When the Indonesian martial arts movie "The Raid: Redemption" began making the rounds at film festivals back in 2011, it gained instant popularity for its frenetic choreography, and became an impressive calling card for Welsh director Gareth Evans. Simultaneously bruising and taut, it was always going to be a tough act to follow — making it all the more beguiling that its sequel, "The Raid 2: Berandal," is grander and superior in every conceivable way. While its predecessor used John Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13" as a reference point, "The Raid 2" pulsates with countless other influences — "Yojimbo," "The Godfather," "Infernal Affairs" – and contains a finale that not so much mirrors but perfects Bruce Lee's unfinished masterpiece "Game of Death." This is a feat that raises the bar for modern action filmmaking, and while claims of its stature as greatest action film of all time might sound premature, they aren't unwarranted.
"The Raid 2" picks up hours after the first installment. Our hero Rama (Iko Uwais), his wounds sustained from an army of thugs still fresh, is brought before a special squad keen on cleansing the city of the reigning mafia as well as the police force that aids and abets them. It turns out that the crime lord Rama helped take down in "The Raid: Redemption" was but one midlevel spider amongst a massive web of criminality. In exchange for his family’s protection from these dark forces, Rama is asked to go undercover into the belly of the beast. Exhausted and disillusioned by his ordeal, he initially refuses, but accepts the task when he considers the prospects of personal vengeance. His mission calls for him to land in prison for a few months in order to befriend the incarcerated dark prince of the mob, Ucok. Almost immediately, Rama realizes that this quest will become much more complicated than that.
Evans populates this epic with a rogues' gallery of larger than life villains, each of them distinctive and fittingly despicable. Controlling the city are two crime lords: The local syndicate lead by the all-powerful Bangun, and the refined Goto, who exerts an equally iron fist from Japan. Ucok (Arifin Putra, sporting classic movie star looks), Bangun’s son and the man with whom Rama must ingratiate himself, is a petulant king-in-waiting all too eager to inherent his father’s crown, his sense of entitlement only matched by his ruthlessness. On the periphery is the ambitious upstart Bejo, whose arsenal includes a trio of assassins so outlandish they could comfortably reside on the pages of the wackiest of mangas. In a welcome piece of stunt casting, Yayan Ruhian (who played Mad Dog in the first installment) returns, reincarnated as another unstoppable berserker named Prakoso.
Undoubtedly the most astonishing aspect of "The Raid 2" are its action set pieces, which create the impression that "The Raid: Redemption" was just a warm up. Each one is preceded by a meticulously observed build up: We watch as some of the greatest martial artists in the world snap, gouge, and pummel every component of each other's anatomy with whatever object is at hand. The violence is jaw-dropping, with every evisceration leaving a traumatic reverberation in its wake, only to be outdone by the next gruesome strike. Evans (who not only directed but edited the film as well) catapults himself to the forefront of action directors, systematically tackling and outdoing just about every benchmark for combat in the pantheon. A mud-soaked brawl on a prison yard early in the film makes the opening turf battle of "Gangs of New York" look cute in comparison. A car chase sequence is so dizzyingly inventive it would send Jason Bourne spinning off of the pavement. Rama's kitchen-set showdown with Bejo’s most lethal henchman ranks among the greatest one-on-one fight sequences in recent memory.
This is not to suggest that the film’s pleasures exist only when the fists swing. Evans constructs an elegant narrative around the carnage, extrapolating a labyrinthine plot from the first film's spare scenario and handling the intrigue with a crystalline clarity. Iko Uwais, with his haunted eyes and no-bullshit dignity, once again portrays Rama as a decent man who slowly loses himself to the barbaric world he has become submerged in.
Still, Evans risks losing track of Rama's personal stakes in this expansive tale of ambition and betrayal, only to find him roaring back to the forefront in the film's third act. Arifin Putra also does great work as Ucok, his performance suggesting a deep-seated insecurity that comes close to eliciting sympathy for an otherwise monstrous character. However, the true stars of the film are Evans, his two cinematographers and three composers — the virtuosic camerawork and nerve-stabbing score make for a rapturous viewing experience. Indeed, if "The Raid: Redemption" was a thrashing drum solo, its sequel is the opulent symphony where every instrument is played with fevered inspiration.
Criticwire Grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics opens the film in New York and Los this Friday. Strong word of mouth is likely to yield a much larger haul than the first installment. The two-and-a-half hour running time and excessive violence may provide a deterrent for some audiences, but "The Raid 2" should gradually find its audiences as it opens across several markets in the coming weeks..
A version of this review originally ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.