The Quiet Man

Going old school for this one.

Respect.

The Quiet Man! One of masterpiece-factory John Ford’s many great hits, and a labor of love for all involved. If you’re the kind of youngling whose idea of “classic” movies doesn’t get much older than The Goonies, you might remember it as the film playing on TV that E.T. watches during a kissing scene and telepathically inspires Elliot to act out.

If you haven’t seen it, walk away from your browsing device right now and go watch it. Not just because I’m going to spoil the crap out of it, but because it’s wonderful. You do yourself a disservice by not seeing this film.

Okay, you back?

1) Sean Thornton vs Will Danagher

The Fighters:

  • Sean “Trooper Thorn” Thornton, the titular man of quietness. A wealthy American and former boxer who retired after inadvertently killing his opponent in the ring. Played by JOHN FREAKING WAYNE
    • Armed with: Naught but his fists and wits
  • Squire “Red” William Danagher, Sean’s social rival and brother-in-law. An irascible, surly slab of beef, he’s technically the film’s antagonist but not truly a bad guy. Played by Victor McLaglen.
    • Armed with: “A tremendous right and a jaw of granite” according to one character. At least the second half of that’s true, because it’s Danagher who absorbs by far the majority of the blows.

The Setup: The setup to this fight is basically the whole plot of the film, so bear with me. In order to deal with the tragedy he inflicted, Thornton has returned to his family’s ancestral home in the tiny, traditional town of Innisfree. There he rather understandably falls in love with tempestuous redhead spinster Mary Kate Danagher (Maureen O’Hara, doing what she did best), but clashes with her brother, Will.

A traditional Irish handshake.

[The film couldn’t get made today, and not just in the “eh they don’t make ’em like they used ta!” sense. An outsider arrives at an isolated European community where his straightforward ideas clash with their funny old traditions and the lesson is that he has to adapt to them? Unthinkable! This movie is the reverse-Chocolat.

Many professional feminists would howl about the gender roles, dowry, etc., though if they really paid attention they would notice that it’s the woman who ultimately controls the outcome of the film’s greatest struggle; she successfully persuades her man to change, not the other way around.]

Mostly through the machinations of the friendly townsfolk, William does begrudgingly allow Sean to court and eventually marry his sister, but due to some complications and pride, William ends up starting a fuss at the reception and doesn’t give Mary Kate the traditional dowry (he’s even meaner to his other sister, Ashley).

Though they talk around it endlessly, Sean, a practical American who already has enough money for both of them, can’t see the point of his new wife’s obsession with her mere pittance of a dowry. He doesn’t get that she wants the money not for its value but because it’s hers, and her brother’s refusal to relinquish it is a wound to her pride– a wound she expects her husband to avenge. This is further stymied by Sean’s dark secret (only one other person in the town knows about his boxing past, and, you know, I rather think “I beat a man to death one time” is something you’d tell your wife about at some point), as he is hesitant to use violence again. All this causes a rift in their marriage, just as it’s starting.

When the shame becomes unbearable for Mary Kate, she flees (or at least makes a pretense of fleeing) town, and boards a train at the station not too far away. This is the last straw for Thornton, and he’s finally ready to show the wife who’s boss. She’s the boss, of course, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t like a little backbone in her man. Sean demonstrates his newfound sense of purpose & determination by showing up at the station mad as hell, forcibly hauling Mary Kate off the train, and dragging her all the way back to Innisfree. And by dragging, I mean he literally drags her, by the wrist. On foot. Across the Irish countryside. For FIVE MILES. It’s played for laughs, and against all reason, it works. It is the most glorious, hilarious domestic dispute you’ll ever see. Even if you’ve seen The Ref.

“How DARE you do this awesome thing to me!”

Their destination is Danagher farm, where Sean confronts Will and issues the ultimatum he never wanted: give me the dowry or take back your crazy sister. In view of pretty much the entire town (they’ve all been following the family drama and have been spectators to the cross-country abduction for quite some time), Will reluctantly agrees and hands over the money. Sean immediately tosses the cash in a nearby incinerator, with Mary Kate’s gleeful assistance: it was never about the money, it was about her independence and having a husband who stood up for her (not to mention TO her). Will’s had enough of Sean humiliating him and throws a wild roundhouse, which Sean ducks and counters with a punch in Danagher’s sizable gut. Now, the fight the whole town (and the whole audience) has been eagerly awaiting begins!

[Incidentally, Mary Kate leaves at this point, telling Sean that supper will be waiting for him at home. She doesn’t need to see the outcome, because she got what she wanted.]

The Fight: They punch.

They punch.

They punch.

They punch some more.

It is amazing.

Pictured: approximately 1/3200th of the punches dispensed that day.

Oh, I’m overselling the simplicity of it, I suppose (and, simultaneously, underselling just how well the simplicity works). Before the fight goes too far it ends up turning into a crazy free-for-all involving the whole village, but one of the craftier townsmen gets everyone’s attention with a few gunshots and tells them all to calm down so they can focus on the main event. Although both sides agree to “Marquis of Queensbury rules” this is immediately followed up with by a kick to Sean’s face, and they get back to business.

It doesn’t just keep going, it keeps moving. The two brawlers take their bare-knuckled exploits all over the countryside: out of the Danagher farm, through the hills, into a river, into the town proper, into the pub, etc. The whole town of onlookers moves along with them, gawking & cheering as a weird sort of living, mobile boxing ring. Ford stages the entire event so masterfully that these traveling fisticuffs never feel forced or unnatural, yet you simultaneously grasp & appreciate the absolutely bonkers nature of what’s going on here.

And what a happy kind of bonkers it is. The music is upbeat, the crowd cheers, and, bizarrely, this is the point in the movie when Thornton and Danagher are the least antagonistic towards each other. In sheer brute force and gleeful mayhem, they’ve forged a connection they could never make in their normal lives. What could be more manly than that?

In fact, the fight takes a breather as it travels in front of the local pub, and the two pugilists agree to break for a drink. As they toast & imbibe, they mutter some trash talk but also express sincere admiration for each other. Until, of course, it comes time to decide who’s going to pay– the argument leads to a beer in the Duke’s face, and a retaliatory punch that sends Will flying through the wall into the street.

The screen then fades to black, and when it cuts back, the sun is setting, Will & Sean are drunkenly ambling back to the Thornton house, arm in arm and singing. It’s a great transition, but if I had any major quibble with this fight, it would be that it ends too abruptly. It’s not completely clear if Sean’s haymaker in the bar is what officially ended the fight or if it continued for a while after. Either way I think it could have stood to linger for a bit longer. And if I had a minor quibble, it would be that Will doesn’t come across too well in the fight; he receives the majority of the hits and almost all the blows he does land are sucker-punches. But, ah well.

As inventive as the traveling nature of the fight is, the actual choreography here is not too complicated, aside from a few neat stunts like Danagher getting decked into a stream. That’s something of a product of the times, however, and not a knock. Besides, this isn’t about complex stunts and brutal beatdowns; this is about standing up for yourself and earning respect. It’s the culmination of an entire movie’s worth of buildup and simmering conflict (remember, this is not an action movie; it’s a comedy-drama-romance with one huge fight at the end). It’s about male bonding, Irish style.

You might say, “Hey, how can you grade this so high when you’ve been harsh before on scenes that work well thematically/narratively but are kind of weak as far as the actual fighting?” Well, I don’t know what to tell you, aside from asking why it’s so important for you to keep a silly movie blogger from being hypocritical (you weirdo). I just know that this fight is joyous, in every frame. It is a beautiful thing in a beautiful movie and we should be honored to have it.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: We take the red pill.

No, I said the RED pill, pervert.

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Super Metroid

A video game fight?!

“What manner of poppycock is this?!”

Bear with me. This is educational. The game is a masterpiece of the medium and very instructional as to how it can tell interactive, immersive stories.

Samus Aran vs Mother Brain

The Fighters:

  • Samus Aran, the player’s avatar in this digital dungeon. Intergalactic bounty hunter and scourge of the Metroid series’ villainous Space Pirates. Though this is the third entry in the franchise, in the original NES game the fact that she was a woman was a shocking twist ending. You kids today don’t know how good you have it, with your Lara Crofts and your Buffys and your Jennifer Garners. Samus is hardcore. Played by nothing but bits and bytes.
    • Armed with: What isn’t she armed with? Samus is athletic, tactically brilliant, and infused with alien DNA, but her true weapon is her Power Suit. A piece of amazing technological armor that would make even the Destroyer run & hide, the upgradeable suit is kitted out with varying different types of blasters (including a freeze beam), missiles, bombs, an electric grappling hook, an X-ray scope, boots that can boost her run into a blur or send her jumping fifty feet in the air, the ability to roll her entire body into a compact sphere, and finally a deadly “screw attack” which transforms her spinning leaps into a whirling dervish of destructive energy. A few of these Samus starts out with but the rest she (aka you, the player) must obtain and upgrade during her quest through  the alien planet Zebes. I question the bad guys’ not-so-bright idea to build their lair around a bunch of power-ups that will make their most hated adversary even MORE deadly, but that’s video game villains for you.
  • The Mother Brain, a sentient, biomechanical A.I. who leads the Space Pirates. She was the villain of the original Metroid game from the 80s, and hasn’t been seen since Samus vanquished her then. At that time she was literally just a big stationary brain in a jar, but now she is… considerably more. Played by 16 bits of of ugly colors and screeching sounds.
    • Armed with: A giant cyborg body not unlike like that of a T-Rex. Fires a number of different bombs and energy blasts, the most powerful of which is an undodgeable beam from her eye.

The Setup: As I said, Super Metroid for the SNES (generally agreed to be the peak of the Metroid series), is a marvel of simple, efficient, non-verbal storytelling. The game features a brief voiceover followed by a textual prologue providing the exposition (i.e., the events of the previous two games) but other than that is free of any pesky words until the final credits roll. This is helped enormously by the fact that Samus, behind her impassive armor, is largely a cypher, better allowing the player to immersively place themselves in her boots.

Hey girl

This serves the gameplay very well. Unlike modern games, which tend to spell out your objectives and instructions in the most explicit way possible, Super Metroid plops Samus onto an enormous world with virtually no assistance, and makes the player figure things out organically.

This is best executed in the game’s climactic fight, and the lead-up to it. Ask ten serious video game veterans to list their favorite game ending sequences, and nine of them will include Super Metroid. The impetus for the game is Samus returning to her old stomping grounds on the baddie-infested Planet Zebes to track down the last remaining Metroid– the titular space predator she’d spent the last two games eradicating, as the series’ recurring Space Pirate antagonists had been using them as weapons (Metroids are a kind of creepy, hard-to-kill, flying jellyfish that can latch onto a victim and rapidly drain its life force away). The end of the second game saw Samus finding the last baby Metroid but sparing its life, because when it hatched the innocent creature “imprinted” on her as its mother. Samus turned it over to some scientists to study its unique life-giving properties (most Metroids only destroy) but it was shortly stolen by the pirates and taken back to Zebes.

As Samus slowly conquers the pirates’ army she works her way into the bowels of Zebes, and, eventually facing a gauntlet of powerful Metroids as she approaches the leader’s lair, you realize the pirates have successfully cloned stock from that stolen hatchling. Going deeper, Samus/the player goes through an eerily quiet hallway full of what seem to be creepy statues of many of the game’s common bad guys. The statues crumble into dust at a touch, and the farther you go the bigger they get. In the next room you are approached by a particularly large & live enemy, but before it can touch you, a HUGE Metroid appears, latches onto it, and quickly drains the holy hell out of it, leaving it a dried-out husk identical to the dozen “statues” outside.

This is the nasty beast responsible for the strange decorations, and when it turns its attention on Samus there’s little she can do (this is not a passive cinematic cut scene; the player has autonomy, but will inevitably be overwhelmed) before it latches onto her and starts draining her life force as well. But just before it can finish her off, the creature pauses and lets her go. Its predatory screeches turn into a plaintive wail, and between that and its erratic body language (it hovers about, obviously confused and unsure), the player can only conclude that this mega Metroid must be the original hatchling who loved her, raised in captivity by the Space Pirates to be the ultimate weapon but now having second thoughts upon encountering its benevolent “mother.” It flies away in confusion, leaving Samus to replenish herself and head deeper.

Soon after, Samus faces down her old nemesis, the Mother Brain.

The Fight: At first the fight plays out like a repeat of Samus’ original 8-bit adventure: Samus travels through the last gauntlet of barriers & enemies and finds the Brain sitting in a glass jar, leaving her to pump missiles into the motionless gray matter while dodging small arms fire from the defense systems. But just when it seems that fight’s won, the “defeated” Brain rises from its proverbial ashes and shows off its new upgrades:

Now I note here that Metroid games are quasi-RPGish. At the end of each game, Samus is vastly more powerful and possesses a more diverse skill set than when she started it out; this is largely accomplished in small increments as you either come across or discover (some are quite hard to reach or well-hidden) power-ups that increase your health meter or missile count gradually.

But no matter HOW well you’ve stocked up & beefed out before entering Mother Brain’s chamber, you won’t beat her, you can’t beat her. She takes damage from your weapons– you can empty your entire arsenal into her pulsing face– but it’s never enough. Eventually in the fight the villain unleashes that undodgeable beam attack that pins Samus against the wall, depletes almost all of her health and leaves her essentially paralyzed. As Mother Brain charges up a second beam to finish Samus off, the Metroid hatchling dramatically swoops in and clamps onto the villain’s head, rebelling against its new master by stopping the attack cold and draining HER of energy.

Leaving Mamma Brain a seeming husk, the Metroid then envelops Samus and slowly fills the player’s life bar. As this happens, the villain’s body begins to gradually rejuvenate, her color floods back and she rises, weakened but seriously pissed off. But since Samus is still wobbly, the Metroid can only use its own body as a shield for her, visibly weakening as it absorbs multiple attacks from the Brain. Finally the Metroid floats up and tries to tackle Mother Brain once again, but is dramatically cut down in mid-flight. It cries out in pain, the music halts, and the hatchling falls crumbling onto Samus… and in the process, Samus’ bio-suit absorbs the Metroid’s dying body and becomes infused with its energy.

The music changes to a triumphant swell (it’s actually re-purposed background music from near the beginning of the game; the epic percussion meant to drive home the magnificent size of the opening areas now instead celebrates Samus’ own increased power) and the heroine stands up, ready for round two. Her primary weapon has now been replaced with a devastating beam (if you pause to look at your stats you’ll see it’s called the “Hyper”) that causes her body to glow with every discharge. The tormentor has now become the prey: the villain is helpless against your newfound strength, her head reeling back with every shot– if you time it right, you can even stun juggle Mother Brain to keep her from even getting off a single shot, and the whole thing’s over in about a minute or so. This is no longer a battle, it’s punishment. The Brain is quickly dispatched and Samus has to make her escape from the pirates’ imploding fortress.

Without a word of dialogue the game’s final minutes tell a simple yet highly effective & immersive story of family, redemption, sacrifice and revenge. It is one of a kind.

I am tempted to give it lower marks for the back & forth power imbalance (as far as pure combat goes, the fight against sub-boss Ridley is much more frantic & exciting), but somehow the same element that made Thor’s penultimate battle so disappointing does the opposite here. Maybe it’s the storytelling, maybe it’s the element of experiencing it through the protagonist’s shoes. I don’t know, but it works for me on every level.

Grade: A+

Recommended Links: The whole battle.

An excellent commentary on this game’s fantastic world in the form of a speed run/Let’s Play hosted by Super Metroid savant Brick Road

Coming Attractions: The Duke rolls his eyes at my silly nerd obsessions.

“Yer tellin’ me that idiot wrote 1700 words about a video game?! He oughta be glad I’m dead ’cause otherwise I’d kick his ass on principle, pilgrim.”

Thor (fight 4 of 4)

O brother, where art thou?

4) Thor vs Loki

The Fighters:

  • Thor, now fully re-powered and back home. Played by Chris Hemsworth.
    • Armed with: Mjolnir
  • Loki, now assuming the role of king of Asgard. Played by Tom Hiddleston.
    • Armed with: Gungnir, the “Spear of Heaven.” Also made of uru metal, and Odin’s personal weapon. At least a match for Mjolnir, though nobody does anything with it in this movie beyond just firing energy blasts.

The Setup: Thor would have words with his brother over the whole “you sent a magic robot to kill me” thing, and gets Heimdall to whisk him back to Asgard. Meanwhile, Loki has allowed a small contingent of frost giants into the kingdom and led them straight to the slumbering Odin, but, aha, triple cross: Loki spear-zaps Laufey (his biological father) at the last second, just barely stopping him from killing the All-Father. The whole thing was a trap on Loki’s part so that he could come out the hero and make Odin proud.

Thor arrives just after that, and starts blabbing about all of Loki’s machinations in front of Frigga. They could shake hands to settle their differences, but as Chris Farley almost said, brothers don’t shake hands– brothers gotta fight!

The Fight: Loki opens strong by blasting Thor right out of the tower, but rather than sticking around to finish Thor off he decides to jet away and set the Bifrost to destroy Jotunheim. This is dumb on multiple fronts: first off, tend to one problem at a time, buddy. Second, destroying Jotunheim was only part of his plan to come off as the hero after fending off Laufey’s assassination attempt; now that Frigga, Thor and a sleeping Odin (he can see what happens while in the Odinsleep) are all aware of his villainy, this part of the plan seems rather extant. Also, I think it’s a bit of movie-invented, convenient lore for the Bifrost (the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard to the other Nine Realms) to be capable of destroying whole worlds– why is their transportation system also a Death Star?

Thor flies across the bridge and catches up to Loki in the control room, even though the destruction has already begun. They talk some more, with the reformed Thor trying to reason with his brother– at one point he says, “This is madness!” to which Loki shows remarkable restraint by not replying in Internet meme-ready fashion. After Loki makes a threat against Jane, though, his bro finally comes at him.

The short hammer vs spear choreography is a little interesting. Mostly ground-based, with a few neat moves, including Loki spinning on the vertical spear like a stripper and using the momentum to kick Thor. Still a bit too short and none too spectacular, even if the weight of the fight goes a long way to sell the high power levels involved here.

It’s not long before Thor knocks the villain through the wall and out onto the pulsing Bifrost. Loki pulls his disappearing act trick again, and makes a couple dozen copies of himself to ambush Thor with. His buffer brother zaps them all away with a lightning strike, leaving the original Loki stunned. Then Thor pulls what is my favorite stunt of the whole fight: he keeps Loki from moving by placing Mjolnir, which Loki is physically incapable of moving, on top of his brother’s chest. It’s so brilliantly simple, and actually kind of hilarious.

By now the control room is too flooded with overwhelming energy for Thor to get back to, so he takes the Gordian Knot approach and recalls Mjolnir so he can use it to hit the bridge really hard until it breaks (this is said to be emotionally difficult for Thor, since the Bifrost is ostensibly the only way to leave Asgard, and without it Thor won’t be able to see Jane again). Loki eventually recovers and nearly skewers Thor with Gungnir, but once again Odin puts the “deus” in deus ex machina, arriving to save the day. He holds both his sons over the broken bridge, but when Loki sees daddy’s disapproving eyes, he lets go and falls into the space-like cosmos below. Thor bellows in sadness at his brother’s “death”, and it’s sort of weird that he doesn’t try to swoop down and save him, since he can, you know, fly. Too bad, since I’m sure Thanos is not the most cheerful company; “death” this, “conquest” that, blah blah blah.

Out of all the movie’s fights, this climactic battle is probably the least action-packed of the bunch. There’s certainly cosmic energy aplenty and a few neat moves, but the actual combat between hero & villain is brief & halting. Accepting the premise involves swallowing a few questionable plot/character elements, and the conclusion is not terribly satisfactory. I am inclined to be generous due to the high Thor content, but only so much.

[As a side note, I discovered when doing Google Images Searches for pics to use in this article that there is an alarming amount of drawings of Thor & Loki kissing each other. VERY alarming.]

Grade: B-

Recommended Links: The new teaser trailer for the movie’s sequel Thor: The Dark World, in which stuff vaguely happens and Loki’s hair grows even longer. Those dark elves won’t know what hit them (though by process of elimination they could probably guess it was Mjolnir).

Coming Attractions: A surprising change of pace and content.

wtf

Thor (fight 3 of 4)

In which a certain magic robot lives up to its name.

“EX-TER-MI-NATE!”

3) Asgardians vs The Destroyer

The Fighters:

  • Thor, at first depowered but later not so much. Played by Chris Hemsworth.
    • Armed with: Nothing, and then later Mjolnir.
  • Sif, played by Jaimie Alexander.
    • Armed with: same sword-staff and shield combo as before.
  • Fandral the Dashing, played by Joshua Dallas.
    • Armed with: same sword as before, though he doesn’t use it.
  • Hogun the Grim, played by Tadanobu Asano.
    • Armed with: same mace as before, though he doesn’t use it.
  • Volstagg the Voluminous, played by Ray Stevenson.
    • Armed with: same double-bladed axe as before. He tries to use it.
  • The Destroyer, a quasi-sentient suit of enchanted armor. About ten feet tall, incredibly powerful and laced with spikes down its sides. In the comics it really can’t operate on its own and has to be worn by someone in order to work but here it’s a mostly automated internal security system for Asgard, though it can be remotely controlled by the king, as well. Other than that it’s an amazingly faithful reproduction of Jack Kirby’s iconic design, an engine of pure cosmic destruction. This thing would make the Daleks piss their pants.
    • Armed with: aside from tremendous physical strength, it can fire blasts of heated energy directly from its face (which has a retractable plate).

There are also some SHIELD agents and a whole town full of civilians, but they’re mostly just cannon fodder.

The Setup: After his failure to lift Mjolnir and a few careful lies from his brother, Thor has learned humility and resigned himself to being stranded on Earth. So of course that’s just when his friends show up and plead for him to return. With Odin stuck in the Odinsleep (a comatose-like state the All-Father uses to regenerate his godly power), Loki is left in charge and has been making a hash of things, so Sif and the Warriors Three have snuck to Midgard to get Thor up to speed. Wary of his brother spoiling his upcoming plans, Loki dispatches the Destroyer to kill Thor, along with pretty much everything else in sight.

The Fight: After some funny fan-pandering where the SHIELD agents wonder if the Destroyer is Stark technology, the Asgardian relic opens up and starts Destroyerizing them (Hawkeye is off sharpening his arrowheads or something, I guess), and soon enough, the town itself. The ruthless construct is almost as amazing in moti0n as it is in design: it moves with a slow but deadly weightiness, and often lashes out with whip-fast speed. Most of its movements are very unnatural-looking, but that seems less like the product of awkward CGI and more like a deliberate choice to give it a sort of otherworldly creepiness.

Still humble, Thor knows he’d be less than useless in such a fight, and commits himself to helping evacuate the town. This leaves the remaining Asgardians to take care of business. Since they realize even together they couldn’t take the Destroyer head-on, they think up a quick plan to get the drop on it. There’s a brief shot of all four of them striding purposefully down the street in a line and it looks really cool; interesting to think that just five minutes previous the sight of them walking around a mundane Earth town was overtly comical. What a difference context makes.

The Warriors Three serve as the distraction, with Hogun and Fandral tossing Volstagg through the air (kind of weird since he’s the heaviest one, but okay) at the Destroyer, but the metallic beast swats him away before he can do anything. Just as it leans over him to finish the job, Sif comes crashing down from telephone pole and skewers the robot, from the back of the neck all the way through to the pavement.

The construct is only briefly stunned, then it pulls a T-1000 and morphs its whole body into reverse so that not only does Sif’s blade come loose, she’s now also face-to-face with her opponent.

She survives the encounter but the Destroyer resumes Destroyinating with impunity; the heroes now know there’s nothing they can do except run. Things get worse, especially when Volstagg gets barbecued as a face-blast blows up a restaurant he’d taken shelter in. Thor knows that the only way to stop this is to turn himself in.

He pleads with Loki (shown listening on his throne in Asgard) for mercy, for the innocents nearby if not for Thor himself. It seems like Loki listens to the better angels of his nature, but then he pulls a schoolyard “psych!” and the Destroyer turns to backhand Thor at the last second.

The armor’s spiked gauntlets have left deep scars on the hero’s face and neck, and verily this blow seems to have done him in. He “dies” in Jane’s distressed arms, and frankly the death scene is a little too protracted for my liking. Come on, guys, we all KNOW Thor’s not dead, and pretty much everyone guessed what’s going to come next: off in the desert, the hammer begins stirring and returns to its master, because Thor’s humility and selflessness have made him worthy again. Again, this is oversold, complete with a flashback to the moment when Odin laid the enchantment on it, I suppose just in case there are any particularly slow people in the audience who don’t remember something that happened about 80 minutes ago.

Aside from that, there is a nifty little sequence where the hammer leaps to Thor’s outstretched hand, restoring his life and power. There’s several quick close-ups of Thor’s armor rebuilding itself rapidly, and Jane sees her faith in this handsome stranger rewarded (though I think the whole superhero/demigod thing is just a bonus for her; she’s really just happy to have a boyfriend whose idea of “sweet talk” doesn’t consist of explaining all the ways she’s not like sand). The joke of her reacting with an “Oh. My. God.” (get it?) is either groanworthy or adorable, but I think Portman sells it well enough that I lean towards the latter.

To say this changes the balance of the fight is an understatement. Fresh out of his Power Rangers-style transformation sequence, Thor hits the Destroyer in the face with a well-aimed hammer throw which, in another nice touch, also clocks the construct in the back of the head on the return trip. This gives Thor time to form a tornado, which he flies to the top of and sucks his adversary up into as well.

The Destroyer unleashes a few more blasts, which Thor bats away, then he charges straight down, driving Mjolnir into the armor’s face even as it unleashes more energy. The combined strength of the blow plus Mjolnir redirecting Destroyer’s own energy back at it makes the armor explode real good. Thor calls off the nasty weather and does his cool guy thing, walking towards the remaining bystanders very casually even as the last suspended car comes crashing down behind him. Fight’s over.

[Epilogue note: shortly after, Hemsworth undersells a slight paraphrase of one of fandom’s favorite Thor lines in recent history, quietly muttering “I would have words with my brother.” Ah well.]

Mixed feelings here. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on: the other Asgardians being cool & professional, Thor’s mostly excellent re-ascension, a faithfully-rendered Destroyer wreaking merry havoc. There’s the aforementioned cheesy/condescending stuff that doesn’t work so well. But the main problem with this fight is that while it’s a suspenseful event for our characters, it’s just not exciting as a fight. First the Destroyer is unstoppable, then Thor is unstoppable, then it’s over; there’s no real struggle or back & forth. Ideally once Thor was restored to full power maybe he could have traded some genuine blows with the Destroyer, or at least taken more than 30 seconds to beat it. It’s a very slow build-up with a very quick resolution.

Also noteworthy: this is the only time in this superhero movie where the protagonist does “superhero” things– i.e., protects innocent humans from an enemy that’s too much for them to handle. But of course the reason the enemy is only there in the first place is because it’s looking FOR the protagonist. Again, this is an unusual superhero movie.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Brother vs  brother!

Oh, brother.

Thor (fight 2 of 4)

In which the Mighty Thor fights the Conspicuously Unarmed Humans.

2) Thor vs SHIELD agents

The Fighters:

  • Thor, now depowered by his father Odin as punishment for his arrogance and exiled to Earth. The movie is a tad sketchy on just how powerful Thor is at this point– in a short period of time, he undergoes two glancing hits from a car and a zap from a taser without any lasting ill effects– but he’s at least as strong as a really buff human. Played by Chris Hemsworth, who is coincidentally also a really buff human. Not that I noticed.
    • Armed with: Nuttin’, honey.
  • SHIELD agents and security guards, maybe eight or so of them. No names and not played by anyone of note, though if you weren’t paying attention you’d swear the last one was Michael Clarke Duncan (RIP). Thor doesn’t kill any of them, but they’ll definitely be really thore in the morning.
    • Armed with: Presumably most or all of them have sidearms, but they never get used; see below.

This is also the first movie appearance of agent Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, but he doesn’t take an active part in the fight, even though he was ready to.

The Setup: Despite the quality of Midgard’s coffee, Thor is finding mortality not to his liking, and when he gets word that his hammer has been found in the desert, he’s keen to get it back and with it, his powers. Which is odd for him to know, considering that Thor wasn’t around when his father put the “whosoever holds this hammer…” enchantment on Mjolnir, but whatever. The Odinson gets his googly-eyed caretaker Jane to drive him to the hammer’s location, but by now the US government has gotten wind of the mystical item, and created an ad hoc lab facility around it. The whole place is crawling with SHIELD agents and Thor only has approximately the superpowers of Chris Hemsworth (not inconsiderable), so he can’t quite charge right in.

The Fight: Basically, a series of small fights/beatdowns spaced out over a moderate-sized infiltration segment. Thor is a poor man’s Solid Snake, and gets extremely lucky as he sneaks around the dark facility in a poncho. Some of this not quite luck, though: an impromptu rainstorm gives the thunder god some extra cover, and the camerawork/Thor’s reaction implies that it’s his loyal hammer lending its assistance. Either way, his luck doesn’t last forever and soon the authorities are alerted to the man Die Hard-ing his way through their facility, especially as he rips through the cloth tubing walls while beating up more government goons.

Thor ditches his poncho soon enough (this may have been unintentional, but at a few points the poncho’s movements seemed to recall the cape he wears in his godly outfit) and quickly works his way closer to Mjolnir, beating up more guys on the way. One can’t help but notice that not a single agent draws a weapon on the intruder; this is papered over somewhat by the fact that Thor keeps getting the drop on his adversaries by either sneaking up on them or getting to them just as they’re rounding a corner, but come on– there’s only so many times that trick can work. Anyway, silly or no it’s still fun to watch Thor muscle his way through so many opponents.

Just before he can reach his objective, though, he has to face the mini-boss: a hulking security guard whose facial expressions seem to indicate he’s enjoying this as much as the cocky Asgardian is (presumably that excitement is the reason he too fails to draw a gun, despite having ample time). Thor even seems to accord this huge opponent a measure of respect, as their battle spills out of the facility again and into the mud. This is less homoerotic than it sounds, even with all the slow-motion. The hero takes out his adversary with a jumping double kick, and returns to his hammer… only to find that not only is it not restoring his godliness, he’s not even considered worthy enough to pick it up. When the realization sets in he goes all blue screen of death, and doesn’t even resist when the few agents he hasn’t knocked out arrive to arrest him.

“I swear, this has never happened to me before.”

Some interesting stuff is happening on the sidelines. There’s some cuts back to Jane as she realizes that she’s in over her head, and (in a handful of shots & dialogue probably added in post-production) facility head honcho “His Name Was Phil” Coulson deploys Hawkeye to a perch above the whole place as a sniper, to keep things from getting out of hand. Barton watches with arrow nocked, snarking out some of the funniest lines of the movie (“You want me to take him down, or would you rather send in more guys for him to beat up?”) as he waits for the kill order. Another nice touch is that not only does Thor’s tenacity win Hawkeye’s grudging respect, but it’s clear that Coulson can tell that something is special about this viking intruder, and eventually is even curious enough to keep off Thor’s back while he sees what will happen when blondie finds the hammer. A federal middle-manager with an actual brain, initiative and curiosity– what is this, some kind of wacky fantasy film?

This fight’s a decent change of pace from the movie’s opening bid. No more gods, monsters and magic; just ordinary fists and feet. This provides a good bit of action diversity, and it also demonstrates that even without his supernatural strength, Thor is a force to be reckoned with; he’s a warrior with skill as well as raw power, and has adapted quickly to his reduced circumstances. He even pulls a couple martial arts-esque tricks, such as binding one opponent with his own jacket. Demerits are due for the credibility-stretching contrivances necessary to make it so that not a single government agent draws on Thor, and for just how easily he’s able to get into even this impromptu federal fortress. It’s kind of like a video game, and not in a good way.

Still, it’s entertaining for what it is, even if it doesn’t aim all that high.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: DESTROY DESTROY DESTROY

“Don’t get in my face. No, really.”

Thor (fight 1 of 4)

It doth be hammertime.

Verily.

Thor is a wonderful but weird movie. Its structure is very unusual: it’s a “superhero” film where the superhero loses his powers in the first act and doesn’t regain them until the movie’s nearly over (Superman gave up his powers in Superman II, but not until later in the movie and not for nearly as long). The beginning and end are filled with brazen sci-fi/fantasy elements but most of the middle is basically an Earth-bound fish-out-of-water comedy. It starred almost total unknowns as the lead hero & villain, and was made by a director most famous for capturing Shakespearean chatter rather than big budget genre blockbusters. It’s understandable that the final product doesn’t work for everybody, but it’s really kind of miraculous the movie works at all, or even happened in the first place.

It does work for me, though. It’s my personal favorite of the first wave of “Marvel universe” movies, even if I grudgingly admit that other films are more well-rounded. But I love the character and the concept so much I can’t be so objective. More importantly for these purposes, I love the sheer gumption with which director Kenneth Branagh tackles the material: the extent to which the movie works as well as it does is mostly due to Branagh’s wholehearted commitment to the more out-there concepts of the comic book. Branagh’s Asgard is an amazingly realized version of the legendary Jack Kirby’s ideas. I could stare at it all day.

Also, there’s some fun fighting.

1) Asgardians vs Frost Giants

The Fighters:

  • Thor, prince of Asgard and god of thunder. Cocky and eager for battle. Played with gusto by Chris Thorsworth Hemsworth.
    • Armed with: Mjolnir, his mystical hammer. Made of supernatural uru metal (stated in the film to be “forged in the heart of a dying star”). Short, blunt and ridiculously powerful. It also has a leather strap on the end of the handle so he can swing it around even more dangerously. He can also use it control certain weather effects (notably lightning) and fly. Although he can’t completely control it remotely, it flies automatically to his hand when he mentally summons it, so it’s also very useful as a throwing weapon. It’s awesome.
  • Loki, younger prince of Asgard and trickster god. Though he’s the mischievous one, here he plays the voice of reason and tries to restrain his brother. Played by Tom Hiddleston, who is one of the movie’s secret weapons (even more so in The Avengers).
    • Armed with: Loki goes for magic and misdirection rather than traditional weapons. He uses the same attack repeatedly here and it’s kind of tough to tell if he’s throwing actual daggers or just magical energy bursts that are shaped like daggers.
  • Sif, a ferocious warrior woman. In the comics she’s Thor’s off/on girlfriend, but that’s wisely ditched here, as is almost all of Thor’s mortal identity. Played by Jaimie Alexander.
    • Armed with: two swords that attach into one long double-bladed staff, and a small shield.
  • Fandral the Dashing, a blonde rogue-ish type (hint’s in the name). Played by Joshua Dallas.
    • Armed with: a kind of rapier/cutlass that suits his style.
  • Hogun the Grim, a no-nonsense warrior. Played by Tadanobu Asano. He’s fine in the small role, even if I miss the mustachioed Mongol look of the comic Hogun (which, okay, maybe would have looked kind of offensive on-screen).
    • Armed with: a sick mace with retractable spikes.
  • Volstagg the Voluminous, the most portly member of the company. Played by Ray Stevenson, who even in a fat suit is not nearly the girth as the comics’ Volstagg.
    • Armed with: a double-bladed axe.
  • The Frost Giants, aka the Jotun. The ancient enemies of Asgard, living on a barren world. Radically different-looking from the source material, they’re “giant” more in the “Andre” than the “Jolly Green” sense, being only about eight or nine feet tall. Blue as a Navi smurf and made of icy flesh, with creepy red eyes. Unlike Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze they avoid making cold-related puns, which was a cool bit of restraint on the writers’ part. Played by various stunt men and CGI models, but the leader, Laufey, is classically-trained actor Colm Feore.
    • Armed with: Nothing, but their bodies and environment basically ARE weapons. They can form icy constructs from their limbs and a few of them make the ground itself around erupt into blunt or stabbing protrusions.
  • The Jotun’s big pet monster, which looks like a cross between the Rancor from Return of the Jedi and the cave troll from Fellowship of the Ring, but it runs on four legs. Pretty scary, but unfortunately its weakness is a 100 MPH hammer through the mouth. So is mine, coincidentally.

[Note that in the comics Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg collectively form a group of friends/adventurers known as the Warriors Three (because there’s three of them, see). If I had one minor quibble with the way the movie adapted the world of Asgard it would be how Branagh sort of casually presents all four of these people as just being “Thor’s buddies,” which diminishes not just the unlikely alliance of the Warriors Three but also how special Sif is. No wonder they didn’t mix things up more by including Balder.]

The Setup: Thor’s coronation ceremony was interrupted by three frost giants sneaking into Asgard’s treasure chamber. Disobeying his father’s order not to investigate the attack, Thor grabs his brother & friends, and storms off to Jotunheim to find out how they got in. Met with cryptic half-answers from King Laufey, and slowly surrounded by dozens of the large denizens, Thor is given the brush-off. That doesn’t sit well with his brash attitude, but with Loki’s calming he seems willing to walk away peacefully, until one of the giants provokes him with a taunt that is just so wonderfully schoolyard: “Run back home, little princess.” That’s all the excuse Thor needs to do what he really came here to do.

Because when all you’ve got is a hammer….

… everything looks like a face.

The Fight: There’s a fun bit just after the insult but before the action begins, as Fandral sighs and Loki mutters “damn” as both correctly anticipate what’s about to happen. Branagh pulls in close for a tight shot of Mjolnir being dropped into swinging position, and the mighty Thor starts thumping chumps left & right. His first victim goes flying upside down about 20 feet in the air and slams into a wall. That’s another one of my weaknesses, too.

Beautiful chaos ensues. The remaining Asgardians all draw their weapons and go to town. Loki starts chucking glowing projectiles everywhere and using magic tricks. More & more frosties continuously join the fray, forming ice armaments and using the world itself against the heroes. Thor’s at the center of it all, laughing and gloating even as he takes the occasional beating.

The various bits of choreography are not too complicated themselves, but Branagh does an excellent job of conveying just how frantic and busy the battle is. Each individual cut focuses on a warrior or two having their respective clashes, but in most every shot you can see more of the fight happening in the background. Loki pulls a very cool “disappearing act” move that tricks a Jotun into running off a cliff, and it’s done conspicuously enough to set up a good payoff for later in the movie (and in The Avengers). We also learn that the frost giant’s skin is like dry ice, so freezing cold that it burns Volstagg immediately on contact. This reveal is spaced out just long enough before another giant tries the same thing on Loki and finds it unsuccessful –rather than burning, the touched area turns a matching blue instead– so that the puzzling result gets the audience’s attention. There’s a nice little beat where Loki and the Jotun who tried to burn him trade quiet “WTF?” looks.

The staging seems designed to give every member of the team their own little moment in the sun, in-between shots of Big Stupid Hero Thor working out his aggression, of course. Sif plays it smooth and uses her shield to deflect a bunch of icy projectiles. Hogun is seen saving a comrade from certain death. Loki has those two aforementioned beats and Volstagg gets his burn. Fandral, nearly as cocky as Thor, does his Errol Flynn routine but gets sucker-stabbed by a sudden nest of ice spikes out of the ground. He’s alive but out of action; the casualty and the ever-increasing number of foes lead Sif to declare a tactical retreat is necessary. By then Laufey has unleashed his giant pet monster to chase them across the plain.

Honey badger Thor doesn’t give a crap and stays behind while his friends flee (Volstagg carrying the wounded Fandral), gleefully smashing in yet more Jotun-face. We get not one but two instances of Thor tossing Mjolnir straight ahead and having it fly directly back like the world’s most awesome boomerang. By the time his friends are away Thor has stepped up his game, swinging his hammer so fast it’s just a circular blur– in one nice bit, he lowers it to the ground to send chunks of ice & dirt flying into his foes’ faces like shrapnel. Eventually there’s so many frost giants around Thor has no choice but to call in an enormous thunderbolt, which strikes the ground and sends a shockwave that levels everything in sight. He ramps back up and goes flying off just in time to save the friends who had been cornered by the RancorTroll, one-shotting the poor beast by flying straight through its throat.

Unfortunately there’s still an army of pissed-off Jotun in front of the heroes, with the cliff at their back (this is the most poorly planned invasion of all time). Things look bad until the rather literal deus ex machina of Odin teleporting in on Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse. Odin tries to talk Laufey down, but Laufey demands blood and war. Odin squints his one eye (yarr), and leaves with the heroes in tow.

Fantastic fight, in every meaning of the word. In addition to the pure excitement of the glorious carnage detailed above, Branagh also manages to translate this high concept fantasy world into an action setting while still not losing a distinct superhero vibe. Pretty much all the Asgardians come across amazing here, but even amongst such heavenly creatures it’s obvious that Thor is particularly special. He’s particularly arrogant, too, and if the troublesomeness of that wasn’t sold well enough in the previous dialogue scenes, it’s definitely conveyed when watching him fight. At this stage of maturity Thor is basically a cosmic dudebro, an overpowered frat boy who can’t see past his own reckless whims.

So, six Asgardians against a small army of frost giants: how does the movie try to top this? That’s the thing… it doesn’t. It’s not that the other action scenes try and fail, it’s that they don’t even try; the remaining fights are varying degrees of good for what they’re supposed to be, but aren’t in the same league in terms of scope, excitement and intensity.This movie’s action is terribly front-loaded, which is another one of its structural oddities.

Still, can’t really hold against this fight what’s going to come (or rather, not come) later. I had a very good time.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Poncho Thor vs the United States government. Advantage?

Who da ya think?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 6 of 6)

In which our protagonists do their best Cathy Rigby.

Which is odd, because there’s not a lot of happy thoughts in this movie.

6) Li Mu Bai vs Jen Yu (round three)

The Fighters:

  • Li Mu Bai. Played by Chow Yun “I’ve heard all the jokes there are about my name, thank you” Fat.
    • Armed with: a normal taijijian.
  • Jen Yu, who’s had quite a busy day indeed. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: Green Destiny, of course.

The Setup: This picks up right after the conclusion of the previous fight. Jen, being a sore loser, rejects Yu Shu Lien’s mercy and slashes her across the arm, just in time for Li Mu Bai to arrive. She flies away (this is a running theme for her) with LMB in pursuit. He catches up to her in a picturesque bamboo forest.

The Fight: It’s certainly different, a definite change of pace. They spent most of it going on top of or in & out of the trees. The actual element of “fighting” has been dialed down to a bare minimum (occasionally their swords meet), but rather than the intense physicality of the previous battle now the staging is given over to the complicated wirework.

Complicated indeed; this must have been quite the pain in the neck to block out and execute. Sometimes, it looks pretty cool:

And then sometimes, it doesn’t. Because the precariously perched participants often look less like warriors whose mystical powers can make their bodies lighter than air… and sometimes they just look like actors who are awkwardly being held up by wires:

This is a problem with a lot of wire fu movies, or at least a problem I have with them: use it too much or inappropriately and it’s more cheesy than exciting (I think Iron Monkey is about as boring as watching paint dry, for instance). For the most part this is a film that uses its wires judiciously, to enhance rather than replace the action. But this fight goes a bit in the other direction.

Which, to be fair, is a lofty goal. After all, just a few minutes previous we had an incredibly kinetic, ground-based showdown. Trying to do one of those again would not just be repetitive, but a foregone conclusion: there’s no question that Li Mu Bai could destroy Jen effortlessly if he really wanted to. Instead, this floaty “fight” is more about two characters probing at each other and trying to make a connection. The music, dying down to mostly a lot of soothing string work, is rather supportive of this approach. And there’s the occasional shot like this that is just downright breathtaking:

Overall I’d say this fight alternates between silly and beautiful, but never at any point is it exciting. Breathtaking, to be sure, and even a few amusing bits as Mu Bai’s simple leg work sends Jen flying from her bamboo perch, or at the end when she challenges him to take Green Destiny away from her “in three moves” and he smirks and seizes it in one. She remains insolent, so he tosses the sword down a nearby waterfall, which she foolishly dives after; her subsequent abduction by Jade Fox marks the end of the encounter.

(Note: from here the fight scenes are effectively over. There is a rather cool bit later in which the Fox ends up on the receiving end of Li Mu Bai’s sword, but it’s so brief as to not warrant inclusion.)

I can’t fault it from a dramatic or narrative standpoint, necessarily. However, as an action sequence, it’s lacking. Still… it IS awful purty.

Grade: B-

Goodbye, Crouching Tiger. You weren’t always perfect, but you were real good to me.

Coming Attractions: