Ninja Scroll (devil 3 of 5)

Dance of death.

3) Mujuro Utsutsu

(voiced by anime legend Norio Wakamoto)

A change of pace from his companions, Utsutsu is a devil with a genuine sense of honor & fair play, and though he speaks with an air of superiority it’s less bluster and more of a well-earned confidence. A supremely talented swordsman, Utsutsu’s real advantage is related to his blindness: his hearing is greatly magnified to compensate, allowing him to rapidly react by echo-location and listening to his opponents’ muscle movements. Basically he’s like the superhero Daredevil… and many, many other genre characters. Honestly, this gag is a little played-out, and probably was even in 1993. Do real life blind people find this trope offensive?

Armed with: A simple katana, which he can also use to “blind” opponents by shining light on their faces. The implication is that he’s merely reflecting sunlight off of it (difficult in a setting where the trees create a lot of shade) but the visual and its effect are so oversold it seems more like it’s glowing of its own accord.

Fights with:

  • Jubei, mostly.
  • Kagero, who again plays a small but vital role.

The Fight: Kagero, having been overcome with emotion, foolishly charged into a trap (you don’t have to be Mister Sensitive Feminist to deduce that this movie thinks VERY little of women), which caught her and reluctant partner Jubei in an explosion that sent them off the side of a cliff. Using Jubei’s cord-attached sword as an impromptu grappling hook, the two find themselves literally hanging on by a thread. They ascend one at a time, and find that not only was Mujuro Utsutsu waiting for them at the top, it was he who held Jubei’s sword after it dislodged from the rocks, acting as their anchor. Very sporting of him– shades of Princess Bride.

Utsutsu challenges the pair, which Jubei takes personally. In fact, all throughout the fight he behaves with uncharacteristic pride, repeatedly insisting to Kagero that he fight Utsutsu alone. This can’t be personal to him since he doesn’t seem to know the devil from earlier, so it’s possible that he sees a more direct challenge to his personal skill in Utsutsu’s straightforward swordsmanship, or perhaps he’s still upset with Kagero for her dumb play earlier– after the fight, he does dress her down about not taking her own life seriously.

Anyway, the two men charge off into the nearby bamboo forest, running alongside each other for a long time before Jubei ever makes his first move. What follows is the closest thing to an actual sword duel in the entirety of Ninja Scroll. And it’s mostly Mujuro’s game: he reacts with ease to all of Jubei’s strikes, and when he goes on the offensive it’s all the hero can do to keep up.

Jubei still attempts to think strategically, though. He brought the fight to the forest to, as Utsutsu immediately guesses, try to dampen the devil’s advantage– the preponderance of static obstacles would ostensibly challenge his ability to navigate. However, Mujuro’s skill is more powerful than that, and he dodges every tree with calm ease. He’s even unruffled when Jubei covertly slashes a few of the bamboo stalks in the hopes that the resulting noise would mask the hero’s own movements, but he is again unsuccessful; Utsutsu can hear him even amongst a veritable cacophony.

Mujuro then puts Jubei on the defensive and pursues him with a series of strikes that the hero only barely counters. One of the advantages of animation is employed here as we see Jubei being pushed what must be a dozen feet or more over the course of his multiple parries– a bit of choreography that would be impractical and/or silly-looking if attempted in live-action.

Waving off Kagero’s attempts to help, Jubei squares off against Utsutsu once more, even as the devil employs his trick of trying to weaken Jubei’s sight with the glare off his blade, turning the hero’s own eyes against him. Jubei gets knocked to the ground as they clash in mid-air, but Mujuro’s killing stroke is stopped short by a dagger Kagero had left planted in a bamboo trunk and escaped his “radar” vision. Jubei wastes no time killing the surprised villain with one lunge through the heart.

Again, even though there’s some slight supernatural enhancement, this is the straightest fight in the whole film; it is, ironically, unusual in its ordinariness. And certainly never boring. Short, as most every Ninja Scroll fight is, but more in the “whew, that was intense” sense rather than the “aw, that’s it?” one. Mujuro Utsutsu is very efficiently introduced, deployed and dispatched, during the course of which we get a thrilling little scene that allows for some very head-scratching relationship development of our two leads. Not truly great, but not bad at all.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Ninja, vanish!

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Ninja Scroll (devil 2 of 5)

There’s a lot of buzz about this devil.

2) Mushizo

(voiced by Rezo Nomoto)

A hunched, hideous man with a schtick that’s unusual even amongst the Devils of Kimon. We don’t see much of Mushizo, but he’s notably cunning, treacherous, and agile.

Armed with: he wields a long, two-pronged spear that unfortunately gets little use. But his real weapon is the hive of killer wasps he carries on his back, the residents of which he has some degree of control over.

“I call this look ‘Blue Steel.'”

Fights with:

  • Jubei Kibagami, our katana-wielding protagonist.
  • Kagero, the lady ninja who plays the static yet pivotal role here of distracting the majority of the villain’s swarm.

The wily monk Dakuan is also there with the heroes, but he contributes little. Similarly, Mushizo’s compatriots Mujuro Utsutsu and Zakuro stand by and watch, warned away from participating by Mushizo himself.

The Fight: The unlikely trio of protagonists have gathered in the tiny village where the villains have faked a plague. They barely have time to pay their respects to the innocent civilians when a few, and then a LOT, of wasps start swarming in. Like, thousands. As they start flooding in over the hill, the scene’s music (frequently re-used in trailers and ads for the film) kicks in: a steady, pulsing drumbeat with occasional dramatic blaring horns. It’s really cool.

They all try to run from this plague of murder bugs, but Kagero stands firm, and casts a spell to counter the swarm. The details are a little murky but it involves expelling an unknown number of cherry blossoms from her sleeve, which somehow poison and/or distract the wasps– some are shown dropping, but not at nearly the rate needed to hold off a group that size. Also, is this the only spell she knows? That’s kinda lame. Still, the image is kind of weirdly striking.

Kagero holding the line means it’s up to Jubei to take down the source. He spots Mushizo and chases him to the village’s water mill. The two banter for a bit until Mushizo surprises Jubei by launching  a few darts that only narrowly miss his face, then following up with a surprisingly deft lunge of his spear.

Jubei dodges and counters by slicing Mushizo across his hunched back, but the villain laughs and says that all he’s done is damage the hive, thus enraging its residents.

Jubei flees again and finds refuge in the nearby river, though he can’t stay there indefinitely; Mushizo and the wasps both wait patiently for him to emerge. Jubei quietly maneuvers himself underneath the branch where his foe perches waiting, and with awesome ninja skill he rockets out of the water, cutting off Mushizo’s foot along with the branch he was standing on.

The villain doesn’t miss a beat, lunging at him on the way down. Jubei catches the strike on his sword, and when Mushizo fires a poisoned dart from his mouth (!), the hero just barely stops it with his sword handle. Above the river the two other devils muse on if Mushizo was able to finish off Jubei on his own, but Mujuro’s assessment proves correct: the trip underwater is drowning the wasps so, in a panic, they’re trying to sting their way to safety. Mushizo’s own pets rip him apart from the inside.

As you can see there’s very little to this fight– to the point where I considered not even including it. But after already disqualifying three-eighths of the film’s villains, this segment’s nasty little Quasimodo deserved a bone. Besides, it’s creative and weird even by Ninja Scroll’s standards, and it shows our two co-protagonists cooperating in an unexpected way; the fight also briefly cuts back to Kagero halfway through, wincing under the pain of maintaining the spell, so we see her contributing more and also put a ticking clock on Jubei’s efforts to take down the Wasp Whisperer.  But still a shame that we didn’t get more of Mushizo, especially after his delightful speed and unpredictability with physical weapons.

Grade: C+

Coming Attractions: Jubei gets blindsided.

Ninja Scroll (devil 1 of 5)

Ooh, does this ever bring me back.

Ninja Scroll (aka Jubei Ninpocho) holds a certain place in the, ahem, hearts of many a male nerd of a certain age. Although Western culture is fairly saturated with Japanese animation today, for several years after Akira the release of such products to the US was something more like a slow trickle, and that relative rarity gave these shiny foreign objects a certain cultural cachet: for many of us, they were the stuff of whispers in the cafeteria, late-night screenings at sleepovers, and scratchy VHS copies. For a time few titles held the reverence of the early import Ninja Scroll: with its dynamite combination of bizarre fantasy, outrageous violence, overt misogyny and gratuitous sexuality all served up on a slickly stylized platter, it was like the ur-text of what we’d come to expect from anime as a whole– it was the definitive “cartoon your parents don’t want you to see.”

In short, it’s everything an adolescent thinks is “mature.” Re-watching it decades later I can’t, in good conscience, recommend it to anybody– it’s crude, gross, and completely ridiculous. But it’s also kind of awesome. Ten minutes never go by without something violent, insane, or both happening.

Once again I will be breaking format here. Many of the fights are so short that grading them one at a time would be futile; therefore I’ll be breaking the entries down into villains. Or, rather, into devils, as the movie’s baddies are the wonderfully-titled Eight Devils of Kimon (“devil” having a different meaning in Japan than in the Christian context)– this movie is SO video-gamey. Some of the eight devils only have one big fight, while others have multiple fleeting skirmishes the run time of which adds up. Three of them– Benisato, Yurimaru, and Zakuro– don’t even make the grade at all, as the heroes’ encounters with them are so esoteric or or brief as to not qualify as a “fight”… and two of those three actually get murdered by their own compatriots, due to the emotional fallout of the weird omnisexual love parallelogram they have going on. Today we start with:

1) Tessai

(voiced by Ryūzaburō Ōtomo)

An enormous (easily 7-8 feet tall) beast of a man. He has advanced strength and a sweet weapon, but his real trick is his ability to transform almost all of his body into nigh-impenetrable stone, at will.

Armed with: an enormous double-bladed metal spear that he can throw like a boomerang.

Damn, you’re ugly.

Fights with:

  • The Koga Ninja, servants to the Mochizuki Clan. Most notably including Kagero (voiced by Emi Shinohara), a female ninja and poison tester who insisted on coming along. About ten or so altogether.
    • Armed with: All manner of swords, knives and a huge arsenal of ninja stars.
  • Jubei Kibagami, a former Yamashiro clan ninja turned wandering mercenary after he was betrayed. He’s the quintessential cowboy hero (samurai flicks and Westerns always did have that weird, mutually symbiotic relationship): stoic, upright and unstoppably badass. Based loosely on the Japanese folk hero Jubei Yagyu. Voiced by Kōichi Yamadera.
    • Armed with: mostly his killer samurai sword, which is hooked to a string in his coat so he’s never far from it. Also, notably, a small knife/dart.

The Fights: This is not just the first real fight (there’s a cute little pre-title teaser where Jubei quickly schools some bandit chumps) but the first action sequence of the movie, and the introduction to the Eight Devils as well. So it had to come out swinging, and boy does it.

Off to investigate some shady dealings in a nearby village, the Kaga ninjas glide gracefully through the treetops at night, when they’re suddenly assailed out of the darkness by Tessai’s spinning blades. Many try to fight back by unleashing a torrent of shuriken, and although they strike with impressive percussive force, they all either miss the devil as he leaps among the shadows or bounce harmlessly off his stone skin.

It’s barely even a fight, really– it’s an execution. Not only are all the ninjas woefully overpowered but they also have no idea what they’re dealing with, and besides that they’ve walked into a trap. Heads and body parts rain to the ground. Tessai, having all the advantage, leers & chuckles as he rips them to shreds. (Interestingly, Tessai gets *one* assist here, unnecessary as it may be, when Yurimaru electrocutes a single ninja.)

Although Kagero is ordered to retreat by her captain, Hanza, she hesitates. Being quite the sicko, Tessai graphically rips off Hanza’s arms right before Kagero’s eyes, and then stares her down as he drinks the blood flowing out of the severed limb.

WARNING: Don’t look at the above picture if you don’t want to be grossed out

Kagero flees to warn the clan, but doesn’t get far– Tessai knocks her out cold. She comes to later, after the devil has spirited her away to a tiny hut in a quiet little town. He’s… well, let’s just say that calling it getting fresh would be an epic understatement, and leave it at that. It’s uncomfortable to watch as he paws all over her like an animal, so fortunately he’s interrupted when he looks up to find Jubei– a stranger to both parties at this point– quietly looking on in the little house. (It’s unclear if Jubei was already in the building or if he snuck in quietly; he could certainly do the latter, because NINJA!). He barks at the hero to leave, but Jubei quietly refuses. Angered, Tessai transforms his skin back into rock, and although Jubei’s a bit surprised, he calmly retort that surely not ALL of the freak’s body can be stone, and puts one eye out with a dagger.

Hero & heroine escape and part ways, with Tessai not giving chase per orders from a superior. Later on, though, the beast does track down Jubei to a quiet little street, reaching through a stone wall to seize him and then beating him near senseless. The hero takes it like a champ, and comes back swinging with a strike that pushes Tessai back but doesn’t cut him. They seem to be at an impasse, but Jubei notices that the monster’s skin is starting to crumble (we’ll find out later that his intimate contact with Kagero exposed him to the abundance of toxins always coursing through her body). Seeing an opportunity, the hero waits until Tessai throws his weapon again, then he dodges it and leaps in to cut off the villain’s hand with one mighty slice. Being both shocked and literally disarmed, Tessai can’t catch his boomeranging staff as it comes back to him, and it lodges right in the middle of his rocky bald head. Ouuuuuuuuch.

[insert headache joke]

Clinging spitefully to life for a few more seconds, Tessai rears back and tries to impale Jubei with the same blade, and even though he misses (barely), that’s still impressively hardcore. Then his own head slides down the length of the blade and he flops on the ground, dead. Tim Roth got off easy in comparison.

Tessai is how Ninja Scroll announced that it meant business, and, more specifically, just what kind of business it meant. This brute arrives on the scene as a one-man wrecking crew and displays shocking personal depravity, so it communicates what kind of threat level is involved when we learn that Tessai only represents one-eighth of the bad guys who’ll be dealt with. Though oddly Tessai is in some ways un-representative of the other seven devils; they’re all varying degrees of crafty and cunning, whereas he’s just a blunt instrument. On a more meta level, the movie’s aesthetic– gruesome, bombastic, exploitative– has been established right away. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

But whereas the one-side nature of Tessai’s takedown of the Kaga works quite well, his later confrontation with Jubei feels unfortunately short. It would have been nice to see some more back & forth as Jubei nimbly dodged Tessai’s attacks while struggling to find a way to truly hurt him. This I fear will be a running theme throughout the series.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Who’s this handsome devil?

None of your beeswax.

Zoolander (fight 1 of 1)

Do you want to see the real world of male modeling, the one they don’t show you in magazines or the E! Channel?

kat

“Of COURSE you do.”

1) Zoolander vs Hansel

The Fighters:

  • Derek Zoolander, the man whose really really ridiculously good-lookingness took him from the anonymity of southern Jersey’s coal mining country all the way to international fame & fortune as the world’s #1 Male Model. One man, five syllables. Played by Ben Stiller.
    • Armed with: Though he mostly relies on his more physical skills in this battle, Derek is never far from his signature and diverse Looks, which include Ferrari, Le Tigre, Blue Steel and the enigmatic Magnum.
  • Hansel, so hot right now. An up & comer whose free-range attitude puts him in stark contrast with Zoolander’s sleek style. Though new & inexperienced, he’s got some tricks up his sleeve.
    • Armed with: Hansel carries his trademark scooter but it doesn’t get any play here.

There’s also the notable presence of:

The Setup: Zoolander and Hansel have been drifting toward this inevitable confrontation for a while now. Early in the film, a perfectly reasonable misunderstanding led to an awkward confrontation at the annual modeling awards show, which in turn set off a chain of events that caused a humiliated Derek to retire from the world of male modeling.

But returning to his roots proved useless, as Zoolander’s true talent lies in being really, really, ridiculously good-looking. Goaded by a promise from the villainous Mugatu to help Derek build a center that will help kids learn to read good (and learn how to do other stuff good too), Zoolander agrees to return to modeling as part of Mugatu’s exclusive and incredibly classy “Derelicte” campaign.

At an industry party, a cocky Zoolander brushes by Hansel, and can’t resist lobbing a couple verbal sneers at him. Though Hansel at first tries to walk away, Derek eggs him on, and soon their confrontation escalates. They play some devious mind games as they try to psych each other out.

Finally the title character has had enough, and he challenges the brash upstart to the ultimate of all contests: a walk-off. Stunned, Hansel (so hot right now) eventually agrees. They will meet at their version of the OK Corral: the old Members’ Only Warehouse, in ten minutes. This is about to be settled on the runway.

Pretty crazy stuff. Derek should have listened to his friend Billy Zane.

He’s a cool dude.

It’s a walk-off. It’s a walk-off.

The Fight: Once Bowie introduces himself and establishes the rules (first model does a distinctive walk, second model duplicates it and elaborates. But come on, you already know how walk-offs work), the opening strands of what is surely the most exciting fight scene music of all kick in: Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

Director Stiller wisely shows us the complete walk-off and Hansel’s duplication, to give the audience some grounding. From there though the whole sequence is infused with bravura filmmaking. The conflict turns into an extended yet zippy montage, gliding back & forth between each devastating move and its expert counter. Often we’re even shown the action in split-screen– all the better to instantly compare the two’s amazing feats of mimicry.

And such amazing feats they are. The rivals shimmy, leap, flip off the wall, perform hand-stands and even do the Robot. In addition to the camerawork and editing, the performances and choreography here are completely top-notch.

The action frequently cuts back to the two contestants as they wait their own turn, with their backstage demeanor quickly transitioning from smug & cocky to outright weary. Hansel in particular seems very worn-down, at one point ordering his runway-side assistant to cut the fringe near his eye in a graphic sequence. Material this powerful, it’s little wonder that Sylvester Stallone was so obviously inspired by it.

It’s that same weariness, though, that makes Hansel desperate enough to “go monk.” Drawing on some exotic disciplines he’s dabbled in (we’ll learn more about the character’s mystically-inpired lifestyle later) and praying to the “Great Spirit,” Hansel takes the stage again with renewed purpose. The beats of “Beat It” subtly fade away and are replaced with some exotic foreign music as Hansel shoves his hand down his own pants. After several spastic movements around his groin, Hansel’s hand suddenly emerges in a dramatic slow-mo shot with the prize he’d been searching for: his own underwear. The golden-haired adonis had somehow learned a technique to remove his tighty-whiteys without pulling them down past his feet. Truly, nothing is impossible for the determined male model.

Even Bowie is impressed. And when David Bowie is impressed at things you can accomplish within your pants, you know you’ve got something special.

Zoolander takes the runway uncertainly and is visibly nervous as he prepares to attempt to replicate the achievement. The music dies down to an ominous hum, signaling the stakes if Derek loses. He even thinks to himself how glad he to have worn underwear that day (come to think of it: if anything, wouldn’t a lack of underwear excuse him from having to duplicate this stunt?). He darts into his pants with one, and eventually two hands, furiously working about and visibly pained. The music builds to a fever pitch, and Zoolander’s hands shoot up with a fistful of his leopard-print briefs… which are still secured around his crotch. He hasn’t just lost, he’s given himself the ultimate wedgie. Ouch.

Bowie’s disapproving voice confirms the hero’s defeat. But we don’t stay for long to witness Hansel’s revelry, because Mugatu’s henchwoman Katinka Ingabogovinanana shows up with thugs in tow, prompting Derek’s reporter friend and would-be paramour to usher him out immediately. And unfortunately not straight to an ice pack.

Good work here. The nature of the conflict is spelled out in simple but superb detail, and the director pulls all sorts of tricks to keep the confrontation constantly dynamic & interesting. We get a clear sense of the fighters’ abilities: Zoolander is experienced and confident, but Hansel (so hot right now) is limber and unpredictable.

The fight also works well in the context of the story, further establishing what kind of weirdness to expect from Hansel, cutting down on Derek’s recovering ego a bit, and most importantly, bringing the pair’s conflict to a head in order to pave the way for their reconciliation later.

If anything it suffers from perhaps being a bit too short; it’s not long at all (not even the full length of “Beat It”) before we wind down to Hansel’s deciding move. But it’s a minor complaint.

Grade: A

Recommend Links: This film is only Bowie’s second-best cameo. This is the best.

Okay, I hope that was fun for you, because it was fun for me. After drowning in over 10,000 words of Star Wars I needed to blow off some steam and act a little silly. Sillier than usual, anyway. I think after this I’m going to slow down to a two-posts-per-week schedule permanently. Three was a bit much.

Coming Attractions: More serious. But still silly.

Just in a different way.

Star Wars, Prequel Trilogy (retrospective, part 2 of 2)

Sith Happens.

And how.

For all the credit fanboys give it for being “dark” (it got a PG-13! And KIDS get killed!… off-screen, kinda. Ooooooh so edgy!) Revenge of the Sith is, to me, where the prequels went from troubling & highly flawed to outright unwatchable. The storytelling gets even more muddled, characterization implodes, dialogue reaches a new low, the entire franchise’s biggest moments are fumbled, and the action is mostly half-hearted & disappointing.

It’s also where lightsaber fighting, once the coolest of the cool, kinda jumps the shark. It already received heavy exposure in the previous two installments but here it’s outright abused. Seeing a single Jedi calmly slice through overwhelming odds or two Force-powered foes go at it has officially gone from awe-inspiring to commonplace, even banal. It is my sincere hope that when JJ Abrams (or whoever) takes over the reins for the next trilogy, they severely dial back both the number of Jedi and the display of their powers. Jedi need to be special again. Anyway:

4) Anakin and Obi-Wan vs Count Dooku (rematch)

“I’ve been looking forward to this.”

The Fighters:

  • Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by a visibly-bored Ewan McGregor.
  • Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus, played by Christopher Lee.

The Fight: Meh.

There’s an air of… perfunctory-ness to the whole thing. Skywalker and Kenobi walk in and greet Palpatine, who simply responds with a flat “Dooku” indicating that he’s entered the room behind them (they’re Jedi, shouldn’t they have sensed him?). For his part, Dooku opts not to walk down the stairs near the entrance of the room but instead jumps & CGI-flips down off the railing. It’s very awkward to watch this 80+ year-old man “do” that, and doesn’t really fit with his more stately character– this guy isn’t Darth Maul, he shouldn’t act like it.

Whenever the scene’s not perfunctory, it’s painfully lame, such as when Obi-Wan tries to calm the Chancellor by telling him “Sith Lords are our specialty.” Dude, you’ve killed exactly ONE Sith Lord: it was 13 years ago, and you got lucky. Anakin hasn’t killed any. Last time you faced a Sith it was this guy and he beat your ass in 30 seconds, then got away because Yoda stopped to save you– don’t act so cocky. (To any nerd who tries to object by bring up the Clone Wars cartoons: shut up.)

The fight that follows is smooth & graceful, and it tries to make the most of its rather bland setting by having the combatants move around a lot through the two stories… but it’s missing anything to make it truly impressive. Some of the choreography doesn’t work either, like when Dooku delivers a kick that sends Anakin flying– Lee (or his stunt double) sells the blow terribly. It all adds to the sort airy weightlessness of the battle; it’s like watching cartoons fight.

Dooku Force-punches Obi-Wan twice, the second time being a full-fledged body seizure that takes him out of commission for the remainder of the fight. This movie also muddies the water much farther into how Jedi’s telekinetic punches work: you wonder if there’s no way to defend against it, why don’t they do it more often, etc.

The music kicks in when Anakin is left alone with the Sith Lord, and in a brief but furious fight he manages to literally disarm Dooku with one swift move, chopping off his hands and plucking his fallen lightsaber out of the air.

He holds Tyranus in a scissor-lock and agonizes over killing him. After some goading by Palpatine, he eventually does. Lee does some nice work here when he reacts to the Chancellor’s command: it’s ambiguous enough that Anakin could reasonably interpret it as “oh no, I’m panicking because I’m about to die,” when in reality it’s “my master is betraying me, WTF!” But that only raises the question of why he doesn’t speak up and at least try to drag Palpatine down with him by revealing his role in all this– there’s nearly 20 seconds between when Sidious first gives the order and when Anakin finally gives in, plenty of time for him to get over his shock and start squealing like a stool pigeon. Hell hath no fury like a Sith scorned, one would think.

At its best, the fight is gorgeous yet empty, and its worst it’s awkward. If this were merely the warm-up for better things to come, it wouldn’t be so bad, but unfortunately that’s not the case.

Grade: C

5) Obi-Wan vs General Grievous

[no good quotes]

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor.
  • General Grievous, played by CGI and voiced by Matthew Wood.

The Fight: Oy.

Just a waste. General Grievous had been built up in supplementary material to be this super-awesome dueling master– a killer cyborg designed expressly to be the ultimate lightsaber fighting machine!– but in this fight the actual “dueling” part is over within less than a minute, and isn’t too interesting watch, besides. (“This food is terrible!” “I know. And such small portions!”) Not since the Matrix Reloaded’s Twins has such a great fight scene opportunity been bungled.

All Grievous’ amazing skill comes off more like just a cheap trick. Despite pulling some crazy four-armed lightsaber-wrangling (two used for fencing while two more spins like fans above), Kenobi defuses the threat very quickly, and not in a way that builds the hero up so much as it brings the villain down. Grievous looks more here (and in his previous scenes in the film) like a poser rather than a genuine threat– he’s cowardly, ineffective and just plain weird. He’s not a Vader, a Maul, or a Dooku. He’s just kind of a clown.

Kenobi himself doesn’t fare all that much better: Lucas fumblingly tries to give the character a Too Cool For School attitude as he non-chalantly drops into Grievous’ meeting with no apparent backup, and McGregor seems uninterested in trying to compensate for the poor writing. His big comeback (to being told he won’t leave alive) is a rather generic and half-hearted “Oh, I don’t think so!” Frankly even Fred Willard sounded more intimidating saying it. The “combat-ready” stance Kenobi assumes twice early in the confrontation (and several times throughout the film), where he holds his blade in one hand above his head, coils his body back, and points his other hand forward is really silly-looking.

Anyway, after the arrival of clone trooper reinforcements and a really lame-looking Force punch (even worse than Dooku’s kick) that sends Grievous into the ceiling, the villain opts to scamper away on this weird giant wheel of a vehicle, with Kenobi in pursuit on this cool giant lizard that can somehow keep up. There’s a chase in which Kenobi drops his lightsaber (odd, considering how much he chewed out Anakin for doing the same thing in Episode II… also during a vehicle chase, coincidentally. But it’s understandable– it’s not like he has some kind of telekinetic power with which he could have retrieved it), then a crash that leaves the two on the edge of a precipice and both lightsaber-less.

Kenobi does kind of well at first with a droid’s electric staff thing, but Grievous’ droid strength gets the better of him. Disarmed, the Jedi’s physical blows are no good (why doesn’t he Force-punch him again? Especially with that pit right there?), but he does pry open the villain’s chest plate, leaving it exposed for several blaster shots right to the heart. Grievous goes up in flames kind of awesomely.

“… and you’re to blame!”

Of course, since back in Episode IV Kenobi compared the lightsaber as being a more “civilized” weapon than a blaster, here he discards the blaster in disgust by saying “how uncivilized!” Which is just a notch or two beneath “why do I feel like you’re going to be the death of me” in the Herp Derp Remember That Scene In The Old Movies?! category.

I appreciate the scene’s ambition in trying for a new kind of battle here, especially considering it’s a lightsaber-heavy enough film as it is. The idea of Obi-Wan beating the bad guy with a blaster is a pretty ballsy and unexpected one, to be honest I’d appreciate it even more if I thought the movie had wit enough to be trying something “subversive” here, but of course it isn’t. It’s a short & lackluster lightsaber battle followed by an uninteresting chase and a quasi-interesting physical scuffle. And all against a weaksauce bad guy.

Grade: C

6) Darth Sidious vs Mace Windu

“It’s treason, then.”

The Fighters:

  • Mace Windu, played by Samuel L (mothereffing, etc) Jackson.
  • Chancellor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious, played by Ian McDiarmid.
  • Three other Jedi Council members, whose contributions in the fight don’t even rise to “minimal”: Kit Fisto, Agen Kolar, and Saesee Tiin (I had to look up the names of the two who don’t have awesome green dreadlocks), played by Ben Cooke, Tux Akindoyeni, and Kenji Oates, respectively.

This is so much less cool than you’d think.

The Fight: Ugh.

If the previous fight scene was merely disappointing and underwhelming, this one is just plain bad and stupid. The choreography is weak and uninspired, the characters less resembling two cosmic-powered titans having an epic showdown than two, ahem, “men of a certain age” awkwardly swinging swords at each other– even more so than Episode IV’s Kenobi/Vader showdown, but that was simply uninteresting; this is outright embarrassing. And yet, while it manifestly fails to deliver on its epic status, it’s also paradoxically too long.

And did I mention stupid? The fight opens with Mace Windu and three other senior Jedi Masters approaching to apprehend Palpatine and, after some very mediocre dialogue, they engage in battle. Sidious opens up with this bizarrely unnecessary corkscrewing jump while he screech-howls like an animal. He then manages to kill Agen Kolar and Saesee Tiin, two of the most powerful and experienced Jedi Masters in the universe, with his opening strikes– in fact, the former falls prey to one of the most telegraphed lunges of all time. Lucas and co have a very hard time selling the awesomeness of one fighter without making his opponents look like total losers.

Kit Fisto takes one to the gut a few seconds later, so then it’s just Windu and Palpatine alone. They do not acquit themselves well.

Yeah, about like this.

Samuel L Jackson is a man of many talents, but sword-fighting on-screen is not one of them, and probably wasn’t even before he filmed this scene at the age of 53. And Ian McDiarmid… oof. He’s not a bad actor, as he’s spent a lifetime making quite a name for himself on stage, including in many Shakespeare productions. And his previous work as the unctuous & charming Senator Palpatine was actually very good, as was his work in Return of the Jedi. But his performance as Darth Sidious is absolutely, 100%, irredeemably awful. He’s a cartoon character in all the worst ways: he contorts his mouth like a buffoon, he cackles incessantly, and hisses like a snake when he’s angry. The overlord who spent decades methodically masterminding his gradual rise to absolute power has the same mannerisms as a schizophrenic hobo. McDiarmid’s performance (which I have to believe was molded by Lucas) is worse than five Jar Jars, because at least you were never supposed to take him seriously.

Anyway, Mace Windu and Captain Clownface twirl around awkwardly throughout Palpatine’s spacious high-rise apartment. One of the fight’s few and fleeting moments of gracefulness is when it moves close to the enormous bay window and an errant saber swing shatters the glass. That’s kinda nice.

Windu disarms Palpatine and he goes scampering about (again, like a cartoon), seemingly helpless. The duel ends with Windu’s blade in the villain’s face, which is of course just when Anakin The Dumbass enters. There’s some argument about whether Windu should execute Sidious on the spot, while Anakin wants him to live because he’s promised to help save Padme from dying. Palpatine can’t decide whether to play the helpless victim or whether to act overtly evil and, in what’s probably McDiarmid’s lowest point, he croons out “No, noooooo, noooooooooooooo!” and tries to zap Windu point-blank with Force lightning, which the Master just reflects back on him with his lightsaber. The lightning zaps throughout Palpatine’s body and either scars him permanently or reveals his true appearance, depending on what you believe (certainly Force lightning hasn’t marred the face of anyone else who’s ever been hit with it before this). Either way, he now looks more like he did back in Episode VI, though in a way that’s a lot more difficult to take seriously.

The real kick in the gut happens here, after the fighting’s done. Although it would take just a few more inches of effort for Windu to shove his blade through Palpatine’s face, he instead rears back his arm dramatically so that Anakin has plenty of time to draw his own weapon and cut off Mace’s saber hand. With Windu defenseless, Sidious surges back to life and releases another torrent of Force lightning, graphically electrocuting him and sending him flying out the window. Prior to Episode III, Jackson was fond of declaring that he was happy to be in the prequels as long as he didn’t “go out like a punk.” Looks like he didn’t get his wish.

[There are many who theorize that Sidious was never in any danger throughout the entire fight, and only prolonged it so that Anakin would walk in at the exact right second. This interpretation involves too many variables for the Sith Lord to rely on; considering he’d spent years & years playing out his meticulous plan it seems strange he’d gamble it all so boldly right now. Plus, Sidious should not be so much stronger than Windu that he’s able to play possum so well against him; Windu is second only to Yoda, and Yoda comes within an inch of beating Sidious later.]

But the worst part is how this one action undoes all of the franchise’s thematic resonance and years of emotional build-up. Anakin Skywalker didn’t turn to the dark side out of pride and anger, nor did he do so as a completely selfish and calculated decision. He did it in a now-or-never moment of pressure, for a noble reason: saving his wife. He isn’t evil, just paranoid and misguided. Luke’s personal victory in ROTJ no longer has the same power; he didn’t win the battle his father lost, because his father turned “evil” under completely different circumstances. Anakin gave in to love, not aggression. Arguably there’s some poetic symmetry to the reveal that Anakin joined the dark side to save someone he loved and left it for the same reason, but it also makes his final decision a no-brainer: of course he’ll save Luke at the end, because saving family has always been his motivation.

So. This fight is completely un-exciting, frequently clumsy, and the ending undoes a huge part of what makes Star Wars tick. I’ll be generous.

Grade: D-

And let’s take a moment, if we may, to spotlight the absolutely horrible makeup job on Darth Sidious. The idea here is to make him look like the wrinkled, sagging freakshow audiences were introduced to in 1983 and indeed it follows the same general template, but too many things are just… off. Even without McDiarmid’s much more spastic performance and choreography that contorts him in very un-flattering ways, the overall effect of the new Palpatine is not comical but creepy.

sidiouscollage

From left to right: Yes; No; CHILD MOLESTER

This is the ultimate dictator of the galaxy and the evil mastermind behind six epic films. I shouldn’t wince every time he’s on screen.

7) Yoda vs Darth Sidious

“Not if anything to say about it, I have.”

The Fighters:

  • Yoda, by Frank Oz and CGI he is played.
  • Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious, played by Ian McDiarmid.

The Fight: Derp.

Is it possible to create a really good sword fight featuring a 60-year-old robe-wearing & makeup-slathered actor against a diminutive CGI muppet? Maybe, but ROTS doesn’t provide a lot of evidence in favor.

This time around there’s actually some gravitas at play, thanks largely to audience anticipation, Frank Oz’s performance, and John Williams’ music. Yoda’s entrance into Palpatine’s chambers is pretty cool– he casually flicks a hand and it drops the two door guards to the ground. He is, however, weirdly unprepared for the jolt of Force lightning that knocks him into the wall, even though (again!) Sidious telegraphed the fact that he was about to do it pretty heavily. It looks like Qui-Gon Jinn’s “he can see things before they happen, that is why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It’s a Jedi trait,” in TPM is just below Kenobi’s “only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise” in terms of Statements Not Supported By Reality.

Yoda dusts himself off and retaliates with a strong Force punch* that sends Palpatine across the room. Switching emotional polarities really quickly as usual, Sidious panics and tries to escape with a cartoony flip that really doesn’t match his look (and his naked cowardice doesn’t inspire much admiration for him as a villain), but he’s cut off by Yoda, who utters a smug, “If so powerful you are, why leave?” Sidious’ retort is weird: “You will not stop me. Darth Vader will become more powerful than either of us!” The way McDiarmid delivers it, it sounds like the second sentence is being offered as a justification for the first, even though that makes no sense. At this point, viewers had certainly become accustomed to George Lucas writing dialogue exchanges where each character’s lines didn’t seem to have anything to do with the other’s, but it’s rare that a single character can’t even follow his OWN lines.

[*Once again: what’s the deal with Force punching? If it’s as effective and practical as a regular punch, why don’t they do it more often? More importantly, as we see here, it’s the good Jedi’s long-range equivalent of Force lightning, so if they achieve roughly the same purpose in combat, why is one good/neutral and one “bad”?]

Anyway, after some really awkward posing by Sidious and a cut away to the Anakin/Obi-Wan fight, the two find themselves dueling on the platform that rises into the middle of the empty Senate chambers. It’s here that the combat is actually the most interesting. Yoda is flipping about still, but with much more actual sword work than in his clash with Count Dooku. The new music trailing in from the other fight & some smart camera work really convey the epic scale of the conflict, and of course the symbolism of this deciding battle occurring in the very heart of the Republic’s political system is powerful if obvious.

The fight gets a lot less compelling after the next cut, when we find the two have somehow separated: Sidious is several stories above Yoda in the enormous chamber, ripping out empty Senate seats (again: symbolism!) with the Force and throwing them at his tiny foe (“Duel of the Fates” plays from this point on, but it doesn’t gain much in being repeated from Episode I). The acrobatic muppet has little trouble dodging them as they come, and he finally gets Sidious on the defensive by seizing one & returning it to sender. As he does with every other emotion, McDiarmid WAY oversells his panic at having to dodge a single projectile.

As soon as he re-orients himself Palpatine is face-to-face against Yoda, but he knocks the saber out of the green alien’s hand with a quick burst of Force lightning. It now becomes pure strength against strength, as Sidious pours on the juice and Yoda tries to push it back. Yoda seems to get the upper hand and when he repels the attack it creates an explosive pulse that sends them both flying. Sidious is able to get hold of a guard rail but Yoda is not so lucky, so he falls a loooong way down and takes a couple hard thumps on the way.

Yoda then scurries off and… that’s it. The contest of the two most cosmically powerful figures imaginable comes down to an accident of footing, the fate of the galaxy is lost on a technicality. It’s hard to understate just how monumentally disappointing this is. And besides that, it’s stupid: it’s understandable that Yoda wouldn’t want to continue the fight after suffering such a nasty fall (when 900 years of age you reach, as resilient your back will not be), but it’s frankly astonishing to think he’d tuck his tail between his legs for 20 years to avoid a rematch to a fight he probably would have won, especially with billions of lives on the line. Lucas once again chickened out as a storyteller; he wanted to find a way to have the good guy lose without making him “really” lose, and the resulting compromise is baffling rather than comforting. (And don’t even try to come at me with the silly rationalizations from the crappy novelization.)

More baffling is the pervasive laughter on the part of Darth Sidious throughout the fight. Not just laughter but straight-up cackling, with all the professionalism of a tenth-grade drama student playing a witch in Macbeth. He cackles after he’s zapped Yoda with lightning at the beginning, he cackles several times when they’re locking swords, he cackles as he’s heaving Senate pods at Yoda, he cackles while Yoda is seizing the Senate pod and spinning it in place in preparation to send it back, he cackles while Yoda is falling. He cackles without any regard to whether it’s an appropriate time to do so or whether it will impress the audience. Yes, way back in ROTJ the Emperor’s creepy laughter was a continuous presence in his climactic scene, but there it made sense: Palpatine had Luke right where he wanted him, he was steadily working to unnerve & aggravate the man, and he had every reason to believe his ultimate victory was achieved. Here he just cackles compulsively and ceaselessly. Like most everything about McDiarmid as the Sith Lord, it’s meant to be grand & scary but it comes off as petty & comical. When it comes to over the top acting, there’s a fine line between hammy and vampy. This is so far on the wrong side of that line it makes the 60s Batman villains look like Mark Ruffalo.

There’s more to like here than in most of ROTS’ other fights, but it’s weighed down by too many clumsy missteps and unforgivable errors. Wasted potential.

Grade: C-

8) Anakin vs Obi-Wan

“You were the Chosen One!”

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor
  • Darth Vader formerly Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen.

The Fight: Improvement.

After some truly terrible opening dialogue (“only a Sith deals in absolutes!” Hmm, ONLY a Sith, huh? Sounds like an absolute statement there, buddy), the duel kicks off more spirited than anything since the Episode I.

For those first few minutes, everything comes together perfectly. The actors, via either their own skill or just through sheer repetition, move at an incredible pace through an exquisite dance of death, never missing a single beat. Christensen in particular– with his tall & lean physique, striking black outfit and don’t-give-a-crap long hair– cuts the most imposing profile in the trilogy since Liam Neeson took a dive. Lucas shoots the whole thing like a pro, alternating skillfully between close-ups, mediums, wide shots, overhead angles, and even one striking behind-the-back view as the pair duel through a narrow hallway. Remarkably, even though the opponents are using the same color lightsaber (a first in Star Wars history!) and seemingly move in fast-forward, you can actually keep track of the action and see what’s going on. And John Williams’ specially composed piece “Battle of the Heroes” plays up immediately and keeps going for quite a while– it’s exciting, memorable, and hauntingly tragic.

This is the only fight in the whole movie that’s firing on all cylinders. There are some interesting beats in the control room, including some more intimate physical work like a disarmed Vader choking Anakin with his robot hand and doing the “why are you hitting yourself?” thing as he tries to turn Kenobi’s own saber against him.

In another cool beat, the two conclude a dazzling series of point-blank blows by trying to simultaneously Force-punch each other, which turns into an impromptu telekinetic wrestle that results in both flying back– odd, because while it’s believable that in a straight duel Obi-Wan’s experience and intimate knowledge of Anakin’s technique might put him on even footing, in a contest of raw strength the Chosen One would surely have the advantage.

Anyway, unfortunately, it’s not long after that an errant strike from Vader manages to hit the “press here to destroy whole chunks of the installation” button on a control panel. And naturally the two Jedi, with their finely-honed instincts and powers of precognition, think that’s the perfect time to venture out from the relative safety of the control room out onto more precarious and crumbling parts of the facility, where they’ll be exposed to the continuous splashing of liquid hot magma. Right.

What follows after could not possibly be more boring. The combatants still take occasional swings at each other but they’re mainly preoccupied with jumping around as pieces of the facility fall down and dodging lava. It’s meant to be spectacular but it’s all just so much green screen sound & fury, signifying nothing. It completely interrupts the flow of the fight and makes this all-important confrontation wind down rather than build up.

“Don’t touch the floor, the floor’s lava!”

Once the erstwhile master & apprentice find a some real estate in the lava river (a floating droid and a chunk of metal with its force field still working, that is. Even still, shouldn’t the proximity to that much heat be enough to kill even a Jedi?) the two have a few more up-close clashes, but nothing near the furious beauty of the fight’s opening. They also talk a little more, and Ewan McGregor gets in his only affecting bit of performance in the entire sequence, if not the whole film: as he tells Anakin that he’s sorry how he failed him, he has the look & sound of a man who’s lost so much he can only laugh grimly at his awful situation. He’s actually smiling as he says it, in a crazy sort of way.

Unfortunately it is soon overshadowed by what’s the worst line that George Lucas ever wrote, indeed one of the worst lines in the history of cinema: when Kenobi declares that Palpatine is evil (hey Obi-Wan, is he ABSOLUTELY evil?), Vader replies, “from my point of view, the Jedi are evil!” Which… gah. That’s not something anyone would say in that situation, in fact it’s not even actual dialogue– it’s an actor reading his script notes out loud (“ANAKIN: 22 years old. Tall. Headstrong. Driven by love to paranoia. From his point of view, the Jedi are evil. Hates sand”). And the movie still can’t decide if Anakin has only joined the dark side on a selfless mission to help Padme, or if he’s genuinely swallowed Palpatine’s silly story about the Sith being misunderstood good guys out to bring order to the galaxy. Neither, of course, matches the Darth Vader we were introduced to in 1977, but of course that’s been off the menu for a while now.

Shortly after this, Obi-Wan spots some safe terrain atop a nearby small hill, and flips to safety. He announces that the fight is over because he has “the high ground” and warns Anakin not to come at him bro.

Vader disregards and tries to flip all the way over Kenobi’s head and directly behind him, but Obi-Wan lunges in and with one quick strike he chops off the other three of Vader’s remaining original limbs, leaving him to tumble down towards the lava and eventually catch fire.

There are so many ways in which this makes no sense. Search throughout the entire previous six movies for a Jedi duel where “the high ground” was a deciding factor in anyone’s victory. Your search will be in vain. In point of fact, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself flipped directly over the head of a ruthless Sith Lord not once but twice back in Episode I, at the beginning of the fight and (even more so) at the end– yes, that’s right, the arrogantly foolish move reduces Anakin to a torso is the same move that Kenobi used to WIN a fight. In fact Anakin himself got away with flipping over Kenobi’s own head (to land on his platform) about a minute before this! Besides that, even if it was a stupid idea, there was plenty of room on that mound for Vader to land on that wouldn’t have put him within his opponent’s striking distance. With all the various listings of Lucas’ faults that populate the Internet, “he doesn’t know how to end a fight” gets a surprisingly small amount of play.

So Obi-Wan chews out his old student one last time, takes his lightsaber and leaves him to die. Others have complained that it was foolish for Kenobi to just assume Vader died rather than finish him off, but given McGregor’s performance the more obvious (and compelling) interpretation is that he’s just too sad and disgusted to even look at Anakin anymore.

And that, of course, is that. The emotional and aesthetic linchpin of the entire Star Wars series ends not with a bang but with an idiotic whimper.

At least there’s this.

As with the Matrix Reloaded’s signature brawl, this duel is a mixed bag. What works REALLY works, but there are so many bad decisions which simply cannot be ignored. This is a 6+ minute fight in which only two minutes contain actual fighting, and the rest are largely filled with scrambling around on CGI backdrops. There’s no excuse for that. It averages out to:

Grade: B

Well, that’s it for Star Wars, unless this blog hangs around until 2015 or so. I wish I could have gotten the more painful-to-review prequel fights out of the way first and followed up by commenting on the glory of the originals, but I suppose that’s sort of fitting.

Coming Attractions: After all this star warring, we’ll unwind with some really, really, ridiculously silly. I won’t give away what it is, though I kind of just did.

Star Wars, Prequel Trilogy (retrospective, part 1 of 2)

Let’s do this.

One character is conspicuously missing from this collage, but I wouldn’t say anyone’s actually *missing* him.

Ah, the Star Wars prequels. They get more hate than they deserve, but the hate they do deserve is more than enough. That animosity out of the way, let’s go ahead and take things as they come.

(Housekeeping note: I tried to do the whole prequel trilogy in one big post, but the verbiage kept spilling out from me. After hitting the three thousand work mark before I was halfway done and seeing that Revenge of the Sith has FIVE fight scenes all on its own, I decided to split this in two, with Episodes ! & II in this post and the next post dedicated to the third. Nobody wants to read a 10,000 word blog post, after all.)

1) Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Maul

“We’ll handle this.”

(Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

The Fighters:

  • Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor.
  • Darth Maul, played by Ray Park. Voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, but he says nothing in this fight.

The Fight: Epic.

It’s hard not to view this fight in the context of its time. Prior to 1999, audiences hadn’t witnessed an on-screen lightsaber fight in about 16 years, and in the intervening time the standards of action film choreography had changed quite a bit– mainstream Western audiences were getting more exposed to hyper-complicated Hong Kong action ballets, for one thing. Plus, as we were reminded endlessly, the Jedi in the prequels would be from a mystical warrior culture in its prime, whereas in the original trilogy the only Force-users were a few over-the-hill remnants and one inexperienced newcomer. For this showdown, Lucas & co had to come out swinging, in more ways than one. (Not the sexy way. Mostly.)

So while it may not have ultimately been the best move to replace Bob Anderson with Nick Gillard as the sword master, it was certainly understandable. Gillard fused together multiple styles of fencing (and other types of swinging movements such as tree-chopping) to create a unique style of Jedi-fighting that was highly energetic and complex. His Jedi are more acrobatic ninjas than they are stately knights.

Speaking of complex, the nature of this fight adds several new wrinkles that hadn’t yet been seen in any main Star Wars media by this point: it involved more than two combatants, it traversed an enormous amount of real estate, and most obviously it introduced (to the screen, anyway) that long-drooled-after bit of fanboy lore, the double-bladed lightsaber. Wouldn’t it have been great if they’d not spoiled that in the trailers and been able to keep it secret until opening night? Ah, a fanboy can dream.

From a narrative standpoint it’s also distinctive for being the first Star Wars duel in which the protagonist(s) and antagonist have zero emotional/dramatic connection, at least not until near the end. This is not old friends or payback or familial redemption; Maul is a bad guy, they’re the good guys, and they’re in each other’s way. Maul doesn’t even talk— he’s a silent assassin, a blunt instrument.

Anyway, as to the fight itself, though time & repetition (I personally must have watched this close to a hundred times, including eight screenings in the theater. Yes, eight. You wanna make something of it?) have worn away some of its initial impact and revealed some of its flaws, it’s still a very entertaining & dynamic battle. And it’s still easy to see why it came off as enough concentrated awesome so as to mitigate the disappointment and head-scratchings of much of the preceding 100-some minutes.

The performers really do some excellent work executing Gillard’s hyper-detailed choreography. Liam Neeson (a GFS Hall of Famer for Rob Roy alone) is huge and powerful, while McGregor’s Kenobi is all wiry speed. But Ray Park’s Darth Maul is unquestionably the star here– the fact that he didn’t went on to be an actual movie star after this film and has rarely been put to good use since is something I’ll never forgive Hollywood for. Seriously, is it THAT hard to think up 90 minutes’ worth of scenarios for Ray Park to kick ass in? “Well, you know, he’s not a very good actor.” Oh, but Steven Seagal was?

Ahem. Point is, absent that aforementioned dramatic resonance, this fight had to succeed all the more on a purely kinetic level, and it’s Darth Maul who sells the scale of the threat here. Maul is fast, strong, and lithe like a snake. His overall design is a pointed contrast to everyone’s favorite Sith Lord, much more animalistic and primal (he’s got a painted face and freaking horns, for crying out loud) instead of Vader’s effortless, streamlined menace. And as portrayed by Park he is, while still tactically smart, a guy who wears his fury & aggression on his sleeve. The dude is a big scary bully and he fights angry.

Another key ingredient is the famous Duel of the Fates, John Williams’ specially composed orchestra/choir piece for the film– itself another unusual take for Star Wars. It was heavily promoted at the time and was run into the ground by Lucas afterwards, but like the rest of the much-revisited fight it still retains an elemental power that helps sell the scale of the conflict here, even cut up & re-arranged as it is.

The scene’s real problems come from its staging and plot contrivances. It begins in a hangar deck and Maul soon takes the initiative to move it (in a nice detail many don’t see the first time around, he Force-grabs a battle droid’s arm and uses it to activate a door switch) to more restricted quarters since presumably the open environment offers him little advantage against two opponents. All fine. But as soon as the combatants move through the door they’re in this enormous chamber, maybe 30 stories or more deep, with at least three levels of catwalks and some sort of giant towering reactors. Why are these enormous reactors sharing space with the fighter bay? Is it really safe to collocate your energy reactors with your military assets? (Fortunately for the people of Naboo, the Trade Federation had a similar design philosophy: their ships had their “shoot here to blow up the whole ship” power core about a hundred feet from the docking bay.) The climactic duel of Empire took place in a similarly cavernous installation, but that more or less made sense because Cloud City was established as a mining colony and its structures were designed to harvest the abundant gas below– the fight even took place in an industrial area because that’s where the freezing equipment Vader needed was. Here the audience has no sense of what this place is. It doesn’t flow organically out of the story, it’s merely there because it needs to be there.

Even more egregious is the bizarre contrivance in the latter portion of the fight, the hallway full of force fields that turn off & on at set intervals. These force fields serve no apparent practical function; as a young fanboy I tried to convince myself that they were for slowly venting gases out at staggered times, whereas Terry Brooks’ crappy novelization mentioned that they served a security purpose, which makes even less sense (wouldn’t they just stay on constantly in that case?). They exist purely as a plot device to get Qui-Gon killed– specifically, to get him killed in such a way that it happens while he’s separated from Obi-Wan and the apprentice must look on, able-bodied but helpless to stop it. It’s frankly like something a child would make up.

The way it finally resolves is pretty dumb, too. It’s a cool idea to try to have Kenobi win by using his brain rather than simply getting in a lucky blow in the middle of normal combat, but it’s inexcusable the way Maul stands there like a dumbass for as long as Obi-Wan takes many long seconds to lift himself out of the pit he’s trapped in, then land, and THEN slice him in half. *I* wouldn’t have that slow of a reaction time, and I’m not a mystical psychic space ninja monster.

Contrivances aside, the action itself is, despite all its frenetic complexity, seriously flawed when given close examination. How bothersome that is I’ll leave up to you; it’s not like the Star Wars movies were known for their accuracy in fencing technique before this. And this one is spliced up even worse than worse than ROTJ, because between the duel, the Gungan ground war, Padme infiltrating the palace, and the space battle, this movie has a four-front climax. Let it never be said that George Lucas is unambitious, but the Jedi fight is unquestionably far more interesting than anything else happening simultaneously, so cutting away from it is rarely helpful.

Also, there are three (3) separate occasions where Maul kicks Kenobi right in the face. He’s probably got the manufacturer’s logo tattooed in his brain by now.

Grade: B+

2) Obi-Wan and Anakin vs Count Dooku

“Surely you can do better!”

“Yes I can and don’t call me Shirley”

(Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor.
  • Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen.
  • Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus, played by acting legend Christopher Lee.

Come to think of it, no first name for Dooku is ever given, and you have to wonder exactly what kind of royalty he is considering that Force-sensitive babies are taken by the Jedi Order at birth. I really wish he went by his Sith moniker “Tyranus” more, because (and this is running theme) “Count Dooku” sounds like a name a child made up. Though not as much as “Dexter Jettster” does.

(You’ll notice I skipped all the chaos in the arena, because the monster stuff is a very weird type of “fight” and after all the reinforcements arrive it becomes more of a war sequence than anything. I also skipped the pretty good confrontation with Jango Fett on Kamino because come on, do you want to be here all day?)

Is it just me or does Hayden have freakily long arms? And shouldn’t he be WAY taller than Kenobi?

The Fight: It’s really less Obi-Wan and Anakin vs Dooku than it is Obi-Wan then Anakin vs Dooku, since little orphan Annie rushes in out the outset like a moron and gets zapped by a healthy dose of Force lightning, taking him out of commission for a few minutes. Kenobi is left alone to face Dooku, his master’s master, alone. Tyranus tries the same zap attack on Obi-Wan, but the latter casually blocks it just by holding his lightsaber in the way. This scene was only the second time we’d seen Force lightning on screen in the Star Wars universe, so it was something of a surprise to find it could be deflected so easily, and somewhat disappointing, too.

Obi-Wan’s time with Dooku is characterized by a series of short, intense clashes, and even though blow-for-blow Kenobi seems to doing well until the end, McGregor’s performance show that he’s struggling just to keep up. Dooku relishes it, too, leering at him evilly as he encourages the younger man to “do better.” And sure enough, it’s not long before he’s able to dart in and give Kenobi a couple incapacitating (but non-maiming, curiously; he just scoops out a chunk of flesh from two limbs) wounds.

He gets stopped at the last second by the intervention of a revived Anakin. Their short exchange is one of the few examples of genuinely successful, snappy dialogue in the entire film, if not the whole prequel trilogy:

DOOKU: “Brave of you, boy. But I would have thought you had learned your lesson.”

ANAKIN: “I am a slow learner.”

Nothing major, but a nice little smartass retort, and it works extra because it plays off the resentment the audience has built for Anakin’s impulsive, stubborn characterization over the course of the past 2 hours. Curiously, the shooting script simply has the slightly but significantly different line “I’m a slow learner”– with that contraction, any emphasis on the sentence would have to go to a different word, which I don’t think would work as well. It’s entirely possible that the ad lib was made by Christensen, who I think gets a bad rap; he’s a good actor in the right role, and the problems with Anakin’s characterization are due more to the script than to him. Ever see Shattered Glass? It’s pretty awesome for a movie with zero fight scenes.

Sorry, back to business. Kenobi throws his padawan (I trust I’m not the only one who never cared for that word) his own lightsaber, and for a few brief seconds Anakin is able to push Dooku back with the extra blade. But his green saber gets destroyed almost as soon as he gets it, so it’s back down to one. Not sure why two swords would always be better than one, anyway; it’s an entirely different fighting discipline altogether (“it’s an entirely different fighting discipline”) and even if two were always better than one, wouldn’t every Jedi carry two?

“I’ll shatter YOUR glass, old man!”
“… what?”

Anyway, Anakin seems to conduct himself even better than his master did, having several long and fluid exchanges with the Sith Lord. The filmmaking gets a bit fancy here, too, after Anakin cuts open a grounded power cable, sparks start flying intermittently out of the ground and lower the light level in the pair’s portion of the hangar. A good chunk of the two’s fight is then shot in an alternating close-ups of their faces, lit only by their swirling blades. It’s really cool-looking, and a very artistic way to work around Christopher Lee’s advanced age (79 at the time).

But even the Chosen One is no match for Gandalf’s boss, who he darts in with a swipe that cuts off Anakin’s hand, and Force-punches him into a heap on top of Kenobi. Lee’s performance after doing so is… interesting. He sags his shoulders and drops his face, looking not so much tired from effort as he does resigned and disappointed. Is he sad about being forced to kill two promising young folks, or bummed that the challenging combat he seems to relish is over so soon, or is he planning on letting them live and trying to look conflicted for the heroes’ benefit so as to better build on the doubts he planted in Kenobi’s mind earlier? If that’s the latter one, that makes no sense, because it’s pretty clear he’s down with the dark side rather than being a well-meaning political dissenter; I mean, even Jefferson Davis didn’t have a red lightsaber and throw out Force lightning.

An enigmatic decision on the actor’s part, or confused direction from Lucas? We may never know. Regardless, Dooku doesn’t have long alone with his thoughts, because a certain little green man ambles into the room shortly after.

This is all very likable, all those nagging issues aside. It’s a great contrast to TPM’s climactic fight– a battle that doesn’t betray the new type of Jedi aesthetic established for the new trilogy but still gives a different type of experience. This is no epic duel of the fates, just a quick & dirty domination by a classy villain. Even though he’s body-doubled a lot (most of the more demanding physical work is done in very wide shots to hide this), Christopher Lee is a welcome addition to the world of Star Wars: it’s a world that is patently ridiculous and is quite often stiffly-written, so “naturalistic” acting is rarely comfortable there. Old-school hams with a sense of the absurd and the theatrical, such as Lee &  his old Hammer compatriot Peter Cushing back in ’77, are a much better fit. He also makes a nice halfway point between Maul and Vader.

Grade: B+

3) Yoda vs Count Dooku

“Much to learn, you still have.”

(Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

The Fighters:

  • Yoda, played by CGI and voiced by Frank Oz, may he live forever.
  • Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus, played by Christopher Lee.

“Cut a bitch, Yoda will have to.”

The Fight: Yoda hobbles in and Darth Tyranus wastes no time picking up pieces of the scenery– machinery off the walls and large chunks of ceiling– and throwing them at the funny old master. Yoda calmly deflects it all, not even attempting to counter. When Dooku upgrades to Force lightning, the great warrior (even though wars do not make one great) returns that to sender just as easily, and finishes off by apparently absorbing the rest of it. Neat trick, but it loses some of its oomph now that we’ve seen just how easy it is to defeat that lightning if you have a lightsaber.

“Showing off, I am.”

Still, Lucas manages to sell the gravity of this showdown, and the titanic power of the two foes. It had been more than 20 years since the diminutive sage had first burst on the scene and impressed audiences with only hints of his once-great power– so much so that we inevitably wondered just what the little green muppet had been capable of back in his heyday. And this is basically what many of us would have guessed it would look like: Yoda coolly standing his ground and unleashing a cosmic whoopass with simple humility.

Lee’s aforementioned ability to navigate his way through ridiculousness comes in handy when he says the line that switches the nature of the fight: “It is obvious that this contest cannot be settled by our knowledge of the Force… but by our skills with a lightsaber.” Egads, seriously? That may be one of the most clunky and awkward lines ever written. It reads like the Jedi-fied version of something you’d hear in a B-list high school comedy from the ’80s, spoken by a snooty English-lit teacher who uses twenty big words when five short words would suffice. Granted, Count Dooku isn’t as flippant as John McClane but surely there could have been a quicker & better way to say this– something like “It seems we’ll have to settle this the old-fashioned way.”

But again, it’s a testament to Lee’s skill that he doesn’t come off like a total goon saying it. And the subsequent slow-pan around Yoda as he draws his own lightsaber is SO awesome. As much flack as Lucas gets for not understanding what his fans want, there are times he definitely knows how to play to the crowd.

Because as droolworthy an idea as Yoda engaging in a massive Force-struggle is, Yoda whipping out a lightsaber and swinging away was always a mind-blower. We wondered how would that even work, given the character’s aloof persona, frailty, and tiny size. The solution chosen by Lucas and co was ballsy, reckless, or some combination of the two: Yoda’s fighting style turned out to be a completely unexpected method involving blinding speed and hyperactive acrobatics, much of it using his small size as an asset.

“A butterfly, I float like.”

The result certainly blew everyone away at first (the opening screenings I went to were filled with delighted gasps and shouts of joy), but as with the then-mind-blowing duel capping off TPM, time may not have been kind to it since. Some have unfavorably compared Yoda’s constant flipping to Sonic the Hedgehog’s arcing jumps, and it’s hard not to see that. Still, it was certainly a daring and unexpected choice. Though I would have liked to see more actual fencing and less flipping.

Just as the fight winds down and we get the revelation that Yoda was Dooku’s old master, the latter decides to cut and run by dropping a huge pillar on Obi-Wan & Anakin, which Yoda has to stay behind and push off. A disappointing end to a shocking and epic fight.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: We find out why Revenge of the Sith makes for a fitting acronym.

Shhhhhh, it’s okay, Natalie. Just make out with Mila and people will forget.