The karambit duel in The Raid 2 is the best movie fight (opens in new tab) of all time. It has to be. In a film stuffed with incredible combat and martial art scenes, it’s the grand finale; the violent end to the movie’s violent delights. Director Gareth Evans starts The Raid 2 bloody and constantly escalates, each flash of brutality more intriguing and compelling than the last, and all wonderfully unique encounters. The final proper fight of this movie simply had to be special or the end would fall completely flat, crushed by the excellence of all that went before it. Apparently it took a whole week to film, too. Thankfully, then, it’s damn good.
Our hero, Rama, has been forced to confront the mobs he has so diligently infiltrated throughout the remainder of the movie. Exposed and on the run, he has a simple, dreadful choice: he kills them or they kill him. And his wife and baby boy. Rama crashes quite literally into the warehouse of upstart mob-boss Bejo, smashes through a small army of goons, then heads up to the restaurant on the top floor. Before he arrives in the kitchens he’s confronted by a fearsome duo of assassins - the baseball bat guy and hammer girl. Not seen The Raid 2? You can guess how they kill. After a savage encounter (where he leaves a baseball bat embedded - OH GOD EMBEDDED - in its former owner’s head), Rama staggers tired and bleeding into the kitchen… where he comes face to face with Bejo’s most deadly employee - a man simply known as The Assassin. Here’s the fight in full.
The build-up is superb. As the kitchen-staff timidly shuffle out of the room, the pair enter fighting stances. They shuffle closer to each other, until almost touching. It’s a show of intent - a dare to see if either fighter will back down - as well as a smart way of indicating to the viewer that the pair are so evenly matched. The beginning of the actual fight is a staccato of quick exchanges, each man testing the speed and style of the other before stopping to assess, to watch and wait, to weigh up their opponent. All three quick exchanges are accompanied by a subtle echo of music, and we see the Assassin - confident in his abilities - flash a wolfish smile at Rama. Directorially, it’s a tease, as if the tension needed to be further ramped up.
What follows is five solid minutes of such beautifully choreographed violence, it’s practically ballet. There’s a bloody grace to it, a narrative that sees the balance of power swing back and forth, and even handful of comments about the personalities of the fighters thrown in for good measure. Even the sterile whites and silvers of the kitchen feel deliberately chosen, as if Evans has chosen a blank canvas on which to paint his action masterpiece (in red). There’s so, so much going on here that it demands several rewatches to take it all in. No problem, because the action is brilliant.
Like all the other fight scenes in The Raid 2 it’s very clear that these people are genuinely hurting each other (on screen - although during filming too, probably). You feel each impact, and it’s not just a case of each strike being carefully blocked - more punches and kicks hit home than miss, and it has a physical toll on each of the combatants. There’s a real desperation here too. While Rama and the Assassin are two of the most graceful, agile fighters in cinema, they fight dirty here. Everything is a weapon; you really get the sense they’re desperate to hurt, wound and kill one another. This is not pretty combat, and yet there’s a definite elegance to it.
The first half of the fight is pure unarmed stuff, and Rama clearly has the upper hand as he smashes the Assassin over the cooking equipment, into the food cabinets, and straight through the wine cellar. A subtly energetic score plays in the background, but the viewer is likely too focused on the thuds of impacts, the clattering of implements, the shattering of glass to notice at first. Then, bloodied and furious, the Assassin pulls out his signature weapons: the dual karambits.
Here the fight changes. The stakes have increased, because each hit means a potentially severe wound, and the Assassin immediately cuts Rama’s leg as he evades a kick. Suddenly, the momentum has shifted too. Time slows, and the only sounds you hear are the crunching of glass and the grunts of the fighters themselves. It’s a punctuation point as Evans indicates that the next and final stage of combat is beginning. Don’t forget to breathe.
The next volley of exchanges are high energy, high tempo as the Assassin presses his advantage and Rama fights for his life. A fast beat plays in the background, reflecting the action, and there are constant camera-angle switches, slow-motion shots, and pauses - the viewer is never allowed to get comfortable or accustomed to the flow of the fight. It’s a seriously smart way for the director to say to his audience: “You have no idea how this will end, do you?”
The final portion of the fight starts when Rama steals one of the Assassin’s karambits for himself, and the pair are evenly matched once again. The very second he grabs the weapon we hear the ‘Zimmer Horn’ (that bass-y honk you hear in most action movie trailers) sound loud, and the soundtrack suddenly kicks to the forefront, mixing the thuds, slices, and screams into a cacophony of noise. And the hits really start to tell here - starting with slams to the head that leave both fighters half-concussed, and culminating in knives meeting flesh and doing serious damage. There’s even a cute moment where the pair’s karambits lock - a noble crossing of swords that nods to old-fashioned duelling - before one of the combatants is utterly defeated.
When Rama and the Assassin start to take chunks out of each other at the climax I always feel genuinely transfixed, unable to look away. The fighters are so exhausted, they’ve taken so much out of each other that they enter a ‘boxer’s hug’ where they pretty much support each other’s weight as they fight for split-seconds of respite and desperately summon energy for the next attack. We feel their fatigue, their terror that death is inevitable now, and we feel each cut even deeper.
Rama wins, of course, ending the fight with a move that’s as utterly savage as anything we’ve seen to that point in the movie. And it’s suddenly over - no lingering death, no slow-bleeding out - as the Assassin’s lifeless body slumps against Rama who gasps to catch his breath... along with the viewer, who just witnessed the best fight scene ever filmed.
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