The Raid 2: Berandal
There was a bare and efficient kind of storytelling in 2011's The Raid: Redemption. The film told a simple story of man vs. building, as series hero Rama (Iko Uwais) steadily progressed through a tower of terror, floor by floor and fight by fight, with just the flimsiest thread of a plot stitching all of the action together. It wasn't an intricate weave of a story, but one sewn for efficiency - and it was damn effective, even if it could all unravel with the slightest bit of mental tugging. The Raid was a lean and mean action thriller that got right to the brutal business of fighting, and that's part of the reason why it's sequel, The Raid 2: Berandal doesn't thrill quite as consistently as its predecessor. This one actually has a story it has to tell beyond "Hey Rama, go into this tower and don't die," and it doesn't measure up to the graceful carnage of the fight scenes.
This time around, Rama gets caught in the middle of two rival crime bosses who have carved up Jakarta with a meat cleaver; sneering Bangun controls one part of the city, while a set of Japanese gangsters controls another. It's an over stuffed powder keg full of posturing gangsters and assassins, and all it takes are a couple of sparks from both sides set things ablaze. The Raid 2 is markedly more ambitious film than the first, and that's both a gift and a curse. The film postures itself as a sprawling crime epic, liberally plucking from some of the most celebrated crime films of all time, and at times, the story works well enough. This one does feel decidedly bigger in scope, and towards the end of the film it seems like Rama won't get a rest until he's managed to roundhouse kick the entire country of Indonesia.
But because of this ambition, the film starts to sag under all the extra weight. The mobster story has a fresh sheen of Indonesian style, but it's still a generic pastiche of tired mob tropes - you've seen it all before, and you'll see it all again. While the story of the first Raid was more of an afterthought, here it's treated as almost the main attraction. Whole minutes pass by without Rama pulping someone's innards into mashed potatoes, as the story spends precious time constructing a tapestry of mob alliances and betrayal, and at 148 minutes, the film slightly overstays its welcome (especially compared to the first film's snappy 101 minutes).
Truly, the film is at its best when it's moving, and when it's introducing gleefully absurd killers like Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman). There's a deep black humor running through Berandal and watching the duo of assassins using everyday household items to dispatch their enemies is a sadistic pleasure. But like its predecessor, the film isn't about soulless bloodletting. The best fight scenes are like a intricate dance of body blows and bone breaking kicks, shot in long cuts that put the shaky cam and hyperactive editing of other movie fight scenes to shame. Also, some of the effects shots are truly horrifying. It's all a marvel to behold and cringe at.
Unfortunately, even extreme violence hits a point of diminishing returns, and Berandal is just too long, which make some of the action scenes jammed into the middle of the film feel like a forgettable wash of violent white noise. But just when I thought I was tired of Bernadal, the last 40 minutes unfold in a marvelous showpiece of action choreography that features a revolving door of opponents for Rama to face, and it's when the film is singularly focused on providing bone crunching carnage at a rapid pace is that the film works best. And it's no small coincidence that the best part of the film is the section that most closely resembles the first Raid: a base under siege sequence, except Rama is the monster. It feels like Evans and Co. saved their best fight choreography for last third of the film, and from then on, it's nothing short of epic.
The Raid 2: Berandal is missing the streamlined charm of the original, but that's a small complaint in a largely fantastic experience. When it works - which is an overwhelming majority of the time - The Raid 2 is marvelous, a celebration of gore and grace that will leave the genre fan dizzy with glee, and everyone else frantically searching for a sick bag. It's an audacious, brassy, and exhilarating sequel to The Raid. It doesn't tell as great as a story as it wants to, but this is a movie that reaches for the stars, and comes up short by just a few precious inches.