Super Mario Boss Fights (retrospective, 1996 – Present)

My man’s back, and he’s got polygons for days.

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Super Mario Bros (series retrospective, 1996 – Present)

While the N64-era was where Nintendo’s console dominance finally cracked, it would have gone far worse for them without the legendary success of Super Mario 64, which came to define 3D platforming just as its predecessors had defined the 2D version. The franchise was also re-defining itself, finding innovative new answers to what “beating” a stage looks like when said stage is a much more open, interactive environment. And it would continue to do so in the years that followed.

This half of the material may not be quite as satisfying, as I’ve played far fewer of these and am just going by what I can find online. We work with what we have.

1) Super Mario 64

Mario Fights: Bowser, now rendered in all his blocky glory

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach, right when Mario was about to eat her cake.

Actually this time, Bowser has occupied the castle of the Mushroom Kingdom itself, and has fortified himself with the magic of the Power Stars located within it. (It’s unclear what advantage this magic gives him, since he more or less does what he always does.)

Getting to each fight is arguably more fun than the fights themselves, because each Bowser stage is a delightful platforming challenge played out on some wonderfully nonsensical geometric obstacle course. They also have better music.

The Fight(s): Yep, plural fights once again, though thankfully this time it’s three and not eight. After completing each Bowser level, you’ll confront him in a large, circular arena, where he’ll lumber toward you and actually exchange some dialogue for the first time (first time as an adult anyway. Baby Bowser was all about vocalizing his needs), which manifests in cartoon villainy so cocky he literally tells you exactly how to beat him.

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Weird flex but okay

Bowser can breathe both his old fireballs and a much more drawn-out fire breath that can be hard to avoid if you’re in front of him. Of course the idea, as he so subtly hints at in his dialogue, is to get around behind him and seize him by the tail. It’s not a complete gimme, because the big guy can rotate fairly easily as well, but in the first fight it’s a cinch to get on his six even if you don’t wait for him to pause and use that dragon breath on you.

After grabbing that ugly appendage, the player needs to spin him around by rotating the new console’s analogue stick, then fling him into one of the explosive-filled, spiky balls surrounding the arena. It takes some getting used to: the distance & direction Bowser goes is dependent on how much momentum you’ve built up (my goodness, the way this series trailblazed the art of gaming physics) and the angle he’s at when you release him. Go too short and he’ll just get back up none the worse for wear; throw him off the platform entirely and he’ll bounce right back up. He’s at least finally conquered the gravity problem that plagued him earlier.

All it takes is one good shot to send him scurrying, but the next two tries get more complicated. Bowser gets increasingly responsive to your moves so it’s harder to get around him. He even comes up with a few moves of his own, like the return of his jump-buttstomp combo that will either tilt the entire arena almost on its side (in the second fight) or send deadly shockwaves everywhere (in the third).

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The arenas themselves get bigger, and the last part of the final showdown sees much of the ground fall away and leave you with less room to maneuver and more of a challenge to aim your tosses (otherwise, a lazy player can lure Bowser close enough to one of the explosives that aiming isn’t an issue).

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In that third match, he’ll require three hits before he finally wises up and takes the L… for a couple more years, at least.

From a mechanical standpoint, these fights are firing on all cylinders. While it’s true that there’s virtually nothing in Bowser’s moveset that we haven’t seen before, the deployment of it and reaction to it in 3D just explores the space like a hyped-up Gene Frenkle. Mario is truly fighting in all 360 degrees here: you have to outwit Bowser’s own increasingly sharp turns, and then launch him with a precision borne out of mastering that new controller. The tilting arena makes you run faster to keep from sliding away, and dodging the impact waves requires exact timing with those jumps.

Since the fights get tougher & more complex, each battle trains you for the next. (And you actually get a bit of training for the first one from a somewhat similar fight with King Bob-Omb in the first painting you enter). Game journalist Tim Rogers once said that most Mario boss battles could use an “OK, I get it” button, because they’re just about waiting out certain patterns over & over for your opportunity, but that’s not the case here: if you’re good enough, all these fights can be over about as quickly as you want.

The only place it suffers a bit is in the presentation.  Most of the arenas are kind of ugly, and the music is just bleh. There was a fun novelty in seeing Bowser in the third dimension, and even now his blocky polygons have a cheesy charm, albeit one that hasn’t aged even as well as the rest of the game. Once again, he isn’t “scary” here, even by the standards of the medium, and he won’t be again for a while.

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Then you might want to find a different hobby, buddy

Regardless, it’s an outstanding & revolutionary achievement in an outstanding & revolutionary game.

Grade: A-

2) Super Mario Bros Sunshine

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Mario Fights: Bowser, who’s bigger than ever (this is the “look” he’ll maintain through the rest of the series), as well as his bratty spawn

The Setup: Bowser has… not kidnapped Princess Peach. This time, it was his heretofore unseen child, Bowser Jr, who first disrupted by Mario & Peach’s tropical vacation by impersonating him while going on a vandalism spree, and then later kidnapping Peach himself under the mistaken impression that Peach is his mother.

Since Bowser doesn’t show up until the very end of the game, it can be inferred that he did not sanction this mission but he sure seems to condone it. You can tell when you come across the three of them in a giant floating bathtub above a volcano, as one does.

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“‘Stop a-being a plumber,’ they a-said. ‘You won’t have to see weird-a shit in people’s bathrooms,’ they a-said”

The Fight: Bowser remains comfy in his tub the whole time (relatable) and relies almost entirely on his trusty fire breath to take out Mario. Bowser Jr is also there to fire off large homing Bullet Bills at irregular intervals.

There’s exactly one way to beat the pair, and it’s by taking out the tub they’re both sitting in. Mario accomplishes this by going to one of the corners of the five load-bearing ends of the tub, using the rocket functionality of his water pack (the game’s major innovation) to gain enough altitude, and then slamming forcefully back down on a conveniently labeled target.

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OK, I get it

Doing so will slowly crumble that portion away as well as splash around a bunch of hot water, so that’s one more hazard to avoid (Bowser will sometimes deliberately rock the tub on his own in an attempt to splash you). As you navigate around the circular tub, Bowser will occasionally breathe some sustained fire your way, which you have to avoid with another smartly timed rocket boost. Slam every designated space, and you win.

There’s really not much to this fight. You have to watch your footing a good bit, but the skill required is moderate and the ingenuity is almost nil. It uses verticality in a grander way that SM64 did, but nothing groundbreaking. It’s even somewhat disappointing that the FLUDD Pack’s Rocket function is the one required, because it’s the least fun and dynamic of them all.

Environmentally, there’s some tie-in because of the game’s big focus on water. But a bathtub specifically doesn’t really scream “tropical vacation,” does it?

This game is underrated, but as far as this fight goes, it’s rated about right.

Grade: C

3) Super Mario Galaxy

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach. Also, there’s some stuff about space or whatever. I never had a Wii and didn’t play this one.

The presence of Bowser Jr (noticeably larger but not older, and certainly no less annoying) firing some cannons at your approach gives the impression that he’ll join in the battle, but he doesn’t. He just makes for a suitably bombastic approach as Mario draws near for the face-off.

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The Fight: After some bluster, the rivals blast off to a nearby planetoid for battle. He returns to an old standby of stomping to create shockwaves, then promptly tucks up into a ball and begins rolling his fat spiky ass over the big rock.

The way to beat him is via Mario’s primary attack for this new game, the spin. Time it just right and your spin will knock Bowser off his course. Let the attack cycle go on long enough and he’ll stomp again, with an occasional wide dispersals of fireballs.

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After a few hits, the pair will get blasted off to a separate planetoid, and then yet another one a few more hits after that (there’s almost certainly a very boring grad school paper somewhere about the deeper theological meanings of video game designers’ obsession with things happening in three instances. “Echoes of the Trinity in Post-Colonial Japanese Design” or some such). Each new location is roughly the same size but with different hazards & appearance.

Not much else to it. It’s simple and largely repetitive, yet quick & lively. The setting is perfectly in tune with the rest of the game, and it makes use of the game’s new gravity-based mechanic that let you run around the surfaces of these tiny planets. Also, the music is surprisingly epic.

Speaking of which, you cap off the fight by chucking Bowser into [checks notes] the sun.

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He shows up fine literally five minutes later.

Grade: B-

4) New Super Mario Bros Wii

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach.

Except this time it’s in 2D again. NSMB Wii was a continuation of a handheld predecessor’s then-novel idea to take the franchise back to its roots, with a shiny coat of paint and a lot of new innovations.

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Such innovations include a LOT of fireballs in the lead-up, rather than one at a time.

The Fight: The fight looks even more retro than you’d expect, since you’re facing off with a scaled-down Bowser atop a drawbridge at the end of a castle. And rather than being in the next room, Peach is bundled up in a cage at the top of the screen.

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A switch block instead of an axe? Get your shit together, 2009.

Bowser lumbers back & forth and lobs fireballs. He’ll take an occasional jump, which is your cue to rush under him and release the drawbridge so he can plummet into the lava below.

If you find this suspiciously easy, well, you’re right, because after Bowser takes his trademark plunge, “Peach” is revealed to be Kamek in disguise. He casts his trademark spell to revive & enlarge Bowser. (As an aside, the Venn Diagram of “players who were genuinely surprised that this stage of the fight was just a prelude” and “players who are old enough to recognize the prelude is a throwback to SMB1” doesn’t exist.)

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With Bowser embiggened to his Yoshi’s Island scale, the player can’t do much to hurt him, and instead is forced to run from his steady approach. His fireballs’ ability to destroy the scenery ends up as both a danger and a necessary blessing, because they’ll break down the walls you need to get through to escape from him. The big hops he makes to keep up with Mario will also make big splashes in the lava, making another thing to avoid.

The villain becomes less of an adversary and more of a hazard– Mario spends the rest of the “fight” running away from him & dodging his attacks on a new series of platforms. The remainder of the stage is almost too generous with power-ups (two fire flowers & a propeller suit, in addition to a 1-Up), but still tricky.

At the end you’ll find the real Peach, suspended over an all-too-big switch block that will drain the lava swamp and put Bowser down.

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“I should really stop installing those.”

It’s disappointing that there’s less of a give-and-take here with Bowser than ever; you just hit a switch at the end of a level. Of course, at the end of the day all video game challenges are about hitting the right combination of buttons, so fundamentally this isn’t different than throwing eggs at him or dodging him until he breaks his own floor. It’s all about layers of abstraction.

But Mario being chased throughout half a level’s worth of screens increases the scope of the battle in a way that the series hadn’t really tried yet. It brings the game’s platforming core forward in an even more major way, and also makes Bowser a legitimate threat again. Overall it’s a good way to revisit the original Bowser showdown, while increasing the scale and flipping the script.

Grade: B

5) Super Mario Galaxy 2

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach. In space, again.

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The not-so-final frontier.

The Fight: Due to some space-related powers he acquired earlier, Bowser is large and in charge right from the beginning– no Magikoopa assist necessary. This changes the dynamic of the last Mario Galaxy showdown significantly: hero & villain square off on a planetoid once again, but no longer are they on it together. This time, Mario is on the big sphere alone and Bowser, too large to set foot on it, floats out in “space” and tries to smite him from above like an angry god.

It’s cool as hell.

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Fire & Fury

The big guy punches and blasts the very ground Mario walks on, creating even more shockwaves to be avoided. Additionally, large meteors will rain down with only a few seconds’ worth of warning. As you’ve probably guessed from the pattern of these games, these projectiles can be turned in your favor: Bowser’s strikes will briefly dislodge any recent meteorites, allowing Mario a brief window in which to jump on them at the right angle and butt-stomp quickly, rocketing them his way.

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A few rounds of this leads to Bowser’s seeming defeat, but he rallies and takes the fight out into open space. Chasing Mario through the vacuum, Bowser is once again vulnerable to weaponized asteroid chunks that the hero passes by. Expert timing is required to aim them just right, even as hazards seem to have decreased (Bowser will occasionally take a swing if he gets close enough).

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If anything, this makes the battle seem more abstract and elemental. Little more than the two eternal foes and gravity (or the lack thereof).

It doesn’t take many more hits before Bowser is done for reals, and goes whimpering off to his own sad corner of the galaxy.

This fight does a lot of interesting things. It unmistakably recalls the showdown from the last SMG game, but alters & escalates the nature of the fight so much that it feels truly special, rather than just a harder retread. The first part of the confrontation is exciting on both a presentation and gameplay level, making for a lot of frenzied-but-fair movement to survive.

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I’ve never bought in to the whole “sympathetic villain” trope but that last line hit me hard.

The second phase of the fight pulls back on the difficulty while still not seeming underwhelming; if anything, it seems like a smooth and perfect dessert to the wild button-mashing of the main course. Neither half of the battle overstays its welcome, either.

Grade: A-

6) New Super Mario Bros U

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Mario Fights: Bowser, and Bowser Jr once again

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach

The Fight: This will, at least at first, look very familiar if you played the last New Super Mario Bros console game. Mario traverses Bowser’s final castle (this time avoiding the recurring hazard of Bowser Jr in his dad’s clown car most of the way), and meets up with him upon a stylized reproduction of the classic drawbridge. At least there’s an actual axe this time.

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Multiple layers of deja vu going on here.

You have your “fight” against Bowser, which, again, is really just as simple as running under his very first jump and releasing the bridge. Then in a completely unforeseeable plot twist, Kamek (flown in this time by Bowser Jr) shows up and does his magical mojo to Godzilla-ize his boss again.

But there’s no running away like the last 2D encounter– Bowser’s blocking your path, with Peach trapped just a little ways off in the background. Going to be a straight-fight this time. Little BJ’s in the mix as well, flying around and tossing Bob-ombs.

Fortunately, the annoying one provides your primary weapon against his dad (Mario’s own projectile attacks will only briefly pause him). Wait for the brat to get close enough, and you can jump on him and steal his clown car for your own.

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Fly above Bowser’s head and thrusting downwards will give him a big hurt. You’ll have to be careful though, because Bowser’s enormous mass is a real hazard– he’s slow-moving but huge enough it doesn’t matter, and if you don’t time it right his leaps can be a real problem. In-between attacks he’ll retreat into his shell and spin back & forth around the arena (much bigger than a single screen), which is a new one.

And of course the fire-breathing is back. This time he can send out long drags of flame, discrete projectiles (which can be mitigated with the Ice Flower power-up), or most annoying of all, a scatter shot he sends straight into the air that then drift lazily down to the floor, impeding Mario’s movement.

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Towards the end he even gets wise to Mario’s plan, and will sometimes launch a protective spread of fireballs as you approach him in the clown car. While you’re avoiding those you need to keep an eye on Bowser Jr, who can reclaim his vehicle with a well-placed jump.

A handful of clown car haymakers puts Bowser out of commission again, though, and sends BJ scurrying.

Much like the Galaxy series, the latest NSMB explicitly plays with and escalates what its predecessor did, though it alters the dynamic in a major way. They actually found an ingenious idea to bring back Bowser’s scale and menace from NSMB Wii but also make the encounter a genuine fight, a platforming boss encounter with a real sense of give & take. And arguably the most narratively defensible excuse for Mario’s endless supply of ammunition.

Grade: A-

7) Super Mario 3D World

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has NOT kidnapped Princess Peach; she actually remains free and fully playable throughout this adventure. Instead he kidnapped a bunch of small, fairy-like creatures called the Sprixie Princesses.

This was another interesting game I never played. It’s a follow-up to the 3DS game Super Mario 3D Land (which I did play). Both steer the franchise further away from the Super Mario 64/Sunshine era’s open level design, and back towards much smaller levels in a 3D space, often with a fixed perspective. Both also feature expansive Bowser fights where the boss utilizes the game’s signature power-up.

The Fight: This is another game where you fight Bowser multiple times throughout the course of it. The first two are similar, with the second adding a bunch of hazards. They consist entirely of you chasing Bowser behind his big flashy muscle car in auto-scrolling stages.

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It’s a look.

The villain tosses out bombs shaped like soccer balls (for some reason), which the player has to hit back until the fight ends. In-between rounds of that he’ll breathe fire at you. Fun idea, lackluster execution.

The third is radically different. Bowser opens the encounter by partaking of the game’s new power-up, the Cat Suit. Nintendo could only make us hate Bowser again by turning him into a furry.

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This is also a look.

He follows this up by, in true cat fashion, running away. The remainder of the fight takes place in a vertically auto-scrolling fashion, with Mario and his crew scaling up Bowser’s tower and avoiding his unexpected attacks along the way. He’ll pop in & out of doors and so forth. A lot of it seems to require memorization rather than quick reflexes.

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Eventually you’ll get to a plateau, where Bowser will obligingly step atop a POW block for you to get under and bash, hurting him. The battle then escalates with even more complicated platforming and faster scrolling, along with a lot rides in transparent tubing. Bowser even uses another of the game’s new power-ups to create clones of himself.

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If you ever went to an older bank’s drive-through with the pneumatic tubes and thought “I wish this were a video game” then boy are you in luck

Eventually you’ll get to the top of the tower where Bowser is, once again, standing atop a POW block. Bash it a few times and he’d done for.

Honestly a pretty disappointing effort. This strongly recalls the non-fighting “fight” that concluded New Super Mario Bros Wii, but without any of the novelty, logic, or sense of danger. There’s some nice visuals and a lot of promise in the idea of verticality playing into a boss fight, but it’s not implemented in a genuinely cool way. Bit of a dud.

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Some pretty fireworks, though.

Grade: C

8) Super Mario Odyssey

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach AND a sentient tiara, necessitating said tiara’s brother, Cappy, to team up with Mario on a world-spanning rescue mission which triumphantly returns to the open world sandbox of generations past.

The introduction of Cappy (a multi-purpose, shape-shifting projectile which allows Mario to control the bodies of most enemies and several other characters) is arguably the biggest mechanical change in the franchise since it first moved to 3D, yet it never feels like something unnatural to the series. Odyssey is an innovative delight.

The Fight: Not content to merely kidnap Peach and just wait around at home with her this time, Bowser actually has a full-scale wedding in mind, and Mario interrupts it in dramatic fashion.

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“Yes, I have-a the objection!”

True to form this isn’t actually your first bout with Bowser in the game, and it initially plays out much the same as the initial one. The villain uses his own magical hat for direct offense, largely by having it sprout boxing glove-equipped arms and throwing it at as a smart projectile. In classic Bowser style, though, this backfires: a well-timed Cappy throw from Mario will daze Bowser’s hat and leave it free for the taking, allowing you to turn the tables on its owner.

It’s weirdly satisfying: after finding countless different roundabout or oddball ways to hurt Bowser, you’re finally just straight-up punching him in the face.

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“I should’ve a-done this 32 years ago!”

(In a fun new touch, the red mane at the top of Bowser’s head falls lazily to one side whenever he loses his headgear, making him look like just another guy with messy hat hair.)

He immediately recognizes the danger when you seize his weapon though, and will start frantically hopping around, dispensing flame rings and throwing projectiles to try to get you to keep your distance. Even when you do reach Bowser, he puts up a very boxer-ish defensive stance that you have to loosen up with rapid fire blows, often more than one volley. In-between barrages he’ll start generating more rings of flame, until you can finally get his guard down enough to send him flying.

The king will always regain his hat afterward, and makes things harder by generating multiple copies of his hat for subsequent throws; obviously, only the correct one can be used by Mario (although the copies do provide extra hearts when dispatched, which is nice).

You know the drill: about three rounds of this will knock Bowser out and free Peach. But of course that’s not the end of it: Bowser’s defeat causes the underground moon cavern (!) they were fighting in to start collapsing, with no apparent way out for hero & damsel. Except for using the delightfully obvious solution of using Cappy to possess the unconscious Bowser and use his bulk to bash your way out.

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“It’s… a-me?”

It’s almost hilariously empowering, while still utterly natural: of course you would end up using the game’s new signature mechanic to, after three decades of being overmatched against it, take Bowser’s hideous strength as your own.

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In King Koopa’s skin you can easily break down walls with claw swipes or charging tackles, as well as shoot fireballs of your own. You spend a short while tearing down barriers with Peach in tow, before changing things up. For one, you end up having to pass through one of the “retro pipes” which have popped up periodically throughout the game to temporarily return Mario to a facsimile of his 8-bit persona.

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Of course their sprites look like this when you enter. Of course. My goodness, this game rules.

At many points during this escape, parts of the ground will start disappearing, thus urging on your forward momentum. Once you emerge higher, you’ll have to knock down a few load-bearing pillars so you can free up a transportation node to get you to the surface. As you’re doing this, an honest-to-goodness song starts playing on the soundtrack, one which will continue through to the following cut scene that ends the game. It’s called “Break Free (Lead The Way)” and is sung by Kate Higgins, who voiced Mario’s friendly ex Pauline and also sung the game’s other song, the signature jazz riff “Jump Up, Super Star.” Like much about Odyssey, it shouldn’t work but does, with flying colors. It’s joyous and liberating and fresh, perfectly fitting the mood of the sequence.

The portion of the actual battle against Bowser is perfectly solid– tough but fair challenge, uses the game’s signature moveset in an interesting way, etc– but possessing him with Cappy and everything that follows takes the climax to a whole other level. If there’s one regret it’s that you don’t really get to use the Koopa King’s strength to thrash some real enemies, but even without that there’s plenty of destruction to go around. In this and all other ways, Odyssey absolutely soars.

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Grade: A

Final Thoughts: Despite his bulk, Bowser seems weirdly insecure about his native power set (among which there is a lot of recurrence), perpetually relying on some external assistance– be it a smart hat, some sort of nebulous magical power, or just growing really big.

Making a boss for a platforming game can be challenging, since platformers are less about combat per se than they are about exploration, puzzles, timing, and the totality of the experience. Even the common enemies in them are more hazards to be dealt with than they are foes to be “fought” with, as they would be in, say, a brawler or a first-person shooter. Therefore a platforming game’s final boss is often less a culmination of the game’s challenge than a coda or capper to the overall experience… and certainly most of the Bowser showdowns fit that description. But many of them try, and even succeed, at transcending that boundary, and use the medium’s toolset to create a real sense of battle. My hat’s off to this remarkable series.

Coming Attractions: Hail to the King, baby.

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Skree-onk

 

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Super Mario Boss Fights (series retrospective, 1985-1995)

Here we goooooooo!

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Rock those primary colors, son.

Super Mario Bros (series retrospective, 1985-1995)

Finally– the series so modestly amusing it took almost five years! We’re back with an overview of the boss-fighting career of Japan’s role model to Italian-Americans everywhere. That being the eponymous…

  • Mario, full name Mario Mario. An erstwhile plumber turned fantasy kingdom rescuer, in addition to being a multi-sport enthusiast, tournament fighter, go-kart racer, dubiously qualified doctor, and easily the world’s greatest overalls model. Diminutive yet powerful & agile, from a gameplay perspective Mario is, as we will soon see, most defined by his mobility; he was, after all, originally named Jumpman. Voiced, eventually, by Charles Martinet, but truly the creation of gaming legend Shigeru Miyamoto.

Let’s note a few things up front:

  • This two-part retrospective will cover Mario’s main line, platforming, console games only. That means none of the handheld games, quality though they often are, as well as nothing like Smash Bros or games he’s had cameos in. There’s only so many hours in the day, guys.
  • We won’t be including Donkey Kong. It’s before Mario became, well, super— the degree of control offered to players in the first SMB blows away not only Donkey Kong but pretty much every platforming game at the time, too. Also, the climactic encounter with the titular ape stretches the definition of “fight” well beyond it’s breaking point.
  • I’m well aware that several of these games allow you to play as characters other than Mario, who sometimes have differing controls. I’m not grading their versions of those fights as well; please see the justification in the first bullet.
  • I’m not going to include the Bob Hoskins movie, smartass.

1) Super Mario Bros

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Mario Fights: Bowser, King of the Koopas. A vaguely dragon-esque monster with fire-breathing powers.

The Setup: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach.

The Fight: Fights, plural, depending on how you look at it. The original SMB has eight worlds, which each have four levels, and the fourth is always a dark & imposing castle with the same boss at the end. But the first seven are impostors, the real Bowser having loaned his power to a low-level minion.

Regardless, they all play out in the same basic structure, which actually begins before the boss is even in sight. As Mario approaches the end of each castle, large fireballs will start coming his way, traveling in a straight line from wherever he’d been positioned at the time the projectile entered the screen. This element is one of the reasons Super Mario Bros is still so lauded and broke such ground at a time when games’ capacity to tell stories was so much more limited: the fireballs are not just a practical hazard for the player to avoid, but a menacing sign that the hero is approaching his dangerous goal. (And in the later castles which feature some navigational tricks, they’re a sign you’re on the right track.) Soon enough you’ll reach the fighting arena, and find Bowser on the other end of a long drawbridge. He continues to breathe fire at you while pacing & jumping in a slow but unpredictable pattern.

Mario himself has limited offensive power, leaving the player to basically two ways to defeat every Bowser. If you’re skilled/lucky enough to have made it all the way through the fortress fully powered up, you can launch a few fireballs of your own until Big Ugly goes down. If not, you have to get on the other side of him (either by running under or going over him) and hit the axe he’s guarding, which cuts the drawbridge and sends the boss falling to his fiery doom. Game journalist Chris Kohler has pointed out that while Bowser’s facial expression never changes, the same wide leer on his face that was intimidating at the beginning of the fight turns comically pathetic when you see him briefly suspended in mid-air like Wile E Coyote before he falls– again, early game designers had to convey a lot using very little. In another nice touch, you won’t get to see the illusion revealed (the specific underling who’s filling in for the king) unless you use your own fireballs to kill him.

It’s not so simple, of course. The first couple tries are basically gimmes, with even a floating platform above Bowser to help you get past him. But as you progress through the game, the fight gets increasingly hazardous: the platform disappears, bricks are above your head to limit jumping, there’s a rotating fire pole on the far end, etc. By the sixth iteration, the Bowsers are throwing whole cascades of hammers at Mario in an arc.

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Getting past the guy requires mastery of Mario’s momentum and a keen sense of timing. Or having kept at least one power-up, running right into him, and then using the invincibility frames to walk past him, if you are a coward.

Yep, you fight the same thing eight times in a row, assuming you don’t warp. (Warping is not for cowards. Again: time is precious, people.) But each fight makes excellent, and iterative, use of limited assets. The presentation is excellent, building a fittingly intimidating atmosphere. And getting through it means mastering Mario’s limited move set.

Grade: B+

2) Super Mario Bros 2 (Japanese original, aka The Lost Levels)

I’m not going to cover this garbage game.

3) Super Mario Bros 2 (USA version)

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I can’t believe it’s 2019 and Mario Madness still hasn’t been added to the DSM

The aforementioned garbage game barely had any involvement from Miyamoto and its design principle was basically “what if the original game, except not fun?” By the time Nintendo games were being slowly brought over to the U.S., the company decided to ditch that noise and apply the Mario characters (along with a few other significant tweaks) to a non-Mario game called Dream Factory: Heart-Beating Panic, itself created as a promotional tie-in to a legendary media technology expo & festival that’s quite fascinating in its own right. The resulting game had a whole different aesthetic and mechanic than the real sequel as well as the subsequent ones, but it’s also certainly more successful than bringing over that one would have been, and– most importantly– much more fun. U-S-A! U-S-A!

(It should be noted that at the time, this sort of thing wasn’t unheard of for sequels to big games. Look at the radical departures in play style between the first & second Legend of Zelda or Castlevania games. Formulas weren’t set in stone yet.)

Mario Fights: Wart, a rotund bipedal frog who shares my distaste for vegetables. Originally known as Mamu, as in “your Mamu so fat, she look like the bad guy in a Mario game.”

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“He’s right behind me, isn’t he?”

The Setup: Wart has conquered the kingdom of Subcon, a dreamlike land with a vaguely Arabian theme. Mario & company embark on a campaign to systematically (or, again, not so systematically if you warp) take down all his henchmen throughout seven worlds before finally facing off against the big toad himself. Also it’s all a dream anyway.

The Fight: Wart is situated in an odd but visually striking chamber, with phantom masks lining the walls and the world’s healthiest pipe organ in the center. He waddles back & forth on a raised platform on the far right, occasionally spitting out a stream of toxic bubbles at the hero.

Fortunately, he provides the player with ample weaponry, in the form of vegetables being spouted regularly from the aforementioned pipes. Cram a handful of those disgusting things down his throat, and he’s toast.

It’s not quite so simple, though: the vegetables will be dissolved if they come into contact with the bubbles, and the bubble-spewings & vegetable-launchings will frequently line up in such a way so that happens before you can even grab one. Or they don’t get dissolved, but Mario can’t reach them because the bubbles will block his path. And of course the only time Wart’s mouth is open is when he attacks, so your timing has to be pretty good.

When he finally bites the big one, Wart turns grey and tumbles off the screen, leaving Mario and pals to free the Subcon. Afterwards, as the heroes exult in their victory, the liberated masses crowd-surf an already battered Wart for some offscreen revolutionary violence.

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Sic semper tyrannis.

Environmentally, this doesn’t quite work. It makes sense for Bowser to have a drawbridge in all of his castles, even if it doesn’t for him to stand on it so precariously and hope  no visitors have seen the climax of Temple of Doom. But Wart situating himself in a chamber that’s regularly churning out the thing he’s weakest to? Kinda silly. But his chamber is impressively weird, and the short musical loop is just nerve-jangling enough to not get annoying (and is even better in the Japanese original, thanks to the Famicom Disk System’s superior audio channels).

It comes down to a test not just of the player’s platforming reflexes, but also in having mastered the game’s new throwing mechanic. It also throws in the extra curveball of the veggies having to be plucked from mid-air, rather than removed from the ground.

A fun and compact little challenge, but a bit underwhelming as a final boss, especially in comparison to Bowser’s overall presentation.

Grade: B

4) Super Mario Bros 3

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Mario Fights: Back to Bowser, who returns for pretty much the long haul at this point.

The Setup: Bowser dispatched his minions to ravage seven other sub-kingdoms and magically disfigure their rulers. Then he kidnapped Princess Peach.

The Fight: In a nod to the original, the approach to the showdown features a return to those menacing fireballs, although this time Bowser’s in a separate room you have to access by a door so where the heck are they coming from? I’m beginning to think these games aren’t very realistic.

This time, the big guy’s got more than fireballs up his sleeve. Bowser’s primary offensive capability is now his mobility. After tossing off a few projectiles, he’ll quickly jump to wherever Mario is standing and then even more quickly slam down to the ground. You have to think fast, because if you’re too far to one side the only way to get out of Bowser’s path will be to jump toward him just as he’s jumping at you. Plus, the boss will all too frequently shoot another fireball just as he leaps, making it so you’re avoiding a projectile at the same time.

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But Bowser’s newfound speed & strength are also his downfall (literally). There are study support columns on either side of the chamber, but the majority of the arena is made of bricks that Bowser will break when he lands. In addition to progressively complicating the battle by altering your footing at every turn, the player will quickly realize that the goal is to get Bowser to break enough unsupported blocks in the middle until he plows right through the bottom and plummets to his demise with a satisfying thud.

Alternately, if you’re good enough to make it to the arena with a Fire Flower suit or the much rarer Hammer Brother suit (both difficult, since the platforming in the castle cries out for the racoon tail’s steadying hand) you can take out the big guy much more quickly with projectiles of your own.

It’s nice to see a return to form here, with gravity being your default weapon against Bowser. The sprite design & animation on him is top-notch this time out, and the music is a blast. This will be the last time in a while this silly cartoon dragon-thing will actually seem genuinely evil & dangerous– an even more impressive feat considering he’s trying to hit you with his butt.

But certain things are lacking as well. Aside from the way Bowser’s stomps keep changing the terrain, the actual arena is pretty non-descript, and the mechanics of the fight don’t really utilize the innovations of SMB3 in any notable way. This is serviceable and fun, but nothing ground-breaking.

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Also, the princess has brought some “jokes” this time

Grade: C+

5) Super Mario World

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Mario Fights: Bowser

The Setup: Bowser went to a new kingdom called Dinosaur Land and imprisoned a lot of the residents in eggs. Then he kidnapped Princess Peach.

The Fight: After getting through all of the big guy’s multiple-choice castle, Mario will have to thread his way through a dimly lit staging area before he finds himself facing off with Bowser up on the roof. The preliminary fireballs are sadly no more, but that’s not all that’s changed.

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Yep, the King of Koopas has decided to go all-in on a weaponized, inverted helicopter that is also a clown. Clowns don’t fit Bowser’s own personal aesthetic or really anything else in the game, but these are the things you just quietly roll with when you’re playing this as a kid. The vehicle is officially known as the Koopa Clown Car, and it seems at first that they missed an opportunity to do that thing where they deliberately misspell the next two words to make them start with K for wacky matching purposes (e.g., “X-treme X-Men”) until you remember how acronyms work.

But what they ditched in coherence (and musical quality) they made up for in complexity, because this boss fight comes in multiple stages. In the first, Bowser swoops down low enough to hurt you only if you’re jumping, and will periodically drop two Mechakoopas down at Mario as an additional hazard. Mario can first neutralize these by jumping on their heads and then, in a move the bad guy really should have foreseen, throw them right back at Bowser for damage. It’s not exactly easy: if the projectile hits the underside of the clown car it’ll bounce right back, so you have to time & angle your throw just right so that it falls on his head as it comes back down. (Or line it up just right so it hits his face without touching the vehicle, if you’re a real sharpshooter.)

After a couple hits, Bowser will rear back and come flying forward right “into” the screen before disappearing, with Nintendo showing off their new system’s fancy Mode 7 tech. He’ll drop a series of flames while he’s gone, and then return for another round. In the second face he stays up high and will regularly stop to turn the KCC upside down and drop an enormous steel ball that’s somehow bigger than the vehicle that had been carrying it. Those are easy enough to dodge, but doing so while also angling your Mechakoopa throws can be a pain.

smw

(In between phases, the captive Princess Peach will briefly break free from somewhere deep in the TARDIS-like clown car and toss a super mushroom to Mario regardless of whether he needs it. So it’s nice she gets to contribute a little bit, even if she was apparently stashed somewhere by Bowser’s stinky feet and an unlimited supply of Indiana Jones’ second-worst nightmare.)

In the third stage, the KCC’s serene paint job will turn angry, and start bouncing up & down at severe but predictable angles, which has gotta be a real pisser on the suspension. Bowser’s not mad enough to stop throwing Mechakoopas though, so if you can keep up with the pace, in just a couple more hits he’ll go down for the count, leaving Mario and his lady friend to go take a stroll through Yoshi’s world in peace.

For the fourth time now, a Mario game has concluded with a boss fight in a single-screen room, and that gets harder to accept as the games themselves get more expansive and mobile. And unusually, any power-ups Mario has retained don’t really play a part in this: the only way to hurt Bowser is via the ammo he provides. The fight’s emphasis on verticality and its use of Mario’s new ability to throw projectiles upward are its only major innovations.

Also, those Mechakoopas look so thin that one dropping on your head would be a mild annoyance, at best.

Grade: B-

6) Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

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This prequel is only barely a Mario game, since you actually play as Yoshi for virtually all of it (with baby Mario in tow) and in Japan it wasn’t even labeled as a Super Mario World sequel. But I choose to include it because that’s the level of dedication I have for all my fans, including the Patrons I can currently count on zero fingers. Also because the game low-key rules.

Mario Yoshi Fights: Bowser… in toddler form.

The Setup: Mario’s future rival isn’t actually much of a force for the majority of the game; the main threat is his servant/caretaker Kamek, a Magikoopa who orchestrated the successful kidnapping of Mario’s brother Luigi. So it’s actually a bit of a surprise when, after a tribe of Yoshis has finished round-robining their way through a series of Crayola-ass levels escorting baby Mario to his hapless brother, the final Yoshi enters Kamek’s lair and disturbs the nap of a spoiled little boy Bowser.

The young king dismisses Kamek rather forcefully for trying to rein him in, and initiates a fight because HE wants to be the one to ride Yoshi. This is not only weirdly hilarious, but it’s also another perfect fusion of gameplay & story: it fits Bowser’s character because it’s the actions of a spoiled brat, and it’s also mechanically threatening because baby Mario is exposed to harm when he’s separated from Yoshi’s back (in this game, the player-controlled Yoshi can’t be killed by enemies, but touching a hazard will displace Mario, who will be snatched by enemies if he’s not retrieved quickly enough, thus causing a “death” for the player).

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The Fight: And he gets right to it! Bowser sets off the fight by leaping through the air and slamming himself down on Yoshi’s back. He looks pleased as hell until you can throw him off by grabbing baby Mario back, and little Bowser will try again. This is actually his main attack for this stage of the fight, and it’s brilliant not just because of how it retroactively foreshadows his moveset for SMB3, but also positions him as an equal to Yoshi, who can use a similar buttstomp.

That’s actually the way to beat him here, too– Yoshi’s supply of projectile eggs just bounce off lil’ Bowser’s tough face, and jumping on him just makes him pause. But when either hero or villain stomps on this soft floor, it will send ripples in either direction, and timing them just right will cause damage to the villain’s soft tummy. Do this enough times and he goes down, but by then Kamek has recovered and gives his liege a crucial assist: the same enlarging spell he’s been casting over all the “normal” minions at the end of each sub-world to provide the player a boss about as big as a truck. A seemingly more potent spell than usual, too, because this time it grows the little brat to kaiju size and he trashes the castle everyone was standing in.

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“Let them fight.”

Big Boy Bowser starts off in the distance, not on the same vertical or horizontal plane this time, and slowly advances forward. His initial attack drops a few boulders which eliminate chunks of the ground, and later on he’ll do it again to leave you with increasingly less room to stand. Every few steps he’ll stop and breathe out some off fireballs (they’re back!), which, due to the combatants’ positioning, come at both Yoshi and the “camera.”

Yoshi hurts Bratzilla by launching some conveniently supplied jumbo eggs at his face, which is more difficult than you might think: you have to get the arc of your shots just right, and his walking can throw off your timing, as can having to dodge projectiles and boulders. Each shot will push him back a bit, but he always rallies and will always rush up very close to the heroes before the fight ends.

Hard to overstate how brilliantly this all comes together. Bowser starting off in the distance and slowly getting bigger, while still being an actual sprite with a hitbox and everything, was at the time a much more technically impressive feat than you might realize. Unlike a lot of early SNES games which used their new capabilities just as a bit of visual flash and nothing else (e.g., the way SMW’s Koopa Clown Car would depart the screen), this uses the graphical tricks in service of the gameplay and overall presentation: the boss’ sheer size is established immediately, and he only gets scarier as he approaches. Launching projectiles at him along the same axis brings a new element to the table.

The bigger enemy, bigger eggs, and faux-3D all make the encounter feel grander and more powerful, even though fundamentally the fight is still just a test of the same skills  you’ve been practicing throughout the game. Between the two stages of the battle, there’s no significant mechanic in the game which doesn’t get used. This is exactly how a boss fight should work: building on what you’ve done already while dramatically raising the stakes. And Yoshi’s Island ingeniously deploys its relatively limited tech to pull that off perfectly.

Strangely for a fight in which Mario himself is only a spectator, this is easily the most impressive Super Mario boss fight to date.

Grade: A

That’s a natural enough stopping place for part one. Cumulatively these games represent a big part of many gamers’ formative experiences, and it’s always interesting to look back at those with a critical eye. Thoughts on the franchise overall will come later.

By the way, now that you’re here, don’t be shy about going to my new Patreon. The site is a joy, but it’s a draining one, and any amount you can spare would be a big help.

Coming Attractions: Welcome to the third dimension.

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“Go ahead, pull-a my face”

I’m back, and I want your money

Hi there, true believers! Your eyes do not deceive you, your princess is not in another castle: there is in fact a new post on this dusty blog!

I’m not dead, at least I don’t think so, nor did I turn into some fight-hating pacifist. Time & responsibilities just caught up with me, and the blog’s backburner status slowly became semi-permanent. But it’s a new year… well, technically it’s the fifth new year since I went quiet, and therefore a slightly different landscape for content creators these days. To that end, I’ve created a Patreon for this site. To pre-emptively answer a few hypothetical questions:

  • Don’t worry: no matter what you choose to donate or not donate, you will still have access to all of this site’s new and old material
  • The Patreon is operating on a per post basis, not a monthly one, so Patrons will not be on the fiscal hook for any future gaps in content
  • Posts will continue at roughly the same pace as before when possible (or when it’s not a holiday, etc): no more than two per week, and sometimes only one, if it’s a Retrospective. And I won’t gouge subscribers by covering fights for a subject I would normally skip, nor will administrative updates (like this one) count as Patron posts.

Any amount, even as small as a dollar, that you can give would be welcome. Thanks for sticking around this long, and if all goes according to plan we’ll get back into the swing of things by this time next week. Keep fighting!

— Eric

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.

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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. Played by real life Australian bodybuilder and wrestler Nathan Jones. How much O’Brien is he?

MILES O’Brien!

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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. The announcer, 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.