When Fred Astaire starts dancing on the walls in “Royal Wedding,” it delivers that kind of fizzy tingle that film fans live for and pursue. When he gets to the ceiling, that tingle becomes a full-body endorphin rush that reminds you why you love the movies.
In “The Raid 2,” you get the tingle from the woman who pulls two claw hammers out of her trenchcoat on a packed subway car, and then you get the rush when she and those hammers work their way through a phalanx of bodyguards to get to her target.
That’s just one of about a dozen jaw-dropping sequences that the film has to offer; returning to the Jakarta underworld setting of its equally-thrilling predecessor, “The Raid 2” sees writer-director Gareth Evans painting on a wider canvas without skimping on getting the details right.
The first “Raid” used its very simple plot — policemen must kill all the criminal underlings in an apartment building to get to the kingpin in the penthouse — as the backdrop for stunning and brutal battles. They were staged in a variety of ways, in an ever-changing assortment of rooms, by Evans and fellow fight choreographers Yayan Ruhian and Iko Uwais.
This time, Evans (who’s also responsible for the breathtaking editing) re-teams with Ruhian and Uwais in a variety of locations, from a prison to an office to that subway car to a breathtaking climactic throw-down in a kitchen and restaurant. Even though the playing field has expanded, “The Raid 2” remains focused on action and forward momentum — taking advantage of expanded opportunities for plot and character without letting the energy level drop.
Uwais stars as Rama, the sole survivor of the first movie, and before he’s even had a chance to rest up from his earlier ordeal, he gets a new assignment: go undercover behind bars and get ingratiated with Uco (Arifin Putra), the only son of crime boss Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo). After saving Uco’s life on more than one occasion, Rama becomes Uco’s tight confederate, and when Rama finally finishes out the multi-year sentence (talk about devotion to undercover police work), there’s a job waiting for him in Bangun’s empire.
Uco is itchy to get more responsibility, and Bangun’s reluctance to hand the reins over to this vain hothead leads to problems — from Uco violating the fragile piece that Bangun has with the Japanese mob, to an all-out attempted coup that pits son against father. All the while, Rama tries to remain detached, even as he comes to realize that the police force has become so corrupted by Bangun and his cohorts that the line between cop and crook is, at best, blurry.
Plot, ultimately, is not what “The Raid 2” is about, but it does provide an underpinning for one great fight after another; they whiz by like an ultra-violent version of MGM musical numbers at their best. As with the great song-and-dance segments, you’ve got choreographers doing creative things with human bodies in motion, cinematographers (in this case, Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono) who always know where to put the camera, and an editor that makes it all flow in a way that’s both coherent and exciting.
Just when you think the movie has gotten as wonderfully, violently over-the-top as possible, it manages to keep upping the ante until its exhausting climax. It leaves you drained, but not enervated. And even if it doesn’t entirely justify its 150-minute running time, it’s hard to imagine what could be cut.
“The Raid 2” reminds us that great filmmaking doesn’t exist only in the rarefied world of the arthouse. It’s not just an excellent genre movie; it’s a genre movie that achieves excellence.