So I’m not terribly familiar with martial arts films. This is mostly because unlike in the ’70s, the genre is largely underground today, and the ’90s glut of Hong Kong action/martial arts films has ended for the most part. Of course, that doesn’t mean these films have stopped being made: Netflix and Amazon Prime both have an excellent selection, and you can find all sorts of stuff on DVDs for pretty cheap. But new stuff largely doesn’t get released in theaters in America, much less multiplexes.
The Raid 2 is, of course, the exception to the rule, as was its predecessor, 2012’s The Raid: Redemption, a heavily violent film set almost entirely in one Jakarta apartment complex involving mostly one lone police officer fighting against hundreds upon hundreds of dudes, all while using the same ancient Indonesian martial art, pencak silat.
Set literally hours after the events of the first film, The Raid 2 opens with that police officer, Rama (Iko Uwais), in a safe house, where Bunawar (Cok Simbara), a fellow cop, invites him to infiltrate the Jakarta mob headed by Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo) in order to weed out corrupt cops. Committed to justice despite how it will involve him being separated from his wife and kid, Rama agrees. Bunawar then promptly arrests him and ships him to prison under the false identity of small-time criminal Yuda in order to build trust with Bangun’s only son, Uco (Arifin Putra), who’s currently locked up himself.
While in prison, Rama/Yuda saves Uco’s life during a huge prison fight in the rain ( the first of the film’s elongated, masterful fight sequences). Grateful, upon his release, Uco arranges for Yuda to become a foot soldier and part of his collecting team in his father’s organization. But as Rama goes deeper and deeper, he finds a whole lot more than the crooked cops he initially thought he was dealing with.
By virtue of being a tale of undercover cops and mob intrigue, The Raid 2 has a rather complicated story; I had to look up the film the next day after I saw it on Friday to make sure I remembered everything correctly. Course, the fact that I had had two beers before going to see a 2 1/2-hour movie at 11:30 at night probably didn’t help me make sense of it.
But regardless, this is definitely the best martial arts film I’ve ever seen, and also hands down, one of the most violent films I’ve seen period. Probably the most violent. Pencak silat is all hand-to-hand combat and that’s what writer/director Gareth Evans gives us here and it is absolutely brutal. I mean, we’re talking legs getting crushed, jaws getting broken and limbs being popped left and right.
And that’s without even mentioning the colorful assassins that pop up in this movie. There’s Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), a deaf woman so called because she wails on people with two claw hammers that she wields like sais. There’s also her brother, Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yullsman), who uses what you’d expect he would as a weapon–an aluminum baseball bat–and also actual baseballs. There’s a lengthy scene cutting between Hammer Girl taking a train car full of guys out and Baseball Bat Man railing on a couple of dudes that’s so involved and nuts, you won’t believe it.
Of course, credit for all these well-shot, staged and choreographed fight scenes goes to writer/director/co-editor Evans, who is a master. True, there’s probably some discomfort to be found in the fact that Evans, a Welshman, is making these Indonesian movies, but I’m not the one to state it. The point is that Evans is remarkable on all fronts, and this is the first time I can recall seeing action that looked so unique and just…different. Also, everything is clear, visible and perfectly captured and stated. Evans is one for the ages.
His cast is pretty great too. Uwais, a martial arts instructor before Evans cast him in his first film Merantau, gives a natural, soulful performance and he brings heart to the undercover cop in a way no one has since Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs. Putra plays Uco as the power-hungry brat, and he’s excellent; there’s a scene where he nearly beats up a call girl he’s hired and berates her that is just horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. Pakusadewo is also impressive as the rock-steady Bangun, who acts as a nice, hefty anchor to all the chaos that comes to swirl around him.
If this is playing near you, seek it out. It’s a great time. As for me, I’m going to try and hunt down the first Raid, if I can, then hit up the Martial Arts section on Netflix and see what I can find.