The Last of the Mohicans (fight 2 of 2)

Don’t mess with the old man.

Or he'll Chingach-get ya.

Or he’ll Chingach-get ya.

2) Magua vs The Mohicans

The Fighters:

  • Chingachgook, the Mohican elder. Played by Russell Means.
    • Armed with: Gunstock war club, same as before.
  • Uncas, the young Mohican brave. Played by Eric Schweig.
    • Armed with: Knife and rifle. Later he grabs a tomahawk.
  • Magua, the spiteful villain. Played by Wes Studi.
    • Armed with: Tomahawk and knife.

Magua is also leading a party of about a dozen Huron subordinates. Hawkeye is on hand but mostly just shoots down the cannon fodder.

The Setup: After having successfully killed Colonel Munro, Magua captures his daughters Cora & Alice (and Duncan too), then takes them back to a Huron village. Hawkeye arrives unexpectedly and tries to sway the local chief to have the girls set free. The sachem reaches a Solomonic compromise: have one daughter burned at the stake as repayment for Magua’s suffering, and have him take the other as his wife to heal his heart. This’d be an awkward arrangement for all involved, one would think.

Hawkeye tries to put himself in Cora’s stead (the sacrifice thing, not the wife thing), but Duncan, knowing that Bumppo stands a better chance than he at getting Cora to safety and rescuing Alice (and also finally accepting that Cora loves Hawkeye, not him), offers himself, which the chief accepts. Team Hawkeye leaves with Cora and, once they get far enough away, Natty use his rifle to perform a mercy killing on the burning Duncan to end his suffering.

This delay ends up staggering the party as they pursue Alice. Between his fleet-footedness and his own desire for Alice’s safety (the pair have been having their own quiet, parallel romance throughout the film), Uncas catches up to Magua at a scenic cliffside path far ahead of his father & brother. This will prove unwise.

See all those bad guys? It's called "wait for backup," smart guy.

See all those bad guys? It’s called “wait for backup,” genius.

 The Fight: Uncas moves so fast he actually gets ahead of Magua’s convoy, and ambushes the lead man by popping out from around a corner he was approaching. He cuts his way through several Huron warriors using a combination of guns and brute force. He finally gets to Magua, who greets the challenge with his own knife and tomahawk at the ready.

They clash, and Uncas makes crippling mistakes early on– he goes up against Magua too close, and isn’t ready for Magua’s craftiness. Whenever the villain blocks Uncas’ axe with his own, his other hand darts in and uses his knife to get several small but damaging slices on the kid’s torso. After this happens two or three times, Magua falls back to higher ground, and Uncas can immediately tell the seriousness of his wounds.

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Whether through remaining recklessness or a Hail Mary attempt to finish things before he loses even more blood, Uncas refuses to let up. He clumsily shoves in closer to Magua, and the two end up tussling around on the surface of a flat rock. Magua again gets the upper hand and takes Uncas’ knife. This happens in wide shot and Mann doesn’t show us what happens immediately after– he cuts back to Hawkeye & Chingachgook in frantic pursuit, and Alice watching from nearby, crying & turning away as she can already see how this ends.

When the action comes back, Uncas is still on the ground, perhaps wounded more, and Magua is standing warily just a few feet away. Interestingly, the villain doesn’t take the opportunity to strike immediately, even though he easily could because Uncas takes a long time to rise unsteadily to his feet, leaving himself wide open. Magua’s giving him the chance to die honorably, on his feet.

Uncas tries to lunge in one last time, but Magua easily intercepts and stabs him in the side. He spins the Mohican around and plunges the knife in deeper, finishing the job.

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Uncas cries out in pain, but there’s no real malice or gloating in Magua’s wordless execution– just cold, calculating efficiency. It’s rough stuff: Uncas was a likeable and noble co-protagonist, and it’s fairly horrifying to watch him die in helpless agony. Magua finally lets the boy go, and pushes him down the cliff.

Too late and too far away to help, Chingachgook is still close enough to see his son die. In a heartbreaking slow-motion shot, we see him scream in grief & protest, but his voice isn’t heard, drowned out instead by the unrelenting music. Russell Means’ haunted face does the job well enough on its own.

As the war party starts to pack back up again, Alice steps away from her captors, looking over the cliff side where her friend had just fallen. The villain confusedly beckons her to come back, and she quietly considers: a quick death alongside her love, or a life with Magua as her husband?

She makes the right call.

Good call.

Magua and his flunkies move on, but soon the good guys catch up with them, this time from the rear. Father & adopted son work quite well together to break through, with Chingachgook acting as the tip of the spear and Hawkeye supporting him from just behind with gunfire. Indeed, the old man is a single-minded engine of destruction, cutting through Hurons while barely slowing down.

Magua welcomes the new challenge, and the old warrior charges right at him. He ducks & rolls under Magua’s opening swing and, in one smooth movement, springs back up and bludgeons his foe in the back with his war club. Magua tries to counter-attack but the Mohican cuts it off prematurely by striking the swinging arm at the elbow. As Magua reels in pain, Chingachgook smashes his other arm, rendering both limbs useless.

Thankfully, Magua doesn't try to continue using the "Black Knight" offense

Thankfully, Magua doesn’t try to continue using the “Monty Python Black Knight” offense

In just a few quick seconds, Magua has been completely shut down, left with nothing to do but stand there in awkward confusion. With victory assured, Chingachgook gives Magua an odd look: not vengeful or satisfied, just disgusted. With one mighty swing, the last of the Mohicans buries the sharp end of his club in Magua’s gut, and leaves him where he falls.

This is a great movie, but during its final stretch it enters another realm entirely. As soon as Duncan Heyward is tied up for his funeral pyre, a beautiful & haunting composition begins on the film’s soundtrack, and doesn’t let up until Magua dies. It often rises and falls in response to the on-screen activity… but it sometimes doesn’t, which in its way is even more affecting. It occasionally drowns out other sounds, most memorably resulting in Chingachgook’s silent scream, but the whole sequence is already virtually dialogue-free, featuring only one spoken word (Hawkeye calling out Uncas’ name after seeing him fall). It plays out almost like a silent movie.

The choreography is effective enough, but there’s relatively little complexity or traditional suspense in it. It’s all rather straightforward: Magua kills Uncas with little difficulty, then Chingachgook kills Magua with even less. But the way everything is handled– the music, the gorgeous backdrop, the various charged emotions that begin with Heyward’s awe-inspiring sacrifice, the ugliness of Uncas’ death and the bittersweet payback for it– combine to create an experience that’s far more than the sum of its parts, let alone the sum of just its punches, kicks and stabs. This is a straight battle that’s legitimately exciting but it’s also something lyrical, almost beautiful. Once again we’re reminded that it’s not just fights being graded here but fight scenes— the cinematic language is often just as important as the choreography. And this movie’s definitely speaking my language.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: Yo ho ho.

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The Last of the Mohicans (fight 1 of 2)

All right: for real now, we’ll ditch superheroes for a while.

It's not even going to come flying back at him like Mjolnir.

It’s not even going to come flying back at him like Mjolnir.

The Last of the Mohicans, a throwback to old-style epic Hollywood filmmaking but with a new(-ish) gloss & polish. It’s a rare gem that’s both artfully elegant and genuinely exciting, thanks in large part to the lyrical direction of the Michael Mann– frustratingly unpredictable as ever.  It’s even got a star turn from the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis, from the period when he was just a very talented & handsome leading man and not a Mind-Blowing Super Actor with a yen for purloined milkshakes.

Let’s not get into the film’s historical inaccuracies. It’s a Hollywood action movie which is loosely based on an old book which itself was only loosed based on then-recent history; we’re quite a few layers away from “reality,” here. Also: I’m hardly the most politically correct guy in the world, but I’ll try to tread respectfully with regards to terms used to describe the story’s native characters.

1) Huron Ambush

The Fighters:

  • Hawkeye, aka Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo, a British citizen who was raised by the vanishing Mohican tribe after being orphaned at a young age. Hawkeye (in Fenimore Cooper’s other stories he accumulates an impressive number of additional nicknames, including Long Rifle, Deerslayer, Leatherstocking, Pathfinder, etc) is an excellent tracker, and is unparalleled in marksmanship. Played by Daniel Day-Lewis.
    • Armed with: A tomahawk/short axe and a Pennsylvania Flintlock Rifle. (Note this is not a musket as previously indicated; as a commenter points out, while most of the other soldiers and militias use various types of muskets, a marksman like Hawkeye favors the Pennsylvania Flintlock. More details here.)
  • Chingachgook, Natty’s adoptive Mohican father. Noticeably older but still quite spry. Played by the late Lakota actor and activist Russell Means.
    • Armed with: In addition to his rifle, Chingachgook uses (I had to look this up) a gunstock war club, a length of thick wood that roughly resembles a long rifle but is actually a tricky weapon useful for both bludgeoning and stabbing.
  • Uncas, Chingachgook’s biological son and Hawkeye’s adopted brother, renowned for his speed. Played by Eric Schweig.
    • Armed with: Musket and knife.
  • Major Duncan Heyward, the British officer charged with transporting his commander’s daughters to their father’s command post. A competent soldier with an overly narrow sense of right and wrong. Played by Steven Waddington.
    • Armed with: Pistol and a stiff upper lip.
  • Magua, the film’s villain. Out to kill the entire Munro family over grievances he has with the father, Magua is a ruthless, vicious yet somewhat sympathetic antagonist. Played by the great Wes Studi.
    • Armed with: Tomahawk, knife and whatever guns he can gets his hands on.

There’s also a small detachment of British soldiers, about two dozen, under Heyward’s command. Magua leads a similarly sized contingent of Huron raiders. The Munro girls are there too, but they mostly just stand off to the side looking scared. It’s not very empowering.

The Setup: Magua has been hired as a local guide for the Munro girls’ escort, but he’s secretly been plotting to betray them, and is leading the platoon into an ambush. Not long before things get in motion, Team Hawkeye finds the remains of the Huron war party’s camp fires, and decide to keep an eye out for them.

As the redcoats near the ambush point, Magua abruptly turns around and walks quickly to the rear of the marching column. He discreetly draws an axe from his cloak and, approaching a fresh-faced young lad in the back, buries the weapon in his face.

"For the last time: I will NOT sign your Street Fighter Movie poster!"

“For the last time: I will NOT sign your Street Fighter Movie poster!”

The Fight: Moving so quickly the Brits couldn’t react in time even if they weren’t shocked by the unexpected brutality, Magua immediately seizes the fallen soldier’s rifle and uses it to shoot down another. This acts as the signal for the other Huron raiders hidden in the wilderness to open fire. Most of the shots hit their targets, with several soldiers even tumbling down the steep hillside on the other side of the path. Magua chose the terrain well.

The stunned British quickly cluster together in orderly ranks, and send a volley of fire against the still mostly hidden Hurons. But the bad guys came prepared, and have already set up their cover. When the volley’s over, they charge down into the remainder of the platoon well before they can reload.

The redcoats are fairly well-trained, but in close quarters they’re no match for the natives. Mann treats the audience to an extended sequence of ugly carnage, consisting mostly of British soldiers being steadily felled in increasingly ugly ways.

This fellow, for instance, is about to be sold some football tickets at an inflated price

This guy on the ground, for instance, is about to be sold some sporting tickets at an inflated price

It’s not pretty. Heyward is the only one who manages to hold his own. That’s mostly due to his being a little bit separated from the main action, but he does take down two bad guys by himself: one with a well-aimed pistol shot, another with some quick fisticuffs after Heyward’s horse is cut down and he’s faced with a lone straggler.

Soon enough the main group of Hurons finish up with the British platoon, and start to charge in on Heyward and the girls, when they’re interrupted by three shots fired from off-screen, each one of which takes down a Huron warrior.

Surprise! It’s the movie’s heroes, here to save the day. Which they actually do with cool efficiency, each of them shown joining the fight separately. Of course, it’s Hawkeye who comes out looking coolest, demonstrating some sweet moves as he cuts through two Hurons in a row just in time to stop Magua from firing on the Munro women.

A tomahawk will do in a pinch when you don't have a bowling pin.

A tomahawk will do in a pinch when you don’t have a bowling pin.

The two men have a brief gun face-off: Magua quickly swivels his musket to aim at Bumppo, but the hero dodges it, having instinctively begun ducking before Magua even pulled the trigger. Before Hawkeye can return fire, the villain escapes in the excessive smoke, disappearing into the woods like an evil Batman.

Chingachgook gets to finish out the encounter, cutting down the last fleeing Huron (along with Magua, most seem to have run out of fear and confusion) by hurling his war club in an overhead toss into the chump’s back. Nice little stinger of an ending and, in another nice touch, right before it Hawkeye prevents Major Heyward from accidentally shooting Chingachgook in confusion. The movie repeatedly makes Heyward out to be an overly fussy and foolish dweeb, which pays off at the end in a shockingly poignant way.

Mann and his choreographers employ a type of physical combat here that’s believably genuine and unpolished; stiff, but in a good way. Which makes sense, as these warriors are veterans in the art of killing rather than elegant combat. You couldn’t have a period piece about Indians who use a bunch of fancy & stylized ninja moves, that would be completely ridiculous.

This is not the grandest of fights, not even the best one in this movie, but in broad strokes it establishes everything we need to know about all the particulars: the heroes’ smooth competence, Magua’s villainy, the casual brutality of frontier life/combat, and how out of their depth the foreign Europeans are here in this wilderness.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: The movie lives up to its title.

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Also, this happens.

Dark City

In which an unlikely hero finds a way to turn the tables.

Metaphorically and otherwise.

Metaphorically and otherwise.

Dark City

What a little gem of a movie. A cult hit that’s aged reasonably well, Dark City beat The Matrix to the punch by more than a year, though the lead times on each production are too close for the Wachowskis to have truly ripped it off. Both films are darkly stylized & philosophical sci-fi thrillers which feature a protagonist who’s uniquely gifted to tear down the walls of his artificial world, and learns to develop his new powers while on the run from sinister, inhuman pursuers. Understandably, only the one with amazing kung fu battles & gunplay went on to become a trendsetting blockbuster, but don’t count Dark City out. It has its own pleasures, and culminates in an amazing sequence that stretches the definition of a “fight,” but we’ll see if we can’t tackle it anyway.

A note: if you haven’t seen this yet and my recommendation inspires you to do so, I strongly recommend you seek out the newer Director’s Cut edition. Not only does it have more footage, but most crucially, it cuts out the theatrical version’s opening voiceover (mandated by the studio against director Alex Proyas’ wishes) where one character explicitly spells out about 90% of the film’s backstory, rather than letting the mystery be slowly uncovered. Of course I’m about to spoil pretty much the entire ending for you right now, so.

The Fighters:

  • John Murdoch, the film’s hero; it’s not his original name, if he even has one, but he’s sticking with it. One of the many inhabitants of the Strangers’ artificial world, John is a sudden step forward in evolution: he has the ability to “tune” or telekinetically alter the world around him. Having received only the slightest bit of his planned memory implant, John has spent most of the film as a virtual tabula rasa, but that’s all about to change. Played by Rufus Sewell, in a rare non-villainous role.
  • The Strangers, but mostly their de facto leader, Mr. Book (they all have ominously mundane names like that: Mr. Hand, Mr. Wall, etc), played by Ian Richardson. They can tune as well, of course. Note that their human-like appearance is not their true form: they’re all actually a bunch of creepy worm creatures, inhabiting the bodies of corpses– hence their pale & ghostly visage.
"Tell your sister... you were right about me."

“Tell your sister… you were right about me….”

Kiefer Sutherland, in the middle portion of his career (in-between the Hearthrob and Badass sections) where he was mostly tapped to play Creepy, plays a significant non-action part.

The Setup: The Strangers are home invaders in freaky masks a dying race of alien parasites, who have secluded a large number of humans in a large city where it’s always night and the details (memories, architecture, etc) are manually changed every few hours. Ultimately it’s revealed that this artificial habitat is really an enormous ship out in the depths of space, where the Strangers endlessly experiment with humans to see what makes them thrive.

John Murdoch, however, proves suddenly resistant to the Strangers’ power, and involuntarily fights back just as he’s about to be implanted with the memories of a serial killer. He spends much of the movie on the run, piecing together a past that turns out to be false and discovering the true nature of his world. Eventually, he surrenders himself to the villains when they hold hostage his “wife” Emma– their history together is fake, but he has come to feel genuine affection for her.

The aliens believe that Murdoch is the key they have been searching for, and decide to implant him with memories of their own collective history– effectively making him one of them. They wheel out Dr. Schreber (Sutherland), the doctor who invented the process of creating artificial memories in a test tube (a wonderfully wacked idea) and has since turned against his coercive masters to clandestinely help Murdoch throughout the movie. As the Strangers turn away to shut down their reality-warping machine for good, a seemingly docile Schreber explains his instructions to John… but he’s got other plans.

Since this was pre-Jack Bauer, being tied down while Kiefer Sutherland stands over you with a sharp object wasn't nearly as terrifying as it is now

Since this was pre-Jack Bauer, being tied down while Kiefer Sutherland stands over you with a sharp object wasn’t nearly as terrifying as it is now

Schreber switches out the Strangers’ syringe with one of his own making, which John had pocketed earlier after being too wary to trust the doctor. Murdoch is injected with the mystery needle instead, and immediately a series of rapid-fire images with static around the edges (the movie’s established language for flashbacks and memories) starts up. At first it’s the fake “John Murdoch” life the protagonist was originally supposed to have– pleasant upbringing at the seaside until parents die in a fire, and so forth– but a version of Schreber (but more confident, free of the real doctor’s speech impediment and slight disfigurement) keeps recurring: as one of John’s teachers, a firefighter who saves him, a flower vendor on his first date, etc.

"Remember class, the terrorists are only Muslim in even-numbered seasons."

“Remember class, the terrorists are only Muslim in even-numbered seasons.”

As the adult John twitches at receiving an entire lifetime of memories at once, finally the varying Schrebers solidify into one who explains himself with the magnificently bonkers line “You’re probably wondering why I keep appearing in your memories, John. It is because I have inserted myself into them.”

The memory-Schreber explains to John even more fully the nature of the Strangers, the power they share with John, and the machine that is fueled by it. He tells Murdoch, and the audience, that this specialized memory implant is a shortcut to give John a lifetime of instruction on and practice with tuning (previously, he’d only tuned instinctively, and in minor ways)– hey, kind of like downloading kung fu skills directly into your brain. He tells John that he can take control of his destiny, as long as he’s willing to act.

Back in the real world, the Strangers can tell something is wrong, and discover Schreber’s switcharoo… but it’s too late. John comes to, wills the table he’s strapped to upright, and melts his bonds away to step free.

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“Now *I* have tuning powers. Ho, ho, ho.”*

Lucy, you got some splainin’ to dooooooo

The Fight: As soon as John is free, the film’s score dives right into the full rendition of a composition it’s been teasing throughout the movie– one that’s been so ubiquitous in trailers and bad YouTube re-edits since then, you’ve surely heard it before even if you’ve never seen Dark City. Despite all the years of repetition, though, it’s lost none of its wild energy, sounding both inspiring and chaotic.

Murdoch wastes no time in putting his newly mastered powers to work. He unleashs a psionic blast that scatters several of the Strangers ahead of him, which makes the remaining villains scared and aggressive. Proyas visualizes tuning on-screen in an effective if not particularly original way: as shimmering ripples of otherwise invisible force, flinging people about wildly and often tearing up the scenery.

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John frees Schreber and turns his attention back to the Strangers just in time to get blasted himself by Mr. Book, seemingly the only alien willing to stand his ground. Seemingly unhurt, Murdoch gets back up and returns fire. Visibly angered, Book changes up tactics a bit by ripping open the floor in front of John (which he seems to deflect before it gets to him) and dragging jagged beams up from underneath (which narrowly miss their target).

Rather than continuing to trade blows, the two eventually switch to a full-out mental arm wrestling contest, their psychic energies clashing in the middle.

I'd watch a lot more Presidential debates if they looked like this.

A lot more people would watch Presidential debates if they looked like this.

As their brain battle rages, the resulting feedback starts damaging the area around them, ripping huge chunks out of the building and even somewhat reversing the gravity (!). The few Strangers who haven’t fled (why didn’t anybody help Book?) are lifted into the air.

Soon enough, Book and Murdoch float out of the ceiling and confront each other in the sky.

"MISTER Anderson!"

“MISTER Anderson!”

Mr. Book changes things up again by hurling a nasty-looking dagger at his foe, but despite the added telekinetic push, John is able to stop it just shy of his head, then flip it around and return to sender.

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If it had hit, it would have hurt only slightly more than my hangover on Thanksgiving 2006.

Mr. Book takes it in the chest and goes tumbling backward, end over end. Murdoch tunes a nearby water tower to rise up high into his enemy’s flight path. Book collides with the new obstacle and, because the parasites are vulnerable to water, the creature piloting Book’s corpse dies shortly after. Go humans!

In many ways, there’s not much to the actual battle: a few psychic punches, a lot of yelling, a light show and what’s frankly a distant second in the cinematic annals of Tossing A Dagger Back & Forth (telekinetic powers are neat and all, but ultimately it’s all in the reflexes). Plus, the other Strangers’ lack of participation is glaring, there’s no logical reason for Schreber to be there, and if we’re being honest, the floating at the very end looks at least a little bit silly.

But looking past the petty stuff, there’s something really glorious about this sequence. As Schreber’s plan quickly becomes apparent there’s a palpable, electric excitement; you finally get to see John Murdoch realize his potential– if not his destiny— and turn the tables on his tormentors. That there’s still an element of danger as he takes his matured powers into battle makes his final victory all the sweeter; I daresay this scene is even more gratifying and well-handled than its equivalent at the very end of The Matrix.

Once again we’ve proven that while the execution of the actual fight is important, the buildup and emotional context can often be just as critical, if not more so. Dark City’s climax thrills like few others.

[Also, the movie is, along with many other things, essentially a superhero origin story. After swearing to give those a break I basically just did another one. Crap.]

Grade: A-

*Blogger Comment: I feel like I’ve paraphrased the “machine gun” quote from Die Hard about five times, but a quick site search makes it seem like it’s just the second. Either way, I’m not stopping any time soon, hope you’re used to it by now. Die Hard rules.

Coming Attractions: We get a lot more Studi-ous.

He’s quite the hearty warrior.

Spider-Man 3 (fight 5 of 5)

In which Spider-Man receives help from an unlikely ally!

Uh, no, she's not who I'm talking about. But it's about time she contributed

Uh, no, she’s not who I’m talking about. But it’s about time she contributed

5) Spider-Man and New Goblin vs Sandman and Venom

The Fighters:

  • Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker. Back in his red & blue outfit. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • The New Goblin, aka Harry Osborn. About half his pretty face got burned real ugly in the last confrontation, but considering the size of the explosion he was lucky that’s all he got. Playing the hero this time. Played by James Franco.
    • Armed with: His full bag of tricks.
  • Sandman, aka Flint Marko. He’s using the excessive amount of dirt in the vicinity to make himself bigger and denser than ever. Played by Thomas Haden Church.
  • Venom (he’s never called that in the movie), aka Eddie Brock, Peter’s sleazy rival. Brock’s role here is roughly the same as in the comic– disgraced journalist blames Peter Parker & Spider-Man for his troubles, even though they’re really his own fault– but the character has been subtly tweaked to be a “dark,” conscience-free version of Peter even before his transformation (the casting of Grace enhances this, considering the comic Brock has a physique much closer to, well, Thomas Haden Church’s). After Peter expelled the symbiote suit from his body, it bonded with the nearby Eddie*, creating a monster with every reason to hate Spider-Man. As Venom, Brock sports an altered version of the black Spidey costume, and boasts physical strength and black webbing that are superior to Spider-Man’s. Missing from the comic book is how the symbiote allows Venom to bypass Peter’s spider sense, and the unnerving way Venom, being two personalities in one body, refers to himself as “we.” Played by Topher Grace.

Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane is along as the bait yet AGAIN. She helps out a smidgen this time, but mostly her role in this consists of falling through the sky over & over. Oddly, the movie never addresses the fact that the big obstacle between her and Peter in the first two movies is how her being close to Spider-Man could make her a target, and yep, that’s exactly what happens here. Speaking of which, how come nobody else in New York ever asks why this lady keeps getting held hostage by supervillains looking to rumble with Spider-Man? The first and third kidnappings were quite public, and the police at least knew about her abduction at Doc Ock’s lair in part 2.

[*Eddie was nearby because, in an amazing coincidence, he just happened to be downstairs in the church while Peter was ridding himself of the symbiote. Everything creepy & weird about Brock is encapsulated in how he a) went to that church to pray for God to murder Peter Parker for him, and b) he addresses Jesus as “sir.”]

The Setup: Fairly involved. Having worn the suit for too long, Peter eventually hit rock bottom and accidentally hit Mary Jane after an evening spent emotionally humiliating her. Knowing that the suit is enabling his behavior, he tries to take it off, but it resists, having bonded too closely. Only the ringing of a nearby church bell seems to stun it long enough to him to escape its grasp. (This is actually straight from the source material.) The suit desperately heads for the nearest replacement host, who happens to be Eddie Brock.

Soon enough, the suited Venom finds Sandman (… somehow) and offers an alliance, seeing as they have a mutual interest in stopping Spider-Man. One would think that Marko would have every reason to stay faaaaaaar away from Spider-Man, actually, but instead this noble victim of tragic circumstance immediately agrees to team up with psychopathic alien monster so they can murder a hero together. Makes perfect sense.

Rather than opting for something sensible like sneaking into his house at night and stabbing him, the two abduct Mary Jane and dangle her from an enormous web structure atop a construction site. Yes, a superhero fight at a construction site, sorry to blow your mind. When the news cameras show up, the villains ensure their invitation is suitably blunt.

One of Eddie's many failings was that he took the wrong moral away from reading Charlotte's Web

Another weird thing about Eddie Brock was that he took the COMPLETE wrong lesson away from reading Charlotte’s Web

Between the two of them, no police are able to get close enough to effect a rescue, and apparently the city’s National Guard unit was on field maneuvers or something.

Meanwhile, Peter correctly figures this is too much for him to handle alone and goes to Harry to ask for help. Harry lays on the guilt trip again, but rather than apologizing or quite reasonably pleading self-defense, Peter offers a simple “she needs us.” Harry waves him off, but later on his elderly butler strolls in and offers his unsolicited medical opinion on how Norman’s wounds were clearly caused by his own glider, so maybe Harry should get over himself already.

Still, Spider-Man shows up alone, though the gathered crowds still cheer him and he takes a second to pause before Old Glory one last time. He makes his way to where MJ’s being held in a taxi suspended high up and tries to comfort her, but Venom ambushes him shortly after.

The Fight: With his advanced speed & strength, Venom shuts Spider-Man down pretty quick, and pins him to a bed of webbing dozens of feet below Mary Jane’s taxi. Revealing his face, Eddie taunts his rival for a bit, urging him to remember the humiliation he put Eddie through. Ever lacking in his comic counterpart’s verbal dexterity, Peter just sits there silently, rather than reminding Eddie that he only “humiliated” the guy in response to false & defamatory pictures Eddie made of him. Oh, and also while under the influence of the very same suit Eddie’s wearing now. But whatever. Not like he’s persuadable by logic at this point.

"Well, I hadn't thought about it that way. Good point."

“Well, I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way. Good point.”

All this monologue-ing gives Mary Jane plenty of time to retrieve a loose brick and drop it on the back of Venom’s head just before he delivers the killing blow. While Venom shrieks, Spidey breaks free from the webbing and fights back, causing both to lose their footing. As they tumble through the air, they have a silly but fun mini-battle, slugging it out and launching web projectiles at each other in free-fall. Spider-Man tries valiantly but the villain largely gets the better of him here, finally restraining the hero once again. Peter eventually frees himself but doesn’t web away in time to entirely negate the impact of his fall… in a pile of sand. Ruh roh.

Soon enough the ground itself starts moving, and Sandman emerges, bigger than ever.

Picture3

At least he didn’t try climbing with MJ to the top of the Empire State Building.

Our hero avoids Marko’s lumbering swings for a while, then heads back up to rescue Mary Jane, who’s started to fall through the webbing. This leads him wide open to getting blindsided by Venon again (priorities!), and the villain pins him on a girder, then hops down and holds him in place from behind via webbing around the neck.

Sandman repeatedly brings his huge fist down on Spider-Man, slowly pounding the life out of him as the crowd (and one particularly overwrought newscaster) watches in dismay. But just before Marko rears back for the final blow, a small projectile lodges in his neck from off-screen. As the background music fades to hear its rapid beeping and the camera zooms in, we see it’s one of those damned pumpkin bombs.

Hooray! Harry showed up after all. It’s the most predictable Marvel Team-Up ever, but Raimi juices it up with the expert timing of the grenade reveal. As Sandman reels in pain from his half-exploded head, the New Goblin flies by and knocks Venom down for good measure. Raimi continues his directoral swagger by having the inspirational hero music play up as Harry rises dramatically on his glider and offers his friend a hand.

Back to back, the two get to work immediately. Harry first uses the momentum from his board to spin Spidey into a perfectly timed kick at a leaping Venom, then he turns his jets directly onto Sandman, super-heating a good chunk of him into glass.

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Sick burn

They fly up together and Peter gets dropped off to save their mutual ex-girlfriend, who had started falling down again. They have a bit of a tender/awkward moment as he drops her off higher in the same building (not down below with the police to keep her safe or anything, that would be crazy) and returns to help Osborn deal with Sandzilla, which only gets him punched and knocked down into a half-finished building.

Apparently tiring of this, the Goblin gets sufficient distance from Marko, and fires two missiles at him. Both hit their target with sufficient force to make him topple and break.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man is left alone in a half-finished building, searching for the elusive Venom. After creeping the hero out by making noise from unseen places, he soon reveals himself and smacks the hero down effortlessly, then webs him up once more.

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Maybe James Cameron’s infamous “web bondage” script wasn’t so crazy after all

Eddie draws out Peter’s execution again, and Peter tries to talk him out of it, telling him he knows all too well the rush of evil power the suit can provide. In a line that perfectly straddles ridiculous and brilliant, Eddie calmly says “I like being bad. It makes me happy.”

Before he can skewer his nemesis with a length of jagged steel, he’s disarmed by two of Harry’s pumpkin blades. The Goblin himself flies in soon after, attempting to stab Venom with the blades in his own glider. Venom dodges and uses his webbing to seize the glider for himself. As Harry falls, he knocks over a few steel bars on the way down, the clattering of which has a brief but noticeable effect on the villain.

Venom leaps over to stab the still-trapped Peter with the glider, but Harry, taking one for the team one last time, leaps into Venom’s path and takes the blades instead, dying the same way his father dead but for the exact opposite reason. Bummer.

His friend’s sacrifice gives Peter enough strength to break free. He hits Venom pretty hard, and keeps him down by using the nearby metal poles to create a constant cacophony– boy genius Peter Parker has been able to deduce that the symbiote is weak against extremely loud noises. Spider-Man wastes little time exploiting this and, in one continuous CGI shot, shoves several poles into the ground around Venom and keeps clanging them together, effectively creating a “cage” of sound. It’s nifty.

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Good thing it’s not a JOHN Cage of sound, as that would have accomplished very little

The symbiote roils in ever-escalating pain, and when it contorts itself loosely enough, Peter uses his webbing to pull Brock out of it. Meanwhile it becomes a big ugly mess, towering into an even more monstrous form. Spider-Man shrinks it back down with one more clang, and flings one of Harry’s spare pumpkin bombs into the writhing mass. Conveniently, Eddie tries to jump back in to save it, and dies in the same explosion that also destroys the suit.

Oh, and afterward, Harry dies in Mary Jane’s arms, and Marko shows up again in more human form but he and Peter just talk it out. Yawn.

This fight scene is basically Spider-Man 3 in miniature: it’s epic, overstuffed, convoluted, clever, and occasionally awesome. The setting is the very definition of generic, but it’s used well enough. You get the real sense of Spider-Man being overmatched by either of the villains separately, let alone together, thus making Harry’s arrival even more welcome– cheesy as it may be. The two friends make a good team, fighting not just alongside each other but cooperatively at a few key points.

But all the creative thinking on display contrasts pretty starkly with just how repetitive and uninspired the staging frequently is. For instance, it’s easy to lose track of how often Venom HAD his nemesis dead-to-rights only to delay giving the final blow juuuuuust long enough for some outside interference to give Spidey a break. After the third or fourth time that happens, the suspense dries out pretty quickly. Similarly, Mary Jane repeatedly finds herself nearly falling to her death– not to mention this whole setup of her as the hostage/bait to kick off the climax was done in each of the previous two films. And Harry’s sacrificial death is the least surprising thing this side of a Scooby Doo episode.

It’s flawed and ambitious, but big enough to make a fitting end to Raimi’s Spider trilogy.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Let’s get mental.

City Trek Into Darkness

City Trek Into Darkness

Spider-Man 3 (fight 4 of 5)

In which two bros can’t just hug it out.

It’s like this, but it’s also not like this.

4) Peter vs Harry

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. More accustomed than ever to his black suit. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • Harry Osborn, aka the New Goblin. Renewing his ill-fated quest for vengeance against Spider-Man. Played by James Franco.

The Setup: In what is possibly the most ridiculous head-slappers of this movie, Harry got freaking amnesia from the injuries he suffered at the end of his last fight. Amnesia. Is there any more clear sign of screenwriters just transparently giving up at finding a way to put a character in narrative “time-out” until it’s convenient? Gah. Specifically, a form of his amnesia that transported him mentally back to around 19 or so, before his life started turning to crap. (Judging from some of Franco’s performance, though, he actually regressed all the way back to kindergarten.) This plot device wears off just after Innocent Harry had an inadvertently romantic moment with a vulnerable Mary Jane, and Osborn decides to seize on this as his chance to hurt Peter on a personal level before baiting him into another confrontation.

Harry blackmails MJ by promising to kill Peter (you know, that thing he’s determined to do anyway) if she doesn’t pretend to dump him for good. After the staged breakup, Harry rubs salt in the wound by violating the Bro Code and telling Peter he’s been having an affair with her. Peter, ever the genius, realizes soon enough that Harry has regained his memory, and goes off to confront him at his home as he melodramatically mixes cocktails in anticipation.

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Weird how so many people don’t take this movie seriously.

It should be noted that while Peter, shocked at what his new “outfit” was making him do, had taken it off for a while and made an effort to straighten his life out. But when he goes to face Harry, he deliberately puts the suit back on, wanting it to enable his negative behavior.

Also note even though Peter is wearing most of his black suit underneath civilian clothes and Harry’s packing a surprise up his sleeve, both fighters are essentially out of costume. In fact, both times these two fight in the movie, they’re unmasked. Hence the title entry using their real names rather than their alter egos; this isn’t superhero vs supervillain, it’s two “friends” settling old scores.

The Fight: After some more taunting from Harry (he even lifts Sean Bean’s pervy line from Goldeneye about MJ tasting “like strawberries”), Peter goes straight to fisticuffs. He gets in a few good licks, but his eyes open wide when he gets a surprise stab to the gut from his old pal.

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“I just realized I had sex with Iron Man in Wonder Boys!”

The dagger doesn’t go very deep before Peter slowly pushes Harry’s hand away, but just as the knife is removed from play, Osborn swings at him with some of those forearm claws concealed underneath his dress shirt. He’d been expecting this confrontation.

The weapon is pretty effective at pushing Parker back for a little while, and he even gets a close call when he barely stops it from going right into his eyeball. He catches a lucky break when an errant swing lodges in the wall, allowing the hero to break the blades off with a blow to Harry’s arm.

The two continue to have a pretty solid, mutual beatdown, knocking each other into walls and through windows. The taunts make it even better. After one nasty blow, Osborn asks “How ya like that, Spidey?” to which Spidey replies “That all ya got?” Even better is Harry, when it’s his turn on the ground, growls “I used to protect you in high school, now I’m gonna kick your little ass!” which elicits a delightfully sarcastic “ooooh!” from Peter. It’s not exactly Stan Lee, but it’s appropriately schoolyard.

Franco makes a couple interesting choices in this scene, using subtle body language & snarls to act animalistically– i.e., like a goblin, in contrast to Parker’s graceful, arachnid-like movements.

He gives good Dafoe Face, too

He gives good Dafoe Face, too

For this portion of the fight, there’s no webs, no gadgets, no flying and no swinging. If not for the superhuman strength on display and the extraordinary abuse their bodies are taking, you’d swear this was just a regular fight between two normal people. And that was surely a conscious choice: by keeping the brawl relatively simple, Raimi not only provides variety from the movie’s more wild encounters, but he makes it more personal for the audience.

Eventually, Peter tackles Harry through the mirror that’s actually the entrance to Osborn’s secret Goblin lab. Harry immediately grabs that green sword from its place and starts swinging away again. Peter dodges it all skillfully enough so that it instead ends up hitting pretty much everything else in the lab, including the spare glider that had been idling in the center.

Freed from its tether, the glider goes spinning uncontrollably around the room as the fight rages on. Sensing an opportunity, Peter does a nifty spider move where he grabs Harry by the lapels and pulls them both to the ground. When the board comes around again, Peter throws him into its path. He gets smacked in the face and goes flying into a rack of pumpkin bombs.

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Remarkably, none of them go off, but Harry’s pretty hurt anyway. He asks if Peter will kill him like he did Norman, but the wayward hero expresses disgust rather than pleading for understanding. He twists the knife by telling Harry his father despised and was embarrassed by him, playing on his friend’s worst fears. Especially jarring is how he finishes it with a “what? You gonna cry?” like he’s a grade school bully.

Harry tries to rise to continue to fight, but a swift chop to the neck puts him right back down, and Peter storms off like Harry is utterly beneath him. Osborn tries to get the last word in by throwing one of the grenades at his old friend, but Peter side-steps the projectile, snags it with a web and returns it to sender.

The world’s deadliest yo-yo trick

The world’s deadliest yo-yo trick

Blessed with no such reflexes, Harry can’t get out of the way in time, and gets caught up in a small explosion. Peter doesn’t even stick around to see if he lived.

This one’s probably my favorite. It’s just the right mix of genuinely fun while still being legitimately off-putting (vis a vis Peter’s behavior), and the more humble choreography is both a bold choice and a welcome change of pace. Being able to see the actors’ faces and know that they’re not being swapped out with a bunch of digital pixels helps to draw you in closer to what’s a very intimate conflict. Granted, if every fight in the franchise were like this, it wouldn’t really feel like Spider-Man, but it’s nice to see Spider-Man branch out a bit every now and then.

The music is serviceable if not spectacular, a dark & playful little tune that revs up appropriately with the action. If there’s any flaw it’s that it ends too soon after they get to the lab, and the blow that knocks Harry into the wall and effectively ends the fight, while surely painful, seems a bit anticlimactic for what had come before. But Peter’s cruel taunts and the too-cool bomb throw back help put an appropriate punctuation mark on the encounter.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Spider-Man might be tough, but Venom is Topher.

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At least he’s not Kutcher.

Spider-Man 3 (fight 3 of 5)

Clear as mud.

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Ew.

3) Spider-Man vs Sandman, round 2

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker aka Spider-Man. Our hero’s gone down an increasingly dark path ever since an alien symbiote he unknowingly encountered* has bonded with him and created a blackened suit, which grants him increased power while subtly amping up his negative qualities, such as aggression. (It also makes him act like a jackass hipster, in one of the movie’s most criticized indulgences.) Unfortunately it enters his life at the worst possible time: just as he’s going through a messy fight with Mary Jane and facing the revelation of Marko’s involvement in Uncle Ben’s death. So like the kind of alcoholic who drinks because deep down he WANTS to act like a drunken a-hole, Peter enters a self-destructive spiral where he keeps donning the suit to enable his worst impulses. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • Flint Marko, aka Sandman. Nothing new here. Played by Thomas Haden Church.

[*The symbiote crawled onto Peter’s scooter after landing nearby, in one of the quietest meteor landings in history. A bit  convenient, but the way Spidey finds the thing in the original comics is considerably too… involved to adapt here.]

The Setup: Not much to it. Shortly after Peter has gotten re-adjusted to his new suit, he hears some police reports of Sandman committing yet another robbery, and heads off to where he was last seen. On the way, he encounters Eddie Brock, Peter’s new professional rival, and they have an ugly confrontation. This will be important later, duh.

Marko has headed underground (in a subtle touch, Spider-Man throws respect for property to the wind by simply ripping a huge chunk of concrete away to make his entrance, rather than finding a more conventional way) and Spidey slowly stalks him through a darkened sewer/train tunnel area. For a little while, at least, it’s the sneakiest he’s been since he chased down carjacker Dennis Carradine back in 2002.

Metal Gear Spidey

Metal Gear Spidey

The Fight: Peter surprises his prey by lowering down from the ceiling right in front of him, and after dodging some blows, taunts him about Uncle Ben’s death– something that visibly unnerves Marko.

When a subway train roars by, Spider-Man webs himself to the side of it, letting its momentum pull him in for a strong double-kick against Sandman. The crook goes flying, dropping his bags of money (again) and lands on another platform in between two tracks. The hero tries to swing in again, but this time Flint is ready.

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Acrobatic even in the confined underground, Spider-Man recovers from his fall, loops all the way around from underneath the platform and strikes Marko from behind. The two then engage in some solid, painful-looking fisticuffs as two trains come simultaneously from opposite directions. Peter gets bounced around back & forth between the fast-moving cars like a human pinball, but Marko’s turn is even worse, as he gets half his face sheared off when the increasingly merciless hero grinds it up against one of the trains.

Sandman recovers his mass with some nearby dirt, but still, probably not the best experience.

After a little while of this, hero tackles villain off the platform and they both take a long fall, hitting a big pipe on the way down. Marko lands in a small puddle, and finds that the water is making it hard for him to maintain his cohesion. Spider-Man notices this too, and when he swings Marko’s way again, it’s not to hit him but to reach the big water pipe nearby. He violently opens it, making a burst of water come out and hit his opponent.

Degenerating into Mudman, Flint gets washed away in the flood, eventually coming apart completely as he hits a grate. Without remorse, Spidey smugly bids his foe good riddance.

A villain having an ambiguous death scene and getting carried away by water? How novel

A comic villain having an ambiguous “death” scene and getting carried away by water? Surely this will be the last we see of him.

The rematch with Sandman is short but an improvement in the Exciting department. Raimi & co get around the issue of the character’s seeming invulnerability not just by finishing him off with his Kryptonite-equivalent, but by having Spider-Man employ aggressive and creative techniques to keep pressing his advantage. This has the handy side benefit of further establishing not just the increased power offered by the black suit, but also emphasizing its effects on Peter’s personality; as fun as it is to watch this fight happen, there’s an undercurrent of “wrongness” to Spidey’s callous brutality. It’s the rare superhero fight where the villain feels like the victim… though, granted, Raimi had already stacked the deck beforehand by letting us in on Marko’s hard-luck story.

The underground setting is a new one for this film series, and handily allows the hero’s dark behavior to be complemented by the literal darkness of the surroundings. Who knows how “realistic” it is– half the time it just looks like a straight-up cave, but also has trains and giant water pipes running through it everywhere– but it definitely fits in with the movie’s cartoony aesthetic. Also, New York’s mass transit system played a big part in the previous movie’s climax, but you almost forget that because of the different role the trains play in this battle. Clever.

Grade: B-

Coming Attractions: Spider-Man vs Wolverine!

Ha, you wish.

Ha, you wish.