For a certain type of moviegoer, perhaps the type who, during the screening I attended, audibly applauded as a man's face was slow-cooked on a steaming griddle, The Raid 2 may very well be the best movie of all time. For many others it'll mostly rank as exhausting, a definitive technical achievement that varies between impressive feats of action showmanship and grueling beat-'em-up marathons. Improving on the taxing linear action of the original, it elevates chop-socky filmmaking to new highs in terms of conception and choreography, while remaining too focused on the relentless blur of fists and feet (and their resultant damage) to really rank as beautiful or compelling.
Unlike The Raid: Redemption, which turned the action into the entire focus, this larger-in-every-sense sequel revolves around a routine gang-war storyline constructed around careworn notions of familial strife and betrayal. This means a lot more work for Rama (Iko Uwais), the hero cop who, instead of being rewarded with a vacation after surviving the brutal onslaught of the first film, is sent deep undercover by a shady CID unit, infiltrating Jakarta's all-powerful criminal cartels to weed out the rampant corruption in the city's police force. It's a functional storyline, familiar but well executed, though mostly just connective tissue for the heaps of frantic set pieces. Rama's long-suffering wife gets introduced as a reminder of the stakes involved, but like most of the characters sketched out here, she only exists on the periphery, a dangling carrot for a beaten-down marionette of a hero, forced to fight incessantly for our amusement.
It doesn't help that director Gareth Evans hails from the Chris Nolan school of operatic incoherence, cutting fight scenes into ribbons, arcing everything toward the spectacular while foregoing the small stuff that might help make those big moments mean something. And while his fight scenes at least have a consistent point of view, it's that of a wide-eyed observer stumbling through the action, always in search of the coolest possible vantage, the camera drawn magnetically to each instance of bone-crunching mayhem. This means a lot of up-close shots of split limbs and busted faces, and while the staging of these melees is surely something to behold, the insistent way in which they gravitate toward bloodshed, and the overall length of the film, make for a deadening experience.
That's unfortunate, since there's a lot to appreciate here, from one of the best car chases in recent memory to the spectacle of emotional exhaustion communicated via an endless series of brawls. Yet unlike truly transcendent action films, in which the physical battles become part and parcel of a broader expression of conflict, The Raid rarely puts its combat in any context. It's all showy viscera, no ballet, and wan attempts at the gravity of something like Drug War, with implicit statements made about the deadening nature of violence or the moral equivalency of state-sanctioned and criminal force, don't come close to cohering. What the film delivers is the spectacle of a skilled martial artist manhandling roughly half the population of Indonesia, with a director who understands his collaborator's skills, and knows how to carve out ample space for him to operate. It's not the most high-minded experience, but it at least comes with the satisfying assurance that any room introduced will be totally laid to waste, that each character who enters will exit sufficiently bruised and beaten, and that viewers will leave the theater feeling similarly pummeled into submission.