This installment does take a little more time to get to the action goods, not to mention takes extended breathers before the set pieces, which actually points up to that aforementioned intelligence. Evans recognizes that it would have been foolhardy for him to try to match, in the most literal sense, the original. A cinematic landmark of relentless kinetic energy and visceral excitement (and my hands-down favorite film of all of 2012), The Raid is such a literally non-stop thrill ride would be difficult if not impossible to sustain for a second film, and certainly not with the same degree of shock-and-awe satisfaction. So at the risk of turning off the original's existing rabid cult of fans, roughly the first half of The Raid 2, action takes a more secondary position to setting up the new story elements. But unlike most action sequels, this is not just "the next adventure of..." its hero, rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais), but rather a continuation and organic expansion of plot seeds planted in the previous film, picking up mere hours after that film's conclusion. Beyond even that, Evans is also not one to let the status quo safely settle, for the very first scene not only dramatically changes the game but adds uncommon resonance to both the previous film's conclusion and Rama's ongoing internal journey. Now with an intensely personal motivation to fuel his ongoing mission to weed out corruption within the police force, he accepts a dangerous, extremely deep-cover assignment to infiltrate one of the major local criminal organizations.
And so, no longer confined to the derelict building of the first film, Evans builds out his dark and dangerous world, most immediately apparent from the varied looks of the locations, from dank prisons to glitzy clubs, from lush green rice fields to the blood red walls of upscale restaurants. But beyond the greater freedom to show off a striking sense of production design, the larger canvas allows Evans to reveal a vivid and compelling grasp of narrative and characterization. The basics of Rama's assignment is to warm up to Uco (Arifin Putra), the hothead son of crime boss Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), while in prison, and then once out use his position within the mob to uncover their law enforcement connects. But almost immediately, the mission turns out to be far more complicated than initial appearances. What Rama tells his wife is only a months-long operation stretches into years before it's really even begun, but the greatest complication comes in Uco, whose ruthless ambition and volatile ways not only causes tension with his father but also threatens to upset an already unsteady peace between the city's crime syndicates.
With this film's meatier story and characterizations, Evans proves to have writing and directing chops that go far beyond being an expert orchestrator of movie mayhem, for The Raid 2 remains just as compelling when no one on screen is kicking ass. The performances are especially effective, with Bruce Campbell lookalike Putra delivering a breakout turn as the destructively selfish Uco; a far less showy but possibly more fascinating character is Bangun, whose levelheaded rule over his empire is lent some palpable pathos by Pakusadewo's work; one feels the world weariness and loss that has led to his realization that the most important weapon in maintaining power is to simply offer respect. Uwais, already a naturally likable and charismatic presence, also ups his acting game here as the darkness and deceit takes an increasing emotional toll on Rama. But the added depth does not come at the expense of added fun, with Evans coming up with two action icons for the ages in a pair of assassins, the names-say-it-all Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle).
And those two are reflective of the even greater giddy abandon Evans displays in The Raid 2; that Hammer Girl uses both ends of her hammer equally when going about her bloody business shows how Evans consistently goes that extra mile. As with the first film, there's not only a nice balance between flashy shoot-'em-up and down-and-dirty martial arts action, and once again the type of action organically fits the context of the given scene. But with a world's worth of locations now at his disposal this time around, Evans lets his imagination run wild, and how. Yes, there is now literal room to stage bigger and more elaborate sequences such as a car chase, but it's not the size and scale that makes Evans one-up his Hollywood ilk but his creativity; after all, a car chase is a car chase, but for it also to be a shootout and a martial arts fight at the same time? The now-series' bread and butter of the pencak silat fight scenes are also more impressive than ever, and as before Evans shoot and edits the scenes in a way that's kinetic and visually clever without being incoherent, always capturing the moves and hence the athletic abilities of Uwais and the other performers with utmost clarity--thus making them that much more awe-inspiring and astounding.
It's no hyperbole to apply those two words to both the whole of The Raid 2 and the gifts of Evans, who proves that he is operating at the top echelon of not merely action filmmakers, but filmmakers, period, advancing his preferred genre to a well-rounded pinnacle as generous with engrossing character and story (and, it must be said, run time--it's 148 minutes long, but without a second wasted) as it is with adrenalized excitement and exhilaration. Evans has gone on record to say a third installment is on the way, but as much as I anticipate that film, I am even more excited about what other boundaries he can most assuredly obliterate in unrelated, and perhaps even non-action, movies.