With its blissfully crude setup and ferociously inventive fight sequences, Gareth Evans' "The Raid: Redemption" (2011) was an exhilarating, exhausting treat for those who like to take their genre poison straight. If "The Raid 2: Berandal" disappoints somewhat by comparison, it's not for lack of ambition: At nearly two-and-a-half hours, this sensationally violent and strikingly well-made sequel has been conceived as a slow-burn gangster epic, stranding the viewer in a maze-like underworld that doesn't really get the adrenaline pumping until the film's second half. Once the carnage kicks in, Evans' action chops prove as robust and hyperkinetic as ever, delivering deep, bone-crunching pleasure for hardcore action buffs. Still, given its diminished novelty and hefty running time, the Sony Classics item (set for U.S. release in March) may have trouble wooing as many viewers theatrically as it will in homevid play.
To the likely chagrin of some viewers, this time you actually have to pay a modicum of attention to the plot, a testosterone-driven tale of undercover cops and gang turf wars that crosses the existential despair of the "Infernal Affairs" trilogy with the brooding nihilism of a Takeshi Kitano yakuza picture. Having somehow made it out of "Redemption's" house of horrors alive, kick-ass cop Rama (Iko Uwais) soon learns his defeated opponents were merely pawns in a much bigger game, and he'll have to disappear in order to avoid further persecution and protect his wife and infant son. His superior forces him undercover, where Rama will infiltrate one of Jakarta's major crime families, gather information about the crooked cops on their payroll, and possibly settle a personal score with a limping but lethal baddie named Bejo (Alex Abbad).
The script takes its time establishing the principal players and their respective sinister agendas, not always in the most readily comprehensible fashion; for roughly the first hour, the action comes in quick, nasty jolts, punctuating the long stretches of narrative buildup. Evans' determination not to repeat himself is admirable, and the denser, more character-driven storytelling feels like a natural elaboration of "Redemption's" gimmick: After surviving that movie's literal fortress of peril, Rama/Yuda now finds himself trapped in a less claustrophobic sort of labyrinth, one where the risk of exposure lurks around every corner and it's not clear if the thugs or the ostensible good guys are less trustworthy. Still, it's hard to shake a nagging feeling of more-is-less; with its convoluted plot mechanics clearly cribbed from past thriller templates, the film never quite generates or sustains its predecessor's pure sense of menace.
Evans only begins to fire on all cylinders with a nightclub ambush where a mysterious, bedraggled fighter called Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian, whom fans will recognize as one of the first film's nastier villains), a longtime associate of Bangun's, brings the various gangland tensions to a head. Once a full-on war breaks out, the action never lets up, as "The Raid 2: Berandal" becomes a veritable demo reel for all the different forms of punishment the human body can (and cannot) withstand: Necks and limbs get twisted in all sorts of unnatural directions, throats and chests are ripped open mid-combat, bodies are regularly hurled through glass surfaces and, in a pinch, a concrete wall or a hot grilling surface can become the handiest of weapons.
As before, the giddily over-the-top action attains a hyperreal quality that stays just this side of believable thanks to a combo of sweeping handheld camera moves (by lensers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono) and expertly chosen locations that turn Jakarta's brothels, subways, restaurants, offices and highways into one sprawling, splattery urban playground. If the action choreography (handled by Evans, Uwais and Ruhian) tilts toward the usual tactic of having a bunch of bad guys line up and wait their turn rather than clobbering their opponent all at once -- a tactic that works better in close quarters than in wide-open spaces -- the stuntwork remains too consistently, impossibly convincing to dull the pleasure in the moment. And once again, the director (who edited the film with Andi Novianto) proves a dab hand at keeping the action in near-continual motion without sacrificing visual clarity.
Having warmed up for this opus with not only "Redemption" but also 2009′s "Merantau" (also starring Uwais), Welsh-born genre specialist Evans and his regular collaborators have upped their arsenal with savvy calculation; at times they seem to be auditioning for a Hollywood blockbuster assignment, albeit with a viciousness that would knock the stuffing out of any comparable studio venture. Two particularly nasty assassins, the aptly named Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), feel straight out of the Tarantino playbook, particularly in a climactic endgame whose red-walled production design seems to be channeling "Only God Forgives." In the most conspicuous departure from "Redemption's" building-bound mayhem, Evans shows he can orchestrate a multi-vehicle car chase with a prolonged intensity that John Frankenheimer would have admired.
Those who found "Redemption" sadistic and enervating will likely level the same charge even more so at "Berandal," assuming they bother with it at all; at one point a key character heaves a sigh and says, "I'm done," a sentiment that may be echoed by more than a few in the audience. Those who thrill to precisely this sort of bravura overkill, however, will find that the film delivers in spades once it finds its footing.
Subjecting himself once more to a comical level of abuse that no fighter, however skillful, could possibly be expected to endure, Uwais makes an ideal avatar of mayhem, his soft features and quietly principled bearing offsetting his killing-machine ruthlessness. Although it takes a while to figure out who's who, the supporting actors manage to rise above their stock roles: Putra conveys a palpable rage as the crown prince impatient to wear the crown; Pakusadewo invests the wiser, more patient Bangum with palpable authority; and Oka Antara registers strongly as Bangum's right-hand man, Eka, who finds himself in an unlikely and effective alliance with Rama once all hell breaks loose. Estelle's tool-wielding psychopath reps the token female badass in a movie where most of the women are either vulnerable, long-suffering spouses or vulnerable, scantily clad karaoke singers.
Apart from the brief use of the "Sarabande" from Handel's "Suite in D minor," which may jerk your thoughts toward "Barry Lyndon" (or not), the soundtrack is essentially a wall of percussion that mirrors the pummeling, metronomic rhythms of the action. Sound mix was still unfinished (though not glaringly so) at the film's Sundance premiere screening, where Evans noted that the English title had yet to be determined; "Berandal" is Indonesian for "thugs."