Sundance Review: 'The Raid 2: Berandal'

“It’s a question of ambition, really.” The first words in “The Raid 2: Berandal” rather tidily sum up both the sequel’s primary appeal, and its biggest hurdle. Whereas Gareth Evans’ lean, mean “The Raid: Redemption” was perfectly content with being a tower-bound “Assault on Precinct 13”/“Die Hard” riff, his follow-up aims to be nothing less than “The Godfather” of Indonesian martial arts fare and takes its sweet time doing so.

Picking up shortly after the first film, the story quickly eliminates its few loose ends and forces Rama (Iko Uwais) to abandon his family once more and head deep undercover to root out police corruption in Jakarta. This requires an extended stint in prison during which Rama befriends Uco (Arifin Putra), hotheaded son of crime lord Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo). His father and the Japanese Goto clan operate under an uneasy truce, but Uco and newcomer Bejo (Alex Abbad) are a bit too greedy for that to last long, soon stranding Rama right in the middle of a full-blown turf war.

Running fifty minutes longer than its predecessor, the result is a sprawling saga which occasionally loses sight of its own protagonist amid all the mounting machinations. Director/writer/editor Evans clearly relishes the opportunity to welcome back old friends (Yayan Ruhian, the man formerly known as Mad Dog, in an entirely new role) and establish newly iconic characters (Julie Estelle’s Hammer Girl and Very Tri Yulisman’s Baseball Bat Man, bringing a “Warriors”-like bent to the universe with their obvious weaponry), but he does so to the point of marginalizing the reliably stoic Uwais.  Even when Rama does hold the spotlight in dramatic scenes, he’s relegated to a routinely anguished role in the “Infernal Affairs”/“The Departed” vein, but fortunately, the stuntman-turned-star remains a masterful martial artist when it counts.

Let the record show that “The Raid 2” certainly does not want for bone-crunching, jaw-snapping ambushes, shootouts and brawls involving machetes, machine guns and utterly mad men. The broader scope makes for a great variety of environments ranging from bathrooms to ballrooms, subways to highways, nightclubs to prison courtyards, often adorned in Refn-worthy production design. Although many sequences boast a jittery, undercranked look that irritates more than it excites, the elaborate fight and chase geography and choreography on display is beyond well enough to compensate, with select shots and stunts simply too brutal and baffling to believe.

Structurally speaking, Evans does try to space his action beats out at twenty-minute intervals in an effort to keep the energy up, but things only really kick, punch and snap into place from a show-stopping car chase onward, when the sheer momentum of the last hour finally rivals that of “Redemption.” Though it may not be this generation or genre’s answer to “The Godfather,”  “The Raid 2” is nonetheless a spectacular crescendo of ultraviolence that re-defines “overkill” for anyone not already made queasy by the thought of brutalized bodies. Good luck finding a modern martial-arts epic that can even hold a candle to it.

SCORE: 8.4 / 10