The Mask of Zorro (fight 4 of 5)

HEY GIRL

4) Zorro vs Elena

The Fighters:

  • Alejandro de la Vega aka Zorro, who you know by now. He has already secretly met her multiple times: first in his proto-Zorro outfit just before stealing Tornado, again while hiding from Love’s men in a confessional booth (in a gut-busting scene, he pretends to be a priest), and again during his undercover mission as a wealthy Spanish nobleman. In that last guise the two shared a very sexy flamenco dance at her father’s party, but what they’re about to do now is even sexier. Played by Antonio Banderas.
  • Elena Montero, born Elena de la Vega. Diego’s real daughter, stolen as an infant and raised by his adversary. To her adopted dad’s frustration, she has the untameable passion of her mother and the righteousness of her real father. She’s frustrated by her feelings for Alejandro (he sent her necessarily mixed messages, being torn between his attraction to her and his mission to suck up to Rafael) and has doubts about her father’s behavior, being torn between her justice and loyalty. Played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a star-making performance.

Both are armed with rapiers, as usual.

The Setup: About ready to make his escape, Zorro returns to Montero’s stables to fetch Tornado but is intercepted by Elena, who holds him at swordpoint and demands he return whatever it is he stole. He keeps trying to give her the brush-off but she’s persistent; when he condescendingly tells her (or “mansplains,” to use a hilarious new expression) that he doesn’t “have time to give [her] the proper instruction,” she smirks and tells him that she’s been trained in fencing since she was four.

Even though she’s giving him some (reciprocated) flirtatious vibes– Daddy’s cooped this bird up for waaaaaay too long and she’s totally down to, ahem, fence— Zorro can tell he’s not walking away from this… not that he entirely wants to. She waits while he removes his sword (not a euphemism), and they begin.

Here’s as good a place as anyway to point out what seems to be a deliberate effort (it may just be my perception) on the part of Bob Anderson and all the principal actors: even though they all use the same type of fencing with the same type of weapon, each main character seems to have his or her own trademark fighting style— or at the very least different approaches and attitudes to the same style. Each one’s body language identifies them like a signature.

Alejandro is all limber flash and pizzazz, whereas Diego (especially towards the end) is fluid, effortless, almost lazy. Montero’s style is plain but strong, aggressive and relentless. Captain Love fights more formally & rigidly; you constantly see him with one hand firmly planted behind his back. Elena is somewhat more formal as well, but in more of a dramatic way: during the fight that’s about to ensue, she keeps re-assuming similar exaggerated starting poses, and generally moves about in a florid way.

It’s an excellent little touch that adds richness to the film, even if the audience doesn’t consciously notice it. Anyway, en garde!

The Fight: Paced and staged differently than anything that’s come before, but certainly no less fun.

Elena’s skill is evident early on, as at the end of their first exchange she ends up slashing Zorro on the shoulder… but only his clothing, she doesn’t actually seem to break the skin. He regards the non-wound with a sort of amused frustration, and by unspoken mutual consent they take a quick breather as they both slip into something more comfortable remove their more obstructive layers of clothing: Zorro his hat & cape, Elena the robe she was wearing over her nightgown.

Actually, the amount of humor/sexiness they each put behind small little dialogue exchanges and body language throughout the fight… well, it’s hard to accurately convey it into print, but it’s perfect. Both actors are absolutely on the same wavelength with each other and with what was needed out of the scene, and the resulting chemistry is impeccable. They pull if off so well you’d almost think they were an item in real life as well– and hey, who knows. Both later admitted being genuinely turned on while filming the scene. Don’t tell Michael or Melanie.

Once they begin again without encumbrance, Zorro’s superior skill comes into play, and he repays his torn shirt by ripping her dress to reveal a generous amount of thigh. “Not bad,” she says nonchalantly. “Not bad at all,” he replies as he outmaneuvers her and leans in for a surprise kiss. She gets visibly (and sexily) angry, flustered enough so that in the next exchange he slices off one of her shoulder straps, resulting in her being dangerously close to toplessness. So of course he kisses her again, getting her even more worked up.

She ends up disarming him, but without missing a beat, he outwits her by diving into a nearby pile of hay and blocking her thrusts with a horse bridle. This also allows Zorro to seize her sword, and even though she runs to grab his where it fell, he beats her there, makes her rise slowly, and tells her not to move as the camera focuses on the hero making several rapid but delicate sword swipes. He steps back looking enormously pleased with himself, and when the shot moves back to her, we see why: he’s cut her gown in just enough places so that it will fall apart on its own within seconds, leaving her stripped to the waist, save for some strategically placed hair.

I’ll just leave this here, gentlemen.

She uses his hat to cover her indecency, and after a bit more banter they embrace for their third and most passionate kiss. He disappears to collect his things just as Elena, eyes closed, leans in for more as if entranced. He says goodbye to the señorita and leaves just ahead of Don Rafael and his men. But not before popping back for his hat.

There’s a hilarious little denouement as Elena has to explain to her flustered father what happened while (not) concealing her obvious attraction to him. When she shouts “he LEFT!” it’s clear that she’s more angry that he didn’t stick around for more smooching than she is about having lost the fight. But really, in a fight like this, everyone’s a winner– especially the audience. Don’t you think?

If this scene commits any sin (besides that one from the Seven Deadlies, I mean), it’s that it’s too short, ending not too long after it starts. But that’s a bit of a necessity, given that the two could only plausibly be in there so long before somebody thought to check the stables. Plus it’s stretched out fairly well as it is with the flirtatious material in-between exchanges of blades.

It really is perfectly paced and staged. There’s an energy to it that would be hard to convey in the script, so kudos to not just the actors but also director Campbell for understanding what was needed. James Horner’s score switches to a steady beat of maracas (I think) throughout, helping enormously with the playful tone.

It’s a bit ridiculous that Alejandro, a man who’s only studied for a few weeks (months?) could stand a chance against Elena, who received 16 years of the best instruction. But that’s the kind of silly universe this movie inhabits– one where no one recognizes you if you put a bandana on your head, or where a masked man in dark black can successfully sneak around in broad daylight. It works.

Is it a bit sexist? Well, it features a woman being turned on by multiple unwanted kisses from a criminal who’s (kind of) physically assaulting her, who then humiliates her by stripping off half her clothes, so… okay, technically it is. But, I must mansplain, you shouldn’t take that any more seriously than the idea that the novice fencer can beat the expert, and so forth. It’s willfully silly, so have some fun with it. It’s still less sexist than literally anything that happens in the Twilight books.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: The, ahem, climax.

Zorro’s been looking for Love in all the RIGHT places.

The Mask of Zorro (fight 3 of 5)

Oh, I’m ready for the fun part.

Ready for Love?

3) Zorro vs Captain Love, Don Rafael, and Soldiers

The Fighters:

  • Alejandro Murrieta aka Zorro 2.0. After finding vital intel on Montero’s plans, Alejandro receives Diego’s blessing to don (heh) the full Zorro regalia: mask, hat, sword, whip and sexy Spanish ninja outfit. His training complete and his passion forged into a focused determination, Alejandro– and Zorro– are cooler than ever. Played by Antonio Banderas.
  • Captain Harrison Love, the professional soldier (and real person) who leads Montero’s men. A real sadistic SOB with whom Alejandro has a personal score to settle. Quite a skilled fighter, too; Love is a battlefield, after all. Played by Matt Letscher.
  • Don Rafael Montero, the film’s main villain, who you remember from before. Twenty years older but no less deadly or determined. Played by Stuart Wilson.
  • Montero’s men, about six or so of them. Again here as ballast. The enormous one is missing; presumably because he’s at the dentist.

All are armed with rapiers or sabers. Some of the soldiers have single-shot rifles that prove useless against the speedy fox, and Captain Love carries a pistol but he is immediately deprived of it.

The Setup: Alejandro has just returned from an extended undercover mission, impersonating a young nobleman in order to get in Montero’s good graces and find out his plan: he plans to buy California from Santa Anna, using gold from a secret Mexican mine run by slave labor. Though his performance was impeccable, Alejandro still had to suffer through a few tense confrontations with the man who hunted down his brother: Captain Love, an amoral mercenary with the face of a date rapist:

His mercenary business’ slogan: “Money CAN buy you Love!”

Frustrated at having had to restrain his bloodlust, Alejandro is encouraged by Diego to hide his rage behind the mask of Zorro. On the eve of the would-be California Purchase, the determined hero sneaks into Montero’s home to abscond with the map to his hidden mine. Meanwhile, Diego, in a distant but visible field, puts the fear of God into the villains with some not-so-subtle imagery:

After effortlessly stealing the map, Zorro surprises Love in a hallway. Holding him at sword-point, he deprives Love of his weapons, and when two guards approach, he holds their captain hostage and forces them to let him kick them out the window. He doesn’t want to deal with them; all he needs is Love. Once they’re alone, Zorro steps back and returns the captain’s sword so that they can duel, and he can give Love a bad name.

The Fight:

Who’s holding the other sword? Love, actually.

This Love has taken its toll on the hero, so he clearly relishes the opportunity to defeat and embarrass him. They start out tentatively at first, with Zorro almost teasing the villain with tiny little gestures. But soon the fight begins in earnest and it’s wonderful to behold. Love, being a many-splendored fighter, is quite good, but the power of Love is no match for Zorro. The hero easily dominates the captain and finally sends him sprawling to the ground with a brutal punch. But before Zorro can finish the job and become a murderer of Love, our old pal Don Rafael comes rushing out to the hallway, ready to fight.

Even though the apparent return of his old bete noir surely rattled Montero’s nerves, he hasn’t missed a step in the fencing department, putting up a worthy fight for Zorro.

“Rafael, without your Love, you are nothing!”

Things get even trickier when we’re reminded that despite a good decking Love is all around, and the captain rejoins the fray. Even outnumbered Zorro is still deadly, picking up a second sword and driving his opponents back. That’s a bad long-term strategy, though, so the fox escapes from the hallway and out into a larger courtyard/foyer area, pursued by his two adversaries and with yet more soldiers streaming in.

It gets even more fun from there. Zorro outfences and outmaneuvers the faceless goons even more easily than he did the main villains (who also join the battle). Even more before, Alejandro is always in motion, always in control, always too cool for school. If he’s ever anxious at all during the fight, he doesn’t show it; on the contrary, the look on his face betrays that this new hero is having the time of his life. Swashbuckling hasn’t looked this good since Errol’s days.

The fight is packed with all sorts of delightful incident. Zorro controls the terrain by jumping off & on a large table and bringing the fight up there, he clocks Love again after being momentarily disarmed, he duels Montero from the other side of a huge candle stand, he does Olympic-level gymnastics on a series of tree branches. It’s not until the fight’s end that he’s even briefly put out, when he’s literally up against the wall with all the surviving soldiers ready to close in.

zorromap

But just as they charge, Zorro sidesteps from the wall and cuts loose the enormous hanging map behind him so that it falls on top of his pursuers, leaving them in a state of confused chaos so he can escape with the goods. (There’s bit of poor staging here: Banderas steps away from his foes a few seconds too early, and the careful viewer can see the soldiers would have had ample time to stop or change course on their blind charge. Ah, well.)

Zorro is quite rightfully pleased with himself, but he doesn’t see that his escape has been witnessed by Rafael’s “daughter,” Elena….

Except for the most minor of errors, very little not to love here. The choreography is fantastic, James Horner’s music soars, Banderas’ devilish charm dazzles, and the pacing is perfect– like many of the great fight scenes, it goes on long enough that you don’t feel cheated but short enough that want more. Plus there’s some excellent comic timing at work in the moments before the fight, as Zorro dispatches of Love’s would-be rescuers. If you’re not cheering for the movie now, you’re in a coma.

Grade: A

Recommended Links: Antonio Banderas hung on to his sword prop from this movie, and once used it to scare off a burglar. It’s not quite as cool as burglars being scared off by the very IDEA of Dolph Lundgren, but still.

Coming Attractions: Best. First. Date. Ever.

And here I am, fresh out of “love” puns.

The Mask of Zorro (fight 2 of 5)

In which Zorro gets his “faithful” horse.

2) Alejandro vs Montero’s Soldiers

The Fighters:

  • Alejandro Murrieta, the young urchin from the prologue, all grown up. A semi-reformed bandit under the tutelage of escapee Diego de la Vega. He will, spoiler, soon assume the mantle of Zorro, but based on his woefully incomplete outfit and un-professionalism here, it’s safe to say he hasn’t graduated yet. Played by Antonio Banderas, who isn’t in enough movies lately if you ask me.
    • Armed with: goes into battle with a rapier here, but loses it and improvises with what he can find, including a sword and knife from his opponents, a mounted bull’s head, a pair of cannon balls, and an actual cannon.
  • A barracks full of soldiers, over a dozen or so of them. Working for Don Rafael Montero and under the direct command of professional soldier Captain Love. More cannon fodder, presumably played by stunt men and local actors. The skeezy-looking leader is played by (near as I can figure) Pedro Altamirano, and the only other notable one is a rather enormous fellow, played by Óscar Zerafín González.
    • Armed with: They may have some guns about but none of them really come into play, mostly swords and fists.

The Setup: After twenty years, Don Rafael has returned to California with some sinister scheme afoot. Upon learning of this, Diego escapes his hellish prison (he didn’t think to do that earlier?) to thwart his old rival. But after being stymied in his post-escape efforts to kill Montero, de la Vega instead takes up the cause of rehabilitating Alejandro, himself despondent and suicidal after the death of his brother (courtesy of Captain Love). Diego blows the dust off his old Zorro lair and gives him a crash course in badassery, honing his swordsmanship, strength and agility in order to help him take revenge on Love… and, Alejandro gradually deduces, to groom him as a successor.

I’ll note here that few things in movies are cooler than post-jailbreak Diego during this middle part of the movie. Good old Anthony Hopkins plays the man as a long-haired, cigar-smoking, wine-guzzling, open-shirted bohemian who uses his whip to flick out candle flames for fun.

And also just because he CAN, presumably.

He’s a retired superhero but he’s also the weirdly cool uncle you never had. It’s a riot.

Anyway, after a few training montages, Alejandro spies Montero’s soldiers with a freshly-purchased and unbroken black Andalusian horse, similar to Zorro’s old steed Tornado. Seeing a chance to irk Love’s men and still a thief at heart, Alejandro dons a subpar Zorro mask and sneaks off an unsanctioned mission to steal the stallion from the soldiers. Along the way he has his first meet-cute with the also-grown up Elena, whose natural passion and righteousness weren’t repressed even after two decades of being raised by Rafael. He sneaks into the stable adjoining the barracks (it can’t be great trying to sleep next to that smell every night, come to think of it) and locates his target easily enough, but there are… complications.

The Fight: Alejandro gets on the horse, but as soon as he tries to ride it out, it objects, and the wild bucking eventually sends the pair crashing into the soldiers’ sleeping area. The new Tornado inadvertently handles just a bit of Murrieta’s work for him by kicking a few panicked soldiers out of the way, but when the horse smashes through the wall like the Kool Aid Man, his new “owner” falls off, and is left utterly surrounded by a lot of very pissed off Mexican soldiers.

What follows is a good bit of fun. The fight signals its intentions early, as that traditional Looney Tunes bit goes down where everybody dogpiles on the hero at once, only for him to calmly climb out from underneath the teeming mass. Ridiculous, but it establishes that this is meant to be an amusing scene rather than an exciting one, and for better or for worse it certainly plays out differently than the rest of the film’s action.

And it’s inventive. After pulling off the tried & true method of swinging on the chandelier and using roped counterweights to ascend higher, the hero seizes a mounted bull’s head and uses the horns as a weapon, then ducks inside an open jail cell and when his pursuers on the other side try to stab him through the bars, he uses the sliding door to trap & mangle their swords.

Throughout the whole thing Murrieta never stops moving, constantly punching, kicking and dodging. Soon enough he grabs a couple blades of his own (sword & knife) and does even better, but he backs into a giant soldier who shakes him free of his weapons. The guy looks enormous– seemingly over seven feet tall, but possibly more in the 6′ range since he’s mostly contrasted against the relatively diminutive Banderas.

The remaining soldiers step back to gleefully watch this monstrous Mexican man-mountain take out Alejandro on his own. Backed into a corner, Murrieta grabs the nearest weapons at hand– two cannon balls– and when the giant gets close enough Alejandro bashes them simultaneously against both sides of his foe’s face. The giant is not visibly stunned at first, but after repeated blows, he eventually turns around in a daze and, rather comically, spits out a whole mouthful of teeth at once. Ouch.

While the remaining soldiers were watching dumbfounded, Alejandro loaded and primed the nearby cannon, so that when they looked back up at him the fuse was ready to light.

zorrocannon

Now they’re LITERALLY cannon fodder.

The guards scamper away and Alejandro blows a new hole in the wall, spastically proclaiming that he is Zorro and that “the legend has returned!” Of course, since we can’t leave the scene without one last joke, the hero accidentally blows up the whole building (due to all the exposed gunpowder) and barely escapes alive.

As mentioned, not much to it and more silly than thrilling, but still a lot of fun, and most importantly, a nice bit of action filler to pass the time until the next real fight sequence (which won’t be for a while). Banderas is quite capable, acting cocky but not as cool & competent as he will be later on. The actors playing the faceless goons sell everything well and the music is appropriately mischievous.

(What’s WITH this building, come to think of it? It seems to be a combination barracks/jail/arms room, adjacent to the stables. Logistically impractical.)

Grade: B

Recommended Links: If the Puss-in-Boots films don’t work out, Antonio can always go back to his– how do you say? Ah yes– talk show.

Coming Attractions: Are you ready for the fun part?

Time to play dress-up. No, not like that….

The Mask of Zorro (fight 1 of 5)

I’m excited too, Tony.

The Mask of Zorro, a deliciously fun 1998 film that was a solid hit but got nowhere near the acclaim it deserves. Directed by gifted genre helmer Martin Campbell, its fight scenes were overseen by legendary Hollywood swordmaster and GFS mainstay Bob Anderson. Here, Anderson channeled his vast skill in the service of creating a gloriously old-school Hollywood throwback.

And good thing, too, because as any Zorro fan can tell you, the thing that most separates him from his contemporaries and inspirations (Batman being among them) is the masked man’s sense of style. Even Robin Hood has nothing on the Z-man in that department. A consummate showman, Zorro always fights like he has an audience to entertain (and as he is a folk hero within his stories, he frequently does), and is fond of using his environment in creative ways and making fools of those who oppose him; even sillier incarnations such as the parody film Zorro The Gay Blade don’t fail to present a Zorro who’s always the coolest guy in the room.

Anderson’s staging combined with the flamboyant performances of Hopkins and Banderas (the latter of whom was said by Anderson to be the best talent he’d ever worked with) give the film a “classic” feel and it never fails to entertain. Unfortunately the movie is a bit backloaded when it comes to action; it’s not until well past the halfway point that the real joys begin, even if what precedes that is perfectly serviceable. And of course that only serves to make the payoff that much sweeter.

1) Zorro vs Don Rafael and Soldiers

The Fighters:

  • Don Diego de la Vega, aka Zorro (Spanish for “fox” in case you were wondering, gringo), a wealthy Spanish nobleman leading a double-life as the populist crusader of the title. It’s clear he’s been operating for some time now, but that’s about to come to an unfortunate end. Played by Anthony Hopkins.
    • Armed with: a rapier, along with pretty much everyone else in the movie. Also has a whip, though in this movie it’s largely used as a tool rather than a weapon.
  • Don Rafael Montero, the Spanish aristocrat appointed as governor of then-Spain-owned California. His oppressive policies have clearly put him at odds with Zorro. Played by Stuart Wilson, who’s fine but pales next to the original choice of master ham Armand Assante. Ah, what we missed out on!
    • Armed with: rapier.
  • Soldiers, less than ten or so. Under the command of Don Rafael, and none of them particularly skilled or competent. Pure cannon fodder.
    • Armed with: rapiers (possibly sabers) and also some with muskets. One has a handgun.

The Setup: The beginning of Mask of Zorro practically functions as the ending– if a rather dark one– to another movie that’s not shown to the audience. Between the lengthy text prologue and the implications of the early dialogue, the audience learns that the Spanish colony of California is about to come under the control of the legendary Mexican leader Santa Anna. Montero, however, has yet to leave the soon-to-be-liberated land, in order to take one last stab at killing Zorro, who has clearly been antagonizing Rafael for some time now. Montero’s hatred for the outlaw is deep and personal.

Montero has set a trap for Zorro by organizing the public execution of three random civilians, hoping that Zorro will show up and be killed in the attempt to save them. The audience mainly sees the ensuing confrontation through the eyes of two young boys, Joaquin Murrieta (who was a real person) and his little brother Alejandro (who wasn’t), both of them big Zorro fans.

[Note that this segment combines two short fights– Zorro’s exploits at the gallows and the ensuing confrontation at his home– into one entry. This combination is done in the interest of brevity, as the two battles are both short and largely against the same foes.]

The Fight: Zorro, who arrived disguised as a hooded monk, waits until the last possible moment to interrupt the proceedings, but does so with signature style, seizing one of the firing squad’s rifles with his whip and yanking it into the guns of his compatriots so that all their shots hit their captain rather than the would-be victims. Campbell wastes no time setting up Zorro’s signature cleverness and showmanship.

The battle that follows is well-done. Zorro fends off the remaining soldiers with ease, pulling a few more tricks like escaping through the gallows’ trapdoor, impaling one guard by throwing him into a sword that become lodged in a wooden pillar, and trapping another foe inside a set of stocks (you know, these things) nearby. Hopkins and/or his stunt double make for an appropriately dashing and capable figure, even if makeup and lighting couldn’t quite conceal the actor’s age and physical condition (he was about 60 at the time of filming):

Still sexier than I am, so we won’t dwell on it

The Murrieta brothers, watching from the rooftops, spot the additional set of soldiers waiting to snipe Zorro from a nearby balcony, and foil them by pushing a statue in their direction just before they could take a rather fateful shot. Zorro shows up to thank them in person, and leaves Joaquin his signature silver medallion in gratitude. This will be important later.

Before leaving (via escape into the crowd), Zorro confronts Rafael, and leaves a signature “Z” cut on his neck, telling him to go back home to Spain and never return.

Zorro would come to regret that act of chivalric mercy, because after he rides to his lovely hacienda and attends to his wife & infant daughter, an unmasked Diego is confronted by Don Rafael and a squad or armed guards. Montero has at some point deduced his adversary’s true identity, the revelation of which must be truly cutting as it’s the same guy who married Rafael’s own unrequited love, Esperanza.

Diego, naturally, resists arrest, and after fighting some guards off a heated duel soon begins between himself and Rafael– right there on the stairs, which is always neat. Though Rafael is clearly skilled, it’s likely de la Vega would have won if not for the interference of the gun-wielding soldiers. Seeing them leveling another shot, Esperanza rushes in to defend her husband and takes a bullet in the back that was meant for him, dying instantly. Shell-shocked at his wife’s death, Diego goes down to a cheap blow to the head (courtesy of Montero) as he rushes to attend to his crying infant daughter.

Zorro is hauled off to a third-world prison with his wife dead, his daughter left to be raised by his hated enemy, his home burned with his beloved horse inside. Harsh.

Overall the action is fun but not spectacular. Zorro’s acrobatic exploits in the opening set the stage and tone for what’s to come. The music is serviceable if not soaring, and the actors are all clearly committed. All of the hero’s tricks in the beginning are well-done, but my personal favorite beat is probably Montero immediately killing the soldier who inadvertently shot Esperanza.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Proto-Zorro!

Needs work.

Rob Roy (fight 2 of 2)

Fights like this are the reason I started this site.

And faces like this are why punching was invented.

2) Rob Roy vs Cunningham

The Fighters:

  • Robert Roy MacGregor, a valiant clan chief from the Scottish Highlands. A rugged yet sensitive family man, Rob is fiercely dedicated to honor & integrity. A large and lethal dude who only fights when he must, Rob Roy is essentially the Ultimate Man. He’s like five Aragorns. Played by Liam Neeson at the tail end of his youth, looking like THIS:

… it got hot in here for everyone else, right? Not just me?

  • Armed with: a claymore, the signature weapon of the Scots.
  • Archibald Cunningham, whose fencing prowess was established in the film’s first fight and whose shocking capacity for cruelty has been established ever since. Every bit as foul as Rob is virtuous. Played by Tim Roth, in a performance that would make William Atherton proud.
    • Armed with: a rapier, as before.
  • The Setup: Throughout the course of a somewhat convoluted story involving theft and political positioning, Rob Roy has been unjustly made into an outlaw and pursued by Cunningham on behalf of the sleazy Duke of Montrose. Cunningham’s campaign against Rob in the course of the film has included but not been limited to stealing his money, burning down his home, killing two of his friends/kinsmen and, most unsettlingly, raping his wife.

    Thanks to the intervention of his much-mistreated spouse Mary, Rob was able to gain the protection of Montrose’s more savory rival, the Duke of Argyll. But mere safety is not enough for MacGregor: he has a score to settle with this be-wigged British bastard, so he challenges him to a formal duel. Cunningham has no problem accepting, as he harbors his own share of hatred against Rob Roy for the violence he did to Archie– violence only committed in defensive reaction to Cunningham’s transgressions, of course, but that’s bad guys for you. Both Dukes observe the fight in court, and Argyll, being quite impressed with the honorable MacGregor, foregoes his usual wager with Montrose in lieu of the guarantee that Montrose will forgive Rob’s debts if he wins; if Rob loses, Argyll will pay his bill.

    The two face off as the referee gives their instructions, and both confirm that no quarter (mercy) will either be asked for or given. Two men enter, one man leaves.

    “I have a very special set of skills….”

    Now while we’ve watched Rob Roy in action over the course of the movie and concluded that he’s plenty deadly, we’ve never really seen him in an extended fight, so we don’t know how he’ll hold up against a fencer who’s received the best training money can buy. Notably, we have seen our hero cash in the chips of Guthrie, the boorish lunkhead who Cunningham beat soundly early in the movie… but while Archie spent a few minutes thoroughly embarrassing Guthrie, Rob simply killed the man outright with just two deft moves. Something to keep in mind.

    The Fight: Intense. Relentless. Raw. Shocking. Flawless.

    As with many things that are more complex than a block of cheese, I don’t really know from fencing– real fencing, that is. But if I did I’d imagine it would be like this, or at least more like this than it is like in most Hollywood sword fights: a series of short but frenzied exchanges followed by long pauses, with speed & precision generally being the most important factors.

    And early on it’s clear that Cunningham has the advantage there. Rob Roy is brave, powerful and determined but he’s thoroughly outmatched by the dastardly Brit’s finely-honed skills. There’s definitely a different tempo here than in the prior fight, because outmatched or not, MacGregor is no Guthrie: Cunningham clearly respects this opponent’s tenacity & strength, having learned the hard way not to underestimate him. Throughout the first “rounds” of the battle, even as he scores an early light slash against Rob, Archie comes off very focused and deliberate; it’s not until later on that Cunningham’s signature smugness returns.

    Our hero holds his own valiantly against the Englishman and even frustrates his advances at several points, though he never once scores a hit himself; meanwhile Rob suffers several light wounds from Cunningham’s blade. His hulking size also works against him (as does his heavier sword; claymores are more suited to hacking at armored foes than fencing), as he becomes increasingly and visibly tired throughout the short match, whereas the villain remains calmly composed.

    Eventually Rob is not just tired but sloppy, dragging his claymore across the ground in-between clashes. One final graze along the hero’s chest sends him tumbling helplessly to the ground, and the villain positions his blade under Rob’s neck just as he did to Guthrie’s earlier.

    The hero is utterly at his mercy, and as Cunningham looks to his benefactor for final approval, ominous music begins to play– the soundtrack having been silent the whole fight. The audience even starts to think: Wait, can this really happen, is the good guy going to lose? It’s been so much rough going so far you alllllllmost believe it’s possible. But then:

    robroy

    what

    Rob Roy stops the would-be fatal lunge by grabbing his opponent’s sword with his bare hand. He holds the blade still, retrieves his own, and with an honest-to-God ROAR he lunges up and chops it into his disbelieving foe, cleaving him from shoulder nearly down to navel. Archibald Cunningham is no more.

    Sorry Archie, you’ve got to be a Sith Lord or Batman to take down The Neese.

    Hard to elaborate on what’s already been described– what is, essentially, perfection. As mentioned before, there’s no music until the very end, letting the amazing choreography and the actors’ emotions speak for themselves. The bulk of the fight is all gritty, intense realism and the ending is about as big of a rousing, kickass “Hollywood” moment as there is. The resulting combination is a one-of-a-kind experience, and a modern classic for fight scenes.

    Grade: A+

    Recommended Links: Liam Neeson’s more than capable of branching out to comedy, and don’t you try to disagree with him.

    Also here’s this one more time:

    It’s hypnotic.

    Coming Attractions: The original Desert Fox.

    Rob Roy (fight 1 of 2)

    “Honor is what no man can give you. And none can take away. Honor is a man’s gift to himself.”

    Rob Roy’s a great flick. It’s a weird mix of hard realism (mostly faithful period costumes, and shot entirely on location with castle scenes inside actual castles, etc) with absurdly broad Hollywood archetypes, and the end result is a good ol’ fashioned historical romp filled with its fair share of’ graphic content. It is in fact a bit of a difficult movie to re-watch, featuring some deplorably nasty on-screen activities by the villains and noble heroes suffering through seemingly endless degradations; heck, if it weren’t for the last-second happy ending, the movie would have been a trial run for Game of Thrones.

    There’s a lot of bits of minor action here & there, but only two genuine fights of any note, one of which in particular has gone down in film history. That’s not this one, but we’ll get there.

    First, we have to meet this prick.

    1) Cunningham vs Guthrie

    The Fighters:

    • Archibald Cunningham, a minor noble from England whose foppish appearance belies his lethal fencing prowess and a cruelty bordering on sociopathy. His shenanigans at home have gotten him sent abroad into the care/service of the vile Duke of Montrose (John Hurt, rarely in more need of having an alien burst from his chest). Played by Tim Roth with malicious glee.
      • Armed with: Rapier.
    • Will Guthrie, an obnoxious fighter favored by Montrose’s rival, the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir). Talented but ultimately dishonorable and more of a brawler than a fencer. Played by Gilbert Martin.
      • Armed with: Claymore.

    The Setup: We’ve already spent considerable time with the titular hero, so this scene, set in Argyll’s castle, acts our introduction to the villain Cunningham as well as the two Dukes (and Guthrie, though he’ll mostly be a minor player in the film). The scene opens up with Guthrie triumphing over a fellow Scot in a sort of informal fencing match with several dozen rowdy highlanders cheering on.

    Argyll and Montrose snipe quietly at each other, but when Cunningham and Guthrie exchange some insults (Archie has little respect for the traditional Scottish claymore), a challenge is laid down between the two, as is a wager between their respective benefactors. The two swordsmen take their marks, and as Cunningham takes too long doing his pre-fight show-offs, Guthrie interrupts him in mid-flourish with a casual swing, kicking things off immediately.

    Taking a moment to remind everyone here that Cunningham looks like THIS.

    The Fight: Archibald is surprised a bit at Guthrie’s dick move but he quickly regains his composure and defends himself well. In fact, Cunningham really wastes no time gaining control of the fight, constantly pressing Guthrie and nimbly moving about. Guthrie’s overt lunges and swings are clearly strong but clumsy in comparison; Cunningham easily avoids them all.

    Interestingly, almost as soon as the fight starts Montrose conspicuously turns his back on the proceedings. Not because he doesn’t care, but because he has enough confidence in Archie’s abilities that he’s sure of its outcome, and turning away from it while calmly conversing with Argyll (who’s watching anxiously) is a way to poke his metaphorical finger in his rival’s eye.

    Meanwhile, Cunningham’s swordsmanship is consistently superior, leaving him cocky enough to play up to the crowd (who hates his dandy English ass) with exaggerated gestures, making him resemble nothing so much as a Heel in professional wrestling. Which come to think of it is exactly what he is in the movie, as well: colorful & flamboyant outfit, willful immorality, dishonorable tactics, etc. All he’s missing is a metal folding chair.

    After scoring some light wounds on Guthrie and tiring him out, Cunningham soon corners his opponent with a series of blows, and deliberately walks away without looking in order to provoke a sneak attack. He deftly sidesteps it and knocks Guthrie to the ground with a thwack on the back from his rapier. The brutish highlander is left defenseless on the ground, and Archie puts a rapier up against his neck to stand him up slowly, but ultimately lets him live– it’s just a “friendly” match, after all.

    Low stakes here, and nothing too fancy cinematically, though the choreography is impeccable. The real purpose of the fight is to sell Cunningham’s abilities as well as cement his character, which it does wonderfully. This fight provides a much-needed foundation for what’s to come.

    Grade: B

    Coming Attractions: The main event.

    YES.

    “see ya”

    Taking a brief break for the rest of this week, partly because that epic Rocky post took so much out of me. If you’re bored you can pass the time by just watching this over & over & over again:

    Grade: A++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Rocky (series retrospective)

    I’m trying something new here today, an idea I’ve been kicking around.

    A lot of great fights happen in movies that have just a handful (or even less) of actual fight scenes. But many movies are positively packed with fights, in fact often existing as little more than vehicles for them. In that case, going the usual route of breaking down every single last fight scene for this blog would get repetitive, tedious and exhausting– I can tell you that six entries apiece for both Crouching Tiger and Matrix Reloaded (at three entries each week, that’s two full weeks on just one subject) have already been quite a slog by the end.

    If I did something like The Raid in that manner, we’d be here for a month. For such subjects I think it would be better to put away the microscope and take a more macro view, just a couple hundred words on each fight and move on.

    However, that’s not what we’re doing today. Today we’ll be adding an extra twist, and reviewing an entire franchise that way. It sounds daunting, but given topics like the one here where each individual film is only built around one or two signature fights of a similar nature, it’s actually quite appropriate.

    The Rocky movies are among the more celebrated and recognized in American popular culture, paradoxically symbolizing both a plucky underdog spirit and gluttonous self-indulgence. That’s largely due to how the series itself evolved over time, but throughout all the changes, each film still climaxes with Sylvester Stallone’s signature creation scoring a moral and/or practical victory over an implacable foe. While each fight is worthy of examination in its own right, they’re even more interesting in relation to each other.

    [Note that we’re only covering each movie’s “main event,” or climactic battle. In an entry already covering six different bouts, we don’t need to pile on with run-ups like Rocky’s early routing by Clubber Lang or Apollo getting murderlized by Ivan Drago. I’ll also note that I know very little about actual professional boxing, but I do know enough to realize that anyone who absorbed as many head shots as Balboa did would have been reduced to eating crayons by 1982.]

    1) Rocky Balboa vs Apollo Creed

    “He doesn’t think it’s a damn show. He thinks it’s a damn fight!”

    Rocky’s Foe: Apollo Creed, a fast-talking and financially shrewd champion, based loosely on Muhammad Ali. He picks Rocky, an obscure “ham & egger” fighter, for an exhibition bout in the Bicentennial as a sort of gag, after his slated opponent’s injury left an opening in Creed’s schedule. Played by Carl Weathers.

    The Setup: The original Rocky is a different film than many remember. It is certainly cheesy and earnest, but it’s also not afraid to be raw, awkward and resfreshingly free of vanity. The title character’s low intelligence is alternately endearing & winceworthy, and the other characters have varying degrees of alarming emotional un-healthiness; tellingly, perhaps the most stable & responsible person Rocky knows is the loan shark he beats guys up for. Because the movie works so hard to find the good in characters you might not have otherwise noticed, their “victory” at the end is all the more touching and earned.

    Rocky’s fight against Apollo Creed is, he comes to realize, not something he could genuinely win. Balboa decides to make his dignity where he can, and famously decides that if he can “go the distance” against Creed– last all 15 rounds, which no one has every done with the champ– then maybe he’s not such a nobody after all.

    Adrian Watches From: She just stays in the locker room and listens, right up until the last round when she emerges in the hallway.

    The Fight: It’s clear that Apollo isn’t taking this seriously at the start, dancing around and trash-talking Rocky. But the Italian Stallion puts him on notice soon enough with an uppercut that downs the champ for the first time in his career. He turns serious quite quickly and pummels the challenger about for the next two rounds, and although Rocky is mostly on the defensive he occasionally rallies back. It’s not until the end of round two that the music kicks in (this will be a running tactic for the series), signifying, as Martin Lawrence and/or Simon Pegg would say, that “stuff” just got real.

    This movie does a weird gag with time, perhaps as another signal that it’s not the straight sports movie that the sequels would become: it pretty much cuts out the middle. After Round Two ends, the camera cuts to a series of shots of ring girls holding up cards to let us know time’s passing, and in the space of a few seconds we go from Round 3 to Round 5 to Round 9. Then a very brief scene as the fight continues, then we’re in the closing seconds of Round 13. Quite the whirlwind tour through the fight we waited the whole movie for.

    Still, Rounds 14 and 15 play out beautifully. Both boxers are believably exhausted but still absorbing and dishing out brutal punishment. Rocky goes down for a nine-count in the fourteenth, getting up even against the advice of his own corner and to the very visible frustration of Apollo (Creed’s exasperated body language is perfect), still ready to throw some more fists. The Stallion’s eye is so swollen (both fighters are wearing enough physical trauma makeup to pass for the Toxic Avenger) that it has to be cut open so he can see, a procedure that’s more gruesome in concept than execution.

    The fight ends as the clock runs out, both contenders on their feet but with Rocky throwing the final punches. Bill Conti’s signature music kicks in, and between it and the tearful reunion with Rocky and his ladylove Adrian, the announcer saying that the split decision went to Creed is nearly drowned out. And why not? Rocky already won his battle.

    2) Rocky Balboa vs Apollo Creed (rematch)

    “You’re goin’ down.”

    “No way.”

    Rocky’s Foe: Apollo Creed, once again. Embarrassed by his narrow victory over the “chump” Balboa, the image-conscious Apollo is determined to get a decisive victory over Rocky, even though the newly-married Italian Stallion would rather just retire. Still played by Carl Weathers, who might have won this fight if he’d remembered it’s all in the hips.

    The Setup: Rocky II is a strange point in the franchise’s evolution. It’s not serious enough to be legitimately dramatic, yet it’s not silly enough to be genuinely entertaining. The very existence of the film can be chalked up to Stallone wanting to have his cake and eat it too, adding a physical victory to Rocky’s moral one.

    Having been goaded into the rematch by Creed, Rocky and his manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith) undertook a more focused training mission this time around: in order to both protect his diminished right eye and throw the champ off his balance, Rocky has learned to fight right-handed rather than as his typical southpaw self. But will it be enough?

    Adrian Watches From: Home, via television.

    The Fight: In true sequel tradition, it’s like the first but more so. There are many smaller changes, however, like Apollo’s initial aggressiveness and vindictive fighting style (he begins loudly taunting Rocky and even winding up overly-telegraphed punches in order to embarrass Balboa), and the way Rocky is generally more on the losing end this time out. But the bare bones are still the same: Rocky is constantly soaking up damage while occasionally giving some spirited counters, the beginning & ending get the most focus, and by the finish both boxers are lumbering about exhausted– once again it’s Weathers with the more expressive body language, his arms flopping around like big wet noodles.

    Thankfully there are some more stylistic changes (courtesy of Stallone, who picked up directorial duties from John G Avildsen for most of the remainder of the franchise), the most major one being that we actually get to see more of the middle of the fight. It still gets the least focus, naturally, but it’s much less rushed than before. Once the music kicks in at the end of Round Two (Conti’s score sounds heavily inspired by Holst’s “Mars”), the middle of the fight becomes a focused montage, with some nice POV and slow-motion shots. As this segment fades out, Rocky starts to put more of a dent in his opponent just before we return to the more “straight” filmmaking of the last two rounds.

    Perhaps fittingly given he’s named after a Greek god, it’s Apollo’s hubris that causes his loss here. If he’d just pulled the ol’ stick-and-move for the last round, Creed’s general dominance of the fight would have made him a surefire winner by decision, but he didn’t want to win by decision– he wanted to destroy Rocky, the man who’d hurt him so badly. His insistence on trying to KO this immovable Italian leaves him open to devastating blows from the challenger, and one such punch sends Creed to the mat… along with Rocky, who trips and falls himself after putting so much strength into his final lunge.

    There’s a gloriously cheesy slow-motion sequence as the two behemoths struggle to return to a standing position, knowing that whoever gets up is the winner. Just at the count of nine, Rocky is able pick himself up just as Apollo’s strength gives out and he stumbles back down. It’s corny, but on the other hand, it’s an admirably unorthodox way to end the fight, and hammers home (if a bit unsubtly) that Rocky’s main asset is his indomitable willpower and determination. Balboa gets up because he simply wants it more.

    3) Rocky Balboa vs Clubber Lang

    “I don’t hate Balboa. I pity the fool.”

    Rocky’s Foe: James “Clubber” Lang, a vicious fighter with a wild personality. Played by the one and only Mr. T, in his film debut.

    The Setup: In the years since winning the belt from Apollo, Rocky had gone soft as a fighter, leaving him easy pickings for the young & hungry contender Clubber Lang. In less than two rounds Lang delivered Rocky a humiliating defeat, and even worse, Lang’s rough-housing backstage induced a heart attack in the already-weakened Mickey, who died shortly after. Fortunately, the now-retired Apollo Creed (who also hates Lang) tracked down Rocky to help him get “the eye of the tiger” back.

    Even more strategy than before is put into Rocky’s prep this time, as Creed’s training of Rocky emphasizes building his speed and agility. Creed also realizes that even Rocky’s stubborn durability is no match for Lang’s raw power, and he knows that Clubber has to be put down early. Curiously, the blind spot in Rocky’s right eye, discussed so much in the second film, is not mentioned here at all or ever again.

    Adrian Watches From: The front row, finally.

    The Fight: It’s most certainly different. Not only is the middle not skipped, but the fight is shown in its entirety, from beginning to end– a first (and last, basically) for the franchise. Aesthetically this also marks a new direction for the series in the way punches sound: before, they sounded more or less realistic, but here they sound more like “movie punches”– audible wallops like out of something like Indiana Jones.

    Rocky’s new tactics are evident immediately. He’s faster and more aggressive, practically bouncy– Stallone, as always quite physically committed, really sells the character’s legwork. Rocky’s new agility is a great boon in the first round, as he dodges, ducks, dips, dives and dodges many of the new champ’s blows and keeps chipping away at Lang with many quick strikes of his own. Clubber is so infuriated at Rocky’s deft maneuvering that he has to be physically restrained (by several people) from attacking Rocky in-between rounds.

    When Round Two begins things go bad for Rocky as he falls prey to several of the champ’s haymakers, but near the end he rallies, and intuits something that wasn’t part of Apollo’s plan: Lang’s bestial rage can be turned against him. Rocky continually taunts Lang in the third round, either ducking or absorbing many attempted knockout blows in a sort of modified rope-a-dope strategy until Clubber is worn out in a way he’s not used to. When the mohawked fighter is vulnerable enough, Rocky moves in for the kill and just deconstructs Lang with a flurry of blows that finally put him down for the count.

    The Rocky III fight plays out very atypically for the series. It’s a sprint rather than a marathon, and makes Rocky use his brain in addition to his strength and willpower. It’s not the best of the series but it’s a refreshing change of pace.

    (We never hear from Clubber Lang ever again after the end of this movie. A guy like that, I’m thinking there’s no way he doesn’t try to burn down Rocky’s house as revenge.)

    4) Rocky Balboa vs Ivan Drago

    “I must break you.”

    Rocky’s Foe: Ivan Drago, a young Russian fighter sponsored by the Soviet Union, out to crush the decadent American fighters. Despite or perhaps because of his simplicity, Drago is an amazing character; with his toned physique, imposing size and rigid blonde hair, he’s more Super Saiyan than boxer. Played by Dolph Lundgren, who in reality is far more intelligent than the quiet beast he played.

    The Setup: Rocky IV is arguably the culmination of the direction the franchise had taken, up until the fifth film anyway. Almost all internal conflict and character growth has been stripped away, resulting in a story of almost admirably primitive form. The film is almost nothing but bombast and emotions, wasting very little time between setpieces and gags. It also has a rep for being “propagandistic,” being a movie with a bad guy Russian at the height of the Cold War. And it certainly is, but not in the way many people think; the movie ends with some surprisingly optimistic messages about finding commonality with, and not pre-judging, our enemies. Even the cold-blooded villain is ultimately shown to have a form of honor, being exploited by his devious rulers.

    For his first professional fight, Drago entered into an exhibition match with Apollo Creed, Rocky’s nemesis-turned-friend. Entering the match cocky about his chances against the Russian “amateur,” Apollo is ultimately beaten so bad within two rounds that he dies in the ring. Drago literally kills Rocky’s friend, so of course the Italian Stallion won’t let that stand. He flies to Russia himself and trains under harsh and simple conditions; the film goes out of its way to contrast Rocky’s mountain man regimen against Ivan’s closely-regulated training to sell a self-flattering message about Americans being more natural & humble whereas the Soviets rely on high-powered technology… which is funny, because the real-life Cold War was much closer to the opposite. Regardless, when Rocky shows up at the climactic fight, Stallone is clearly in the best shape of his life.

    Adrian Watches From: Once again, she’s there at ringside, having flown all the way to Russia to be with her man.

    The Fight: Insane. If anything it more closely resembles Rocky’s first fight or two in its barest structure, but with everything turned up to eleven. No semblance of strategy is apparent, nor was any ever discussed beforehand; this is nothing but force against unrelenting force, two chiseled gods dishing out more on-screen damage than anything outside of a Godzilla flick.

    As with before we see the entirety of the first two rounds, with Rocky mostly just helpless until the end of Round Two (Ivan’s superior reach is another advantage over the Stallion), when he gets his first good blow in and cuts the Russian’s eye. Rocky even matches He-Man’s feats of strength with one of his own, ending one of the pair’s shoving matches by physically lifting up Drago and slamming him to the ground (good thing he practiced in the last movie against Hulk Hogan).

    And also as before this is the part where the music kicks in, and all the “middle” rounds become an extended montage. A glorious montage: cinematically speaking this is probably the best match of the series. There’s slow-motion shots of the fighters withstanding devastating head blows, fade-ins of the fight over panning shots of the crowd, even split-screens showing the combatants staring each other down between rounds. And the punching sound effects seem twice as loud as they did in Rocky III. It’s over the top, bombastic and beautiful. More than in any other Rocky fight we get a real sense of the passage of time and the outright war these two titans are engaged in.

    And over the course of things the crowd, admiring Rocky’s tenacity, improbably begins to cheer for him; even Drago is impressed, famously uttering, “He is not human. He is like a piece of iron.” The failure of the unstoppable force to crush the immovable object leads to Drago getting chewed out by his Soviet handlers just before the final round, and helps him re-discover his pride as a man who fights to win, not for others’ approval.

    In the last moments Rocky takes some more abuse but comes back strong, hitting Drago with a series of blows that resemble nothing so much as cutting down an enormous tree. For the first time ever, the Russian colossus goes down, and goes down so hard he stumbles out of the ring while trying to get up. U-S-A! U-S-A!

    [Pondering: all those Russians in the crowd who cheered for the American… it’s pretty much guaranteed that the secret police dragged them out of their bed and shot them later, right? Ah, well, you know communism: can’t make an omelet without breaking a few million peasants.]

    5) Rocky Balboa vs Tommy Gunn

    “My ring’s outside.”

    Rocky’s Foe: Tommy, “The Machine” Gunn, a hotshot young boxer with a gratuitous nickname. Talented and full of potential, but also hotheaded, petty and short-sighted. Played by Tommy “The Duke” Morrison, a real-life boxer.

    The Setup: Rocky V is the black sheep of the franchise, despised by nearly everyone including Stallone himself (who didn’t direct, returning the reins to Avildsen). It’s an ambitious attempt to settle the series; indeed, it’s possible a good movie could have been made off a story where Rocky retires for good, is forced to live under humble circumstances, and his family life suffers while he tries to live vicariously through a protege… and the whole thing ends not in a ring but in a gritty street fight. But the execution is thoroughly lousy, and painful to watch.

    A brain-damaged (turns out Drago rang his clock but good) and impoverished Rocky spent a good chunk of the film tutoring Gunn, but Gunn eventually falls under the sway of George W Duke, an amoral fight promoter based loosely on Don King (who himself is more nasty than most Hollywood villains). Duke turns Gunn against Rocky and soon gets him a shot at the Heavyweight Championship. Gunn wins the title but finds himself still not being taken seriously, due to the public’s remaining goodwill for Balboa and the fact that Gunn only won against an inferior champion. Also, he has the most hateable face this side of Fred Durst:

    Seeing that the only way to win respect is to get a match against a returning Rocky, Gunn and Duke confront and harass Rocky at his favorite bar, accompanied by a video crew. Balboa tries to be the bigger man and brush it off, but when Gunn roughs up Paulie, Rocky takes it personally, and challenges him to a fight right there.

    Adrian Watches From: She’s at home when it starts actually, but when the fight somehow makes the TV news (?), their son Robert pulls her out to watch in person.

    The Fight: Like much of Rocky V, it’s definitely different… but not all that great.

    The staging is technically good, with a lot of nice flourishes to indicate that this really is a street fight, not just bare-knuckle boxing that happens to take place on a street. The two combatants knock each other into things, trip each other, grab each other’s arms and generally behave in ways that would be illegal and/or impossible in a genuine boxing match.

    However, it’s written terribly. Tommy is portrayed as such an unworthy opponent that nearly every time he hits Rocky, it’s either a sucker punch (Rocky turns his back and walks away twice because he doesn’t want to hurt Tommy, who he still cares about, any more), or a follow-up to a sucker punch; it’s not until the very end, when they’re both simply trading blows, does Tommy score a hit that’s not a complete cheap shot. All of Rocky’s rivals thus far had been varying degrees of villainous, but the movie still respected their abilities. Here, Tommy is portrayed as the ultimate sniveling dirtbag, presumably as an effort to puff up the character of Rocky.

    It’s hard to find images from this fight, so I used a better one from Rocky IV. You’re welcome.

    And the Rocky himself does come off fairly well, he being the one that pulls off most the fancier moves. It’s Stallone’s physicality that sells the fight to be as exciting as it is. But that excitement doesn’t save it from Gunn’s aforementioned dickishness, and definitely not from the colossal miscalculation of the moment where Rocky, coming from a seemingly final beating at Tommy’s dishonorable hands (inspired by a brain-damage-induced vision of Mickey’s ghost!), rises to his feet to the tune of the opening notes of Bill Conti’s iconic “Gonna Fly Now.” It’s very corny and cynically so, not in a way at all appropriate to the series. It’s a wonder test audiences didn’t laugh it out of existence.

    Anyway, Rocky finally rallies and puts Tommy down for the count. He even punches a sneering Duke for good measure, despite the latter’s repeated warning of “touch me and I’ll sue!” to which finally replies “sue me for what?” after decking him. To which you’re tempted to answer “uh, for assault?” but I suppose Rocky means he has no money for Duke to take. I… really don’t think it works that way. Anyway, the exchange is definitely a poor man’s “Diplomatic immunity!”/”It’s been revoked.”

    6) Rocky Balboa vs Mason Dixon

    “You’re one crazy old man.”

    “You’ll get there.”

    Rocky’s Foe: Mason “The Line” Dixon, a young champion who always KOs his opponents quickly, causing many to suspect he doesn’t have the staying power to last in a sustained fight; this creates an interesting contrast to the original film, because his own struggle is the question of whether or not he can “go the distance.” Dixon probably received more screen time than any of Rocky’s other rivals did, to the point where he’s practically a co-protagonist in the film. Played by Antonio Tarver, another real-life boxing champion.

    The Setup: Rocky Balboa (the movie, not the character) basically amounts to Stallone giving himself a Mulligan on ending his signature franchise. Surprisingly, the public at large was generally receptive to it, possibly because they were almost as eager to a better sendoff than Rocky V as he was. This one is more like the original than any film since Rocky II, returning the character to a position of more genuine humility. But it’s modern, too, and cognizant of its own mythology in a way that’s rarely annoying.

    The impetus for the film’s unlikely fight is that boxing number-crunchers have concluded that the current champ Dixon would lose out to the legendary Balboa, if the two had ever fought under equitable conditions. A retired fighter against one in his prime is hardly “equitable,” but nonetheless the conclusion hurts Dixon’s besieged pride and similarly gives Rocky, who is stable yet adrift a few years after Adrian’s death, a renewed sense of purpose. An exhibition match between the two provides Mason an opportunity to prove he can handle the long slog, and Rocky a way to exorcise his personal demons. It’s absurd, but the movie plays things in such a way that you actually believe it.

    The training sequence, overseen by series mainstay Tony “Duke” Evers (Tony Burton), explicitly acknowledges that Rocky’s age handicaps his speed and agility, so he’ll have to focus mainly into improving the strength of his punches. “Let’s start buildin’ some hurtin’ bombs,” Burton rasps out, awesomely.

    Adrian Watches From: Heaven.

    The Fight: Fitting in with the movie as a whole, the fight is a mix of the old with the new. Right off the bat you can see plenty of modern touches: everything is brighter & sharper, the fight’s timer occasionally appears on the screen, the announcers occasionally count the punches in their commentary. Stylistically, Stallone throws in a few curveballs as well, the most notable being the occasional and striking, if somewhat inexplicable, switches to black & white (with a few lone highlighted colors) cinematography. During the now-expected “middle montage” Rocky flashes back briefly to memories of Adrian and Mickey. Notably, the crushing audio accompaniment of the fighters’ punches has been dialed way back from the Rocky III/IV levels.

    But much is the same as before, too. As per tradition, we see the first two rounds in full before the music perks up as Rocky re-asserts himself at the end of Round Two, and then gliding on that stylized journey to the fight’s last legs. There’s perhaps more suspense than usual this time, with a few minutes in the second round almost coming off like what would really happen in a situation like this, but Rocky’s resilience plus Dixon injuring his dominant hand on Rocky’s hip (Stallone seemed to realize that even Rocky would need an inadvertent handicap, considering his age) let the Stallion slowly climb his way out of the hole, even scoring an early knockdown against his opponent.

    As we approach that last round (ten this time, not fifteen like before), the “last round of your life!” Paulie calls out from the corner, the two acknowledge some respect for each other before finishing their battle. In the ensuing struggle, Rocky is knocked down to one knee and, in another break from tradition, time slows from his perspective and we hear a brief internal monologue from this legendary character, urging himself to finish on his own terms the journey he began decades ago:

    It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. GET UP!

    Rocky wills himself to stand and trades more blows with Dixon. As the final bell rings, both fighters are on their feet, with Rocky having gotten in the last punch. In the ensuing pandemonium Dixon hears the one thing he needed to hear, from the only man who could say it, when Rocky tells him “you’re a great champion.”

    Things have come full circle because it’s a split decision again, with Rocky narrowly losing. But as before, it doesn’t matter to him because he’s won his own victory, and the Italian Stallion leaves the arena for the last time, to the screams of adoring fans. No regrets.

    Series Overview: Phew, that was quite an undertaking. Alas I couldn’t find an appropriate place to fit in this image, so I’ll do so now.

    They just look so happy!

    You may have noticed there are no grades at the end of any fights, as I did not feel it would be useful or appropriate. With the exception of Rocky V most of them would be in the “A” range anyway, and besides many of them are going for different effects; the fights of the first and fourth movies (not to mention the films themselves) are practically in different universes. So I’ve decided that when faced with a conundrum like this in a retrospective, the best thing is to rank the fights in order of personal preference. In which case:

    • Rocky
    • Rocky IV
    • Rocky Balboa
    • Rocky III
    • Rocky II
    • Rocky V

    It took over 4500 words, but yo Adrian, I did it.

    Recommended Links: Fun fact about Rocky IV: literally one-third of it is montages. Speaking of Rocky IV, check the first entry on this list for an amazing story about one of its stars.

    Imagine what it would be like if Mr. T were on Twitter– in fact, imagine the best possible version of that. You will be pleased to find that that’s EXACTLY what it’s like. Go ahead and follow good old Sylvester himself while you’re at it.

    You know which other big star is on Twitter and was deeply connected to the Rocky franchise? You guessed it: Frank Stallone.

    Coming Attractions: A different type of highlander.

    You’re welcome, ladies.

    The Matrix Reloaded (fight 6 of 6)

    It’s not as cool as this.

    6) Morpheus vs Agent Johnson

    (I wonder if he’s related to either of the other Agents Johnson?)

    The Fighters:

    • Morpheus, who’s been critically under-served in this movie as far as action scenes go. He’s still a major resistance figure and captain of the Nebuchadnezzar, but this movie has a sly reveal that rather than more or less representing the entire resistance (as the audience had assumed), he’s a respected & powerful yet controversial figure, viewed by many other humans as a reckless ideologue. Played by Laurence Fishburne.
      • Armed with: a gun, but it gets knocked away early. A katana sword he lifted from the Merovingian’s place comes in handy about halfway through.
    • Agent Johnson, one of the three upgraded Agents we saw earlier in the movie. Efficient & menacing, but nowhere near Weaving’s iconic antagonist. Played by Daniel Bernhardt.
      • Armed with: again, presumably he has a firearm, but he doesn’t use it.

    The Setup: With Neo stranded in a distant mountain range after staying to fight with the Merovingian’s freak squad, it’s up to Morpheus & Trinity to get the Keymaker to safety via a busy freeway. After finally dispatching the ghostly Twins who’d been pursuing them, the heroes still have to contend with Agents, who have spotted them and are quite keen on “deleting” the exiled Keymaker.

    Through various action-movie shenanigans, Morpheus and the Keymaker have found themselves on top of a moving tractor-trailer attached to a semi-truck. Before they can get a moment to breathe, however, they’re joined by Agent Johnson. Morpheus sees no option except for a direct confrontation.

    The Fight: Well, Morpheus certainly does a lot better here than he did against an Agent last time around, even if he’s still clearly inferior ( “only human”), fighting a losing battle while still not getting really brutalized. It makes sense, of course: given the context of the fight, Johnson doesn’t need to beat Morpheus into submission as Smith did, he merely needs to knock him out of the “ring.”

    That environment– on top of a narrow trailer speeding down a crowded freeway– actually does a lot of the heavy lifting for the fight’s excitement, because the Agent can’t really be hurt, Morpheus doesn’t get pwned as bad as before, and, frankly, Lawrence Fishburne doesn’t come off too well in this scene. He’s an excellent actor and kicked ass superbly in the original film, but his fighting here looks awkward and ungainly, less like a true kung fu warrior than an overweight 40-year-old playing one. Reports claim that along with the other actors (including Jada Pinkett-Smith, who fights even less), Fishburne underwent about eight months of additional martial arts training for the sequels; I’d call that a waste because this brief fight is by far the most kung fu-ing that Morpheus does, and it’s quite underwhelming.

    It’s not without its merit, or memorable moments. Some excitement is wrung out of Morpheus nearly taking a fall several times (though the sight of him teetering on the edge is sometimes inadvertently comical), and once again our hero tries out some inventive moves to surprise his superior foe.

    Johnson looks like Alec Baldwin there, doesn’t he?

    Probably the most fun part is when Morpheus, knocked face down near the edge of the trailer, spies the samurai sword he’d previously stabbed into the vehicle’s side in order to make a stepping stone, and some adrenaline surges into the fight when the audience sees that he’s found a way to even the odds. It’s not as raucous a moment as the similar introduction of a katana in Pulp Fiction, but it’s neat. Weirdly (or fittingly if you buy into the theory that this movie is into deliberately disappointing its audience), the discovery of the sword is much more exciting than actually putting it to use: aside from a surprise move that slices the Agent’s tie (“that was a Father’s Day gift!”) and later his cheek, the katana ends up not being much help at all, let alone a game-changer. Morpheus loses it pretty quickly and gets fully knocked off the truck soon after.

    Fortunately he’s saved by the timely arrival of Niobe (the aforementioned Mrs. Pinkett-Smith), another resistance captain and Morpheus’ ex-girlfriend, who had been tracking the group on the freeway and “catches” him on the hood of her car. Johnson thinks Morpheus is done for, which allows Morpheus and Niobe the perfect opportunity to get into position for a sneak attack. “Go kick his ass!” Jada approvingly growls; disappointingly, she doesn’t add “tell him my husband said ‘Welcome to Earth!'” but hey, we can’t have everything.

    Morpheus’ surprise jump kick knocks Agent Johnson (or more appropriately, his unfortunate human host) onto the asphalt. A dubious victory, perhaps, but the best one he could hope for under the circumstances. Besides, it was only a temporary win, as Morph and the Keymaker are still in a vulnerable position and surrounded by Agents (and many more potential Agents) behind the wheels of two-ton death machines. It’s only thanks to the in-the-nick-of-time arrival of Neo that the pair finally escape from their predicament. Remember all those old Superfriends cartoons where the writers kept thinking up goofy reasons to separate Superman from the other heroes so he couldn’t be around to solve every problem instantly?

    As mentioned, it’s underwhelming, but serviceable. The choreography is inventive even if sometimes awkwardly executed, and Don Davis’ music (a repeat/reprise of his previous “fight against the Agents” tune) is also adequate. Not much to truly hate or love, so it’s a shame that while there’s still a good chunk of this movie left, this is the last true fight it has. There’s some light skirmishing in the hallway of “back doors” against The Smiths and a few fragments of Trinity getting beat up by an Agent, but they’re too brief and scattered to really dive into. Also, I’m tired.

    Grade: B-

    Coming Attractions: The evolution of a legend.

    The Matrix Reloaded (fight 5 of 6)

    In which Neo is a very messy house guest.

    You won’t be grinning for long, Frenchie

    5) Neo vs Merovingian’s Henchmen

    The Fighters:

    • Neo, again. Played by Keanu Reeves.
      • Armed with: nothing to start with, but eventually employs several weapons including dual sais, a broadsword, and a spear that gets broken in half and he subsequently uses the two halves as short clubs (or Eskrima).
    • The Merovingian’s henchmen, six of them. One of them, Cain (he was partnered with a guy named Abel. They’re named after the famous Biblical brothers because of no good darn reason I can think of) was in an earlier scene heavily implied to be a vampire, or perhaps a werewolf. The others are also refugee programs from previous versions of the Matrix, most likely encoded as other supernatural creatures. Though they’re no match for Neo they seem to be superior to even the upgraded Agents, even if the Agents dress better. The Merovingian himself is there but he just hangs back and acts snooty. Played by stunt men, with Lambert Wilson hamming it up as the Big M.
      • Armed with: They enter with automatic weapons, but discard those for hand-to-hand combat and, soon enough, a variety of short-range weapons including swords, a trident, a spear, a flail, a staff, dual hooks, a spiked club, etc.

    These weirdos.

    The Setup: Neo and his crew came to the Merovingian’s hideout asking for the Keymaker, for reasons that make this movie sound more & more like a video game the longer you get into it. He refused and sent them off, but was betrayed by his wife Persephone (Monica Belluci aka the Platonic Ideal of sexuality) because she’s sick of how much of a dick he is. In a story development that literally not one single audience member thought was a good idea, Persephone exchanged the Keymaker’s whereabouts for a “loving” kiss from Neo, but before all of them could leave the chateau they’re confronted by a furious Merovingian and half a dozen men. In a spacious foyer conveniently decorated with a couple dozen weapons, of course.

    Neo volunteers to hold off the bad guys while Trinity & Morpheus run the other way with the Keymaker, a decision I always questioned. Instead of Neo staying behind to fight out a protracted but ultimately easy battle against these Rodeo Drive rejects, why not have Neo fly off with the Keymaker (after all, Neo is their strongest asset and the Keymaker’s help is paramount) while Morpheus and Trinity struggle desperately in a frantic 2-on-6 battle? Don’t know how it would have affected the following freeway sequence, but ah, what might have been.

    Speaking of which, you know who gets left out of this battle entirely? These guys:

    They arrive with the rest of Merovingian’s gang, but are immediately dispatched to float after the Keymaker. Presumably some sort of ghost programs, the Twins have one of the most fascinating powers out of anybody in the movie: they can “phase” back and forth out of intangibility. Although as a superpower it’s hardly original, it definitely would have been a game-changer for this series’ fight scenes (and was teased as such in the trailers)– a way to give Neo trouble that didn’t involve “slightly stronger enemies” or just “lots of enemies.” Instead the Wachowskis opted to pretty much leave these guys out of fight scenes altogether: they trade a couple blows with Morpheus in the garage and have some shenanigans with a razor blade inside a cramped automobile, but the majority of this pair’s screen time is spent on a car chase, of all things. Hey, we all like a good car chase, but using a power like this in a car chase is like putting Wolverine in your movie and making his primary weapon be a gun. Matrix Reloaded wastes so much potential I can never decide if it does so recklessly or willfully.

    Anyway, once Neo’s alone the Merovingian has his goons open fire. Which doesn’t work because, once again, Neo has the ability to telekinetically stop bullets. Not punches, kicks, swords, or anything else– just bullets.

    In fairness, he can stop a LOT of bullets.

    With that failing, they all try to take him on physically. Which they also fail at, only slower.

    The Fight: Whereas the previous setpiece was chaotic, this one’s actually more dynamic, graceful even. While still as (not literally) bloodless as the rest of the film’s punchifying, there’s a certain smoothness to the movement that the Burly Brawl lacks. (A smoothness reflected in Don Davis’ music, of course.)

    Neo and everyone else starts out unarmed, but the goons start picking up weapons pretty quickly. Neo holds out as long as he can trying to go on his own (pride?), but taking a nasty a cut on his hand after using it to block a sword (the moment creates a nice little pause in the action) is more than enough inspiration to follow his new friends’ example.

    The gang explores the chateau space here in a way that would make Bruce Dickinson proud. Everyone’s constantly dancing around each other, going back & forth between the two floors (sometimes by stairs, sometimes by jumping), getting knocked into things or even hitting each other inadvertently. As always, the camerawork of the Wachowskis and cinematographer Bill Pope is more than dynamic enough to match, with no shortage of stylistic and well-staged shots. Except for the two goons who die early on, nobody gets stuck with one single weapon, as the implements are constantly getting broken, knocked aside, thrown or just plain left in corpses.

    It’s not entirely perfect. Cain, the one goon we actually recognize due to his prior scene with Persephone (and who had a larger role in the contemporary, glitch-filled companion video game Enter The Matrix), doesn’t just exit the fight scene early on but does so puzzlingly: Neo knocks him through a stone statue in slow-mo, and after he hits the ground you don’t see him again. The injury doesn’t look fatal, especially considering the punishment Cain’s buddies absorb here and how a few minutes ago we heard Persephone talk about how incredibly hard to kill he is. A later death, caused by a baddie getting stuck with a trident Neo dodged, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. And one guy gets a sword slice to the back of his neck that doesn’t seem to do more than bother him.

    Still, that kind of sloppiness is the exception rather than the norm; the majority of the fight is meticulously staged and filled with a number of small, clever moments.

    Neo pinning the weirdly androgynous henchperson to the wall, his fun little pose after summoning two sais from either end of the room (the hero’s single act of non-bullet-stopping telekinesis), the way the hero controls the movement around the space and turns his opponents’ weapons against each other. Probably the best moment is the last, when Neo faces off against the final goon, Eskrima against long club, and uses his sticks to throw the opponent’s weapon into the air. While it’s up there, Neo kicks the guy (girl?) down onto the ground, catches the falling club, and smashes it in his/her face (said smashing is directly preceded by a funny yet muted “oh crap” look).

    The final, static shot of Neo standing victorious amongst the mess he made is a nice little beat as well.

    In a way, the chateau fight is less ambitious than the Burly Brawl, but in others it’s more so. The environment (multiple floors) is a more interesting one, and the presence of everyone using short-range weapons is a new element for Matrix fight scenes. The unique weapons combined with the six unique characters presents a much different logistical hurdle than did a hundred identically-dressed Hugo Weavings.

    As with that previous brawl, the excitement is technical rather than dramatic; at no point do we really sense Neo is in danger (either of getting hurt or of losing); sure, it takes him a while to kill all these guys, but just because it takes me a while to finally hit a fly with a flyswatter doesn’t make us evenly-matched. There are also the aforementioned nagging issues, and of course the wasted potential, but you can only fault a movie so much for what it doesn’t do. This fight genuinely was experimental for the franchise, and escapes the typical sequel-itis problem of “the same thing, only more so.” Effort counts.

    Grade: A-

    Recommended Links: The entry on this fight (as well as the entry for the last one) over at the Matrix Wiki have been very helpful in reminding me of details even my extensive notes didn’t cover.

    Coming Attractions: “Morpheus is fightin’ a boring guy!”

    He already lost the battle against the Green Filter, unfortunately