Spider-Man 3 (fight 2 of 5)

Enter Sandman.

Uh, not quite.

2) Spider-Man vs Sandman

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • Flint Marko, aka Sandman. An escaped convict with a heart of gold, Marko seems like a vicious thug but really commits all his crimes to help his sick daughter (awww). In a fan-maddening retcon, this movie “reveals” (i.e., invents) the fact that Marko was not only the partner of the crook who robbed the wrestling arena, but also the one who really killed Uncle Ben… then at the end of the movie they undo the retcon, but only slightly. Anyway, while on the run from Johnny Law, Marko fell into a suspiciously unguarded scientific experiment involving some sort of weird new radiation and a pit of sand, so of course now he’s a sand monster. In addition to being able to shift his body into pretty much any sand-like shape he wants, Sandman is effectively invulnerable against conventional attacks: the harmed pieces of his body just turn into sand, and eventually they re-form. He’s pretty much the T-1000, but with sand… and short of a handy lava pit, there seems to be no guaranteed way to kill him. It should be noted that composer Danny Elfman, at the behest of Raimi (as always, showing his campy roots), devised a musical theme for Sandman that’s something straight out of a 1950s monster movie. It’s simultaneously laughable and irresistible. Played by Thomas Haden Church, in the midst of a very unexpected career resurgence.
Thomas Haden Church, serious actor.

Thomas Haden Church, serious actor.

The Setup: After getting the hang of his abilities in a poignant scene, Marko decides to return his old past time of reluctant crime, in order to pay yet more medical bills for his cherubic little daughter. For his public debut, he opts for the tried & true route of attacking an armored car in broad daylight. He enters the vehicle while it’s still moving and takes out the security detail.

Unfortunately for him he didn’t try this in some nearby city that doesn’t have its own superhero, because New York’s current favorite son, Spider-Man, notices these goings-on and swings into action. Flint tells the vigilante to back off so he won’t get hurt, which Spidey brushes aside.

The Fight: Cocky as ever, the hero dodges the first punch and throws a devastating counter… which goes harmlessly through Marko’s chest.

My spider sense is telling me this is going to be a tad one-sided.

Sandman retaliates by enlarging one of his fists (that’s a thing he can do) and knocking Spidey through the back of the vehicle. He only barely keeps up by webbing back on to it and getting dragged from behind on a piece of broken door he rides like a skateboard.

Marko gets on top of the van to escape (seems impractical), and Spider-Man launches a few web bullets at him. They form a few temporary holes in the crook’s chest, but mostly just seem to annoy him. A bigger inconvenience is when Spidey gets to the top, avoids Marko with some nifty spin moves and kicks Sandman’s legs right out from under him. Literally.

But even while just a torso, the villain is formidable up close, and knocks Spidey away onto a bus while he rebuilds himself. Undeterred, the hero comes back and clings to the side of the van, which unfortunately leaves him wide open to a hammer-shaped blow from Sandy that knocks him clear through the other side of the van.

Thor’s gonna be pissed when he sees you stole his MO

Thor’s gonna be pissed when he sees you stole his MO

Parker survives, but the vehicle is out of control. The hero just barely saves the two drivers from an impending collision, and when he checks back for Marko, his new foe is gone, though he had to leave the money behind.

Spider-Man retreats to dump sand out of a boot (who knows how many other crevices it got into. Somewhere, Anakin Skywalker nods understandingly) and wonders where the heck all “these guys” come from.

A short, varied introduction to what Sandman can do. Both characters behave believably under the circumstances, with reluctant villain Marko fighting intensely & but savagely, and Spidey adapting rapidly to the situation. Sandman’s practically intangible nature makes anything resembling extended fisticuffs laughable, so Raimi & co had to come up with some creative acrobatics in order to compensate. Setting the whole thing in and around a moving car during heavy traffic ups the ante as well. Nothing special but a respectable placeholder.

Grade: C+

Coming Attractions: Spider-Man’s deadliest asset is the thing ability Sandman doesn’t have: the ability to change clothes.

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At least Flint still has that winning smile.

Spider-Man 3 (fight 1 of 5)

No no, don’t run. It’s okay. This is a safe place.

Don’t I look trustworthy?

Spider-Man 3 gets a bad rap, only some of which is deserved. It’s overstuffed, self-indulgent, and filled with are you-effing-kidding-me plot developments. Yet it’s not without its charms. The performances still mostly work, it’s ambitious (if too much for its own good), and in many ways, the action is more inventive than ever. So while it deserves to be studied as a textbook case of Franchise Bloat, the fanboy rage aimed at it is a bit over the top.

Most of all, I can’t fully hate it because it does offer a veritable buffet of fights. To finish what we started with this film series, let’s dive into them.

It also has the best Bruce Campbell cameo, but that, sadly, is out of this site’s purview.

1) Spider-Man vs The New Goblin

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. You know the drill on his powers and whatnot. A lot happier than he’s been for pretty much the entire saga, and preparing to propose to his lady love. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • Harry Osborn, son of the first film’s Green Goblin. Driven to take revenge against Spider-Man for his father’s death and newly armed with the knowledge of his secret identity, he undergoes the same chemical treatments. The procedures increase his strength, durability and reaction time, but don’t seem to result in any multiple personalities. Guess that’s only an occasional side effect. Note that he’s only called “the New Goblin” in supplementary materials, not in the movie itself; when Harry took up his dad’s mantle in the comics, he just went by “Green Goblin” again. Played by precious snowflake James Franco.
    • Armed with: A (thankfully) streamlined version of his dad’s equipment: the mask is simpler & retractable, the glider (which can also automatically return to Harry if separated) is about the size of a skateboard, and rather than bright green armor Harry has opted for a comfortable set of black clothing with light padding and a few attachments. He also has a set of retractable blades hooked up to at least one of his arms, and carries a green, katana-like sword. And while this Goblin tends to go for more up-close fighting, he also his father’s pumpkin-themed bombs and whatnot.

The Setup: At the end of the first film, Norman Osborn’s last-second attempt to kill Spider-Man inadvertently caused his own suicide, and Harry, ignorant of his father’s dual life, blames Spidey for it since that’s who he saw dropping the body off. At the end of the second film, Harry learned not only his “nemesis” Spider-Man’s true identity, but, after stumbling onto one of his backup lairs and talking to ghosts in the mirror (yep), about his father’s own legacy. Somehow his dad’s status as a certified supervillain (especially one who almost got Harry killed and either endangered or actively tried to murder his girlfriend Mary Jane on two separate occasions) doesn’t alter his view of Spidey’s apparent actions back in 2002, because apparently the Osborn intelligence genes skipped a generation.

And so it is that as Peter Parker is zipping happily along in a motor scooter, the masked Harry zooms in from out of nowhere and plucks him into the air.

Then again, look at that face. Can you really blame Harry?

Then again, look at that face. Can you really blame Harry?

The Fight: Our hero’s spider-sense may have been conveniently forgotten, but not his fighting instincts. As the two swerve all around the New York skyline, Peter doesn’t hesitate to trade punches with the mysterious figure who attacked him in broad, uh, nightlight.

The Goblin gets a good surface slash along Peter’s belly with his arm blades, but then Peter breaks free and webs himself to the spire of a tall building. As he swings slowly around it he fires several web “bullets” at his adversary, most of which have little effect.

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Osborn cuts through the web rope and punches Peter hard enough to embed him into the brickwork of another building. It’s here he reveals his face to his genuinely surprised friend, telling him “you knew this was coming.” (Did he? It seems an odd thing to expect.) As he continues his attack, Parker tries to explain what he should have two movies ago– i.e., your dad was a freaking nutbar who accidentally killed himself while trying to murder me for no good reason– but Harry’s too worked up too listen. A few missed punches knock a whole section of wall off, with the uncostumed Spider-Man clinging to it as it falls. As it tumbles end over end through the air, Raimi tracks and slowly pushes into it, and somehow manages to pull off a sneaky transition from CGI to the real Tobey Maguire.

Peter leaps to safety but gets knocked around in mid-air some more, then seized and dragged against a building. After getting thrown through two sets of glass windows, he loses the family heirloom ring he’d been planning to give Mary Jane. Pissed off, he’s able to get solid footing on Harry’s board, wrestle him a bit, and knock him off. While Peter goes to retrieve the ring just in time (it should absolutely have hit the ground by then), Harry’s board auto-homes in on him and saves him from splattering on the pavement.

Perhaps sensing that his opponent’s flight gives him an advantage in the open air, Parker tries to escape down a series of narrow alleyways. The Goblin orients himself sideways gives chase at high speed, narrowly avoiding many obstacles as he closes the distance.

James Franco, serious actor.

James Franco, serious actor.

When he’s near enough, Harry whips out that sweet green sword and takes a few swings. When that doesn’t work, he launches a handful of his dad’s guided pumpkin blade/bombs, which Peter mutters that he (quite reasonably) hates.

Unable to dodge while being pursued, the hero gets cut up a good bit. But a vertical turnaround (he swings all the way straight up and reverses course in mid-air) puts Harry right in the line of fire instead, giving him a taste of his own medicine and Peter enough time to deflect most of them with his webbing. He grabs the last one with a web rope and flings it right at Harry, who manages to survive the explosion mostly unscathed.

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Somehow.

But the ka-boom was only a distraction for Spider-Man to set up his real finisher. As soon as Osborn looks up, he runs neck-first into a web-clothesline Peter was holding taut. His trip comes to a brutally abrupt stop, and he even manages to hit a few more obstacles on the way down. Yowch.

To see how far superhero cinema had come in such a short amount of time, one has to do nothing more than look at this fight. Both characters’ abilities are creatively explored, with a few surprising developments that still arise organically from the way they operate (e.g., the finishing clothesline). As is the mark of many a good fight scene, there is a reasonable sense of give-and-take between the two; the New Goblin is formidable but not invincible, with Spidey needing to employ a combination of power and smarts to take him down.

Not only that, it happens in a wild, fast-paced frenzy; indeed, the action is so inventive and fast-paced here that it borders on ridiculous. We’re a long way from the original movie, with its admirable but stiff attempts at using special effects & stunt work to capture impossible combat, and where a simple lack of sucking prompted a collective sigh of relief. This fight here is more complex than anything in the first and arguably even the second film, and it’s the opening battle. There are surely other, legitimate reasons people found this movie disappointing, but a big one was that by 2007, we were plenty spoiled.

And, of course, the fight does end with this happening:

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Classic.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Bring me a dream.

Make him the cutest that… well, we can forget that part.

Three O’Clock High

Finally, a true clash of the titans!

Can’t you just smell the epicness??

Three O’Clock High is a bit of a forgotten film from the 80s, unknown even to many of the people who tend to like this sort of thing (I hadn’t even heard of it until less than a year of ago). Watching it now, it’s easy to see why, tragic though that might be, it fell to the cultural wayside. It’s an uneven movie, aiming as it does for an odd balance of broad farce, random weirdness, and straightforward drama… but what works about it really does work quite well, and the rest of it is inoffensively silly enough. Not a great movie by any means, but one that’s hard not to like, considering the creativity and effort that’s bursting awkwardly from its seams. (It also didn’t help the movie’s box office that it had no major stars of the time in it. Even the cast members who went on to become famous are largely on the sidelines.) It’s certainly more memorable than at least half of John Hughes’ overrated angst-fests.

Bottom line, the film has personality. That counts for a lot.

Three O’Clock High: Jerry vs Buddy

The Fighters:

  • Jerry Mitchell, a senior at Weaver High School. Jerry is sort of an Everyteen, admirable but relatable, with no defined place in the school ecosystem Hollywood always insists is so rigid. He’s clean-cut, smart and hard-working, well-liked enough by people who know him but not popular, coolly casual most of the time but nervous under pressure. Played by Casey Siemaszko, the bane of spell-check.
  • Buddy Revell, a new transfer student from a school for delinquents. Buddy’s reputation has preceded his arrival, with half the students gossiping about his epic propensity & capacity for violence. Surely the rumors are exaggerated, but he’s clearly dangerous enough. Hulking, surly, and dressed in the torn-jeans-and-leather-jacket look that’s been universally accepted American shorthand for “bad boy” for the better part of a century, Buddy is one mean-looking dude. In one of the more refreshing aspects of Three O’Clock high, Revell does not “suddenly” become a good guy or be revealed as a misunderstood nice guy. While he is more than you might think at first, he is still basically what he appears to be: a violent & cruel bully. Played by Richard Tyson, who you probably recognize as the bad guy from Kindergarten Cop. His mom isn’t here to help him but she’s not so tough without her car anyway.

There’s some small but pivotal intervention by others, and a brief use of brass knuckles.

The Setup: Due to a misunderstanding in the men’s room (er, not what it sounds like), Jerry becomes the target of Buddy’s rage, and the new student informs him that at the end of the school day, the two of them will have a fight.

Given Revell’s reputation, that sounds more like an execution, and word of the upcoming duel spreads, building to a fever pitch amongst the student body. All Jerry’s attempts to get out of the fight fail or backfire until, using money he purloined from his campus job, Jerry bribes Buddy to leave him alone for several hundred dollars. Buddy agrees, but regards Jerry with open and genuine disgust for his cowardice. Fittingly, the blow to his dignity puts our hero through far more turmoil than the threat of physical violence did.

He goes to be sad about it in the bathroom. Lotta bathroom stuff in this movie.

After some soul-searching, Jerry decides it’s time to face the music. He re-confronts Buddy, demanding his money back and telling him the fight’s back on. The bully demurs at first, but finally grants him his wish. As the school day winds to a close, Jerry strides purposefully to their battlefield in the parking lot, soon finding himself surrounded by an almost comically large crowd of frenzied, cheering students. Siemaszko’s body language here is impressive: despite his diminutive size and buttoned-down appearance, he actually comes off like a bit of a badass, charged with a renewed sense of purpose. He carries himself in a subtle way: not cocky and assuming he’s going to win, just determined to face his destiny like a man.

As with the characterization of Buddy, the lack of subversion here is refreshing. There are no “higher lessons” imparted here where the characters learn that violence isn’t the answer or some goofy shit like that; the movie promises you a fight and it GIVES you a fight. It’s a bit of a throwback– fitting, since it’s openly modeled on/a satire of classic Westerns.

The Fight: How does a guy like Jerry beat a guy like Buddy? Well, a straight victory was never going to happen. Our hero displays some canniness & luck, but he also gets by with a little from his friends.

The first punch thrown doesn’t actually hit either of the two combatants. Just as they square off, they’re interrupted by the school’s principal, confident in his ability to put a stop to such shenanigans.

His confidence is… misplaced.

But Buddy doesn’t give a crap for authority, and when he touches Buddy’s arm to pull him away, Buddy decks him, and tells a shocked Jerry it’s his turn. This actually makes Jerry’s newfound confidence waver a bit, which Buddy takes advantage of by pushing him fiercely into the side of a van.

Fortunately, Mitchell gets a breather from the intervention of his not-girlfriend, a goofy hippie named Franny. Unfortunately, she’s little more than an irritation to the huge bully.

But what an irritation she is.

Revell gives her a relatively chivalrous dismissal in the form of a harsh shove to the face. Franny’s mistreatment stirs Jerry a bit, enough to rise, taunt Buddy and rush back into battle.

Jerry gets a punch to the throat for his trouble, but while he’s down he pays the bully back with SWEEP THE LEG! a nasty-looking kick to the shin. He follows up with the questionable tactic of jumping on Buddy’s back.

After some frantic spinning around, Buddy tosses Jerry overhead and he lands on a car hood. The school’s maniacal security guard (played by a hammy Mitch Pileggi, who would later be better known as Skinner from The X-Files) also tries to break things up, but even he falls to a single blow from Buddy. Meanwhile, Jerry stands again to give some more trash talk, and even gets a straight punch to Buddy’s nose that surprises both of them.

Unfortunately it’s not enough to bring him down, and the villain retaliates with a huuuuuuge roundhouse that leaves Jerry slumped on the ground in a helpless daze. Seeing this as the proper time to deliver the Fatality, Buddy gets out his brass knuckles. As he marches slowly over to Jerry, the director pulls a common but neat trick where the camera focuses first on the brass knuckles themselves, then they go out of focus as we see Jerry’s reaction to them.

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Buddy hoists Jerry up and rears back his other hand. But just before he can deliver the final blow, he’s interrupted by a flying tackle from Vincent, Jerry’s best friend who he’d had a falling out with earlier in the day. While the scrawny Vincent tries to redeem himself by raining mostly ineffective blows down on Buddy, Jerry’s younger sister spies the dropped knuckles and brings them to her tormented sibling.

Digging into his last reserves of strength, the battered Jerry rises yet again and faces off against Buddy, who had just downed Vincent with a knee to the crotch. The crowd senses this will be the final showdown, and their cheering reaches a fever pitch. Individual characters are shown all urging the hero to triumph, with even the principal awakening from his stupor to deliver an uncharacteristic (and hilarious), “Don’t f–k this up, Mitchell!”

Buddy, finally wary of Jerry’s tenacity, lunges in with a punch, which Jerry barely dodges. Then, in super slow-motion, Jerry channels all of his might into one brass-enhanced blow to Buddy’s sneering mug. The bully weebles, wobbles, and finally falls down.

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You’d think after losing to a guy like Jerry, for his next adversary he’d pick somebody besides Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Jerry wins, and the crowd surges around him as the triumphant hero.

Afterward, in order to show their appreciation for Jerry and make up for the “robbery” he’d staged to get the bribe money, the students all show up at Jerry’s campus store and “purchase” standard printer paper at a dollar per sheet, effectively donating a huge sum of money to him. Finally, Buddy himself shoves his way to the store’s counter, and looks Jerry in the eye as he personally returns the wad of money the hero had given him earlier. He regards Jerry with a look that’s not quite a smile, just enough of a softening of his face to indicate his well-earned respect. Again, this isn’t an after-school special; the bully doesn’t suddenly turn good and become Jerry’s pal, but he is man enough to admit defeat.

As silly and uneven as the movie is, this stirring and fairly straightforward fight is oddly fitting for it. The staging actually makes Jerry’s eventual victory seems plausible, and while the actual “fight” fighting is pretty thin, the whole thing unfolds quite thrillingly regardless. Giving this absurd & petty confrontation an un-ironic bombast actually serves to make the story more honest, perfectly conveying the outsized emotional lens through which teenagers live their lives; everything feels so epic and important you’re in high school. In fact, in that way it’s a bit of a precursor to Joss Whedon’s approach to Buffy.

Grade: A

Recommended Links: Comedian and podcasting emperor Chris Hardwick recommends Three O’Clock High as a lost classic.

Coming Attractions: “MORE superheroes? Jeez. Will you at least pick something that everyone likes this time?”

… maaaaaaaybe.

Oldboy

“Can fifteen years of imaginary training really be put to use?”

Honestly, the fact that the dude on the ground with a knife in his back manages to win this fight isn't even the third most shocking thing to happen in this movie.

Honestly, the fact that the dude on the ground with a knife in his back manages to win this fight isn’t even the third most shocking thing to happen in this movie.

A lot of times people tell you that a movie is “so messed up” that it will “blow your mind” and it mostly turns out to be either mindless garbage (e.g., Riki-O) or tiring “provocative” pap (e.g., pretty much every Tarantino-wannabe in the wake of Pulp Fiction). Oldboy, the original 2003 cult film out of South Korea, is one of the few films that really lives up to that moniker.

A tale about the depths of revenge and obsession, Oldboy is a thriller but not a true action movie; nevertheless, one of its most talked-about (and believe you me, there is a LOT to talk about when it comes to Oldboy) scenes is an extended fist fight around the middle. Even without hearing the hype, when you first see the movie and come across this sequence, you know instinctively you’ve witnessed the birth of a new legend, and that director Park Chan-wook has made something indelible and unique. And he did it all in a single, continuous take.

Oldboy: The Hallway Fight

The Fighters:

  • Oh Dae-su, our protagonist. A philandering, alcoholic businessman whose life took an abrupt turn when, without warning or explanation, he was kidnapped and imprisoned. For fifteen years Dae-su was locked in a hotel-like room with no contact with the outside world besides the TV, and eating the same food shoved under his door every day. Trapped for a decade and a half, Dae-su goes more than a little crazy, and hardens his body & mind into an instrument of vengeance against his tormentors. Then, with just as little warning, he’s set free. Played by Choi Min-sik.
    • Armed with: An iconic hammer. Not like a medieval war hammer or something, just a simple household tool.
  • Thugs, about a dozen or so. Employed by the man who runs the place where Dae-su was locked up. They’re mean but unpolished, and in various degrees of fighting trim.
    • Armed with: Several have simple wooden boards or tubes as crude weapons.

The Setup: After a little while on the outside, Oh Dae-su has tracked down the place where he was locked up, but the man who runs the place is not the man who ordered the imprisonment, nor does he work directly for him. Apparently this kind of thing happens enough in Korea to warrant such a dedicated third party’s existence. After some decidedly physical interrogation of the business owner, Dae-su learns everything he can from him, and holds him at knife-point as he approaches a hallway full of thugs who block his way out.

He asks the goons which of them have the same blood type as their boss, and when he gets a volunteer, tells him to take the tortured man to the hospital so he’ll live. Then, without wasting a moment, our “hero” charges into battle. Notably, he drops the knife he’d been holding.

A questionable call, tactically speaking.

A questionable call, tactically speaking.

This is significant, because, along with his helping to save the life of the man he’d just brutalized, it shows that for all his pent-up aggression looking for an outlet, Oh Dae-su isn’t looking to kill, at least not yet. He’s looking to hurt.

It’s pretty messed up.

The Fight: Dae-su’s fighting is both canny and frantically unfocused, paradoxical as that might sound. He does what he can to keep moving and changing targets, not staying in one place long enough. Still, it’s not long before he finds himself surrounded by the goons rather than having them all to one side, and he tries to correct that by seizing one around the neck as a temporary hostage, keeping the others at bay.

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He can’t keep that up for long, of course, and quickly loses control of the situation. He takes a few hits, loses his hammer, and goes down, getting repeatedly kicked & stomped by the mob. Surprising the group with his ferocity, Dae-su gets back on his feet and tackles the goon nearest to him, shoving him back into the crowd.

But numbers are numbers, and the underdog gets put down again, this time for even longer and with far more blows. When one thug stabs Dae-su square in the back with his own dropped knife, everyone seems to think it’s over, as they all back off while the intruder stays doubled over in pain for many long seconds.

Incredibly, Dae-su rises again and goes back on the offensive; this is the sort of thing that can happen when you spend fifteen years building up your Beast Mode. This time he manages to remain on the opposite side of the hallway and take his foes on in a more manageable way– largely because they seem, and not without good reason, afraid of this unpredictable wild man. The gang’s collective body language conveys a sort of “I don’t wanna be next, YOU be next!” feel, as they stay clustered at a safe distance and only close in haltingly.

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Many are still armed with wooden boards, but few can really put them to good use as Dae-su is able to avoid them (one snaps against the wall in a wild swing) or break them with his elbow like a badass. Between the protagonist’s intimidating wildness and their own exhaustion & injuries, the gang gets even sloppier, missing easy blows and even just falling to the ground of their own accord. One of them picks up Dae-su’s hammer and tries to use it, but Dae-su is quicker and puts him down with a series of punches.

The last man takes several blows to go down, but when he does, no one gets back up again. Dae-su’s the last man standing in a corridor full of wounded, tired, terrified thugs. With, incidentally, a knife still stuck in his back.

Triumphant, Dae-su retrieves his hammer and heads for the elevator. He doesn’t even react when a cut in his head finally starts gushing blood. After a few seconds, he breaks out in a deranged smile, and since we can’t see what he sees, we assume it’s just pure self-satisfaction, pride in what he’s done.

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This is not the smile of a well-adjusted man.

But the next cut reveals that it’s even creepier: the elevator has just opened to reveal another handful of glaring goons. Dae-su’s not happy because he survived a gruesome ordeal, he’s happy because it isn’t over yet.

Moments later we see the elevator open up on the ground level, and Dae-su exits amidst a cluster of slumped over enemies. Of course.

This is a rare cinematic feat where a sequence dives so hard into the mundane that it comes out the other side as Epic. This isn’t a titanic clash between a champion martial artist and a group of skilled opponents; it’s a simple brawl between hard men. The weapons are crude and ordinary. Given that it’s all in one take, there’s very little room for cinematic trickery to make the combat and the combatants seem more impressive than they are. Even the music is understated, a haunting mixture of sadness & excitement. There’s even neat little touches, like the slightly chubby, shirtless thug who takes a hammer to the thigh early on and spends the rest of the battle limping.

Oldboy’s signature fight seemingly breaks so many rules of cinematic fighting, and while rubbing your face in gritty realism it somehow makes you believe the impossible. Quite the achievement indeed.

“Apparently, it can.”

Grade: A+

Coming Attractions: FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!

Ah, the things homeschoolers miss out on.

Iron Man 2 (fight 4 of 4)

In which Iron Man teams up with his greatest ally.

Er, no.

4) Iron Man and War Machine vs Whiplash and Hammer drones

The Fighters:

  • Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, our hero. Doing a lot better than before, since he’s not dying. Played by Robert Downey Jr.
    • Armed with: The Mark VI Iron Man armor. It’s powered by a new element Tony invented (building off his father’s unfinished work), and in addition to powering his suit better it also overcomes the issue of the old arc reactor slowly giving Tony palladium poisoning even as it kept shrapnel out of his heart. (Iron Man 3 would later skunk this entire plot development with the casual revelation in the epilogue that Tony could have just had surgery to remove the shrapnel in the first place. Which… huh?) Along with the triangular chest plate that Joss Whedon hated, the Mark VI boasts a few modifications, though it’s not clear which are new.
  • War Machine, aka James “Rhodey” Rhodes. Stark’s reconciled pal and Air Force big shot. Played by Don “The Dragon” Cheadle.
    • Armed with: The same Mark II suit as before, but kitted out with tons of extra armaments courtesy of the DOD and Justin Hammer. Plus a new paint job, trading in the too-shiny silver for ominous grey.
  • Hammer drones, a couple dozen of them. Built by Vanko for Justin Hammer. There’s some slight variation amongst them depending on what function (land, sea, air) they’re built for, but they’re largely the same: arc reactor-powered, remote-controlled robots based loosely off the Iron Man designs. Outfitted mostly with automatic and missile weapons, and able to fly. They also go down very easy, whether it’s to a repulsor blast, a strong punch from the Mark VI, or a barrage of regular bullets; it’s strange because these are supposed to basically be Iron Man replacements, so they ought to be more durable. Perhaps Vanko deliberately built them to be inferior, or maybe they’re just prototypes.
  • Whiplash, aka Ivan Vanko. Stark’s new nemesis, who escaped prison and built up some new toys thanks to Hammer. Played by Mickey Rourke.
    • Armed with: A much more sophisticated version of his last getup. The improved Whiplash armor covers Vanko’s entire body much like the Iron Man suit. It’s also huge, though not quite the size of the Iron Monger. It contains a couple neat tricks like retractable plates in the feet which are good for locking down an opponent, but its main offensive capability is the two extra long energy whips housed in its forearms. There are cycling mechanisms visible in the back which make the whips extendable and constantly charged with electricity. It’s an intimidating design, but oddly lacking the iconic look of the previous incarnation, with all its fearless & bare-chested simplicity.

But, you know, this works too.

The Setup: Vanko has baited Tony into a trap at the Stark Expo in New York. After Iron Man arrives there and greets War Machine (who’d been demonstrating his new look on stage along with the drones), Vanko takes remote control of all the drones, as well as War Machine, and sends them all against Iron Man.

This launches an amazing chase sequence where Tony draws his pursuers away from the Expo and out into the streets & skies of Queens, evading fire and even managing to take out several of them. Eventually Iron Man is able to isolate himself and War Machine inside a large garden dome. Tony contains its attacks without hurting the helpless pilot inside until, in the aftermath of glorious Fight #3, Black Widow gets into Hammer’s computer systems and restores control of War Machine back to Rhodey.

The two’s reconciliation quickly devolves into macho one-upsmanship as they squabble over whose suit is the best; it’s highly amusing to watch such a silly argument play out with both characters wearing super high-tech armor. They spend so much time bitching that they don’t quite get into tactical position before the drones land and, one by one, surround the pair.

“We have them RIGHT where we want them!”

“We’re surrounded.”
“Good, that means we have them RIGHT where we want them!”

Without saying a word, the two close their face plates and go to work.

The Fight: At first, there’s actually no music– Favreau lets the endless cacophony of battle provide all the noise he needs. And what a cacophony it is: staccato bursts of automatic fire from the drones and War Machine, occasionally punctuated by repulsor blasts from Iron Man.

So much is happening at once you barely know where to look at any given time. The camera pans around smoothly to show the carnage as the two heroes unload at and dodge fire from the iron platoon surrounding them. Rhodey fires from both wrist gauntets and his shoulder cannon simultaneously, while Stark mixes in repulsor rays with punches for those that get too close.

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After the initial shot just showcasing all-purpose chaos, Favreau goes on to highlight a couple moments of particular badassery. War Machine grabs a drone that had gotten close and delivers a point-blank spray of machine gun fire that cuts it in half down the middle. Iron Man reprises a hit move from the first movie when he leans back casually to dodge an incoming missile (in a subtle detail, we hear a beeping sound from his HUD to indicate the computer has detected a lock), then returns fire in the form of small missiles from a hidden compartment on his wrist, which take down three drones at once; it’s so neat Tony even happily calls it out, and his friend compliments it.

It’s about 45 seconds of perfectly exhilarating CGI chaos– intense, glorious, undiluted. And it doesn’t outstay its welcome, either: when Stark realizes that there’s just too many bad guys to deal with, he orders his friend to duck and then activates two extremely powerful laser beams, which cut down all remaining drones as he pivots in a circle.

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Tony responds to Rhodey’s quite reasonable suggestion that he should lead with such an attack next time by pointing out that the beams are a one-time thing; they burn for a few seconds and then they’re done. Which is too bad, because what they initially think is just the last drone coming in is actually Vanko himself, big as life and twice as ugly.

After some talk, Rhodes launches what he assumes will be his secret weapon, the “Ex-Wife,” but it fails terribly, bouncing harmlessly off Whiplash’s armor and falling to the ground with a pathetic little fart noise. It doesn’t really make sense (would Vanko really know it wouldn’t work? Shouldn’t Rhodey have gotten farther away if HE thought it was going to work? etc) but it’s a fun excuse for just one more joke at Hammer’s expense.

Tony fires his own opening salvo– in another callback to the first film, it’s all those little smart dart-rockets he used against the terrorist hostage-takers in his Mark III debut) at Vanko’s exposed face, but his helmet comes back instantly and deflects them. Now it’s Ivan’s turn.

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From then on, it’s really mostly Ivan’s fight. The new Whiplash armor provides a seemingly perfect mix of durability, speed, and offensive capability. War Machine’s more conventional weapons can’t put too much of a dent in Vanko before he’s able to evade or fight back, and Iron Man’s quick maneuvers are canceled out by the long reach of those unpredictable whips. In what turns out to be a fairly brief struggle, both heroes are repeatedly knocked around, seized by the whips and slammed to the ground. Poor Rhodey even gets his shoulder cannon cut right off.

Stark gives Vanko the best run for his money when he comes in hard with a flying punch as Vanko is distracted by beating up on Rhodes, but a few blows later Ivan comes back even harder with a headbutt. Soon, Whiplash lassos a hero in each whip, holding them on opposite sides of him. It seems pretty bad at first, but at Tony’s suggestion, the two re-visit the idea of “crossing the streams”– having their two repulsor blasts meet in mid-air and creating an enormous energy feedback, this time with Whiplash in the middle.

Whaddya know, it works.

Whaddya know, it works.

The irony is, at that point the heroes didn’t necessarily have to resort to such a crazy tactic, because the very nature of Ivan’s double-hold meant that he left himself wide open to any attack. They were free to shoot at him in more direct ways as well.

After the smoke clears, a dying Vanko reprises his words from the race track, telling Stark “you lose.” Pulling a Metroid, Vanko starts the timer on bombs built into his suit as well as those of all the fallen drones, hoping for a Pyrrhic victory. Unfortunately for the villain, it would have been, in the words of comedian Doug Benson, more accurate for him to say “you lose… unless you happen to be wearing a suit of armor that flies really fast,” because the bombs have a long enough fuse for Stark & Rhodes to not just fly out of the blast zone but also for one of them to swing by and get Pepper to safety. Whoops.

For all Iron Man 2′s faults, where it really improves on the original is in its climax. The first film ended on a sort of limp note as it had the hero hobbled from the beginning and only barely limping to the finish line. The sequel, on the other hand, is a three-part roller coaster ride that starts with an extended chase scene, segues quickly into the chaotic destruction of the drones, and ends with not one but two fully-powered heroes up against a seemingly implacable boss.

The final fight is, unfortunately, a little too one-sided, but this is balanced out somewhat by just how one-sided (in the other direction) the showdown with the drones was. Also, while “believability” is a relative term when it comes to things like this, Whiplash’s dominance comes not from objective superiority but from a mix of quick-thinking tactics, technology, and surprise– exactly the kind of thing that would let you prevail in such an encounter. Just as in a real-life fight, you don’t win by gradually wearing down the other guy’s “hit points” or some such, it’s all a matter of acting decisively and applying just the right amount of pressure at the right place & time.

Well done.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Stop.

Hammer Time.

Iron Man 2 (fight 3 of 4)

Redheads. Am I right, fellas?

Yes, unfortunately.

Yes, unfortunately.

3) Black Widow Cuts Loose

The Fighters:

  • Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff. A former Russian spy & assassin who’s become one of SHIELD’s greatest assets. Supremely skilled at infiltration, interrogation and various forms of combat, Natasha is the ideal agent. The comics have all sorts of wild stuff about how she got her abilities but so far the movies have wisely avoided that. But one element is that she’s a former ballet dancer, which definitely shows up in her gracefulness here. The Widow has gone undercover in Tony’s organization as “Natalie Rushman” in order to… it’s not really clear. Monitor him for SHIELD and help out just in case any supervillains show up, I think? Anyway, it’s fortunate she’s around for this. Played with understated gusto by Scarlett Johansson.
    • Armed with: Like, half a James Bond movie’s worth of little toys and weapons, all secreted in her various belt and wrist pouches. A pity the Avengers movie eschewed most of these in favor of simple if effective guns.
  • Security guards, about six or seven of them, working at the offices of Justin Hammer, Tony Stark’s corporate rival. Played by stunt men.
  • Also present is Happy Hogan, Tony’s loyal bodyguard, but he’s sort of a humorous non-factor here. Played by director Jon Favreau, who’s so money, baby.

The Setup: Hammer has secretly been conspiring with Ivan Vanko, our friend from Fight #1, to utilize arc reactor technology to make his own set of weaponized Iron Man-style drones. When said drones, along with a manually overriden War Machine, run amok at the Stark Expo, Romanoff and Hogan drive off to the Hammer building to investigate. On the way over, Natasha changes in the backseat into her special ass-kicking outfit.

When they arrive, Happy insists on coming in to “help.” Tee hee.

The Fight: It is so cool, you guys.

The first guard accosts them and Hogan immediately engages him in a fistfight. Black Widow just keeps right on moving, and when a second guard approaches, she nonchalantly slides right past him and, still moving, turns around and tosses two little discs towards the guard which paralyze him with a slight electrical charge.

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This pretty much sets the tone for the entire sequence. Johansson’s Romanoff is graceful, smoothly unpredictable, and frighteningly competent. She’s not always moving forward but she definitely never stops moving– she slides, jumps, runs, dodges, ducks, dips, dives, and all the rest with purposeful swagger. Every move and decision just flows seamlessly into the next. It’s glorious to watch.

The other little technological tricks Natasha employs are two small gas pellets she throws around the corner to stun another pair of guns so she can lay them out, and later she hooks one guard’s neck with an extendable cord (not a wire, those are for killing) to hold him in place while she takes down his buddy.

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But occasion permitting she often goes the physical-0nly route, as well. She rides a push-cart and jumps off it to double-kick one guard in the chest. She slides (again!) in-between another foe’s legs and attacks them as she does so, then jumps off his double-over body to land on the shoulders of another.

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The best is the penultimate takedown, when she tackles a guard and does this crazy thing where she spins all over his body while he’s still standing, raining blows on him the whole time. Then as she strides calmly away she uses his chemical spray to do a no-look neutralization of the last straggler just as he tries to sneak up on her.

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This is all over in a minute or so, and the action keeps cutting back to the progress of Happy’s brawl with the very first guy. It takes some doing, but Hogan finally knocks him out with a strong uppercut, and jubilantly looks up with “I got him!” only to find this:

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Between the red hair and this, are we sure she’s actually Russian and not Irish?

It’s a gag that works all the more effectively because the movie treats Happy’s artless tumble with just one guy with the same gravitas as it does a super ninja-spy methodically destroying half a platoon; whenever the camera cut back to Hogan, there weren’t any overtly comedic signifiers like a change in music or something. You get caught up in all of it equally and, like Happy, don’t realize how much she accomplished while he was toiling away. Very clever.

This scene does cheat a little. On close examination (ever the bane of the summer blockbuster), a good number of Widow’s attacks really should not have incapacitated her targets. There are times we merely see her punch someone’s leg, shoulder or what-have-you, and then boom, the guy’s down for the count. Doesn’t matter how hard she’s hitting, unless she’s packing knockout darts or doing some kind of crazy nerve strikes (neither of which is visually apparent or brought up in the dialogue at some point in the film), they simply shouldn’t be getting knocked out.

However, no amount of rewinding and freeze-framing can get around the fact that this is ridiculously fun. Again, it’s brief, but the scene just glides with the same effortless charm as the Widow herself does, possessed of a too-cool-for-school cockiness that’s just on the right side of the endearing/pandering balance. In a movie that’s about high-tech armored superheroes blasting and whipping each other, a quick sequence starring a 5’3 jumpsuited girl in a running around in a hallway comes perilously close to being the best fight of the bunch.

The scene’s not perfect but it’s breezily, joyfully confident, and just like all those sleazy pick-up artists book tell you: confidence goes a long way.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Take down Iron Man?? Ha, you and what Army?

… oh.

Mortal Kombat (retrospective)

Can you handle a surprise break from our previous subject? Guess it’s time to TEST YOUR MIGHT

Ooh, did I ever love this when I was a kid. Like many in my generation I got caught up in the hype around this franchise, and went gaga over the film adaptation when it came out. Since then even its former fans have turned their noses up at it, but it needs a re-appraisal. No better time than the present.

1) Liu Kang vs Nameless Thug

The Fighters:

  • Liu Kang, a Shaolin monk who has only reluctantly joined the tournament because hahahahaha you didn’t REALLY think I was going to do Mortal Kombat, did you? This movie is terrible. Gah, I’d grade the Van Damme Street Fighter movie before I did this one, because even though it’s objectively worse it’s also way more amusing in its badness. April Fool’s, sucker.

Back to regular updates tomorrow. As for this terrible trick… well, I won’t say I’m sorry.

Recommended Links: Why Mortal Kombat fighters should never show mercy.