The one thing that made martial arts films from the 1970's to the 90's was the practical nature in which they were filmed. You didn't need wire work, CG, or too many bells and whistles in order to make it awesome. Legends like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Gordon Liu didn't need CG to make their films amazing, and while I'm sure "The Raid 2: Berandal" needs a little help here and there, we are in the digital age after all, it's still a film that's in your face from beginning to end, and is extremely personal when it comes to it's action set pieces.
"Raid 2" picks up pretty much right where the first one ends. Rama (Iko Uwais) has escaped the apartment complex where the elite police squad he was apart of was all but wiped out. Thanks to his brother, Andi, Rama meets up with a small police task force determined on wiping out police corruption in Jakarta. With two crime families, one up-and-coming gangster with a limp, and corrupt police, things get mighty interesting.
Bottom line, if you were a fan of "The Raid: Redemption" the sequel is a no-brainer. It gives you more of what you loved about it's predecessor, but writer-director Gareth Evans fleshes the characters out just enough as to make them seem a little more than just fodder. We get inside Rama's head and see that he is actually a family man and has missed out his son growing up because of his commitment to justice. Whereas the first film was pretty thin on plot, and heavy on action, "Raid 2" is able to balance the two and create not just one of the best pure action films you'll see all year, but a new benchmark in martial arts film making.
Aside from creating a bigger world for characters to live in, the characters are also more varied and each have their own agenda, which raises the stakes for our protagonist. While there aren't really any surprises that you don't see coming and haven't been done in dozens of other kung-fu flicks, a hint, people get betrayed a lot, when they do happen you'll still be a little shocked. This goes double for the opening sequence of the film. It also seemed that there was a concerted effort to create memorable characters who had specific "gimmicks." While this might come off a little corny, I think it adds that little touch of levity. Sure it's cliche that the head of a criminal empire would have "super goons" but "super goons" that specialize in fighting with hammers and an actual baseball, is something special.
This brings me to the action scenes, which are brutal, but have a certain elegance to them. Using Pencak Silat once again as the fighting style of choice, the fighting scenes are ratcheted up to 11. There was also a welcome decrease in gunplay for the sequel. Sure, there are some scenes where guns are used, notably in the 3rd act of the film, but the reliance on more martial artistry and less bullets gave the film a more personal touch. As an aside, I have to give a shout out to whoever did the sound design for this film. You feel every torn muscle, broken bone, and head crack as if it was happening right next to you. There were numerous times where I squirmed in my seat when a killing, or in the very least, a disabling blow was delivered.
All in all, "Raid 2" is a more than worthy sequel and surpasses it's predecessor in almost every single aspect. Planned as a trilogy, it will be interesting to see what Evans plans to do since "Raid 3" will be a sequel, but apparently we won't be finding out any time soon. Regardless, my best advice would be to watch "Raid 2" over and over and marvel at one of the best martial arts films in quite some time.
Fun Fact: Berandal is Indonesian for "thug."