It's not without its issues though. The movie's ambitious storyline runs into pacing problems during the first act, while the second act pushes the audience's ability to count how many characters can fit into a single movie. As a result, it's tough to keep track of who's who, and pivotal moments may go over the top of viewers' heads since they're so busy watching other people's heads get kicked in.
Speaking of head kicking, Iko Uwais returns as Rama, the family man, silat expert, and super cop who's essentially survived a trip to hell and back. But there's no rest for the film's weary hero, as he's enlisted by a police force in desperate need of flushing out corrupt officials just two hours after the end of the first film. From there, Rama's tasked with infiltrating Indonesia's most prominent gang by getting close to the leader's son, Ucok, (Arifin Putra) in order to find hard evidence and bring a handful of dirty cops to justice.
While Rama's mission is essentially one of revenge and survival, it frequently takes the back seat to Ucok's quest for greed and power, and the movie flourishes because of it. As the story evolves, the audience is introduced to the fragile peace between Ucok's criminal empire and a rival Japanese gang teetering on the verge of becoming an all-out war, dragging Rama right into the thick of things.
Uwais may be the film's action star, but Putra has memorable moments as a smooth, yet menacing gangbanger and a mob boss' son whose lust for responsibility and respect puts him into direct conflict with his father, Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo). Pakusodewo plays the almost sage-like crime lord who struggles to keep his 30-year dynasty intact, leaving the audience to sympathize with a scumbag even though bodies pile high around him.
Whereas Bangun is patient, Ucok is headstrong and bloodthirsty, and watching the two together on-screen adds a refreshing amount of drama absent from the first film. It also makes Rama's job on an undercover cop a hell of a lot harder as he's forced to play both father and son to accomplish his mission.
And this is what makes the film special: for once in a martial arts movie, danger doesn't come for Rama in the shape of fists, a machete or gunfire; it comes in a real tension that his cover might be blown at any moment, jeopardizing both his and his family's lives. It's a lost art to have the audience so genuinely invested in a hero from a martial arts flick, yet director and writer Gareth Evans makes it work.
That fear and tension for Uwais is also aided by an excellent use of sound and score, with thumping beats blending with the kicks and blows during fight scenes and moments of silence just before a gruesome death.
But let's be honest for a moment here: while the addition of drama is a nice touch, it's not the real reason why viewers will continue to talk about the movie after they leave the theatre. If you enjoyed the brutality of the first film's fight scenes, then you'll feel right at home here. Fights are well spread out over the film, though the close quarters and narrow hallways of the first film are freshened up with grander, wide-open sets like derelict factories, stretches of highways and dirty prisons.
While Evans stumbles with weaving a cohesive tale, his talent as a man who knows how to film fight scenes truly shines. The camera follows not just the action but also the perspective of the combatants. Every jump or leap from a glass plane follows with a camera roll that's as enjoyable as it is refreshing. Evans also makes great use of bird-eye views to highlight Uwais' ability to take on multiple opponents at once.
If you haven't seen the "The Raid: Redemption, do so before you watch this film as it'll be a perfect litmus test for your appreciation of Evans' work. "The Raid 2: Berandal" takes everything that made the first film so popular and multiplies it tenfold. It also adds in unnecessary characters and plot points which muddle the film's pacing, but that won't stop martial arts fans from enjoying this sequel.
"The Raid 2: Berandal" hits theatres Friday, April 11