One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 3 of 6)

Today: a reminder that they can’t all be winners.

This is actually more silly than it looks.

This is actually more silly than it looks.

3) Nami vs Miss Doublefinger

The Fighters:

  • Nami, the Straw Hats’ genius navigator and quartermaster, and its only (not counting Vivi) female member at this time. Resourceful, spunky, and comically greedy, with a soft spot for her friends. Voiced by Akemi Okamura.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: While athletic and canny enough, Nami does not have any physical skills beyond basic self-defense, and until now has played a more supporting or behind-the-scenes role in the crew’s battles. It’s revealed just before this fight, however, that she commissioned Usopp to create a special weapon to help her overcome her limitations. The item he made is called the Clima-Tact, a staff made up of several detachable segments and all sorts of hidden functions, mainly relating to either weather manipulations or party tricks. Up until now, she hasn’t practiced with it or even read the instructions.
  • Miss Doublefinger (real name Paula), the female half of Baroque Works’ #1 team and therefore one of the most dangerous members of the organization. Her cold-blooded spitefulness is an odd contrast to the caricatured “sexiness” both in appearance and the exaggerated way she moves her hips while walking. The holiday her code name refers to is One Piece creator’s personal way of referring to New Year’s Day (1/1 = two index fingers held up side by side), which is also his birthday. Voiced by Yuki Tachibana.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Miss Doublefinger ate a Devil Fruit which enables her to turn any part of her body into spikes, something she uses in fairly creative ways.

  

The Setup: The #1 team encounters Zoro and Nami together on the streets of Alabasta, and at first pursue only Nami, correctly identifying her as the weaker threat which should be eliminated first. Zoro intercedes and squares off against Mr. 1, leaving Miss Doublefinger to deal with Nami.

The navigator promptly runs & hides, at which point we get the (convenient) flashback about the creation of the Clima-Tact. Drawing the weapon, Nami finds the courage to stand her ground… just in time for her opponent to stab her through the wall she’d been leaning against.

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Fortunately it’s only through the shoulder (that happens a lot in this show), so Nami’s alive when Miss DF cuts her way through the wall and introduces herself. Time to fight!

(Or “fight.”)

The Fight: Nami quickly tries to fight back with some of the Clima-Tact’s features (most of them done using different configurations of the sections), but finds them to be, shall we say, less than useful. First it fires a small smoke cloud which doves fly out of. Then she shapes it like a gun, which only produces a bouquet of flowers.

Sheesh, even Piers Morgan wouldn't be threatened by this.

Sheesh, even Piers Morgan wouldn’t be threatened by this.

Later it produces a cartoon boxing glove which doesn’t even reach all the way to its target, and much later it will shoot out small streams of water like a sprinkler (which Nami will actually use to her advantage). Throughout, Miss Doublefinger looks on at Nami with a mixture of pity and confusion.

In fact, this forms a loose pattern for the two’s duel: Nami will be chased, be cornered/fight back after reading & remembering more about the Clima-Tact, her opponent will stand by while Nami uses the weapon in a way that is varying degrees of ineffectual, and the cycle will repeat, with Nami suffering minor injuries along the way.

There are some very neat iterations of Miss DF’s powers. At first she just uses them in a fairly straightforward manner, such as turning her fingers into elongated daggers:

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But as the fight wears on the villain deploys her thorny nature in several wild & inventive ways. She transforms other body parts (including her nose and the tips of her bra) into sharp points as well, she forms spikes out of her heels so that she can walk upside down on the underside of an archway, she turns her entire hair into a bed of needles, and at one point she even becomes one big giant ball of spikes and rolls after Nami like Sonic the Hedgehog.

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Smack that bitch and takes her rings

Later on, she displays her own form of Beast Mode when she injects her own arms with her needle fingers, which somehow turns her into super-buff, spiky clubs.

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For her part, Nami displays some ingenuity, both with and without her impossible weapon. She wins a little respect from her adversary by getting Paula to chase her through a window, then rips off her own cloak and tangles the villain up in it (while still in ball form) to buy herself some more time. She’s soon able to use the Clima-Tact to create a wind attack which fires off one portion like a boomerang, knocking the villain back a bit.

Eventually Nami comes to realize that the true power of the odd staff is how it can generate small spheres of heat, cold, and electricity… and due to the odd science rules that govern shounen anime, have the correct combinations of these otherwise harmless discharges add up to devastating effects. She can also create a mirage version of herself (which she uses to briefly trick Miss DF into thinking she’s been killed) by causing light refractions from the difference in temperatures.

Yeah, right.

Yeah, right.

Finally, Nami reads up on the Clima-Tact’s ultimate movie, a one-time only attack called the “Tornado Tenpo.” Since she only has the one chance to use it, she makes sure to create an opening. She creates a cloud by making a bunch of cold spheres, then merging them with hot spheres which have soaked up water from her sprinkler move, and when the cloud gets big enough, it close in on Miss Doublefinger and Nami juices it with some electricity.

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Meteorologists LOVE this show.

Paula is hurt, but even more mad. She charges through what turns out to be another mirage, and Nami appears from behind, sarcastically telling her what the “forecast” is. However, she has trouble standing due to her wounds, but in the battle’s most inspiring moment, Nami thinks back on the suffering Vivi has endured thanks to Baroque Works, and knows she has to hold herself together for her friend’s sake. She even explicitly says that her pain is nothing compared to Vivi’s; this is the kind of outsized emotional bombast this genre is so well-suited for.

She even powers through getting impaled in the foot after Miss DF tries her urchin-head attack again. She uses the leverage to get close to her foe, then opens the Clima-Tact right in her face to execute the Tenpo. Surprising both of them, at first it only shoots out a pair of clockwork doves. Nami is enraged that it appears to be another joke, but shortly after the little birds wind their way around the target’s body.

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Then the “T” bar on the end begins spinning rapidly, and with incredible centrifugal force, propels Miss Doublefinger through three buildings, knocking her out and then some.

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Nami controls the horizontal, Nami controls the vertical.

Well, this is proof that even the best of the best isn’t always made up of 100% winners. It’s not offensively bad or anything– at about an episode and a half like its predecessors, it stops well short of outstaying its welcome– but it’s hard to love, too, especially sandwiched in amongst much better material.

Cool powers or not, Miss Doublefinger doesn’t present as great a threat as one would think, given her rank in Baroque Works. She’s conspicuously generous in waiting to let Nami pull off all sorts of complicated maneuvers, and after sustaining mostly mild damage throughout the battle, she ends up falling to an attack that seems fairly tame by One Piece standards.

The Clima-Tact is sort of an interesting idea, but it’s not handled well here (it will play out better later in the series). It’s always tough to know where to draw the line on believability, but for my money, the idea that it can generate a bunch of small charged blasts is on one side of that line, and the idea that it is somehow hiding several live animals and other party gags is on the other. To say nothing of the idea that Usopp would have designed the weapon primarily with amusing magic tricks in mind, or that Nami wouldn’t have studied & practiced with the Clima-Tact before now, given how important she made it seem to her in the flashback.

Credit is due for providing yet another left turn in terms of the nature of combat, compared to the more directing fighting in most of the other battles, and even the more explosive and convoluted maneuvers in the Southeast Gate throwdown. Plus it’s nice to finally give Nami her first big win.

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Still, with the actual fighting too unevenly spaced and the silly plot mechanics, this is easily the weakest of a great bunch.

[Also, this was probably the beginning of the series’ unfortunate trend of oversexualizing Nami; around this time (if not this actual battle, specifically right when Nami rips her cloak off), the artists started to draw her with Jessica Rabbit’s proportions but far less modesty. So there’s that.]

Grade: C

Coming Attractions: En garde!

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Clang clang.

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One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 2 of 6)

Some mixed gender violence.

The Japanese version of Swan Lake took a few liberties.

2) Sanji vs Mr. 2

The Fighters:

  • Sanji, the ship cook of the Straw Hat pirates, and one of its more delightfully weird characters. In addition to being a chef who’s almost religiously obsessed with food, Sanji is self-consciously “cool” to the point of parody: he’s perpetually smoking a thin cigarette, is always laid back & sarcastic with his hands in his pockets, has hair draped over one eye, and never wears anything but a spiffy suit & tie. In the presence of beautiful women his laconic cool is instantly replaced with over-the-top, eye-bulging romanticism– the kind of transparent (yet oddly wholesome) horndoggery that would make Tex Avery’s wolf say “hey dude, dial it back a notch.” Voiced by Hiroaki Hirata.
    • Powers/abilities/weapons: Sanji has no “superpowers” per se but is nonetheless one of the more dangerous of Luffy’s crew, largely due to his skill in the “Black Leg” martial arts– a fighting style emphasizing powerful & complex legwork.
  • Mr. 2 Bon Kurei (real name Bentham) is an outrageous caricature of a self-professed “okama”– a Japanese slang word variously meaning gay man, cross-dresser or transvestite (yes, those are three different things). The only thing more flamboyant and ridiculous than his outfit is his personality, so aggressively manic and infectious is it. Though a vicious killer, Mr. 2 has a soft spot for melodrama, friendship and performative acts. Notably, Mr. 2 is the only officer-level member of Baroque Works to not have a partner; being a transvestite, he fills both the male and female halves of his “team” simultaneously. (“Bon Kurei” being a specific night in the traditional Japanese Obon festival.) Voiced by Kazuki Yao.
    • Powers/abilities/weapons: Bentham’s outsized temperament may be the polar opposite of Sanji’s too-cool-for-school stoicism, but their fighting styles are nearly a perfect match. Mr. 2 uses a dance-based martial art called “Ballet Kenpo” which similarly emphasizes footwork. Additonally, his Devil Fruit power allows him to instantly shape-shift into the appearance of anyone he has seen or touched. To activate it, he has to touch his right cheek, and turns it off by touching his left. During an earlier (and friendly) accidental encounter with the Straw Hats, Mr. 2 bonded with all the members of the crew, and learned to copy their forms to impress them… except for Sanji, who was belowdecks cooking, and whose existence therefore comes as a surprise to both Mr. 2 and Baroque Works. Additionally, the two decorative swans on Mr. 2’s shoulders double as flexible footwear (with hardened metal tips), adding more reach and power to his attacks. And the mascara marks under his eyes are sharp boomerangs.

 

[In case you’re wondering, the story here is going straight from Mr. 4 and his team to Mr. 2 because the Straw Hats have already defeated Baroque Works’ #3 pair several episodes back. Long story.]

The Setup: Mr. 2 is tasked with preventing Princess Vivi from reaching the royal palace. His first attempt at subterfuge fails and he pursues her through the city… until they’re intercepted by Sanji, who volunteers to hold the okama off while Vivi escapes.

Mr. 2 asks if Sanji is the unaccounted-for Straw Hat who has ruined several of Baroque Works plans recently, and Sanji asks if Mr. 2 is “the one who does those shitty impersonations.” The cook easily blocks Bon Kurei’s opening swipe, shocking him with his strength.

The Fight: We don’t come back to their showdown until after the conclusion of the fight at the southeast gate, and the two are already fighting furiously. After a couple clashes end in “draws” where they both finish by kicking each other in the face simultaneously, Mr. 2 tries a different tack, and uses his Devil Fruit power to custom-make the most ridiculous face imaginable, apparently in an effort to distract/unnerve his opponent.

Unfortunately it ends up mostly being Mr. 2’s own face, only with a longer nose.

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If my dog looked like that, I’d shave his butt and run him over.

While Mr. 2 cries into a mirror over his injured vanity, Sanji boots him right in the face. Bon Kurei is offended by the lack of pity, and mimics a crew-mate’s (Usopp’s) face, in the hopes that it will make him hesitate to attack.

Predictably, this also doesn’t work. Sanji strikes again and gives a brief speech about being able to see through illusion and straight to the heart. Mr. 2 is shocked and admires his foe’s purity. In despair, he absentmindedly switches his face to Nami’s, lamenting how it wouldn’t work either.

Except it totally does.

Dude has issues.

Dude has issues.

Mr. 2 quickly catches on, and even he is shocked by how absurd Sanji’s behavior is. There’s a great bit of deadpan humor here, as he turns the Nami-transformation on & off repeatedly, and every time Sanji’s demeanor instantly turns to that of an enraptured sycophant, like flicking a light switch. The okama’s internal monologue keeps saying “It can’t be this easy.” He finally realizes how glaring his opponent’s weakness is, and grins evilly.

After a cut back to Vivi at the palace, the episode ends on a cliffhanger, and comes back to the fight continuing. Sanji suffers repeated blows because every time Mr. 2 switches to Nami’s appearance, he’s not just unwilling to hit a woman but nearly paralyzed with lust. At one particularly funny moment, Mr. 2 overcomes Sanji’s attempt at resistance by complaining about how hot it is and starting to unbutton his blouse (thereby nearly revealing “Nami’s” chest), then attacking him once again when he rushes over.

Sanji takes some more licks when the sight of Nami’s face keeps him from being able to dodge the backswing of the villain’s mascara boomerangs, cutting him on each side.

Mr. 2 decides it’s time to put an end to all this fun, and begins spinning around rapidly, building up power. But when he switches back to his normal form halfway through, Sanji figures something out: Bon Kurei can’t use his Ballet Kenpo techniques while he’s assuming someone else’s form. Knowing that Mr. 2 won’t switch while attacking, Sanji strikes him before he finishes his spinning technique, sending him crashing into a nearby building.

The okama is angry that he’s been figured out, so he uses his trump card and dons his swan shoes. Sanji dodges the first lunge, which puts a neat hole into the wall behind him, as if it had been shot by a rifle. The next time they tussle, it ends in another stand-off with the two striking simultaneously, only this time Sanji is stabbed through the shoulder while his own foot doesn’t quite reach the target.

Sanji thinks again and realizes that although 2’s reach has increased, wearing the swans will make him take longer to get in to an attack stance, so if he avoids the first strike he should be able to counter. He leaps over Bon Kurei’s next attack, but the villain tries to stifle him by quickly switching to Nami’s face. However, while Sanji is still in mid-air (anime physics are so awesome) he bluffs Mr. 2 into undoing it by telling him there’s something on his left cheek. The chef is able to deliver a few good hits, but 2 rallies and stabs his chest.

After a short breather, the two clash again. Now, they know all each other’s tricks and advantages, so it’s just a matter of skill and strength. What follows are two fairly extended, furious exchanges that are of outstanding animation quality, especially by television standards.

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The two walk upside down on their hands while exchanging kicks, rising & falling as they take shots at each other. By the end, they’re both absorbing numerous blows as they frantically try to take each other down, calling out their distinctive moves all the while.

Finally, they both collapse, gasping for air. They pause, then leap at each other for one final shot, Ninja Gaiden-style.

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Both land, and Sanji’s legs buckle, toppling him over in pain. But his legs only hurt so much because his blow was the one to land successfully– Mr. 2 howls in pain, and goes down for good (after flying into another building, apparently from some kind of delayed reaction effect).

Barely able to move, the okama willingly surrenders to Sanji and accepts any fate his opponent will give. Sanji (having risen and dramatically re-lit his cigarette, because of course he would) says he won’t kill him, that it was a good fight, and offers him a handshake. Touched by the gesture of honorable friendship, Mr. 2 Bon Kurei shakily raises his hand. Except:

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The “Dark Helmet” tactic. FOOLED YOU!

Yeah, honor amongst adversaries is great and all, but there’s a civil war going on. You can’t leave a crazy bastard like this running around.

Sanji walks away calmly, thinking that he probably has a few more broken bones. But, you know– whatever.

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GOOD GUYS: 2

As with the previous battle, this one takes up about an episode and a half’s worth of time, and the hero’s chances rise & fall on roughly the same trajectory. There’s a different vibe here, though, because even though Mr. 2 is quite powerful, we KNOW Sanji can kick some serious ass– if you’ve been watching the show up to this point, you’ve seen him do it several times. Between that and his cocky attitude, this is more of a pure strength-vs-strength contest, rather than wondering how the overmatched Usopp and Tony will overcome impossible odds.

And since it’s strength-on-strength, that means there’s more direct combat, and less of the weird dog-cannons and tunneling mole ladies stuff. This being One Piece, there’s no shortage of silliness, but it’s all in the service of enhancing & escalating the fight.

Mr. 2 is perfectly matched with Sanji, making for both great combat and hilarious interaction. I suppose it’s possible to be offended by this kind of trans portrayal, if you’re into being offended, but from a purely narrative standpoint, this villain is a delightful character. He’s just outrageous and silly enough for his shrillness to be endearing rather than irritating, and he’s actually likable enough while still being sold as a dangerous threat. Later (MUCH later) in the series, he’ll emerge as a heroic character of sorts, but for now he’s an effective villain.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Chick fight!

... it's not as hot as it sounds.

… it’s not as sexy as you might think.

One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 1 of 6)

One Piece is the greatest thing ever.

Try not to look TOO smug about it.

Okay, not really. There are at least several things better than One Piece (the Bible, true love, Robocop) but when you’re watching it, it can often feel like it really is The Best. And I would legitimately argue its status as one of THE great pop epics of our time.

And I do mean epic. One Piece is HUGE: a multimedia franchise that began in 1997, One Piece started as a manga by Eiichiro Oda which now has about 750 chapters and soon spawned a televised anime adaptation with over 600 episodes. Neither shows any sign of stopping, being a singular cultural juggernaut in its native Japan and beginning to penetrate the wider world. Considering his story’s amazingly ambitious scope, Oda has been admirably unafraid to keep making his fictional world ever-larger, more complex and rich, often planting plot seeds which take hundreds of chapters to bear fruit.

One Piece is the story of Monkey D. Luffy– possibly the ur-example of the single-minded & virtuously simple protagonist– his journey to become the next Pirate King, and the friends & adventures he piles up along the way. The show runs through a lot of themes, but most prominently, One Piece is about dreams, and what ends a man will go to accomplish them. There might not be any modern story which is so thoroughly optimistic as One Piece yet it doesn’t shy away from the dark realities of human nature: the story’s world is filled with good people who have failed or made compromises, and villains who have committed unspeakably vile deeds. But one way or another, none of them are unchanged once they cross paths with the relentless engine of goodness that is Luffy.

This blog could always do with a bit of branching out, so tackling a small slice of One Piece is both an opportunity to examine our first TV show (an animated Japanese show, at that) and hopefully nudge some Western readers towards a property that’s relatively unknown in their part of the world. (On that front: I hate to be such a cliched nerd, but avoid the dubbed American versions of this at all costs, especially the early stuff by 4Kids; seek out the subtitled material instead. Dubbing competence aside, the story & characters simply lose something in translation.) Also, it couldn’t hurt to pull in some traffic from otakus on Google.

And this will be a small slice, examining the five distinctive battles which occur at the conclusion of the show’s famous Alabasta arc, from relatively early in its run. The Alabasta storyline was not the first one to impress or win over new fans, but it was the first time the show engaged in some seriously long form storytelling and arrived at a thrilling conclusion that managed to pay off years of investment.

A word for the uninitiated: Many of One Piece’s characters have fantastical powers for one reason or another (the most common explanation is having eaten one of the rare “Devil’s Fruits” which grant the consumer a certain set of superhuman traits), but even many of the ostensibly “normal” characters are capable of feats far beyond actual human ability: impossible leaps, exaggerated strength, incredible endurance, etc. It’s just another one of the stylized conventions inherent to shounen anime programs, kind of like calling out the name of your special attack before you do it.

1) Usopp and Chopper vs Mr. 4 and Miss Merry Christmas

(Did I mention the show and its characters are very, ahem, colorful? Get used to that.)

The Fighters:

  • Usopp, one of the more inexperienced and least powerful of Luffy’s crew. An incurable liar (complete with comically long nose) and often a shameless coward, Usopp is a good soul who can be counted on when it matters most. Voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi.
    • Powers/abilities/weapons: Usopp has no special powers to speak of, and is not even physically impressive by normal human standards. His main asset is his advanced cleverness, both as an inventor of useful devices and quick-thinking battle tactics. His most common weapon is a slingshot, but he has all sorts of little gadgets with him.
  • Tony Tony Chopper, the doctor of Luffy’s crew and its newest member. Although brilliant and talented, Chopper is very naive, having not seen much of the world; he’s very childlike in both attitude and appearance. He’s also a reindeer. Voiced by Ikue Otani.
    • Powers/abilities/weapons: Yep, a reindeer. Specifically, he’s a reindeer who ate a Devil’s Fruit that gives the consumer human-like attributes: speech, intelligence, etc. Chopper can transform at will between a very human-like appearance, a powerful reindeer form, and a sort of hybrid form that’s about three feet tall and totally adorable– which is what he spends most of his time in. He has the considerable strength of a wild reindeer, and has also devised a special drug called the “Rumble Ball” which augments his abilities for a short while after consumption.
  • Mr. 4, one of the high-ranking members of Baroque Works (see below). A huge, slow-talking, and slow-moving simpleton. Voiced by Masaya Takatsuka.
    • Powers/abilities/weapons: Mr. 4’s powers are not supernatural, which is rare in his organization. He’s merely an incredibly strong human with a knack for baseball– his main weapon is a four-ton (!) baseball bat, which he uses either as a direct weapon or to smack exploding baseball bombs at his foes. The bombs are launched by his “dog,” Lassoo, which functions as a sort of pitching machine but with explosive cannon balls. It’s very weird.
  • Miss Merry Christmas, Mr. 4’s partner. An obnoxious older lady who’s as agile and loquacious as her partner is slow and quiet. She’s the brains of the pair, and their abilities complement each other nicely. Voiced by Mami Kingetsu.
    • Powers/abilities/weapons: She ate a Devil’s Fruit that gave her the abilities and appearance of a mole, allowing her to tunnel rapidly underground.

6mr4

The Setup: At the risk of making this too long:

Monkey D. Luffy’s crew, called the “Straw Hat Pirates” due to their captain’s signature headgear, are a motley band of do-gooders in search of excitement and treasure. Soon after entering the Grand Line– the chaotic center of the fictional world’s vast ocean– the heroes run afoul of a criminal organization known as Baroque Works. BW is a vast, secretive enterprise which has currently set its sights on taking over the desert kingdom of Alabasta, and has been subtly fomenting instability there for years. This is discovered by Alabasta’s young princess, Vivi, who was able to infiltrate Baroque Works’ ranks and attain a fairly high position. Once the criminals discover Vivi’s true identity, she hires the Straw Hats’ help.

After a VERY convoluted series of events, the separated Straw Hat pirates end up in and around Alabasta’s capital city Alubarna, facing off against the highest-ranking officers of Baroque Works as a civil war begins to erupt around them. There’s a lot of overlap between their various battles, but first (and weirdest) is Usopp and Chopper’s showdown outside the Southeast City Gate.

[Baroque Works’ higher ranking members work in male-female pairs, usually around a theme. The male half is assigned an alias corresponding to his rank, and the female’s name is calendar-based (days of the week and holidays). It’s delightfully bizarre.]

The Fight: Chopper is actually there first, and has to contend with the pair alone. He’s taken by surprise at their tactics and is seen getting hurt in some unspecified manner before the camera pulls away to elsewhere. When we return, a dazed Chopper is being roused by Usopp, who was sent over by Sanji after getting thrashed a bit by Mr. 2.

Usopp thinks they’ve run off, but they’re still underground, tunneling around ominously. Turns out, these two work as a pretty efficient, if bizarre, team: Merry Christmas (hmm, typing that name is going to get old REALLY fast) creates a local tunnel network with plenty of holes. Their dog, Lassoo, fires the baseball-shaped bombs, which are explosives on timers. The bombs either reach their targets or are lined up to be batted the right way by Mr. 4– who can get around those tunnels pretty quickly for such a slow guy.

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Meanwhile, the much-faster female half is free to run interference, such as when she seizes Chopper’s foot to keep him from attacking her partner directly early in the fight; the young doctor only avoids taking a direct volley from Mr. 4 by reverting back to his tiny form at the last second, letting them sail harmlessly overhead.

The crafty Usopp takes this opportunity to disappear into the tunnels himself, and unnerves the villains a bit by calling them out from the unseen depths. He emerges and bashes Mr. 4 on the head with an enormous mallet before he can react, knocking the criminal unconscious.

Where had he been hiding that? Hammerspace, of course.

Usopp wields it with casual ease, despite the “5 ton” label on it, shocking all the others present. He talks trash– his usual brand of self-aggrandizing lies coming in handy for once– and pursues Miss Merry Christmas, though she keeps dodging him easily. The bit’s resemblance to a certain classic, non-digital arcade activity is unmistakeable:

Skee ball. It's clearly skee ball.

Skee ball. It’s clearly skee ball.

It goes on for quite a while, and there’s even a hilarious, blink & you’ll miss it gag where Usopp drops the hammer for a second and flicks her with a rubber band– even calling out the “attack” name for it (simply “rubber band”) in sotto voce– just to annoy her. He never does whack that mole, but they both get visibly tired.

Unfortunately, Mr. 4 wakes up, not as injured as assumed, because as an attack from Lassoo soon reveals, Usopp’s hammer is a bluff– it’s just two frying pans he jerry-rigged together, then covered with fake vinyl and a “5-ton” label. Cute, but it infuriates Miss Merry Christmas, so she enters her combat mode where she can dig through the ground freely– no longer relying on the tunnels– and goes after Usopp.

She chases him to some nearby ruins, where he lures her into colliding with the underground wall, which she hits hard enough to bring the whole thing collapsing down on Usopp. Afterwards, she grabs hold of him from underneath, and drags him along with her, Jaws-style, as she “swims” through the ground, pulling him through several ancient walls and leaving Usopp-shaped holes like Bug Bunny.

This is starting to get downright cartoonish.

This is starting to get downright cartoonish.

Meanwhile, Chopper contends with Mr. 4, who uses a technique where his dog fills the air with baseball bombs and explodes dozens of them at once. Chopper survives (… somehow) and uses his rumble ball to enter an enhanced intellect mode, analyzing Mr. 4’s tactics. He finds it, and scrambles over to Lassoo, splashing sand in the clueless dog’s face. Chopper then shoves the dog’s head down a nearby hole when it sneezes repeatedly in reaction, each sneeze launching a bomb from its mouth. Chopper links up with the wounded Usopp and both run from the tunnel network area just as it erupts in a massive explosion, engulfing both villains.

You'd think THIS would be enough, right?

You’d think THIS would be enough, right?

It’s pretty big, but after a short breather, the bad guys reveal they still have plenty of hit points left. Usopp tries to run away one last time (it’s kind of his thing), but he’s seized from beneath by Miss Merry Christmas, who ends the episode on a cliffhanger by mocking the pair and telling them that Luffy’s dead– which, as far as she knows, is true.

Strangely, this drives Usopp to find his courage. He tells Chopper not to believe the news, and believe in Luffy instead. But the liar nevertheless gets dragged upright through the sand by Merry Christmas again, this time right smack into Mr. 4’s deadly bat. The poor kid breaks more than a few bones, and the impact sends him flying through the air.

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What a Foul move.

Miraculously, Usopp survives, defiant as ever. The mole woman (who, incidentally, Usopp has repeatedly described as a “penguin,” much to her annoyance) grabs him and tries to pull another Batter Up, but this time the good guys are ready. Using the last remaining power from the rumble ball, Tony Tony Chopper enters his “Horn Point” mode: a hulking, four-legged appearance with enlarged antlers. He follows behind Merry Christmas as she drags his friend, and when they get close, Usopp uses a slingshot to fire a smoke pellet in the air, obscuring everyone’s sight.

He breaks free by slipping out of his shoes, and imitates the mole lady’s voice to give Mr. 4 the go ahead. Chopper uses his horns to scoop up Miss Merry Christmas and runs her right into her own partner’s waiting bat. Thud.

MMC goes flying, and without the brains of his operation, Mr. 4 can only stand in shock as Usopp uses Chopper’s antlers to create a massive slingshot, and puts a small (but real this time) hammer in it as the pellet. The launched mallet hits the batter dead-on.

"... and THAT'S how we settle things back home in Asgard."

“… and THAT’S how we settle things back home in Asgard.”

The blow knocks Mr. 4 into Lassoo and they both land next to Miss Merry Christmas. Just to put a nice bow on the whole thing, the dog accidentally barfs up one last grenade, which goes off right on top of them all. Good boy.

Usopp collapses and melodramatically prepares for his own death, and Chopper frantically calls out for a doctor, before being reminded that he is one. Then, the action freezes and this is slowly typed on the screen:

Picture8

It’s definitely out of nowhere, too: the show is of course very stylized, but never in the preceding 100+ episodes has the action stopped to read out fight outcomes like it was a sporting event. It doesn’t just make for an unexpected capper to the fight but also provides a welcome bit of triumphant silliness to relieve the tension regarding the high stakes at play– remember, Vivi’s beloved kingdom is erupting into civil war thanks to Baroque Works’ machinations, and the heroes have recently suffered a set of severe setbacks (including Luffy’s near death). It’s nice to have an almost literal scoreboard pop up and essentially say “GOOD GUYS: 1, BAD GUYS: 0”

This is probably the oddest and easily the most convoluted of all the climactic clashes that are beginning to happen. Chopper and especially Usopp are ill-suited for direct physical combat, so this showdown necessarily has to happen in a wildly complex scenario, where the heroes get in their licks via mostly unorthodox means.

There are a few demerits, the most prominent being the over-reliance on explosions, and how little those explosions seem to do. Over & over again, the villains and especially the heroes are caught within bomb blasts– not ten or twenty feet away but just a few feet or even inches away, and not only do the characters miraculously survive but they’re barely hurt, lacking the decency to even get all scarred up like Harry Osborn. Of course, it’s a cartoon and a willfully silly one at that, but even this kind of ridiculousness has its limits. Similarly, the abuse the heroes (particularly Usopp) withstand makes it hard to accept the idea that the villains go down for the count after taking a lot less.

But it is a good deal of fun, silly or otherwise. Usopp & Chopper engage in varied combat both separately and cooperatively. The staging follows a strong pattern: the good guys seem outmatched, they find a smart way to bounce back, the villains come back even harder, and finally the good guys are able to rally and win the day for good– it’s a template the other battles will follow, to an extent.

The battle is also paced fairly well, taking neither too long or too short: it begins at the tail end of one episode, takes up the bulk of the next (with a cutaway or two to Vivi’s efforts to reach the palace), continues on into the episode after that and ends before the commercial break. It’s a cliche to say that most of any given “fight” in Dragon Ball Z is really like 90% charging up and yelling at each other with 10% actual punching & kicking and dragged out over half a season… but it’s a cliche because it’s true. So it’s refreshing to break away from this obnoxious anime tradition, and have some battles that are over in about an episode and a half, with very little time wasted. One Piece is legitimately as cool as you thought Dragon Ball was when you were in high school.

Grade: B

Recommended Links: Chris Sims at Comic Alliance gives the series his own unqualified recommendation after reaching an earlier, but still great, point in the manga. Worth reading if you’re curious to learn more/other opinions about One Piece.

Coming Attractions: Remember when I said this fight was “probably” the oddest?

Picture1

There’s a reason for that.

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.

Picture4

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.

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.

Picture5

“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.

Picture2

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.

Picture5

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.

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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