But The Raid 2 is that good, up there with the Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather 2 and Aliens as a sequel that (arguably) surpasses its original. I think, had this been an English-language film made by an American studio, this is the kind of film that could have been in the conversation during awards season.
It will be interesting to see where Edwards and Uwais go next, if they maybe take it to a foreign locale so they can go with an English-speaking cast. My guess is no, since Tony Jaa has been rumored to make an appearance in the third go-round. On the one hand, that will limit its American exposure, which I find disappointing. On the other hand, I don’t mind being one of the few in this particular cult.