Star Wars, Original Trilogy (retrospective)

This will be a post long remembered.

You’re hearing the music in your head right now. It’s okay, don’t fight it.

It’s time for another Retrospective, where we put away the microscope and instead take the bird’s eye macro view of a particular film or franchise. In this case, the great big granddaddy of them all: Star Wars. I’ll try to shy away from going into detail on each individual movie and/or my personal feelings on Star Wars (spoilers: I LOVE STAR WARS), because if there’s one thing the Internet needs less of it’s nerds explaining what Star Wars “means” to them. If there’s another thing the Internet needs less of it’s people griping about the prequels, so I will try to avoid that as well… but not entirely, because, well, that’s impossible.

A few notes first: Mostly because it’s what fits but also for purposes of my sanity, this series will only cover Jedi duels. Fittingly, the word “lightsaber” will come up a lot, and there are only so many ways around saying it over & over again, so I apologize in advance for the repetition. I’ll dispense with the setups here, because if you’re not familiar with Star Wars by now there’s little use in me explaining it to you. The entire series will be split up into separate posts, by trilogy. And despite the fact that George Lucas claims the films are meant to be watched in their own chronological order, I will be covering them in the order in which they were released, as God intended.

Now let’s hop in the Long Ago Machine….

1) Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Vader

“The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”

(Episode IV: A New Hope)

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, played by Alec Guinness.
  • Darth Vader, played by David Prowse (body) and James Earl Jones (voice).

The Fight: This was the clash of the titans. Coming into Star Wars for the first time in 1977, you’re introduced gradually to what the concept of a lightsaber is but it’s not until here that you really see them as dueling weapons. I wonder how that moment played out to original audiences, as the delightful old wizard squared off against the towering evil villain and they each ignited their blades?

That aside, the rest of what follows is actually not all that interesting. There’s nothing creative about the fight itself or the way it’s shot. Even the normally bombastic John Williams backs off for the most part. The choreography is never truly clumsy but neither does it impress. It’s just two actors swinging clubs at each other.

Though Hollywood sword master Bob Anderson would oversee the more impressive fights of the next two installments, here he’s only listed as a stunt man rather than a choreographer; Peter Diamond is listed as the film’s overall stunt coordinator, so it’s unknown who exactly plotted out this sword fight, if anyone did at all. Despite Vader’s “you can’t win!” boast, there’s never any real indication that he’s winning or that Kenobi is losing. Neither one dominates, hurts or gains an advantage over the other until the very end. Granted, the insta-kill nature of lightsabers as a weapon leaves very little margin for injury, but there are still ways around this.

It’s also always been my pet peeve that Lucas or whoever signed on to the idea of pulling the hood up on Obi-Wan’s robe. The point is to make him look mystical or some such, presumably, but at the best moments it adds nothing and at the worst it looks comical, especially in the shots where you can see how the fabric has bunched up in a point behind his head. Unhooded, the flowing nature of the robe already works as a humble counterpoint to Vader’s intimidating cape, but the hood itself is a bridge on the river Kwai too far.

No shot in the actual fight looks this cool.

And we now know that Kenobi’s famous “I’ll become more powerful than you could possibly imagine” line was pure BS. Once he dies, he becomes a flickery ghost who dispenses advice– something he was plenty good at when he still had a physical body, thank you very much.

What makes the scene work (aside from the coolness of the lightsaber itself as a weapon) are the actors, and the affection we’ve come to have for the characters. Guinness is all dignity & grace (this performance made him the Magic Grandpa to a whole generation, a fact which irritated him to no end) while the Prowse/Jones combo is just pure menace & power. There is a real sense of grandiosity when they square off, and the way they sell their rather portentous yet snappy dialogue it indicates a clear, almost intimate, familiarity with each other.

Anyway, the whole thing ends with Kenobi deliberately taking a blow from Vader’s blade, presumably to encourage Luke & co to escape without waiting for him. You have to love Guinness’ wry little half-smile right before he does so– such a cocky “I know something you don’t” moment. A great beginning & ending to an otherwise underwhelming fight.

Grade: C+

2) Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader

“Impressive. Most impressive.”

(Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)

The Fighters:

  • Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill.
  • Darth Vader, played David Prowse and James Earl Jones. With some significant in-the-suit work done by choreographer Bob Anderson.

The Fight: This is it. The big one. The silver tuna.

You’ll find it’s full of surprises.

Luke has rushed off to face his destiny prematurely, against the advice of not one but two Sagely Mentors, and soon enough finds himself in an eerily quiet chamber with the Dark Lord of the Sith himself. Director Irwin Kershner, who was wisely given the reins on this installment, does everything possible to sell the magnitude of this confrontation. Of course they barely had to at this point in the movie, because there is literally nothing more cool than Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. As great as he was during his debut, throughout the course of the sequel he has proven to be singularly ruthless, cunning, intimidating and driven, yet utterly composed. This is Vader at his peak.

And this isn’t just the galaxy’s #2 Dictator here– to Luke, Vader is also the cold-blooded bastard who killed his father AND his kindly mentor/brief father-figure, not to mention ordering the deaths of his aunt & uncle. This is personal. So when Luke struts in with unearned cockiness and draws his own weapon, the audience feels all sorts of tension. Props are due to Hamill here, who portrays Luke’s eagerness to prove himself and emotion-driven decisions while still not coming off as an unrestrained spaz, as Hayden Christensen would do decades hence (more on that later).

More props due to Kershner and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who, mostly during the first half of the duel, play excellently with light & steam so that the two combatants are frequently in varying amounts of silhouette, giving their clash an iconic look. Also, I’m not sure if this was deliberate, but the wide shots seem to work smartly with the camera angles and actors’ body posture so that Vader still towers over Luke but not comically so, as a more natural contrast of Prowse (6’5) and Hamill (5’9) might appear.

The fight is basically broken into three parts. In the first, Vader’s main goal is to trap Luke in the carbon-freezing chamber and get him to the Emperor, but Luke’s secret training makes him more formidable than Vader had guessed. They fence a bit both before & after Luke escapes from the freezing pit, with a few neat tricks along the way, such as Luke stunning Vader with a ruptured steam hose or Vader swooping down dramatically after knocking Luke down a flight of stairs. “Dramatic” is definitely the name of Vader’s game here: since the entire confrontation was engineered by the villain from the start, he seems to be almost deliberately (even theatrically) playing up his superior power, often fighting with just one hand and coolly tempting Luke with the power of the dark side. The soundtrack here is mostly silent, with only sound effects and brief snatches of dialogue to highlight the proceedings. The choreography is nothing flashy– that stuff doesn’t really kick in until the prequels– but it’s stately, compelling and thrilling nonetheless. Also it’s not long before Luke is looking visibly sweaty (by the end he’s incredibly ragged and bruised, in fact), which further hammers home his underdog status here; this is a sort of happy accident of costume design, because considering the steamy environment and physical exertion Vader would surely be sweaty too (in fact underneath that bulky armor he’s gotta be stank-ass filthy), but since he’s covered head to toe we never see it, thus preserving the character’s unflappable cool.

The second part begins after the pair are separated when Luke kicks his foe off a platform. Rather than merely hiding, Vader is actually just cannily controlling the battlefield, forcing Luke to chase about. Vader reveals himself near a window overlooking a vast chasm in the enormous Bespin mining structure, but rather than going back to fencing, the Sith Lord decides to show Junior what it’s like when the kid gloves come off. Without even the physical prompting that usually accompanies Force telekinesis, Vader quietly tears off huge pieces of the scenery and throws them at Luke, faster than he can keep up. Soon enough he’s battered to the point where he can’t resist the vacuum after one chunk of debris smashes a hole in the window, and he goes tumbling down. This is where John Williams’ famous music kicks in rather ominously, accentuating what’s already clear to the audience and probably to Luke: he’s not going to win this. He was never going to win this. He’s completely outclassed and has majorly screwed things up, just like Yoda and Obi-Wan warned him. He was a fool to come here.

The final part takes place as Luke tries to make his way back up after recovering from the fall onto an isolated platform (hey, what’s that platform there for, anyway?), but is ambushed by Vader and the fight resumes. The villain doesn’t try any of his cool Force mojo from this point on, but he doesn’t have to: he’s dominating the poor boy more than ever, pushing him back out onto the platform with no place to run. Luke does get in a painful-looking strike on Vader’s shoulder, but shortly after he gets his own hand chopped right off, his weapon along with it.

As Luke crawls out onto the (very narrow) end of the walkway, the dynamic in their struggle changes: because Vader wants & needs Luke alive and Luke is in a precarious position that Vader can’t forcibly extract him from, suddenly Luke has the upper hand, and Vader’s temptations turn almost pleading– he needs to quite literally talk Luke off the ledge.

He tries threats, he tries bribing him with power, then he pulls out the big guns and hits him with the revelation that shocked the world. Watching the scene again now, after 30+ years of repetition, imitation and parody, it hasn’t lost one ounce of its thunder. Done wrong this could have come across as a cheesy soap opera-esque reveal, or the inescapable truth of it might not have been conveyed, but everything here comes together just right: Jones’ growling delivery, Hamill’s reaction starting out as quiet realization and quickly escalating into panicked desperation, and Williams’ music coming in at just the right moment. Perfection.

Vader tells Luke to come with him because “it is the only way,” but Luke proves that there’s always another way, even if it’s probable death. He lets go of his grip and plummets into oblivion. But despite his escape from corruption, there’s no mistaking that Luke scored no victory here: this is a man who has been utterly defeated, inside & out.

What else can you say?

Grade: A+

3) Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader (rematch)

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

(Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)

The Fighters:

  • Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill.
  • Darth Vader, played by David Prowse (though mostly Bob Anderson for this fight) and James Earl Jones.

Also Ian McDiarmid is there as Emperor Palpatine, overseeing the whole thing and stepping in at the end for a light show.

The Fight: This one is surprisingly abbreviated, and concerned with drama as much if not more than it is with action.

Goaded on by the Emperor, Luke tries to resist the anger bubbling up within but eventually lashes out, and engages with Vader. The action is noticeably more aggressive than what we’ve seen before and more complicated as well, with Luke pulling off a nifty backflip or two. Hamill does his best work yet in this duel, actually, clearly at war with his roiling emotions and trying to restrain himself yet coming off utterly psycho whenever his rage does take over.

Twice Luke tries to disengage and twice he’s pulled back in. The first time he’s pursued by Vader and forced to defend himself, so he then gets some distance and hides out as Vader hunts; this creates an interesting reversal of the duel in ESB, where Vader made Luke chase after him– except here Luke is trying to defuse the conflict whereas Vader was only turning it to his advantage. In fact there are several inverse parallels in the two showdowns: last time, Luke was warned not to go to Vader even though he wanted to, but now Yoda explicitly tells him he must defeat Vader even though he doesn’t want to, in order to become a full Jedi. This is the kind of thematic resonance snooty critics must be thinking of when they deride Star Wars as “shallow” and “simplistic.”

Anyway, Luke stays out of sight and tries to play it cool, but soon Vader’s continued speaking and threats rattle him enough that he can sense the boy’s anxiety about Leia. Vader plays on that, which finally provokes Luke into a full-fledged Jedi tantrum. This is when Williams’ music, which has mostly stayed quiet throughout the proceedings, kicks in. But it’s not thrilling or scary but sad, because this is a family tragedy playing out before us, this is the wrong path for Luke to take.

Junior finally gets Dad on the ropes and pins him down with a series of furious blows, culminating in Vader’s own hand coming off. Luke finally stops his assault but he still looks truly unnerved– he’s really on the precipice here. But that’s the moment Palpatine chooses to close in (he arguably overplays his hand), gleefully telling Luke to give in & take his father’s place. Luke looks wary at being turned into the Emperor’s next disposable pet, then he looks at his father’s sparking stump and compares it to his own prosthetic fist. It is, oddly, the physical parallel between the two that finally snaps the hero out of it; he sees how alike he and his father already are, and chooses not to go any further.

Standing down for good, Luke throws his lightsaber over the edge of the pit (seriously, pits everywhere in this universe), and tells Palpatine that he’s failed forever. Luke knows full well that he may not leave the room alive, but he has faced his own inner demons and come out victorious, proving himself a true Jedi. He won the battle his father lost long ago.

Fittingly, that also seems to have earned Anakin’s redemption: when the Emperor starts to torture Luke with Force lightning, his father steps in and tosses the despot to his death, at the cost of his own life.

Very good, but this is easily the most over-edited of the trilogy’s fights, cutting in and out to other parts of the movie’s triple climax several times; necessary from a storytelling standpoint, but arguably aggravating the scene’s own energy. As stated the choreography is more complex, even though it’s missing the same level of dramatic oomph as in the previous fight. Hamill acquits himself quite well indeed on all fronts, and McDiarmid’s unnerving presence as the ever-confident Emperor is creepy as anything. But the real missing X-factor here is Vader himself: throughout the fight and indeed throughout most of the film, Darth Vader seems like a shadow of his former self. His whole body language seems tired & resigned, nowhere near the menacing mystical shark of a man we saw in the previous two installments. He’s less of an implacable force of nature and more of an old man with regrets. It’s a shame.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: The complementary retrospective. I dread what awaits me.

Might as well get this meme out of the way now.

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The Rundown (fight 4 of 4)

In which the Rock finally exercises his Second Amendment rights.

They still apply overseas, because AMERICA.

It was a bit hard to write about this one, given that even though there’s fighting it’s not really “a fight”– so much generalized chaos that it’s a bit hard to boil down, more of an all-purpose action scene. But there’s enough blows thrown and clever choreography that I couldn’t ignore it in good conscience.

4) Beck vs All the Bad Guys

The Fighters:

  • Beck, the would-be chef whose bounty hunting got him caught in the middle of a South American uprising. Played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
    • Armed with: Beck is determined not to go in guns blazing, but he soon discovers the limits of that approach and makes Charlton Heston proud.
  • Travis Walker, not one of the main players here but is featured just enough to warrant his inclusion. Spoiled and silly but also unpredictable, he does prove a bit useful here. Played by the always-welcome Seann William Scott.
    • Armed with: Travis packs a gun right from the beginning. Also his pals Mr. Thunder and Mr. Lightning.
  • Hatcher’s men, pretty much all the remaining ones– around 15-20. They’re posted strategically throughout the ramshackle little village. Including Cornelius Bernard Hatcher himself, hapless brother Harvey, and the awesome Swenson; played by Christopher Walken, Jon Gries and Stuart F. Wilson, respectively.
    • Armed with: all sorts of guns, and of course Swenson brought whips, as did his two buddies.

The Setup: Beck, Travis and Mariana found the Gato earlier, but she, wanting to sell it so her people could be free of Hatcher, drugged the other two just to be safe and left them in the jungle. Unfortunately she ended up getting snatched by Hatcher’s men while they were separated, and Beck gets word that the bad guy’s holding her in the town square and will likely execute her soon. [Also, after the last fight, Beck made nice with the rebels but the proceedings were interrupted by a raid from Hatcher, who personally shot & killed Manito. Boo!]

Beck is free to take Travis and fly out of there, but the pair’s consciences can’t allow the distressed damsel to meet her fate. Off to settle Hatcher’s hash it is, then.

The Fight: Beck kicks things off on an odd note, by sending his Scottish pilot-for-hire Declan in, blowing on bagpipes, to trash talk at Hatcher using Biblical rhetoric. He presumably  serves not as an omen but as a distraction, so that no one would hear the incoming stampede of bulls until it was too late.

Yep, bulls. A clever use of Chekov’s Gun, the presence of a nearby bovine herd had been set up early in the film. They rampage through the small town square, scattering (and in a few cases trampling) Hatcher’s men and tearing up structures. As the villain himself wryly remarks, “that’s a lotta cows.”

They also provide excellent cover for Beck to storm right into the midst of Hatcher’s men. He tears up several using his strength and creativity before they can take a shot at him– possibly my favorite bit is when he stomps the end of a loose floorboard to throw one bad guy’s aim off. He takes out a handful, depriving them all of weapons and even using their guns as clubs. Meanwhile Travis gets isolated in a small shop and has an epic length confrontation with one (1) squirrelly thug, who he eventually takes down rather humorously.

But eventually Beck’s non-projectile strategy reaches its limits, and with all the bulls having come through the bad guys have a clear line of sight on their adversaries. Both Beck and Travis are pinned down by sustained fire in separate locations, and there’s a long, desperate while Beck realizes he’s going to have to go his Bad Emotional Place and use guns again.

But once he does, it is on. The hero rises to triumphant guitar strings, bearing a shotgun in each hand, and engages Beast Mode as he strides across the battlefield and blasts down every henchmen in sight. Here I’ll defer to my gun nut readers’ expertise but I’m pretty sure many of the distances Beck is shooting from would be very hard to manage with a shotgun– a weapon hardly known for its precision from afar. Still, he looks cool doing it. Especially when he causes a leaky tanker truck to blow up and walks away from the fireball in slow-mo, as all action heroes have been required to do ever since the days of Mosaic law.

Out of bullets, Beck finds himself pinned down again across from a group of henchmen in a sniper’s nest, but no problem: the Rock simply leaps the distance between structures and starts punching out all the support pillars, bringing the whole rickety perch tumbling down.

His arm still smarting, Beck is confronted by Swenson and his two fetishist pals. Time to get kinky.

The three quickly surround Beck, and here Berg tries something ambitious, because it’s difficult enough to stage an inventive fight sequence (with a real sense of back & forth) involving a whip, and this fight has three whip-users. Four whips total, actually, because Swenson is dual-wielding.

It must have been a pain to block this fight out, but the result is a real blast. Beck gets knocked about and snapped at but still gives back pretty good as well. He manages to neutralize Swenson’s two cohorts simultaneously, seizing the guns from their belts while on the ground and firing after kicking them down. Why they (or Swenson, who also was shown to have a gun) did not just shoot Beck despite having ample opportunity, is not mentioned. It’s especially odd in light of Swenson’s own “you should have kept the gun” admonition to Beck during the bar fight scene.

After tangling a bit more with Swenson, Beck is able to disarm the knockoff Belmont and go hand-to-hand with him for a few rounds. And while I think Swenson’s tops as a henchmen, there’s no way their little scruff would even last this long if not for Beck being so visibly worn down during it. Hero finally subdues henchman, and Beck is nearly taken out by a lingering sniper, before that shooter is fortuitously shot by Travis. Beck grabs the man’s fallen gun and immediately blasts the pistol out of the hand of Hatcher, who’d been quietly approaching and nearly taken out Beck from behind.

From there, it all winds down. Walken gets a few more hammy lines as the character refuses to contemplate how he’s lost everything, and is ultimately shot by an anonymous villager. Oh, and Travis subdued Harvey by crashing his escaping car into a water tower.

Do you know what this fight is? It’s a video game. It’s SO a video game. Especially after Beck arms himself– just put the camera into first-person view and his unstoppable rampage will be a lot more familiar. I say this with affection, obviously.

A few demerits, however. Aside from the aforementioned Gun Accuracy Fails and Swenson’s men choosing to get suicidally physical, the big one is Beck’s own decision go all NRA Poster Boy. It works quite well as a badass hero moment, but there’s literally no payoff to Beck’s earlier reticence to use guns. He doesn’t seem to be any more bloodthirsty than usual (certainly no more than the situation requires) and has no trouble dialing himself back down once the danger has passed. Nobody has to talk him off the ledge. He even gives Hatcher multiple chances to walk away alive! There’s no emotional consequence for the character, or even the illusion of same. Of course, this is a self-consciously silly movie, but it still oughtn’t introduce “serious” character beats it has no intention of following through on.

But the action is still fast, creative and continuous. It may not be as outright fun and inventive as the big jungle throwdown, but the scale and intensity is ratcheted up to appropriate levels for the climax. Just a good ol’ fashioned ass-whoopin’ writ large. This is the Rock’s destiny.

I demand sequels. Or at least Peter Berg signed on for a Castlevania adaptation.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: I have a good feeling about this.

The Rundown (fight 3 of 4)

Let’s flip out.

This guy gets it.

3) Beck vs Manito and the Rebels

The Fighters:

  • Beck, a bounty hunter who’s quite a bit out of his element. Played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
    • Armed with: Nothing. Poor guy.
  • Brazilian rebels, a group of small but unpredictable freedom fighters opposed to Hatcher’s de facto despotism. To my amateur eye and also due to the fact that it’s Brazil, they seem to fight using a variant of capoeira, the martial art known for its fluid dance-like moves and ability to improve the lives of at-risk teens. About four or five of them take part in the impromptu “duel,” but for the first part it’s mainly the leader Manito, played Ernie Reyes Jr, the Fillippinio actor and martial arts champion most known for being the human co-star in the Ninja Turtles sequel.
    • Armed with: Knives and axes, but they also make deadly use of tree branches (including one that’ s on fire) and, more importantly, several handy vines for swinging.

The Setup: Their hasty retreat to the airstrip having taken a few jungle detours, The Rundown essentially becomes a buddy movie for a good stretch, with the Rock (who has serious comic chops of his own) mostly playing exasperated straight man to Seann William Scott’s antics. (The movie is clearly inspired by the classic action/comedy Midnight Run, so much so that’s practically a setting-switched remake.)

Eventually their trip through the wilderness gets them caught by the local resistance movement, who only speak Portuguese. Travis pretends to act as translator to just get the two released, but he secretly tells their leader that Beck is an assassin sent by Hatcher to kill them. Between that and Beck’s aggressive body language (courtesy of Travis’ misleading prompts), the little tribesmen decide they’re going to kick Beck’s ass. To death.

The Fight: Everyone backs off to create a large fighting space, and Manito is the first to square off against Beck, taunting him with a couple non-sequitur English phrases like “okay hip-hop” and “hey Kansas Cities” before screaming at him in Portuguese (not subtitled, but it’s “I’m gonna bash your face in!” according to an attempted translation by someone I watched it with). He opens up by swinging down on a vine from a tree he’d climbed up rather quickly, and punching Beck in the face on the way.

From there he takes on the enormous Samoan with surprising efficiency. Berg makes the most out of the size disparity between the two combatants, showcasing the short but ripped Reyes’ speed & skill as he batters Beck with blows. Manito flips, twists and turns about before Beck can lay a meaty hand on him, and landing multiple sets of rapid blows while he’s at it.

“Argh, this is worse than Surf Ninjas!”

From there the others join in and it becomes a real free-for-all, a sort of coordinated and gleeful chaos. Beck gets tossed around like a ragdoll, buffeted about by a constant series of moving targets. The group of compact little dudes almost seem to operate via some sort of hive mind, so synchronously do they move. One will stun him with a kick, another slides in to sweep his legs out so that a third will swing in on a vine and kick him in mid-fall. It’s not a complete shutout for Beck, though, as he gets in a couple painful-looking lumps of his own. But very few could handle this kind of sustained attack from multiple opponents working in concert. Plus, Beck knows this is all a misunderstanding and doesn’t want to fight, so he’s presumably holding back a bit.

They attempt to finish him off by having Manito and a pal swing in together on two vines (tied around their ankles so both hands are free) and each of them seizes one of Beck’s feet, then letting him go at the peak of their swing so the momentum launches him WAY high into the air, hitting half a dozen branches on the way down. Ouch.

Their celebration gets cut short when Beck opens his eyes and rises, looking rather pissed off. Perhaps worried about his durability, the rebels immediately get more serious and throw several axes at him (which he dodges) and the first guy comes at him with a knife. But Beck is in the zone now: angry, determined, more familiar with these little bastards’ tactics. The Beck from this point on is the guy we’ve seen as an incredibly effective neutralizer, not the muscleman blindly flailing about trying to score a couple punches.

The hero takes out the remaining handful with characteristic precision, even turning their own weapons against them when one seizes a flaming log from the campfire and brandishes it at him. After putting out the flame with a really painful-looking blow to the face, he side steps another incoming vine swing from two more foes and clotheslines them with the log. After taking out those chumps he’s alone with Manito, who draws his own knife after getting up from a nasty throw. He takes a few lunges but Beck is able to grab the rebel’s limbs and overpower him, taking the knife and declaring “I’m not your enemy!” but getting clocked in the face by yet another log-wielding rebel before he can prove it.

(Un)fortunately, that’s when the fight ends, courtesy of Mariana showing up and firing off a warning shot. Turns out she’s a mole for the rebels as well, and puts a stop to Hatcher’s mutual enemies fighting each other. Ah, fun while it lasted.

This is the kind of wild change-up the movie needed, after the far less ambitious skirmish at the bar. We’ve watched Beck go up against seemingly overwhelming odds (namely, half a football team and a handful of armed thugs), but these rebels are the first ones we’ve seen who operate at the level of physical competence that he does… and accordingly, this is the first time we really see our protagonist take a serious beating. Kudos to Dwayne Johnson for being quite willing to not just take a few blows but actually get knocked around comically– but of course, it’s fitting that a man who came from the world of professional wrestling wouldn’t be afraid of a little silliness tarnishing his machismo. If only more big stars were as unselfconscious.

The staging really goes wild, too, with attackers coming from every angle and doing crazy circus acrobatics. At times the choreography is a little bit too cute for its own good, though, what with all rapid off-screen tree ascensions and too-perfectly-timed swings. Plus there are a few blows that are too ridiculous even for this movie’s stylized world, like when one rebel slide-kicks into Beck’s face and that somehow launches him ten feet through the air. Uh huh.

Speaking of stylization, Berg’s direction is more overtly playful than ever, constantly showing off the choreography and highlighting the painfulness of each blow. The fight’s soundtrack is ostensibly provided by the crowd of onlooking rebels, who play along with some primitive instruments, mainly drums. The whole thing pulls together quite well.

It just might be Ernie Reyes Jr who’s the scene’s MVP, though. A full foot shorter than the Rock and composed of lean muscle, Reyes is one compact badass, a coiled spring of aggression and hostility. As an actor he brings a kind of wild intensity to the performance as well, growling out his lines with bug-eyed craziness. Why isn’t this guy still famous?

All in all, though the fight’s ambition gets ahead of itself, it’s nonetheless chock full of kinetic goodness. Fits right in with the tone of the movie while still escalating the intensity.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: The big finish! Who’s gonna win?

The villains in the control room, maybe?

The Rundown (fight 2 of 4)

In which the Rock enters a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

2) Beck vs Hatcher’s Goons

The Fighters:

  • Beck, the retrieval specialist with apparently no other name, so it’s possible he’s related to Glenn. Once again he’s going to have to do things the hard way. Played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
    • Armed with: Again, nothing.
  • Henchmen, four of them. Their field leader seems to be Hatcher’s brother Harvey, but the deadliest is the quieter man Swenson (not sure if he’s ever identified as such on-screen). Harvey is played by Jon Gries and Swenson is played by stunt man Stuart F. Wilson.
    • Armed with: Harvey has a knife and the two nameless others near him have handguns. Swenson carries two whips. Whips are kind of his thing.

The Setup: After returning pissed off from his last job, Beck demanded a mission with a payday big enough to wipe his slate clean. The mission is to “retrieve” his employer’s wayward son, Travis Walker (Seann William Scott), back home to daddy. The trouble is that Travis is putzing about in a remote mining town out in the Brazilian jungle.

The mine, and the town, are run with an iron fist by the eccentric villain Cornelius Hatcher (Christopher Walken, whose only performance notes from Peter Berg seem to have been “Chris, just do your thing,” because that’s exactly what he does). Hatcher and his small army of minions work the local populace basically as slaves, and although Hatcher initially allows (for a rather hefty sum) Beck the privilege of retrieving Travis, he later reneges when he learns that Travis has tracked down the location of a valuable jungle artifact, the Gato do Diablo.

Beck finds Travis easily enough in the local dive bar on a hot afternoon, where Travis had been conspiring with crafty bartender Mariana (Rosario Dawson, who hadn’t quite hit it big at this time). Beck gives Travis the old A&B choice, and although Travis predictably resists, Beck restrains him with minimal difficulty. That’s when Hatcher walks in with four goons (Swenson rather cannily enters through the back door, surrounding Beck) and announces that he had his “fingers crossed the whole time” on their recent deal, so Beck’s going to have to turn Travis over after all– no refunds. This will not go well.

The Fight: Beck is cool as ever, but given that two of Hatcher’s guys have guns drawn, he has to think creatively. First he trips Travis and sends him painfully to the ground, taking him out of the action. He throws a chair (wrestlers and their chairs, man) at Harvey and the two men near him– they’re foolishly clustered together– and escapes behind a pool table in the confusion. He takes cover as they fire off some rounds, then rushes with surprising speed when they get closer. Beck leaps and takes the first jabroni out with a nifty if gratuitously complicated flying corkscrew move with his legs, then immediately after landing he sweep kicks the other gun-wielding goon.

Swenson stands by passively in the background, wondering when the next Castlevania game will come out.

Having found time to disarm the two thugs during his amazing acrobatics, Beck then dismantles the knife-toting Harvey, and shoves one pilfered gun in the chump’s mouth while aiming the other at a rather impressed Hatcher.

Swenson should totally have this guy’s job.

Not wanting to cross the line into killing, Beck falls to the ground so he can double-kick Harvey into his two buddies and knock them down (again) like bowling pins. He sees Travis making a break for it and, with mathematical precision, releases the magazine from one pistol and slides it under Travis’ feet, tripping him. Dropping the other gun in an attempt to defuse the situation instead makes Beck vulnerable to Swenson’s whip, which the bad guy unfurls in a dramatically cool slow-mo shot.

But even whips are no match for the Rock, as he demonstrates when he catches Swenson’s initial strike, holding the end tight. By the time Swenson readies his other whip Beck has thrown a small wooden table his way, intercepting the blow so Beck can escape with Travis while the dust clears. To be continued, Mr. Hatcher.

Fun stuff here, even if some of the choreography is perhaps a little too silly for its own good. Though it’s a bit more creative in its staging, at heart this scene is really not much different than what the previous fight was: an abbreviated little scuffle to show what Beck is capable of. So at the end of the day it’s hard to be impressed with it much more. Of course, it’s hard to dislike it, too; more action movies should be this playful.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Remember this guy?

He grew up.

Kill Bill (fight 4 of 4)

Hellooooooo nurse.

Her nerves are twisted.

4) The Bride vs Elle Driver

The Fighters:

  • The Bride, blah blah. She’s just been through some pretty nasty stuff, but, as always, is ready to throw down. Played by Uma Thurman, who possibly does her best work here. Well, second-best, after the reunion at the end.
    • Armed with: Nothing, actually. She doesn’t even have shoes. But she finds some handy implements soon enough.
  • Elle Driver aka California Mountain Snake, a one-eyed former member of the DiVAS. She & Beatrix clearly never got along, partially because they were rivals for Bill’s affection. In the script there’s some business where they realize that they’re a lot alike and they never had to hate each other, so they find some peaceful respect before their duel (which is more traditional); in the film, although she talks a little about the professional “respect” she has for the Bride, her actions & attitude imply that talk is all it was. This Elle is 100% Bitch. Played by Daryl Hannah, who savors every last hammy line like it’s a bite of Christmas dinner.
    • Armed with: The Bride’s Hattori Hanzo sword, “purchased” from Budd. But she never really gets to use it.

elle_driver03

[The pair’s names also make for a fun bit of synchronicity: “Elle” and “Bea” (short for Beatrix) are homophones for the simple letters “L” and “B.” Before the end of the fight the two address each other as such, indicating a clear familiarity. A nice touch.]

The Setup: After settling Vernita’s hash, the Bride set her sights on Budd, the only male member of the DiVAS and Bill’s brother. Despising himself for the murderous life he’d led, Budd was living a self-imposed punishment of poverty and alcoholism out in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. But he scraped together enough self-preservation to ambush the Bride, finally leaving her trapped in a coffin, buried alive.

Assuming she’d suffocate, Budd offered to sell her Hanzo sword to Elle for a million dollars. Elle took him up on it (after demanding that Budd make her “suffer to her last breath”) but, disgusted by how a great warrior like Beatrix was taken out by a scrub like Budd, she loaded the money bag with a real live Black Mamba snake, killing him painfully.

But unbeknownst to either of them, the Bride had, thanks to the cruel tutelage of her kung fu master Pai Mei, the ability to deliver effective punches three inches from her target. After an awesome flashback to said tutelage, the Bride smashed her way free of the coffin and out of the cold dirt, then headed straight back to her target. She arrives just as Elle opens the door, and greets her with a flying double kick.

Opening doors is very hazardous in the world of Kill Bill, kind of like Vince Vega going to the bathroom in Pulp Fiction.

The Fight: In a word: oof.

Yo ho.

If the fight with Vernita was mean, this one is brutal. Same principle– two powerful women face off fiercely in a domestic environment– but everything’s turned up to 11. Louder, crazier, nastier, harder. Never is it more apparent that these two hate, hate, HATE each other– maybe almost as much as Roger Ebert hated North, if such a thing were possible. Every blow and strike is sold with wincingly painful realism.

And despite being short it’s packed with variety. For most of the time, Elle is armed with the Bride’s katana, but due to either her opponent’s interference or the tight confines of the trailer, she’s never able to fully draw it and thus gain significant advantage. It happens enough times to be a running joke. Until the very end, the most it gets used is when it’s partially drawn and they take turns trying to push it into each other’s necks.

B uses a TV antenna as weapon and later hits L in the head with a lampshade. L stomps on B’s bare foot with high heel. B throws can of Budd’s tobacco spit (I believe) into L’s face, which makes her say “gross” in a way that makes her sound more like an annoyed teenager than a pissed off assassin. At one point they kick each other down at the same time and there is a split-screen camera showing them simultaneously recover.

The fight finally becomes fully hand-to-hand when the Bride disarms Elle with a foot stool. Driver runs up and tries a flying kick (she’s airborne for an absurdly long time) but the Bride sidesteps it, seizes her leg, and throws her through a wall into the bathroom. The bride then grabs her rival’s head and plunges it into Budd’s filthy toilet. Now THAT’S gross.

There’s gotta be a “Splash” joke in here somewhere….

Creatively, Elle hits the flusher in order to catch a few breathes, and escapes the Bride’s grip by elbowing her in the crotch. A few follow-up blows stun Beatrix long enough for Elle to run back to the living room and grab the dropped katana. Fortunately the Bride, glancing into a closet, sees Budd’s own Hanzo sword (an old gift from Bill that he’d lied about pawning). She grabs it and rises to meet Elle on the opposite end of the trailer’s hallway.

Although the soundtrack has been silent until now, as they stand off and talk an odd, tribal music kicks in. It’s got ominous drums, horn riffs and ritualistic chanting (it’s an old Ennio Morricone tune)– completely over the top, fittingly.

The Bride asks Elle (“just between us girls” she says with faux-sweetness) what it was she said to Pai Mei that caused him to rip her eye out. Elle says it was that she called him a “miserable old fool,” and we see a brief flashback to the incident. But just as the audience processes the information that Elle trained under the same ancient kung fu master as the Bride (and was an inferior student), we’re hit with another whammy: Elle reveals that she murdered Pai Mei in retaliation, by poisoning his food. The Bride is visibly incensed– and so is the audience, because it wasn’t that long ago we saw the full-length flashback chapter showing Beatrix’s bond with the irascible old man. Then, they exchange what may well be the greatest dialogue in the history of motion pictures:

ELLE: “That’s right: I killed your master. And now I’m gonna kill you too… with your own sword, no less. Which, in the very immediate future, will become MY sword.”

BRIDE: “Bitch, you don’t have a future.”

Did I say in the history of motion pictures? Sorry, I meant in the history of THE SPOKEN WORD.

Levelling swords, they face off for what feels like an eternity (it’s a solid 30 seconds, I counted), as the music builds and builds and builds. You’d swear this isn’t a stand-off between two human women but between two tyrannosaurs. When the tension reaches a boiling point they charge in and lock blades, each pushing furiously at the other. After several alternating close-ups of both women’s faces, the Bride does something unexpected: she rips Elle’s other eye out.

Elle, now completely blind, goes bat guano crazy. She kicks and screams and cusses and falls to the ground, lashing out at everything in (her lack of) sight. The Bride watches, aloof & disgusted. She calmly drops Elle’s eyeball onto the carpet and, in a gruesome closeup, squishes it beneath her bare feet. No, THAT’S gross.

The Bride collects her sword and leaves Elle writhing in pain and fury. It’s an open question of whether or not she lives (a literal question mark, in the case of the end credits), but the camera is careful to show us the Black Mamba snake still lurking in the trailer. The miserable old fool sends his regards.

So much greatness here. While I miss the added dimension the script gave to Elle, there’s actually more than enough melancholy & regret in this story to go around, so it was a wise decision to make the character into a pure villain and have the audience straightforwardly cheering for her defeat. A few of the moves in the fight border on the silly (Elle’s extended jump kick springs to mind) but for the most part the choreography is very grounded and painful. The animosity at play here is truly palpable and the violence is uncompromising. Kill Bill volume 2 is notoriously scrimpy on action, but this scene is almost enough to make up for that bang/buck ratio.

[Note: I won’t be including the final showdown with Bill, as it’s simply far too short to properly grade, awesome or no. As stated earlier, the entire climactic sequence with Bill and B.B. works on an entirely different, and unexpected, level. Similarly you’ll notice I didn’t cover the training “fight” against Pai Mei from his flashback chapter; it’s also fairly short, not to mention one-sided and deliberately cheesy. So long, Kill Bill.]

Grade: A

Recommended Links: I can’t stop watching it.

I kept referring to that script this whole series like it was some kind of hard-to-find relic. Turns out it’s all online. Read it and ponder what might have been.

Coming Attractions: Mine nostrils do perceive the good sir Johnson’s prepared cuisine.

Verily, a jabroni you be.

Kill Bill (fight 3 of 4)

“COME AT ME, SIS”

3) The Bride vs O-Ren Ishii

The Fighters:

  • The Bride aka etc etc. Looking pretty tore up and bloody (much of it not hers) after finishing her symphony of death, but still ready for one last movement. Played by Uma Thurman.
    • Armed with: The Hattori Hanzo blade that just mowed down the entire Crazy 88.
  • O-Ren Ishii aka Cottonmouth. The daughter of a Japanese mother and a Chinese-American soldier, O-Ren (whose origin we see extensively, in a gruesome anime flashback) was orphaned by yakuza violence at a young age, only to take revenge on her parents’ killer at age 11 (!), gradually becoming the deadliest assassin in the world and a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. During the Bride’s coma, O-Ren became the queen of the Japanese underworld, thanks in part to Bill’s backing.
    • Armed with: A hilt-less katana. Probably not a Hanzo sword– she expresses hostile jealousy and disbelief when the Bride claims that her own is– but still very impressive.

The Setup: After dispatching the army that stood in her way, the Bride follows O-Ren Ishii to an outdoor garden that bizarrely adjoins the House of Blue Leaves– on the second floor, no less. It’s unlikely, though not impossible, that an expensive restaurant in the middle of Tokyo would have such a beautifully picturesque slice of nature in its backyard, but it’s safe to assume that this battle site was chosen by Tarantino as a conscious flight of fancy. Again, despite the movie’s gritty realism, it’s also established that it sometimes operates by a sort of crazy dream logic, so characters can have their showdown in the Japanese equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting if they darn well please.

There’s some opening dialogue, but nothing as significant as the discussion between Beatrix and Vernita. O-Ren acts oddly detached and actively refuses to be impressed by the Bride’s superhuman accomplishments. Calmly telling the Bride “swords however, never get tired. I hope you saved your energy. If you haven’t, you may not last five minutes,” Ishii seems to espouse some sort of coldly utilitarian view of people; I imagine that helps, in her line of work. The Bride, like anyone else, is just a weapon, useful only until she breaks.

As the yakuza boss unsheathes her own sword, an extended & highly Latinized cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” begins to play, the lengthy instrumental passage serving as an excellent build-up to the showdown.

The Fight: Much more measured, deliberate and classy than what we just came from.

Unlike all the faceless mooks the Bride just destroyed, Cottonmouth is every bit the Bride’s equal, and has been at this since she was a child. The two opponents take careful consideration before every clash of blades, and the result is close to what we saw in the climactic Rob Roy fight: a series of short but furious exchanges.

O-Ren starts out using sword & scabbard simultaneously, but after a few passes the Bride’s deadly Hanzo steel slices right through the latter, leading her to casually discard it. But before Kiddo can get too cocky, the next exchange ends with Ishii’s katana landing a painful strike on her upper back, dropping her to the ground as her blood leaks into the snow. The music stops, and from here on the only sounds to be heard are the occasional sword strikes, bits of a dialogue and, most prominently, the persistent thumping of a shishi odoshi.

O-Ren takes the opportunity to get in some possibly uncharacteristic and definitely uncalled-for catty barbs, telling the Bride that she’s a “silly Caucasian girl” who “likes to play with samurai swords.” Look, I know she’s trying to dishearten her opponent and she’s a cold-blooded killer besides, but O-Ren just watched the Bride pull off some next-level Jedi stuff; the trash talk rings hollow. And paradoxically, Ishii gives her a modicum of passive-aggressive respect with her follow-up: “You might not be able to fight like a samurai, but you can at least die like a samurai,” and waits as the Bride recovers.

And recover she does: slowly, but with unmistakeable grit. A slash like that would send pretty much anybody running to the nurse’s office even if they hadn’t just spent the last hour kicking all the ass in Japan, but the Bride is nothing if not determined. That determination is what drove her to survive what should have been a fatal head shot, what woke her out of her coma, what willed sensation back into her atrophied limbs one toe at a time, what allowed her to triumph against an army, and what will eventually allow her to make her final and most tragic decision. Heck, it’s probably what made Bill fall in love with her. Beatrix Kiddo is defined by her willpower, by her actions and by her choices. Unlike the supposed girl power saga of the The Hunger Games, whose agency-denied protagonist actually makes the story a misogynist fairy tale, the Bride is a doer. And what she does is get revenge, at any cost.

Resuming the fight, it’s the Bride’s turn to show up O-Ren, ducking a mid-level strike to land a decent slice at her old friend’s leg. We see the blood on her pretty white kimono (and the snow), and she’s limping. Realizing that this won’t be so easy as she thought, Ishii apologizes for her previous rudeness, which the Bride accepts before renewing the fight.

But it’s already over. At the end of the next lightning-fast exchange, one swing from the Hanzo sword lops off the top of O-Ren Ishii’s skull. The audience is treated to the holy-crap-am-I-really-seeing-this visual of the poor lady’s hair & scalp sailing quietly through the air, before the camera returns to her face and slowly pans up to show her exposed brain. O-Ren takes a moment to marvel at the feel of Hattori Hanzo steel, then slumps to the ground dead. Charlie’s angel has gone to hell.

The Bride limps over to a nearby bench and collapses as a melancholy Japanese song plays. She’s not just exhausted but visibly upset; it’s unknown if she’s sad because of lingering personal affection for O-Ren, or if she’s just overwhelmed with emotion over having just killed two soccer teams’ worth of people. Speaking of which: tired or no, she really ought to be booking it out of there, before somebody sees the mess inside and calls in the national guard.

At least they made up later.

Together, this fight and the previous one make up the chapter called “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves,” and though I’ve split the thing into two portions’ for sanity’s sake, in a way this duel is the climax to the battle that began with Gogo and the Crazy 88. Or at the very least, O-Ren is the end-of-stage boss and they were the entire level.

So it is an interesting, and indeed admirable choice that Tarantino made to tone things down once the Bride enters the garden, rather than trying to top it. It’s as stately as the last fight was chaotic. Minus the amusingly gruesome bit at the end, of course; that might be a bit of a misstep depending on how tonally jarring you find it. Also there’s no duel as formal as this one in either volume, so it’s a nice change of pace. The Bride’s showdown ends with a climax that is more emotional than kinetic, a technique Tarantino would take to an even greater extreme for the Bride’s eventual meeting with Bill at the end of Volume 2.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: I call that bold talk, from a one-eyed blonde woman.

“Fill yer hand.”