Gareth Evans' follow-up to the Indonesian martial arts action cult hit "The Raid" takes an approach almost diametrically opposed to that of its predecessor whilst still retaining its impactful action and skilled filmmaking. Which one you prefer will depend greatly upon how you prefer your action films and, frankly, your attention span.
The first 'Raid' was about as streamlined an action movie as you could get - there was no plot beyond the basic one-line premise, no real thematic depth, and no characterisation of any kind until the last half-hour. It was a one-set piece with a bunch of nameless guys engaging in over choreographed violent ballets that bore little resemblance to reality and often went on for far too long.
Yet, that was also a big part of its appeal. It's a incredibly lean 90-minute action film with frankly no filler, resulting in a breakneck pace. The concept may have been thin enough to sum up in one sentence, but it's such a strong concept it almost gets away with it. Despite the single set slum, there was enough variation to keep the fights distinct. Also, when it did briefly dabble in actual character work, it did it quite well.
In contrast, "The Raid 2" is an ambitious, sprawling 150-minute crime epic. The bare bones plotting has been replaced by an incredibly dense and convoluted story involving no less than three crime syndicates along with corrupt police and other external underworld forces. There's countless hit men, numerous betrayals and some clever reversals.
The single building, single day setting has been replaced by wildly varying scenery and time jumps. The bad guys and the sixteen separate set pieces are all quite distinct from each other, and are even more efficient this time around - never outstaying their welcome (unlike the first) and boasting far more deliberate and vivid visual composition. Even thematically there's a bit more going on, though this is a film more of frenzied plot machinations than true depth per se.
Like the first, Edwards avoids over stylisation wherever possible. Action is kept brutal with inventive fights that rely on skilled physicality rather than visual trickery. Two in particular - a down and out prison riot in a muddy courtyard, and the film's final mano-e-mano face-off in a massive kitchen - are amongst two of the strongest action set pieces I've seen in years.
Yet, is it too much? Going in such a grand direction has come at the cost of pacing which does suffer on occasion here. With so many characters and shifting allegiances, it's a demanding film that can easily lose those who don't engage with it from the get-go.
Characters such as the baseball and hammer-wielding sibling assassins, not to mention Rama himself, are given far too little time. On the flip side, a tedious subplot involving a former enforcer turned tramp with familial issues could easily be excised. Acting is a bit uneven at points, one or two key supporting players either hamming it up a bit too much or showcasing their inexperience at times.
It's not a perfect film, but damn its close. Evans once again pulls off the tricky feat of filmmaking that has been meticulously planned and executed down to the finest detail, yet still sparkles with a raw energy and vitality that make it feel very much alive. I wasn't a fan of the first film, but this one essentially resolved all the criticisms I had and then some. This isn't a by-the-numbers sequel, it's a complete different and frankly better film. If further sequels are as fresh as this, bring them on.