I started giggling during the subway scene in The Raid 2. It’s not that it’s funny, per se — on the surface, in fact, it’s quite the opposite, a blood-spurting encounter between a female assassin armed with two hammers (take that, Oldboy) and a small army of bodyguards. But there’s something about the audacity of the sequence that just got me; it’s so gory, so violent, and so utterly over the top than you can’t help but marvel at it (provided you’ve got a strong enough stomach). And then they cut away to a simultaneous set piece with another assassin, who likes to take people out with carefully aimed baseballs. A couple of scenes later, our hero kills a bad guy by burning his face on a hibachi. You get the idea.
Much has already been written about The Raid 2’s wall-to-wall violence, and let’s be clear: this is a violent fucking movie. The amount of bloodshed, death, and general mayhem makes it one of those films, like last year’s Evil Dead remake, that indicates the R rating is just plain broken (particularly when you look at the kind of mild sexual activity that violates the rating, but that’s a whole other discussion). The body count is astronomical, the blood is trawled on by the bucketful, and the Foley artists’ budget for celery alone must have been massive.
And it’s not that the violence is disconnected; most viewers will find themselves, at the very least, wincing and flinching throughout the picture’s sprawling, two-and-a-half hour running time. But it’s not empty violence. This is not to say that the film is some sort of deeply thoughtful meditation on the nature of violent interaction — quite the contrary, in fact. No, the violence is so stylized, so energetic, and so magnificently choreographed that it abstracts into something beyond mere brawling; it’s about the joy of performance and the thrill of capturing that performance, as in the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, the endless grace of Fred Astaire, and the previous martial artist who fused them, Jackie Chan.
Much of the genius in Chan’s work is in his ability to create action set pieces in unexpected locations, and with found props. The Raid 2 works in much the same way; in contrast to the taut, single-location narrative of its predecessor, The Raid seems to seek out new locales and conditions for its bone-crunching fight scenes: a prison toilet, a muddy prison yard, nightclubs, moving cars, kitchens, the aforementioned subway. The geographical and temporal tightness of the initial outing is certainly missed, but kudos to writer/director Gareth Evans for resisting the urge to retread; the film’s first line of dialogue is, “It’s a question of ambition, really,” and, in retrospect, that sounds like the film’s guiding principle.
He’s also tinkering with tempo this time around. The pace of The Raid: Redemption was relentless, and so is The Raid 2’s — except when it’s not. He’ll take quiet, introspective pauses between (or even within) the big action beats, giving us time to catch our breath or even forge a moment of poignancy with his characters. He’ll also, to great effect, take a pause in the run-up to an action scene, keying in on a slowly turning broom handle, an elegantly fracturing lock, the unsheathing of those two hammers; he’s building anticipation, slowly and deliberately, and it works.
The skill and confidence of the filmmaking — from the cool, elegant frames that contain the most sinister violence to the sleek shifts in color saturation to the bravado of the frequently unbroken handheld action — is presumably not enough to draw or keep viewers who don’t have a taste for the kind of extreme violence Evans is serving up here. And they certainly won’t stay for the narrative, which is awfully intricate for a movie where we can’t buy much of anything, since the characters in it keep fighting long past the limits of pain and bloodshed for actual human beings.
But that’s par for the course, because the violence in The Raid 2 isn’t “real” (and the violence in any fictional film isn’t “real,” either). It’s not even “comic book violence”; it’s graphic novel violence, or better yet, video-game violence, a term that also helps explain why leading man Iko Uwais can keep on fighting (three lives and all that). Such a distinction will allow plenty of potential viewers and closed-minded critics to dismiss it outright. But this kind of thing isn’t easy to do, and it’s even harder to do it as effectively as The Raid 2.
The Raid 2 is out Friday in limited release.