Review Guest Post

The Raid 2 (2014)

Kitchen Nightmares: Indonesian Edition


I’ve watched The Raid 2’s Kitchen Fight more times than I’ve watched any other scene from any other piece of audiovisual media, and it’s not close.

I’ve watched The Raid 2’s Kitchen Fight more times than I’ve watched any other scene from any other piece of audiovisual media, and it’s not close. I couldn’t possibly put a number on how many times in total, though it is certainly, without hyperbole, in the hundreds. After seeing the film in the cinema in 2014 (twice, during its brief, limited run in mainstream theatres), I spent hours and hours online, for weeks, combing through every illicit bootleg upload of the scene I could find and rewatching them as many times as I could before they were hit with copyright strikes. I would, at times, have multiple versions of the scene open in different browser windows – all of them blurry and out-of-focus and with muddy, brickwalled audio, surreptitiously filmed by pirates from their seats at the back of the theatre – and I’d tab back and forth between them, trying to piece together as clear a recreation of the scene as I could. At the time, I was working in an office where I would often be left alone and unsupervised – as often as I thought I could get away with it, I’d open up Youtube and watch the Kitchen Fight. When the working day ended, I’d go home, open up my laptop, and do the same again. There were points during this process when a strand of drool may very well have trickled from the corner of my mouth. It’s not a time in my life I’m proud of, but there it is. This went beyond the appreciation of good cinema; for a while, I engaged with the Kitchen Fight the way one might “engage” with a Class A controlled substance.

Can you blame me? Seeing Iko Uwais’s and Cecep Arif Rahman’s six-and-a-half-minute brawl for the first time, seated by myself smack in the middle of a near-empty auditorium, I thought my soul was about to transcend my body. By the scene’s final, iconic, image – a panoramic wide-shot with one fighter crumpled face-down on the floor, the other hunched over the corpse, exhausted and brutalised but victorious, the pristine white of the industrial kitchen splashed with great gouts of arterial red – I couldn’t decide whether to burst out laughing, burst into tears, or just split the difference and have a heart attack. How could I possibly be expected to go back to my humdrum little flat and my humdrum little job and my humdrum little life, I felt at the time, having witnessed perfection like this? Was not my purpose here on Earth fulfilled, having now seen this, The Greatest Fight Scene Ever Filmed, Or That Ever Will Be? I suppose I could try to laboriously write a shot-by-shot, blow-by-blow breakdown of the fight, parsing out the way its narrative evolves from one technique to the next with forensic granularity, but I suspect such a breakdown would be as tedious to read as it would be to write.

I mean, I can talk in generalities. I can talk about the immaculate comic timing of the beat that immediately precedes the start of the fight, when the kitchen staff notice Rama and the Assassin staring one another down from opposite sides of the space, and as one, all put down their utensils and wordlessly vacate the room, like they’ve heard a fire alarm. I can talk about the initial exchange that Rama and the Assassin share; they draw close to one another, and throw three quick, explosive flurries of blows; sounding one another out, each getting a feel for his opponent’s rhythms. I can talk about the cheeky, shit-eating grin on Cecep Arif Rahman’s face after he comes out on top in these first few test exchanges, the Assassin’s effortless confidence that this fight will go the same way as it did the first time they met earlier in the film when he knocked Rama out. I can talk about Uwais’s expression of grim, furious resolve, illustrating Rama’s all-or-nothing mindset.

I can talk about how much I love the Kitchen location; the starkness of its antiseptic white, in contrast to the combatants who are both wearing black; the austerity of its right angles and sheer planes, the stainless steel cabinets of the central island and the glass of the wine-cellar; how clearly the geography of all this is established. I can talk about how the ways this space is increasingly destroyed over the course of the fight – glass shattered, utensils scattered, blood unhygienically splashed all over these pristine work surfaces – reflects the progressive breakdown in the choreography, the fighters’ early technical precision giving way to manic, flailing brutality.

I can talk about the ways Matt Flannery’s camera pivots and tilts around the fighters; the ways that Gareth Evans’ editing slyly incorporates insert shots and bird’s-eye angles and judicious slow motion, so that the power and violence and the strategy of the fighters’ techniques are always maximally emphasised; the ways that the percussive score by Joe Trapanese, Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal ebbs and flows in perfect concert with the rhythms of the scene, steadily escalating toward the horn swells that encompass the almost unbearable intensity of the last few flesh-rending seconds.

I can talk about the astonishing moment, about two minutes in, where Rama kicks the Assassin through the glass of the wine cellar; the film momentarily shifts to slow motion, the sound design drops out, and for a few seconds, we’re almost persuaded it’s all over. In a lesser fight, in a lesser movie, this would be the finishing blow. But then, the Assassin draws the two kerambit knives he’s been withholding until now and gouges a deep flesh wound in Rama’s thigh. We, the audience, realise with a sensation much like vertigo, that this is not the end; the brutal fistfight that we’ve seen so far, that would have killed both participants multiple times over in real life, was in fact the warm-up.

We, the audience, realise with a sensation much like vertigo, that this is not the end; the brutal fistfight that we’ve seen so far, that would have killed both participants multiple times over in real life, was in fact the warm-up.

I can talk about the baroque techniques Rama brings to bear once the kerambits come out, dodging and weaving between the Assassin’s slashes, grappling and manipulating their mutual inertia to get control of the fight back. I can talk about the way the fight gets back on even terms when, against all odds, Rama, manages to steal one of the Assassin’s knives, and they start trading blows that take chunks out of one another’s bodies. I can talk about the brief interlude, where they come to a kind of wordless gentlemen’s agreement to stop using knives for a moment, and start bashing each other’s heads against the side of the kitchen island (this includes a hip throw, executed by Rahman, where Uwais’s leg smashes against the sharp right-angle of the stainless steel cabinet, and I genuinely can’t figure out how this stunt was executed safely; it looks, for all the world, like Uwais should have snapped a femur). I can talk about the agonising last few blows, where both Rama and the Assassin utterly give up on trying to be clever, and just take turns hacking at each other, until Rama finally plunges his kerambit into the Assassin’s throat and rips a horizontal gash from right to left. The Assassin’s body goes limp; his knife falls from his fingers; his lifeless body collapses to the ground. There’s no triumph in Rama’s eyes as he gasps for breath; no pleasure taken in his victory.

I can talk about all of that, but it doesn’t capture the experience of watching it. I have not “spoiled” the Kitchen Fight for anyone who hasn’t seen it. I used to review music, quasi-professionally; part of the reason I stopped is that I felt words were too imperfect a medium to describe the sensations involved with my subject. I can go on for as long as anyone could conceivably want to listen to me about the Kitchen Fight, but I would never capture what it’s like to watch it. I love fight scenes, in large part because of how purely cinematic they are. Conflict is the soul of drama, and cinematic fight scenes manifest conflict in terms that lose all of their lustre when transcribed to another medium. My descriptions can’t do it justice; you’ll just have to take my word that The Raid 2’s Kitchen Fight is a perfect, ineffable, once-in-a-lifetime moment of cinema.

It’s not the only perfect moment in a movie that’s nevertheless imperfect.

It’s well known to anyone interested in the Raid duology that The Raid 2 began life as a script titled Berandal, which Gareth Evans had repeatedly tried and failed to get financed in the wake of Merantau’s sub-optimal reception (I believe in some territories it’s subtitled as The Raid 2: Berandal, but not in the Sony Pictures Classics-distributed version I’ve seen). In its original form, Berandal was the story of a young convict who saves the life of the son of a gang boss while in prison. Upon being released, the protagonist (in a role conceived from the ground up to be played by Iko Uwais) falls in with the crime syndicate, and is embroiled in the skulduggery of the underworld, his loyalties being tested when the son he saved initiates a gang war and launches a bloody coup against his father. It was to be a long-form gangster epic, the plot played out over the course of years, with a huge cast of characters and elaborate plot machinations, taking influence from Coppola and Scorsese and de Palma. With the key USP, of course, that the grand plot would be threaded throughout with martial-arts action scenes of a scale and complexity heretofore unprecedented within the Merantau Films canon. 

After The Raid became an international breakout hit in 2012, with Uwais and Evans becoming household names among the action movie cognoscenti, courted and imitated by Hollywood, the barriers to their dream project melted away virtually overnight. Berandal entered pre-production almost as soon as The Raid had wrapped up its original release, budgeted at the equivalent of £4.5 million (more than quadruple the budget of The Raid, and a number that stretches a lot further in Jakarta than it does in Los Angeles), with a shooting schedule of over 6 months. There was just one caveat; the script that was originally conceived as a standalone story was reworked into a sequel to the film that had made them stars in the first place.

In the final product, Uwais’s protagonist is no longer just a nobody criminal; he’s again playing Rama, who, after limping out of the high-rise at the end of the first movie, is courted by an anti-corruption task-force within the ranks of the Jakarta police, led by Bunawar (Cok Simbara), the trustworthy cop mentioned by Andi in the final minutes of Raid 1. Rama, his wife, and his newborn son are at risk, we’re told; the corrupt elements of the police on the same payroll as Tama are apt to sniff them out and liquidate them to prevent what he knows from coming to light. The only way to ensure their safety is to go undercover and gather evidence of police chief Reza’s (Roy Marten) links with organised crime.

Complicating matters further, Andi (a returning Donny Alamsyah) is dragged out from his oh-so-briefly held position as head honcho of Tama’s apartment block by opportunistic mid-level gangster Bejo (Alex Abbad), and murdered by point-blank shotgun blast.

Rama learns of his brother’s death from Bunawar, and the opportunity to get revenge against Bejo helps to push him over his initial reticence to join up with the task force. In his new, undercover role, he gets himself arrested and imprisoned so that he might get close to Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of the reigning Indonesian crime boss Bangun (Tio Pakusedewo)

…Did you get all that? If that seems like a lot of exposition just to get us to the starting point of The Raid 2’s plot, well, that’s because it is. Gareth Evans has spoken in interviews about the process of grafting the Donnie Brasco-ish undercover-cop elements into an existing screenplay. He claims that he’d previously struggled with the script’s third act, that he’d had difficulties justifying why Uwais’s protagonist would stay for the final showdown. He says that introducing the undercover angle, the notion that Uwais’s character has to protect his family and can’t just head for the hills once the gang war kicks off in earnest, acted as a solution to this screenwriting problem. I find that reasoning hard to buy. To be clear, I haven’t read the original script for Berandal, but I have a difficult time accepting that the changes made to retrofit it as a sequel to The Raid possibly did anything to clarify character motivation. 

If that seems like a lot of exposition just to get us to the starting point of The Raid 2’s plot, well, that’s because it is.

To wit: Uwais and Putra share several scenes together which I suspect, in the earlier draft, acted to illustrate an increasingly fraught friendship between two criminals from very different backgrounds. Scenes like those where Uco meets Rama as he leaves prison, and with fraternal bonhomie offers to carry Rama’s bags; the scene in the karaoke bar, where Rama tries, with growing discomfort, to act as a mediator when Uco starts to abuse the escorts accompanying them; when Uco berates Rama outside Bangun’s office, venting his pent-up frustration from being rejected by his father. It extends all the way through to the film’s final moments, when Rama finally kills an all-the-way-gone Uco with a kerambit through the heart, and emraces him as he breathes his last. It’s a scene that plays as oddly tender (maybe even somewhat homoerotic), hearkening back to the big, heartfelt, tragic final gestures of John Woo movies like The Killer or Bullet in the Head; here are two noble, flawed men, who in a better world might have shared a wholesome friendship, but who were instead driven to lethal conflict by ambition and misfortune.

That throughline from an earlier version of The Raid 2 rears its head intermittently, intruding into the final product. But the thing is, in this version of the story, the fact that Rama is an undercover cop compromises all of that emotionalism. We’re never given a sense that his affection for Uco is anything but an act; it’s his job, after all, to gather evidence to incriminate Uco’s father, so getting close to Uco is pure pragmatism on his part. It’s an impression that’s reinforced by the performance; in his third film working with Evans, Uwais (who, I’ll remind you, had no ambitions or designs upon an acting career before 2009) is handed the most layered, multifaceted role he’s yet been required to play, and in turn gives a prickly, uncomfortable performance in the dramatic scenes. Whether deliberately or not, Rama always seems somewhat ill-at-ease, badly suited to the role of an undercover cop, his gestures of familiarity always a notch too stiff, a degree too mannered. 

In place of an authentic friendship with Uco, Rama’s motivations are:

1: Gather evidence to convict Reza, and thus protect his wife and child (who are mostly remanded offscreen).

2: Get revenge against Bejo, a man he’s never met, for killing Andi.

These two priorities never really conflict for him; they just sort of smudge together and vacillate over the course of the running time, and both feel pretty emotionally abstract and remote. The result is a Raid 2 that’s rather harder, more severe, more emotionally reserved than the vestiges of its earlier incarnation suggest.

To lay my feelings on the table, here: for all of The Raid 2’s considerable strengths – and they are considerable indeed – I think it’s kind of busted as a sequel to The Raid. It has a bad case of Alien 3 syndrome; the handful of characters (four, to be exact: Rama, Andi, Bowo and Wahyu) who lived to emerge from the apartment block at the end of The Raid represented an incredibly hard-fought Pyrrhic victory. Whatever satisfaction we might have gleaned from that outcome is summarily trampled upon. Andi dies in the very first scene, executed by Bejo’s henchmen while helpless, on his knees, begging for his life. Wahyu (played by a body double unconvincingly standing in for a not-returning Pierre Gruno) is dispatched with similar expediency by Bunawar. In the final version of the film, Bowo (Tegar Satrya) at least seems to get to live – the last we see of him is in the film’s second scene, when he’s ushered away to get medical treatment. There does, however, exist a deleted scene that would have slotted in shortly afterwards, where Bowo meets an equally grisly end when he and his family are tracked down by Reza. This scene, as near as I can tell, was cut to reduce the film’s already mammoth running time, not because Evans felt any particular sense of mercy towards the character.

…for all of The Raid 2’s considerable strengths – and they are considerable indeed – I think it’s kind of busted as a sequel to The Raid.

That’s the other thing: The Raid 2’s first 20-odd minutes are visibly awkward and ungainly. There’s an extended series of scenes edited in anachronic order, anchored around a dialogue free-sequence of Rama sitting very still in a prison toilet stall, while attackers outside are hammering on the door. We’re ushered through a series of time skips, from the initial debriefing with Bunawar, to Andi’s funeral, to Bunawar expounding his plan for Rama to infiltrate Bangun’s gang by sending him to prison. In the director’s commentary, Evans cites John Boorman’s Point Blank and Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway as influences on the highly parenthetical, nested editing here (he is, once again, the film’s lone credited editor), but it all feels very sweaty and forced and contrived; highly concentrated, bullet-point exposition. Even some fairly plot-critical scenes, like Rama’s assault on the politician’s son which gets him his longer-than-expected prison sentence, were removed from the final cut. You can practically hear the gears scraping and the pistons whining as the story works to change tracks, lifting Rama out of one set of circumstances and depositing him in another, wholly unrelated set of circumstances.

It’s generally a good thing for a sequel to set out in its own direction and not just follow the template laid down by its predecessor, but that’s not what this is; this is two fundamentally unrelated and hugely dissimilar movies being forced to live together. The Raid and Berandal are mutually diminished and rendered less satisfying by the requirement that they be related to one another, and after having seen both films many times, I can’t help but conclude that Berandal would have been served far better if it had been produced as a separate story.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, once The Raid 2 finds its footing in its new milieu, it only grows more effective. It’s a rare sort of film that only improves as its running time progresses; as its story of factional tensions within Jakarta’s criminal underworld unspools, and its richly imagined, exquisitely heightened universe spreads out for us to see, it becomes more and more propulsive, more engaging, and more immersive. It begins with its worst scenes, and it ends with its best, which is definitely preferable to the reverse.

A big part of what gets The Raid 2 over the hurdle of its early scenes and eventually makes its drama sing is Uco. He’s the most ambivalent, most layered, and most interesting character yet to appear in a Gareth Evans movie; the scion of a criminal empire, a pretty-boy ne’er-do-well who lives in his father’s long shadow. By most any standards, Uco is presented as a despicable, even irredeemable character. He’s vain, elitist, petty, and impulsively violent; his impatient lust for power and authority is what sets in motion the bloodbath of The Raid 2’s final hour. But at the same time, there’s a vulnerability to him as well, a sadness and need for validation that cause us to sympathise with him despite ourselves. He’s a character who makes a unilaterally negative impact on the world around him, but he possesses a sensitivity and humanity that makes us wonder how different he might have been, had he been born into different circumstances. 

This is all consolidated by Putra’s no-two-ways-about-it excellent performance of the character. He does a marvellous job with his posture and body-language in scenes like the porn-den shakedown, where his exaggerated swagger and efforts to make himself the centre of attention read as forced and overly affected, in ways that read exactly right for a princeling who wants everyone to know he’s his father’s son. He’s a character whose feelings are far more transparent than he realises or would prefer, and Putra brings that across beautifully, both in moments where the mask is in place and in the all-too-frequent moments where it slips.

Uco’s mounting frustration and self-destructive shit-stirring, egged on by Bejo, is what gives The Raid 2 an arc and a throughline, far more than Rama’s investigation or quest for revenge do in this massive, sprawling movie. “Sprawling”; man, there’s an adjective that gets used a lot for films more than two-and-a-half hours long, but it’s seldom felt more appropriate than it does here. The plotting of The Raid 2 behaves less like a conventional, three-act feature than it does a season of prestige TV (indeed, rewatching it now, a lot of elements here feel like a dry-run for Gangs of London), or perhaps a GTA-style, crime-sandbox videogame. It’s profoundly shaggy and elliptical in its structure, meandering through its 150 minutes from set-piece to set-piece, wandering in and out of sub-stories like a patron idling from exhibit to exhibit in an art gallery. It’s about as far from the laser-focused, ruthlessly narrow scope of The Raid as it’s possible to get while still existing in the same broad generic category of “action-thriller.”

The plotting of The Raid 2 behaves less like a conventional, three-act feature than it does a season of prestige TV […] or perhaps a GTA-style, crime-sandbox videogame.

I don’t think this approach is necessarily a bad thing, by any means; it’s a tremendously indulgent and idiosyncratic way to build a movie, but it’s a peculiar, unique object, whose digressions are enticing rather than tedious. Its cast is amply stocked; we get figures like Eka (Oka Antara), a trusted lieutenant in Bangun’s organisation, who’s revealed near the end to have been an undercover cop himself, cut loose by Bunawar after a disastrous incident that left several other cops dead. We get Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian), who receives a whole segment of the film almost to himself; an aging hitman in Bangun’s employ, who lives as a vagrant in order to send every penny he makes to support his estranged wife and son. He’s targeted by Uco and Bejo as a catalyst to force Bangun into conflict with the Yakuza he’s currently at peace with. Prakoso’s death, halfway through the film, plays out as its own little mini-tragedy in the middle of the film, mostly disconnected from the events around it in its causes and consequences, but resonant at the level of theme and tone.

Or, how about Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man (played by Julie Estelle and Very Tri Yulisman, respectively)? They’re a pair of killers who follow Bejo without question. She’s a deaf-mute who mows through her enemies with a pair of claw hammers (Julie Estelle’s fighting style is modelled upon the Silat Harimau discipline portrayed in Merantau, the claw hammers working as a grisly extension of the same strike-and-gouge, every-hit-is-actually-two-hits principle); he’s an emo wearing a hoodie who’ll hit his targets at range with a baseball, and then demand they return the ball to him (Yulisman previously played a minor part in The Raid; he was the guy who hid the machete under the table). 

They’re both orphans, raised as children by an abusive father. The father would spin a coin on the table each night, with the way it came up determining which of his kids he’s beat that night. One night after a bad day, the coin came up tails, and the father started hurting Hammer Girl worse than usual. Baseball Bat Man tried to intercede, but in doing so only made matters worse. Finally, reaching a point where it was kill-or-be-killed, the siblings overpowered and killed their father. All alone in the world, they were taken in by Bejo, who trained them, gave them sanctuary and purpose as killers in his employ.

Here’s the thing: all of that lore in the previous paragraph? That’s not in the movie. I only know that’s the twins’ backstory because Gareth Evans has recounted it in BTS anecdotes about the concept for the characters. It’s only hinted at in the finished product in the most allusive of terms; having Hammer Girl spin a coin that’s given a lingering close-up without explanation; the way that their dress sense and mannerisms are often oddly childish.

If The Raid 2 had, in fact, been a ten-episode season of prestige TV, rather than “only” a two-and-a-half hour film, these are the sorts of details that would have been explored explicitly and at length in flashbacks and dramatic dialogue scenes. Thanks to Gangs of London, season 1, we now have quite a firm idea of what that might have looked like. Frankly, though, I think I prefer it this way; for a whole menagerie of colourful characters to be touched upon glancingly, each with their own detailed history alluded to in only the vaguest, most transitory terms. At every step, The Raid 2 offers grist for the viewer’s imagination, a suggestion of a setting going back decades, individuals’ stories within it ramifying and overlapping. It’s a setting positively begging for fanfic to be written within it.

But of course, >4,000 words into this review, I’ve gone long enough without discussing The Raid 2’s USP. I might talk until the cows come home about the setting, but no-one gives a shit about the setting who isn’t interested in The Raid 2’s main point of distinction; that it’s a conveyor belt for some of the best action sequences in the 130-odd year history of film as a medium. The Raid 2 proved, if proof were needed, that The Raid wasn’t a fluke; Gareth Evans really is a once-in-a-generation savant when it comes to scenes of people kicking the crap out of one another, and his facility for such scenes scales concordantly with the resources available to him.

The Raid 2 proved, if proof were needed, that The Raid wasn’t a fluke; Gareth Evans really is a once-in-a-generation savant when it comes to scenes of people kicking the crap out of one another.

In my previous review, I identified six major action set-pieces in The Raid, a film that’s come to be known as one of the most balls-to-the-wall movies ever made. In The Raid 2, that number jumps, by my counting, to an incredible, head-spinning, thirteen.

These are, as follows:

1) The Toilet Stall Fight

2) The Prison Riot

3) The Porn Den Shootout

4) Prakoso assassinating that one guy in the alleyway after fighting his henchmen

5) Prakoso’s Big Nightclub Fight

6) Hammer Girl & Baseball Bat Man’s Introductory Montage

7) Rama’s brawl with the corrupt cops in the restaurant after they ambush him

8) Rama’s fight with The Assassin in Bangun’s office

9) The Great Big Car Chase

10) Rama’s fight with the goons in the basement warehouse

11)Rama’s fight with Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man

12) THE KITCHEN FIGHT (which I trust needs no further enumeration)

13) Rama’s final confrontation with Reza, Bejo, and Uco in the restaurant

As with The Raid, I tallied The Raid 2’s ratio of screen time spent on action compared to non-action scenes. Applying the same standards, I arrived at a figure of 32 minutes and 46 seconds of The Raid 2 were action. Compared to its total runtime of 150 minutes and 12 seconds in the version I watched (the limited edition blu-ray steelbook, released in the UK by eOne in August, 2014), this makes for a ratio of action to non-action of 21.62% (this figure rises to 22.32% if we discount opening titles and credits).

This is a reduction from the 28.09% (29.47%, discounting titles and credits) figure for The Raid – an impossible ratio to maintain across 150 minutes, and with so many involved plot machinations and character beats this time out. With the exception of the opening, let’s-get-all-this-baggage-out-of-the-way scenes, The Raid 2 isn’t afraid to take its time – the dramatic scenes aren’t at all hurried in their pacing. Conversations will take the long way around to get to their point, and time is given over to slow establishing shots giving the audience a good look at the film’s tastefully arranged interior sets and the deliberate, textured, art-house-y lighting. 

Even so, it’s not a film I find myself getting impatient with. The first of the thirteen setpieces – Rama’s fight in a prison toilet stall, where he uses the enclosed space to hold his attackers off and face them in ones and twos – starts 14 minutes and 30 seconds in. From then on, there’s never a protracted lull between action scenes, and each of the film’s tangle of subplots finds its resolution in a beat of choreographed violence. Martial arts action is still very much the common denominator, the raison d’être for even its most subdued and talky scenes.

It helps that the action is very clearly delineated – part of the reason I’ve been able to do this whole set-piece breakdown, identifying to the second exactly how much action there is relative to non-action in Gareth Evans’ movies, is that in Gareth Evans movies, what is and is not an “action scene” is clearly and unambiguously signposted. They always begin with some sort of burst, or flourish. The start of the toilet stall fight is a perfect example. In the buildup, spread across all of the intercut exposition scenes with Bunawar, we see Rama sitting still on the toilet seat, eyes closed, almost meditative. The sound of the angry mob outside trying to get to him is oddly distant, as though heard from underwater. We keep cutting back to a screw in the stall door holding the lock in place, vibrating looser and looser as the door rattles on its hinges. Finally, the screw comes loose, and drops. We see it land on the floor in extreme close-up, the sound-design announcing the impact with an expressive chime.

The effect is of a starter’s pistol being fired. We cut, very briefly, to black. When we cut back, it’s to a shot of Rama, who all at once leaps to life. He springs to his feet, and with a roar, kicks the stall door open with enough force to drive back the crowd of prisoners pressed up against it. The film is as good as announcing: we are now in Fight Mode. All the accumulated torque and anticipation, the sense of incipient violence bleeding backward into the preceding scenes, is released at once in a cathartic rush of adrenaline. For the moment, all the complexities and intrigue of the film’s scenario are consolidated and reduced to “who can beat up whom?”

The hard contrast between quiet scenes of drama and exposition, and loud scenes of blood and carnage, is what provides The Raid 2 its driving, staccato rhythm. Anticipation; payoff; anticipation; payoff; a series of microcosmic emotional arcs that steadily come faster and faster as the gang war escalates. As long as you’re someone capable of enjoying action for its own sake, it makes it easy to follow the script down its blind alleys and rabbit holes. What would otherwise – let’s face it – be kind of an unfocused and muddled and unsatisfying sequence of events is given form and structure by the action, like vines being given shape by a trellis.

The hard contrast between quiet scenes of drama and exposition, and loud scenes of blood and carnage, is what provides The Raid 2 its driving, staccato rhythm.

Furthermore, the action scenes themselves are far more varied in concept and elaborate in their staging than anything The Raid’s budget or single-location conceit could accommodate. Were I to employ a culinary analogy, like one of those HACK film critics, I’d say that if The Raid was a big, greasy, multi-storey burger, then The Raid 2 is an eight-course banquet; its pleasures less concentrated, but affording its patrons a broader range of curated flavours; no less filling; and probably, in the final reckoning, even more calorific.

Take, for example, the extraordinary prison riot sequence. What starts as an attempted hit on Uco by Zack Lee’s Beni in the prison courtyard turns into a kind of nightmare free-for-all, when riot-geared-guards charge in to break the fight up, and the rest of the prisoners take advantage of the ensuing chaos. Filmed in Benteng Van Der Wijck, an old Dutch fort in Gombong, the shoot for the scene took place over eight days. The scene, which takes place in the rain, led to the mud in the pentagonal central courtyard becoming waterlogged, and more and more mud needed to be added to offset the effect. By the end of the shoot, the mud had become a shin-deep soup, near-impossible to stand up in and coating the performers’ bodies from head to toe, making them all into undifferentiated grey golem creatures. The melange of mud-grey figures writhing together in the muck, punctuated by the occasional smear of red where a squib goes off, takes on an almost Boschian quality.

Even more ambitiously mounted is the car chase through downtown Jakarta, which involved closing down several arterial roads. For this sequence, the crew brought in Bruce Law, a legendary stunt co-ordinator who’s contributed to countless car-stunt scenes in both Hong Kong and Hollywood. The late-film scene finds Rama captured and being driven to a discreet location by Bejo’s men following Bangun’s assassination; a wounded Eka is in hot pursuit. Rama starts fighting the men holding him captive inside his car in tandem with Eka fending off attackers in sedans, SUVs and motorbikes. Knowing that they didn’t have the resources available to wreck cars willy-nilly like a Fast and Furious movie, Evans and Law’s team instead set about constructing a sequence that emphasises the squishy physicality of the bodies inside the vehicles going at 60 mph, rather than treating the cars as extensions of the combatants’ bodies.

The meat and potatoes of the choreography are still grounded in pencak silat, with the hand-to-hand action design again being led by Uwais and Ruhian (in addition to Cecep Arif Rahman being brought into the cast to play the arch-henchman, The Assassin. Rahman, similarly to Uwais, was a respected silat practitioner with no prior acting experience.) With the vast majority of The Raid 2’s crew – including most of the stuntmen – being veterans of Merantau and The Raid, the style of the fight scenes feels like a largely seamless transition from Evans’ previous work. The rhythms and techniques of the choreography; the pace of the cutting; the strategic use of insert shots and Evans’ characteristic top-down angles; the suddenness and viciousness of the violent punchlines; they all feel of a piece with the original Raid, bringing to bear that same adrenal immediacy, that same heightened, impressionistic sense of being in the middle of a life-or-death struggle.

If I were to make one criticism of The Raid 2 on stylistic grounds, it would be that some of the shooting techniques used for the fight scenes grandfathered in from The Raid feel ill-at-ease with the rest of the film’s presentation. I feel like I remember, when the film released in 2014, a contingent of fans complaining that The Raid 2 leans more heavily on shaky-cam than its predecessor. I think those fans were wrong, but they attributed a false explanation to a real problem. The Raid 2’s action isn’t any harder to discern within the frame than the 2011 movie, but the handheld camera can feel dissonant when set against a film that’s otherwise mannered and stately in its presentation. It’s shot in anamorphic widescreen, for one thing, the first time Evans had used the broader aspect ratio, as well as including a great many more static shots, extreme long shots, and deep-focus lensing. There’s a richness of both colour and texture afforded by the RED Scarlet camera far surpassing any of Merantau Films’ previous outings. With the grandeur of the presentation otherwise matching the story’s epic aspirations, shots captured by an operator running after their subjects on foot feel ever-so-slightly disingenuous.

On the flip side, even the film’s less extravagant action sequences benefit from the expanded scope. Where in The Raid, one dirty grey room looked much the same as another, The Raid 2’s variety in the set design and the props available to the combatants ensure that each fight scene has both a distinct visual schema and a hook to its choreography. Prakoso’s fight with the mob in the nightclub, for instance, makes great use of the multi-tiered booths of its stylish location. Our cross-cut introduction to Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man takes creative relish in how they use their eponymous weapons, tools not intended for combat in any conventional martial arts discipline. The restaurant fight, which has Rama fighting off a horde of corrupt cops, finds Uwais desperately improvising with broken bottles, chair legs, and in an especially gruesome finishing move, a hot plate, giving the environment a sense of being a specific, dynamic, lived-in place.

Some hooks work better than others. Of the film’s thirteen setpieces, I’m least fond of Prakoso’s introductory fight, the scene where he corners a target for assassination in an alley, killing him after beating down his entourage. The conceit for this scene was to have Prakoso wielding a machete, but disdaining to use it on anyone other than his primary target. This leads to a scene where he takes out a group of men one by one, limiting himself to striking only with his left hand. The intent was for this scene to illustrate Prakoso’s self-denial and asceticism, even while plying his trade as a hitman, but the resultant choreography, to my eye, looks a bit stiff and contrived. It’s only “quite good,” which places it at the bottom end of The Raid 2’s spectrum of action scene quality, and the top end of the spectrum is labelled “JESUS CHRIST I THINK I’M ACTUALLY, LITERALLY HAVING AN ORGASM.”

The curious thing about The Raid 2 is that, on paper, it ought to be a bleak, dour, miserable affair. Across its two-and-a-half hours, dozens and dozens of people die in horrendous, agonising ways (the good people at put the tally at 101, or roughly one homicide every eighty-nine seconds). Most of the named cast are dead by the end credits. It’s an extraordinarily violent film, even more so than its predecessor; tendons are severed, limbs snapped, jaws fishhooked off, faces eviscerated by point-blank gunfire. The themes of the story, a tragedy on its face, are of thwarted ambition and the hollowness of vengeance. Its characters’ main emotional registers are, alternatingly, melancholy and anger, with practically no moments of levity throughout (while The Raid 2 does have a smattering of moments I might refer to as “jokes,” their humour is generally either very dry or very black (usually both), and virtually none of them are effected through dialogue).

That’s on paper. But watching The Raid 2 is, dare I say, a hoot. It isn’t gruelling – it’s exciting. Its scenes of lives being extinguished don’t feel cruel; if anything, they feel playful. The scenes that come first to mind for me, when I reminisce about The Raid 2, aren’t scenes like the one where Uco notices Bejo’s wrist tattoo, which Bejo shares with the men who tried to shank him in prison, and realises that he’s been made a pawn in his father’s death. No, what I think of first are the scenes like the death of Baseball Bat Man.

On his way through Bejo’s hotel, Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man get in Rama’s way, the pair of them acting as a penultimate boss encounter on the way to the final confrontation. They fight, Rama gets the upper hand, and manages to kill Hammer Girl. Baseball Bat Man, seeing his sister expire before his eyes, goes berserk, attacking Rama with renewed vigour, and almost overwhelms our hero, until Rama manages with a desperate effort to knock him down, wrest his weapon away from him, and with the whole weight of his body behind it, smashes the bat into Baseball Bat Man’s face with a home run swing worthy of Babe Ruth.

The score drops out. We see the impact of the bat for no more than a few frames, just long enough to register the splash of blood, and then the camera spins away, whip-panning around in a 360-degree motion as though it had been struck by the bat. It completes its rotation and settles on a long take, viewing Rama from the far end of the corridor, frozen in position, his hands still tightly clasped around the handle of the aluminium bat buried in the ruin that was Baseball Bat Man’s face, seconds earlier. The camera holds on the sight for a second… two seconds… then Rama lets go of the bat.

The bat doesn’t fall. It remains embedded in the skull of its owner.

Baseball Bat Man’s corpse slumps softly sideways, the weapon he derived his name from producing a quiet clink where it touches the ground.

If you watch this scene together with an audience of action fans seeing it for the first time, this moment produces a reaction of audible enthusiasm to equal Captain America lifting Thor’s hammer. It’s moments like these that are why I find Gareth Evans a compelling authorial voice, why I set about writing this whole, great, big, dumb retrospective project in the first place. It’s a reaction that isn’t motivated by sadism, or even by triumph. It’s the sheer surprise of it, a plot twist to cap off the mini-drama played out within this two-and-a-half-minute fight scene.

Here’s my hypothesis: The Raid 2 isn’t situated in the real world. Its plot nominally takes place in Jakarta, but trying to reconcile its events with the city as it actually exists is a wild goose chase. Famously, a big sticking point for Indonesian audiences was Prakoso’s death scene, which takes place in an alley outside the nightclub where he was attacked, filled with three-inch-deep snow. Indonesia is, of course, a tropical country. Jakarta is not far south of the equator, and for it to have any snow whatsoever at any time of year, much less the kind of thick drifts in this scene, so photogenically stained with arterial spray, is obviously nonsense.

Evans offers up an apologia for this scene in his director’s commentary. As he explains it, he associates the character of Bejo with cold. In his presence, other characters are shivering, or else wearing winter coats. During a phone call with him, Uco’s breath is visible in the air. Bejo is a quasi-supernatural, Faustian figure, and the coldness of his influence upon the world is waxing when Prakoso dies.

Evans, with his characteristic, good-natured self-effacement, downplays this explanation for the snow as pretentious, arty-farty bullshit. I wish he didn’t; I love this explanation. It situates The Raid 2 so securely in the realm of archetype and myth. It’s disinterested in the real world; it exists in a playground populated by figures handed down from Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma and John Woo and Andrew Lau. We’re always aware that what we’re watching is a constructed object. For as beautifully filmed as it is, for all its location photography, one can never shake the sense that the world of The Raid 2 isn’t quite real. It feels like an elaborate façade, within which artfully-staged pageantry is being performed for our amusement. Deep down, its soul is that of a theme park.

…the world of The Raid 2 isn’t quite real. It feels like an elaborate façade, within which artfully-staged pageantry is being performed for our amusement.

I’m not using “theme park” here in the implicitly derisive way that Martin Scorsese infamously did to refer to Marvel movies; but I do think the analogy is a useful one. The experience of wandering around the Magic Kingdom, or the Islands of Adventure, spaces populated by performers from properties we recognise, united by a common theme, designed to siphon participants hither and thither with the allure of new novelties – that’s a lot like the headspace The Raid 2 gets you into. And of course, in this analogy, the rides correspond to the fights.

Evans regards plot and character, not as ends in themselves, but as a foundation for thrills, for individual moments his audience won’t ever forget. No-one will ever mistake The Raid 2 for a great work of dramaturgy. It can, and does, have its moments. Individual character beats land, and Uco’s arc is authentically tragic. But those moments are the by-product, never more than the film’s tertiary objectives. Evans’ characters aren’t compelling, or memorable, because of what they think, or say; they’re compelling, and most certainly memorable, for the ways that they fight, and kill, and maim, and bleed, and die. The ways that bodies can move, and be stopped from moving; the human body as a mechanism to effectuate its owner’s volition, in tension with its innate fragility, the myriad ways it can break or be broken; that’s the story that Evans is primarily interested in telling, and he tells it with tremendous eloquence, in ways no other medium could. 

I think Evans fully recognises this, even if he himself might not say it so bluntly. Despite how it might sound, The Raid 2 isn’t at odds with itself. The long scenes of exposition and gangland politics aren’t the film getting in its own way. The fact that it has so much plot, counterintuitively, I don’t think is an attempt to justify itself independently of its action scenes. That there are so many characters, so many factions double-dealing one another, and so many dovetailing subplots, is Evans working to maximise his possibility space; to maximise the number of opportunities for stylised violence, to afford himself as broad and comprehensive a canvas as a single feature film can possibly accommodate.

Evans is a visual storyteller. Always has been. For him, dialogue has always been secondary to the ways that objects might be framed, or move within the frame, or how those frames might be cut together. As discussed in my Raid review, he finds more expressive potential in violence than in words, and in The Raid 2, he presses right up against the limits of the expression available within the scope of a martial-arts crime thriller. Within his action scenes we can find instances of horror; anger; regret; sadness; joy; triumph; resolve; desperation; unflappable confidence; weary stoicism. There are moments of surprise, and dismay, and relief, and disgust, and even of humour, communicated so much more vividly than any of the script’s words convey. The fact that Rama’s final challenge is Cecep Arif Rahman’s Assassin reads almost as the closing argument of a thesis. The Assassin is a man with no name, who never speaks nor is spoken to, who’s afforded neither history nor motivation. We are out-and-out forced to glean his characterisation from his physicality alone.

What a movie. The Raid 2 is so much movie. When I started on the journey of this retrospective, this was the item on the docket that most intimidated me, and the account that’s taken the longest and the most effort to write. Even now, after the better part of 8,000 rambling words, I’m not sure that I’ve really captured it, gotten to the heart of its generous, engulfing mass. The Raid is a perfect film, superior to its sequel, but it’s also relatively simple to nail down. It’s like Die Hard, or [REC], or Assault on Precinct 13, but with martial arts. The Raid 2, by comparison, is a much more elusive, idiosyncratic, singular beast. It’s not quite a prestige picture, or an arthouse film, or a blockbuster, or a B-movie. It’s slow and talky, but defined by its moments of wordless, lightning-fast action. We could list the films it’s influenced by all day, and yet there’s no other one film quite like it. It’s digressive and messy, but in the kind of way that only ever results from towering ambition, the kind of text you get from a creator who wants nothing left unsaid on his chosen subject, no avenue left unexplored. 

What, ultimately, can be said to characterise it, except that it’s the quintessential Gareth Evans film? When Rama staggers into the film’s final scene, bloodied, bruised, hardly able to stand, surrounded by the crippled bodies of the gang he demolished four fights ago, there’s a distinct sense of apotheosis having been reached. The soundtrack does away with the propulsive, throbbing beats of the industrial-inflected score, in favour of the subdued, downbeat, even serene track “13 Ghosts II” by Nine Inch Nails. The music overrides the sound design; we witness Rama share a scene with Yakuza lieutenant Keichi (Ryûhei Matsuda), but their dialogue is silent, left for the audience to infer from context alone. Only Rama’s very final line is audible: “No,” he says. “I’m done.” With the final syllable, we cut to black, and from there, to credits.

It’s a bold gesture for the movie to end on, centring the viewer’s attention firmly on tone and atmosphere, rather than any sort of denouement or falling action in the plot. The vibe is almost post-coital; an unclenching of the muscles after the two-and-a-half-hour marathon session we’ve just been on, of progressively mounting climaxes, topping out at a once-in-a-lifetime crescendo that can probably never again be equalled.

It’s a bold gesture for the movie to end on, centring the viewer’s attention firmly on tone and atmosphere, rather than any sort of denouement or falling action in the plot.

My read on the exchange with Keichi is that Rama is being offered a job in the ranks of the Goto Yakuza family, after he single-handedly demolished Bejo’s organisation. That’s what the final line is, diegetically, refusing. But the subtext feels like it’s Evans addressing the audience directly: this is enough. We’re spent. Anything else we do within the Indonesian martial arts/crime thriller space will only end up being redundant.

For a few years, there was a contingent who were holding out for The Raid 3 to get made. Evans made some cagy comments in 2014, alluding to some ideas he had for a second sequel, which fans took and ran with as confirmation that the film would definitely happen. It never did, and, since an interview in 2020 where he detailed the concept he had for the story at the time, it looks like further expansion of The Raid “franchise” is off the table.

I, for one, am happy for it to remain that way. Rather than making its universe into an IP to be commodified and iterated upon year after year, I’d rather have The Raid 2 remain what it is now: something special, the ultimate expression of Merantau Films’ aesthetic priorities, the end result of a happy union between a nascent Indonesian talent pool and a Welshman who just loves movies a heck of a lot, fight movies doubly so. It remains, alone, unsullied, and majestic, long after its director departed for new horizons and new challenges.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

Andrew is a 2012 graduate of the University of Dundee, with an MA in English and Politics. He spent a lot of time at Uni watching decadently nerdy movies with his pals, and decided that would be his identity moving forward. He awards an extra point on The Goods ranking scale to any film featuring robots or martial arts. He also dabbles in writing fiction, which is assuredly lousy with robots and martial arts.

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