“It’s a question of ambition really,” says up-and-coming gangster Bejo (Alex Abbab) at the beginning of The Raid 2. “Let me rephrase that: it’s a matter of limitation.”
Ambition and limitation are key dynamics in Gareth Evans’ sequel to his 2011 action film. The cruel yet calculating Bejo is “in this for the long run”, regarding the bid to muscle and manipulate his way to criminal supremacy as a “step-at-a-time thing” – and his ascent is parallelled throughout by that of undercover cop Rama (Iko Uwais), who is also playing a long game, seeking not only to bring down from the very top the criminality and corruption that almost killed him in the first film, but also to avenge his brother Andi, murdered by Bejo.
Secretly debriefed and recruited just hours after the end of the first film, Rama is told by his slippery new police handler Bunawar (Cok Simbara): “Today never happened, you were never there.” It is a sly admission that the original film’s Aristotelian unity of time and place is about to be swept under the carpet and replaced with a different kind of story on a wholly new scale and scope – for Rama’s deep-cover operation in Indonesia’s underworld will last not a single day, or even the “few months” that he promises his pregnant wife, but many years of isolation, disguise and paranoia. Yet in his reluctant mission, ironically shared by Bejo, to topple the entire criminal establishment, Rama will continue to be constrained and restricted by his circumstances, as ambition and limitation prove two sides of the same coin.
In order to get close to elder kingpin Bunwar (Tio Pakusodewo), Rama must first spend several years locked away in prison winning the gradual trust of Bunwar’s overweening son Uco (Arifin Putro) – and as a visual analogue to the limitations being placed on our hero, the film’s first fight will pit him against an army of convicts within the claustrophobic confines of a toilet cubicle, while a later, longer skirmish will unfold in the equally confining interior of a speeding vehicle. Once out of jail, as he slowly ascends in Bunwar’s organisation, Rama must constantly hide his identity and contain his true nature, for fear of being killed and bringing the film to an end. For while The Raid 2 may have moved out of the towerblock, its characters are all still caught in very much the same deathtrap of ambition, violence and treachery – and even as we watch Rama eventually, inevitably fight his way messily up and out, the film itself is also breaking free both of the limitations inherited from its predecessor, and of the prisonhouse of genre itself.
Evans does this by taking all manner of stock generic tropes – jailyard scraps, internecine gangland struggles, hit jobs, car chases, and even a climactic raid on a building that recalls the original The Raid – and pushes them to and beyond all known limits. Why not have a duo of assassins (Julie Estelle, Very Tri Yulisman) whose brutally deployed weapons of choice are a pair of claw hammers and a baseball bat (with ball)? Why not set a fist- and gun-fight amidst a bumping, grinding vehicular rush through heavy traffic? And why not climax with a prolonged kitchen face-off between Rama and a sickle-bearing killer (Cecep Arif Rahaman) that merges high-precision combination moves with bruising aggression, in what must qualify as one of the most exhilaratingly punishing martial arts combats ever committed to film?
All these sequences represent an aggressive expansion of genre’s boundaries, making The Raid 2 the latest in a long line of action films (John Woo’s Hardboiled, Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong-bak, even Evans’ own The Raid) that go further than all that has gone before them. Of course, much as every old boss will eventually be replaced by a new one, The Raid 2 must at some point yield its crown to the next great actioner, so that its themes of endless, bloody succession are also a self-conscious reflex. Yet for now, The Raid 2‘s time has definitely come – and for all its ambition, it also knows both its own limitations and when to admit that it is done (at least until the next sequel). Beautifully shot, compellingly choreographed, and rivetingly edited, The Raid 2 is two-and-a-half thrilling hours of genre so perfectly pure that you could bottle it, smash the bottle & thrust the broken end repeatedly into your enemy’s throat.
© Anton Bitel