Gareth Evans is the greatest action director alive right now. If someone can take that title from him, more power to them, and I'll happily watch anyone attempting to try. But for me, right at this moment in time in action cinema, there is no question. If Evans were just skilled in setting up and shooting fight scenes, that would be one thing. But he's so much more than that.
When I saw THE RAID: REDEMPTION at SXSW two years ago, I had seen a singular talent. Gareth Evans had created an action movie for the ages, one that used its star, Iko Uwais, to the utmost, and with stellar action choreography and geography. It's a simple story, but well told, and the GAME OF DEATH style of raising the stakes, coupled with the incredible fighting skills of the actors and the stuntpeople who worked on it, elevated the film to what is, in my opinion, an action movie classic.
THE RAID 2: BERANDAL is even better. If THE RAID was Evans' DIE HARD, this is his GODFATHER. The perhaps-hyperbole fits, because the scope of THE RAID 2 is so much larger than its predecessor. If THE RAID was a look through the crack of an open door, Evans throws the door open in THE RAID 2, and we walk through into a corrupt, cruel, and violent world. Many new characters are introduced, and the events of THE RAID are merely the beginning of a long and intricate story that Gareth Evans meticulously builds, scene by scene and moment by moment. Much like the sequels to ALIEN and THE TERMINATOR, Evans, like James Cameron, is building a universe and has no fear in blowing his world up in service of the story he wants to tell.
THE RAID 2 starts mere moments after the first ends - Andi (Donny Alamsyah), Rama's (Iko Uwais) brother, is ruthlessly gunned down in a field by Bejo (Alex Abbad), an up-and-coming crime boss. Meanwhile, Rama is given a brutal lesson by his supervisor into the world he has stepped into. Everyone is corrupt; most of the cops are bought by the crime lords in the city, and the tenement building at the center of THE RAID was just a small corner in a much larger, rotten world. Without warning, Rama is offered a choice - go deep undercover and infiltrate the criminal underworld, or put his wife, his father, and his unborn son at incredible risk. Eventually the crime syndicates will discover who was responsible for what happened at the apartment tenement and take it out on Rama's family, unless his identity is wiped clean and Rama is sent to prison.
Reluctantly Rama agrees, and he finds himself in the radius of Ucko (Arifin Putra), the son of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), one of two crime lords of the city. Bangun and Goto (Ken'ichi Endô), the Japanese crime lord, have an uneasy truce, and there has not been an incident between them in some time, until the tenement. But Bejo is waiting in the wings, just looking for an opportunity to break into the big time. Rama ends up saving Ucko's life in prison, and once he's released two years later, finds himself being Ucko's protector at the employ of Bangun.
Bangun is patient and cautious as a leader. He did not build his empire to see it scattered to the winds, and the truce between Bangun and Goto has benefited them both. But Ucko is impatient, and ready to make his mark, and desperately wants to impress his father and make their organization bigger. Bangun is not interested in expansion; while the day-to-day life of a crime boss may be boring to Ucko, it's also kept him alive and wealthy. Incidents where Bangun must use killers like Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian - Mad Dog from the original film, and terrific here as an assassin trying to connect with his wife and child) are sparse and Bangun likes it that way. But Ucko has larger ambitions.
Rama finds himself in an awkward and dangerous place - he refuses to wear a wire, and can only make brief, covert reports to his superiors. He also talks to his wife whenever he can, and has not even seen his young son, only hearing him for tiny moments over the telephone. And as Ucko's ambitions grow, and tensions between Ucko and Bangun rise, Rama finds himself having to make a choice. Meanwhile, Bejo waits, looking for a crack in Bangun's armor, and to bring it all down.
As I said before, if Evans was simply a good director of action scenes, he'd already be considered a terrific director. But Evans' ambitions for THE RAID 2: BERANDAL are so much larger than that. For lengths of time, Evans is confident to take us on a tour of this world - the many disparate characters, like Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Try Yulisman), a brother-sister team of assassins, or The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman), a brutal killer in the employ of Bejo. The relationship between Bangun and Ucko is complicated and both Putra and Pakusodewo give great performances. In fact, all the acting in THE RAID 2 is top-notch, including the mighty Iko Uwais. As Rama's desperation to escape this situation grows more apparent, Uwais isn't simply a kickass fighter, but a loving husband, a good cop, and as the loyalties shift between Ucko and his superiors, Uwais puts it all in his performance. It's star-making work Uwais does here.
But you want to know about the action. And here is where Evans sets himself up in the pantheon of great directors like Michael Mann, John Woo, or James Cameron. The action scenes, to put it bluntly, are flawless. Whether it's an intense car chase through the streets, or a montage of blood and punches as each crime syndicate makes its play, Evans edits and shoots with the patient, meticulous skills of a virtuoso. Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono put the camera in places where you'd never expect, darting and weaving through the various fights and action sequences with grace and beauty. Bruce Law, as the vehicular stunts coordinator, helps create one of the best car chases in recent memory, as we travel inside and outside of the vehicles with the camera. All of the action makes great spatial sense and it's very easy to follow even when the intensity almost feels too much.
It always helps when the action in front of the camera is so masterfully coordinated, and the stuntwork here is unparalleled. Uwais and Ruhian stage each fight with increasing raw power, and while at times it may feel like Big Boss levels in a videogame, what makes the difference here is the sheer emotion and skill of the actors on display. The score by Joseph Trapanese (returning from the first film) and Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal (who did the score for the international release of THE RAID) ratchets up the pressure, and is, if even possible, a better score than the original.
But what I most love about THE RAID 2: BERANDAL is the story. Evans has crafted a complicated, deeply resonant crime fable here. Even when the characters stack up against each other, the plot is never confusing, but what's more important is the skill that Evans displays here in characters simply talking. To have skills shooting action is one thing, but Evans is no one-trick pony, and he gets great work from everyone. There are stretches of the film where Iko Uwais is practically a supporting character, but because of the grace that Evans displays in telling his story, we don't mind. In this aspect, THE RAID 2: BERANDAL is most different from the original - Evans paints on a much bigger canvas this time, and he's just as adept a director with the larger scale here as he was with the intimacy of THE RAID.
THE RAID 2: BERANDAL is leaps and bounds a display of incredible directorial skill - restraint when necessary, bombast when appropriate, and when the movie explodes in the second half, Evans is a confident captain of his ship to take us on that ride. There are few action films that deserve an almost three hour length, but THE RAID 2: BERANDAL does. Those comparisons to THE GODFATHER are appropriate. This is a sprawling, glorious crime epic masterpiece. Hollywood doesn't need to spend ridiculous amounts of money with computer fakery supporting a flat, uninteresting plot. Gareth Evans shows us all that a great movie can be crafted that gives us people to care about, and a story to become emotionally invested in, and if you nail those aspects first, the wonderful action is the icing on the cake.
THE RAID 2: BERANDAL is one of the greatest action movies I've ever seen - bursting with great characters, story, and incredible sequences that put directors like Michael Bay to shame. If I see a better action film this year... but I won't. I know it, and once you see THE RAID 2: BERANDAL, you'll know it too.