The Matrix Reloaded (fight 3 of 6)

Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

“Nice to meet you. I’m in this movie for no reason. You?”

3) Neo vs Seraph

The Fighters:

  • Neo, the prophesied savior and so forth. Played by Keanu Reeves.
  • Seraph, another sentient program within the Matrix. His responsibility is to protect the Oracle, though it’s hinted at that that’s not what he was originally designed for or what he’s always done. One of the few named, non-Agent character who’s not dressed like a goth teenager’s wet dream. Played by Collin Chou, though originally the role was intended for Michelle Yeoh, and later Jet Li.

Nobody’s armed with anything here, it’s all hand-to-hand.

The Setup: Neo’s been looking for the Oracle, who he hasn’t seen since before his embracing his One-ness. Receiving a summons from her, he arrives alone at this small tea shop, finding only Seraph (a class of angel mentioned in the Bible), who appears in his “Matrix vision” as a lot of shining white code. After brief introductions, Seraph offers up a pre-emptive apology for the “fight” (read: brief inconvenience) he’s about to cause.

The Fight: The previous fight was relatively toothless, but that one at least had people getting hit. This one doesn’t even have that much.

Oh, it’s all very well-choreographed. There is all manner of fancy swinging, dodging, countering and elaborate footwork. Early on, Seraph does a neat trick where he gradually circles around Neo as they clash, which eventually forces them to both take the fight upward to the small tables in the room, where it stays for the duration. Unnecessary, but kind of neat how they maintain their balance.

And whatever else, the Wachowski still knew how to film a fight scene at this point. They know when to make their shots close-ups, long, medium, overhead, profile, static, moving, etc., and always with the well-applied spice of slow-motion. Don Davis’ fast-paced Asian drums are fun, a sort of a callback to the cheesy riffs that opened up the first movie’s dojo scene. There’s definite skill on display both with the combatants and the filmmaking.

However, it’s still a big nothing. As complex as it is, it’s over in less than a minute, and the closest thing to a genuine connecting blow is Neo palming Seraph on a chest, and Seraph only uses the momentum to launch himself into a backflip anyway. The skill level of Neo’s angelic opponent is unclear, because even though they fight to a virtual standstill it’s likely that Neo was holding back in order to not hurt someone he thinks is an ally… but then Seraph may have been holding back as well, because he was only fighting hard enough to test Neo.

Yes, “test.” When Seraph cuts the fight short, he explains that the tangle was necessary in order to verify Neo’s identity. When Neo snarks that Seraph could have just asked, he replies with deadpan sincerity “You cannot truly know someone, until you fight them.” Which, uh… lolwhut?

This fight’s existence makes no sense. The Oracle has this super kung fu guy as her 24-7 protection who insists upon engaging in sophisticated authentication procedures (to sniff out shape-shifters?), even though she can literally see the future? And where was this guy in the first movie? I distinctly remember that the Oracle used to have an apartment that pretty much anyone was able to walk in & out of. Did all those weird bald kids have to get their asses kicked by Seraph before they were allowed to come in and bend spoons in the living room? Maybe this is a new security procedure on account of Agent Smith’s recent antics, but his powers distinctly do not include impersonating other people, so….

Doesn’t make much point from a pacing standpoint, either. It has indeed been a long time since this movie flexed its action muscles, and audiences were itching for a fight after being forced to sit through an interminable scenes of a slow-motion cave rave, Keanu’s buttcrack, and meandering discussions with Anthony Zerbe about “choice.” But the audience is due for one doozy of a fight– arguably its centerpiece– less than ten minutes after this one ends, so….

I just don’t understand the Wachowskis. Does that mean I have to fight them?

Grade: C

Coming Attractions: Let’s get Burly.

Like this, but more realistic. Mostly.

The Matrix Reloaded (fight 2 of 6)

“Brooks Brothers Team… ATTACK!”

2) Neo vs Agents

The Fighters:

  • Neo, hero of the first film and savior of the human race finally having claimed his destiny… or so he thinks. Played by Keanu Reeves.
    • Armed with: Neo’s powers as the anagrammatical “One” grant him superior strength, speed, durability, reaction time, etc. That’s just counting what he uses in this fight and not getting into his powers of flight, limited telekinesis, “code vision” etc. More on that in a moment.
  • Agent Johnson, Agent Thompson and Agent Jackson. The three new Agents (replacing the first film’s Smith, Jones and Brown) are briefly recognized by Neo as “upgrades” to the previous model, presumably as a handwave explanation for why it’s not even MORE easy for him to beat them. I once read a Matrix wiki editor’s explanation that the upgraded Agent model traded advanced power for diminished intelligence/situational awareness, but I suspect that’s fanwankery because I doubt the machine overlords operate on a system of limited “skill point” distribution like in a tabletop RPG. Anyway, they *are* all noticeably taller. Played by Daniel Bernhardt, Matt McColm and David Kilde.
    • Armed with: Presumably they have the standard-issue Agent handguns, but they don’t use them. After all, Neo can stop bullets… and only bullets. So punching & kicking would still work, in theory.

This leads into one of the main gripes I (and few others, it seems) have with the Matrix sequels: the furious backpedaling the Wachowskis did about what being “The One” means. At the end of the first movie, Neo pulls off several seemingly impossible feats as part of assuming his destiny and completely transgressing the boundaries of his digital prison: he stops bullets because he “knows” they’re not real, he effortlessly parries all of Smith’s blows because he can bypass all the Matrix’s limitations on speed, and he flies away at the end because the world’s gravity has no meaning to him.

All those things he did were mere manifestations of his overall cyber-deity status, but the sequels posit that The One actually has a very narrow power set, limited mostly to what we saw him do at the end of The Matrix. Now we “learn” that Neo stopped bullets, moved fast enough to block lots of punches and flew because… he has the very specific powers of stopping bullets, moving really fast and flying. It’s a maddeningly obtuse way of rewriting the films’ history. I understand why the Wachowskis did it: if Neo had been basically God rather than merely another “superhero,” there would be no believable physical challenges for him in the sequels… but then, if the only way you can make an interesting sequel is to lie about what happened at the end of your first film, maybe that’s a sign you shouldn’t be making that sequel. Sometimes I feel like Annie Wilkes: “He didn’t get out of the caca-doody car!”


The Setup: Neo, Morpheus, and many others are attending an in-Matrix meeting regarding some really troubling intelligence reports. Neo’s called out of it when he has a visitor at the door in the form of rogue Agent Smith, who left him a cryptic message in the form his old discarded earpiece. Neo misses Smith, but arrives in time to see through the door and realize that three different Agents are about to arrive. He warns off the rest of the redpills and faces off the new arrivals alone.

Neo’s faux-casual “Hiya, fellas” after they break the door down sounds a bit stilted, but the way the Agents talk amongst themselves in short, rapid-fire sentences– reminiscent of the way twins in kids’ movies finish each others’ sentences– is creepily amusing.

The Fight: Thompson first lunges out on his own with a few exploratory attacks, which Neo dodges & blocks with literally one hand behind his back. Many of Thompson’s moves seem unnecessarily fancy, in a way we never really saw the Agents behave during physical action scenes in the first movie– Smith came off as deadly and skilled, yes, but he was never ostentatious, at least not in terms of martial arts. Agents aren’t supposed to be badass martial artists, they’re supposed to be efficient killing machines. Some of that might be owed to the fact the power imbalance has changed, so it’s the Agents flailing desperately against the humans, but that only goes so far. Cool moves like spin kicks and so forth are all too human; it’s a bit incongruous to see an Agent using them. It’s one of many touches, both big and small, in these films that made audiences feel like the Wachowskis had lost their way.

How bored does the guy on the far left look?

Thompson finally grabs Neo’s wrist (the contact seems to be what clues him off to the trio’s “upgraded” nature) and the fight kicks off in earnest from there, with the other two joining the fray and Don Davis’ musical score kicking in.

Even against the superior models, the fight’s all too easy for Neo. He’s constantly one step ahead of them, avoiding their attacks and even using their few successful moves (mostly in terms of their throws & shoves giving him momentum; not once is he ever struck) against them. In fact, Neo’s SO successful that on closer examination of the fight, it’s harder to tell whether this is achieved by good he is or by how often his enemies seem to “coincidentally” happen to facilitate him. The most egregious example is also the most notable move of the fight, where Neo is launched in the air by an Agent but instead grabs a light fixture & swing around on it horizontally, using the momentum of the swing to kick an Agent who was jumping at him. Why was the Agent right there at that exact time in Neo’s brief airborne shenanigans, if not to line himself up perfectly to get kicked?

It’s all a bit over-choreographed, and self-consciously “cool.” This will be a running theme throughout the second and third movies: whereas the original drew strength from a seemingly effortless confidence, the sequels just seem arrogant or full of themselves– more like posers. Such a fine yet crucial distinction.

Also, as much as it works on a technical level (even when you can see the seams, the choreography still impresses), the fight feels a bit toothless, weightless, insubstantial. Neo’s out-maneuvering his adversaries and hitting them hard, but for some reason the impacts just don’t sell, they don’t look like they hurt. To a certain extent that’s understandable because the Agents are just computer programs and while they can be damaged they cannot feel pain, but you still find yourself missing a certain sense of punishment, of raw and visceral force being meted out. Paradoxically, the fight is disappointingly short AND boringly long; too brief to be a genuinely exciting struggle, but not brutal enough to be a gleeful beatdown.

Still, it is definitely a “Matrix” fight. Gravity is selectively defied via some well-applied wire work, slow-motion abounds, and plenty of kung is fu’d. It’s just not enough.

Grade: C+

Recommended Links: Long-time fans of the actor will remember that Keanu IS secretly an “agent,” himself.

Coming Attractions: Seraph apologizes to Neo. He ought to apologize to the audience.

Don’t act all confused. You know what you did.

The Matrix Reloaded (fight 1 of 6)

Whoa 2.0.

This movie was released just a little over ten years ago, to the delight of some, the disappointment of others, and the confusion of many. I won’t get too deep into my feelings on the film overall, at least not at first, because I still don’t quite know what to think about it. It presents a lot of ideas that are really fascinating or just plain neat, such as the way physical keys act as a way to access “back doors” within the computer world. It’s so stylistically overblown and needlessly convoluted that at times I half-suspect it’s deliberately satirizing itself/messing with its audience*. Similarly, depending on my mood I can’t tell if all the sequels’ endless philosophical blather is the filmmakers going over my head or or up their own butts, though I usually lean towards the latter. Still, the attempt is… admirable.

[*I more than half-suspect the third movie does so. When the Merovingian ominously tells the heroes early on that he’ll help them only if they provide him with “the eyes of the Oracle,” Trinity snaps and declares “we don’t have TIME for stupid fetch-quest crap like in the last movie!” in almost as many words.]

Whatever The Matrix Reloaded is, it is quite definitely, for good and for ill, not The Matrix. The film’s fight scenes, though largely technically well-done and reasonably entertaining, provide one very interesting metric in this regard. Let’s get to it.

1) Trinity vs Unfortunate Security Guards

The Fighters:

  • Trinity, master kung fu hacker and girlfriend of the digital messiah. Played by Carrie-Ann Moss.
    • Armed with: I do believe she’s packing some serious guns, but here she sticks with using her motorcycle helmet to devastating effect. Come to think of it, the motorcycle itself gets rather weaponized, too.
  • Security guards, five of them. A bunch of meatheads in the wrong place on the wrong shift. Played by stunt men.
    • Armed with: Batons.

The Setup: This fight and Trinity’s bad encounter with an Agent that follows are revealed to be part of a prophetic dream that Neo’s having, the meaning of which won’t be clear until later. But even though we don’t know the context, it’s clear enough that Trinity is storming whatever building this chumps are guarding, just as the opening action scene in the first movie made it clear that she was cornered and running from dangerous forces.

The Fight: Trinity makes a strong opening move by literally dropping in on her motorcycle from atop a neighboring building. The bike itself crashes and makes quite a fireball out of the guard shack, but of course not before our ninja gal had time to jump off and land in a self-consciously Super Cool pose in front of the explosion:

Filmed in super slow-motion, just in case you somehow missed how COOL it was.

The surviving guards come at Trinity in a rush, but she makes short work of them, using a combination of her limbs and her headgear. She does pull off a few neat moves, the first being a slow motion high flip (during which she kicks a guy while upside down), and the second being the “scorpion kick” (so called because she leans her torso so far forward her kicking loops around the back way like a scorpion’s tail) she uses as her finisher.

Curiously, she only seems to hit each guy about once or twice each, and once they go down they stay down. Paying close attention to the fight you’re actually surprised to see how quickly it’s over, and in more of a “wait, she already beat them all?” sense than a “wow, look how quick she beat them!” one. The impacts aren’t sold like they should be. This will be a recurring theme for this film.

Speaking of recurrence, this sequence is, as alluded to above, quite clearly intended to invite comparison to the first Matrix. They both open with a brief but attention-grabbing action sequence starring Trinity in a mysterious situation, though as noted here her role is offensive rather than defensive. Here, though, it just doesn’t carry the same weight; no one seeing this movie is a stranger to this world and we’ve seen what people like Trinity can do.

Still, it’s not bad as whistle-whetters go. The pace will pick up from here, but looking back it’s easy to see the writing on the wall for how things are going to be different.

Grade: B-

Recommended Links: To be fair, here’s a thoughtful piece defending what’s good about the Matrix sequels.

Coming Attractions: Neo knows even MORE kung fu!

And a new tailor!

The Incredibles (fight 3 of 3)

Freakin’ robots, man.

3) The Incredibles and Frozone vs Omnidroid

The Fighters:

  • The Incredibles: Bob/Mr. Incredible, Helen/Elastigirl, Dash and Violet. An ersatz Fantastic Four family that’s finally embraced their destiny as a crime-fighting team– an old job for the parents and a new one for the kids.
  • Lucius Best aka Frozone, a close friend of the Parr family (he was best man at their wedding) and another superhero. Although retired and adjusted relatively well to civilian life, he’s been going on occasional covert vigilante outings with Bob, and is doesn’t hesitate to spring back into action when he sees the Omnidroid wreaking havoc in the city– there’s a very funny segment where he argues with his wife about where she put his old superhero gear.
    • Armed with: Roughly analogous to Marvel’s Iceman, Frozone’s powers are related to ice and cold. He can instantly freeze nearby water or even moisture straight out of the air, and failing that can use the moisture in his own body. The boots on his super suit can transform instantly into a sort of high-tech snowboard. Voiced by Samuel L Jackson, who’s clearly having fun.
  • Omnidroid version 10.0, the biggest & baddest one yet.
    • Armed with: In addition to being the size of a large house, this Omnidroid has SIX weaponized tentacles (the claws of which can detach or be manually launched) and a swiveling laser cannon near its sensor.

The Setup: The end-stage of Syndrome’s plan with the perfected Omnidroid is to launch and then re-drop it from orbit into a populated area so that people will assume it’s an alien craft, then eventually have it attack everything in sight– it’s kind of the inverse of the plot of The Iron Giant, come to think of it. Syndrome will then show up and “defeat” his creation, passing himself off as a new superhero. It goes off pretty well at first, but the robot has actually grown sentient enough to rebel against Syndrome, and before knocking him out was able to separate the villain from the wrist-gauntlet he’d been using to control Omnidroid. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Syndrome, the Incredibles have escaped from captivity and made their way to the site of Omnidroid’s debut.

There’s a really beautiful moment between Bob & Helen, where the big guy shows his vulnerable side as he reluctantly reveals that he’s “not strong enough” to face the very idea of losing his family. Unfortunately this nice family discussion is interrupted by the arrival of a giant murder-bot. I hate when that happens.

What follows is something superhero fans had been waiting to see actualized on the big screen for decades: a team of superheroes fighting against an honest-to-gosh giant robot attacking the city. In 2004, that was a revelation. Heck, it hasn’t been re-attempted since, though Joss Whedon deserves credit for having a team of superheroes fight off an alien armada that had been attacking the city, even if it’s not fair to the aliens because they didn’t have a Hulk.

The Fight: The initial onslaught from Omnidroid scatters the family and leaves the kids too frazzled to react properly. Violet gets her wits about her in time to save herself and Dash from the robot with a shield. She can withstand several blows from the machine’s limbs, but the force of it dropping its entire body on the shield is too much for her, breaking the force field. Mr. Incredible then stops the robot from crushing the both of them by bench-pressing it with all four limbs, which gets him seized and thrown through a nearby office building. He responds by jumping out and knocking Omnidroid down with a flying tackle. He’s helped by the arrival of Frozone, whose ice attacks against the machine’s joints don’t seem to do more than annoy it.

When Bob finds and realizes the importance of Syndrome’s remote, the tenor of the scene changes. Omnidroid does everything it can to keep the Incredibles from holding on to and using the remote (before the fight ends, random button-mashing will knock off another whole limb from the robot, and launch it several hundred feet in the air), which necessitates its changing hands a lot. In a clever callback to an earlier scene which combined their respective powers (a superhero twist on the typical “Dad tossing the football” thing), Bob tells his son to “go long” and throws the remote so far only a speedster like Dash could catch it. Helen– seizing a manhole cover and bending her arm around a light pole to create enough momentum to launch it, a rather awesome move– knocks out Omnidroid’s cannon, which is kind of too bad because it was cool as heck to watch Dash dodge all those laser blasts.

pew pew pew

The robot is still dangerous enough even with its offensive capacity diminished and pursues Dash onto a body of water, but fortunately Frozone is there to skate to Dash’s rescue, creating ice walkways for them to slide around on. There’s another fun bit where Frozone insta-freezes a giant splash from Omnidroid to cushion everyone’s fall.

We learn that the machine is still projectile-capable when it launches a claw at Robert to keep him from seizing the remote, though the loss of that claw causes the robot to stumble on one of Lucius’ ice slicks. An invisible Violet finally seizes the remote, and that, combined with Bob’s recollection that the robot’s shell is not strong enough to withstand blows from its own limbs, leads to the family launching the forgotten claw straight at Omnidroid’s metal heart, ripping its power source right out. Thunk.

Really great work is done here. The city setting is a change of scenery, since the majority of the film’s action having been on varying parts of Nomanisan. As with the previous dynamite sequence, everybody gets at least a thing or two to contribute, scoring lots of little victories against Omnidroid while never undercutting just how nigh-unstoppable and relentless it is. Giacchino’s jazzy music is as fun as ever.

As good as the staging is, I think there might be one or two “last minute saves” too many in this scene– a temptation that’s hard to resist in scenes with multiple protagonists moving in & out of the action. And as noted, the nature of the scene changes greatly when the remote is introduced: away from being a “fight” to more of a chase/defensive/keep-away sequence. After that, aside from Helen’s sweet move taking out the blaster, there’s not much in the way of back & forth with Omnidroid, just a lot of looking for an opportunity to exploit its weak point with one fatal blow. Still, it’s superheroes vs a giant robot attacking the city– how much can you really quibble with that?

Grade: A-

Recommended Links: It appears that Brad Bird felt a disturbance in the Force, because while I was writing the drafts of these posts he happened to mention that he might get to work on making an Incredibles sequel after all. I rather think we should already have had like one or two of those already, but I won’t complain.

Coming Attractions: I’ve been too easy on myself for a while now, what with these positive examples and all. For the next series my disappointment will be…

The Incredibles (fight 2 of 3)

In describing this fight scene to you, I am burdened with glorious purpose.

I know, I was overwhelmed too.

2) The Incredibles vs Syndrome’s Henchmen

[On the audio commentary, Brad Bird says that they called the bulk of this sequence “100-Mile Dash,” because Brad Bird is awesome.]

The Fighters:

  • Dashiell Robert “Dash” Parr, the ten-year-old son of Bob & Helen Parr. His brash and feisty nature fits in perfectly with his superpower; both elements have gotten him into trouble at home & school in the past. Early in the movie he vocalized some of the resentment that quietly gnawed at his parents, namely that for the family to deny their true greatness in order to spare the feelings of the “ordinary” is to do a disservice to everyone. Voiced by Spencer Fox.
    • Armed with: his superpower of blinding speed, not just at running but with his whole body. It’s something he’s grown up with but never truly unleashed, thanks to the restrictions placed upon him by his family’s secret exile.
  • Violet “Vi” Parr, Bob & Helen’s older daughter (age not specified but probably 13-14). Violet is at that painfully awkward stage of adolescence, simultaneously yearning for and terrified of attention. Her power set is even more appropriate to her personality than her brother’s. Voiced by Sarah Vowell.
    • Armed with: the ability to make herself invisible and, more importantly from a tactical standpoint, the ability to generate force fields in her immediate vicinity (in this aspect she is more than any of the other family members clearly modeled on a member of the Fantastic Four– namely Invisible Woman, who has the exact same seemingly unrelated pair of powers). She’s had even less exercise of this power than Dash has, owing largely to a lack of self-confidence. This is about to change.
  • Helen Parr aka Elastigirl, the matriarch of the Incredible clan. Like her husband, she’s a former professional superhero forced into retirement, though she’s worked harder to adjust to “normal” life. But this little expedition to Nomanisan proves she’s still got plenty of chops. Voiced by Holly Hunter.
    • Armed with: the power to greatly elongate her limbs, torso, neck, etc. Coupled with the speed & practice she has, the ability is amazing for offense, mobility, and stealth– though I’m not covering it for the blog, one of the movie’s underrated sequences has Helen using her rubbery skills to infiltrate Syndrome’s supervillain fortress.
  • Bob Parr aka Mr. Incredible, needing to be rescued after his introduction to Syndrome and an ill-timed distress call got him captured. Same powers as before and still voiced by Craig T. Nelson.
  • Syndrome’s henchmen, a bunch of particularly nasty goons.
    • Armed with: some are on foot and carry small arms, but most of them are piloting a nifty sci-fi vehicle of Syndrome’s own design. Shaped like a one-man flying saucer and surrounded by a spinning/gyrating blade (ideal for both offense and cutting through the dense jungle foliage), the machines are fast, agile and each equipped with twin machine guns. Though they’re never named in the film, the Internet tells me the devices are called “Velocipods.” Which… sure, okay.

Note that all four of the Incredibles are also wearing their spiffy new outfits, courtesy of master super-suit designer Edna Mode. Each one is highly durable, resistant to extreme temperatures, tailored specifically to match each individual’s power set, and outfitted with a distress beacon in the chest.

The Setup: Mr. Incredible has been called in for a rematch with Omnidroid on Nomanisan, culminating in his aforementioned capture and the discovery of Syndrome’s scheme. Helen, suspicious about her husband’s absence but ignorant of his captivity, used Edna’s tracking device to get Bob’s location and flew to the island on a borrowed plane. Dash and Violet had secretly stowed aboard, but before she could take them back, Syndrome sent missiles to blow the plane out of the sky. They escaped, but Mr. Incredible is left bound and thinking his family’s dead.

Having swam to the island, Helen hid the kids in a nearby cave while she ninja’d her way into the villain’s lair. Before leaving, she tried to communicate to them the enormity of the danger they’re in and how they’ll have to fight to protect themselves. It’s a really quiet & powerful scene, with a mother who doesn’t want her children to have to grow up so fast but resolving that she has no other choice under the circumstances, so no point whining about it. A nearby rocket taking off (long story) floods the cave with fire and flushes the children out of their hiding place and into the open. They sleep in the jungle and wake up to a robotic sentry detecting their presence and sounding the alarm, so shortly after, they’re quickly surrounded by Syndrome’s guards. Violet vanishes from sight and reminds her brother to follow mom’s advice (in Dash’s case, to run “as fast as you can,” a prospect that filled him with awe). The boy zooms off with goons in pursuit, one of them remaining behind to look for Violet.

The Fight: An embarrassment of riches. To try to describe it “blow by blow” style would be to do it a disservice, not to mention exhausting.

So much good stuff happens, mostly involving the pint-sized speedster. All of his antics are entertaining, but there’s a clever escalation to his scenes here– he gets not just faster as the scene goes on but also more crafty and confident. Early on he makes some mistakes and runs into a swarm of bugs, then later a swing on a vine sends him flying off a cliff only to be accidentally (and conveniently) saved by a Velocipod that was swooping by. Standing on the deck face-to-face with the pilot, Dash’s blinding speed lets him dodge all the adult’s punches, and when he first hits back with a quick punch he has a look of amazement that’s perfectly natural from any ten-year-old: “Did I just punch a grown-up and get away with it?” He increases his assault but when he’s distracted by the sight of the cliff the pod’s hurtling toward (the pilot’s back is turned from the flight path), he gets clocked right in the face, and the resulting fall saves him from the crash. Soon, however, he will get by less on luck and more on skill.

There’s no shortage of other fun beats & gorgeous animation: Dash bobbing & weaving to avoid machine gun strafes, Dash bending a tree to cause a pursuing pod to crash, Dash running upside down and all around a watery cave to get two bad guys to collide with each other, etc. But it all pales next to the film’s finest moment:

The kid finds three more pursuers on his tail at one point, and after it’s too late to change course he sees he’s heading out onto open water. Assuming he’s in for a painful splash, he flinches… only to look down and discover that he’s moving so fast, he’s skimming along the ocean’s surface rather than sinking. Finally encountering the reality of his unlocked potential, of seeing what he can do after ten long years of being told what he can’t, he just… laughs. He laughs for maybe a second before zipping off quicker than ever, but there’s so much packed into that one gleeful giggle. It’s the laugh of someone who’s truly, ridiculously, stupidly happy. If this were a different kind of Disney movie he would go into a five-minute musical number about this awesome new power he is (witness the songs about flying in Peter Pan and Aladdin, for example), but The Incredibles accomplishes more with one laugh than other films could with an entire opera of songs.

I know it’s subjective, but it’s hard for me to overstate just how indelibly wonderful this moment is. It’s up there with Quint telling the story of the USS Indianapolis, Michael Corleone closing the door on Kay, Kikuchiyo lecturing the other samurai about a farmer’s life, and “you’re all clear kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home.” It’s poetry, full stop.

Dash shaking off the last of his pursuers leads to a nice break where we see Helen arriving just as her husband’s being freed by Syndrome’s assistant Mirage (herself in the middle of a Heel Face Turn). They storm out to look for the kids, who are actually doing all right on their own. Dash reunites with Violet just in time to save her from a canny guard who threw dirt at her to detect where she’d been hiding, and she immediately repays the favor by asserting her ability to create force fields just before the guard was about to gun down Dash in retaliation. The two improvise a neat trick where Dash runs in place within Vi’s spherical field and turns the thing into a giant, invincible hamster ball. Some more pursuing Velocipods bounce off before they finally encounter (and non-fatally run over) their parents.

The brief reunion is interrupted by a few straggler guards, which the Incredible parents dispatch with ruthless, Papa & Mama Bear efficiency. The hilarious moment where they look at each other and simultaneously say “I love you” in front of an enormous explosion they just caused is priceless, even in a sequence filled with priceless moments. Another squad of goons arrive to spoil the fun, and while last time the kids looked on in awe at a whole new side of their parents, this time the whole family works together.

The next bit is as brief as it is spectacular. These four had never fought as one unit until now (heck, until ten minutes ago half of them had never fought a single bad guy at all), but to see the way they work together now you’d think they’d been practicing for years… and why wouldn’t they? They’re family.

Everybody contributes. Dash runs circles around the group in order to kick up a dust storm to limit the enemy’s visibility. Violet (her devilish grin signaling the definitive end of her “wallflower” phase) puts up a shield to block automatic fire, while Mom protects her against enemies sneaking up from behind. Dad starts to wreck one of the ships but, unfortunately, it all comes to an abrupt end when Syndrome arrives and instantly traps all four with his cool but narratively boring “zero-point energy” gauntlets, capturing the whole family. Grr.

Let’s take a moment to note here that this is not the old G.I. Joe cartoons, heck it’s not even the Ninja Turtles movie– people die in this fight scene. Several of them, in fact, and though it’s all done through bloodless explosions there’s no doubt what happened to the pilots. Causing the death of a human being, even in a justified self-defense context, can be a traumatic thing even for most adults, so on the one hand it’s odd to see Dash and Violet react so casually the first time they do it (maybe they went through some therapy after the credits rolled?). But on the other hand, it’s refreshing for a big movie to take such a no-nonsense approach to the issue of genuinely bad guys, and what happens when you’re up against them in a kill-or-be-killed situation.

This scene, though: like it, love it, and gotta have it. Dash is the breakout star but everybody gets something to do. The bad guys are generic but they and their implements are suitably intimidating. Giacchino’s music soars. The staging is fantastic and covers a wide range of terrain. Even in the relatively quiet break in Bob’s prison cell, the pacing never really slows down. And this remains the greatest depiction of a superhero speedster to ever grace a movie scene.

There are things to object to, if we’re being thorough. Again, the bad guys are nameless & generic, Dash is way luckier than he should be, and that wonderful final bit where the Incredibles fight together is over almost as soon as it starts, thanks to Syndrome and his Win Button of a weapon. But then again:

Grade: A+

Coming Attractions: A giant robot is attacking the city, as those are wont to do.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

The Incredibles (fight 1 of 3)

The Incredibles is my favorite Pixar movie. This is not a title I bestow lightly.

Released in 2004 and directed by nerd hero Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, the Mission Impossible movie where Tom Cruise is framed by bad guys and has to go rogue from his own organization– no, the other movie where he does that. No, the OTHER other one), The Incredibles is a joyful celebration of old school superheroics. It manages the strange feat of being deeply nerdy about its comic book inspirations but not self-consciously so; smart comic fans will spot the story’s roots in everything from the Fantastic Four to Watchmen but the movie never disappears up in its own butt with overtly winking geek references. It’s also surprisingly Randian but we’ll not get into that. Instead we’ll get into….

1) Mr. Incredible vs Omnidroid

The Fighters:

  • Robert “Bob” Parr aka Mr. Incredible, a major-league superhero who’s been in forced retirement thanks to hyper-litigious American society. In the years since he’s become overweight and frustrated with his mundane life, yearning to exercise his full abilities once again. Voiced by Craig T. Nelson.
    • Armed with: Nothing but his supernatural physical strength and heightened durability.
  • Omnidroid version 8.0. An autonomous robot with a learning A.I., built to kill superheroes and being molded through much trial & error into the ultimate war machine. It’s already on its eighth incarnation and is plenty dangerous, currently in the shape of a huge metal sphere walking on four tentacles.. I’m not sure of the overall practicality of that design but certainly its uniform roundness leaves it with few apparent weak spots.
    • Armed with: Its main weapons are its metal tentacles which are long, flexible, retractable and equipped with gripper claws. It’s also not shy about using its enormous size as a weapon.

The Setup: Fed up with hiding his true nature, Bob Parr is an easy mark for a weapons contractor who tracks him down & hires him to stop his “malfunctioning” Omnidroid. In time it will be revealed that this employment offer is actually a trap for Mr. Incredible: the robot’s owners have programmed it to kill him or, failing that, observe enough from its defeat in order to be made even stronger in its next iteration. But for now Bob, uncomfortably squeezed into his old outfit, goes along with the fake story, gets dropped on the lush jungle island of Nomanisan (get it?) and gets to tracking down his foe.

The Fight: Even at his prime Mr. Incredible was hardly the Dark Knight Detective so he spends a good deal of time searching aimlessly for the giant machine, and he stumbles onto the telltale signs of Omnidroid mere seconds before it arrives and attacks. Despite his girth, Bob’s uncanny agility is still intact, and each swipe from the robo-beast’s grasping tentacles is a near-miss. This isn’t a slugfest; the one good punch Incredible gets in on Omnidroid launches it far backward but it’s not much worse for wear when it lands.

A lot of fun stuff happens from here on. When Parr tries to vault over the approaching robot, it calculates (we keep getting brief views from Omnidroid’s internal HUD) the trajectory of his leap and swats him out of the air effortlessly. At one point it fully retracts all its metal limbs and rolls into a ball, chasing after Mr. Incredible in a way that would probably trigger Indiana Jones’ PTSD if he were watching. That also leads to a chase down a cliff side and Omnidroid hurling rocks at a distant Bob; there’s a kind of hypnotic grace to the fluid movements of the machine’s arms.

The fight gets a lot more serious when it moves into a nearby volcano and Bob finds himself with his back against a lake of lava. The superhero is able to jiu jitsu his grasping enemy into the lava and seemingly cut the fight short– he even enjoys some gloating victory laughs which throw out his already over-stressed back. Unfortunately the machine is apparently capable of withstanding even the most extreme of temperatures and it rises from the liquid hot magma looking rather ticked.

Omnidroid even demonstrates a new technique, holding two of its arms stretched out directly in front of it and spinning the claws into whirling propellers of death. Parr escapes getting pureed by jumping out of range but the machine still seizes and slams him to the ground (should have just dropped him into the lava, silly robot), but when it tries to finish him off by ripping him in half lengthwise, the pulling motion inadvertently repairs his back– instant chiropractor!– and gives him the burst of energy he needed to escape.

Mr. Incredible opts to use the big muscle in his head for once, and in the confusion he immediately gets directly underneath the robot– while Omnidroid has sensor cameras on both its top and bottom, they don’t have a full 360 degree view, and Bob exploits the blind spot. He then rips off the bottom sensor and climbs inside the machine. As it tries futilely to get at him, Omnidroid pokes several holes in itself, and finally Bob lures it into stabbing directly into its own power core. It sinks to the ground, inert.

Though there was all sorts of spiffy superhero antics in the movie’s delightful opening prologue, this is where The Incredibles really starts to flex its action muscles, and I’m very pleased with how it delivers. The fight’s staging covers quite a bit of ground, from a dense green jungle to rocky cliff to the inside of a volcano (shouldn’t being this close to the lava be too hot for Bob, even in his suit? And shouldn’t it take longer for Omnidroid to cool off after emerging from the lava? That stuff’s like a thousand degrees). Michael Giacchino’s masterful score is appropriately menacing in the early part of the fight, but quickly turns triumphant (the movie bucks expectations with deliberately retro music motifs that sound more appropriate to a 60s spy show than a modern superhero flick) when it’s clear that Bob is going to turn the tables.

Speaking of appropriately menacing, Bird does an excellent job of selling the threat presented by the Omnidroid. Mr. Incredible gets by with some clever moves and his fair share of luck, but after seeing that metal beast in action there’s no question the fight could just as easily have gone the other way. This is important because our pal Omni is going to come back in a big way.

Strange to think that this movie’s nearly ten years old. Superhero films have come a long way since then, but few have rivaled this shining gem. This fight that closes out the first act serves as a strong opening statement as to what the master storytellers at Pixar could do on the genre’s canvas. And it will get even better.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Dash runs away with our hearts.

No, he can be cocky. He earned it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (fight 3 of 3)

Should have gained a few more levels before this one, boys.

3) TMNT vs Shredder

The Fighters:

  • All four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who you’ve already had the rundown on twice.
  • Splinter, their recently-freed master. He plays a small but critical role here. Voiced by Kevin Clash, who would later go on to be more famous as Sesame Street’s Elmo and also for allegedly having sex with underage teen boys.
    • Armed with: He comes with nothing, but he recovers and uses Michelangelo’s one of discarded nunchaku.
  • The Shredder, aka Oroku Saki. Master ninja, the leader of the Foot Clan, and former rival to/murderer of Splinter’s former owner Hamato Yoshi. Great taste in clothing. Played by James Saito and voiced by David McCharen.
    • Armed with: A “yari,”– a metal staff that’s sharp on both ends (maybe he’s a Lord of the Flies fan). His wrists, shin guards and shoulder pads are covered in scary-looking spikes but those never really come into play.

The Setup: Picking up exactly where we left off last time, the turtles take out the last of the Foot chumps when Shredder leaps out in slow motion, telling them their time has come.

As an aside, I must say I remain impressed even today at this movie’s commitment to translating the Shredder of the comics/cartoon in a way that’s faithful while still remaining relatively believable. The Shredder’s outfit is garish & impractical– in real life if you saw this guy walking down the street, you’d laugh– yet director Steve Barron always shoots him with an air of intimidating theatricality; he’s usually accompanied by pounding drums and a mean guitar riff, and of course McCharen’s booming voice doesn’t hurt. The movie actually does a pretty good job of selling Shredder as the Darth Vader of ninjas.

Am I the only one being slowly hypnotized by watching this?

In another nice touch, the boys still react flippantly to Shredder, because (as it’s easy to forget) they have NO idea who he is, or even of his existence. They’ve had an arch-nemesis this whole time and they didn’t even know it.

The Fight: Of course they clue in pretty quickly that he’s the big cheese, because the first couple passes they make at him (one at a time, inexplicably) end with them being clearly outclassed. There’s a fun little moment before a cutaway where after Raph and Leo have been quickly dispatched, the two less action-thirsty turtles have a quick paper-rock-scissors match to see whose turn it will be to fight him; the mood quickly changes from “who gets to fight him next” to “who HAS to fight him next.”

After a brief scene of Casey, Danny, and Pippi Shortstocking arriving at the streets below with a whole gang of confused proto-Foot hoodlums in tow, when we shift back to the rooftop battle the four turtles are huddling together. Mike jokingly tries to talk tactics (“At exactly what point did we lose control here?”) and all four are panting hard, giving the impression of a drawn-out battle. When they figure out that their opponent must be the main villain and therefore knows what happened to Splinter, they set off after him with renewed determination.

The previously discussed issue of what to do with bladed weapons in a kid’s movie is more acute in this scene, since it’s hard not to notice just how many chances Shredder, considering his many sharp implements, has to kill the turtles which he completely passes up. It’s possible that he’s intentionally dragging out the fight as this is likely the closest thing to a challenge he’s had in years. But there’s only so many times you can see a guy use his double-edged spear to non-lethally flip, trip or bonk his opponents before you stop taking him seriously as a hardened killer.

Another cut back to Casey discovering that Splinter’s disappeared and then finishing off some leftover Foot stragglers (which gets the dump truck into position for later). When we return, the fight is even more intense, and Leo’s latest round in particular makes Shredder work for it: the villain ends up downing him just as before, but is visibly pained at the arm slice he received in the process. Perhaps realizing he can’t string these kids out for much longer, Shredder sinisterly implies that he killed their adoptive rat dad (neither he nor the turtles realize that Splinter is within spitting distance), and takes advantage of Leonardo’s blind rage to floor the poor kid and hold him at spear point. He gets the rest of the boys to toss their weapons over the roof (we see Mike’s chain sticks inadvertently catch on a ladder), but then he goes back on his unstated promise to release Leo in exchange for their disarming. Bad form!

Fortunately, the unexpected arrival of Splinter grants Leo a stay of execution. The rodent master unnerves Shredder with a monologue full of information the audience already knows: this old rat who resisted Shredder’s torture for interrogation for weeks is the same creature who scarred Oroku Saki for life many years ago. Removing his face plate to reveal the permanent claw marks, Shredder charges at Splinter in a blind fury, which the rat calmly turns aside using Mike’s discarded nunchaku. He briefly keeps Shredder from succumbing to the multi-story drop but Shredder, ever treacherous, throws a knife at Splinter… which only makes the latter lose his grip on Saki as he effortlessly catches the blade. The villain takes a painful-looking fall into the back of the garbage truck, and even if it wasn’t fatal Casey ensures it is, by “accidentally” pulling the lever that activates the hydraulic press (Koteas’ purposefully hammy “OOPS!” is one of the all-time great Single Word Line Deliveries, right up there with Bill Murray’s baptism scene in Ed Wood). There’s blood stains and everything. Death without honor, indeed.

A lot to like here. For once in the movie the heroes aren’t facing off against a bunch of punching bags whose only advantage is numbers; they fight a losing battle here because the Shredder is just that good, and believably so. Good, but not invincible, as his penultimate tussle with Leo proves. And I hate to sound like a broken record about how difficult it must have been to do martial arts in those Muppet suits, but anybody who can make four guys in giant foam turtle outfits fighting a spiky glittering supervillain actually look more thrilling than silly… well, that guy’s a miracle worker, far as I’m concerned.

It may be slightly disappointing that when Shredder is finished, the turtles end up as spectators in their own fight scene, but when you think about it, it’s really Splinter’s score to settle– he’s the one who permanently lost family to the Shredder’s evil, not to mention those weeks he spent being chained up and beaten. Still, kinda silly that Shredder takes such a furious running charge at a guy standing on the edge of a roof– is he really THAT mad about his old mouth scratch? Ninja please, get over it.

In conclusion: Cowabunga.

Grade: B

Recommended Links: Ooh, I really shouldn’t have said “ninja” all those times. It’s not MY word.

Coming Attractions: What’s the word for something that’s not credible?

All in the family

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (fight 2 of 3)

“I do hope there’s more of them.”

There’s always more, buddy.

[Note: It was very difficult for me to find any pictures of this battle online. Therefore I’m going just going to share unrelated images from the movie which I find amusing.]

Here’s Raphael being comatose in a bathtub.

2) TMNT vs Foot Clan (rematch)

The Fighters:

  • Leonardo. Leads. Played by David Forman and Brian Tochi.
  • Raphael. Cool but rude. Played by Josh Pais.
  • Michelangelo. A party dude. Played by Michelan Sisti and Robbie Rist.
  • Donatello. Does machines. Played by Leif Tilden and Corey Feldman.
  • The Foot Clan. Hapless conscripts in Shredder’s ninja-thief-army-family. Played by various stunt men in black clothes.

They’re all armed the same as before. As a side dish, Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) has a brief tangle with Master Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata) while rescuing Splinter.

The Setup: Fully recovered and filled with renewed purpose, the four turtles have come back from their rural retreat and reclaimed their home in preparation to hunt down the Foot. The Foot, of course, has been looking for them, and an impromptu visit from a conflicted Danny inadvertently tips off the Shredder that the Turtles are back in town. The Foot arrive in full force but their amphibian adversaries seems to have anticipated their arrival (when they woke up and saw that Danny was missing, I suppose? Even sewer-dwelling mutants know not to trust a ginger), and are ready to give their opponents a surprise.

Meanwhile, with nearly all of the official Foot soldiers cleared out of their warehouse headquarters, Danny and Casey Jones (who followed Danny out there) are left to free Splinter before his ordered execution.

The Fight: There’s a great build-up here with several shots of the Foot Clan streaming en masse into the sewers from multiple entrances. About a dozen of them converge on the turtles’ lair but find it seemingly empty, until the surrounding pipes mysteriously burst open and flood the area in steam. When it clears, the Foot are all knocked out and the four heroes are standing about, cockily– Raph in particular seems fittingly pleased to be turning the tables on his erstwhile tormentors. It’s a good reminder that the heroes are not just martial artists but ninjas, cleverly utilizing their environment and striking foes from the proverbial shadows.

The second wave arrives just as the scene cuts away to Casey and Danny freeing Splinter, and the musical score does a neat trick here where it dies down just as the scene changes, making you think that we’re cutting away from excitement… only to build back up again as Casey’s scene becomes more important, especially when he turns to find Tatsu waiting behind him with a whole crowd of punks (including a young Sam Rockwell!) as backup.

Here’s Donatello spitting water.

When we rejoin the sewer battle (not right where we left off; it’s clear some time has passed), it’s all over the place– in a good way. The turtles are having merry fun with their prey, and unlike what happened in April’s apartment, their confidence is warranted: here, they’re in control, the four fighting as one once again and on their home turf. They even take time to indulge and play some more, with antics including Michelangelo lining up one chump juuuuuust right so that April can give him a gratuitous conk on the head.

The action cuts again to Casey getting positively walloped by Tatsu– Jones is a good brawler, but he’s little match for a seasoned veteran like Tatsu. He gets beaten so badly (Koteas sells the pain as well as the comedy, acting alternately defiant and confused), but turns things around with two quick moves after he stumbles across a golf club. Bludgeon-ready sports equipment is to Casey Jones what spinach is to Popeye.

When the action revisits the turtles the fight has expanded to the tunnels outside the sewers, with the enemy scrambled and on the defensive. They have such control of the battle they’re even doing stupid stuff like having Don bash foes left & right while zooming along on a skateboard (I can only imagine how hard that was to film with that costume). There’s a brief switch back to the aftermath of the warehouse fight for a dramatic beat, and when we return the Foot are in full-fledged retreat, pouring out of the same entrances in panic that they had marched through confidently not so long ago. The music even switches up to the group’s main theme (it played early in the movie as they returned home), the tune’s casual nature underscoring just how effortless and fun this is for our heroes. The streets are oddly empty even for this time of night– isn’t New York supposed to be the city that never sleeps? I don’t think even Wilmington, North Carolina (where this was actually filmed; I’ve been there and it rules) is this empty in the early morning, but then I suppose it’s plausible anyone who was around when they saw a ninja army fighting four karate monsters quite wisely decided to leave the area. And, in a nice touch I hadn’t remembered/noticed earlier, the garbage truck that will play a role later in the climax can be seen pulling up in the background of one part of the scene.

Here's Judith Hoag making a funny face.

Here’s Judith Hoag making a funny face.

All that cutting back & forth between this fight and the Casey/Splinter/Tatsu stuff served a secondary purpose of masking geographical transitions. Every time we return to the turtles’ fight, they’re on different terrain: they steadily push back their enemy from their lair to the sewer tunnels to the surface streets and now finally to the roof of a nearby building. A very smart cinematic play that conveys once again how much the Turtles are in control, while also giving the sense of the battle going on for an unknown amount of time longer than what we see on screen. I wondered this time watching it if the Foot’s retreat was actually deliberate and part of a plan to lure the turtles to where Shredder was waiting, but based on how much of a whooping they all take there’s no reason to suspect the pushback isn’t exactly what it looks like. Shredder could have confronted them earlier if he’d wanted.

The gradual climb up the rooftop is fun too, showcasing the action now happening on separate planes as the turtles drive the Foot upwards via the fire escapes. Reuniting on the roof they finish off the last of the stragglers and seem actively disappointed that there’s not more misguided teens to beat up. Little do they know they’re in for the boss fight.

Although the stakes are low in this one it’s hard not to have a good time watching it. The heroes’ enthusiasm is infectious as they kick ass across multiple stories, the choreography is pretty sharp & creative, and the aforementioned cross-cutting works well.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Shredding.

Here’s the world’s lamest Shredder costume.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (fight 1 of 3)

This is not a “great” movie. It is, however, a movie far greater than it has any right to be.

The Ninja Turtles were originally born quite literally out of a drunken late-night joke-doodle that got turned into a one-shot indie comic (which satirized a lot of then-popular comic series, especially Frank Miller’s Daredevil), later expanded into a gritty pulp series and exploded into popularity thanks to a rather crappy kids’ cartoon. The franchise’s cinematic debut was a low-budget indie with no big stars and had stunt men doing martial arts moves in ungainly costumes; the fact that it ended up being a reasonably entertaining, mostly non-insulting movie that is surprisingly re-watchable and even makes a serious effort at genuine themes & characterization… that’s not just impressive, that’s miraculous.

And all this in the service of a concept that is frankly absurd. Wonderfully absurd, but absurd nonetheless. This makes writing about it even quasi-seriously a weird endeavor, so bear with me.

Also, I love this movie, turtle warts and all. I saw it four times in the theater when I was nine and probably about a hundred more in all the years since. I will try to be as objective as I can, but keep in mind that if you don’t like this movie then you’re terrible and I hate you.

[Note: The earlier fights of Casey vs Raph and Raph blitzing a handful of Foot in the subway station won’t count, as they are too halting/comedic and too brief, respectively.]

1) TMNT and Casey Jones vs Foot Clan (round one)

The Fighters:

  • Leonardo, de facto field leader of the Turtles, the most responsible and probably the most skilled. Played by David Forman and voiced by Brian Tochi.
    • Armed with: dual katanas. Sometimes called “ninjato” a ninja-like variation of the katana, but those are not a real thing, so we’ll call them katanas.
  • Raphael, the strongest and moodiest of the quartet. Also the only one with an identifiable New York accent. Played by Josh Pais both physically and vocally.
    • Armed with: dual sais, meant for stabbing and sword-breaking. Not much use to him here.
  • Michelangelo, the most unfocused and humorous of the brothers. Being the most overtly comedic he was the favorite of pretty much every child back in the day, but as you grow up you tire of Mikey’s showy antics, and pick a different favorite turtle. (Which, if you’re awesome, is Donatello.) Played by Michelan Sisti and voiced by Robbie Rist.
    • Armed with: dual nunchaku, aka “nunchucks” if you’re in a hurry or under twelve. The weapon’s popularity can largely be attributed to pop culture; prior to the movies, real soldiers and martial artists would rarely use them, as they’re impractical and nearly as dangerous to the user as they are to his opponent.
  • Donatello, the smartest and most laid back of the Turtles. Though he’s not as silly as Michelangelo he spends much time bonding with him, so as to not get caught up in the eternal Leo/Raph melodrama. Played by Leif Tilden and voiced by Corey Feldman, of all people.
    • Armed with: a single wooden bo staff.
  • Casey Jones, a one-time professional hockey player turned sports-themed vigilante. Sort of frenemies with Raphael, since the two clashed earlier in the film over Casey going too far in beating up a couple purse-snatchers. Easily the second most awesome movie character to sport a hockey mask. Played by Elias Koteas, who’s a delight.
    • Armed with: he normally carries all sorts of sporting equipment but here he limits himself to just his favorite weapon, a wooden hockey stick.
  • Foot Ninjas, several dozen of them. Though a few might be more veteran warriors brought over from the old country, the majority are likely teenagers who have been taught just enough karate to be a nuisance. Against the Turtles (who have trained their entire lives) they’re basically cannon fodder, but troublesome in large numbers. They’re led by Shredder’s second-in-command, Master Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata), if your definition of “leading” means grunting a lot and occasionally saying “Attack!” (Still a better leader than most politicians, HEY-O)
    • Armed with: all manner of weapons including swords, nunchaku, clubs, and axes.

The Turtles’ friend and frequent rescuee April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is also present, though she doesn’t factor much in the fight either way– she just passively guards Raph’s unconscious body with a stick.

“I’m contributing!”

The Setup: Ever since Raphael made the rather un-ninja-ly mistake of letting himself be followed back to the Turtles’ hideout, the foursome have been hiding out at April’s loft apartment (directly above an old antique shop that belonged to her family) and trying to figure out where their master/father figure Splinter has been taken.

Unfortunately, Danny, April’s boss’ son and a soulless backstabbing ginger, has sold out the Turtles’ location to the Foot Clan. They pick the right moment to strike (or maybe not, since it’s broad daylight), first converging on Raphael as he stalks alone on the rooftop, having a temper tantrum.

The Fight: Starts out slow, but builds to a crescendo. First we see Raphael pouting on the roof (as does Casey, fiddling with a police scanner atop a neighboring building) unknowingly being surrounded by Foot soldiers– again, Raph’s skills of detection and evasion are most definitely not up to ninja snuff. There’s a lot of cross-cutting between the fight that ensues against April talking with the turtles downstairs, the latter group unfortunately ignorant of Raph’s circumstances.

This provides opportunity for a lot of attempts at humorous mash-ups between the other protagonists’ innocent dialogue against bad things happening to Raphael (e.g., Don saying “He does this all the time. He likes it!” just before we see Raph getting painfully dragged down stone stairs, Michelangelo scaring Leonardo with clashing cymbals just as a Foot ninja double-punches Raph’s head in a similar motion, etc). Your personal affection for this will vary depending on your patience for such visual punning, but you have to at least admit it’s a good way to leaven the surprising brutality of what’s actually happening; remember, this is supposed to be a kids‘ movie, and most kids’ movies don’t have scenes where fifty people beat the hero into a coma.

Despite losing his sais early on (we see them get tossed off the roof in slow-mo. Curiously, he continues to battle unarmed, not even trying to pick up any downed Foot soldier’s weapon), Raph puts up a good fight at first, so effortlessly overpowering his attackers that he feels cocky enough to quip “I get it, you guys must be studying from the Abridged Book of Ninja Fighting!” which is one of several jokes in this movie I didn’t understand when I was first saw it. However, the Foot’s ever-increasing numbers quickly close the skill gap, and things get worse for the moodiest turtle.

Zerg rush

This ends with Raphael being tossed through a skylight (just as Donatello says his brother should “drop in” in any moment now, yuk yuk), barely alive. In the brief face-off between the remaining turtles and the small army surrounding them, Michelangelo puts aside the many worries he should be attending to (including his nearly dead brother) and takes a minute to have a showoff contest with a nunchaku-wielding Foot solider. I suppose the gag might have been intended as a way to lull the bad guys into complacency, because it leads immediately to Donatello vaulting into action like a boss and wailing on bad guys’ faces.

From here the fight is a strange mix of silly antics and crushing odds. The turtles are clearly superior fighters but as with what happened to Raph, the Foot’s numbers (especially in such enclosed terrain) gradually overwhelm them, so nearly every sequence of one of the heroes dishing out punishment is capped by him getting subsequently blindsided or surrounded. And there are a lot of gags involved, mostly using the furniture of April’s apartment and, later, the knickknacks in her family’s old shop: Leo grabs onto a bicycle hanging from the ceiling and kicks opponents while suspended in the air, Mike grabs those cymbals again and claps them against a Foot ninja’s ears, etc. I suppose that as with the cross-cutting during Raph’s beating this is used to lighten up the desperate circumstances for viewers, but the heroes are facing inevitable defeat and their brother is comatose in the corner; the cockiness is unwarranted and the playfulness is inappropriate. Whistling in the dark only goes so far.

On a similar note, this is where the movie first encounters one of its main obstacles: it’s a children’s movie and therefore almost nobody should ever get killed or maimed, yet at least two of the turtles use weapons that are designed for lethality. The sequel got around this problem by having the heroes almost never use their weapons, and the 80s cartoon dodged it by making all the Foot ninjas into (sigh) robots. This movie handles the paradox by having Leo & Raph use their cutty/stabby implements mainly to block opponents’ weapons or force them to dodge; the main damage they dish out comes from their fists & feet. It mostly works (though the movie still received some knocks for its relatively excessive violence, including from turtle-suit designer Jim Henson). And it leads to what’s probably my favorite gag of the fight: Leo making several consecutive katana-swings at a Foot soldier who keeps ducking them, then saying “gotcha!” when the bad guy ducks again at a fakeout.

The game changes a bit when the floor, weakened by repeated axe strikes, collapses after several Foot reinforcements drop in from the broken skylight, sending everybody falling to April’s antique store below… where they’re greeted by Tatsu and another squad of Foot.

One of whom thinks he’s at a rock concert, apparently.

The music resumes its same playful yet frantic tune, faster than ever, and you can see the battle turn even worse against the heroes, even though some of those gag attacks are still deployed. Eventually, not long after Mike gurgles about how they could really use Raph right about now, the action stops again with the arrival of Casey Jones, backlit and pissed off but still willing to stop & flirt with April.

“ki ki ki, ma ma ma….”

(Once again, this occasions a joke I didn’t understand until years later, since I knew what neither “Wayne Gretzky” nor “steroids” were at age nine.)

Casey’s a valuable addition but too late to turn the tide, especially when an errant axe strike ends up starting a fire. The musical score finally catches up with the dire situation here, and the heroes realize it’s time to run away– fortunately April knows of a hidden panel that allows them to escape. Fittingly, the fight ends with a gag, as Casey overhears a voicemail being left on April’s answering machine (remember those?) that’s dangling from the hole in the ceiling; just as April’s boss finishes firing her by saying “I know this comes as a blow,” the cord snaps and it lands on a Foot head. Cute, but crappy for April, since it means she loses her job just as her home and all her possessions get burned down, and all on account of four weirdos she barely knows.

I like it. Barring the aforementioned brief tangles involving Raphael and the opening attack that’s just a bunch of sound effects in the dark, this is the first time we’ve really seen the titular turtles in action, so it’s kind of ballsy to have that fight be a losing battle, even if that loss is understandable. Considering that the main actors are all wearing heavy rubber suits the martial arts are rather decent, and the jokes work decently if you’re into that sort of thing. The escalating chaos is staged pretty well, as is the sense of the odds the heroes are up against; the defeat doesn’t come as a surprise.

Grade: B

Recommended Links: It’s too bad Obata didn’t get to participate in this fight, because he’s apparently a certified badass in real life.

Coming Attractions: Rematch time, punks.

So……… how did Raph get his sais back?

The Matrix (fight 4 of 4)

think again buddy

4) Neo vs Agent Smith

The Fighters:

  • Neo, the prophesied savior of blah blah blah etc. Much less whiny and unsure than before– paradoxically, this is because, not in spite, of the phony reveal from the Oracle that he’s not The One. Since destiny was not going to make him an amazing hero, he had to make himself one… and Morpheus’ capture necessitated him getting to that lickety split. Played by Keanu Reeves.
    • Armed with: a handgun.
  • Agent Smith, leader of the Matrix’s evil Agent trio. Even without backup he’s more than sufficient to be a deadly threat, as we learned last time.
    • Armed with: also a handgun.

The Setup: Neo & Trinity have successfully saved Morpheus from capture/interrogation, and made their way to an “exit”  from the virtual world– a land line phone in a quiet subway station. Morpheus exits first, but the group’s antics are witnessed by the only other person in the station, an old homeless man. All humans still connected to the Matrix via the machines’ breeding farms can act as unwitting sleeper agents for its cyber enforcers, so when this unfortunate derelict witnesses Morpheus’ disappearing act, he’s overtaken by Agent Smith. The two lovebirds dawdle for so long that Smith has plenty of time to materialize, get his bearings, and take aim at Trinity, who disappears just in time to avoid the bullet that disables the pay phone. Neo is left alone against his most powerful enemy.

The hero contemplates the stairs behind him, but he makes a conscious choice to face Smith head-on rather than make a run for it. Watching at the monitors in reality, Trinity is worried but Morpheus is excited at Neo seemingly ready to embrace his potential. Back in the cyber world, the Wachowskis prep the viewer for the impending clash, overtly using the cinematic language of classic Westerns just as surely as they invoked chop-socky flicks during the training fight: there’s a cheesy musical riff, a dirty newspaper blows across the screen in lieu of a tumbleweed, and mirroring low shots of hero & villain as they stare each other down. Showdown time, pilgrim.

The Fight: Fittingly, considering the Western homage, the two first draw their guns and open fire. Both miss, but they continue to shoot, while also dodging the other’s shots and zig-zagging towards each other. Then they leap in the air and this happens:

The Wachowskis do their by-now-patented slow-mo/rotation thing as the two combatants wrestle & fire in mid-air. All rounds just barely miss and the two fall to the ground, both guns empty. They rise and things get more physical. (No, not THAT way, perv. Go back to your slash fiction.)

Several things are clear early on: Neo is not just better than he was before but also fares even better than Morpheus did against Smith. Smith however is still clearly superior– stronger, faster, and most importantly, being a machine he cannot really feel pain or tire. While neither fighter is really “there,” the blows Neo receives are still wearing down his physical body, whereas each hit that lands on Smith merely staggers him briefly.

Even without that endurance, Smith’s raw power is tremendous; as with the previous fight we get some intimidating shots of Smith punching holes right through hardened brick & plaster. One especially strong blow sends Neo flying back a dozen feet and landing face first. He coughs up blood in both the real and virtual worlds, but marshals his remaining strength and remains defiant, repeating Morpheus’ cocky little taunting gesture, which actually seems to piss off the machine even more.

Neo’s determination is amazing and he presses the frustrated Smith back (his little triple-kick trick actually works this time and he manages to turn a stopped punch into a throat jab), but he is still only human, so Smith is ably to quickly whittle his resistance down. Things get even worse for the hero when he’s pinned against the wall by Smith and pummeled by his 100 mph fists.

Neo’s left too weak to fight back, so when Smith hears an approaching subway train he thinks of a sadistic way to finish off the would-be savior, and takes him down to the tracks. Holding him down as the train draws closer, Smith sinisterly lectures “Mister Anderson” about the inevitability of his death. This shoddy treatment inspires the hero to summon up a last surge of strength, which he uses to leap upwards into the ceiling and dislodge himself from Smith’s grip. He then jumps off the tracks just in time to watch the evil program get flattened by the oncoming train. His name is Neo, jerk.

Good stuff here. The setting is used well, playing on both the plausible isolation as well as the fortuitous presence of trains as a game-changer. As stated previously the choreography (and the actors’ performances) make the power dynamic abundantly clear, though things are not so lopsided as to be a complete beatdown. You can almost feel Neo growing stronger and inching toward his destiny as the fight unfolds. It’s still not enough to stop his implacable foe, but that only serves to set up satisfaction of the power-reversal of their final showdown.

From an entertainment perspective there are limited thrills in watching someone fight a guy who’s basically a brick wall (this fight is certainly less fun and joyful than Neo’s epic sparring session), but it helps that this plays very well into the narrative and character work. Similarly, it’s a little unsatisfying that Neo wins via what’s essentially a cheat. But you can look at it another way and conclude that the hero triumphs through a combination of skill, willpower, and sheer luck; what could be more “human” than that?

[As you probably guessed from the title this is the last of the entries on the first Matrix. The climactic rematch between Neo & Smith is barely even a fight, as it lasts only a few seconds and is utterly effortless on Neo’s part. Good stuff but not worth grading. Goodbye for now, The Matrix.]

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Bossanova!

… Chevy Nova?