There is a scene midway through Gareth Evans' action-crime thriller "The Raid 2" that exemplifies the excruciating and exhilarating experience of this gripping paean to the ballet, brutality and blood that courses through martial arts films. The players are not the key ones, but the action is exquisite as two attractive 20-ish Indonesian assassins, a brother-sister team, identify their target in a subway car.
Tight space, other passengers, Hammer Girl, a mesmerizing Julie Estelle, her long hair swinging in time with the claw hammers she wields, approaches the prey; her brother, Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman), is a shoulder length behind. The man, cornered, desperate, clutches his briefcase. We have time to absorb all the pieces before the play begins, a good thing, since the kicking and bashing comes with such furious speed that if not for the gush of blood and the crack of bones, it would be hard to follow.
As you might guess, this is not a film for everyone's taste. But for fans of the martial arts genre, Evans has created a scintillating, if sometimes imperfect, new chapter.
The movie picks up where the Welsh-born writer-director's "The Raid: Redemption" left off in 2011. The hero, a clean rookie cop named Rama (Iko Uwais) is forced into an undercover assignment working for Bunawar (Cok Simbara), whose team is targeting police corruption in crime-infested Jakarta.
It represents a marked evolution in Evans' storytelling and stylistic flourishes.
"The Raid: Redemption" was just one bloody, bone-breaking blur unfolding over a single day in a mobster's high-rise as an unsanctioned police raid goes terribly wrong. Nearly all brutal action, almost no story, it still suggested Evans was someone to watch.
"Raid 2," while even more brutal and an hour longer, is far more complex, spinning out over several years and allowing for some interesting character development that was missing in the first.
The film follows Rama as he takes on a new name, Yuda, and a criminal identity to infiltrate Jakarta's most dangerous mob family. The first step is to get close to Uco, a local godfather's son doing time in prison. As the two years Yuda spends behind bars shows, Uco, portrayed by a smoldering Arifin Putra, is a hothead with none of the polished corporate sensibility of his father, Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo).
The film's drama hangs on the delicate balance of power in Jakarta's underworld. The Indonesian faction is basically split between Bangun and the younger, less-established Bejo (Alex Abbad); the Japanese faction is headed by Mr. Goto (Kenichi Endo).
By the time Yuda is released, Uco is once again ensconced near the top of his father's operation, but burning for more control. Bejo is chomping at the bit as well. The brokered peace with the Japanese is tentative at best. And most of the cops are there for the buying.
Yuda's infiltrating takes us into the grit and the grime of Jakarta drug and prostitution rings and to the placid green of the sugar cane fields where the bodies are buried. Putra is excellent as the entitled son, ever vacillating between defiance and submission. In fact, Evans stacks the villainy ranks with a series of cool corrupted sorts.
But this is Uwais' movie. He is a remarkable athlete. The sheer precision, speed and artistry contained within each kick and punch is frankly astonishing. With the rest of the scenes unfolding in real time, he seems otherworldly. "Raid 2" also gives the actor more to do than fight. He broods about his constant state of jeopardy, misses his wife and child, rages against the machinations of both cops and criminals.
Everywhere Yuda turns, someone is spoiling for a fight, and of course, he is more than game. One of the more interesting executions involves a dispute over payoffs to Bangun. It begins with a roar in a sweatshop filled with the implements of the porn trade. It ends in silence in a snow-covered alleyway, blood from a smashed head creating red rivers in the pristine white. Many die in between.
There are several moments like this, where the cinematic staging is riveting. As they did for "Redemption," Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono split the cinematography. Uwais, a martial arts champion, does double duty as star and fight choreographer.
As inventive as the action sequences are, there are too many of them, and they tend to go on far too long -- the movie is just shy of 21/2 hours. Still, Evans' filmmaking has undergone some impressive fine-tuning for "The Raid 2." It is something to see -- if you have the stomach for it.
Rating: R (for sequences of strong bloody violence throughout, sexuality and language)
Cast: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra
Director: Gareth Evans
Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes; Indonesian and Japanese with English subtitles