To its credit, The Raid 2 is in no way a rehash of its predecessor. We're so let down every time a Hangover Part II or another Expendables comes along that we often forget they're only trying to give us what we said we really wanted. But The Raid 2 is such a departure from the first film that you'd have a hard time knowing they were connected.
If you're new to this series, The Raid: Redemption—released in the U.S. in 2012—is the best martial arts film since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the best pure action movie not named The Bourne Ultimatum in at least 10 years. It is, without making too big a deal of it, about as adrenalized as movies get. It plays like a video game: A cop works his way through a run-down apartment complex, sights set on killing the big boss on the top floor. Very simple. And then the fight scenes take over. This is not the sweeping, balletic beauty of kung fu; The Raid films feature pencak silat, a much more brutal style that originated in Indonesia.
The Raid: Redemption is such a good release, in fact, that even if Welsh director Gareth Evans made a second movie just like it, that probably would have been OK. But The Raid 2 does a 180. It's long on story, weaving a multigenerational mob tale around the drug war fought in the first film. It's almost as if the positive global response to the first film allowed Evans to reimagine The Godfather.
In the hours after the events of the first film, Rama (Iko Uwais) is debriefed by his superiors. Taking down the drug kingpin was only the beginning, he's told. The real target is Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), the mob boss who controls all the illegal activity in Jakarta, from drugs to weapons to porn. Rama must go undercover and gain the trust of Bangun and his heir, Ucok (Arifin Putra), to ultimately topple the family from within.
That journey begins in prison, where Ucok is serving a short sentence. What's supposed to be a few months locked up stretches into years for Rama, but when he is finally released, Ucok has a job for him as muscle within his father's organization. The timing is perfect: There's a bloodthirsty new boss on the scene named Bejo (Alex Abbad) who will stop at nothing to shift the balance of power in Indonesia.
This is, obviously, a pretty traditional mob narrative. It's less about the directions the story goes in The Raid 2 and more about the depth. These plot lines (and a few more you'll discover) are exercised quite a bit over the course of the 150-minute running time, punctuated by exceedingly creative scenarios for fight scenes.
It's a real contrast from the first film, which was mostly shot in living rooms and stairwells for the purposes of the claustrophobic fight scenes. However, the fights in The Raid: Redemption feel fresher and more immediate than the massive undertakings in this sequel. The action in Raid 2 is more group-oriented and less about the individual combat, and the puzzles Evans appears to be working out are "What kind of damage could assassins do with a baseball bat and a hammer?" and "What would happen if a handcuffed guy got in a fight in the back seat of a car during a chase scene?" They're memorable, yes, but the art of choreography has been drained a bit from the follow-up, and that's disappointing.
Conversely, that's about the only disappointment to be found here. Because this film is so distinctly its own creation, with layer upon layer of character development and deep chronology leading to the fight scenes (and opening up even more avenues for the third film in a proposed trilogy), there's never a dull moment. Evans has clearly put a lot of thought into creating the world inhabited by all these ruthless characters. All the new additions give the sequel a lot more weight and make it a more complete picture, certainly, but that may be more than you're actually bargaining for.