Pacific Rim (bonus round)

As I’ve said umpteen times already, there’s a huge gap between Fight #1 and Fight #2 in Pacific Rim. But that’s not quite true. The much-anticipated giant robot vs giant monster throwdowns are indeed thin on the ground during this period, but amidst the various cliche-ridden shenanigans and melodrama, there’s a handful of honest-to-gosh real physical human fights which aren’t too shabby. It’s of course a few thousand tons shy of the action scale we came for… but it’s well-done enough that I feel bad completely ignoring it.

And yes I usually stick to my self-imposed rules for which movie’s fights I do and do not count, but you know what, it’s my blog, so whatever.

Mako is not impressed with my reasoning.

Mako is not terribly impressed with my reasoning.

So consider it a bonus round, a breezy way to burn through the rest of the week before we start on the next subject. “Breeze” being the key word: we’ll do all three at once here.

Handily they all involve our boy Raleigh Beckett, who is a lot more fit and combat-ready than you’d expect for a guy who’s been off feeling sorry for himself the last five years.

1) Nobody Candidates

Raleigh‘s Opponents: Three Chinese gentlemen, apparently selected by Mako as the best possible potential drift partners. Consistent with Pacific Rim’s treatment of non-main characters, we don’t know these people’s names or really anything else about them.

And not to be the awful white devil who can’t tell Asians apart , but the fact that they’re three young Chinese men with similar heights, builds, clothes and haircuts is a bit confusing considering that a few minutes ago we were briefly introduced to the Wei Tang triplets who pilot Crimson Typhoon; you’d be forgiven for briefly thinking they were sparring with Raleigh for some reason– like, Typhoon was going to give up one of its pilots. That wouldn’t make sense, but a lot of this movie doesn’t make sense. (The triplets are actually part of the small crowd watching the fight, but no one could blame you for not noticing that the first time, either.)

Why there weren’t more than three candidates, I don’t know. Also the tests are done using wooden sticks as kendo swords, which is odd because that’s largely not how jaeger combat works. Each duel works on a point-based system, with every blow or simulated blow counting as a point and the first man to four points the winner. Raleigh calls these a “dialogue” rather than a fight, but they sure look a lot like fights.

The Fight: It moves quickly enough that we immediately get the idea we’re not seeing all of each fight, just the final stroke or so each one. We even hear Mako grumpily calling out each final score, always with Raleigh way ahead. The Chinese guys are fit and skilled, but no match for Beckett– he consistently takes them down with little to no effort, and maintains enough control of each fight that he can do so without hurting them.

"Events occur in real time," Kiefer Sutherland whispers.

“Events occur in real time,” Kiefer Sutherland adds in a whisper.

It’s nothing too great, but there’s some fancy footwork here and it’s fun to watch. We get our first glimpse of Raleigh doing his thing outside a jaeger cockpit.

Grade: Not Bad

2) Mako’s Got Spunk

Raleigh‘s Opponent: Mako, duh.

After facing them all down, Raleigh calls out Mako on her attitude, and she replies that if he applied himself better he could have taken them out even faster. This leads, despite some resistance from Pentecost, to Mako entering the ring herself so she can bring our boy down a peg.

After some low-key trash talk/sexual tension, the two have at it.

My wife and I met the same way. No we didn't.

My wife and I met the same way. No we didn’t.

The Fight: Surprisingly, Mako just stands there coolly when Raleigh darts in with the opening move, not flinching as he stops the stick less than an inch from her head. He interprets it as her being unready, but it’s implied she may have deliberately done it to screw with him. Just as he steps back to begin the next round, she herself darts in and catches him unawares, which is kind of dirty pool if you ask me. (And of course you asked me, that’s why you’re here.)

After another “easy” hit puts Raleigh back in the lead, the two have a longer exchange and she finally gets the better of him. After an even longer back & forth, Raleigh tries switching his fighting stance halfway through but still loses the point to Mako after some up-close tussling and getting flipped over. He does better in the next round, though, making the score all tied up.

The last exchange is the longest of all, with both players ratcheting up the intensity. Raleigh takes a fall but isn’t out, as he’s able to lock up her weapon so they’re in an apparent stalemate.

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The match gets called off by Pentecost, but Raleigh has learned enough to want Mako as his partner. Which the movie will make happen, albeit by the painfully long route.

After a quick little scene establishing Raleigh’s skill, we get a longer bit that establishes Mako’s own prowess simply by having her show him up, if not too much. The scene doesn’t overly sell that they’re “drift-compatible,” as Raleigh gushes later (again, that whole process is vague), but there is a definite tension between them here in this solid fight with a nice ebb & flow.

Grade: Pretty Good

3) Aussie Smackdown

Raleigh‘s Opponent: Chuck Hansen, Raleigh’s unnecessarily aggressive rival/bully. This encounter happens just after Raleigh & Mako’s first drifting attempt nearly resulted in Gipsy blowing a hole in Shatterdome. Chuck is understandably upset, but goes way too far in needling the would-be pilots as they wait outside Pentecost’s office for their punishment. Raleigh is able to take the high road at first, but loses it when Chuck calls Mako a bad word.

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Chuck’s taken by surprise at first but gets into the swing of things pretty well. The pair’s battle is an interesting mixture of unpolished street fighting and complex, MMA-style maneuvers– the latter of which largely come from Raleigh.

Indeed, Beckett is the one who is largely in control of the fight, though Hansen puts up a pretty good effort. They have a nice extended struggle and exchange of blows that culminates in Chuck getting slammed painfully against a wall. He hits hard enough to rupture some piping, which releases a bunch of steam around him as he glares hatefully at Raleigh– an effective if obvious visual metaphor.

Our hero does even better in round two, systematically shutting down Chuck’s assault and even slapping him at one point, apparently just to rub it in. Finally Beckett is able to wrap his legs around one of Chuck’s arms, bringing them both down in a strong hold.

Try not to let someone do this to you.

Try not to let someone do this to you.

Thankfully the grown-ups arrive and break things up before Raleigh can break the arm of one of the few remaining jaeger pilots. Gipsy’s pilots are sent to the principal’s office, and Chuck’s left in the hallway with his old man, getting restrained so he doesn’t rush over and get beat up some more.

This image sums up the entirety of these two characters and their relationship with each other.

This image sums up the entirety of these two characters and their relationship with each other.

This is the best of the bunch, being the most technically complicated and emotionally charged. It’s also unusually layered for this movie, since on one level the audience is happy to see Chuck get smacked around, but on another we understand that Raleigh really did screw up big time, and his rival is right to be upset with him. Deep! Well not really. But still very well done.

Grade: A Lot of Fun

Coming Attractions: Take it easy there, Pilgrim.

“If your blog had a face, I would punch it.”

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Pacific Rim (fight 5 of 5)

Feel free to make your filthy sexual jokes about “disappointing climaxes” here.

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Gipsy and Striker will be hiding from them at the bottom of the ocean.

5) Operation Pitfall

The Fighters:

  • Gipsy Danger, heroic leader of the Autobots our main jaeger, a little banged up from the last fight, but after a quick repair job is good to go.
    • Piloted by: Raleigh Beckett and Mako Mori, who are played by Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi.
  • Striker Eureka, the sleek new jaeger model with the highest kill count so far. Apparently the EMP didn’t do it any lasting damage.
    • Piloted by: Chuck Hansen and Stacker Pentecost, played by Robert Kazinsky and Idris Elba. Chuck’s father, Herc, broke his arm during Fight #2 and is unable to continue, so veteran pilot Stacker has volunteered to take his place and left Herc back in command at Shatterdome. In a completely gratuitous subplot, Pentecost has cancer due to his prolonged exposure to radiation in the poorly-shielded early-model jaegers. The cancer is said to be largely subsided as long as Pentecost doesn’t enter a jaeger again, so presumably the point of this plot element is to show how noble he is for stepping up for duty… but since there are no other worthy pilots on hand, if Stacker hadn’t helped out the apocalypse would remain un-cancelled so he’d die in a kaiju attack eventually, and besides that he (spoiler) dies by other means during the fight anyway. Guillermo Del Toro already pulled the exact same “give a cancer diagnosis to the older mentor figure who’s going to be killed off later” in the first Hellboy, so maybe he’s got a thing for that strangely specific trope. Oh and apparently Hansen and Pentecost are drift-compatible, but the movie is so nebulous about how that works it hardly matters at this point.
  • Raiju, an extremely fast kaiju with a crocodile-like head. Very little is seen of this little beastie, but its body seems almost optimized for swimming. Named after a Japanese mythological beast that has thunder & lightning powers.
  • Scunner, a large kaiju with four arms and a bull-like head. Beyond that, doesn’t seem to do anything special– besides being a huge monster, obviously. It’s named after a Scottish slang word for having a strong dislike for something. It’s never really clear who’s naming these things, incidentally: as soon as they’re spotted on radar, the way the guys at HQ call them out it’s like the names are pre-existing, even though the jaeger program people are the only ones tracking these things. This is such a weird movie.
  • Slattern, the most enormous kaiju yet– he’s immediately identified as a “Category 5” kaiju, even though there’s never been anything bigger than a 4. Again, weird. In addition to its ridiculous size, Slattern has three long tails and a devilish appearance, though given that the two have similar facial protrusions it can be hard to tell it apart from Scunner. The monster’s name (which I don’t believe is ever mentioned on screen, only gained from ancillary material) is taken from an archaic insult for women.

The Setup: Having fended off the assault in Hong Kong, Team Jaeger is now executing their planned operation to directly attack the inter-dimensional breach the kaiju are coming from by dropping a nuclear bomb in it. In a modification of the original plan (thanks to the demise of Typhoon and Cherno), this time it’s Gipsy pulling security while Striker goes ahead with the payload.

As the pair approach the breach, they get word of two large signatures emerging from it, and are on lookout. As they’re deep in the ocean, their visibility is terrible and they have to “switch to instruments” though it’s never clear what that means, and in any case it doesn’t seem to affect their performance. Raiju and Scunner begin to circle the pair, moving too fast to be seen.

As the robots get to the hole where the breach is, both kaiju stop their advance, which clues Pentecost into the presence of a trap. Just then, Dr. Geiszler and his frenemy Dr. Gottlieb burst into command, fresh off their drift with a dead kaiju fetus. The pair tell everyone that the plan won’t work, because whatever weird science that runs the breach will be able to tell monster from machine, and won’t let them through unless they bring a kaiju corpse along for the ride.

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, this is also when Slattern decides to make its appearance.

So: we know that each kaiju is harder to defeat than the last. The previous two monsters managed to easily take out three veteran jaegers, and only fell to Gipsy after it took them on one at a time while using some spectacular moves. This time it’s the good guys who are outnumbered, including one super-duper-jumbo-sized opponent. And it all takes place entirely underwater, where the monsters’ increased maneuverability will give them even greater advantage. How will our heroes overcome these odds?

Luck, mostly. Luck and some cheating.

The Fight: Striker fully extends its wrist blades (where were those in the second fight?) and gets ready. Gipsy tries to catch up and help, but gets attacked from behind by Scunner, who had been hiding nearby.

"I fear you are underestimating the sneakiness."

“I fear you are underestimating the sneakiness.”

We see Striker get knocked down pretty hard by all three of Slattern’s tails. Meanwhile, Gipsy has to tangle with Scunner. It’s able to pin down the kaiju with one hand, but before Gipsy can deliver a killing strike with the sword attached to its free arm, the jaeger gets rammed from behind by Raiju at high speed. The swift little beast knocks the whole limb off, chomping it in half as it swims away.

While Gipsy recovers, Scunner takes the opportunity to bite the robot’s… leg? It has to be the leg, considering what happens later, but the editing is so poor you would swear it went for the intact arm (I rewound multiple times and it really seems like the arm). The leg is also an idiotic tactical decision, because it is indeed the leg right underneath Gipsy’s remaining arm. The jaeger whips out the other sword and shoves it right through the back of Scunner’s head, pinning it to the ground. Attempting to finish it off for good, Gipsy slowly drags the kaiju over to one of several volcanic pits, where the fiery discharge gives it a good burnin’.

Anyone else having flashbacks to Tim Curry in Legend?

Anyone else having flashbacks to Tim Curry in Legend?

Unfortunately, Scunner is able to wrench free before it gets the full Freddy Krueger, and swims off to lick its wounds. Right about this time, Raiju has finally gotten far enough away to start up another charge, and heads straight for Gipsy to finish the job.

With miraculous timing, the one-armed robot is able to duck and lift its sword just in time to catch Raiju right in its ugly snout. The beast has so much momentum that the body just keeps on going, so Gipsy doesn’t have to do anything but stand still in order to slice the kaiju completely in half, length-wise. It’s a really cool kill, but in addition to being an abrupt exit for a brand-new foe, it’s also a bit too easy.

"Well, that was a freebie."

“Well, that was a freebie.”

We go back to Striker, who’s been damaged enough by that one blow it can no longer release the payload. Striker’s more pressing problem, though, is a tackle from the enormous Slattern. After some struggling, Striker’s claws are able to tear up the Cat 5 pretty good, forcing it to draw back and unleash a visualized sonic shout that draws Scunner’s attention.

The (comparatively) smaller kaiju rushes to the aid of its superior, and as the two slowly circle Striker to get into optimal position, the pilots come up with a new plan: they’ll set off the bomb right now to take the heat off Gipsy, who can then detonate its own nuclear reactor to blow up the breach afterward.

After some emotional radio moments straight out of Armageddon, Strikers sets us up off the bomb just before it would have been crunched between the two charging kaiju. Gipsy, at an apparently safe distance away (ha!), keeps from getting flung to Kingdom Come by planting its chain sword in the ground. Meanwhile, the blast displaces all the nearby water, creating a nifty Moses effect. Too bad it’s not to last, and Gipsy’s battered again as the water comes rushing back in.

"nononononononono....."

Surf’s up……. and right back down.

Gipsy grabs a big chunk of Raiju to get through the gateway, and limps toward the breach’s location. (In one of the many humanizing touches the CGI work provides, Gipsy’s limping here, which of course is a natural result of the damage sustained, makes the unfeeling machine look like a human being in pain.) But despite sustaining a point-blank nuclear detonation, Slattern is somehow still alive and seemingly not much worse for wear.

Our heroes improvise accordingly, dropping the Raiju half-corpse and using Gipsy’s jets to tackle Slattern just above the hole leading to the breach. They struggle against each other as they sink, with Gipsy skewering the kaiju through the chin with its sword, and finally finishing the job by burning off a ton of excess fuel through the nuclear turbine in its chest.

"HEAAAAART'S OOOOOOON FIIIIIIIIRE....."

“HEAAAAART’S ONNNNNN FIIIIIIIIRE…..”

After that, it’s pretty much a matter of simply playing out the thread. Gipsy passes through the portal, arms the reactor, both emergency pods eject back up through the portal– how’d they get back through without a kaiju corpse? For that matter, how did they get radio reception back to HQ through another dimension??– bomb goes off and closes bridge. Raleigh ends up surviving process, he and Mako embrace (but don’t kiss), blah blah blah.

Eh, who cares.

Eh, who cares.

Well, this is not bad, per se, but it certainly pales in comparison to the level of carnage we’ve seen before. And it feels like a rush, a cheat. After all those overwhelming odds, the solution ends up being pretty underwhelming: a few lucky hits and a big explosion. Raiju goes down almost as quick as he showed up, getting so little screen time he makes Typhoon and Cherno look like stars in comparison. Scunner isn’t bad, but doesn’t leave much of an impression either. And the actual “boss” is most disappointing of all– after that excellent entrance, Slattern pretty much gives one big blow, then doesn’t do a whole lot else and only showcases one special ability the whole time. And that special ability is basically a glorified distress signal, which means the only noteworthy thing the biggest, baddest monster in the movie does is call for help.

In this, Pacific Rim indulges more in its “war movie” side than it does in its sentai/kaiju side. Which is the filmmakers’ right, but it’s disappointing nonetheless from the perspective of fight scenes. And it’s not without merit: the entrance of Slattern, the bisecting of Raiju, the skewering/cooking of Scunner, and the emotionally-charged sacrifices are all good stuff. But on the whole, it’s the weakest fight of the movie, which is always a bummer to say about the climax.

Grade: B-

Coming Attractions: Wait… more Pacific Rim?

Wait... where'd all the giant robots go?

Where’d all the giant robots go?

Pacific Rim (fight 4 of 5)

Now, where were we?

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Oh, right.

4) Gipsy vs Otachi

The Fighters:

  • Gipsy Danger, our hero robot fresh off its last kill.
    • Piloted by: Raleigh Beckett and Mako Mori, just as it was ten minutes before. Played by Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi.
  • Otachi, the big beast who took out Crimson Typhoon not long ago. We will find out later that Otachi is pregnant which, in addition to inviting some Jay Leno-esque “no wonder it’s so cranky herp derp derp” jokes, doesn’t really mesh with the movie positing that the kaiju are all clones off a bunch of weird genetic assembly lines. The moviemakers have also asserted off-screen that Otachi is female, which again may not make sense but it helps with the confusion I’ve been having with what pronouns to use for these damn things.

The Setup: After parting with Leatherback (rest in pieces), Otachi made a beeline straight for Dr. Geiszler, presumably tracking him by some sort of psychic means. She digs right into the public bunker he’d been hiding out in and gets up close with some sort of weird glowing tendrils.

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Anal probe pain level: MAXIMUM

But before Otachi can grab Geiszler and make him wish he’d never left sunny Philadelphia, the kaiju turns at the sound of Gipsy Danger’s trademark blare. Come to think of it, I never was clear on if Gipsy’s Inception-like BWAAAAAMPS are heard by characters in the movie or if they’re just part of the soundtrack.

As the camera gradually reveals, the dangerous one is dragging a hefty oil tanker lengthwise in its left hand. The music here is a lazier, jazzier version of its main heroic theme, matching the cocky tone of the jaeger’s entrance. It’s fitting, because the heroes are hot off a much-deserved win. While Gipsy was confident in the last fight, here the robot– and the movie– is outright swaggering.

The Fight: As Gipsy closes in, the robot casually swings the ship up so that it’s being held in both hands like a club, and brings the improvised weapon crashing down on Otachi’s stupid lizard face. The villain receives several more blows before she uses her tail to pluck it out of Gipsy’s hands and fling it to a distant street. Where, in a nice touch, it bounces a few times and lands embedded horizontally between two buildings.

At least it will be easy to find later.

At least it will be easy to find later.

The tail also knocks Gipsy down with a strong blow to the chest, and Otachi uses that opportunity to scamper off around a corner. Gipsy gives chase but has a hard time finding the kaiju, which seems hard to believe. It’s like Where’s Waldo, if Waldo was a 3,000-ton space monster.

In another nice touch, as Gipsy clomps around Hong Kong, it passes a small car bridge, and the pilots actually go out of their way to step over it. Even while holding armageddon at bay, still showing at least some consideration to the surrounding environment. It’s not hard, Zack Snyder.

Unfortunately Otachi shortly more than makes up for Gipsy’s apparent respect for property values when she crashes right through a high-rise building and tackles the jaeger.

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“I think I found her!”

There’s some more tussling here, the best part of which is when we see a ducked punch from Gipsy clear right through an empty office area, with the fist coming to a stop juuuuuuust in time to nudge a Newton’s Cradle into motion. It’s Del Toro’s playful streak showing– completely gratuitous but very funny.

Otachi grabs the jaeger and slams it back & forth between a few buildings, finally shoving Gipsy all the way through one of them. The kaiju tries to follow that up with an acid spit finisher, but Gipsy dodges just in time. Before the gross monster can spit again, Gipsy shoves a fist right in her mouth (wouldn’t there still be lots of acid left in there?) and grabs hold of something. Otachi brings her tail over and coils it all the way around Gipsy’s arm, effectively trapping the robot while trying to snap its head off.

"Caught between a mouth and a hard tail," I believe is the expression.

“Caught between a mouth and a hard tail,” I believe is the expression.

Quick-thinking Raleigh counters this by venting the coolant on the machine’s left flank. The super-cold discharge ends up freezing Otachi’s tail so hard the jaeger can snap it right off. Now she’ll never be the tail of a major corporation. With its hand newly free, Gipsy is able to hold Otachi still and rip out the mouth sac that launches her acid spit. Yowch.

The enraged kaiju jumps onto Gipsy and digs the claws on her hind legs deep into Gipsy’s spine. With a solid grip, Otachi springs her surprise: the hidden leather wings on her forearms. As an even heavier version of the old-school monstruous kaiju tune plays up, Otachi pulls Gipsy high up into the sky, smacking the robot along a few buildings for good measure. It’s kind of poorly edited, with literally no transition between the pair just barely passing the rooftops and then suddenly being almost in orbit.

Out of plasma ammo and about to run out of atmosphere, Mako reveals (how is it possible for them to be surprising each other at this point? They’re literally sharing a brain) Gipsy’s own secret weapon:

Letting out a delightfully hammy declaration of revenge in Japanese, Mako makes Gipsy swing hard enough to cut clean through the bat-lizard.

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Again, if you spoke kaiju you’d know Otachi was saying, “that really was a Hattori Hanzo sword.”

This is awesome, and if anything it only suffers from being not quite as awesome as what immediately preceded it. There’s a lot less direct physical fighting between the two combatants this time, but that’s replaced by a healthy amount of other incident: the brief chase in the crowded city, the acid spit, the tail freezing, and that unusual aerial ending. So while it’s less of a “fight,” than the Leatherback duel, that’s fine, because we didn’t need too much more of the same so soon.

And of course there’s that opening where Gipsy Danger strolls in Like A Boss and wields a tanker like a baseball bat. That forgives a lot.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: A disappointing finale.

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“im un ur ocean, bitin off ur arms”

Pacific Rim (fight 3 of 5)

“Pacific Rim is the ultimate otaku film that all of us had always been waiting for. Who are you, if you are Japanese and won’t watch this?”Hideo Kojima, master video game creator

If the movie impressed you before, here’s where it really shines.

And/or rips stuff off of it.

Shiny, indeed.

3) Gipsy vs Leatherback

The Fighters:

  • Gipsy Danger, our friend from the opening battle, repaired and given a couple modifications. The most notable of them is a chain sword hidden in each forearm.
    • Piloted by: Raleigh Beckett and Mako Mori, played by Charlie Hunnam and the strangely charismatic Rinko Kikuchi, respectively. After barely surviving the Knifehead incident, Raleigh spent about five years in anonymous construction work, recovering from the traumatic loss of his brother. As part of the now-cancelled* jaeger program’s last-ditch effort to proactively end the war, Stacker Pentecost tracks down Raleigh and pulls him back to active duty. His new co-pilot Mako turns out to be Pentecost’s own surrogate daughter, who he’d been caring for ever since her family’s death in an early kaiju attack years before. As you can guess, she has scores to settle.
  • Leatherback, the ape-like latecomer in the previous fight. Having sustained minimal injuries in that five-colossus brawl, he’s pretty much good to go.

[*The film’s “Pan Pacific Defense Corps” has discontinued the jaeger initiative due to high costs and increasingly unsatisfactory results in the face of ever-stronger kaiju attackers. They’re funding Pentecost for only eight more months as they put their focus instead on an enormous coastal wall that doesn’t even look like it will repel a sustained kaiju attack… and it doesn’t, as we see earlier in the film, but the global bureaucracy charges ahead with the same plan anyway. The staggering political incompetence necessary for this premise is a lot more plausible in light of the real-life U.S. government’s disastrous attempts to overhaul its health care system in late 2013.]

The Setup: As Beckett helpfully (and falsely, according to real-world science) explains, since Gipsy’s power source is a nuclear reactor, it’s “analog” rather than digital, and unaffected by the recent EMP blast. Regardless, it’s been maybe five minutes since that pulse went off– barely enough time for the pilots to get into their flight outfits, never mind the climb into the jaeger, get into their delicate “drift” state, do all the pre-flight checks, hook the machine up to a dozen helicopters, etc. But why let logic get in the way of such a great entrance?

Gipsy gets dropped off pretty close to the kaiju and assumes a ready stance. Raleigh quietly asks Mako if she’s ready for the real thing. She SO is.

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For those who hadn’t given up on Pacific Rim entirely by this point, this is the part where it really wins them over. After not just that long dry spell but the devastating losses in the previous battle, the story is in desperate need of a little turnaround. You can really feel the excitement here, and even before the first punch is thrown the audience understands that although it won’t be easy, our heroes won’t let us down this time: Gipsy Danger’s about to kick some ass.

The Fight: The jaeger judo-dodges around Leatherback’s initial charge and is able to seize the monster from behind. Even though it’s unnecessary because Gipsy is immune to it, the robot still rips the bio-electrical EMP device right off from Leatherback’s, uh, back. From the top of the powered-down Striker Eureka, the pilots cheer on Gipsy, with even the erstwhile dickhead Chuck Hansen enthusiastically urging his rivals to take down the beast.

Leatherback is understandably pissed off at having chunks torn off him, so the kaiju breaks free and turns the tables. Using its advanced size smartly, the monster catches Gipsy in a bear hug.

The kaiju then spins around to get momentum and throws Gipsy a good mile or two through the air to the Hong Kong coast, resulting in that long ponderous fall & slide that was spoiled in every single trailer. The jaeger finally comes up in a ready crouch at a dock area, and Leatherback sets foot on land, unleashing a great big giant monster scream apparently as the world’s biggest “come at me bro.”

Both monster and machine charge each other at full speed, with Gipsy’s pilots clearly relishing the thrill (it’s stated earlier in the movie that piloting a jaeger is basically the world’s greatest adrenaline rush). The music builds to a crescendo as they close the distance and Gipsy gets the better of it their simultaneous leap, launching higher up and coming down with a hammer punch on top of Leatherback’s scaly noggin.

"Hello! McFly!"

“Hello! McFly!”

The jaeger hits its foe a few more times (including one with the awesomely impractical Elbow Rocket), but when Leatherback goes down he seizes a piece of control tower and clocks Gipsy with it a few times. Following the kaiju’s example (and maybe also Hulk’s), Gipsy grabs several shipping containers in hand and uses them to smack the enemy around, culminating in a simultaneous smashing to both sides of Leatherback’s face. It’s questionable at best, because surely those shipping containers aren’t made of harder metal than Gipsy’s own “skin,” but again: rule of cool. Del Toro films the blow smartly, slowing down time nearly to a standstill as we see a stunned Leatherback amidst a cloud of suspended debris.

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Then everything revs back up and the fight continues. After some more tussling, the kaiju uses his size advantage again and just rushes into Gipsy, steadily pushing the jaeger back. Stuck in close quarters, the pilots decide it’s the best time to whip out the trusty old plasma cannon.

"Don't plaz me, bro!"

“Don’t plaz me, bro!”

Using the right arm cannon, Mako “empties the clip” per Raleigh’s instruction, tearing increasingly bigger holes in Leatherback’s hide until the monster’s arm falls clean off and it eventually topples, just before it would have pushed Gipsy into the water.

Gipsy starts to walk away, but Raleigh clearly remembers how he assumed Knifehead’s death too soon. Wanting to “check for a pulse” Gipsy revs up the other plasma cannon and blasts the monster several more times, ripping enormous cavities in its chest. Presumably a simpler and more ammunition-efficient way would be to just jump on the monster’s head or something, but this is way more fun.

In real war, double-tapping is technically illegal. Good thing the kaiju don't know about the Geneva Convention.

In real war, double-tapping is technically illegal, so good thing the kaiju don’t know about the Geneva Convention.

Satisfied that Leatherback is not merely dead but really most sincerely dead, Gipsy looks to elsewhere in city at its next target: the deadly Otachi.

This is basically non-stop awesome. It fully delivers on the promise of inventive, epic excitement that you went to the movie for. More importantly, as discussed above it comes at just the right time in the narrative, giving the heroes a win they sorely need. And there’s that promise of more to come.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: The ship hits the fan.

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Pacific Rim (fight 2 of 5)

Another fight filled with tragedy.

And not just because Stryker never got any beads for this.

And not just because Striker never got any beads for this.

If Pacific Rim has any major weakness it’s that it sags in the middle. Not terminally– what does transpire is watchable enough if a bit cliche-ridden and predictable, plus there are a couple of human physical sequences we’ll get to later– but if you came for giant robots fighting giant monsters (and of course you did), there’s a huge stretch of time where that is inexplicably not happening.

Fortunately the movie makes up for it when the action finally does rev back up, giving the audience three big fight sequences that are practically back-to-back-to-back, and a climax not too long after. This is where the movie starts to make its money.

2) Typhoon, Cherno and Striker vs Otachi and Leatherback

The Fighters:

  • Crimson Typhoon, a robot made and by piloted by the Chinese (the jaeger program is an international effort). Unlike the other machines it has a third arm, made possible by its number of pilots. Rather than hands, each arm has a large spinning blade attached to the end of it, making this the jaeger’s primary offensive attack. Typhoon uses the blades in a technique called the “Thundercloud Formation,” the specifics of which are vague but is apparently designed to allow a continuous and seemingly unblockable offense. The robot’s head is also smaller than other models’ but more easily moved, increasing the pilots’ ability to see at the expense of heightened vulnerability, since the head is where the pilots are located. This will turn out to be a bad trade-off.
    • Piloted by: Cheung Wei Tang, Hu Wei Tang, and Jin Wei Tang, Chinese triplets and martial artists. Played by Charles Luu, Lance Luu, and Mark Luu, who are, you guessed it, real-life identical triplets. Good thing for them they’re Chinese and not North Korean. Supposedly Guillermo del Toro wanted quadruplets for the role but couldn’t find any so he had to settle for triplets… which is mystifying because the Wei Tangs are on-screen for so little time a fourth could have easily been simulated using movie tricks that have been around since at least The Parent Trap. Heck, they could have done it all with just one guy.
  • Cherno Alpha, the Russian jaeger and one of the oldest around. Big and simple in a very stereotypically Russian way: ugly, but it gets the job done. Unlike the other jaegers (especially Typhoon), its head is a thick, heavily protected tin can connected directly to the torso, with no “neck” or other vulnerable spots– you know, like the guy who used to beat you up in high school. Doesn’t seem to have any offensive powers besides its extra-large fists.
    • Piloted by: Aleksis and Sasha Kaidonovsky, a Russian husband & wife team. Like the Wei Tangs, they’re not much of a presence in the movie, but they still make a strong impression with their imposing size, stoic attitudes and outrageous bleach blonde hair. Played by Robert Maillet and Heather Doerksen, the latter of whom probably had to endure a lot of taunting in primary school.
  • Striker Eureka, an Australian jaeger with the highest kill count on record. A newer, sleek and speedy model. Like Gipsy, Striker largely gets things done physically (aided by some sharp-looking prongs at the top of its wrists), but it also houses six short-range missile launchers behind a retractable chest cavity. It’s unknown just how powerful the missiles are, but one barrage was enough to finish off a tough-looking kaiju earlier in the movie (in a battle so fleetingly glimpsed via news report earlier in the movie it’s not worth writing up), which makes you wonder why cities don’t just set up similar missile batteries near their coastlines.
    • Piloted by: Herc and Chuck Hansen, a father & son Aussie team. Herc, the dad, is a veteran jaeger & military pilot. The son, Chuck, is fairly young but a talented hotshot. He’s also another of the film’s irritations, because he’s a cartoonishly arrogant and needlessly vindictive prick. Apparently the screenwriters felt the film needed an element of drama it could only get from a designated jerk, so they made a bully straight out of a bad 80s high school movie to hiss nasty stuff at Raleigh every time they’re on-screen together. There’s a moment toward the end where Pentecost casually diagnoses Chuck as having “daddy issues,” which is bizarre because Herc is incredibly nice & respectful to everybody. Played by Max Martini (from The Unit!) and Robert Kazinsky, respectively
  • Otachi, a more lizard-like kaiju who prefers to crawl about on all fours. In addition to the deadly claws & jaws that all these beasties seem to come equipped with, Otachi (Japanese for “big sword,” apparently) also has an extra-long & thick prehensile tail, with another large gripper claw on the end of it. It can also spit large amounts of corrosive blue acid which it stores in a sac underneath the chin. And this won’t come into play until later, but Otachi also has a set of strong wings hidden in its forearms.
  • Leatherback, a fat kaiju with a¬†gorilla-like body who walks dragging the knuckles attached to his enormous forearms. Big & strong, of course, and he has some sort of alien device on his back that can release an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

Whew, that was a long one.

The Setup: After their first attempt at forming a neural bridge went all kinds of wrong, Raleigh and his would-be partner, Mako, are grounded, so when two more kaiju are detected (the first time more than one has attacked at once), it’s up to Cherno & Typhoon to defend the city (Striker is held back in reserve, because it’s needed for an important mission later). Though actually as we shortly find out, the kaiju’s primary mission here is to hunt down a human scientist working for the jaeger program, because he’d gone rogue and neural-drifted with a piece of kaiju corpse, getting the hive mind’s attention. (The scientist, Dr. Geiszler, is made to feel bad for “provoking” the enemy, but since they were intent on showing up in cities and wrecking things anyway, I don’t see what the big difference is.)

So Striker hugs the coast while the two other active jaegers venture out to find the approaching kaiju. It doesn’t take them long.

Peekaboo.

Peekaboo.

The Fight: Otachi, not one to beat around the bush, pops out of the water directly in front of Crimson Typhoon. After a brief holler, it spins around and floors the jaeger with its massive tail. Sweep the leg!

NO MERCY!

NO MERCY!

Typhoon pauses and actually shakes its head a little bit before getting up, the way a human would after taking a hard knock. Presumably this is because the pilots are a bit dazed from the fall and the jaeger is only following their movements, but it’s still a funny touch because it looks like the robot is dizzy, which is hilarious.

Typhoon arises and attacks Otachi using Thundercloud, all three blades spinning madly. The brothers get in a good five or six swipes, ripping several tears across the kaiju’s ugly gut, before Otachi seizes two of the jaeger’s hands in its own claws, crunching the blades good. Rather than just going to town with the remaining third limb (this would kind of seem to be what it’s there for, no?), Typhoon responds by using the jets on its back to leap into the air above Otachi’s head, but remains vertical and still with its hands caught in the monster’s claws. It looks like the world’s biggest, slowest suplex, except it’s self-inflicted.

While Typhoon is briefly suspended above Otachi’s head, the pilots swivel the entire lower half of its body (that’s nifty) so that it lands with increased leverage, which it then uses to fling Otachi several hundred feet through the air.

The kaiju stumbles in the shallow water, where it finds Cherno Alpha ready for business. The beefy jaeger wastes no time charging in and delivering an elbow drop (more rasslin’ moves!) to Otachi’s long neck. Cherno segues right into a headlock and follows up with a few blows to the monster’s face. It can’t finish the job, though, because the creature’s tail swipes in to knock it down.

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The Hansens see this and want to help, but are told to stand down by command. Meanwhile, Typhoon closes back in on Otachi, so the beast is surrounded and seemingly in trouble. But that damn tail is still too unpredictable for the pilots: it whips in and smacks Typhoon, and the claw at the end of it grabs onto Typhoon’s head/cockpit. This spurs the Hansens to finally disobey orders and start rushing over to help, but it’s too late to save Typhoon’s noggin: after a little bit of wrenching, the entire thing gets yanked clean off, and flung carelessly into the sea. Just like with Yancy we don’t see what happens to the triplets inside after that, but they almost certainly didn’t survive. As for Crimson Typhoon, well, now he’ll never be the head of a major corporation.

That's not the way to get ahead in life

Too soon?

Really, as I said earlier, that was a serious design flaw. Surely they could have found a way to increase the jaeger’s visibility (cameras embedded in the sides, or something) without leaving its pilots so exposed. This is twice now in the movie a jaeger has been quickly compromised by a direct attack on its cockpit. That’s not the way to get ahead in life.

Anyway, Cherno Alpha’s pilots see this and are pissed. The jaeger clangs its fists together in anticipation, and rushes at Otachi. Unfortunately, Otachi does its Linda Blair impression and hits Cherno square in the face with deadly acid. The jaeger is damaged but not down, even though the acid quickly leaves the pilots directly exposed. Otachi bites into Cherno’s arm and the jaeger starts to fight back, but his fate is sealed when Leatherback decides to make his entrance.

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Leatherback clings onto Cherno’s back and starts tearing it up from behind, even as Otachi keeps at it from the front. Soon enough the latter decides that Leatherback can finish things off on its own, and goes off to engage Striker Eureka. Indeed, Leatherback does make short work of things, seizing Cherno and shoving it into the ocean. There’s a strangely personal & chilling malice in the way the monster simply holds the robot down, waiting for the inevitable to happen. Water floods not just the pilots but also the reactor, shortly triggering a muted explosion that saves the pilots the indignity of a slow drowning death.

Meanwhile, an enraged Striker has been ruthlessly pounding on Otachi. The jaeger finishes up by hefting the kaiju above its head and giving it a mighty toss– maybe not the smartest move on the pilots’ part, since the landing in deep water doesn’t really hurt it, and Striker would have been better off pressing the advantage. Maybe they only did that so they’d have a safe distance from which to fire Striker’s missiles… but that doesn’t work either, because a freshly-unoccupied Leatherback sees the danger and activates its EMP.

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To slightly paraphrase War Machine: Why didn’t they lead with that? Really, it could saved the kaiju a lot of hassle. Getting all their targets in range couldn’t have been an issue, because the pulse extends at least all the way to the shore.

As Striker stands inert, the two monsters have a brief exchange. Otachi charges off to find Dr. Geiszler while Leatherback stays behind to menace its motionless enemy. There are a couple cuts away to headquarters and the doctor’s misadventures in the city, but soon enough we come back to the two pilots in their useless robot. They leave their harness just as Leatherback gives Striker’s head a playful smack, which leads to Herc falling and hurting his arm.

There’s some macho arguing, but ultimately the two decide to “do something really stupid”: rather than sit there and wait for the inevitable doom, the Hansens climb outside to almost literally spit in Death’s eye. Armed with flare guns, they wait for a curious Leatherback to examine them up close, and fire a couple shots right at some of his six eyeballs. The monster is none too happy and raises his fists to take them out, when suddenly a spotlight hits him from behind….

Well. All kidding aside, this is some pretty harsh stuff to watch. Probably not as much as it would be if we’d actually gotten to know some of these now-dead characters (and their awesome jaegers) on anything but the most surface of levels. To be sure, some of the mystique surrounding the Russian & Chinese pilots is owed to them being more on the periphery, but it’s possible to flesh out a supporting character while still maintaining his or her mystique. As it is, these folks are barely cameos before this.

The way the fight unfolds also underscores the problem of the movie’s necessarily rushed storytelling. This is the first really extended monster combat we’ve seen so far, yet it’s filled with at least three “this has never happened before!” moments: two kaiju attacking simultaneously, a kaiju using projectile spit, and a kaiju with a sophisticated technological attack. We have minimal grounding here, jumping into this war just as it’s starting to get truly interesting and desperate.

All that being said, the fight is astounding. With five combatants constantly shifting back & forth and some unexpected attacks (not just the obvious ones like the EMP and acid spit either; Otachi’s crazy tail is another game-changer) this is a WAY more dynamic fight than the opening number. We get to see a few more tricks from the jaegers as well, and of course there’s that crazy sense of scale that Pacific Rim’s fights operate on. This battle puts a very effective cap on the tail end of the second-act doldrums, and excellently sets things up for the big turnaround.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Looks like Team Elbow Rocket’s blasting off again….

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.