“He’s here. He’s coming up the stairs.” Even if the gangsters in The Raid 2 don’t quite realize the gargantuan ramifications of this announcement, you likely do. This is because you’ve likely seen the first time Rama (Uko Iwais) was coming up a stairway—actually, several stairways—in The Raid: Redemption. In that first collaboration between pencak silat fighter Uwais and director Gareth Evans, Rama performs some frankly stunning negotiations of all manner of architecture, making his way up and down stairs, crashing through windows and doors, breaking bones and walls and floors, driven by a mix of willful ferocity and irrational honor, blood loyalty and utterly calculated rage.
His survival at that film’s end is at once foregone and remarkable. That he has to make his way up still more stairs and fight still more killers in this next installment is both predictable and preposterous.
For all its mayhem, The Raid: Redemption is a model of economy, as Rama the good cop is recruited to rout out bad cops and an apartment building full of criminals armed with everything from guns to machetes to chairs. Here again, he’s recruited, by another dour cop who can have no idea what he’s asking. “We both want the same thing,” Rama tells this guy. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll follow the same path as you.”
Instead, Rama finds his way, remakes himself at each moment, makes his space fit his immediate needs. His initial mission is to infiltrate a crowd of cartel members, beginning with the brutal gangster Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo) by way of his ambitious but not very bright son Uco (Arifin Putra). As Uco’s in prison, Rama’s sent deep undercover as Yuda, an inmate who must earn Ucos’ trust. Before you can say, “Escape Plan,” Rama is apparently cut off from his cop-minders and left to manage his survival for a couple of years however he can.
Perhaps miffed but hardly daunted, Rama is still a cop trying to right a vast system of corruption, symbolized in the prison but extending far beyond. And so he persists in his mission, methodically ensuring that Uco feels indebted to him when he saves him during an epic battle in a muddy prison yard, a battle hat pits guards against prisoners and prisoners against each other, all slipping and flailing in the muck, save for the few, like Rama, who manage direct kicks to heads or snap necks with awesome efficiency.
It’s a ballet, bodies contorted and impossible, shot from multiple angles, some slow motion and some rapid-fast cuts, the choreography ranging from extraordinary to flat out unconscious. The mud helps to underscore the mix of grace and depravity that makes these men (and for now, they’re all men) go, their loony faith in their own superiority or their more rational desperation.
This is the mix that structures all action films, of course, a familiar set of fictions. It’s a mix that has little interest in plot or character in any detailed or convincing way: Rama has a wife and a child, whom he contacts briefly, by what can only be called an operatic phone call, when he’s finally released from prison. They mark that he’s a sensitive, gentle soul, however brilliant he might be as a killing machine. But you don’t need to see them to know this: Rama wears his pain and his vulnerability plainly.
And still, he fights. He fights a lot, in a wild array of spaces, inside vehicles (good for careening and noise), kitchens (sharp blades and cold metallic surfaces), a nightclub (tables and glass), a seedy porn studio (is there any other kind in movies?). A few other scenes feature other fighters, unnamed but more or less identifiable by their weapons of choice (hammers, a baseball bat, throwing blades), as well as a favorite (but killed) combatant from the first film: the renowned Javanese martial artist Yayan Ruhian now plays a different character, whose devotion to fighting has left him alone and bereft, flashbacks suggesting how he lost his family, a cautionary tale Rama doesn’t see but you can’t miss.
It’s this split, between what you know and what Rama or Uco or any other individual in the movie world might know, that allows The Raid 2 make any kind of sense. It’s not sense that’s plausible, it’s sense that’s certain. You can wonder at any given stunt, and that’s fun. The stock set-ups—killer in a subway car, killer with leather gloves, good cop versus the world, a Japanese clan versus Bangun’s Indonesians—provide but a rudimentary scaffolding for the action. This is a little less relentless than in the first film, but still, relentless, and has little to do with the scaffolding as such. Rama might fight anyone, anywhere, and in every instance, he’s incredible, ever mobile, ever ready, ever smart and resilient. Moreover, the space he’s in is incredible, every frame as mobile, ready or smart as he is. It looks as spontaneous as it is not. It’s ballet.