Fearless (retrospective)

And now we resume our schedule of Asian people kicking the crap out of each other.

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Am I the only one who thinks this pose is more fitting to a Slap Fight?

Fearless (retrospective)

There’s a surprising dearth of genuine kung fu on the site, and Fearless (aka Jet Li’s Fearless, originally Chinese title “Huo Yuanjia”) is a great way to rectify that. It’s not a great film by any means: it’s full of cliches, it does a disservice to history, and it smacks vaguely of nationalism. But it doesn’t skimp on the ass-kicking, giving any fan plenty of kung fu awesomeness for his buck. And despite the shortcomings, it’s a genuinely heartfelt tribute to real-life Chinese hero Huo Yuanjia. It’s a fitting end for Jet Li’s career of making wushu epics, or at least it would have been if he’d actually kept to that promise.

Once again, since this film is quite agreeably packed with fights, we’ll be taking the macro view and doing a retrospective. Since (nearly) every fight is just the protagonist fighting against some opponent(s), the format will be altered accordingly, and first off introduce said protagonist:

  • Huo Yuanjia, a supremely talented martial artist & Chinese patriot. A prodigy who overcame asthma to follow in his beloved father’s footsteps, Huo (that’s his family name; Chinese naming conventions are the opposite of how Westerners’ work) is a master of wushu– a sort of offshoot of kung fu geared primarily towards sporting & competition rather than real-life offense & defense. At the beginning of the film, we meet Yuanjia as a serene & peaceful grand master, then flash back to show how he went from being an arrogant snot to a selfless hero; it’s a canny cinematic move, if not a new one. By most accounts, the real Huo Yuanjia was never such a dickhead even in his youth, but he really did dedicate much of his life to restoring Chinese cultural pride at a time when it was on the wane. Played by the incomparable Jet Li, who had also played Yuanjia’s fictional student Chen Zhen in Fist of Legend, 12 years previously.

Also note that the opening three fights will be bunched up into one. They’re three distinct fights and they’re all shown in their entirety, but they happen in quick succession and under the same circumstances, so we’ll save some space and a formatting headache by lumping them all together.

1-3) Suck It, Roundeyes

Huo Fights:

  • Peter Smith, a British boxer with sick mutton chops. Played by Jean-Claude Leuyer.
  • Han Herzon, a Belgian lancer with a bad attitude and a military dress uniform that doesn’t look optimized for combat. Played by Brandon Rhea (who according to IMDB actually did pass out wearing that outfit).
    • Armed with: A spear, which is noticeably longer than the similar one Huo Yuanjia brings along.
  • Anthony Garcia, a Spanish fencer. Played by Anthony De Longis.
    • Armed with: A European military saber. Yuanjia, meanwhile, packs a jian (Chinese straight sword) for their duel.

I don’t rightly know where these characters’ names or nationalities come from; they don’t seem to be mentioned in the cut of the movie I saw.

boxer lancer fencer

The Setup: We’re actually dropped into this thing right at the start of the movie with very little context; it will eventually be revealed that Huo Yuanjia, who has lately been making some serious waves by opening wushu school and re-invigorating Chinese pride, has been challenged to a series of diverse skill matches by an international conglomerate that’s currently throwing its weight around in his homeland.

At a public exposition, Huo agrees to consecutive matches against the three European champions and one Japanese fighter, which will come later. Both sides see a chance for a big win: given the overwhelming odds, if Huo triumphs it’ll be a major PR boost for wushu (and China); the foreign devils, meanwhile, ostensibly see this as a chance to put the little upstart Huo back in his place… but in reality, their intentions are far more sinister.

The main rule seems to be that the first one to fall wins.

The Fight(s): All three move quickly and quite continuously, giving the film’s opening a welcome charge of energy.

The match against Smith, the boxer, is shortest. He launches a lot of would-be haymakers, which Yuanjia avoids gracefully. Along the way, he delivers several small but surgical strikes to the larger man, and finally is able to take him down by chopping Smith to the face and, when he’s stunned, hitting him from above and sending him face-first into the mat.

Herzon lasts a lot longer than Smith, but takes more of a beating– including some painful shots to the ribs and slices on his pretty uniform. Despite having a longer spear, he too is outmaneuvered by Yuanjia, thanks to not just speed but some wire-assisted flips. Han gets increasingly agitated throughout the fight, and finally snaps his own weapon in half so he can go after Huo up close. He still can’t make a dent, though, and at one point Yuanjia even holds him at bay by suspending his spear’s tip less than an inch from Herzon’s neck, because now he has the reach advantage.

The silly laowai can’t accept that he’s clearly lost, and still charges away (after brushing Huo’s spear aside, of course). Soon enough, Yuanjia uses the haft of his spear to literally sweep Herzon off his feet. Disarmed and definitely defeated, he gets back up with rage in his eyes and it looks for a second like he’s going to attack his foe again out of spite, but he decides not to at the last second.

Good call.

Good call.

(Reminds me of one of the few good lines from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie: “Dashed unsporting! Probably Belgian.”)

The sword fight is the most dazzling of all, and Garcia actually does fairly well for a little while; he never does score a hit of his own but he gets awfully close. The two move with almost unbelievable speed and intensity.

Eventually, of course, Huo is able to find his openings. Displaying incredible precision, he slides his thin blade inside Garcia’s fencing gauntlet, cutting the troublesome thing off without harming the wearer in the process.

Don't ever play "Operation" with this guy.

Don’t ever play “Operation” against this guy.

Several furious exchanges after, Yuanjia pulls off a similarly smooth move when he takes possession of Garcia’s sword by slipping his own through Garcia’s hand guard. Much more amenable than his Belgian predecessor, Garcia accepts defeat like a man. (Maybe good sportsmanship is a tradition amongst fencing Spaniards.) The film cuts away just as Huo faces off against his final challenger, Anno Tanaka.

Meanwhile, we the audience have been shown a dazzling and diverse display of martial arts talent. In addition to starting an action movie off with a bang, these fights are critical in establishing the protagonist’s skill… and they do so not by facing him off against chumps but with genuinely skilled masters, who he nonetheless triumphs over with seemingly little difficulty. Making a fight look simultaneously easy and hard is a tough road to walk, but director Ronny Yu and choreographer Yuen Woo Ping execute it flawlessly here.

Almost as important to establish is Huo’s personality, and it shines through even in combat. Yuanjia moves with simple grace and conducts himself with humility & restraint, even when his foes become agitated. This is vital because it will establish a stark contrast between the aggression and outright meanness of the young Huo we will see soon enough in the film. (No guessing as to which of those personalities Jet Li, with his effortlessly likeable screen presence, is better at.)

Grade: B+

4) “My Dad Can Out Wire-Fu Your Dad”

Huo Fights: Actually, he doesn’t– not our Huo anyway. This is the only fight in the movie that doesn’t involve our hero. Instead, it’s Huo Endi, Yuanjia’s late father (in real life, Endi lived to be a very old man and even outlived Yuanjia), in an extended flashback. Huo Senior is a distinguished & respected martial arts instructor, who inspires equal parts admiration (for his sweet wushu prowess) and irritation (for forbidding him from learning the family trade) in his young, asthmatic son. Played by Collin Chou, aka Seraph from everyone’s least two favorite Matrix movies. Endi’s opponent is:

  • Zhao Zhongqiang, a local wushu competitor who’s a bit of a dick. Played by Zhao Zhonggang.
I don't know about you guys, but my money's on the Chinese guy with long hair

Don’t know about you guys, but my money’s on the Chinese guy with long hair

The Setup: Zhao and Huo have agreed to compete in a sanctioned leitai match. Not much to it, really.

Meanwhile, against his father’s wishes, young Yuanjia has not only attended the fight but wormed his way to the front of the crowd. He stands next to Zhao’s own son, and the two exchange trash talk throughout the battle.

The Fight: This one’s short but significant. Endi takes the lead early on, and while Zhao is no slouch, he’s clearly outclassed by Huo. None of the moves are as fancy or impressive as what we saw in the previous clashes, but at the same time, you can see why Endi’s stately and powerful presence would inspire his boy so much.

Unfortunately, when Endi gets the chance to finish the fight decisively, he pulls back his blow– a devastating punch to the head– at the last second, and suspends his fist there.

FINISH HIM

FINISH HIM

Zhao takes advantage of his mercy, and lands a surprise kick that knocks Endi out of the elevated ring. Rather than protesting his opponent’s dishonor, Huo respectfully salutes and accepts his loss. He understands that protecting life is a victory in itself, a lesson his kid is going to learn the hard way later on.

But for now, Yuanjia can’t understand it. Later on he challenges Zhao’s sneering brat to a fight, and of course loses horribly. (It’s not substantial enough to warrant inclusion here, but it’s still less silly than the Karate Kid remake.)

Grade: B-

5) Yuanjia Gets High

Huo Fights: Didn’t catch the name, but it’s implied that he’s the son of Zhao Zhongqiang– the one who beat up little kid Yuanjia earlier. If so, according to the credits he’s Zhao Jian, and played by Ma Zhongxuan. An arrogant and crude, but still skilled fighter. Before the match begins, he’s bragging about his undefeated record.

The Setup: In the years since his ignominious defeat, Yuanjia sneakily learned his father’s wushu style and has been making a name for himself in local competitions, hoping to one day become the “champion of Tianjin.” Also in the meantime, his father has passed away, he’s had a young daughter and has become a widower, but what he’s most focused on is his martial arts accomplishments.

He attends this arranged leitai match with Zhoa Jian, which for some reason takes place atop an absurdly elevated platform– like three stories up, and accessible only by rope or or a series of very unsafe “stairs.”

I mean, would it even be worth the effort to build the thing just for this?

I mean, would it even be worth the effort to build the thing just for this?

Jian is already waiting for his foe up there, and taunts him as he approaches. Even worse form: he tries to attack Yuanjia as he climbs to the platform.

The Fight: Yuanjia avoids the cheap shots pretty well, and once he sets foot on the platform they waste little time getting to business.

This match is a lot closer than anything we’ve seen thus far. Huo’s skill is certainly on display, but he’s up against a particularly ornery and savage opponent. Zhao’s specialty seems to be (and he brags about it later on) his physical sturdiness; it’s not that Huo never hurts him, but he does land plenty of body & limb blows that Jian is able to seemingly absorb while barely flinching. Little wonder he favors a combat arena where keeping your footing is a priority.

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Meanwhile, Yuanjia himself nearly takes a dive on several occasions, but keeps returning to safety thanks only to some quick reflexes.

After some more taunts, the two go at it again and Huo gains the advantage when he kicks a wooden plank from the floor hard enough to make it go vertical, and punches through it to hit Jian.

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Pressing his lead, Yuanjia knocks Jian very nearly out of the ring, but he barely holds on to the scaffolding, and is able to keep Huo at bay for a while using a scratching “Tiger Claw” technique (which Huo derisively calls “cat’s paw”).

After another near tumble, Huo is able to come back strong by breaking several of Zhao’s fingers on each hand. This emphasizes something that will come in useful for Yuanjia in the future– his ability to strike surgically against opponents who seem otherwise implacable. (We already see a little bit of that in the fencing duel.)

Zhao refuses to give up even after the injuries to his hands, but after some more clashing, Huo finally knocks him down with repeated fists to the groin area.

Above: pretty much the last place you want Jet Li's fists to go near

Above: pretty much the last place you want Jet Li’s fists to go near

Yuanjia panics at the last second with concern for Jian, but the warrior’s fall is broken by a few ropes and his landing ends up being non-lethal (but probably painful as hell). Now, all leitai matches are accompanied by a “death waiver” which both parties sign in order to dismiss legal liability if either perishes in the match, but it’s telling that Huo isn’t so far gone that he’s genuinely willing to kill an opponent. Yet.

Speaking of which, aside from being a thoroughly entertaining little duel, what really sticks out about this fight is the difference from the Huo Yuanjia we saw at the opening of the movie. Not just in skill level, but in his conduct and even his body language as he fights. He’s competent, but his attacks are often desperate & angry, rather than calm & graceful. At other times he’s cocky and just flat out mean. Clearly something’s going to change soon in order for him to become the man from the opening.

Grade: B

6) Montaaaaaaaage!

Huo Fights: A whole lotta people, actually. Yuanjia’s victory over Zhao gave him a major boost, which leads to his skills and status (and arrogance) increasing as he takes on ever more opponents. The tried & true way to cinematically convey all this in a brief, efficient and entertaining way is, well, you know.

The Setup: Er, see above. They’re all leitai matches. None so high as the last match, fortunately.

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The Fight(s): The first significant challenger we see Huo mow down is a big ugly guy with a self-described “head of iron,” which Huo nonchalantly kicks the top of and sends him down. He also fights two acrobatic brothers who fight in tandem, taking them out with consecutive blows. He faces a dual saber-wielding swordsman with just a simple wooden stick, and wins the match by pinning both his foe’s arms behind his chest and using the short staff to “lock” them there.

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Probably the most entertaining and illustrative bit of the montage is his brief clash in the rain, which he cockily performs one hand because his other hand’s casually holding an umbrella– leaving his opponent humiliated, beaten up and soaked.

Immediately after one display of poor sportsmanship, Yuanjia declares that the process of taking challengers on consecutively (as apparently they’d been doing) is going too slow, and invites everyone who’s already signed a waiver to step on up. About two dozen of them do, and he takes them all on simultaneously. There’s about a minute or so of furious combat, and Huo emerges not just victorious but completely unscathed, taking his post-match tea without even breathing hard. He comes off like, well, like a hero in a kung fu movie. Which is fun, but the movie’s going to show us there’s a dark side to that sort of thing.

Grade: B

7) Just A Big Misunderstanding

Huo Fights: Chin Lei (or “Qin” Lei, depending on your subtitles), a highly respected martial arts competitor and instructor in Tianjin. He and Huo are rivals and have had verbal altercations before, but have yet to fight competitively. Played by Chen Zihui.

Both Chin and Huo come packing huge, curved Chinese sabers. Chin’s has a bunch of rings on the flat side which presumably serve some practical function.

The Setup: A bunch of Huo Yuanjia’s students have brought one of their badly beaten friends to their instructor, saying that Chin Lei was the one who attacked him. So Huo heads off to confront Chin publicly, death waivers in hand– at a restaurant owned by Huo’s old friend, Nong Jinsun. Lei tries to demur and explain, but Yuanjia is so belligerent he makes the fight inevitable.

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What Huo’s students don’t tell him, unfortunately, is that the kid who Lei beat up actually provoked Lei by insulting his wife. But of course that’s beside the point; Huo’s real motive here is his own pride & ambition, not his students’ well-being.

The Fight: This is easily the most involved, prolonged and emotionally charged battle of the film thus far, and probably the film as a whole. In addition to the dazzling choreography on display, there’s a vague & uncomfortable feeling of inevitability. Even prior to the later revelation that Yuanjia doesn’t know the whole context, it’s still quite obvious that he’s in the wrong. And while a part of us still wants him to win (because he’s the hero, and played by lovable movie star Jet Li), we also know deep down that he shouldn’t. The excitement mixed with dread makes for an uneasy experience.

The fight starts out furious right off the bat, and only escalates from there.

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The two break tables & chairs, they knock each other down and fight while prone on the ground, they fight while one of them is suspended by his feet from the ceiling. They fight on multiple floors, running & leaping with the aid of the type of wirework that’s fantastic but not ridiculous. They leave shallow wounds and each have a lot of close calls. They fight ugly.

Eventually, Huo’s sword gets its topped chopped off.

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He still fights with the diminished weapon, but it’s clear he has to be more defensive. Shortly after, their fight brings them down to a small pond in the middle of the restaurant’s ground floor (this is the most insanely huge and complex restaurant ever; it’s practically an apartment complex), and the rest of his blade is broken off as well.

He’s able to disarm Chin by grabbing onto the rings on his sword right after dodging a slash, and then flinging it away. The fight gets even uglier when it’s hand to hand, and eventually leads the pair into a nearby storeroom/pantry. As we approach the inevitable conclusion, Ronny Yu pulls away most of the music cues and adds some extra slow motion for the more brutal blows. Huo becomes increasingly aggressive and almost deranged, so desperate is he to win.

Finally gaining an advantage, Yuanjia batters Lei to the point where he can barely stand, and, seeing him vulnerable, delivers the tragically unnecessary coup de grace: a devastating punch to the chest, right on top of Chin’s heart.

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Leaving his opponent unmoving on the ground, Huo shakily exits the restaurant. He seems to on some level grasp the enormity of his actions, because he’s still in a state of shock even as he reunites with his celebratory students. The next day, Yuanjia’s now-alienated friend informs him that Lei died from his injuries, a few hours after the fight. The news causes Huo to vomit, and Jinsun bitterly rubs it in, telling Yuanjia he’s “finally the champion of Tianjin.”

But the real kicker comes shortly after, when Chin’s godson takes revenge by murdering Huo’s mother and daughter. He waits for Huo to track him down, then he confesses and kills himself right there, denying Huo even the satisfaction of killing him. And as a cherry on top, Huo’s students soon come clean about the reason Chin Lei beat one of them up. Oof. Southwest Airlines should have contacted this guy for their old ad campaign.

In any case, the fight is superb. Nearly flawless choreography as the battle escalates and spreads throughout the building. The closeness in each combatants’ skill levels is very well-communicated: you really do get the sense that on a different day, if one or two things had been different, Chin would have been the winner. But he wasn’t, and now Huo Yuanjia has to live with it.

Grade: B+

7) “Herc-u-lees, Herc-u-lees, Herc-u-lees!

Huo Fights: Hercules O’Brien, an American bodybuilder and wrestler. How much O’Brien is he?

MILES O’Brien!

28425-jet-li-fearless

I will NEVER apologize for that joke.

As you can see, Hercules (what a lucky coincidence his parents named him that!) is absolutely massive. An arrogant & almost bestial warrior, O’Brien has been performing public feats of strength (dragging train cars and such), as well as taking down local challengers left & right. Played by Nathan Jones, a real-life professional wrestler and strongman with a 6’11 frame. (And from Australia, not America. Most of the Western actors in this movie don’t play the nationalities of their characters, which is probably only fair payback for how Hollywood uses Asians interchangeably.)

The Setup: Due to the aftermath of the previous fight, Huo Yuanjia had what was more or less a nervous breakdown. After wandering in the wilderness for a while and nearly dying, he was taken in by a remote village full of kindly cliches, and slowly rebuilt himself, this time as a more peaceful and humble man.

Returning to his hometown, he makes amends with those he has wronged, but is distressed to see what’s become of the city due to a sudden influx of foreign (mostly Western) business & government interests. O’Brien’s physical dominance in particular has led him to declare China as the “weak men of the East.” Seeing a chance to put his skills for violence to selfless use, Yuanjia challenges Hercules to a public fight.

The two meet in a boxing/wrestling-style ring, surrounded by a crowd of bloodthirsty fans. Theannouncer, a Chinese man who has clearly gone over to the dark side (he dresses in Western clothes and has learned passable English), asks Huo to sign the death waiver. Huo politely declines, and asks the official to tell O’Brien that this should be a friendly competition without lethal intent.

The sycophantic announcer deliberately mistranslates so he can rile the wrestler up, humorously telling O’Brien that Huo said he “wants to kick your butt.”

Pictured.

Pictured.

The Fight: The perceived insult merely amuses O’Brien, and he laughs as he shrugs off his robes to reveal his mountainous physique.

Not unreasonably confident in his power, O’Brien allows Huo to casually place a hand on his chest in order to execute a probing attack. But his amusement turns to rage when Huo’s point-blank palm strike actually knocks the giant back a few feet, kicking the fight off in earnest.

In a lesser movie, this could have easily turned into a “nimble kung fu warrior easily avoids and humiliates a stupid lumbering beast” situation. And indeed, Yuanjia spends much of the fight either barely evading O’Brien’s devastating strikes or trying to squirm out of his powerful grasp. But he’s not always successful, and has more than his share of close calls.

“No it’s okay, I’ve got him right where I want him!”

“No, it’s okay, I’ve got him right where I want him!”

Multiple times Huo is successfully picked up or grappled by the bigger man, and he has to think fast in order to escape from or minimize the damage he’s about to sustain. The film goes out of its way to communicate the genuine danger of Hercules’ size & power, which is both laudable and realistic– real fighters emphasize that all the skill in the world won’t do you much good if someone much bigger & stronger traps you.

Here, Huo largely neutralizes the wrestler’s abilities by using unexpected or surgical strikes to escape the holds. This includes slipping out of an elevated chokehold by twisting his leg off of Hercules’ arm, and breaks out of a later hold by digging int0 the giant’s sides with his fingertips.

He picked this trick up from his Indian pal, Mola Ram

He picked this trick up from his Indian pal, Mola Ram

There’s even a brief sequence early on where Hercules slams the his Chinese foe up against the ropes, and they have an extended back & forth grapple where Huo keeps breaking free only to be repeatedly re-seized, helpless in a small space against Hercules’ strength. Even a veteran wushu master has to struggle against a crazed bodybuilder.

When both combatants are upright, Huo is constantly on the move to avoid O’Brien’s reach, and several times uses his opponent’s charging momentum against him for some nifty throws, with occasional surgical strikes to less protected areas. The one time he tries a force-on-force attack directly on the American’s chest, the impact seems to hurt Yuanjia more than it does Hercules.

As the fight wears on, Huo is able to grab Herc’s hand and yank it back painfully, but the colossus breaks free of the hold by scooping up Huo and throwing him across the ring. Wasting little time, he tries for a big finish by quickly climbing to the top turnbuckle and coming down on Yuanjia with a body splash. It happens too fast for Huo to get up, but not fast enough that he can’t put up his knee to negate the impact and, even worse, extend his elbow to within less than an inch from where O’Brien’s neck lands.

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Knowing that O’Brien sees that Huo could have crushed his wind pipe, Yuanjia assumes the fight is over, and tries to leave the ring respectfully. Hercules, enraged even more by having the crowd turn against him, is having none of it, and pulls him back into the ring. After a brief clash, Huo is able to kick O’Brien over the ropes and out of the ring… right onto where an earlier impact had exposed a set of heavy nails. But just before they would have slammed right through the American’s bald skull, Huo braces Hercules with his foot and pulls him to safety.

"I saw my whole life flash before my eyes! Even worse, it was mostly the gym and protein shakes."

“I saw my whole life flash before my eyes! It was mostly the inside of gyms.”

Finally realizing he’s outclassed, Hercules visibly suppresses his Beast Mode, and admits defeat. He gives a traditional Chinese gesture of respect, and enthusiastically hoists Huo Yuanjia’s hand in the air as the crowd cheers.

Again, a new and inventive type of fight for the movie. Fast, intense, relatively believable and with quite the rousing ending, this battle is everything it needs to be. Especially at this point in the movie, when there’s been so much gloom & sadness beforehand, and Huo himself needs a meaningful victory. He’s gone from ending lives to saving them.

Grade: A

9) Huo Yuanjia’s Last Stand

Huo Fights: Anno Tanaka, a Japanese champion. Though a veteran fighter, he’s noticeably younger than Yuanjia. Intense & competitive, but very honorable. In fact, prior their fight, the two enjoyed a friendly discussion over tea, and come to respect each other. Played by Nakamura Shido.

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They became so friendly, they even hold hands like this in public

For the first half of the fight, he’s armed with a katana sword, while Huo Yuanjia wields a three-section staff.

The Setup: Remember, this movie does the thing JJ Abrams loves so much where it starts towards the end, then rewinds to the beginning, catches up, and then finishes. So now we’re back to the final part of the tournament, with Huo about to face off with his Japanese counterpart.

Tanaka finds the whole thing shady, and openly distrusts his zaibatsu handler. As the two meet in the arena, Tanaka offers to re-schedule their fight for another day, when he’s more rested. Huo politely declines, saying he prefers it this way. (And it’s not like he broke a sweat taking down those white guys, anyway.)

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The Fight: The battle is crazy intense right from the start. Tanaka is excellent with his katana (some online research indicates he uses it less like an actual kendo swordsman would and more like a Chinese straight sword), but Huo is more than a match with his set of super nunchaku, using them to fend off his opponent in all sorts of creative ways.

At one point he even manages to encircle Tanaka with it, but he breaks free immediately. In the ensuing struggle, they manage to pull a Hamlet and each ends up holding the other’s weapon. Yuanjia proves adept enough with the samurai sword, but Tanaka can’t do anything more than basic defense with the complicated staff, and to the audience’s delight he even manages to whack himself in the face.

The pair respectfully exchange weapons and begin anew, this time with notably more gravitas. Tanaka is soon able to cut through one of the staff’s connective chain and then another, which fortunately still leaves Huo with two metal clubs.

 It's kinda like Mitch Hedberg's joke about how an escalator can never "break," it can only become stairs.

It’s kinda like Mitch Hedberg’s joke about how an escalator can never “break,” it can only become stairs.

One furious exchange leaves the two with their weapons simultaneously stopping in front of each other’s throats, ending the first round in a draw. They retire to their corners to prepare for the next portion which will be hand-to-hand.

But unfortunately while everyone was gawking at the previous clash, someone surreptitiously switched out Yuanjia’s tea with another, identical-seeming cup. We don’t see who, but we know that the international conglomerate had something “special” planned to ensure Huo did not survive the day. This is historically “accurate” inasmuch as it reflects a very unpopular but unproven theory about the real Huo Yuanjia’s death.

Yuanjia does indeed drink it during the break– hey, who drinks tea in the middle of an intense athletic competition, anyway? Isn’t the stuff supposed to soothe & calm you? I know they hadn’t invented Gatorade yet, but sheesh– and returns to the ring. It’s not long at all before something goes wrong.

“Argh, and I PROMISED myself I wouldn’t have matches the morning after Taco Night!”

“Argh, and I PROMISED myself I wouldn’t have any more matches the morning after Taco Night!”

Though the round begins well at first, Huo’s vision immediately gets blurry and his reactions slow down. He barely blocks a simple blow to the chest, and vomits up a huge amount of blood.

Tanaka can immediately see that something is up, and he steps away. The referees suspend the fight, and everyone–including Tanaka– urges Yuanjia to leave and go to a hospital. But he demurs: knowing the end is near no matter what he does, he’d rather finish what he started, facing the end with courage. He urges his followers to not take revenge (which is funny, because, again, in 1994 Jet Li made a movie entirely about a Huo Yuanjia student who did just that), and heads back into combat, despite Tanaka’s warning that he won’t hold back.

The crowd chants Huo Yuanjia’s name, but things start to go a lot worse for him. He fights desperately and actually surprisingly well for a man on his last legs, but still takes a beating. The sad music overwhelms most of the sound effects, emphasizing the tragedy that’s happening now instead of excitement. Huo continues to hold his ground, but takes a devastating punch to the chest and staggers. With the last of his strength, he lunges in when Tanaka leaves an opening and uses the same twisting death blow to the heart he finished off Chin Lei with…

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… only he stops it just short of deadly impact, allowing it to harmlessly land on Tanaka’s robe. With that, he smiles and collapses. Tanaka sees how he was spared from a fatal blow, and stops the referee from calling the fight in his favor. He instead declares Huo Yuanjia to be the winner, helps Huo back up, and bows to him. The crowd erupts in cheers and Yuanjia is swarmed by his friends.

Tanaka storms out and confronts the Japanese businessman from his corner, telling him that his dishonorable actions have made him “a disgrace to Japan.” It’s a nice nod away the overt nationalism that has often plagued kung fu movies– Tanaka’s words here confirm that Tanaka is not the aberration of his country for being good, it’s the businessman who’s an aberration for being bad.

Meanwhile, as the crowd venerates Huo Yuanjia, he looks upward through the building’s skylight, gazing at the stars as he dies. His ascent to the afterlife is symbolized by a ghostly vision of him practicing wushu forms on an open field: a pure expression of martial artistry free from violence. Aw.

Grade: A-

Fearless isn’t the be-all-end-all period action flick it aspires to be, but it’s nonetheless mandatory viewing for the diehard action fan. Get on it if you haven’t already, and praise Saint Jet.

Coming Attractions: Know who’s an even bigger badass than Jet Li?

It's-a-him.

It’s-a-him.

Absentia

Sorry for the lack of updates again, folks. Been a busy few weeks here and haven’t had time to prepare the next entry.

Without getting into the weirdness of my schedule, I often have lots of time to write the actual blog posts, but the process of prepping them (taking notes on and getting screen-grabs from scenes) is considerably more involved and I usually only have small windows of time to get that done. Last time such a window opened, I had only just gotten the first season of True Detective on Bluray, and I thought, “okay, I’ll just watch a few episodes of this real quick, then get some work done” and next thing you know, I was up all night watching literally the entire thing. Sorry.

Meanwhile, here’s some possibly interesting blog stats.

By hits, as of now the five most popular individual entries on this blog (besides the main page, anyway) are:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 1 of 6)

The Raid: Redemption (fight 5 of 5)

Rocky (series retrospective)

The Rundown (fight 3 of 4)

The Rundown (fight 1 of 4)

The first three are no surprise, I suppose, but the love I’ve seen for The Rundown far surpasses what I expected when I first wrote about it. I also get a lot of search result hits on it. Seems it’s grown into more of a cult hit than I realized, which is fine by me. Maybe we’ll finally get that sequel soon.

The five least popular individual entries (omitting a testing post and a simple exhortation to go see Pacific Rim are:

Dark City

One Piece, Alabasta arc (fight 5 of 6)

One Piece, Alabasta arc (fight 1 of 6)

One Piece, Alabasta arc (fight 2 of 6)

Superman vs The Elite (fight 2 of 4)

Lesson: Don’t write about cartoons. Well, to be fair, most of those are much newer so they haven’t had as much time to garner hits yet, and they’re all at least somewhat obscure.

I tried to look up which categories/subjects have the most clicks, but it seems WordPress doesn’t offer stats on that, unfortunately.

The most-commented entries are:

Thor (fight 4 of 4)

Rob Roy (fight 2 of 2)

The Rundown (fight 4 of 4)

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 1 of 5)

Star Wars, Prequel Trilogy (retrospective, part 2 of 2)

Those last three are a three-way tie at five, incidentally. Also I reply individually to most comments and none of them have broken the single digits, so this doesn’t exactly prove much.

WordPress doesn’t let me organize my post lists by the number of Likes, but since those numbers are even lower than the comments so no big loss there. Glancing through it seems the winners are tied at four Likes apiece: The Mask of Zorro (fight 5 of 5) and Super Metroid. The latter is probably because I linked to it in the comments of a popular video game site; the former is probably because it was such a great scene, and a real joy to write.

Also, I started another “blog,” though it’s really just a one-off place to store a small essay I wrote a few months ago. It’s much more “serious” in tone than this site so I’m not guaranteeing you’ll like it if you’re a fan of GFS, but just in case you do, here it is.

Hopefully I’ll have the retrospective on Fearless up next week. Also, the new Godzilla movie can’t come out on video soon enough– I’m going to grade the living crap out of that.

Big Trouble In Little China (fight 2 of 2)

Yet another Schwartz-measuring contest.

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2) Good vs Evil

The Fighters:

  • Jack Burton, a cocky but good-hearted American trucker who’s become embroiled in this ridiculous plot. In addition to never driving faster than he can see, Jack is a burly man of action whose gutsy impulsiveness screws him over about as often as it saves the day. Curiously, though Burton is presented as the protagonist, if you look at his role in the story objectively he’s much closer to being the sidekick– another clever move on Carpenter’s part. Played by national treasure Kurt Russell.
    • Armed with: A small machine gun and a knife hidden in his boot.
  • Wang Chi, Jack’s friend and arguably the real hero of the story. A first-generation Chinese immigrant, Wang is quintessentially American, having built a business and a new life through pure hard work. He’s also a capable martial artist and is determined to do anything to recover his beloved. Played by Dennis Dun.
    • Armed with: A Chinese sword.
  • Egg Shen, the Yoda/Obi-Wan of Chinatown– a lovably crotchety old sorcerer who fights on behalf of good. Though an excellent character, Shen is one of the looser parts of the movie’s backstory; it’s not fully explained who he is besides being Lo Pan’s ancient enemy, and if he is, shouldn’t that mean he also is over 2000 years old, but better preserved for some reason? Regardless, he’s a real hoot, especially as played by the late Victor Wong.
    • Armed with: His own significant mystical powers, and also a bag filled with several stones that act as, essentially, magic grenades.
  • The Chang Sing, or at least the five members who survived the previous encounter.
    • Armed with: Various handheld weapons.
  • Lo Pan, the film’s villain. An ancient, evil wizard whose power has been trapped for 2000 years in the decaying (but never dying) flesh of a mortal businessman. Up until this point, Pan has switched between his crippled human body and his mystical but immaterial & largely powerless true form. Played with unmatched gusto by the great James Hong.
  • Thunder, the most active and visible member of the Three Storms. As fits his name (note: unless I missed it, none of the Storms are addressed by name on-screen), Thunder’s power lies in his incredible strength. Played by Carter Wong.
  • Rain, the member of the Three Storms who specializes in high-flying agility. Played by Peter Kwong.
  • Lightning, the member of the Three Storms who can fire electricity. Played by James Pax.
  • The Wing Kong, a couple dozen or so of them.
    • Armed with: Various handheld weapons.
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“The Wing Kong can’t beat us. We’re on a mission from Buddha.”

Just before the good guys enter the chamber, all of them chug a potion provided by Egg Shen, which gives them a temporary magical boost to put them on par with their enemy’s superior numbers (and the power of the Three Storms, who the mortals had previously been unable to touch). Additionally, it provides a “great buzz” and seems to help one of the Chang Sings be more open about his sexuality.

Also present are the captive ladies, Gracie Law and Miao Yin.

The Setup: The heroic duo’s previous effort to infiltrate Lo Pan’s headquarters and rescue Miao Yin turned up largely fruitless (or worse, since Gracie got kidnapped at the end too), they’ve returned in force now. They arrive just in time to interrupt Pan’s wedding ceremony. He needs to marry and then sacrifice a green-eyed woman, which will appease his dark god and restore his youth, blah blah blah mumbo jumbo. Since fate dropped another green-eyed temptress in his lap in the form of Gracie, Pan intends to sacrifice one bride and keep the other for himself. I know what you’re thinking: Son of a bitch MUST pay.

Having made their way through the catacombs Burton’s band of magically juiced-up soldiers break into the wedding chamber.

The Fight: As the good guys cheer just before their assault, Jack goes a bit too far, and fires his gun into the ceiling.

Whoops.

Whoops.

It ends up knocking loose some chunks of the stone ceiling, which fall on his head and daze him for a few minutes. Nice job, hero.

For everyone else, the battle goes from zero to crazy pretty quick. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the good guys kick some serious ass. For the most part, their enhanced abilities are underplayed– when they start fighting against their evil counterparts, it looks like they’re fighting normally (i.e., no crazy special effects or sped-up movement), but they’re consistently able to overpower and outmaneuver their foes.

Of course, it helps that Egg Shen is there to even the odds a little bit more by intermittently tossing off his magic grenades.

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Wang spends almost the entire battle occupied with Rain. The mortal man’s agility is greatly improved by Egg’s potion, and he cockily shows off no shortage of impossible leaps, multiple consecutive flips and other gymnastic feats as he duels with the high-flying demi-god. It’s neat, and Dennis Dun (with help from his stunt double, presumably) cuts quite the impressively nimble figure, even stopping to occasionally throw some non-verbal taunts at his opponent. But it goes on just a bit too long, it’s fairly repetitive, and Hollywood’s facility with wire-fu was about a generation away from capturing what Carpenter was aiming for here; it’s not exactly Crouching Tiger.

But on the plus side, it won't make you cry like Crouching Tiger.

But on the plus side, it won’t make you cry like Crouching Tiger.

Meanwhile, the handful of Chang Sing cut pretty effortlessly through their remaining rivals, and Jack eventually rejoins the battle. He tries to open fire on Lo Pan, but his gun is seized and crushed by the deadly Thunder.

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Who was immediately booked as a guest on Piers Morgan

One of Egg’s bombs is able to take Thunder out of the combat zone temporarily, but that still leaves Jack to deal with an armored warrior. He struggles to get the knife out of his boot, and ends up surprising his foe by shoving the blade through the bottom of his footwear and kick-impaling it through his chest.

Unfortunately, he gets it so deeply embedded that he ends up awkwardly pinned underneath the warrior’s corpse.

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“This isn’t what it looks like!”

This leaves Egg Shen to deal with Lo Pan, who has conducted enough of the ceremony to make himself flesh once again. Interestingly, Hong’s reactions to Shen convey more about their rivalry than anything in the dialogue; the mixture of irritation and hesitant condescension he greets Shen with indicates the old man isn’t quite the Superman to his Lex Luthor, but Shen’s still powerful enough for Pan to take him seriously.

Egg first launches a firework-like projectile that misses L0 Pan, which the villain scoffs at as “peasant magic.” The two then each fire a magical beam from their rings, and when the lights meet in mid-air, the clash of the sorcerers’ power is represented by the silhouettes of two imposing warriors who fight in stately, slow-motion combat.

I don't know if I mentioned it before but this movie RULES.

I don’t know if I mentioned it before but this movie RULES.

It’s an unexpected bit of bonkers filmmaking and really quite delightful. Hong makes it even wilder when he gleefully twitches his thumbs, as if he’s pantomiming playing a video game.

The magic-hologram battle ends in an apparent stalemate after the projections have a particularly strong clash which collapses the entire thing. Still, Lo Pan even finds room to sneer over a tie, telling his old foe “you never could beat me.”

Lightning arrives and tries to take out Egg Shen, who bounces his blasts back with a metal fan. Meanwhile, Lo Pan escapes with Miao Yin and Thunder, and Lightning knocks some debris loose to block the entrance to any pursuers. Wang finally finishes off Rain with a thrown sword, sending the warrior through a wall that allows the heroes to pursue.

From here it’s pretty much over. Even a surprise encounter with the Rob Bottin version of Chewbacca is handled with alarming ease. By Gracie, no less.

Cattrall's experience in handling beastly abominations would came in handy years later when working with Sarah Jessica Parker

Cattrall’s experience in handling beastly abominations would come in handy years later when she had to work with Sarah Jessica Parker

Jack and Gracie share some smooches in the elevator (leaving him with some rather undignified lipstick smear for the climactic showdown). They track down the two villains, and first face off with Thunder, who Wang is able to sidetrack by drawing him into another room. This leaves Jack to share another one of his patented half-amazing/half-bullshit speeches, then he flings his knife at Lo Pan.

It misses. Wildly. Looking amused (while everyone else groans at Jack, Jack included), the villain retrieves the blade, admires it, and throws it back. But with catlike speed, Burton catches it in air, and throws it right back at Lo Pan, hitting him square in the forehead.

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That’s because it’s all in the reflexes.

From there it’s not too interesting. Lightning gets taken out in a rather boring way as the heroes all escape, letting a chunk of stone drop on his immortal head. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Thunder, after seeing his boss’ corpse, does this:

Pictured above: most YouTube commenters

Then he explodes, accomplishing exactly nothing because the heroes avoid it simply by going around the corner. It’s wild, though.

The bulk of this fight is taken up by a similar sort of chaotic mass battle we saw last time, but executed with much more panache and given lots of extra flavor by adding in our known characters, some crazy magical combat and bits of comedy. Though they do suffer some delays accomplishing their overall goal, the momentum is very clearly on the protagonists’ side during the fight and they don’t experience any true setbacks or pains along the way. This ought to rob suspense from the encounter but instead gives it a manic energy, making it thrilling and triumphant.

And that ending! In another sly move, Carpenter effectively takes his “hero” out of the action for the majority of the fight, leaving the ostensible supporting cast to do most of the work. But Jack Burton still comes through when it means the most, even after a ridiculously stupid setback. It takes a genius like 1980s John Carpenter to be able to have his cake and eat it too– to make Burton a badass AND a clown.

On a purely technical level, this showdown is no great shakes, but everything taken together it’s a rollicking good time for the ages.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: A man without fear.

“Hey, it’s that guy from the site banner!”

Big Trouble In Little China (fight 1 of 2)

Now for yet another movie that wasn’t taken seriously by audiences at first.

For some reason.

For some reason.

John Carpenter’s 1986 flop Big Trouble In Little China was intended at the time to be a big hit, but looking back now it’s almost the definition of a cult classic. It’s an early entry in the East-Meets-West genre, crudely tossing an obnoxious American trucker into a convoluted martial arts fantasy amidst all sorts of cheesy special effects and winking humor. This is a movie with so many volatile ingredients; had it tipped the scales too far at any point (too weird, too serious, too funny etc) and the whole thing could very easily have been an unwatchable disaster. Yet Carpenter and his crew managed to nail the perfect alchemy which resulted in an endearing, hilarious and truly one-of-a-kind experience. Even its imperfections– among them a sloppily constructed mythology, dialogue so blunt it sounds like it was written by Jack Kirby, ambitions that outstripped the current state of martial arts choreography/special effects, Kim Cattrall’s acting– are somehow endearing.

So while it’s a shame the movie didn’t catch on at the time and prompt studios to make more of the same (perhaps even a sequel?), in the end it’s unlikely this lightning could have ever struck twice.

1) Chang Sing vs Wing Kong

The Fighters:

  • The Chang Sing, an old Chinese society that’s good.
  • The Wing Kong, an old Chinese society that’s bad.

Both are filled with able-bodied kung fu warriors and are armed with an assortment of swords, knives, machetes, sticks, cleavers and various firearms (including one tommy gun). Also joining the party at the very end will be the mystical “Three Storms,” but they contribute so little we won’t discuss them much here. Ditto for the film’s protagonists, who mostly just observe from Jack’s truck.

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Most of the combatants are unrecognizable stuntmen, but noticeable among the bad guys is Jeff Imada, legendary Hollywood stuntman and coordinator.

The Setup: Our heroes, Jack Burton and Wang Chi, travel to San Francisco’s Chinatown to save Wang’s fiancee, Miao Yin, from her fresh-off-the-plane abduction by Chinese gangsters. (This broad-daylight kidnapping isn’t even the tenth weirdest thing to happen in the movie.)

Their pursuit leads them to a narrow alley where they come close to a funeral procession consisting of dozens of Chang Sing members, honoring a fallen leader. But Wang has barely finished explaining this to Jack when the Wing Kong stroll in from behind the truck, ready to confront their ancient rivals in an ambush.

The Fight: There’s a brief standoff as both sides brandish their weapons and glare angrily. It’s finally broken when one of the Tongs unload with a machine gun, prompting a hail of bullets from the other side. Sings and Kongs both fall, until each side is apparently out of ammo. Then both come out from cover and there’s a longer stare down.

The “Chinese standoff” (as Wang calls it, with hilarious seriousness) ends when both sides scream and charge at each other. They collide in a huge, bloody martial arts brawl.

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“A MAAAAAADHOUSE!”

What follows is very well done, if not spectacular, example of a chaotic free-for-all. There’s kicks and punches and stabs and chops and smacks and all sorts of delightful mayhem. It’s pure Red Shirt on Red Shirt violence– we don’t know the names of any of the participants, and only from context (and a couple colorful casting/costume choices, on the bad guys’ side at least) can we even infer who some of the lead fighters on each team are. Both heroes & villains suffer their share of losses.

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One guy suffers through this.

The martial arts choreography’s about as good as you can expect in a (somewhat) mainstream Hollywood action film from the time period– fun, varied and cool-looking, if a little stiff by modern expectations.

Eventually the pace picks up (via rapid editing) a bit, and it seems the odds are beginning to turn in the Chang Sings’ favor. But before that can get too out of hand, the battle is interrupted by the Three Storms, demi-godlike warriors loyal to the Wing Kong’s leader. They arrive one after the other, each in a way that corresponds with their powers and names: Thunder emerges from out of a loud explosion, Rain glides down from overhead after a brief downpour, and Lightning appears from a lightning bolt.

The Storms execute a bunch of scary moves and provides some super-intense glares, then they all line up together to stare down the shocked gangs. Several Chang Sings raise pistols and unload at the mystical warriors, but their bullets seem to have no effect.

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It’s like a Mortal Kombat game where you can only play as Raiden

In response, the Storms simultaneously draw their curved blades and fling them at the Chang Sings, with deadly accuracy. Jack & Wang take this as their cue to book it, and drive through the narrow alley. Before escaping they have a brief encounter with the intangible form of Lo Pan, the film’s villain, but it doesn’t come to much. More on him later.

Again, all well done fun even if it’s not amazing. It serves as a pretty good escalation to the movie’s stakes as established so far– an obnoxiously awesome trucker gets embroiled first in a kidnapping plot, then in a kung fu gang war, and now in a magical epic. Or at least it would, if the studio-mandated prologue hadn’t spelled out right from the beginning that the movie would eventually dive headfirst into Eastern mysticism.

Ah, well. Regardless, the best is yet to come.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: The movie gets even weirder, in the best possible way.

It has a lot of big fans.

It has a lot of big fans.

One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 6 of 6)

Rematch time.

Luffy looks ready.

Luffy looks ready.

6) Luffy vs Crocodile, final round

The Fighters:

  • Monkey D. Luffy, same as before. The daring hero with the rubber body. Voiced by Mayumi Tanaka.
  • Sir Crocodile aka Mr. 0, same as before. The sadistic villain with the power of the desert. Voiced by Ryuzaburo Otomo.

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Both are more tired and beaten down than before– Luffy more so, but even Crocodile noted that their previous battle took a lot out of him.

The Setup: After drying him out at the end of their fight, Crocodile unceremoniously dropped Luffy from the roof of the palace, then left the scene himself. Either from extreme luck or very good planning, the four water bubbles Luffy had fired straight up at Crocodile earlier come right back down and land on him, giving him an emergency re-hydration. Good as new!

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Well, more or less.

Once again unaware that his adversary has survived, Crocodile goes to join Miss All Sunday and King Cobra at the underground tomb. Thanks to some directions from Marines who have entered the conflict, Luffy’s able to pursue. He ends up collapsing at the entrance to the tomb and taking a short nap. Can’t blame him.

Back underground, Crocodile discovers that the ancient inscription he’s uncovered doesn’t have the information he wants, so he stabs Nico Robin with his hook, deciding she’s outlived her usefulness. The king then hits a fail-safe device that will collapse the entire tomb in a few minutes, hoping to take the two villains down with him, but Crocodile just laughs it off, as he could easily survive with his powers. He gloats it up, reveling in the fact that with the collapse of the tomb and the imminent detonation of the bomb up above, his plan to overtake Alabasta is finally about to come to fruition. Then right on cue, someone breaks through the wall.

No points for guessing who.

No points for guessing who.

Irritated beyond all belief, Croc asks Luffy how many times he has to die. Luffy simply responds by saying that Crocodile hasn’t given back what he stole: Vivi’s country. The villain laughs and says he hasn’t taken it quite yet, but Luffy, with a strangely child-like determination, says that if the country were really still Vivi’s, then she would be able to smile.

This is the thing about Luffy: most genre heroes would take down Crocodile just on general principle, but the thing this one focuses on is how his friend is hurt.

The Fight: Again, Luffy charges in without thinking, and Crocodile laughingly asks how he’s going to strike him without any liquid. Luffy answers non-verbally.

Ah. That'll do it.

Wet enough for ya?

Luffy’s kick and follow-up punch both connect, hard, and send their target through the wall. As Crocodile correctly surmises, Luffy is bleeding enough (as Crocodile soon will be) that the moisture from his blood is enough to negate the villain’s sand powers.

It’s difficult to believe, especially considering how much liquid was constantly at play in the last fight, but it’s essentially a thin excuse for the real reason much of the super-science has gone out the window: the battle is taking place on a much more primal level now. It’s less a battle of wild powers and more character-based, with two people just trying desperately to kill each other.

Accordingly, Crocodile announces that he will finally take Luffy seriously, and removes the outer covering from his hook, revealing a much smaller, grey hook with noxious fumes emerging from a few holes. He says that since duels between pirates are to the death, there’s no such thing as “fair.” In the next few exchanges, he manages to barely nick two of Luffy’s limbs with the curved blade– enough for the poison (derived from scorpion venom) to start its work.

Hey, I didn't say ALL of the crazy powers stuff was over

Hey, I didn’t say ALL of the crazy powers stuff was over

The two continue to fight (largely off & on, as the bulk of a few episodes here is devoted to the other Straw Hats finding the hidden bomb), with Luffy getting a few good licks in. But Crocodile merely laughs, and says that no matter how hard Luffy fights, he can’t defeat the poison that’s already coursing through his veins. Sure enough, Luffy soon starts to feel numb and collapses.

Up above, the bomb plot is finally resolved– it’s discovered but can’t be disarmed, so the guardsman Pell apparently sacrifices himself to take the bomb in his falcon form and let it detonate safely above the city. (The whole point seems kind of moot, considering explosions are like an inconvenience at worst in this show’s world.) But Crocodile, who only hears the explosion, doesn’t know this, and cackles with glee at how his “new era” has begun.

Incredibly, Luffy begins to twitch at this news, and rises to his feet again, vowing that he won’t give up as long as Vivi doesn’t. He tells the incredulous Crocodile “you cannot defeat me,” and declares his goal to become the next Pirate King. This only aggravates Crocodile more, who lunges at Luffy with his hook & tells him his dreams are foolish, that he will one day learn they are virtually impossible given the sheer scale of the sea– its vastness, complexity, and how filled it is with powerful warriors. (It is not stated at this point, but we find out later– MUCH later– that becoming the Pirate King was once Crocodile’s dream as well, and giving up on it was part of what made him so cold and cynical, hence his violent reaction to hearing it from someone else.)

Luffy continues to not give a shit.

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Pictured: Luffy, giving zero shits

He avoids Crocodile’s swipe and slams the hook attachment onto the ground with his foot, snapping the actual hook right off and declaring that he WILL surpass him. Screaming maniacally, he deliver a point blank Pistol shot to the villain’s gut. As the Croc is still reeling, Luffy brings a fist down on the side of his face, driving him into the ground. Then he seizes him by the collar and throws him into a wall. It’s relentless.

Crocodile rises shakily, looking more battered than ever. He wonders to himself why this man hasn’t fallen to the scorpion poison yet, and flashes back briefly to all the times he was informed of Luffy and his crew surmounting the seemingly impossible obstacles Baroque Works set before them. He flicks his wrist and a small knife blade emerges from his fake hand, then he rushes Luffy, asking if he truly understands who he– Crocodile, a member of the mighty Shichibukai– is.

Luffy says he doesn’t care who Crocodile is, because Luffy will surpass him. He ducks the villain’s stab, and kicks him upwards, almost to the ceiling of the catacomb. Crocodile is able to use his power to halt himself in mid-air, and resolves to take Luffy out if he has to bring down the entire temple with him. He launches another “Heavy Sands” attack, a localized whirlwind which Luffy avoids even as it trashes the surrounding area.

The hero rapidly sucks up a ton of air, swelling his rubber body to huge proportions, twists himself into a corkscrew and then discharges all the air at once, propelling him rapidly upwards. Crocodile tries to counter with an impressive attack called Desert La Spada (“Great Desert Sword”), where he extends his sandy body into four enormous, scythe-like blades. Luffy dramatically meets it with a new move, the Gomu Gomu Storm.

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Now, for a while before this, the soundtrack had been silent, only punctuated by the sounds of dialogue and blows. But as soon as Luffy started rising in the air, the opening chords of a famous piece of music begin. Classical music fans will recognize it as the fourth movement of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, a beautiful and hugely influential 19th century composition. This is something unusual for the shounen genre: most sequences are scored with in-house music that gets recycled a lot throughout a series, with outside tunes being deployed very sparingly if at all and those usually being pop songs.

But as shocking as this selection is, it couldn’t be more appropriate in the context. Right as the opening breaks into a crescendo, Luffy’s fists connect with Crocodile’s blades and hit them with such force that they collapse right back into sand. In a bravura piece of animated directing, the “camera” tracks Luffy’s hand in a time-slowed shot after it pops through the last scythe and follows it all the way up through the sand stream until it connects with Crocodile’s ugly mug. But not for the last time.

Luffy’s new attack uses all the propulsion from his corkscrewed leap and channels it into a blurred storm of ferocious punches. It’s so intense that Crocodile is unable to defend himself, getting pounded into and eventually through the ceiling. As the astonished King Cobra remarks, this shouldn’t be possible– there’s dozens of yards of pure bedrock above the burial chamber. But Luffy keeps it up until the villain breaks all the way through to the surface and up into the sky.

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Only then does Luffy pull his arm back, letting the unconscious villain to crash down right in the middle of the civil war raging on the streets. From up high in the clocktower where the bomb had been hidden, Vivi has a clear view, and sees that her captain has done the impossible. The rest of the crew, down below, merely see Crocodile’s body fall, but know that only Luffy could have pulled it off.

The war rages on, but within minutes, rain begins to fall– the same life-giving rain that Crocodile’s powers had secretly been preventing from falling on the capital, which is how he began to engineer Alabasta’s ruin. The return of the miraculous rain makes both sides stop fighting in astonishment, and quickly smothers the dust clouds that had been obscuring everyone’s sight. In the shocked silence, Vivi is able to call out to her people to lay down their arms, and let them know they’ve been played against each other: she can finally be heard again.

Down below, Cobra smiles for the first time in years, his long nightmare over. With simple humility, he gives this stranger his gratitude for saving his kingdom. The hero’s exhausted reply:

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The fight itself is exceptionally well done, deploying each player’s particular powers in a reasonably believable context. It’s paced excellently, with a solid start, then being shown only fleetingly over a period of time mostly devoted to the above-ground storyline, then it all comes back for an extended finish. Luffy emerges as an even more powerful figure than ever, but at no time is his adversary’s threat level diminished as a result. The animation gradually steps up in quality as the end nears until we hit the final stretch and the moves are deliberately less fluid, coming off more stately & exaggerated.

Taken as a whole, this battle and its conclusion are an amazing, singular accomplishment. Dozens of episodes of build-up are successfully & skillfully paid off in an extended, multi-part climax, which itself culminates in a powerfully triumphant moment of catharsis. This is one of those pieces of art so impacting that I’ll never forget where I was when I first saw it, and even now it never fails to inspire me with its sheer, gorgeous audacity.

Much of this is owed to the genius selection of Dvorak’s music. By the time the two combatants lock in to their final positions, the audience certainly has a sense the fight is going to end soon enough, but when those first chords of the symphony chime in, there’s no doubt: Luffy’s going to finish things right now, and finally stop this monster who has taken so much from so many. (Not only was the symphony well chosen for its triumphant sound, but its alternate title, “From The New World,” is a subtle hint about things to come. As the show winds on, it is gradually revealed that with the emergence of the Straw Hats, a New Age is beginning, defined by dreamers like Luffy. Some of the characters believe that the new era begins here, when Luffy defeats a Shichibukai and therefore alters the balance of power between the organizations who rule the seas.)

There is a lot that’s silly about shounen anime shows, and much that is especially silly about One Piece in particular. But this moment, here, the one that had me whooping with joy in a cramped trailer in Iraq, is the kind of payoff you receive if you’re willing to put aside your cynicism and go along for the ride. If you let the spell take you, the rewards are worth it.

GOOD GUYS: 5, BAD GUYS: 0

Grade: A+

Coming Attractions: Devil Fruit powers are nice and all, but ultimately it’s all in the reflexes.

Probably shouldn't come along on any ride this guy offers you

Probably shouldn’t go along with any spell this guy tries to put you under

One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 5 of 6)

The boss is back!

You guys can all take five.

You guys can all take five.

5) Luffy vs Crocodile

The Fighters:

  • Monkey D. Luffy, captain of the Straw Hats and hero of the series. An ambitious young dreamer whose goal is to one day become the next Pirate King, the undisputed champion of the entire sea. Luffy’s dream is seemingly impossible given its daunting scope, but his relentless optimism, deeply good nature and knack for picking up the right companions have served him well so far. Luffy is incredibly simple-minded (bordering on and even crossing into Stupid at times), the very definition of a guy who sees the quickest path to everything as a straight line. While he lets nothing stand in the way of his dream, Luffy is also fiercely loyal to his friends & crew, ready to die for them if need be. Voiced by Mayumi Tanaka.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Luffy’s powers are derived from a Devil’s Fruit that gives his body the qualities of rubber, so he can stretch any part of his body at will. Combined with his strength & training, Luffy is not only surprisingly resilient (it’s pretty hard to hurt rubber), but also capable of delivering powerful attacks by utilizing the velocity of his stretchable limbs, striking with the force of a human-sized rubber band. Most of Luffy’s special attacks are named after firearms (Pistol, Bazooka, Shotgun, etc) despite largely being variations on simple punches, always prefaced by “Gomu Gomu,” the Japanese word for “rubber.” Not the most original superpower (it’s reminiscent of Mr. Fantastic, Plastic Man etc), but narratively speaking it’s an ingenious ability for the main character of such an epic story to have, simple in concept yet remarkably open-ended in terms of conceptual opportunities.
  • Sir Crocodile, the head of Baroque Works (Mr. 0) and arch-villain of this entire storyline. Incredibly tall and always wearing a fancy fur coat. Utterly amoral and sociopathic, Crocodile has no sense of honor, respect, or sympathy. He is one of the Shichibukai (roughly “Seven Warlords of the Sea”), particularly dangerous pirates whom the World Government of One Piece has pardoned for their past crimes in exchange for them enlisting as privateers– they’re not exactly government employees, but loose allies who basically agree to only attack other pirates rather than civilians, and share a portion of their plunder with the authorities. Naturally, Crocodile has been running Baroque Works in secret. Voiced by Ryuzaburo Otomo.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Crocodile’s Devil Fruit power gives him the ability to turn into sand at will, which makes him frustratingly hard to hurt, since he can dissolve part or all of his body into sand and re-materialize whenever he needs. Additionally, Crocodile has the power to manipulate & control sand, and, via contact of his uncovered right hand, he can unleash an invisible force of absolute dryness, sucking all the moisture away. Also, his left hand has been replaced by a large prosthetic hook, which has a few surprises of its own.

  

The Setup: Crocodile’s been playing a long game, spending several years patiently working to undermine the stability of Arabasta so that he can emerge from the rubble and claim the nation for himself. In the meantime, he’s been living in the kingdom and playing the part of a popular hero.

Vivi and the Straw Hats have set out to undo his Croc’s plans, but it may be too late, especially now that the rebel army the villain encouraged has entered the city, and Crocodile himself has captured both Vivi and her father, the noble King Cobra, atop the palace. (Also present is Nico Robin, aka Miss All-Sunday, Crocodile’s partner.)

Mr. 0 believes Luffy is dead, having easily defeated him several episodes previously– it wasn’t even a fight, since none of Luffy’s attacks could harm his sandy form– and left him to die in a pit of quicksand. However, thanks to some timely assistance he survived and was quickly nursed back to health.

So, knowing that the rebellion has succeeded in eliminating most of his opposition and that a bomb he hid in the middle of the city will soon take care of the rest, Crocodile sadistically mocks Vivi for her failure, and drops her from the top of the building.

She’s saved, of course, by her captain, who comes swooping in on the back of Pell, a Royal guard and Devil Fruit user who can transform into a giant bird.

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He drops the princess off on the ground where she’s reunited with all the other victorious crew members, and they split up to find the hidden bomb. Luffy stretches his arms to the top of the palace and propels himself upward, announcing to Crocodile that he won’t lose again.

Throughout this last phase of the ordeal, Vivi has been in agony because she’s been unable to reach her people, to let her know the war is a sham and that they’re being played against each other. She continuously verbalizes it as “they can’t hear me”– not just because her efforts have been thwarted but because her cries from above are being literally drowned out by the din of fighting and an obscuring sandstorm created by Crocodile. After Luffy first swooped in to catch her, she despaired that her voice wasn’t reaching anyone.

“Don’t worry,” Luffy says. “We can hear you just fine.”

The Fight: After the initial shock at seeing Luffy alive again fades, Crocodile smiles and waits patiently for his adversary to show up. He declares that this will be just as easy as the last time, because Luffy can’t even touch him.

Oh yeah?

ABOUT F***ING TIME

ABOUT F***ING TIME

Gleefully triumphant music swells as Crocodile finally takes a hit and goes down, hard. Without skipping a beat, Luffy stretches out to seize Croc from a distance, and spins up his torso in place for an attack he calls the Buzzsaw.

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Luffy instantly uncoils and whips forward, putting all the force into a headbutt that sends the villain reeling again.

As Crocodile lies dazed on the ground, Luffy explains how he was able to deduce his weakness from a small moment in their last encounter: water. If Crocodile or something touches him gets even slightly wet, his body hardens and he can’t dissolve safely into sand. Hence Luffy showing up this battle with a huge barrel of high-quality H20 (with attached hose) on his back.

The current episode concludes with Luffy declaring: “Now I can kick your ass. Let’s fight.” He’s a man after my own heart.

When we rejoin the action, Crocodile arises and laughs maniacally– always a welcome tendency in a villain. He asks if Luffy really thinks he can beat him, a member of the Shichibukai. In a moment of straight-faced comedy, Luffy says if Crocodile is Shichibukai, then he himself must be HACHIbukai. [Language-pun nerd hat] “Shichi” means seven, while “hachi” means eight; Luffy thinks that upping the number makes him more dangerous, failing to realize that it refers to the number of members in the group.

(If you think this level of stupidity is unrealistic: I once knew a girl who had someone seriously tell that she’s so crazy, she wasn’t just bipolar, she was “tripolar.” Oy. She really was crazy though.)

Anyway, Luffy is still determined, but his next rocket-punch (Gomu Gomu Pistol) is easily dodged, and Crocodile displays a new power when he seizes the arm and dries it all out.

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Shocked, Luffy frees himself, realizing the power Crocodile still has even when he’s being “weakened.” The hero chugs some water and his arm returns to its natural state. He then drenches his whole body with the hose, and tries a Pistol attack again, but halfway through he “twangs” his arm at the base so that it twists unpredictably for what he calls the “Shotgun” attack.

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Crocodile is surprised but jumps back just in time, and counters with “Desert Sword,” an invisible pulse of energy that splits the ground. Luffy barely sidesteps it, and again tries a Pistol punch. Crocodile is incredulous that Luffy keeps doing the same thing over & over, but pays for underestimating him when Luffy surprising jumps all the way forward and strikes the villain up close.

Luffy tries soaking Crocodile with the entire barrel while he’s down, but Crocodile predicted the idea and sends them both into the air with a localized sandstorm. Luffy barely manages to keep a grip on the barrel, and the Shichibukai mocks his reliance on it. So Luffy tries an unexpected tack: he swallows the rest of the barrel’s contents at once, stretching his rubber body to comically oversized proportion.

still in better shape than I am

Looks like me after a trip to Golden Corral

The hero declares now that he’s Water Luffy, Crocodile’s worst nightmare. Understandably, the criminal mastermind doesn’t take him seriously (it doesn’t help when Luffy springs a few leaks), but pays for that once again when Luffy soaks him by spitting out several large water bubbles, and hits him with the Gomu Gomu Bazooka– a two-handed punch right to the gut.

Crocodile’s finally angry enough to pull out the big guns. He tells Miss All-Sunday to leave with the King (they need him to find an artifact in the city’s catacombs), because it’s about to get ugly up in here.

Crocodile puts his hand to the ground and begins spreading his own infinite dryness to the environment. The ground cracks, the walls split, the surrounding gardens disappear, and finally huge portions of the buildings collapse, all due to Crocodile’s “Ground Death” attack soaking up moisture and accelerating decay. Even Luffy’s shoes crumble into dust.

When the dust clears, Water Luffy is barely clinging to the edge of a mostly wrecked palace. Before he can pull himself up, Crocodile materializes in front of him and grabs him by the neck.

Luffy frantically spits several more water globs at him, but Crocodile dodges and they go straight up in the air. In a few seconds, his hand sucks the liquid out of Luffy’s body, leaving him frail and dessicated. “You lose,” he declares, as the episode ends.

Certainly looks that way.

Another fun battle, returning more to the pattern of a genuine back & forth. Notably, Crocodile actually hurts Luffy very little until the end, but he still ends up deploying enough tricks to keep Luffy from scoring any decisive victory. From a storytelling standpoint, this also helps to maintain the villain’s intimidating mystique while still giving him a well-deserved black eye– the audience has been waiting a LONG time for someone to knock this dude on his ass. And of course the battle concludes with Luffy going down once again– keep in mind that prior to coming to Alabasta, we’d never seen Luffy lose even once, and now he’s bit it to the same guy twice in a row.

The fight also strikes an excellent balance between straight-up physical combat and the other type of offbeat maneuvers we’ve seen so far, what with selective deployment of water as a weakening agent and all. Luffy’s unpredictable tactics– such as three different variations of the Gomu Gomu Pistol to surprise his foe– also add an element of chaos to the mix.

All in all, not the greatest, but that will come in their rematch.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: The battle concludes.

Spoilers: The hero’s not dead

One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 4 of 6)

Now that’s more like it.

Believe it or not, he's only at 2/3rds capacity.

Believe it or not, he’s only at 2/3rds capacity.

4) Zoro vs Mr. 1

The Fighters:

  • Roanoa Zoro. Luffy’s first and most dangerous crew member (after Luffy himself, anyway), Zoro is a taciturn warrior whose dream is to become the world’s greatest swordsman– and of course traveling with Luffy has given him no shortage of opportunities to practice. Yes, his name is Zoro, like the Spanish hero. Voiced by Kazuya Nakai.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Zoro has exaggerated strength and agility, but he fights almost exclusively using his three katanas. A practitioner of what he calls “Santoryouu” (“Three-Sword”) style swordsmanship, the amount of blades he is using at any given time will vary depending on the situation, but optimally he uses all three at once: one in each hand and the third in his mouth. Such is the glory of One Piece that an idea so absurd can actually work on-screen. All three of Zoro’s swords are considered to be “special” in some way, but the most valuable and powerful is white-handled Wado Ichimonji sword, an heirloom from his dead friend and the one he favors most (and frequently puts in his mouth).
  • Mr. 1 (real name Daz Bones), one of the most powerful Baroque Works agents. Not as actively cruel as many of his compatriots, he’s still a ruthless killer. Voiced by Tetsu Inada.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Daz Bones consumed a Devil’s Fruit which makes him able to turn any part of himself into blades at will, and effectively makes his body into organic-looking steel; think of him as sort of a cross between the T-1000 and Colossus. Naturally, this makes him very hard to hurt.

  

The Setup: We actually see the beginning of this confrontation during a brief cutaway from Sanji’s fight. The #1 team is pursuing Nami and Zoro arrives just in time to save her. The two face off, leaving Nami and Miss Doublefinger to tangle elsewhere.

Zoro soon recognizes the nature of Bones’ power. Mr. 1, meanwhile, deduces that Zoro is the swordsman who defeated 100 of Baroque Works’ lower-ranking members recently, and also killed the previous Mr. 7 several years ago, when the agent tried to recruit him. Cool as ever, Zoro smiles and asks, “You wanna try to recruit me, too?”

Thus begins the perfect matchup: an aspiring swordsman against someone who’s effectively a living sword.

The Fight: The combat here is unusual even when neither opponent is pulling off fancy moves– it’s just so strange to see swordplay deflected by limbs.

After some initial clashing and more trash talk, Zoro dons his trademark bandanna and bites down on sword #3. He uses his Bull Horn attack charge immediately…

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… but the strikes doesn’t even faze Mr. 1, who simply closes his eyes and hunkers down. Zoro lands on the other side of him, and realizes that what he’s seen about the villain’s Devil Fruit power is true: his body (or at least his skin) truly is steel. He muses out loud about how if he can’t cut steel, then he can’t cut Mr. 1. Smiling cockily, he actively relishes the challenge: he’ll just have to figure out how to cut steel. He even pities Mr. 1 for being the poor bastard Zoro’s new skill will be tested on. Daz Bones is dubious, as no swordsman has ever been able to cut him before. Zoro’s reply: “You’ve never met me before.”

Zoro’s pretty freaking cool, you guys.

Though they have somewhat similar powers (most Baroque Works teams are built around a theme), pound-for-pound, Mr. 1 is far more deadly and interesting than Miss Doublefinger. Zoro is sometimes able to keep him on his toes, but often it’s about all he can do just to keep up. After all, how do you keep up the offensive against someone whose skin is so impenetrable he barely even needs to defend himself?

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Zoro manages it intermittently through aggression, creativity and the relentlessness of his attacks. A perhaps sounder method might have involved wearing down Bones with blunt force rather than cutting or stabbing (the one time Mr. 1 visibly registers pain is when he’s kicked in the gut), but that’s not Zoro’s specialty and more importantly, it’s not his way– if he can’t do the job with his swords, he won’t do it at all.

The swordsman tries a combination of special moves at first– a “Demon Slash” maneuver which knocks Bones down, and a “Tiger Hunt” attack from above while he’s still falling– but despite Zoro’s visible exertion, Mr. 1 is only knocked back by the force of the attacks, and arises without a scratch. He counters with a series of moves Zoro barely avoids, and when he’s pressed against a wall, Mr. 1 hits him with an air-cutting technique. Zoro resists the force of the attack itself, but the power of the slashes damage the buildings behind him so greatly, they all collapse and Mr. 1 shoves him into the path of the debris.

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“You should see the other guy.”

Seemingly trapped under a building, Zoro thinks to himself how this is the worst predicament he’s been in so far (it would be for me, too), and has an obligatory flashback to an element of his childhood, training with his sensei. Conveniently, little Zoro had once asked his teacher how it would be possible for a man to cut steel, and the elder responded by slashing at a thin piece of paper and not cutting it, despite hitting it dead on. He explains that true mastery entails being able to cut what you choose to and not harm what you don’t; a sword that simply cuts everything it touches is inferior. Whoa.

Still not quite getting the lesson, adult Zoro is nonetheless energized to keep fighting. He pulls himself from the rubble, picks up the house he’d been trapped under, and THROWS it at Mr. 1.

How terrible. I know a lady whose sister died the same way.

How terrible. I know a lady whose sister died the same way.

Undaunted, Bones uses an even stronger air-cutting technique and slashes the house to bits before it hits him. Zoro charges through the debris and renews his attack, pulling a few nifty moves but again failing to make a dent with his brute strength. Stoic as ever, he simply tells Mr. 1 “you’re beginning to piss me off.”

The feeling is apparently mutual, because the assassin finally decides to break out the big guns, so to speak, and reveals he can make more than just simple blades. For instance, he can turn his forearms into buzzsaws:

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Well, that’s just cheating.

The spinning blades nearly break Zoro’s own katanas, and when he tries to evade without them, it isn’t enough. Mr. 1 lightly slashes Zoro’s chest with one glancing blow, and hits him with another directly to the torso.

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That’s… gonna leave a mark.

Incredibly, Zoro survives, but the hit slams him back into a pillar and he drops all three of his swords. Unarmed and bleeding badly, he tries to stand and face Daz Bones again. The villain is mildly curious about Zoro’s resolve to keep fighting, but Zoro says he wouldn’t understand. Mr. 1 agrees and hits the swordsman with a devastating attack that slices Zoro’s chest even further, and travels through the air to the pillar behind him, bringing the whole thing down.

It seems like it’s over, but again Zoro has miraculously survived. He thinks to himself about Luffy’s last order for them all to meet back up at Vivi’s palace, and wonders if any of his crew have even survived. He sees that he’s standing in the one rubble-free portion of the collapsed pillar, and realizes that he didn’t dodge the falling debris– he instinctively moved to where he knew they wouldn’t fall. Just as he can instinctively sense the location of his Wado Ichimonji, under a nearby piece of stone.

Retrieving it, Zoro ponders that now, on the edge of death, he has reached a state of heightened awareness, where he can sense “the breath of all things”: rocks, ground, air, even steel. (Amusingly, his inner monologue drowns out the dumbfounded verbal reaction from Mr. 1.) He thinks that this awareness might be the key to cutting only what he chooses, and tests it by first swinging harmlessly at the fronds of a palm tree, then casually slicing a chunk of stone pillar in half.

Ready for one last effort, Zoro levels his blade at Daz Bones, then sheathes it to prepare for a quick-drawing slash. Mr. 1 lunges in with another attack, but the camera cuts away to a cliched shot of birds flying. When we come back….

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Zoro calmly re-sheathes his katana, smiling confidently over the victory he already knew was his. Mr. 1 begins collapsing in a pool of blood, and asks Zoro if his next challenge will be to try cutting diamond, but the hero says that would be wasteful– he is a pirate, after all. Smiling ruefully and cursing softly, Daz Bones accepts his defeat like a man.

The victor takes a well-earned rest and removes his bandanna, having become a man who can cut steel.

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This is a much better return to form, and a lot more fun to boot. In addition to the aforementioned novelty of animating a fight of sword against sword-like flesh, there was also a narrative challenge: how do you make the fight interesting if Zoro can’t hurt his opponent until the very end?

They somehow managed it, and without succumbing to the silly running around & theatrics of Nami’s similar predicament. In-between all the times he nearly gets killed, Zoro manages to take the fight to his foe fairly effectively, even if he never truly gets him on the ropes. In the end, he wins not through physical strength but from accumulated wisdom, even if it’s achieved via a cliched flashback and tactically questionable advice. The staging works well too: in addition to all the wild, named move-sets, the two have their fair share of complicated up-close maneuvers and rapid-fire back & forths. (A dirty little secret about the latter is that anime shows often save time by looping the same handful of frames over & over, so quickly that you probably don’t notice unless you’re, say, freeze-framing the action to get cool screen grabs for your blog.)

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This, for example. You’d think Mr. 1 would have figured out the attack pattern after it repeated the third or fourth time.

Probably the biggest flaw is the extent of Zoro’s injuries– the second blow from Bones’ buzzsaw arms ought to have been enough to kill him outright, let alone how he survived a point-blank “Spar Break” attack directly after. Again, it defies believability even under the circumstances, and relentlessly punishing the hero just before his last-second victory is a bit tired.

All in all, a worthy end to all the warm-up matches, before we approach the main course.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a man!

Who's, er, riding a bird.

Who’s, er, riding a bird.