Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 2 of 6)

Remember what I said about how for this movie, finding the bad guy is not a “major” plot objective? Well, this is what necessitates the qualifier. And it’s quite the bench-clearer.

“Just three people for this fight? I bet we can double that.”

2) Tsai, May, Bo and Li Mu Bai vs Jade Fox and Jen Yu

The Fighters:

  • Tsai, a police detective from another province, on a vengeful hunt for Jade Fox. Sportin’ some cool facial hair. Played by Wang Deming.
  • May, Tsai’s daughter in her twenties or perhaps late teens. Seems unprofessional to bring her along on both the search for and the fight against Jade Fox, especially since she proves to be worse than useless. Played by Li Li. No, seriously.
    • Armed with: a ridiculously small knife, some kind of rope/hook she never uses, and a dart that is presumably drugged, though when it finally hits someone (her) it doesn’t seem to cause any lasting damage.
  • Bo, Sir Te’s lantern-jawed security guard. An earnest and decent sort, but quite outclassed at this level. Played by Gao Xi’an. Fun fact: at one of the screenings I went to some of my friends confessed afterwards that for a good portion of the running time they thought that Bo WAS Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat’s character), even though the two dressed & acted differently, the only visual similarity being their hairstyles. What, like you don’t have racist friends?
    • Armed with: a spear with a fat sword blade at the end. Also has some kind of a cord with a claw at the end, but he doesn’t use it in the fight.
  • Li Mu Bai, the master warrior who recently owned the even-more-recently stolen Green Destiny. Played by living legend Chow Yun Fat.
    • Armed with: a taijijian, or simple, straight, two-edged sword.
  • Jade Fox, a deadly outlaw. Long ago she murdered Li Mu Bai’s master, Southern Crane, and more recently has killed Tsai’s wife/May’s mother, who was a police officer on her trail. Ruthless & clever. Played by veteran martial art star Cheng Pei-pei.
    • Armed with: a quarterstaff that’s full of all sorts of hidden goodies, including a sword blade, a knife that launches from the other end and some sort of projectile rope/whip. She also has a tiny knife hidden in her shoe like Rosa Klebb. The lady comes prepared.
  • Jen Yu, from earlier. Still in her thief/ninja outfit. It’s here we learn that she is secretly Jade Fox’s apprentice, though as Li Mu Bai quickly deduces, she has long since surpassed her master. (The Fox’s combat prowess comes from a stolen Wudan manual, but being a barely literate peasant she could only study the diagrams, whereas Jen could fully read the complicated instructions.) Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: the Green Destiny sword, and though we’ve heard its capabilities explained before this is the first time we get to see it in action. In shape it’s basically another taijijian with a prettier design, but it’s lighter, unbreakable, rust-proof and so powerfully sharp it’s practically a lightsaber. She breaks one opponent’s weapon with it in this scene, and it will not be the last.

Phew.

Pictured: one of the very few people in this movie, if not all of China, who does NOT appear in this scene

The Setup: Bo had tracked down Tsai & May earlier and, figuring out that they’re the good guys, joined up with them to hunt for the Fox. Turns out she’s been in hiding for years and posing as a humble governess for the Yu family, which is how she managed to train & corrupt Jen from a young age. Some wanted posters have flushed her out and she’s made arrangements to face off against her longtime pursuer Tsai at midnight in this quiet courtyard.

Note that Li Mu Bai shows up about halfway through, with Jen showing up slightly later. Though it’s plausible that Jen clandestinely followed her “governess” here and intervened when she thought it necessary, it’s never explained how Mu Bai knew to show up. Mystical powers help him sense battle? Out for a midnight stroll? All the yelling & clanking woke him up? Ah, well.

The Fight: When Jade Fox shows up (she’s late. Passive-aggressive much?), there’s some taunts exchanged between her and the would-be heroes, then the fight begins. Really, it begins between Tsai and Fox; May is batted away easily and mostly stays on the sidelines from there on; Bo’s entrance is delayed because he clumsily left himself attached to the tree (for… some reason) by way of the claw-rope thing.

Fortunately, the Fox & Tsai show is plenty interesting. The choreography is excellent and much more ground-based than the previous battle we saw. It’s similarly distinct in that this isn’t a low-stakes pursuit/escape scenario; these two clearly despise and want to kill each other. The contrast between the villain’s single long-range weapon and the policeman’s twin short-range weapons makes for lots of interesting possibilities, and the staging explores them with relish.

Tan Dun’s musical score kicks in here again with gusto, and while it’s not as singular as the accompaniment to the previous action sequence, it’s plenty memorable and fits the mood of the scene perfectly: whereas the last scene’s pounding drums were all about raw adrenaline, this selection connotes genuine danger and powerful emotion. The music also rises & falls appropriately with the pace of the action, dropping to a subdued growl whenever the fight’s interrupted for dialogue beats or new challengers appearing.

Bo eventually untangles himself but mostly makes things worse. He’s far too slow to be a real threat to Jade Fox, and after parrying his swings easily she ends up using him against Tsai, first as cover and later by hooking his spear and sending him after her opponent. Bo’s main purpose in this fight is as comic relief; he cuts a very clumsy figure in this sequence and his facial expressions look downright goofy when Fox paralyzes him with a series of pressure point blows.

May’s contribution is arguably worse, as when she finally is able to shoot a dart at Fox, her enemy simply plucks it out of the air and returns it to sender. This infuriates Tsai, and Fox is able to get the best of him, but Li Mu Bai makes his entrance just in time to save the policeman (and Bo, who he un-paralyzes with another set of pressure points).

After introducing himself, Mu Bai utterly pwns Jade Fox, outclassing her at every step. This is where most of the criminal’s aforementioned tricks (which she didn’t need against Tsai) come into play: the shoe knife, the hidden cane sword, and one particularly deft move where a spin of her cloak disguises an unexpected blade thrust. But cunning or not, she’s no match for Li Mu Bai, who defuses all her tricks and even seems to revel a little bit in his long-delayed revenge. When he goes in for the kill he himself is interrupted by the arrival of Jen, who shears the tip of his sword off with Green Destiny in her opening block.

Rather than become a chaotic free-for-all, here the fight splits in two: LMB vs Jen on one side, Tsai & Bo against Jade Fox on another. The latter is just as frenzied as before, but the former takes on a different tempo, as Li is intrigued by this young girl who has learned so much. He’s mostly toying with and questioning her, as he’s (correctly) confident that she is no real match for him. There’s even one very well done beat where Fox, in a pause in her own battle, spots Jen’s movements in the fight against Mu Bai, and the shock & betrayal are quite evident on her face: her student (and closest thing she has to family) has deceived Fox about her true progress.

Too bad that Li’s curiosity doesn’t take a backseat to his need to take care of Jade Fox, because while he’s futzing around off to the side the villain kills Tsai but good: having caught one of his thrown deer horn knives (in a way that tricked him into thinking he’d killed her) she throws it back at him and it lands right in the middle of his bald forehead. Very wicked-looking, but it’s the fight’s one notable misstep, because the thrown blade is shown to travel more than slowly enough for him to get out of the way. This is even more aggravating considering that in a previous scene, we saw Tsai use chopsticks to pluck a smaller, faster-moving dart out of the air that had been shot at him while his back was turned. I appreciate that finding a good ending to a fight scene can be almost as hard as finding one for an SNL sketch, but it’s still unsatisfying when the conclusion is forced via a single act of credibility-straining stupidity (see also Revenge Of The Sith and its “I have the the high ground!” nonsense).

LMB goes after the pair but it’s pretty much over; Fox briefly delays him with couple more surprises from that seemingly bottomless staff, then she & Jen escape together. Bad guys get away, good guys are down one. Darn.

Mostly this all comes together excellently. Some slight dings for the aforementioned chumping out of Tsai, and the almost back-t0-back life-saving arrivals of new challengers (two dramatic entrances in quick succession tends to diminish the, you know, drama). Also, while the physical comedy with Bo is fairly amusing, it kind of jars tonally with the rest of the scene, especially the grisly ending.

But I can’t fault it too much. The escalating action, the varied combat, the juggling of multiple players, the dramatic beats and the excellent music– it’s just too much fun and crazy ambitious besides. It’s also the one time we get to see Chow Yun Fat’s character, who is by far the most powerful out of everyone, really cut loose. It’s to be treasured. But the best is yet to come.

(In an interesting post-script, a few scenes later it’s heavily suggested that Bo gets intimate with a grieving May, though in a way that’s a more sweet and less creepy than I just made it sound. Good for them, I suppose; it’s a happier ending than anyone else gets in this bummer of a movie.)

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Master Li gets out his whippin’ stick.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 1 of 6)

I wrote over 3,000 words about Transformers last week, you guys. I’ve earned this.

Tell me I didn’t. I dare you.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Remember how big of a deal this thing was? Over a decade ago, now. Huge international hit with critics and audiences alike, caused months of Internet buzz as its release crept slowly (agonizingly slowly, in my mind at the time) across the globe and word of its greatness spread. I believe I saw it four times in the theater.

It was a movie that really wanted to have it all. It was a serious, dramatic film with heavy social themes, a mature romance and a coming-of-age story… all while still attempting to deliver the goods with fun & entertaining chop-socky action. Not everything about it works perfectly, especially re-visiting it nowadays, but for the most part it succeeds, masterfully mixing the chocolate of High-Minded Art with the peanut butter of Kickass Action.

Also of of note: this manages to be an action film packed with thrilling fights even though “beat the bad guy(s)” is not really a major plot objective. In fact, the one genuinely villainous character is probably the least physically powerful of the principals. Here, the fights are usually about other things, mostly the expression of emotion– something the characters are otherwise forbidden to do by their society’s rigid rules and codes.

1) Yu Shu Lien vs Jen Yu (round one)

The Fighters:

  • Yu Shu Lien: a veteran warrior and master martial artist, approaching middle age. Played by Michelle Yeoh, who herself was an accomplished actress in various kung fu flicks by this point, not to mention a former ballet dancer and beauty queen.
    • Armed with: naught but her mad skillz, yo.
  • Jen Yu, the young daughter (late teens or so) of a rich aristocrat. Though we’re nominally not supposed to know it’s her yet because she’s in a “disguise” that’s only slightly more effective than Clark Kent’s, but she does definitely strike a cool figure in all that black ninja gear. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: she has stolen the movie’s plot-instigating “Green Destiny” sword, but it doesn’t come into play here. She is however skilled in the martial arts of the “Wudan” school, the advanced techniques of which allow her to be even floatier than the rest of the film’s fighters– something Shu Lien deduces quickly.

There’s also Bo, a guard, who tangles briefly with Jen early in the sequence, but we’ll get to him later.

The Setup: Shu Lien and Jen have met and done some light bonding earlier at the house of their mutual acquaintance Sir Te. Rich girl Jen has been established to be unhappy with her circumstances and envies the “free” lifestyle of impoverished adventurer Shu Lien, unaware that the lower classes have rules they must abide by as well.

Sir Te is guarding the Green Destiny, the favored weapon of Shu Lien’s friend and legendary warrior Li Mu Bai, who is seeking to retire… though the much-ballyhooed Sir Te seems to be an odd choice for safeguarding the sword, since his “security” seems to be a locked door and a single wandering guard who’s fairly useless. Jen has decided to steal the sword late at night, apparently as a short-sighted act of rebellion (most of the film’s plot hinges on her impulsive & chaotic decisions, really) and does so easily but as she glides over the rooftops to escape, she’s confronted by Shu Lien, who wants it back. They fight it out.

The Fight: First of all, there is a sweeeeeet drum score that goes over the entire sequence, stirring up when black-suited Jen initially sneaks onto the premises and abruptly stopping after she makes good her final escape. The tempo fluctuates constantly throughout, all light & mischievous at the beginning as smoothly nabs the sword & smacks around the hapless Bo, picking up pace gradually as Shu Lien spars with & pursues her, then finally erupting into a thudding, lightning-fast percussion as the last and most intense portion of the fight commences. The whole thing is expertly timed and beautifully complements the entire sequence, lending the onscreen action even more rhythmic grace than it already had. Great credit is due to classical composer Tan Dun, who scored the film, and director Ang Lee, who surely worked closely with him to give this scene its signature sound.

That onscreen action isn’t messing around either, though. The two women’s battle escalates in fits & starts as Shu Lien chases Jen throughout the quiet city, and at first Jen is more interested in getting away than she is in fighting back. Another wrinkle is added by the fact that despite Shu Lien’s experience, Jen’s Wudan training allow her to (quite literally) defy gravity much better than her pursuer can, so while the younger woman can simply propel herself directly to the rooftops, Shu Lien has to find more inventive ways to keep up, such as building her own momentum by leap-frogging off walls or taking Jen down with projectiles. As the fight continues the older woman even keeps things more grounded by repeatedly yanking her opponent down via her shoulders, belt, and feet.

One interruption in the chase involves Jen getting briefly delayed by a father & daughter pair of fighters who mistake the disguised girl for the criminal Jade Fox, who we will later they’ve been hunting for. Although the thief quickly escapes the two, this is where Bo first meets them, which will be important later.

Jen and Shu Lien’s confrontation comes to a head in an open courtyard, the ferocity of their fight ratcheting up just as the music does. It is, in a word, gorgeous.

Now they just go nuts, with all the kicking and the punching and the jumping and the glavin. So fast you can barely keep up, but it never looks over-choreographed. It’s not a completely even contest: Yu Shu Lien is clearly the superior fighter here, but it’s also clear that Jen is making her work for it. It’s hard to communicate that kind of power balance in a fight, and commendable when the filmmakers pull it off. Also, Lee and his cinematographer Peter Pau manage to film the clash from all sorts of angles, but the camera is never too busy or ostentatious so as to distract from the combat (plotted out by Hong Kong legend Yuen Wo Ping).

Shu Lien gradually begins to take control of the battle and has her opponent on the ropes, when she is interrupted by mysterious figure firing a dart at her from behind. The veteran fighter catches the projectile, but it’s enough distraction for Jen to collect herself and whoosh away for good. Shu Lien is left standing alone, and a quick-cut to a wide shot of the empty courtyard excellently underscores her frustration just as the music hits a crescendo and halts. Rumor has it that preview screenings packed with jaded film critics burst into applause at the conclusion of this scene. I believe it.

Everything works. The action builds quickly while still having enough brief interludes to keep from being repetitive. The combatants move with fluid grace. And oh my goodness that music. This was a bold opening move from Ang Lee and a strong statement of purpose for the movie. It’s firing on all cylinders and it’s unapologetically awesome.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: A certain foxy lady.

“In France, she would be called ‘la renard’ and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her.”

Transformers (fight 3 of 3)

In which Michael Bay gives us the titanic struggle between hero and the villain. After he’s done showing us a Mountain Dew machine come to life, of course.

3) Optimus Prime vs Megatron

The Fighters:

  • Optimus Prime, still the heroic leader of the Autobots and still voiced by Peter Cullen.
    • Armed with: Oddly, Prime’s awesome energy sword is nowhere to be found in this desperate struggle, very odd considering how it was used in his previous fight and how much action it sees in the sequels. He does produce a gun from somewhere in his fuselage, though. Alternate form is still a big truck.
  • Megatron, tyrannical leader of the Decepticons. Freshly awoken from suspended animation at the Hoover Dam (!). Voiced by an almost unrecognizable Hugo Weaving, better known as Agent Smith from the Matrix series.
    • Armed with: a powerful fusion cannon, which like Optimus he just sort of generates out of his own body. His alternate form is some kind of Cybertronian jet. In the cartoon he just turned into a big gun. Oh well.

There’s also Sam Witwicky, a smart-aleck teenager who’s holding the Allspark, played by Shia LeBeouf. Various other good & bad Transformers are battling it out in the background, along with the US military. And a bunch of civilians whose day is getting ruined.

The Setup: The pursuit of the Allspark has come to a head in downtown Mission City, a fictional burg of at least moderate size located somewhere in the American Southwest. The bad guys are there to destroy their remaining opposition, but they’re also trying to retrieve the MacGuffin from Sam’s puny flesh hands. The heroes are fighting outnumbered against the Decepticons, and things get worse when big daddy Megatron arrives. Optimus Prime pulls up in truck form not long after (but unfortunately too late to stop his nemesis from killing Black Robot Jazz), and Bay’s camera gives the virtuous Autobot a full tongue-bath, drawing out the transformation for an oddly long time and panning around him as triumphant music swells. Cheesy, but it works.

Similarly, I genuinely cherish the cliched moment when hero & villain lock eyes, and call out each other’s names: “Megatron.” “Prime!” With just one word each, the actors’ different deliveries manage to say a lot about their respective characters: Optimus’ voice is full of anger & grim determination, Megatron greets his old rival with a tone of sadistic relish. Let’s do this thing.

The Fight: Megatron opens with a bold move by turning back into his jet form (the inverse of what Barricade did) and charging forward; Prime grabs on from underneath and they crash through a building that is quite deliberately shown to be full of people. Sucks to be them. Once back on the ground the villain returns to robot form and they bash each other around while trading dialogue. Some of the lines don’t really make any sense*, but some work quite well, such as the villain punctuating a blow with “Join them in extinction!” (“Them” being humanity.)

[*Megatron: “Humans don’t deserve to live!” Optimus: “They deserve to choose for themselves!” Uh, what? We deserve to choose whether or not we live? Seems like that choice is a no-brainer. Are these two having separate discussions or is this whole exchange some kind of fumbled abortion metaphor? Because like Shia LeBeouf’s boxers, that’s not something anyone came to this movie for.]

Soon enough they both pull out their guns and start trading shots. Cybertronian guns are kind of weird and inconsistent in this film series: sometimes they are about as damaging/lethal as real guns are against real people (tearing holes through them and such), but other times they seem to just chip a few hit points off the target and push them backward. Anyway, this seems to be the latter case, because Prime’s gun only irritates Megatron whereas the bad guy’s fusion blast sends Optimus flying through the air to hit a building. He grunts and doesn’t get up; one Wiki summary says he’s knocked unconscious, but it’s kind of hard to tell with robots.

Either way he’s out of the action for the next several minutes, which are largely filled by Megatron chasing down Sam. Prime manages to rescue the boy just in time, but in a way that sends all three of them falling several hundred feet. The fight nominally resumes when the two aliens recover, but at this point it’s pretty much over, because Optimus is much weakened and mostly gets tossed around by Megatron. There’s some more decent dialogue: “Now it’s just you and me.” “No, Prime, it’s just ME!”

Eventually the hero can no longer move, and it’s up to the Air Force to carpet bomb Megatron, though that only slows him down enough so that Sam can kill the Decepticon by holding the Allspark right up the his chest plate. See, the device’s energy can bring normally inanimate machines to life, but when held close to a living Transformer’s heart, it kills them. Sure, why not.

This is not as infuriating as the movie’s first pathetic excuse for a “fight,” but it’s still very disappointing. The showdown basically happens in two different stages, the break being after Prime is flung away by Megatron’s cannon. The first part is cool but ends just as it starts to pick up steam; the second part barely registers and mostly consists of the film’s great “hero” getting his butt kicked, to the point where it’s up to humans to save the day. (This is extra strange considering how the film’s previous fight went out of its way to sell Optimus’ supreme combat abilities, as do the movie’s sequels.)

This is more evidence that in Michael Bay’s Transformers series (or at least in this movie), Optimus Prime is actually not the hero, Sam Witwicky is. Sam and the US military. The Transformers are pushed to the sideline in a franchise with their name on it. So from that angle it’s understandable that the fleshy, non-transforming characters get to steal so much of the spotlight, but I ask yet again: Did you come to a Transformers movie to see a story about a bunch of humans?

To be sure, there is a lot that’s competent and effective about this whole sequence, even if much of it trades on the characters’ established legacy. But what ought to be the centerpiece of the action here trails off quickly, and finishes unsatisfactorily. If this was Iron Man and it was their one minor stumble after a parade of successes, I’d be more charitable, but it isn’t so I’m not. I sat through over two hours of unfunny jokes and lame “romance” just to get here. I watched Optimus Prime step on a suburban mom’s flower bed and say “my bad.” I do not feel generous.

Grade: C-

Recommended Links: It’s kind of astonishing just how many errors this movie made.

Interesting AV Club essay about the works of Michael Bay.

The movie I’m counting on to succeed where Transformers failed.

Coming Attractions: Turns out a “serious” filmmaker can make a better action movie than the action filmmaker, if he puts his mind to it.

Don’t look THAT surprised.

Transformers (fight 2 of 3)

Well it took about 5/6ths of a 2 hour+ movie, but Michael Bay was able to deliver some goods.

pew pew

2) Optimus Prime vs Bonecrusher

The Fighters:

  • Optimus Prime (whose original Japanese name was the rather uninspiring “Chief Convoy.” So… U-S-A! U-S-A!), heroic leader of the Autobots. Voiced by longtime vocal actor Peter Cullen, who also played Prime in the 1980s cartoon.
    • Armed with: Mainly, a glowing energy sword that deploys from his arm. Currently “disguised” as Peterbilt 379 truck cab, though without the character’s iconic trailer (boo!).
  • Bonecrusher, a Decepticon. Voiced by Jim Wood.
    • Armed with: His main weapon is an articulated arm with grabber claw (it comes from his vehicle form), which he uses a bit like a scorpion’s tail. Which is kind of weird because there’s already a scorpion robot in the movie, but whatever. Currently “disguised” as a Buffalo MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored vehicle.

The Setup: The heroes have the Allspark MacGuffin, but chief bad guy Megatron has been awakened and rallied all Decepticons on planet in pursuit. Bonecrusher seems to have gotten there first, and switches to robot form right there on a crowded freeway and starts smashing up civilian cars in his path. Optimus is having none of that, because “not getting crushed by a huge alien while driving to work” is the right of all sentient beings.

The Fight: Bonecrusher gets the first move with a running tackle that sends them both plummeting off road onto another freeway below. Once they both get up Optimus takes control of the fight and slow-mo uppercuts (you can see Bonecrusher’s eye rattle as the punch connects) the Decepticon so hard he falls down even further, onto the car-free underpass. The Decepticon rallies and is still down to fight, but Prime makes a canny use of a support pillar as cover– he dodges Bonecrusher’s lunging “tail” and quietly unsheathes his blade. When the villain moves in from the other side, Optimus is ready to slash him, then grabs him in a headlock and jams the energy sword through Bonecrusher’s skull. Vertically.

NEXT.

On one level, this is not much of a fight; it actually lasts slightly shorter than what we saw of the previous confrontation. But oh, what a difference a few details make.

First of all, it’s short but we see all of it. There is only the briefest of cutaways to some puny humans: a nearby child shouts “cool, Mommy!” which is mildly irritating at worst; I mean, it’s not like he’s incorrect, and it more complements the flow of the action rather than breaks it up. The brevity is also a function of the nature of this skirmish, its purpose in the plot being to establish Optimus’ toughness, as well as how this film’s version differs from the Prime most 80s kids knew– in addition to being inspiring and courageous, he’s also a ruthlessly efficient killer. Therefore, it’s less of a fight and more of a beatdown. Note that a second plot purpose has been served because between the short fight and the two-story drop, Optimus is separated from his companions, and will thus be making a fashionably late entrance to the climactic throwdown.

Speaking of that two-story drop, it plays very well on-screen and really helps sell the scope of the battle/the power of the combatants. The scene is shot in broad daylight, so all the details of the multi-level battle are perfectly clear, and while the steady concussion of Steve Jablonsky’s musical score is a bit generic, it serves the action nicely.

More would have been nicer, but more will come soon enough, and the improvement is much appreciated.

Grade: B

Recommended Links: For such a powerful character, Optimus Prime sure does die a lot.

Coming Attractions: The final battle (for this movie anyway) ensues. One shall stand, one shall fall, and one irritating human shall get to do the honors for some reason.

You’ll always be my Megatron, Frank.

Transformers (fight 1 of 3)

“I asked Michael, ‘wouldn’t it be easier for NASA to train astronauts how to drill rather than training drillers to be astronauts?’ and he told me to shut the f*** up.” – Ben Affleck, Armageddon DVD commentary

And then he made Argo.

Oh, Mister Bay. How you vex me.

These movies are famous. Infamous, really. They made zillions of dollars and absorbed just as many critical potshots, becoming practically synonymous with dumb, loud, action blockbuster filmmaking. Outside of the Star Wars prequels it’s hard to think of any film and/or franchise that’s as easy a target as Michael Bay’s Transformers.

Pretty much everyone “knows” how stupid they are, but I posit that we really do not appreciate it. The general line on them is “Yeah, they’re stupid, but at least they’re entertaining” or perhaps less generously, “they’re just a bunch of nonstop action with no real plot.” But that’s not true; in fact, either of those would be a step up from what the Transformers franchise is. The Transformers franchise is nonstop boring punctuated by occasional bits of More Boring.

Fun, stupid action would be nice. It would provide a break from the dozens of superfluous human characters, the needlessly complicated plots, the pathetically bad attempts at humor, and the shockingly overt racism. A break, in other words, from the tedium. Even the people who are inclined to like porn movies wouldn’t like them if all the sex was cut out*, and that’s basically what the Transformers movies are: big dumb action movies without the action. There is some action, to be sure, but it’s often fleeting or poorly constructed or both.

[*I guess these would be poorly-lit short films where a creepy plumber or pizza delivery man makes awkward conversation with a sad-eyed girl who remains fully clothed throughout.]

The killer is this: Michael Bay is not untalented. He is supremely competent at certain things (you think making Martin Lawrence look like a badass is easy?), and has a unique visual style that the rest of Hollywood is trying to keep up with. I even admire his unabashed, non-cynical patriotism. But he’s wildly self-indulgent, and makes bad choices– over and over. It’s painful to watch him waste his talent. And the Transformers franchise? It came ready made for him to not screw up, yet he did it anyway. It carried a couple generations of nostalgic goodwill, and a deviously simple core concept: “There are robots that transform into other things, they punch each other.” Why he felt the need to bury that concept under hours of unfunny jokes, military fetishism and lazy stereotypes, I’ll never know.

Anyway, we’ll be looking at three fights from the film. It gets a little hard to distinguish what constitutes a fight here, especially as the climax is a little chaotic and it’s tough to decide if a Special Forces squad shooting at a Decepticon is a “fight.” There are basically three distinct ones that I remember, though, and we’ll stick with those for simplicity’s sake. If I rewatched the film from beginning to end I might find more, but as it is I’m only watching the ones I remember on YouTube, because the movie’s not on Netflix and if you think I’m actually going to pay money to watch Transformers again you can kiss my Allspark.

1) Bumblebee vs Barricade

The Fighters:

  • Bumblebee, humble & heroic Autobot whose vocal cords were damaged in battle (he “talks” by somehow queuing up his radio to play appropriate song/movie clips). So, no voice actor.
    • Armed with: Cybertronians in these films are a bit unpredictable with weaponry. They use brute force a lot, but their bodies also hold varying weapons, both bladed and projectile. Currently “disguised” as a 1977 Chevrolet Camaro.
  • Barricade, an evil Decepticon we don’t ever learn much about.Voiced by Jess Harnell, who you probably recognize better as Wakko from Animaniacs.
    • Armed with: a pair (or one? It’s hard to see) of some sort of spiky-whip things. He’s also one of those Transformers who comes equipped with a smaller Transformer inside them– in his case it’s the hyperactive Frenzy, who is tiny but all sharp edges. Currently “disguised” as a police car.

Sam & Mikaela (Shia LeBeouf & Megan Fox) are also there, and even though they don’t participate in the fight, you’ll see why I included them shortly.

The Setup: Bumblebee is protecting Spike from Barricade, because Spike is in possession of his great-great-grandfather’s glasses which have on them a secret tiny map to the film’s MacGuffin. It’s all needlessly elaborate, and that’s not even involving the stuff with the Special Forces squad, the creepy CIA agent, the Defense Secretary, or the hot Australian code breaker and her nerd pals. Anyway, it takes place in what looks like some kind of factory/warehouse area– I almost said construction site but no, it’s just another place where construction tools are helpfully left out overnight. Barricade has already revealed himself to Sam and confronted him about the glasses…

“The ‘good cop’ guy stayed home today.”

… and with Bumblebee’s subtle help (he’s just acting like a weird car, not having transformed yet) they’ve escaped to an isolated place for the confrontation.

The Fight: There’s actually a pretty good build-up here, as Bumblebee dumps the humans out of the front seat and transforms into his robot form, assuming a combat stance. If there’s one thing Michael Bay gets right, it’s hero shots. Barricade goes for a different route, driving toward his foe at full speed and transforming on-the-go, using the momentum to start off with a rather acrobatic flying tackle.

After a few more follow-up blows, the Autobot rallies and smashes Barricade into a small building. They continue fighting… but we miss it. Why? Because Frenzy, who Barricade released at the start of the fight, went to chase off after Sam & Mikaela and that’s what Michael Bay decides to show us.

Frenzy chases them, ripping off Sam’s jeans in the process, and after some wrestling Mikaela saws his head off with a drill. By the time that’s over, the real fight has finished: Bumblebee’s standing there alone, and Barricade is gone. We don’t know how he was beaten, but later on there’s a quick insert shot of the villain lying in pain on the ground, because apparently Bumblebee, a veteran soldier fighting a desperate war, didn’t want to finish him off, for… some reason. He shows up in the climax later, just fine.

This barely even qualifies for grading: there are maybe forty seconds total of the two aliens actually fighting (I counted) and about half of that is one or the other of them transforming, and Barricade swinging his chains as he unleashes Frenzy. Normally I might not even consider this worthy of inclusion, but I’m stretching a bit because I find this entire incident so perfectly emblematic of how Bay dropped the ball on the franchise.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I think this scene happens somewhere close to halfway through the movie. So it takes about an hour for this movie, that is built entirely around the premise of giant robots punching each other, to get to its first scene of giant robots punching each other, and it’s over practically as soon as it starts because Bay cuts away to one of the least interesting things in the world. Did anyone walk into the theater hoping to see Shia LeBeouf’s boxer shorts and Megan Fox attacking a teddy bear-sized robot with a power tool? No, I don’t think they did, though a lot of guys might have been content if it had been the other way around. What we came for was giant robots punching each other. Michael Bay and his screenwriters cruelly denied this to us.

The only reason I can mark this as high as I’m going to is because what short glimpses we do see of the fight are really darn cool. The CGI here is actually quite convincing and “feels” weighty, like there’s real substance there, and the robots themselves move with a strange & brutal gracefulness. And of course there’s that cool intro. But in the end there’s simply no excuse for staging an action sequence this way. Heck, the fact that what we do see is so compelling is all the more reason to be upset that it gets yanked away from us in exchange for garbage.

Grade: D+

Recommended Links: The whole scene, if you want to time it yourself. Sam & Mikaela fight 20 seconds longer than Bumblebee does.

Shia LeBeouf is really kind of full of himself, apparently. But don’t let him hear you say that, because he’ll totes beat you up, brah.

Coming Attractions: The movie perks up a bit as we discover that Optimus Prime is one bad mothertrucker.

This will end badly for one of you.

Iron Man (fight 3 of 3)

“That armor really tied the room together.”

3) Iron Man vs Iron Monger

The Fighters:

  • Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. You know the drill by now. Played by Robert Downey Jr.
    • Armed with: The same “Mark III” Iron Man armor we saw earlier. However, the ARC reactor powering it has been stolen by the villain, and Tony is making do with the early, inferior and much-depleted version.
  • Obadiah Stane, a man with a name so overtly evil-sounding his parents could only have done worse if they’d named him something like “Lord Malacath.” Aka Iron Monger, though he’s never called that in the movie; the character’s comic book title is only used in a single oblique reference. Tony’s business partner and quasi-mentor, who had secretly contracted the Ten Rings to murder Tony. Played with gusto by national treasure Jeff Bridges.
    • Armed with: the Iron Monger armor (Mark… Zero, I guess?). A larger, more powerful and less colorful version of Stark’s own suit. Stane had previously recovered the remnants of the Mark I armor, and you can really see where he built directly off of that design whereas Tony went in a much different direction. The Iron Monger suit looks like the original Iron Man on steroids, and kitted out with more traditional heavy weapons, including a gatling gun and missile launcher– a contrast to the sleek, futuristic tech of the Mark III.

The fight largely takes place on a crowded highway, so there’s lots of civilians too. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, never better) is nearby, staying out of the action but playing a vital supporting role.

The Setup: Stane has just incapacitated Tony and stolen the fancy new ARC reactor right from out of his chest. Pepper, having stumbled onto Stane’s villainy (she clicked on the  “EVIDENCE OF ME WORKING WITH TERRORISTS, PLS DON’T SHOW 2 COPS , LOL” folder on his desktop), is leading a group of SHIELD agents to arrest him, unfortunately just as he dons the newly-working armor for the first time. He proves a surprisingly quick study (maybe he practiced in a simulator?) and makes short work of the agents. He’s about to terminate Pepper as well, when her not-boyfriend Tony shows up…

The Fight: … via rocket-powered flying tackle. The two go through the ground, a wall on the floor below, and a truck on the highway nearby. Pretty cool.

Even though Tony opens strong, Obadiah dominates most of the fight, slapping & smashing Stark around. Iron Man gets in a few good hits and moves–including one big blast from his chest beam– but not enough to break through Stane’s thick armor plating. He also gets in a surprising amount of dialogue and Bridges, delightfully hamming it up as the villain, delivers his lines with sadistic glee. His suit’s amplification system even lends his words a menacing growl. Oddly, Tony rarely replies to his opponent’s’ taunts, and while I get that that reflects Stark is being the more serious & mature combatant, it’s a shame that Tony’s trademark wit (and Downey’s verbal dexterity) couldn’t be deployed in the service of some serious barb-trading.

Iron Monger’s pure physical power is probably greater than Iron Man’s, but it’s clear that Stark’s suit is superior overall, as is his brain. It’s clear this hero could almost certainly beat this villain in a fair fight but, and this is the maddening part, the fight isn’t fair: Iron Man is hobbled before he even shows up. Since Tony is forced to use a ramshackle version of the ARC reactor that runs his suit, his power is diminished and constantly dropping; his dry British onboard computer tells him just before arrival that he’s at “48% and falling.” Jarvis’ verbal reminders about his rapid power loss become so constant throughout the scene that even Tony gets sick of hearing it. From a storytelling perspective it works fairly well (there’s some excellent plotting about how Tony lost the new reactor and why he had the previous model ready at hand) but as a fight scene this is incredibly frustrating. It’s not very fun to watch the hero spend the entire climax in a position of weakness.

Still, the filmmakers do the best they can and use the opportunity to show off Tony’s cleverness. He diverts most of what little power he has into that well-timed chest blast, and in a more impressive move, he tricks Stane into following him upwards, climbing so high in the sky that his suit is temporarily disabled by the ice buildup and sent plummeting to Earth. Thud. But Obadiah is only briefly slowed down and things go even worse for the increasingly weakening Iron Man as they continue their fight on the rooftop of Stark Industries.

“Bad hug, BAD HUG! I NEED AN ADULT”

Tony does get in another tactically smart move, as well as his best line, when he rips out some exposed circuitry from Iron Monger’s metal neck, glibly saying “This looks important!” This buys Stark some time, as Stane’s targeting computer is disabled and he has to open the suit’s canopy just to see. Tony himself also sheds his helmet and a few other bits of damaged, depowered armor.

The fight ends unexpectedly, with Tony dangling precariously over a ledge and Iron Monger finished off by Pepper (at Tony’s direction) blowing the large-scale ARC reactor sky high. For some unexplained reason, the enormous blast only knocks Stark aside to safety while lethally electrocuting Stane, despite the latter being on the edge of the explosion while the former was right in the center of it. Okay, sure. The end.

This is a bit of a disappointment, and ends an otherwise perfect movie on a bit of a deflated (not to say bad) note. Look, I understand that heroes, even superheroes, don’t have to always be in charge, winning, or at the top of their games. I appreciate that even a character like Iron Man, who’s all about epic extravagance and high-tech bells & whistles, needs to be forced to operate under humble circumstances. But not for the entire climax, and not after this kind of build-up.

I think the writers kind of painted themselves in a corner here. By the time the film’s ending rolled around they’d built up the Mark III suit to be so dangerous they had trouble thinking up a credible threat to it, so they punted a bit by Kryptonite-ing the hero; fortunately, this is a problem they were able to overcome quite well for the sequel’s climax. As I said above I like a lot of how this works from a storytelling/thematic standpoint, but the action fan in me is left disappointed nonetheless. But I do appreciate how they tried to make some lemonade out of things by showcasing Tony’s creative thinking and plotting out an unconventional finishing blow. And again, Bridges’ performance is a joy to watch (well, to hear)– this is a guy who knows he’s a supervillain and revels in it.

Grade: C+

Coming Attractions: They can’t all be winners, folks. In the site’s darkest hour (so far), we transform, and roll out.

Not in the good way, unfortunately.