The first movie in this series, which was released in the US as The Raid: Redemption (2011), was an instant martial arts classic. Directed by a Welshman named Gareth Evans who works in the Indonesian film industry, the film takes a few minutes to set up the basic premise of a Jakarta SWAT team entering an apartment tower controlled by a gangster named Tama and then turns into one long, bloody battle as the cops fight their way to the top of the tower. The action is brutal and unrelenting, and over the course of the film it switches from a John Woo style hail of bullets to a martial arts punch and kickfest. It’s an exhilarating movie that builds to a very satisfactory peak in which the protagonist, who is a rookie cop named Rama played by Iko Uwais, confronts the aptly named gangster fighter Mad Dog played by Yayan Ruhian. Uwais and Ruhian shared action choreography credits with Evans.
In the sequel Rama goes undercover in one of the Jakarta gangs to root out political corruption. The pace of the second film is very different from the first. It takes more time to set up who all the different parties are (cops, politicians, and multiple gangs — including a Japanese gang, in one of the film’s several nods to Indonesian multiculturalism), and the action is interspersed with the usual plot mechanics of undercover cop stories, instead of coming as a nonstop onslaught as in the first film. The opening sequence was pretty confusing to me, possibly because I didn’t remember all the details from the first movie, but maybe because it’s just told in a confusing way that keeps cutting between various story threads without giving us enough information to see how they relate. Eventually it settles into more of a groove, although it still has some odd structural shifts, as when Yayan Ruhian shows up as a new character whose storyline seems pretty tangential to the main thrust of the plot. The other structural problem with the film is that Rama’s mission is supposedly to find out which politicians have been corrupted by the gangs, but the story we actually see is about a succession problem in the gang he infiltrates, in which the hot-headed son of the gang boss feels his ambitions are being thwarted by his pragmatic father. This conflict is exploited by an upstart gangster who wants to set the established gangs at each other’s throats, which again doesn’t have much to do with political corruption.
That all said, the main attraction of a martial arts movie is the action, and the action sequences are great. The fighting is fierce, inventive, and graceful, and Evans does a good job of building it up to a peak, introducing the three main gang fighters in extraordinary set pieces (one of which is the upshot of the Ruhian tangent). The film also looks great, and Evans and his cinematographer have a sharp eye for interesting compositions that go above and beyond what’s needed in an action film. They find interesting settings in and around Jakarta, creating a strong sense of locale. This a very violent, gory film, but it has a twisted sense of humor to it that had the audience I watched it with hooting with appreciation. The final fights with Hammer Girl, Baseball Bat Boy, and Double Sickle Man are explosive, and then they are topped by some surprising twists in the climax.
So over all I didn’t think this one was quite as tight and focused as the first, but it’s still a powerful piece of film-making in its own right. Evans is trying something a little different here, and while not all of it worked for me I have to say that I didn’t notice how bloody long the film was until I looked at the time after it was over. If you are a fan of violent martial arts films, you’ll probably enjoy this one.
[Good discussion in comments on Outlaw Vern's review, where it's argued that the whole point of the film is that Rama's goal to clean up political corruption is shunted off into endless gang warfare. Nothing has changed, and he barely refrains from becoming just another murdering thug himself. That is, he tries to clean up the corruption but it's all he can do to save himself from being corrupted.]