Around five minutes into Welshman Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2 (2014), a door begins to shake. The camera dollies in as the lock starts to fall apart and a cacophony of impending violence builds on the other side. It’s a Pandora’s box of illicit possibility and, when it finally crashes open, Evans unleashes a tirade of lightening-fast martial arts, bringing us right back to the tight, visceral thrills of the film’s 2011 predecessor. But then it stops, and we’re sadly faced with a 150-minute gangster film that sags and drags when it should fly. Evans’ ambition in both expanding the scope of The Raid and refusing to trade on past glories is laudable, but the shift from lean, self-contained action film to baggy crime epic is fatal.
The events of The Raid 2 follow on immediately from the first, with Rama (Iko Uwais) recruited to go undercover with gangster Uko (Arifin Putra), a Sonny Corleone type with a hot temper and matinee idol looks, to uncover police corruption. Part of The Raid’s brilliance was in dealing with types rather than characters; familiar representations which were broad enough for genre-literate audiences to use their cinematic intuition to draw out the motives. Thus, Evans was in the privileged position of being able to focus entirely on his strengths; action and momentum. Nobody came away from the first extolling its dramatic arcs, but that’s what Evans has bafflingly decided to focus on with his sequel. The Raid 2 aspires to be the martial arts equivalent of Heat (1995), but comes away looking more like a soapy Serpico (1973).
There’s vast dramatic potential in the line between state control and underworld violence in modern Indonesia, but Evans is content to plod through every cinematic gangland cliché imaginable with little sense of nuance or thematic texture. It’s at once underwritten and underdeveloped, mistaking bloat for scope, and prone to insufferably indulgent longueurs that cover everything from outsourcing to child support payments. But the real tragedy is that the action becomes a victim of this convoluted dramatic glut. In The Raid, the fights built their own momentum and kept frantically propelling the film forward. While there are some fantastically constructed sequences – a mud-soaked prison riot proves an early highlight – they eschew the ruthless brutality of the first film, instead favouring elaborate grotesqueries.
Evans has unfortunately ended up with an uneasy duality at the heart of The Raid 2; a two-speed structure that veers from skilfully executed, albeit exaggerated, high-octane action to limp dramatic inertia. It’s puzzling then that this sequel has already been met with such rapturous praise from an apparent army of apologists, especially when Johnnie To’s similarly themed but far superior Drug War (2013) was mostly ignored. If genre fans are so concerned with finding the next great hope, they would be better served by admitting defeat on this one and getting behind the more proficient To.
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