At the risk of sounding like an elitist, I’ve always felt that to fully enjoy the fruits of American popular culture, one must always be somewhat willfully ignorant of what are all too often their far superior foreign counterparts. For every great piece of American animation for example, or any trippy sci-fi idea that makes a high concept blockbuster feel fresh and original, there is invariably an anime series or movie, or a manga, that has done it better. For every Black Swan there’s a Perfect Blue, for every Inception, a Paprika. On the live action front, the new Indonesian action film The Raid 2, much like its predecessor, seems to exist purely to put American action movies to shame, establishing a new standard of hyper-kinetic badassery that the mainstream can only dismiss entirely, because it can never possibly hope to do anything as good.
If you haven’t seen the original Raid: Redemption, you don’t have to in order to enjoy this new installment (the second in a planned trilogy), but you should still stop reading this right now and check it out anyway, because it’s that good. If you need a reference, the structure of that film was later used for the 2012 comic book adaptation Dredd, pitting one man against an army of criminals in a high rise building all out for his head. The new Raid amps up the narrative interspersed between the fight scenes without taking anything away from them, following the main character from the first film going undercover into a crime syndicate to take down corrupt cops on their payroll. The result is everything that was great about the first movie magnified by characters and a story interesting enough that you can almost care about them as much as the action.
In many ways, The Raid 2 feels like the movie Quentin Tarantino has been trying to make for the last twenty years, or at the very least the authentic irony free movie he’s been ripping off all this time. It’s hyper violent without being silly, slapsticky, or self-aware. It’s more brutal, visceral, and bloody than any action movie you’re likely to see anytime soon, without being gratuitous or exploitative. The film practically dares you to resist pumping your fist every five minutes or so as the outwardly unassuming hero takes on legions of bad guys sometimes ten or twenty at a time, but never in a way that feels over the top or excessive. More impressive, he isn’t the kind of unattainably indestructible brawler of American action cinema, effortlessly cutting through his enemies in time for a quip. He gets hurt, and he just keeps going, and doesn’t need a clever line to punctuate his actions.
Aside from the many faceless thugs serving as cannon fodder, every character in the movie is given something more to work with than the bare minimum superficiality one would ordinarily find in this kind of movie stateside. Even the eccentric villains set up as boss fights are given just a little bit more depth, like the seemingly homeless assassin with the samurai ethic and estranged wife and son, or the two introverted siblings specializing in claw hammers and baseball bats respectively, quirky but not so much that they’re unbelievable, and with just the hint of a back story that doesn’t need to be made explicit to be effective. Another assassin barely has any lines and seems superfluous up until the penultimate fight scene where his character comes into play, but just by watching him fight he becomes more intriguing than most villains given time to monologue about their motives.
Everything about this movie is amazing and ridiculously entertaining from beginning to end, making its domestic box office performance not only a tragic disappointment, but a "Pearls Before Swine" indictment of the American movie going public. Our collective taste for action movies is so badly burned by excessive banality that even Arnold Schwarzenegger can't rile up enough passion to see one in theaters outside of the Expendables, and even then its more about nostalgia and irony than any genuine interest in watching bad asses be bad ass, but when a movie like The Raid 2 comes along, most of us can't be bothered. Its a shame, not because it is simply good, but because it is easily one of the best action movies ever made, so much so that I wonder if it wouldn't transcend its genre into near universal appeal. I literally can't think of anyone that I wouldn't recommend it to. As far as I'm concerned, everyone needs to see this movie. My little old Born Again Christian grandma in Belle Vernon Pennsylvania should see this movie about bloody hand to hand combat amidst an Indonesian gang war, and you should two.