Since the martial arts movie tends to be the most formulaic of all genres -- my dojo is better than your dojo -- director Gareth Evans was all the more deserving of kudos for his marvellously inventive The Raid. In that 2011 film, a resourceful, honest cop found himself trapped in a slummy apartment building, fending off an army of goons while methodically making his way to the head honcho in control of the mayhem.
It delivered some truly savage martial arts action, but Evans threw other stuff in the blender. The movie registered as a grungy Die Hard with flashes of bloody gothic horror.
Most fans would have been OK with more of the same, but fortunately, Evans' artistic ambitions are bigger than his desire for a can't-miss, money-spinning sequel.
If the first Raid was inspired by Die Hard, the second more closely resembles Brian de Palma's Scarface, as an epic-length depiction of one man's rise in a brutal criminal empire.
Curiously, that man is once again Rama (Iko Uwais), the cop from the first movie. Faced with armies of hoodlums and too many dishonest cops, Rama accepts the assignment of going undercover to infiltrate the empire controlled by criminal mastermind Bangun (Tia Pakusadewo). Too bad for him, that involves cutting himself off from his wife and infant son to find himself in prison. It is there, he has been assigned the task of getting next to Bangun's handsome, arrogant son Ucok (Arifin Putra). He proves his fighting ability, taking on Ucok's entire gang in a single bathroom brawl, and gets even closer saving the punk's life in a muddy prison brawl.
By the time he gets out of jail two years later, he takes his place alongside Ucok as a personal bodyguard. But at the same time, he is not privy to Ucok's shifting loyalty away from his own father and towards a brutal rival, Bejo (Alex Abbad).
Evans is sufficiently confident in his material that he risks action bloat with a sprawling 150-minute running time.
Yet the movie flies by, even when it goes off the rails occasionally to tell the story of a hitman (Yayan Ruhian) who resembles a vagrant. It's worth it for the sole reason that Ruhian is the actor who played Mad Dog in the first movie. We'll take him any way we can get him.
If Iko Uwais remains a formidable fighter with a disarming hangdog soulfulness, director Evans is pretty fast on his feet too, staging an invigorating, bullet-riddled car chase around the two-hour mark before a kick-ass finale in which Rama stages a magnificently sustained one-man assault against a menagerie of hoods, including a one-of-a-kind assassinatrix credited as "Hammer Girl" (Julie Estelle). You can guess why.
For a glimpse of the real-life violence and corruption that afflicts modern-day Indonesia, check out The Act of Killing, a documentary in which filmmakers coax gangsters into staging past crimes for their cameras in Hollywood fashion.
By contrast, The Raid 2 plays more like one of the Hollywood films that inspired the gangsters -- dark, violent, unrealistic, but maddeningly irresistible.