Iron Man (fight 2 of 3)

In which we witness the power of this armed and fully operational superhero!

2) Iron Man vs The Ten Rings (round two)

The Fighters:

  • Tony Stark, the creatively goatee’d billionaire genius etc etc we already know. Still played marvelously by Robert Downey Jr, though he’s pretty much all special effects in this scene.
    • Armed with: the Iron Man “Mark III” armor. More agile & durable than the clunky grey prototype we saw in the previous fight, sporting all sorts of fancy weaponry and a wicked paint job. Besides its advanced physical strength, this armor’s most useful weapon is Stark’s proprietary “repulsor” technology, which double as jets that enable extended flight and palm-mounted weapons which fire non-projectile concussive blasts (in an earlier scene Tony finds he can modulate their range, blasting the windows out of his garage without even singing the walls a few feet farther).
  • The Ten Rings, again. The current ringleader is a goofy-looking beardo (surprisingly chubby for a guy who lives off the grid in a cave network). Played by more bit performers and stunt men.
    • Armed with: various small arms, though there is a tank nearby which picks a fight with the wrong superhero.

There are also a lot of Afghani civilians around, complicating things.

The Setup: Since getting back from the desert Tony Stark has largely withdrawn from public life, cancelled all his company’s weapons contracts, and quietly worked on improving the armor he made his awesome escape in. Unfortunately, ace reporter Ricky Bobby’s Ex-Wife confronts Tony at a party about how more of his weapons are being used by surviving members of the Ten Rings in Afghanistan. Even worse, they’re being deployed in an operation (not really specified, but it looks like a mix of ethnic cleansing of the adult males and kidnapping of the women & children) against Gulmira, the village Stark’s dead cave-buddy Yinsen is from.

Tony puts his Revenge Face on, and proceeds to suit up in a way that would make even Barney Stinson envious.

“It’s gonna be Legen… wait for it….”

A quick word about the general design of the finished Iron Man suit the film producers ultimately went with it: They nailed it. First of all, it does help that this is a character whose outfit lends itself well to looking cool on screen; compare the struggles of various Spider-Man and Superman movie franchises as they tried not to make their protagonist look like someone wearing unflattering cartoon pajamas. But also, the comic book armor has undergone a surprising number of transformations over the years, and whoever designed the basic look that appears in these movies did an excellent job of fusing what worked visually with the more iconic red & gold designs, while also making it distinctively their own. My favorite part is one I think is an original touch, namely, the way the face plate locks down on the rest of the shell sets the armor’s face into a permanently angry/determined grimace, as if the man inside is perpetually giving his best “aw, HAYULL NAW!”

“… DARY!”

And that works for scenes like this one, because Stark is definitely, legitimately pissed. As are we, the audience, because as much as we hate the Ten Rings already, we’re now treated to a few minutes of the terrorists doing their bad guy thing on a bunch of hapless villagers: blowing up houses, executing people, separating families, and terrorizing children. In a nice touch, the whine of Stark’s approaching engines are mixed in with a child’s fearful scream, so that we don’t even hear it immediately, but soon it drowns everything out and Iron Man does his signature one-knee landing. Ricky is home, and Lucy has some splainin’ to do.

The Fight: Tony wastes no time, uppercutting one chump and repulsor-blasting several more. The remaining ones display a bit of canny cowardice and use the nearby civilians as hostages, putting guns to their heads until Tony powers down his hand lasers. This presents a perfect opportunity for Iron Man to deploy several “smart darts” from his hidden shoulder compartments. They hone in on the bad guys exclusively, after we see that the suit’s onboard computer can identify individual targets once Tony picks them out. In fact, the various views of the suit’s HUD are quite a nice touch, if not exactly original (it’s reminiscent of the Terminator’s POV shots), and Favreau also frames many shots from inside the helmet looking at Tony’s face– a good way to keep showing the audience the handsome actor the studio paid a lot for while still keeping him fully covered in the iconic armor.

The chubby ringleader has run away and is frantically dialing for help when Iron Man seizes him by smashing through the stone wall he was hiding behind and ripping him through. This plays out even more awesomely than it sounds, and shows that Tony Stark has a penchant for the theatrical.

Even though he’s the sub-boss here, Beardo is no match for a treadmill, let alone a superhero, so instead of taking him out personally, Tony delivers a more fitting punishment: leaving him unarmed and at the mercy of the angry mob he’d been terrorizing just a few minutes ago. Iron Man jets off with a raspy “He’s all yours,” which most of the Afghanis probably didn’t understand since it was in English, but whatever.

Tony also tangles with a tank (terrorists have those? ruh roh), one shot from which is able to knock him out of the sky, leaving him bruised and his paint job scratched. He dodges the second blast and counters with a wrist-mounted rocket of his own, then does the Action Hero thing: he turns around & stomps off before the explosion happens, because Iron Man is a cool guy and cool guys don’t look at explosions.

This is pretty much it, actually. Iron Man blows some stuff up and flies off for good, though he should have stuck around because his old adversary, Raza, happened to be en route. Stark is then hassled by some US fighter jets in the area, but I’m not counting that as part of the fight because it’s not really a “fight.” They shoot at Tony but he never retaliates, spending all the time trying to escape from or avoid them. He even saves one of them at one point.

I love everything about this scene, except for the fact that it’s too short. You get a ridiculous adrenaline rush watching this amazing superhero brutally and creatively take down all these evil thugs, but it’s all over within minutes. The movie does a good job tapering off that adrenaline with the extended sequence of Iron Man dealing with the Air Force, but that doesn’t really count as part of the fight.

Still, what is here is darn near miraculous. Iron Man looks, moves and behaves exactly like Iron Man should. Even with this upgraded armor he’s not invincible– the tank shell took him down– but he is extremely durable, fast, crafty and lethal. The terrorists’ use of human shields presented a situation that mere brute force couldn’t solve, and the aforementioned tank provided an opportunity to show off some more of the armor’s weapons. This is quite the promising debut for the fully-powered and prepared Iron Man.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: We finish up the first movie (don’t worry, we won’t go straight to the second) and Iron Man must, at his weakest moment, face his most powerful foe.

This guy.

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Iron Man (fight 1 of 3)

COME AT ME BRO

Iron Man. The movie where everything came together just right, kicking off the Marvel Movie Dynasty that culminated in last year’s The Avengers raking in over a billion dollars at the box office. A billion, in case you forgot, is a thousand millions.

This movie doesn’t just click, it soars. Everything more or less works. But what about the fight scenes?

A superhero movie fight scene, mind you, can be a tough nut to crack. On the one hand, part of the appeal of superhero fiction is wish-fulfillment: it’s an empowerment fantasy about either natural super powers or advanced technology making a character into a One Man Army of Awesome (compare to action heroes like John McClane or Indiana Jones, who are strong but vulnerable, and have to triumph against seemingly overwhelming odds). On the other hand, the superhero can’t be too invincible, otherwise you have an “action” movie where an unstoppable god stomps on helpless mortals for two hours, and that’s boring; you need to invent some credible threats. It’s a difficult balance, and the problem is magnified with a character like Iron Man, whose fights necessitate spectacular staging and expensive special effects.

1) Iron Man vs The Ten Rings (round one)

The Fighters:

  • Tony Stark, a self-described “billionaire genius playboy philanthropist.” Played indelibly, indeed perhaps legendarily, by Robert Downey Jr.
    • Armed with: the Iron Man “Mark I” armor, cobbled together out of missile parts and various other scrap, powered by the miniature ARC reactor in his chest. Made of strong, durable steel and outfitted with wrist-mounted flamethrowers and at least one small rocket. Also it can fly, briefly. Essentially a walking mini-tank.
  • Members of the Ten Rings, a group of carefully diverse and non-Muslim (wouldn’t want to offend anyone) terrorists, who openly seek power rather than any specific ideology or religion. Played by various small-timers and stunt men, with Faran Tahir as the faction’s leader, Raza.
    • Armed with: various small arms, and some not so small.

The Setup: The Ten Rings kidnapped Tony, ambushing him while he was giving an on-site weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, and are holding him hostage until he builds them one of his advanced missiles. Instead Tony and his assistant Yinsen (a doctor and engineer who the group also kidnapped) secretly build what will later be the Iron Man armor prototype, a crude and bulky but effective weapon. Quite clever of him, and a nicely updated version of the character’s comic book origins, which were in Vietnam.

[Speaking of the comics, the name “Ten Rings” is a reference to the comic book Iron Man’s nemesis the Mandarin, a villain who wears ten powerful rings of alien origin. Presumably the upcoming Iron Man 3, starring the decidedly non-Asian Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, will resolve whether the group’s name was just a winking nod to the comics or a hint that Kingsley’s Mandarin was in charge behind the scenes the whole time.]

Raza– written well and ably played by Tahir, established as more canny & cruel than his underlings– has recently grokked the fact that Stark is probably stalling him, so this adds a ticking clock to the hero’s plan. In fact, the clock ticks too close to the wire, and Yinsen is forced to take drastic measures in order to buy enough time for the suit to power up. Director Jon Favreau does an excellent build-up, cross-cutting between Yinsen getting cornered by terrorists and the progress bar on the computer the armor’s attached to slowly building to full. And then….

The Fight: More excellent work here. Although we saw some of the suit before Yinsen even left, we haven’t seen the whole thing yet; as Tony dispatches the first three thugs who enter the room (there’s a sweet shot of his gloved fist tightening in anticipation first), Favreau only shows brief glimpses of Tony’s metal limbs brutally slamming into the terrorists’ bodies. A deft camera turn gives the full reveal just as the film’s hard rock theme starts up, and Iron Man charges into action.

Unfazed.

Plenty of fantastic business ensues as Stark clanks his way through the cave. Bullets bounce off him ineffectively, with one particularly dumb baddie trying a point-blank pistol shot which only gets him a very unfortunate ricochet. Stark clotheslines another terrorist coming around a corner, sending him spinning rather comically. He knocks down a thick metal door with several concussive pounds– something that Favreau shoots from the other side of (cliched, but effective). At one point, an errant swing gets Tony’s arm lodged into the cave wall, which he has a bit of trouble with; this establishes that the armor is not entirely perfect, and could use with some upgrades.

As he approaches the cave entrance Iron Man faces off against Raza, who came armed with a rocket launcher. His rocket misses, and Tony responds with a rocket of his own which also misses, but hits close enough to take Raza out of the action and obscure him in a cloud of smoke and debris. Stark then comes across Yinsen, looking much worse for wear after we last saw him being surrounded by gun-toting bad guys.

Yinsen’s death scene is good enough to have dramatic impact without being sad or drawn-out enough to drag down the gleeful mayhem of the overall sequence. It also serves a rather ingenious secondary purpose: distracting Tony and the audience from stopping to wonder if Raza is genuinely dead. Thanks to this bit of plotting, when Raza shows up later in the film with wicked burn scars, it’ll be a pleasant little surprise. Plus, Raza being felled inside the cave is what’s going to save him from the fireworks that will soon happen outside.

Favreau stages another great sequence as Tony exits the cave, removing all sound except for the slow clomp clomp clomp of his fat iron boots. Iron Man lets the waiting terrorists expend their magazines on his steel armor (thankfully none of them hit his exposed eyes or fingers) before fighting fire with, well:

(fwoosh)

One of the Ten Rings members is able to train a crew-served weapon (a .50 cal if I’m not mistaken) on Stark, and it is enough to knock him down– he’s not completely unstoppable, it turns out. Things are looking bad for Iron Man, but fortunately he’s unleashed enough flames that they start consuming the stockpiled munitions, triggering a series of explosions that engulfs the whole camp, and Stark jets away just in time. He doesn’t get all that far before the armor crashes, breaking apart on impact. A noticeably exhausted Tony breathes out a solid quip: “Not bad.”

Everything here works. The special effects are an excellent blend of practical and CGI, and with the possible exception of Tony jetting away at the end, you never get the sense that Iron Man isn’t really there. The music is the same cheerful hard rock stuff that permeates the whole movie (Favreau deserves restraint points for not using the famous “I Am Iron Man” song until just before the end credits roll) and the sound design is equally wonderful, selling Iron Man’s mechanical movements as well as making his blows against the villains feel palpably (but not graphically) brutal. That element of physicality is important, because the scene also establishes the terrorists here as unquestionably, though not cartoonishly, evil, and it’s immensely gratifying to watch them get taken out.

The pacing is just right, which is very important given that this is the movie’s opening gambit, at least as far as comic book action goes; Yinsen’s death provides a poignant little breather in addition to its aforementioned other purposes. Most importantly and remarkably, RDJ’s Tony Stark has completed a credible transformation from hedonistic rich kid to driven superhero. Not bad indeed.

Grade: B+

Coming Soon: With some well-applied spray paint and a LOT of hardware mods, Tony Stark is ready for a rematch, even if the bad guys aren’t.

“Pull my finger.”

The Princess Bride (fight 2 of 2)

2) Inigo Montoya vs Tyrone Rugen

(no seriously his name is Tyrone)

The Fighters:

  • Inigo Montoya, the plucky Spaniard we met earlier. Still played by Mandy Patinkin.
  • Count Tyrone Rugen, aka The Six-Fingered Man. He murdered Inigo’s father many years ago and currently is the right-hand (ahem) man of Prince Humperdinck, the hilariously-named overall villain of the movie. Played by Christopher Guest.
  • Four or five guards. They were just doing their job but oh well. Played by who cares.

The Setup: Inigo, along with Fezzik and the mostly-paralyzed Westley, are in the process of stormin’ the castle (which is fun), when Inigo finds the target of his lifelong quest for revenge: Count Rugen, the prince’s sadistic lieutenant, enforcer and head torturer.

Inigo is a great secondary hero– much comedy is had at his expense, yet he is still believably dangerous, even after notably losing the film’s early duel— and Rugen is an equally great villain. As the Dragon to Humperdinck’s main bad guy, Rugen is an interest contrast to his boss. Whereas the prince is a loud, preening fop, Rugen is all understated menace and intelligent sadism. He’s a coiled snake, clearly deadly without having to make a fuss. This is a remarkable performance from Guest, who has made his bones as a comic actor; at this point he had already starred in and co-wrote This Is Spinal Tap with Reiner, and would go on to establish his own brand (and extended cast of players) of improvisational mockumentaries such as Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show. Often, comedians can make startlingly effective movie villains & creeps: it seems counterintuitive, but under the right circumstances, their fearless energy and shameless desire for attention can be channeled in some really dark ways.

The Fight: On spying the trio, Rugen immediately sends his guards to dispatch them, and Inigo makes quick work of them. Though he’s effectively surrounded and fighting alone (Fezzik is busy holding a ragdoll Westley upright), he takes them all down in what looks like one single, smooth motion. Graceful, yet deadly. This isn’t the Inigo whose job forced him into what was essentially an exhibition fight against a guy he liked, this is the Inigo out for blood. He is not kidding around. In fact, immediately after slicing down all the guards, he basically says as much, in the form of:

Patinkin nails it. The line is fantastic in concept and execution. All set up with simplistic brilliance: earlier in the film, Inigo told Westley he would say this line when he found the Six-Fingered Man, who he would soon find out is in the castle. So we know he’s going to say it, the movie knows that we know, and we know we’re supposed to know. For how clearly & deliberately it’s all been spelled out, it almost shouldn’t work, but it does.

Rugen pauses, contemplates… and runs the crap away. A sensible, if cowardly option. And a funny defusing of the epic moment we’ve just witnessed, very much in keeping with the film’s winking tone.

Inigo pursues, but Rugen quickly gets behind a door, leaving Inigo to frantically and fruitlessly bash his shoulder against it. His desperation to catch his prey leads to several humorously high-pitched calls for Fezzik’s assistance, but Fezzik is slow in getting there as he has to find a place to safely leave Westley first. Ultimately, he props the Man In Black against a suit of armor. This bit of comic business also serves the dual purpose of separating both secondary heroes from Westley, so he can stumble off quietly to his true love; once Fezzik gets back he will find Westley gone, setting up his surprise entrance in Buttercup’s bedroom.

Inigo chases Rugen some more, but unfortunately the villain has taken the opportunity to remove a dagger from his boot, which he hurls into the Spaniard’s gut with deadly accuracy. Inigo slumps against the wall, apparently defeated and dying. All his preparation in the art of fencing has not kept him from being outsmarted by a simple, dishonorable trick. Rather than revel in his victory, Rugen merely observes quietly. His highly academic brand of sociopathy finds Inigo’s sudden failure after years of dedication to be genuinely intriguing. It’s unusual and quite creepy.

Fortunately, Inigo is not down for the count (ahem), though some cross-cutting to the various other elements of climax in the film leave you in suspense for a few minutes. Inigo surges back to life a bit at a time, despite suffering more minor wounds, and continues to declare his famous oath as he battles Rugen with increasing strength. The declaration gets louder with every repetition, until he’s finally shouting.

For the only real time in the whole film, Rugen is utterly unnerved. He can’t understand why he’s unable to stop this bleeding bull– the master tormenter has finally found someone he cannot break. Inigo wins this fight by sheer force of will, beating Rugen not through pure skill but because he simply wants it more. Notably, the music here positively soars, chiming in with old-fashioned flourish when Inigo finally beats back Rugen toward the end of the scene.

The humiliation of the cornered rat is brief but satisfying: receiving the same facial slashes Rugen himself dealt to Inigo twenty years ago, the villain is forced to grovel just before Inigo runs him through, reminding him one final time what he took from the Spaniard.

Again, this all just works. It stands in contrast to the other major sword fight in the film, being less about flashy showmanship and more about single-minded fury. Having Inigo effortlessly take out a handful of chumps beforehand gets the viewer’s mouth watering, and it also reminds us that even though Inigo Montoya is the funny-talking guy who has lost the only fight we’ve seen him in, he’s still one of the world’s deadliest swordsmen.

But in keeping with the winking meta-nature of the whole movie, our expectation for a grand clash between hero & villain is subverted: Inigo’s initial wound keeps the choreography from getting as complex as what we saw earlier, and he presses on to the end mostly through ornery determination. Elsewhere in the climax, the main hero Westley is still barely alive, so he has to bluff the able-bodied Humperdinck into surrendering while he himself can barely stand; just as Inigo wins through his vengeance-driven willpower, Westley wins through his superior brain.

It is not as purely entertaining as the earlier fight, though holding it entirely up to that standard would be using a mean curve indeed. I go back & forth on whether or not cutting away from this action at a crucial juncture is necessary or aggravating or both, and the extended bit where Inigo keeps trying to bash the door down can be tedious. But again, very slight knocks.

Grade: A

Coming Soon: Perhaps not as soon as I’d like. Going on vacation a bit this weekend and straight back into work for a while after that, not sure if I’ll be able to get in the required studying & writing time before then. When I do, we’ll give swordplay in general (and Bob Anderson in particular) a break, switching things up a bit.

Pictured: switching things up a bit

The Princess Bride (fight 1 of 2)

BUON GIORNO, PRINCIPESSA!

"So this is a movie about horses, or...?"

(spoilers)

What needs to be said? It’s The Princess Bride. You either love it, or you don’t love it, or you somehow haven’t seen it. In those last two options, you’re deeply weird (… said the grown man who spends several hours a week ranting about fight scenes on the Internet), but whatever. Directed by Rob Reiner and written by screenwriting legend William Goldman, adapted from Goldman’s own book (which you owe it to yourself to read if you like this film).

Speaking of Hollywood legends, the fight choreography here was done by Bob Anderson, the veteran sword master and stunt man who had a hand in pretty much every Hollywood sword fight you ever loved, including not just our previous subject Highlander, but the original Star Wars, Lord Of The Rings, The Mask of Zorro and dozens of others. He also played Darth Vader during most of the original trilogy’s Jedi battles, and swung that red lightsaber far more than the famously vain David Prowse ever did. The sheer variety of movie sword fights he’s been responsible for speak to the amazing depths of the man’s skill, and the movie business is all the lesser since his passing last year. RIP Bob.

There are, basically, two fight scenes in this excellent, and very “meta,” fairy tale. You might object, “But wait! What about Westley vs Fezzik? That’s a fight!” Well… not really. Yes, it technically is, in the sense that it’s two parties who face off and exchange violence until one party is subdued. But not really, and certainly not enough to be graded. How does it play out? They walk slowly at each other, Westley (rather foolishly) tries a few running tackles that are ineffective which Fezzik doesn’t respond to, Fezzik throws a couple punches that miss, Westley jumps on his back and chokes him out, Fezzik rams Westley into two or three boulders as he loses oxygen, then he passes out; they talk convivially the whole time. It is a highly entertaining and memorable scene, but not for the fighting. The “fighting” part is inconsequential.

Sorry, buddy.

You might also object, “Hey, what about the scene where Westley outsmarts Vizzini? That’s a fight, if you really think about it. A mental fight!” In which case you are being an insufferable smartass, knock it off.

1) Westley vs. Inigo Montoya

The Fighters:

  • Farmboy turned super pirate Westley, who has spent the last two years under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts but is presently described only as The Man In Black, both disguises effective only if you forgot what the love interest you last saw 12 minutes ago looked like and/or you have the visual recognition skills of Lois Lane. Played by Cary Elwes.
  • Inigo Montoya, a likable Spanish mercenary who has studied fencing for decades as part of a long-term revenge quest to avenge his father. Played by Mandy Patinkin.

The Setup: Really, The Princess Bride? You need me to tell you? Okay, fine: Inigo is one of a trio mercenaries who have kidnapped Florin’s princess, being pursued by the mysterious Man In Black. Inigo is left behind by his partners to kill/stall MIB after he scales up the cliff to his target.

This is arguably where the movie starts to become genuinely lovable and unique (the story-within-a-story premise has already been used notably, but this is where the movie really starts to play), because it’s here that, before their inevitable fight, Inigo actually helps Westley (a stranger and adversary) first by pulling him the mountain and then by giving him time to rest. As Westley recovers, the two chat amiably & respectfully, managing to work in some exposition in about Inigo’s backstory. We even get a close-up of Inigo’s sword– he actually trusts the Man In Black enough at this point to let him hold it– which strikes a nice balance of looking gorgeous & fancy while still seeming deadly. This is an element Peter Jackson bungled horribly, as his version of Aragorn’s reforged blade Anduril looked painfully mediocre.

But friends or no, each has a mission to complete, so fight they must.

The Fight: You know how this plays out. They jab at each other a few times, experimentally. The pacing picks up a bit, and their pleasant dialogue throughout is just so much Boys Being Boys, each subtly bragging about all the techniques he knows and how to overcome them. There is a genuine sense that the characters (not just the actors, but they look like they’re having fun too) are enjoying this– not the violence but the craftsmanship of the fencing. This challenge is a rare pleasure for each of them, and the scene is a joyful celebration of skill & discipline.

In fact if you watch closely, there is no shortage of opportunities for each of them to kill each other, such as when one does a very show-offy flip over the other and utterly exposes himself to a healthy stabbin’, or the several occasions when one or the other is disarmed. But they don’t take those opportunities, and why would they? They’re having the time of their lives, and they clearly like each other; this isn’t Highlander, where the fights are life & death so you take whatever chance you get. Plus, the flips & tricks are, to them, as much a part of the fight as the actual swordplay; it would almost be a crime to disrupt them, especially with something as unsavory as a kill.

The pace escalates and the dialogue dies down. We get the reveal (well, if you paid attention it was established during an earlier scene) that Inigo, who has been fighting with his left, is not left-handed, and has been deliberately fighting with a handicap to make things more interesting. This is very, very cool. But not nearly as cool as what comes next, the thing everyone remembers: once Westley is pushed back by the un-handicapped Inigo, he reveals that he’s not left-handed either. Oh snap, etc.

Pictured: no left-handed people, anywhere

Speaking of which, a word about the dialogue: it is steady, it flows believably from each of the characters, it’s clever & snappy while not being overly precious, it’s delivered capably by the actors. It is, in short, perfect. Perfect bordering on miraculous. You may have noticed that I’m not reproducing it and certainly not peppering it throughout this entry, and that’s because if you want to hear Princess Bride quotes you can go literally anywhere. I love TPB and can still watch it today (I just did a few days ago) but the only film that gets quoted more often is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Anyway, Westley now regains control of the fight and he never loses it again, though Inigo puts up a worthy struggle. The intensity ratchets up, and there are several times where Westley’s swordplay outright mocks Inigo. This somewhat undercuts the “highest respect” he will later say he holds Inigo in, but the arrogant behavior doesn’t completely contradict it: his actions in the latter half of the fight are his way of declaring himself the Alpha Dog, a necessary reminder even when you like the lesser dogs. Also, the frustration he deals out to Inigo can only disorient and tire him down further, which Westley definitely wants.

The Man In Black wins, disarming Inigo and sending him to his knees. Inigo expects death but Westley won’t think of it. It’s sometimes dissatisfying to see a determined sword fight with no kill at the end, but here such bloodshed would only sour what’s preceded, since these two are so darn lovable. Westley knocking Inigo out, and his dialogue immediately before and after, could not possibly be more satisfying.

This is quite reasonably considered one of the greatest movie fight scenes of all time, which, strangely, makes it more difficult to write about, not less. What can you say that hasn’t already been said? The action ramps up believably and occurs in distinct stages. It has a unique setup and an excellent conclusion, which is difficult to pull off when you pit two good guys against each other. The dialogue pops, the swords tink and clang, the actors deliver– it all works. What stuck out to me most on this recent re-watch, though, was how incredibly fake the fight, and really, the whole movie is. The fencing is clearly rehearsed, the cliffside location is obviously a set, the “sky” in the background is a painted wall. Heck, once or twice when someone jumps from a great height you can see the safety mat they land on shake underneath the dirt.

This is not bad, it’s good. The Princess Bride is a fairy tale that is itself within a movie, which is in turn based on a deceptive book, the genesis of which was William Goldman improvising bedtime stories to his own daughters. Arguably, everything we’re seeing on screen is stuff pulled from the mind of a sick, grumpy pre-adolescent boy as the story gets read to him. Of course it’s artificial, that’s part of the charm, like the way sugar makes candy taste. Some of this arguably goes a bit too far, namely in the sound department: some of the musical cues and sound effects are too tinny and on-the-nose, even considering the film’s chosen aesthetic. It’s generally tolerable but at times the sound effects approach the level of bad children’s cartoons or “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” It is, however, a very small gripe in a very wonderful fight scene.

Grade: A+

Recommended links:

  • Good AV Club mini-review of the film overall and the fight scene in particular. Hits some of the same points I did but I swear I didn’t read it right beforehand.
  • The fight redone with lightsabers.

Coming soon: We go all the way to the climax for the second “true” fight scene of the film. And no, it’s not against an ROUS, but rather a veteran comic actor who, despite his famous improvisation skills and ample warning, failed to prepare to die.

The one in the middle.

Highlander (fight 5 of 5)

5) Connor MacLeod vs. The Kurgan (final round)

OMG YOU GUYS

The Fighters: Connor and the Kurgan, aka Good vs Evil. Special appearance by Brenda Wyatt, damsel in distress/interference-runner.

The Setup: The Kurgan, wise to Connor having consummated his attraction (wink wink nudge nudge) to plucky metallurgist Brenda, has kidnapped the fair maiden and locked her up in a tower. Well, not quite so medieval, but the nearest possible modern thing: he tied her up in the structure behind a giant “SilverCup” electronic billboard on top of a building.

Apparently it’s a real place.

The Kurgan wants MacLeod unnerved & distracted during this fight– this villain doesn’t play fair if he doesn’t have to.

The Fight: Connor is immediately attacked as he tries to free Brenda and the action begins briskly, the two combatants clashing swords while also dodging amongst the surprisingly intricate infrastructure behind the billboard. MacLeod sends his opponent tumbling several feet to the ground but, as he tries to free Brenda, the Kurgan retaliates by wantonly destroying everything in sight, sending showers of sparks and breaking the heck out of the entire thing. Connor gets out of the collapsing structure by gripping a support cable and sliding down it like Errol Flynn.

Soon enough an inexplicably nearby water tower also breaks, flooding the immediate area and creating a temporary pool for Connor to hide in while he tries to assist Brenda. The Kurgan swings around looking for the hidden hero and soon decides to search for him by going underwater himself, but rather than blandly diving or falling into the temporary pool, he spins around slowly while gradually lowering himself. The strangely graceful movements make the villain seem like a predatory animal– a rather nice touch, there.

Soon the two participants fall through a skylight into an empty warehouse. MacLeod, separated from his sword, is at the mercy of the Kurgan, and is only saved by some desperate interference from Brenda (being too mortally fragile to survive the skylight fall, she apparently opted for the stairs), wielding one of the movie’s many lead pipes. The inconvenience only seems to irritate the Kurgan, but before he can cut her down she is in turn saved by Connor, who, having recovered his sword and his composure, is ready to seriously throw down– he’s even balanced enough to snark/flirt with the relieved Brenda, giving her a faux-irritated “what kept you?”. Now it’s on like Immortal Donkey Kong.

Pictured: AWESOMENESS

From here, everything about the fight, and the movie, kicks into high gear and doesn’t let up. This is what the entire story has been building up to and it does not in any way disappoint.

As you can see from the picture above, everything is saturated in dark blues. The lighting from the huge bay windows (and, obviously, the film crew) is just right: when the camera’s in close or medium shots we can see enough to make out the combatants’ faces, and as it gets farther out they become stark, iconic silhouettes. Speaking of the camera, it moves smoothly back & forth, sweeping across the room as the combatants circle about in this dance of death (according to the commentary track, this was accomplished by strapping the camera to a chair on wheels and kicking it across the set). The music, which kicks in immediately after Connor’s smirking line to Brenda, is unapologetically and unselfconsciously strident. It all comes together to match the epic tone of what we’re seeing happen. There is no dialogue between the two at this point, and there doesn’t need to be. The swords do the talkin’.

The fencing choreography is never better in the movie than it is here, as the opponents push back & forth, circle each other, and exchange strikes with yet more flying sparks and loud whooshes. It’s not too long (but not too short) before the Kurgan begins to lose. He is pushed back and kept on the defensive by the smaller man’s aggressive skill, and even suffers an escalating series of surface slashes. The music swells in triumph to signal what we already know: Connor MacLeod, finally given an open space and no distractions, is just better.

And the Kurgan knows it. His initial confusion is soon replaced by something else. For the first time in his long, long life, the Kurgan is confronted by the possibility that he might actually lose, and he seems… intrigued by it. As he circles around Connor for the final time, he stares at his opponent like a scientist beholding a new alien species. The look on Clancy Brown’s face is some strange mix of fascination and rapturous joy. The man has lived on destruction & thrills for thousands of years, and while he has not displayed nihilistic traits before, he finds the prospect of his own destruction the most thrilling of all. This is noteworthy, because many a movie bad guy has been known to mentally unravel when facing defeat at the hands of a determined hero– reduced from grand villainous scheming to childish temper tantrums– but not this one. This one faces his doom like a man. The Kurgan may be a dishonorable barbaric raping murderer, but he is NOT a chump.

Not pictured: a chump.

The villain lunges ahead with one final charge, and MacLeod takes the opportunity to move in with one well-aimed slice. The Kurgan takes a few steps, pauses, smiles, and, well… Connor has pulled off one of those “yank the table cloth without disturbing the plates” moves, but with the Kurgan’s head. It rolls right the heck off, and Connor receives the mother of all Quickenings, followed by the glass-shattering light show that is The Prize.

ERMAGHERD

The film’s climax is a marvel of staging, construction and choreography. Notably, it can really be broken down into two parts: the part outside by the SilverCup sign, and the part inside the empty building. The first half is all frantic, with lots of elements at play: protecting/freeing Brenda, dodging amongst the sign structure, the water, the Kurgan smashing stuff to bits– it’s really a mini-action sequence that includes a bunch of sword-fighting. The second half, in contrast, is all focused intensity, bombastic filmmaking capturing an epic duel. It is pure.

Watching the whole thing at once, the first half is certainly less interesting than the second, but it’s the opening segment that provides necessary buildup to the last. If the whole thing has been nothing but a straight sword fight from beginning to end, it would have gotten boring and repetitive after a while. As it is, the part of the second half of the climax where they’re actually fighting clocks in at under two minutes, which is just about the perfect amount of time. Breaking down extended fight sequences into distinct chunks is actually an important part of making them both watchable and memorable.

The whole thing really is damn near perfect, actually. I will deduct a very slight amount of points for the final shot of the Kurgan before his head lolls off, as the sub-par effects work make it comically obvious (in a bad way) that the villain is about to get a lot shorter. But oh well.

Grade: A+

Recommended reading:

  • The Highlander Wikia page, whose extra information and pictures have been invaluable to me for this series.
  • The whole last half of the fight on YouTube

On another note, you may have noticed I started to write this post in more of a templated format, with sub-headings for each part of the entry. I think this streamlines the writing process a bit and helps keep me from wandering, I’ll be trying to stick to it from now on, though I may refine it as necessary. It’s an ongoing process.

Coming soon: Am I really going to do two sword-fighting movies in a row?!

Highlander (fight 4 of 5)

A quick breather before the show-stopping climax.

4) Sunda Kastagir vs. The Kurgan

Similar to the film’s first “skirmish,” this fight takes place in a generic outdoor city area at night, and is walked into in media res by a non-Immortal bystander. This time however the bystander is not a sexy, yet determined police metallurgy consultant (such a stock character!) but rather Kirk Matunas, a machine gun-toting vigilante.

Pictured: someone Hollywood thinks is everywhere

A paranoid Vietnam veteran, he patrols the streets with fully-automatic machine gun (as one does), apparently wary of a Soviet invasion. We first see him driving around contemptuous of all the “filth” around him like De Niro in Taxi Driver, but soon he catches a glimpse of the second-to-last Immortal clash, and goes to investigate.

In a rather uninteresting alley, the Kurgan is fighting against Sunda Kastagir, an African Immortal who’s a longtime friend of our main hero. A pair of scenes showing Kastagir with MacLeod (one in present day where they meet pleasantly & agree not to fight, one in the past showing them abusing Connor’s invulnerability to mess with a French dandy’s head) have endeared us to him. We don’t love him like we did Ramirez, but we like him, certainly enough to not want him to get murdalized.

(Incidentally, Kastagir is played by British actor Hugh Quarshie, who never truly reached star status despite appearing prominently in several major genre works. Most people will at least recognize him as Captain Panaka, the security chief from The Phantom Menace who follows Natalie Portman around mainly so she can disagree with everything he says. No, seriously, if you ever watch TPM again and want to wring some extra amusement out of it, count how many times Amidala does the exact opposite of what Panaka suggests. It’s really funny.)

Unfortunately for Kastagir he’s already fighting a losing battle by the time Full Metal Wackjob arrives. He swings away desperately but the Kurgan, dominant as usual, clearly has his number. Overall, the construction of the battle is… not impressive. There’s much flailing but for the most part it looks half-hearted and not particularly creative. It is also brief, which is arguably good given how uninteresting it is.  Notably, Quarshie fails to sell the reality of the fight, several times holding his sword in such a way that he couldn’t possibly be blocking the blows the movie asks us to think he is.

Visually, however, there is still some nice stuff going on, mainly in the use of shadows. We cut back to Kirk several times, witnessing his disbelief as he watches something even his own paranoia could never have dreamed up, and he’s framed by shadows in such a way that you definitely get a sense of proportion: not just of how puny this mortal is in comparison to the titanic duellists, but of how huge the Kurgan is in comparison to Kastagir.

“I’m gonna need a bigger gun.”

The way the fight ends is an unexpected treat (for the viewer, if not Kastagir), too: the Kurgan slices off Kastagir’s head right in the midst of the battle, with a sudden spin move before the latter’s blade could block it. In not just this movie but most Highlander franchise fights, the loser tends to get his or head removed under much more mundane circumstances, after being cornered, disarmed, or beaten down into helplessness. It’s rare for Highlander fans to see an Immortal lose their head via surprise rather than while standing/kneeling there waiting for it like a chump, and this shows that Kurgan has some decent skills to go with that brute strength.

The Kurgan gets the Quickening, but not before being temporarily gunned down by Kirk’s probably-not-legal Uzi. Kurgan rewards the former Marine by impaling him, lifting him off the ground, and literally tossing him aside. With one hand.

Nutjob-kebab

A decent-sized crowd has gathered by this point as well, and the Kurgan escapes from the scene by ripping the roof off a nearby car, removing the driver and menacing the little-old-lady of a passenger, who he laughingly addresses as “Mom!” before driving into the night (Brown even manages to sound lascivious while yelling).

Overall this is a bit of a Blah fight with some nice trappings. Like the previous MacLeod/Kurgan dust-up, this is a skirmish– a smaller fight by design. It’s not a big deal, but it’s not meant to be and doesn’t need to be, though that still doesn’t excuse some lackluster execution. Extra points are gained for some sweet shadow-play and an unexpected finishing move; slightly less points are lost due to the unnecessary Hollywood caricature of an anti-Commie nutbar. Kirk’s presence in the scene and film serves no real purpose. We see him again in the hospital shortly after, giving the police a very not-MacLeod description of the headhunting killer, but there was about a dozen other bystanders there to describe the Kurgan too, so Kirk’s role in the “getting the cops off MacLeod’s back” subplot is extraneous.

Grade: C+

Recommended reading: Quite amusing CHUD article about the unfortunate fate of “Mom,” from which I will steal this GIF:

Coming soon: We finish the film and there can, finally, be only one.

Highlander (fight 3 of 5)

Here’s where the movie really starts to earn its money.

3) Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez vs. The Kurgan

Background: A series of flashbacks has shown us Connor’s origin story, starting back in his pre-Immortal days as a happy member of Clan MacLeod in the Scottish Highlands over 400 years ago. During a war sequence, Connor is run through by the Kurgan, who had been working as a mercenary for a rival clan on the condition of being given allowed to kill MacLeod himself (the Kurgan can sense Connor’s latent immortality before Connor himself can, and wanted to take his head before the young Highlander could even get started). The would-be fatal wound triggers Connor’s immortal awakening, and when he miraculously survives, his clan, including the woman he loved, brands him as a witch or demon and casts him out.

An unspecified time later, Connor sets up shop somewhere else with a newer, prettier and more tolerant wife, Heather, and is found by Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, an ancient (over 2,500 years old) Egyptian Immortal, lately of Spain and bearing an incongruous Scottish accent. Ramirez senses potential in MacLeod and mentors him, teaching Connor about the nature of his supernatural gifts. And more advanced swordplay, of course.

Not pictured: Roger Moore.

It’s unclear how long Ramirez stays with MacLeod and wife, but it’s clearly long enough for Connor to pick up some mad skills (thanks, montages!) and definitely long enough for them to bond. Even aside from the attached Connery charm, the audience likes Ramirez. Unfortunately, it’s bad for your health to be an older mentor-character in an action movie.

The setup: Connor is off on some errand, leaving Ramirez with Heather. He is entertaining her with some swashbuckling tale at the start of the scene, and while it works quite well on the page (further establishing Ramirez’s familiarity with the MacLeods), the casting creates a huge plot hole, because no man in his right mind would leave his wife alone with Sean Connery.

I sure wouldn’t.

Regardless, the pair are soon interrupted by the arrival of the evil Kurgan.

A brief word on the Kurgan. Much is made of Connery’s involvement in the film, and he is surely an asset: he brings with him the aforementioned Connery charm, and more importantly his very presence in the film surely helped to give this odd little sci-fi film much more mainstream attention than it might have had otherwise. Though Connery has surely been in much odder sci-fi films; see above picture.

But the Kurgan, as played by actor Clancy Brown, is the movie’s secret weapon. The Kurgan (he’s only identified by his old barbarian tribe and his real name is never given, which adds to his mythic stature), another ancient Immortal, is a hulking creature of gleeful malice and destruction. There’s not an ounce of honor or goodness in him; he’s driven only by power & pleasure. In addition to playing all these aspects to the hilt, Brown makes full use of his own imposing physicality (at 6’4 he’s enormous by Hollywood standards, and towers especially over the much-shorter Lambert) and deep, growling voice. The actor fully embraces the over-the-top role without a trace of irony, looking as comfortable wearing dragon-themed medieval battle armor in the past as he does made up like a leather-punk skinhead in the present. It requires no hyperbole to say Brown’s Kurgan is one of the all-time great villains, a bad guy who’s fun to watch while still being completely detestable and thoroughly scary. While Brown never did make into super-stardom, he has rightfully become a beloved figure amongst genre film fans and still gets steady work in respectable projects.

That Brown physicality is well-used here, as the Kurgan makes his entrance by breaking through the door of MacLeod’s home. He’s hunting for Connor’s head, but is more than happy to settle for Ramirez’s– the way Kurgan delightedly growls out Ramirez’s name upon recognizing him hints at an exciting history between the two. The Kurgan goes on to display his brute force some more by leaping through the air and smashing Connor’s table. Tactically unnecessary, but certainly intimidating and therefore less gratuitous than a dozen backflips.

Ramirez retaliates with his own bold opening move, his quick swordplay allowing him to get in close enough to slash the Kurgan’s throat, too shallowly for a decapitation but deep enough to leave a permanent scar and damage the villain’s vocal cords– throughout the rest of the film, the Kurgan’s deep rumbling voice will have a creepy rasp to it. Even Immortals feel pain and the Kurgan is clearly put off-balance, allowing Ramirez to control the fight, pushing the bad guy up the stairs while flourishing a bit and making taunts about his wound. Soon enough he is able to knock the Kurgan for a brief fall off the stairs.

Landing on the hard stone probably hurt, but as we saw in his earlier (but chronologically later) skirmish with MacLeod, you can’t stop this villain with blunt force trauma. The Kurgan rallies and turns the tables on Ramirez, pushing him up the stairs. The bad guy is now making full use of his physical power to press back the old Egyptian, swinging hard enough to knock out whole chunks of stone wall. Soon enough they’re in the open air, a sudden lightning storm forming above to mark this titanic battle between ancient enemies.

Ramirez manages to get his sword into the Kurgan’s guts….

“Suck it, Trebek!”

But not only is it not enough, the villain seems to almost feed on it. Letting out a primal bellow into the raging storm, the monster pulls the blade out of his stomach and, still gripping it, bashes Ramirez down, slashes him across the chest, then turns him around and runs him through. Ramirez can clearly see the end is near, and spits in his foe’s face after enduring some taunts and threats against Heather.

So much of MacLeod’s tower has crumbled that their battleground has become a literal stairway to nowhere, an appropriately epic setting for Ramirez’s end. The Kurgan cribs a bit from King Leonidas and tells his victim “tonight you sleep in Hell!” before delivering the film’s “there can be only one” tagline and chopping his head off. The Kurgan then receives his Quickening, the accompanying lightning knocking him off his perch. Note that the Kurgan’s “praying” sword pose after a victory is the closest he comes in the film to showing respect to anything or anyone:

(Connor’s wife Heather also sticks around for the denouement, a decision that turns out very badly for her. She should have run away at the start when Ramirez told her to, rather than staying put & screaming the whole time.)

This is very nearly perfect. The sword choreography is not terribly fancy, but that just lets the audience free to focus on the emotion of the scene and the power of the participants. Again, the audience is quite fond of Ramirez, so even if his death is a foregone conclusion before the fight even begins (we have already seen the Kurgan alive in present day, and no sign of Ramirez), watching him die hurts a good deal, and in fact the viewer’s conclusions about how the fight must end cast a sense of dread over the whole thing.

As good as he was, Ramirez was ultimately no match for the powerful Kurgan. Many action movies have a hard time selling the villain’s formidability without making the lesser heroes they take down look like chumps, but Highlander strikes the ideal balance. Here, the doomed sub-hero puts up a struggle worthy of his impressive stature. He dominates the first half or so of the fight, before the Kurgan’s raw strength & determination allow him to assert control. And with one deft cut, Ramirez managed to leave his killer something to remember him by, forever scarring him both visually and audibly; an extra layer of cool is added by the fact that the scar & rasp make the Kurgan more intimidating.

As far as technical specifics go: the music is minimal and unobtrusive; Mulcahy makes the right call in letting the scene “sing” on its own. The dialogue between the two crackles, and the rapidly breaking tower (they just don’t make ’em like they used to) is a fantastic setting for a mythic duel.

Really, this is excellent work all around. It’s the kind of thing we watch movies like Highlander for. Can it be topped? (spoiler: HECK YES) Regardless…

Grade: A

Recommended viewing: The second half or so (no one seems to have uploaded the full thing for some reason) of this fight, on YouTube.

Coming soon: Along with a rather unlikely witness, we see what happens when the unstoppable Kurgan faces off against the most useless security chief in Naboo history.

Also, Mr. Connery has given me inspiration for this year’s Halloween costume. How do you guys think I’d look in one of these numbers?

Be honest.