Pacific Rim (fight 1 of 5)

“Remakes, adaptations, and sequels, that’s all Hollywood does now,” complain the same crowds who declined to see last year’s Pacific Rim, a genuinely new intellectual property which Legendary Studios gambled a ton of money on. You can’t both whine about Hollywood only making safe bets on established franchises while simultaneously refusing to check out a new thing because you don’t know what it is.

I know what THIS is. It's awesome.

I know what THIS is. It’s awesome.

Pacific Rim is an odd & frustrating movie, though. Its flaws are glaring: Despite the bold & unusual step (in an era where we’re bombarded by origin stories) of beginning the movie late in a pre-existing conflict, it nevertheless feels like the sequel to a movie that never existed. It has gaping plot holes and people making nonsensical decisions. It grounds its more interesting characters & designs in the background and then dispenses with them too early. Its whole middle section is almost entirely free of action. It clearly foreshadows thuddingly obvious plot points, then delivers them like they’re huge revelations. Pretty much all its fights take place at night and many in or under water that it’s often hard to see what’s going on. And its willful adoption of nearly every cliche in the book (it openly steals from many films, but none more egregiously so than Independence Day) alternates between amusing and disappointing. Despite what some of its more ardent supporters claim, it’s not the next Star Wars… but with a little tweaking, maybe it could have been.

But what works about it works SO well. The action scenes are astounding in their inventiveness & scale. The designs and special effects are similarly outstanding, born out of a clear yet professional love of their inspirations. The actors are well-cast and clearly having a grand time of it; between their efforts and a pretty sharp script, that aforementioned draggy middle never comes anywhere near the teeth-grinding tedium of Michael Bay’s non-action filler. (Another reason why this movie’s dismissal as “ugh, just another Transformers” by the masses is so irritating– it’s more like what Transformers SHOULD have been.)

Though even Perlman couldn’t have saved Transformers.

So, anyway, Pacific Rim. Giant robots vs giant monsters, Voltrons vs Godzillas. In concept it’s a child’s notebook doodles brought to life, yet it executes with a winning mixture of straight-faced solemnity and wicked playfulness. What does all that clanging & smashing come down to?

[A note on the final grades here, which will also explain why this film’s fans are so willing to overlook its disappointments: I grade all fights based on how well they work as fights, and in Pacific Rim, like most movies, some fights are not as good as others. But a “pretty good” fight of giant robots against giant monsters isn’t exactly the same as a “pretty good” fight of, say, Tony Jaa beating up a bunch of anonymous stunt men. Not sure if you’d call it a grading curve or what, just something to keep in mind.]

1) Gipsy Danger vs Knifehead

The Fighters:

  • Gipsy Danger, our main “jaeger” (German for “hunter,” the film helpfully explains) as they call their giant robots here. Though one of the least visually distinctive machines in the movie, Gipsy still cuts a striking figure as a lean blue sentinel of justice. Despite being an earlier model, Gipsy is still plenty dangerous. Each of its hands can shift into enormous cannons capable of firing a handful (ahem) of deadly plasma bursts, though it takes a few moments to charge up. But Gipsy’s main offensive power is in direct physical combat, with blows administered by its skilled pilots. The unusual spelling of the somewhat un-PC term “gypsy” is apparently a reference to the de Havilland Gipsy engine.
    • Piloted by: Yancy and Raleigh Beckett, two American brothers cocky from their four confirmed kaiju (Japanese for “giant monster,” more or less) kills thus far. They’re talented but their rash attitudes & egos are about to get them in over their heads. Played by Diego Klattenhoff and Charlie Hunnam, respectively.
  • Knifehead, which is not its real name, if it even has one; all kaiju titles are assigned by some unseen person at UN HQ or whatever, mostly for tracking purposes. The reason behind each name is not always obvious, but this one’s pretty on the nose– specifically, Knifehead’s nose, as the top of his head is one super-elongated snout that comes to a sharp point. He also has extra-long arms with large claws at the end, and is apparently the first to exhibit anything resembling advanced tactics. It’s also big, ugly, and mean, but that describes literally every kaiju. Another thing the beasts have in common, unfortunately: while each is neat-looking, none really have anywhere near the iconic design or “personality” of the classic Toho B-movies that inspired them. But to be fair, what does?

“Hey, I got personality falling out my ASS, blog-nerd!”

The Setup: At the sign of a new kaiju winding its way toward the 49th state, the Beckett brothers are roused to duty and sent to guard the coastline and keep it away from Anchorage. Their commander, Stacker Pentecost (a name so ridiculous it makes the actor’s, Idris Elba, look bland in comparison), orders the boys to hold back closer to land and wait for the beast to come near, rather than intervening to save a small fishing boat caught in its path (“Your orders are to save a city of two million people!” he intones, which means a LOT more folks must move there in the future because the entire state of Alaska currently boasts less than half that). They don’t go into why not, though presumably it’s because the kaiju has the edge in deeper waters. Apparently the novelization goes into more detail about the tactical advantage of the “miracle mile.”

Grinning mischievously, the brothers decide to be Big Damn Heroes and go save the boat anyway. The film cuts away from Gipsy’s slow march into the water and takes us to the ship, the SS Saltchuck, getting buffeted pretty hard by storm waters even before Knifehead rises menacingly from the ocean. But shortly after, Gipsy Danger, accompanied by the soundtrack’s trademark Inception BWAAAAMP, arises on the opposite side of the monster. Without so much as a “come with me if you want to live,” the robot plucks the endangered ship out of the water. If not for the courage of the fearless jaeger crew, the Saltchuck would be lost. The Saltchuck would be lost.

"Don't worry, it'll just be a three-hour tour."

“Don’t worry, it’ll just be a three-hour tour.”

Even as our heroes cradle the (comparatively) tiny ship, it’s time for the fight to get down to business.

The Fight: From a far distance, Knifehead uses his long arm to take a swipe at Gipsy Danger, but only grazes the robot’s back as it leans down to put the Saltchuck out of the way. As soon as the ship is safe, Gipsy retaliates with a few punches, the second of which doubles the kaiju over. Gipsy then raises both hands up high and slams them down together on top of Knifehead’s, uh, knife-like head.

As Wayne Campbell would say: "So it's not just a clever name."

As Wayne Campbell would say: “So it’s not just a clever name.”

The monster is hurt but not badly, and tries to lunge in with a chomp to Gipsy’s face, which the robot blocks and instead gives Knifehead a mouth full of wrist. The heroes are able to wrench themselves free and hit the kaiju with two shots of plasma, the second of which sends it flying back into the water.

After Knifehead doesn’t emerge for like ten whole seconds, the brothers stupidly assume it’s dead and crow about their “victory” to Pentecost, who is irritated at them for disobeying orders. Sure enough, HQ starts picking up the monster’s signal again, moving too stealthily underwater for Gipsy to find. Before the boys can retreat, Knifehead suddenly jumps out from the waves and gets real close to the jaeger. Gipsy pushes it away and tries to charge up another plasma shot, but the kaiju pushes the blaster down with one long arm, then lunges in head-first at Gipsy’s shoulder. Knifehead’s ugly noggin cuts right through the robot’s left arm, leaving it useless and sending Raleigh (who controlled that hemisphere) into painful convulsions. Immediately after, the beast comes back in and yanks the arm all the way off, finishing the job.

With Gipsy’s capabilities degraded and its pilots scrambling to react, Knifehead presses its advantage, getting in even closer and putting its claw right through the machine’s visor.

Should have used the Three Stooges Defense.

Even the Three Stooges Defense couldn’t have stopped this.

Even as Yancy tries to form a plan, Knifehead tears all the way through and unceremoniously yanks him right out of his virtual seat. We never explicitly see the older Beckett’s final fate, but, well, you can guess.

Raleigh, meanwhile, is left not just with grief and panic, but has to handle Gipsy’s functions all alone– a task supposedly insurmountable for the “neural bandwidth” of a single mind. He screams as the kaiju goes Gipsy through the chest, then slams the seemingly helpless robot against an iceberg, tearing & biting into even more of its innards. (If you spoke kaiju you’d know that Knifehead’s roars here were a Tony Stark impression: “This looks important!”)

Fortunately, the kaiju’s gleeful destruction seem to distract it long enough for Raleigh to slowly activate the plasma cannon on the remaining arm and fire it at close range.

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With that, the film cuts away and HQ announces that the plasma blast has cut off radio contact, leaving Gipsy/Raleigh’s fate in the dark. At least until a few minutes later (but the next morning in the movie), when we see Gipsy stumble and fall onto a barren Alaska beach. Though considering Raleigh’s been narrating for like the first ten minutes of the movie, you probably could have guessed he survived.

There is not a lot to this fight–there are few moves involved, the action stays in one small area, etc– but it sets the stage pretty solidly for what’s to come. Though it’s clearly inspired by previous monster movies, Power Ranger-type shows & animes, and superficially resembles the action in Transformers films, the combat in Pacific Rim is something new entirely. There’s a truly gratifying sense of heft, a kind of slow & lumbering grace befitting their size and strength. It’s Big Dumb done smart.

Also, even as we see the sheer power of the jaegers, we simultaneously learn just how precarious victory is in a fight like this. Just as in a real fight between humans, one small miscalculation can be the difference between life & death. Only here, the stakes are much higher. And bigger.

“Big” is the operative word here. This is not a great fight (it’s just setting the baseline), but it is a big one. Just about everything Pacific Rim does is done enormously if not perfectly: the size and the loudness are rarely so awesome as they are in this film. And while that sounds easy– just turn all dials to the max and you’re good to go!– it really isn’t. As countless blockbusters and would-be blockbusters have taught us, you can have all the money in the world to pour into special effects, but if you can’t put it together skillfully and can’t put some real weight behind it, everything eventually dissolves into just so much bland noise.

But not here. Here, the dials really do go to eleven.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: We hardly knew ye.

Only the cool ‘bots die young.

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The Raid: Redemption (fight 5 of 5)

BOSS FIGHT!!!

And he has SO many hit points.

And he has SO many hit points.

5) Rama & Andi vs Mad Dog

The Fighters:

  • Rama, our hero. Played by Iko Uwais.
  • Andi, Rama’s brother and long-time black sheep of the family. Rama didn’t know he’d be there until he saw the pre-mission intel, and came determined to bring him out alive. Though physically formidable he’s more of an administrative/brains-type guy of the villain’s operation, and having something of a conscience he’s done what he can to minimize unnecessary brutality. Played by Donny Alamsyah.
  • Mad Dog, the crime lord’s top enforcer and the real physical threat of the movie (the villain Tama will, spoiler, soon be unceremoniously shot by Wahyu). One of the few characters in this movie whose name is more than four letters. Played by Yayan Ruhian.

The Setup: Fresh off their victory in the drug lab, the protagonists ascend up to Tama’s lair on the 15th floor. But on the way, Rama sees something that makes him stop and let the others move on without him: his brother, tied up in the center of a dank room, getting pounded like a sack of meat by Mad Dog. What Rama didn’t know until now is that Andi’s employer had discovered his aid of Rama, and has sicced Mad Dog on him as punishment/interrogation.

He wordlessly enters and stares down the villain. Mad Dog stops his slow torture of Andi, releases him from the ceiling-suspended chain and allows the brothers a brief reunion as he cranks up the winch he’d been suspending his target with. Then he approaches the two and gestures for them to step aside, positioning himself so that he’s directly between them.

Because, you know, otherwise it would have been too easy.

Because, you know, otherwise it would have been too easy.

Nobody needs to say anything, everyone knows what’s about to happen. Now, consider that Rama is still exhausted from his last three epic fights, and Andi has been stabbed through one hand and steadily beaten for a good while. Mad Dog, meanwhile, though he did have a nasty showdown with Jaka a while back, is fresher than either of them. On the other hand, there are two of them… but back on the first hand, this IS Mad Dog. So this is a lot less uneven than you’d think.

After a brief standoff, everybody gets down to business.

The Fight: Pure insanity. Emphasis on both words, because while the fight is certainly all kinds of crazy, it really is pure (well, nearly enough) in the sense that it is almost entirely unadorned by weapons, the environment, fancy tricks or outside interference. It’s just three warriors in a small room, trying very hard to kill each other.

It’s also of epic length: well over five minutes. That’s an eternity in fight scene time, especially in one that’s completely free of aforementioned adornment and has no changes of scenery. (There’s one brief cutaway early on to the Wahyu’s doings, but I’m not counting that towards this fight’s run time.) If the Jaka/Mad Dog duel was a breathless sprint, this one is a grueling marathon.

As with many battles of its ilk, recapping the exact goings-on would be a fool’s errand. Suffice it to say that despite it basically being five minutes of the same thing over & over, this fight never gets boring, and in fact only gets better as it goes on. Somehow it keeps staying fresh and diverse.

Rama & Andi make an effective team, sometimes getting the better of Mad Dog individually and sometimes overwhelming him by their superior number (or one hitting him while he’s engaged with the other). Given the lightning-fast nature of the battle there’s obviously not much time for the brothers to plan out any teamwork, but they do have a few good moments of improvised cooperation. My favorite is probably when Rama flings Mad Dog about by his leg and a downed Andi adds to the throw’s force with a kick to the chest.

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When Mad Dog gets back up and has to defend himself against both brothers attacking him head-on while slowly backing towards the door, Evans films it in a really striking head-on shot of Mad Dog where all you can see of the two heroes is their limbs. It’s where the still from the top of the article came from.

But the villain gives more than as good as he gets, several times managing to overpower the brothers even when they do combine their efforts. And most of the fight he only has to engage with one of them at a time, since he keeps putting each one down with such ferocity that they’re slow to rise and help the other.

After a while the intense & exciting music steadily grows more, as we can see Mad Dog slowly wearing out his two opponents. Andi goes down hard when he’s slammed stomach first into a large metal box (air-conditioning unit or some such, probably) and shortly after that Rama takes a dive when the villain flips him all the way over in the air– before he lands, he goes so high his feet smash into one of the ceiling’s long fluorescent light tubes. (This will be important shortly.)

With both his foes reduced to writhing on the ground in pain, Mad Dog makes the same face we saw him make earlier, just before he killed Jaka. Uh oh.

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You don’t ever want to be in the room when Mad Dog makes this face. Actually, you just don’t ever want to be in the room with Mad Dog.

He decides to start with Rama, the more dangerous of the two and the one he’d been unsuccessfully hunting for most of the movie. As he pulls the hero up and lays hands on his neck, a dazed Andi sees a broken shard of fluorescent tube on the ground nearby. He crawls slowly to it, seizes it, pulls back Mad Dog’s head from behind and stabs him right in the side of the neck with it. Owwwwww….

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Improbably, this only seems to make Mad Dog MORE angry. He drops Rama and beats Andi mercilessly, and even starts slamming his head into the floor. Rama tries to interrupt but he gets a beating too, and almost nearly takes a probably-fatal elbow to the chest before Andi jumps back in and blocks it.

This last bit of teamwork seems to have worn down Mad Dog enough (he may be losing blood from the stab wound) that Rama is able to get around him and put his arm in a lock so that he can break it with a swift hand strike. Without missing a beat, the hero glides back around to the other side and breaks the other.

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With the villain now far less able to defend himself, Rama whips around and delivers a series of rapid-fire punches to Mad Dog’s chest. Then he spins him around and delivers a really hard knee to the chest, possibly breaking some more bones. That’s two snaps, a crackle AND a pop, I believe.

Mad Dog doesn’t have much time to worry about seeking medical attention, though, because Rama immediately slams him to the ground and holds him down by the shoulders. Andi crawls over and pins down his legs for good measure. Rama grabs the still-embedded (!) light bulb shard, and slowly drags it all the way across the villain’s twitching throat. It’s SO gross, but with a guy like Mad Dog you have to pull out all the stops. Hell, if I were them I’d go on to decapitate him, then cut his body into fifths and bury the pieces in separate continents. You know, just to be sure.

I mean, at least try setting him on fire.

I mean, at least try setting his body on fire. Are you SURE he’s not a vampire?

This is absolutely phenomenal. It may not be the best all-around fight in The Raid, but it’s exactly the kind of epic, adrenaline-soaked, balls-to-the-wall note this kind of movie needed to end with. If there is any true flaw it’s that the introduction of the bulb shard is a bit of a cheat, interrupting the purity of the fight. But it’s such a desperate struggle by then that it’s hard to begrudge the heroes for pulling out all the stops, and besides, Mad Dog still kicks their asses for a little while after the initial stabbing; they don’t actually kill him with it until he’s already pretty much lost anyway.

More than ever, you can really register the exhaustion and the desperation of the combatants. The quasi-realism the movie employs thus makes Mad Dog’s nearly superhuman ability to withstand punishment all the more impressive. A truly epic end to a truly epic movie. Gareth Evans, you are the chosen one.

Grade: A+

Recommended Links: Don’t forget to check out the trailer for Berandal, next year’s sequel to The Raid. Apparently Rama goes undercover so he can beat even MORE criminals to death. UPDATE: Trailer #2!

Coming Attractions: BWAAAAAAAAAAAAMP

Shadows of the Colossi