The production backstory of The Raid 2: Berandal (the subtitle, which translates as "tough guy", "thug", or something like that, is present only in ad material and not onscreen, at least not in the U.S. release) is surprisingly useful in hacking through what the thing is, and why it feels a little... but we'll get there.

See, Gareth Evans, Indonesia's favorite Welsh-born filmmaker, had an idea for a mighty crime epic, Berandal, that he was shopping around some years ago. It was such a sprawling film, with such complicated and daunting action scenes built around the skills of martial artist Iko Uwais, that he couldn't get anyone to bite on financing it, and in order to prove his ability to make an action movie that could draw a crowd and showcase the monumentally busy fights that he and Uwais had dreamed up, he made a much simpler, more contained movie that he could get financed. This was The Raid, released in Indonesia in 2011, and boy, did it ever prove Evans's talent: it is a masterpiece of genre cinema, the best action movie in years - probably the 21st Century, maybe since John Woo first left Hong Kong.

And that cleared the path for Berandal, with a twist: now the thing was to be retrofitted into serving as a sequel to The Raid, which itself raises certain expectations, and so two films that were not meant to be related are, and that makes it awfully tempting to compare the two of them, which isn't much good for anybody. The Raid and The Raid 2 are different movies that intend to do different things; both of them do the things they intend to do extraordinarily well. I will flatly state that the things The Raid does appeal to me more than its ad hoc sequel. There is a profound simplicity to The Raid; it is a film of virtually no plot nor characters that exists solely to watch human bodies in motion, under astonishing control by their owners, enacting movements that are virtually impossible to imagine, let alone perform. It's ballet, basically; violent, blood-splattered ballet, but the appeal is mostly the same in either case.

The Raid 2 is surely not ballet, and were we going to spend the whole time poking at the things it does which The Raid does not do, and which the sequel suffers for, the first thing we'd arrive at is the sheer volume of plot: The Raid 2 does spend an awful lot of time exploring things that are not Uwais flying around and punching, stabbing, and shooting bad guys. And either in comparison with its predecessor or solely in reference to itself, this material is not terribly compelling cinema, given that Uwais, though he is fabulous when it comes to punching, stabbing, and shooting, really isn't the best at reciting dialogue, having facial expressions, or implying his character's range of emotions. And given, too, that the big sprawling epic crime drama that underlies the whole film feels pretty paint-by-numbers: there are two gangs that have been in static peace for years! But the son of one of the head gangsters is itchy to prove himself by beating the other gang! And our favorite supercop Rama (Uwais) is undercover to witness it all! Truly, some of the story beats are communicated with a certain heightened energy, and the performances by Tio Pakusodewo and Arfin Putra as the father and son leading the native Indonesian gang (the other gang is Japanese) give a kind of tragic dimension to the family drama hiding just inside the material. But for the most part, there are the scenes in The Raid 2 that are telling the story through words and characters, and scenes that tell the story through fighting and death, and the latter scenes seem to get just about everyone involved excited far more.

For oh! how very impressive the fight scenes are. The breakdown goes like this: martial arts choreography by Uwais, Yayan Ruhian (who played Mad Dog in the last film, and the totally unrelated retired killer Prakoso in this film), and Larnell Stovall; car chase choreography by Bruce Law; action choreography by Evans (who also edited the whole shebang). That's a lot of choreographers, but The Raid 2 earns that kind of specialisation: there is complexity in every action setpiece that boggles the mind, with the interplay between cinematography, editing, and human movement readily equaling all the but the very best moments in The Raid, moments where the camera movement alone is so fluid and swift that it barely seems possible that the thing exists (there is one shot in the car chase - the best car chase in ages, by the way - that I could not even come close to solving, until reading online that a camera operator was dressed as the passenger-side seat).

And not just the way the action is designed and framed, but the style surrounding it: there's a scene involving red reflective glass where the action consists of an assassin armed with a bat (Very Try Yulisman) running down the hall, with silver flashes running up and down the wall as his bat is reflected in which the abstract combination of color and line is so beautiful that it would nearly be worth framing. It's not the only scene where Evans and his crew use red in the most inspired ways; the film has a limited color palette but it uses those colors to churn up emotion and energy, keeping even the more sedate and pokey talking scenes clipping along just because of the brightness of the mise en scène.

All of this excellent craftsmanship, beauty, and ingenious choreography is in service, as you may have heard, to one hell of a brutal film. Like all the best martial arts films, The Raid 2 knows better than to be hypocritical and launch into some kind of hand-wringing about how violence this or that, but I will say this for it: the film doesn't go for the "cool" deaths. It is a movie where each and ever blown-apart head, wrenched limb, or splash of blood is there to make you feel it. One does not go through the movie whooping and applauding (or at least, I didn't; the fellows two rows back and a bit to the left would disagree), but gasping and cringing. If Evans and company are best at showing us what the well-trained human body is capable of, they're almost as good at showcasing the fragility of even these apparent supermen - the strongest fighters take a lot of damage, and the choreography shifts throughout the film to reflect that. That, and not the overheated city-spanning drama, is the real emotional core of these movies: a tribute to human strength and mortality alike. The Raid 2 is exciting and rationally nonsensical, but it also has a fleshiness to it in common with the very best action cinema, and that's enough to make it more than just so much well-mounted flash and dazzle.