Anatomy of a fight-scene: The Raid 2 (2014)
Director: Gareth Evans. Available in various regions through the Amazon Video streaming service and to buy on Blu-Ray.
While only one scene is being discussed at length and the ending of the film not mentioned, at all, other aspects of the film are referred to briefly and this review should still be considered spoiler heavy.
Among people who appreciate a decent fight-scene the original The Raid - made by Welshman Gareth Evans in Indonesia, his adopted country - seemed like mana from heaven for many. Others were more sniffy - claiming to have to seen more accomplished stuntwork and technique in the Jet Li and Jackie Chan films of the past. These things are, of course, subjective - but one can't help feeling that the old rose-tinted glasses, preferences for the things you loved in your youth, are somewhat in play.
Iko Uwais and his fellow casts' execution of - and ability to invent and amaze with - the Silat fighting style (and a number of others) doesn't seem to be any less impressive on film than any other. If we're talking cinematic presence perhaps we have a different argument - the raw animal energy of Bruce Lee or the liquid precision of early Jackie Chan - but that's what it is, a different argument.
The Raid quickly became known for three things. Firstly, what became known as "The Fight in the Hall", secondly the superb extended attack on the drugs factory which sees the combat and music slowly ramp up to a breath-taking, screaming, crescendo. Thirdly, it was released just several months before Dredd (2012) which shares the same basic conceit (police infiltrate a building full of violent thugs and then try to keep living when things go badly wrong). It's thought by some that The Raid dented Dredd's foreign box-office to some greater or lesser extent, despite them actually being pretty different films.
Alien (1979) has often been described as a "haunted house film set in space" and it's sequel Aliens (1986) as "a war movie".
In the same way Edwards has, wisely, decided to change the structure and mood of his sequel. The first is a highly accomplished action film with few pretensions - there's no fat on it; the only criticism of it can really be that perhaps it peaks too early. The final fight relies heavily on a man who should be half-dead suddenly being capable of amazing acrobatics and attacks - it doesn't quite sit right.
Taken as a whole though the film is a tremendous achievement.
If the theme of the first film is how power in the wrong hands can lead to horror, the theme of the second is that the pursuit of absolute power creates total monsters. It could be argued that not Rama - the hero, but Uko, is the main character of this film. A selfish prick slowly developing into a vicious excuse for a human being.
The Raid 2 is not an action film. It's a crime-thriller - rival bosses at each others throats, betrayals, sacrifices, political maneuvering - punctuated with mesmeric, superbly choreographed, action scenes . It's a much slower-paced affair. Struggles for power aren't rushed, the building of action scenes are as long as the action itself - everything is a slow-burn and then suddenly - havok. If comparisons have to be made then this could be considered a martial-arts equivalent to Heat (1995). We know Edwards can deliver an action scene, but in the meantime he's learnt the value of the tease - action builds slowly and deliberately before releasing into adrenaline fuelled, kinetic, mayhem.
In an early scene our hero is in prison. His mission - to keep Uco, the spoilt-idiot son of a crime-lord with plenty of enemies, Bangun, alive. Everyone is in the prison-yard. It's raining and all the inmates sit on benches in silent rows against the walls under bamboo awnings. There's no need to discuss the scene in detail here, but the build-up is superb; an assassination attempt that we, the audience, are aware of perhaps even before the hero. Rain thumps down in slow-motion, the whole yard one huge, deep, mud-pit. A prisoner keeps a nearby guard occupied with idle chit-chat, hand-signals flutter around the yard. Benny, apparently Ucos' bodyguard, is orchestrating things. This is new information to us, but he's been been bought-out by someone. A blade is finally produced and the attack launched. Three men cross the yard and deep mud with deadly purpose, in slow-motion, the rain hammering at them like fist-blows. Has catching onto the signs early meant our hero can manufacture a way out of this situation?
The build-up in that scene is superb and every bit as impressive as the descent into hell the scene quickly finds itself in.
As a developed character Iko Uwais WAS pretty much all the first film had time for. Here, he is necessarily pushed into the background for lengthy periods as the new force in town asserts itself and the selfish son, unworriedly, keeps taking him out on the town - using him as a substitute friend - lacking any real ones.
There are a number of standout action-scenes here - not least one largely fought by and in speeding vehicles, where a carefully timed-reload means life or death. Several times over. It plays almost like a ballet - as does the final fight scene.
This is all without mentioning "Baseball Bat Man" and "Hammer Girl", the latter launching a particularly vicious attack on a Japanese gang on a train, with hammers. These two characters jarred with me at first - "Hammer Girl" always sat around in her sunglasses - seemed like novelty Tarantino characters, but there are some brief intelligent moments toward the end of the film that lift them out of cheap characterisation and lend them a dimension of actual humanity.
It's actually an altercation with these two which slows our hero down in getting to his final target and both scenes roll directly into the other; we'll just concentrate on the second-part of this section of the film.
Edwards has largely, cleverly, kept his most vicious and capable villain in the background for most of the film. Referred to purely as The Assassin and played by Cecep Arif Rahman, his employer Bejo is the man who has swept in with this new breed of killers and all-but wiped out the former crime gangs. We've seen this diminutive man with intent, reptilian eyes, a number of times. Bejo's men like to drive victims into the country where a grave already waits. This fellow, immaculate looking in his tailored suit - an almost military outfit - lets the victims run in the fields amongst the tall reeds until shepherding them out. Next to their grave.
He has thematic purpose too, resolved in this final fight. Earlier in the film he kills another assassin. This other man is a victim of circumstance, he reluctantly kills because it's all he knows how to do in order to make money, but he manages to hold onto a glimmer of honour - he has a child to support. And he feels a measure of guilt at what he has become. Our Killer, Bejo's Killer, lets a mass of goons do all the dirty-work and when his quarry is cut to ribbons he delivers the killing blow. He is merciless and seems unstoppable, but he has no honour. He seems to like the thrill of murder.
Its your decision if you watch this before watching the film first.
The scene, when it comes, is almost serene at its open. Having managed to survive the corridor approach Rama pushes upon the doors at the end. We look out into a classy-looking kitchen attached to an expensive hotel. The room is full of chefs and food preparers - we sweep the room. No men with guns. The staff clear the room and there he stands; this smallish man with intent, rat-like, eyes - unassuming, standing near the far corner.
Quickly they assess each other as proficient in the same fighting style. They shuffle closer until they almost touch - one propelled by a desire to see justice finally prevail, the other devoid of all fear and certain of yet another kill.
A short burst of grabs, blocks and checks; two opponents sizing each other up. The Assassin allows a brief smile to flicker across his face, his eyes dart from his quarry's feet to his face. "Who are you to face me?" he seems to silently, amusedly, ask; toying with Rama.
The smile does not last long as the two men quickly show themselves to be closely matched. Every move blocked or followed by a blow, throw or kick that is the equal of the other.
The structure of this scene is masterful - it evolves and plays out like a dance - and yet there isn't a moment when you doubt that these men absolutely intend to kill the other. The fight begins with no music; it doesn't need it. Everything in the room a potential weapon, the environment - deadly in these hands - a third character. Rama smashes his opponents head into the gleaming metal chopping surface and propels him the length of the counter before grabbing a bottle and smashing it to pieces on his rivals' head.
Despite his early cockiness this Assassin soon realises he can't win in a fair fight, as Rama's ceaseless inventiveness and intent are clearly unstoppable.
In an absolute show-stopper moment, so fast you can almost miss it, Rama launches a high kick - his whole body powering through the air - at his opponents' head. His attacker is staggered back against a wall, temporarily dazed, but he manages to dodge to the side. Rama's foot slams into the wall 5ft in the air - surely leaving himself to plunge to the floor and be open to attack. Instead, in a moment of breathless inventiveness, he pivots on that foot and smashes his other into his opponents' head. It's a moment of wonder, one that becomes no less impressive and spectacular the more you watch it.
The villain staggers back, as if hit by a truck, into a glass walled, temperature controlled, wine cellar in the corner of the room. Rama charges him. The glass wall shatters. He clatters to the floor, bleeding more and more. More and more aware of his weaknesses. Rama is relentless; the other man attempts to get up but Rama plows into him again; smashing him into the back wall. More wine bottles racked up and now destroyed, more glass, more and more cuts. And finally, for good measure, Rama puts him crashing out through the remaining glass wall.
The Assassin has reached a point where he is no longer willing to entertain anything like a fair fight. He reaches to the knives holstered in the small of his back. Rama comes forward again, and the man so recently assured of his invincibility lunges forward and carves a deep wound into the back of Rama's knee. The air of superiority is gone; desperation and viciousness are what is left.
Rama tries to move - he's not hobbled but surely seriously wounded. He grimaces and slips a little from his crouched position on the floor, his hand flies to the back of his slashed leg. Across from him, similarly crouched, injured to a similar extent - though in different ways - is a murderer full of venom.
The fight stops, temporarily. Rama feeling his leg - knowing this could be a turning of the tables.
This break is extraordinary. The Assassin, face smothered in blood, positively seethes hatred - a hatred that barely seems to be contained by his body; it radiates from him. The camera barely moves but you expect it to almost start vibrating; his whole body taught - every muscle clenched, a look of absolute hatred and desire to destroy so potent and convincing this reviewer has never before witnessed the like.
Before we go any further, it's important to consider the camerawork in this scene - it is an unbelievably choreographed ballet between not two performers but three. The camera sweeps around the combatants, weaves between them; fists and feet fly and stop millimeters in-front of the lens - the action sometimes sucking us in and other times pushing us quickly out. I have no idea how many cameras and lenses were damaged and replaced during the filming of this one scene, but the fact this scene exists in the way it does means much hardware got broken. It was worth it.
The fight started on equal footing, the more clever and accomplished Rama slowly getting the upper-hand before nearly finally asserting total control. He bested his opponent. But the real combat starts now as does, coincidentally, the music. All of that thrilling action, largely unparalleled stunt-work, and not a note of Hollywood-type musical bombast. Just mesmeric movement.
What follows is spellbinding.
The Assassin comes at Rama and the music begins, but it's not what you expect. Instead what we get only adds to the sense of wonder and the feeling that we're watching some extraordinary. A slow throbbing bass beat simmers and jags along unrelentingly below while an almost medative sounding synth slowly cries and pulses - dreamlike, mournfully, along with it.
It lends the scene a peculiar feeling; one of inevitability. This is a dance, and this is the music that goes with it. And dances come to an end.
Rama recognises that his only way of getting back into this fight is to somehow wrestle one of those two curved blades away from his opponent, and pretty much every effort is now spent on trying to pry one away from his furious enemy.
The music slowly ramps up and becomes more urgent as the action does. Despite his wounds Rama keeps mostly avoiding those slashing blades - weapons that were introduced to bring an end to the fight are constantly parried, constantly almost stolen away. Until the inevitable finally happens - some quick movement, a twist of a wrist and a weapon falls free from it's owners' grasp.
Rama was holding his own against a man proficient with two weapons. Now he has one of them. This fight in far from over, but the result can be in no doubt.
For someone who appreciates the artistry of not just stunt-work, but actual martial-arts, this film constantly hits buttons that other films don't even know exist. Hollywood actors don't have the necessary skills for this sort of work - but if a good action director, editor and stunt-team attempted it, there would have been the first section of the fight - with fists - then the break in action - then the section with the knives and we'd carry-on at breakneck speed until the hero eventually delivered his deathblows.
Fighting is tiring. You don't often see that in films. Action-films typically demand more energy from their action-scenes as they develop; they feel the need to get faster and more breathless. One of the reasons a fight from the recent Daredevil TV show (S01E02 - The Cutman) was so lauded is because it recognised that when people get punched, they tend to get up again. And the more people kick and punch, the more tired they get.
The physical dynamics of this scene play out like an actual, 5-round, MMA fight. There are only so many flying kicks, throws, punches to the head (and glass and knife-wounds, here) a person can take before they start getting exhausted. And so we find ourselves seeing something we rarely see in films - progressing intimacy. Roundhouse kicks aren't in the locker anymore, no big haymakers are being thrown. Now it's short jabs, headbutts and clinches as each man now has to resort to smaller movements and smothering the other man's attacks. Inside dirty-boxing. Occasionally a knife finds its target and the striker moves away so he can slash and rip. Desperation and the recognition of an opening lead to the odd lunge here and there - a blade swings wide, strikes, blood sprays.
We know though, and The Assassin knows, this is only going one way. The more efficient dodging, the more exacting attacks, have brought us to a point of unavoidable resolution. Our once-cocky, laughing, demon of a killer lunges forward with his knife hand. In a split-second Rama has his wrist in his grasp and with his other hand, his knife hand, slashes up and down the other mans' arm, burning through a reserve of energy that sees blood shooting out of his opponents arm every which way.
The final death-blow is as violent as you'd expect; but lacking in triumphalism. Instead, it's muted and, in a way, unexpectedly fitting. Rama plunges his blade into his opponents throat, twists, and rips it out. The Assassin is pulled forward by the retreating, slicing, knife. He bleeds out, his body-weight leaning forward propping him up against Rama, his head on Rama's shoulder, in a weird almost-embrace. His blade slips slowly from his hand. We look to Rama's face and see almost nothing; perhaps some regret at taking a life, but mostly he's not even able to process the situation. They stand there for a while - an intimacy (that word, again) that seems strangely correct.
The Assassin slowly begins to slump and finally his body crumples to the floor.
One of the greatest action-scenes ever filmed has come to an end.
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