Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 2 of 6)

Remember what I said about how for this movie, finding the bad guy is not a “major” plot objective? Well, this is what necessitates the qualifier. And it’s quite the bench-clearer.

“Just three people for this fight? I bet we can double that.”

2) Tsai, May, Bo and Li Mu Bai vs Jade Fox and Jen Yu

The Fighters:

  • Tsai, a police detective from another province, on a vengeful hunt for Jade Fox. Sportin’ some cool facial hair. Played by Wang Deming.
  • May, Tsai’s daughter in her twenties or perhaps late teens. Seems unprofessional to bring her along on both the search for and the fight against Jade Fox, especially since she proves to be worse than useless. Played by Li Li. No, seriously.
    • Armed with: a ridiculously small knife, some kind of rope/hook she never uses, and a dart that is presumably drugged, though when it finally hits someone (her) it doesn’t seem to cause any lasting damage.
  • Bo, Sir Te’s lantern-jawed security guard. An earnest and decent sort, but quite outclassed at this level. Played by Gao Xi’an. Fun fact: at one of the screenings I went to some of my friends confessed afterwards that for a good portion of the running time they thought that Bo WAS Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat’s character), even though the two dressed & acted differently, the only visual similarity being their hairstyles. What, like you don’t have racist friends?
    • Armed with: a spear with a fat sword blade at the end. Also has some kind of a cord with a claw at the end, but he doesn’t use it in the fight.
  • Li Mu Bai, the master warrior who recently owned the even-more-recently stolen Green Destiny. Played by living legend Chow Yun Fat.
    • Armed with: a taijijian, or simple, straight, two-edged sword.
  • Jade Fox, a deadly outlaw. Long ago she murdered Li Mu Bai’s master, Southern Crane, and more recently has killed Tsai’s wife/May’s mother, who was a police officer on her trail. Ruthless & clever. Played by veteran martial art star Cheng Pei-pei.
    • Armed with: a quarterstaff that’s full of all sorts of hidden goodies, including a sword blade, a knife that launches from the other end and some sort of projectile rope/whip. She also has a tiny knife hidden in her shoe like Rosa Klebb. The lady comes prepared.
  • Jen Yu, from earlier. Still in her thief/ninja outfit. It’s here we learn that she is secretly Jade Fox’s apprentice, though as Li Mu Bai quickly deduces, she has long since surpassed her master. (The Fox’s combat prowess comes from a stolen Wudan manual, but being a barely literate peasant she could only study the diagrams, whereas Jen could fully read the complicated instructions.) Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: the Green Destiny sword, and though we’ve heard its capabilities explained before this is the first time we get to see it in action. In shape it’s basically another taijijian with a prettier design, but it’s lighter, unbreakable, rust-proof and so powerfully sharp it’s practically a lightsaber. She breaks one opponent’s weapon with it in this scene, and it will not be the last.

Phew.

Pictured: one of the very few people in this movie, if not all of China, who does NOT appear in this scene

The Setup: Bo had tracked down Tsai & May earlier and, figuring out that they’re the good guys, joined up with them to hunt for the Fox. Turns out she’s been in hiding for years and posing as a humble governess for the Yu family, which is how she managed to train & corrupt Jen from a young age. Some wanted posters have flushed her out and she’s made arrangements to face off against her longtime pursuer Tsai at midnight in this quiet courtyard.

Note that Li Mu Bai shows up about halfway through, with Jen showing up slightly later. Though it’s plausible that Jen clandestinely followed her “governess” here and intervened when she thought it necessary, it’s never explained how Mu Bai knew to show up. Mystical powers help him sense battle? Out for a midnight stroll? All the yelling & clanking woke him up? Ah, well.

The Fight: When Jade Fox shows up (she’s late. Passive-aggressive much?), there’s some taunts exchanged between her and the would-be heroes, then the fight begins. Really, it begins between Tsai and Fox; May is batted away easily and mostly stays on the sidelines from there on; Bo’s entrance is delayed because he clumsily left himself attached to the tree (for… some reason) by way of the claw-rope thing.

Fortunately, the Fox & Tsai show is plenty interesting. The choreography is excellent and much more ground-based than the previous battle we saw. It’s similarly distinct in that this isn’t a low-stakes pursuit/escape scenario; these two clearly despise and want to kill each other. The contrast between the villain’s single long-range weapon and the policeman’s twin short-range weapons makes for lots of interesting possibilities, and the staging explores them with relish.

Tan Dun’s musical score kicks in here again with gusto, and while it’s not as singular as the accompaniment to the previous action sequence, it’s plenty memorable and fits the mood of the scene perfectly: whereas the last scene’s pounding drums were all about raw adrenaline, this selection connotes genuine danger and powerful emotion. The music also rises & falls appropriately with the pace of the action, dropping to a subdued growl whenever the fight’s interrupted for dialogue beats or new challengers appearing.

Bo eventually untangles himself but mostly makes things worse. He’s far too slow to be a real threat to Jade Fox, and after parrying his swings easily she ends up using him against Tsai, first as cover and later by hooking his spear and sending him after her opponent. Bo’s main purpose in this fight is as comic relief; he cuts a very clumsy figure in this sequence and his facial expressions look downright goofy when Fox paralyzes him with a series of pressure point blows.

May’s contribution is arguably worse, as when she finally is able to shoot a dart at Fox, her enemy simply plucks it out of the air and returns it to sender. This infuriates Tsai, and Fox is able to get the best of him, but Li Mu Bai makes his entrance just in time to save the policeman (and Bo, who he un-paralyzes with another set of pressure points).

After introducing himself, Mu Bai utterly pwns Jade Fox, outclassing her at every step. This is where most of the criminal’s aforementioned tricks (which she didn’t need against Tsai) come into play: the shoe knife, the hidden cane sword, and one particularly deft move where a spin of her cloak disguises an unexpected blade thrust. But cunning or not, she’s no match for Li Mu Bai, who defuses all her tricks and even seems to revel a little bit in his long-delayed revenge. When he goes in for the kill he himself is interrupted by the arrival of Jen, who shears the tip of his sword off with Green Destiny in her opening block.

Rather than become a chaotic free-for-all, here the fight splits in two: LMB vs Jen on one side, Tsai & Bo against Jade Fox on another. The latter is just as frenzied as before, but the former takes on a different tempo, as Li is intrigued by this young girl who has learned so much. He’s mostly toying with and questioning her, as he’s (correctly) confident that she is no real match for him. There’s even one very well done beat where Fox, in a pause in her own battle, spots Jen’s movements in the fight against Mu Bai, and the shock & betrayal are quite evident on her face: her student (and closest thing she has to family) has deceived Fox about her true progress.

Too bad that Li’s curiosity doesn’t take a backseat to his need to take care of Jade Fox, because while he’s futzing around off to the side the villain kills Tsai but good: having caught one of his thrown deer horn knives (in a way that tricked him into thinking he’d killed her) she throws it back at him and it lands right in the middle of his bald forehead. Very wicked-looking, but it’s the fight’s one notable misstep, because the thrown blade is shown to travel more than slowly enough for him to get out of the way. This is even more aggravating considering that in a previous scene, we saw Tsai use chopsticks to pluck a smaller, faster-moving dart out of the air that had been shot at him while his back was turned. I appreciate that finding a good ending to a fight scene can be almost as hard as finding one for an SNL sketch, but it’s still unsatisfying when the conclusion is forced via a single act of credibility-straining stupidity (see also Revenge Of The Sith and its “I have the the high ground!” nonsense).

LMB goes after the pair but it’s pretty much over; Fox briefly delays him with couple more surprises from that seemingly bottomless staff, then she & Jen escape together. Bad guys get away, good guys are down one. Darn.

Mostly this all comes together excellently. Some slight dings for the aforementioned chumping out of Tsai, and the almost back-t0-back life-saving arrivals of new challengers (two dramatic entrances in quick succession tends to diminish the, you know, drama). Also, while the physical comedy with Bo is fairly amusing, it kind of jars tonally with the rest of the scene, especially the grisly ending.

But I can’t fault it too much. The escalating action, the varied combat, the juggling of multiple players, the dramatic beats and the excellent music– it’s just too much fun and crazy ambitious besides. It’s also the one time we get to see Chow Yun Fat’s character, who is by far the most powerful out of everyone, really cut loose. It’s to be treasured. But the best is yet to come.

(In an interesting post-script, a few scenes later it’s heavily suggested that Bo gets intimate with a grieving May, though in a way that’s a more sweet and less creepy than I just made it sound. Good for them, I suppose; it’s a happier ending than anyone else gets in this bummer of a movie.)

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Master Li gets out his whippin’ stick.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 1 of 6)

I wrote over 3,000 words about Transformers last week, you guys. I’ve earned this.

Tell me I didn’t. I dare you.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Remember how big of a deal this thing was? Over a decade ago, now. Huge international hit with critics and audiences alike, caused months of Internet buzz as its release crept slowly (agonizingly slowly, in my mind at the time) across the globe and word of its greatness spread. I believe I saw it four times in the theater.

It was a movie that really wanted to have it all. It was a serious, dramatic film with heavy social themes, a mature romance and a coming-of-age story… all while still attempting to deliver the goods with fun & entertaining chop-socky action. Not everything about it works perfectly, especially re-visiting it nowadays, but for the most part it succeeds, masterfully mixing the chocolate of High-Minded Art with the peanut butter of Kickass Action.

Also of of note: this manages to be an action film packed with thrilling fights even though “beat the bad guy(s)” is not really a major plot objective. In fact, the one genuinely villainous character is probably the least physically powerful of the principals. Here, the fights are usually about other things, mostly the expression of emotion– something the characters are otherwise forbidden to do by their society’s rigid rules and codes.

1) Yu Shu Lien vs Jen Yu (round one)

The Fighters:

  • Yu Shu Lien: a veteran warrior and master martial artist, approaching middle age. Played by Michelle Yeoh, who herself was an accomplished actress in various kung fu flicks by this point, not to mention a former ballet dancer and beauty queen.
    • Armed with: naught but her mad skillz, yo.
  • Jen Yu, the young daughter (late teens or so) of a rich aristocrat. Though we’re nominally not supposed to know it’s her yet because she’s in a “disguise” that’s only slightly more effective than Clark Kent’s, but she does definitely strike a cool figure in all that black ninja gear. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: she has stolen the movie’s plot-instigating “Green Destiny” sword, but it doesn’t come into play here. She is however skilled in the martial arts of the “Wudan” school, the advanced techniques of which allow her to be even floatier than the rest of the film’s fighters– something Shu Lien deduces quickly.

There’s also Bo, a guard, who tangles briefly with Jen early in the sequence, but we’ll get to him later.

The Setup: Shu Lien and Jen have met and done some light bonding earlier at the house of their mutual acquaintance Sir Te. Rich girl Jen has been established to be unhappy with her circumstances and envies the “free” lifestyle of impoverished adventurer Shu Lien, unaware that the lower classes have rules they must abide by as well.

Sir Te is guarding the Green Destiny, the favored weapon of Shu Lien’s friend and legendary warrior Li Mu Bai, who is seeking to retire… though the much-ballyhooed Sir Te seems to be an odd choice for safeguarding the sword, since his “security” seems to be a locked door and a single wandering guard who’s fairly useless. Jen has decided to steal the sword late at night, apparently as a short-sighted act of rebellion (most of the film’s plot hinges on her impulsive & chaotic decisions, really) and does so easily but as she glides over the rooftops to escape, she’s confronted by Shu Lien, who wants it back. They fight it out.

The Fight: First of all, there is a sweeeeeet drum score that goes over the entire sequence, stirring up when black-suited Jen initially sneaks onto the premises and abruptly stopping after she makes good her final escape. The tempo fluctuates constantly throughout, all light & mischievous at the beginning as smoothly nabs the sword & smacks around the hapless Bo, picking up pace gradually as Shu Lien spars with & pursues her, then finally erupting into a thudding, lightning-fast percussion as the last and most intense portion of the fight commences. The whole thing is expertly timed and beautifully complements the entire sequence, lending the onscreen action even more rhythmic grace than it already had. Great credit is due to classical composer Tan Dun, who scored the film, and director Ang Lee, who surely worked closely with him to give this scene its signature sound.

That onscreen action isn’t messing around either, though. The two women’s battle escalates in fits & starts as Shu Lien chases Jen throughout the quiet city, and at first Jen is more interested in getting away than she is in fighting back. Another wrinkle is added by the fact that despite Shu Lien’s experience, Jen’s Wudan training allow her to (quite literally) defy gravity much better than her pursuer can, so while the younger woman can simply propel herself directly to the rooftops, Shu Lien has to find more inventive ways to keep up, such as building her own momentum by leap-frogging off walls or taking Jen down with projectiles. As the fight continues the older woman even keeps things more grounded by repeatedly yanking her opponent down via her shoulders, belt, and feet.

One interruption in the chase involves Jen getting briefly delayed by a father & daughter pair of fighters who mistake the disguised girl for the criminal Jade Fox, who we will later they’ve been hunting for. Although the thief quickly escapes the two, this is where Bo first meets them, which will be important later.

Jen and Shu Lien’s confrontation comes to a head in an open courtyard, the ferocity of their fight ratcheting up just as the music does. It is, in a word, gorgeous.

Now they just go nuts, with all the kicking and the punching and the jumping and the glavin. So fast you can barely keep up, but it never looks over-choreographed. It’s not a completely even contest: Yu Shu Lien is clearly the superior fighter here, but it’s also clear that Jen is making her work for it. It’s hard to communicate that kind of power balance in a fight, and commendable when the filmmakers pull it off. Also, Lee and his cinematographer Peter Pau manage to film the clash from all sorts of angles, but the camera is never too busy or ostentatious so as to distract from the combat (plotted out by Hong Kong legend Yuen Wo Ping).

Shu Lien gradually begins to take control of the battle and has her opponent on the ropes, when she is interrupted by mysterious figure firing a dart at her from behind. The veteran fighter catches the projectile, but it’s enough distraction for Jen to collect herself and whoosh away for good. Shu Lien is left standing alone, and a quick-cut to a wide shot of the empty courtyard excellently underscores her frustration just as the music hits a crescendo and halts. Rumor has it that preview screenings packed with jaded film critics burst into applause at the conclusion of this scene. I believe it.

Everything works. The action builds quickly while still having enough brief interludes to keep from being repetitive. The combatants move with fluid grace. And oh my goodness that music. This was a bold opening move from Ang Lee and a strong statement of purpose for the movie. It’s firing on all cylinders and it’s unapologetically awesome.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: A certain foxy lady.

“In France, she would be called ‘la renard’ and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her.”

The Princess Bride (fight 1 of 2)

BUON GIORNO, PRINCIPESSA!

"So this is a movie about horses, or...?"

(spoilers)

What needs to be said? It’s The Princess Bride. You either love it, or you don’t love it, or you somehow haven’t seen it. In those last two options, you’re deeply weird (… said the grown man who spends several hours a week ranting about fight scenes on the Internet), but whatever. Directed by Rob Reiner and written by screenwriting legend William Goldman, adapted from Goldman’s own book (which you owe it to yourself to read if you like this film).

Speaking of Hollywood legends, the fight choreography here was done by Bob Anderson, the veteran sword master and stunt man who had a hand in pretty much every Hollywood sword fight you ever loved, including not just our previous subject Highlander, but the original Star Wars, Lord Of The Rings, The Mask of Zorro and dozens of others. He also played Darth Vader during most of the original trilogy’s Jedi battles, and swung that red lightsaber far more than the famously vain David Prowse ever did. The sheer variety of movie sword fights he’s been responsible for speak to the amazing depths of the man’s skill, and the movie business is all the lesser since his passing last year. RIP Bob.

There are, basically, two fight scenes in this excellent, and very “meta,” fairy tale. You might object, “But wait! What about Westley vs Fezzik? That’s a fight!” Well… not really. Yes, it technically is, in the sense that it’s two parties who face off and exchange violence until one party is subdued. But not really, and certainly not enough to be graded. How does it play out? They walk slowly at each other, Westley (rather foolishly) tries a few running tackles that are ineffective which Fezzik doesn’t respond to, Fezzik throws a couple punches that miss, Westley jumps on his back and chokes him out, Fezzik rams Westley into two or three boulders as he loses oxygen, then he passes out; they talk convivially the whole time. It is a highly entertaining and memorable scene, but not for the fighting. The “fighting” part is inconsequential.

Sorry, buddy.

You might also object, “Hey, what about the scene where Westley outsmarts Vizzini? That’s a fight, if you really think about it. A mental fight!” In which case you are being an insufferable smartass, knock it off.

1) Westley vs. Inigo Montoya

The Fighters:

  • Farmboy turned super pirate Westley, who has spent the last two years under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts but is presently described only as The Man In Black, both disguises effective only if you forgot what the love interest you last saw 12 minutes ago looked like and/or you have the visual recognition skills of Lois Lane. Played by Cary Elwes.
  • Inigo Montoya, a likable Spanish mercenary who has studied fencing for decades as part of a long-term revenge quest to avenge his father. Played by Mandy Patinkin.

The Setup: Really, The Princess Bride? You need me to tell you? Okay, fine: Inigo is one of a trio mercenaries who have kidnapped Florin’s princess, being pursued by the mysterious Man In Black. Inigo is left behind by his partners to kill/stall MIB after he scales up the cliff to his target.

This is arguably where the movie starts to become genuinely lovable and unique (the story-within-a-story premise has already been used notably, but this is where the movie really starts to play), because it’s here that, before their inevitable fight, Inigo actually helps Westley (a stranger and adversary) first by pulling him the mountain and then by giving him time to rest. As Westley recovers, the two chat amiably & respectfully, managing to work in some exposition in about Inigo’s backstory. We even get a close-up of Inigo’s sword– he actually trusts the Man In Black enough at this point to let him hold it– which strikes a nice balance of looking gorgeous & fancy while still seeming deadly. This is an element Peter Jackson bungled horribly, as his version of Aragorn’s reforged blade Anduril looked painfully mediocre.

But friends or no, each has a mission to complete, so fight they must.

The Fight: You know how this plays out. They jab at each other a few times, experimentally. The pacing picks up a bit, and their pleasant dialogue throughout is just so much Boys Being Boys, each subtly bragging about all the techniques he knows and how to overcome them. There is a genuine sense that the characters (not just the actors, but they look like they’re having fun too) are enjoying this– not the violence but the craftsmanship of the fencing. This challenge is a rare pleasure for each of them, and the scene is a joyful celebration of skill & discipline.

In fact if you watch closely, there is no shortage of opportunities for each of them to kill each other, such as when one does a very show-offy flip over the other and utterly exposes himself to a healthy stabbin’, or the several occasions when one or the other is disarmed. But they don’t take those opportunities, and why would they? They’re having the time of their lives, and they clearly like each other; this isn’t Highlander, where the fights are life & death so you take whatever chance you get. Plus, the flips & tricks are, to them, as much a part of the fight as the actual swordplay; it would almost be a crime to disrupt them, especially with something as unsavory as a kill.

The pace escalates and the dialogue dies down. We get the reveal (well, if you paid attention it was established during an earlier scene) that Inigo, who has been fighting with his left, is not left-handed, and has been deliberately fighting with a handicap to make things more interesting. This is very, very cool. But not nearly as cool as what comes next, the thing everyone remembers: once Westley is pushed back by the un-handicapped Inigo, he reveals that he’s not left-handed either. Oh snap, etc.

Pictured: no left-handed people, anywhere

Speaking of which, a word about the dialogue: it is steady, it flows believably from each of the characters, it’s clever & snappy while not being overly precious, it’s delivered capably by the actors. It is, in short, perfect. Perfect bordering on miraculous. You may have noticed that I’m not reproducing it and certainly not peppering it throughout this entry, and that’s because if you want to hear Princess Bride quotes you can go literally anywhere. I love TPB and can still watch it today (I just did a few days ago) but the only film that gets quoted more often is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Anyway, Westley now regains control of the fight and he never loses it again, though Inigo puts up a worthy struggle. The intensity ratchets up, and there are several times where Westley’s swordplay outright mocks Inigo. This somewhat undercuts the “highest respect” he will later say he holds Inigo in, but the arrogant behavior doesn’t completely contradict it: his actions in the latter half of the fight are his way of declaring himself the Alpha Dog, a necessary reminder even when you like the lesser dogs. Also, the frustration he deals out to Inigo can only disorient and tire him down further, which Westley definitely wants.

The Man In Black wins, disarming Inigo and sending him to his knees. Inigo expects death but Westley won’t think of it. It’s sometimes dissatisfying to see a determined sword fight with no kill at the end, but here such bloodshed would only sour what’s preceded, since these two are so darn lovable. Westley knocking Inigo out, and his dialogue immediately before and after, could not possibly be more satisfying.

This is quite reasonably considered one of the greatest movie fight scenes of all time, which, strangely, makes it more difficult to write about, not less. What can you say that hasn’t already been said? The action ramps up believably and occurs in distinct stages. It has a unique setup and an excellent conclusion, which is difficult to pull off when you pit two good guys against each other. The dialogue pops, the swords tink and clang, the actors deliver– it all works. What stuck out to me most on this recent re-watch, though, was how incredibly fake the fight, and really, the whole movie is. The fencing is clearly rehearsed, the cliffside location is obviously a set, the “sky” in the background is a painted wall. Heck, once or twice when someone jumps from a great height you can see the safety mat they land on shake underneath the dirt.

This is not bad, it’s good. The Princess Bride is a fairy tale that is itself within a movie, which is in turn based on a deceptive book, the genesis of which was William Goldman improvising bedtime stories to his own daughters. Arguably, everything we’re seeing on screen is stuff pulled from the mind of a sick, grumpy pre-adolescent boy as the story gets read to him. Of course it’s artificial, that’s part of the charm, like the way sugar makes candy taste. Some of this arguably goes a bit too far, namely in the sound department: some of the musical cues and sound effects are too tinny and on-the-nose, even considering the film’s chosen aesthetic. It’s generally tolerable but at times the sound effects approach the level of bad children’s cartoons or “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” It is, however, a very small gripe in a very wonderful fight scene.

Grade: A+

Recommended links:

  • Good AV Club mini-review of the film overall and the fight scene in particular. Hits some of the same points I did but I swear I didn’t read it right beforehand.
  • The fight redone with lightsabers.

Coming soon: We go all the way to the climax for the second “true” fight scene of the film. And no, it’s not against an ROUS, but rather a veteran comic actor who, despite his famous improvisation skills and ample warning, failed to prepare to die.

The one in the middle.

Highlander (fight 4 of 5)

A quick breather before the show-stopping climax.

4) Sunda Kastagir vs. The Kurgan

Similar to the film’s first “skirmish,” this fight takes place in a generic outdoor city area at night, and is walked into in media res by a non-Immortal bystander. This time however the bystander is not a sexy, yet determined police metallurgy consultant (such a stock character!) but rather Kirk Matunas, a machine gun-toting vigilante.

Pictured: someone Hollywood thinks is everywhere

A paranoid Vietnam veteran, he patrols the streets with fully-automatic machine gun (as one does), apparently wary of a Soviet invasion. We first see him driving around contemptuous of all the “filth” around him like De Niro in Taxi Driver, but soon he catches a glimpse of the second-to-last Immortal clash, and goes to investigate.

In a rather uninteresting alley, the Kurgan is fighting against Sunda Kastagir, an African Immortal who’s a longtime friend of our main hero. A pair of scenes showing Kastagir with MacLeod (one in present day where they meet pleasantly & agree not to fight, one in the past showing them abusing Connor’s invulnerability to mess with a French dandy’s head) have endeared us to him. We don’t love him like we did Ramirez, but we like him, certainly enough to not want him to get murdalized.

(Incidentally, Kastagir is played by British actor Hugh Quarshie, who never truly reached star status despite appearing prominently in several major genre works. Most people will at least recognize him as Captain Panaka, the security chief from The Phantom Menace who follows Natalie Portman around mainly so she can disagree with everything he says. No, seriously, if you ever watch TPM again and want to wring some extra amusement out of it, count how many times Amidala does the exact opposite of what Panaka suggests. It’s really funny.)

Unfortunately for Kastagir he’s already fighting a losing battle by the time Full Metal Wackjob arrives. He swings away desperately but the Kurgan, dominant as usual, clearly has his number. Overall, the construction of the battle is… not impressive. There’s much flailing but for the most part it looks half-hearted and not particularly creative. It is also brief, which is arguably good given how uninteresting it is.  Notably, Quarshie fails to sell the reality of the fight, several times holding his sword in such a way that he couldn’t possibly be blocking the blows the movie asks us to think he is.

Visually, however, there is still some nice stuff going on, mainly in the use of shadows. We cut back to Kirk several times, witnessing his disbelief as he watches something even his own paranoia could never have dreamed up, and he’s framed by shadows in such a way that you definitely get a sense of proportion: not just of how puny this mortal is in comparison to the titanic duellists, but of how huge the Kurgan is in comparison to Kastagir.

“I’m gonna need a bigger gun.”

The way the fight ends is an unexpected treat (for the viewer, if not Kastagir), too: the Kurgan slices off Kastagir’s head right in the midst of the battle, with a sudden spin move before the latter’s blade could block it. In not just this movie but most Highlander franchise fights, the loser tends to get his or head removed under much more mundane circumstances, after being cornered, disarmed, or beaten down into helplessness. It’s rare for Highlander fans to see an Immortal lose their head via surprise rather than while standing/kneeling there waiting for it like a chump, and this shows that Kurgan has some decent skills to go with that brute strength.

The Kurgan gets the Quickening, but not before being temporarily gunned down by Kirk’s probably-not-legal Uzi. Kurgan rewards the former Marine by impaling him, lifting him off the ground, and literally tossing him aside. With one hand.

Nutjob-kebab

A decent-sized crowd has gathered by this point as well, and the Kurgan escapes from the scene by ripping the roof off a nearby car, removing the driver and menacing the little-old-lady of a passenger, who he laughingly addresses as “Mom!” before driving into the night (Brown even manages to sound lascivious while yelling).

Overall this is a bit of a Blah fight with some nice trappings. Like the previous MacLeod/Kurgan dust-up, this is a skirmish– a smaller fight by design. It’s not a big deal, but it’s not meant to be and doesn’t need to be, though that still doesn’t excuse some lackluster execution. Extra points are gained for some sweet shadow-play and an unexpected finishing move; slightly less points are lost due to the unnecessary Hollywood caricature of an anti-Commie nutbar. Kirk’s presence in the scene and film serves no real purpose. We see him again in the hospital shortly after, giving the police a very not-MacLeod description of the headhunting killer, but there was about a dozen other bystanders there to describe the Kurgan too, so Kirk’s role in the “getting the cops off MacLeod’s back” subplot is extraneous.

Grade: C+

Recommended reading: Quite amusing CHUD article about the unfortunate fate of “Mom,” from which I will steal this GIF:

Coming soon: We finish the film and there can, finally, be only one.

Highlander (fight 3 of 5)

Here’s where the movie really starts to earn its money.

3) Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez vs. The Kurgan

Background: A series of flashbacks has shown us Connor’s origin story, starting back in his pre-Immortal days as a happy member of Clan MacLeod in the Scottish Highlands over 400 years ago. During a war sequence, Connor is run through by the Kurgan, who had been working as a mercenary for a rival clan on the condition of being given allowed to kill MacLeod himself (the Kurgan can sense Connor’s latent immortality before Connor himself can, and wanted to take his head before the young Highlander could even get started). The would-be fatal wound triggers Connor’s immortal awakening, and when he miraculously survives, his clan, including the woman he loved, brands him as a witch or demon and casts him out.

An unspecified time later, Connor sets up shop somewhere else with a newer, prettier and more tolerant wife, Heather, and is found by Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, an ancient (over 2,500 years old) Egyptian Immortal, lately of Spain and bearing an incongruous Scottish accent. Ramirez senses potential in MacLeod and mentors him, teaching Connor about the nature of his supernatural gifts. And more advanced swordplay, of course.

Not pictured: Roger Moore.

It’s unclear how long Ramirez stays with MacLeod and wife, but it’s clearly long enough for Connor to pick up some mad skills (thanks, montages!) and definitely long enough for them to bond. Even aside from the attached Connery charm, the audience likes Ramirez. Unfortunately, it’s bad for your health to be an older mentor-character in an action movie.

The setup: Connor is off on some errand, leaving Ramirez with Heather. He is entertaining her with some swashbuckling tale at the start of the scene, and while it works quite well on the page (further establishing Ramirez’s familiarity with the MacLeods), the casting creates a huge plot hole, because no man in his right mind would leave his wife alone with Sean Connery.

I sure wouldn’t.

Regardless, the pair are soon interrupted by the arrival of the evil Kurgan.

A brief word on the Kurgan. Much is made of Connery’s involvement in the film, and he is surely an asset: he brings with him the aforementioned Connery charm, and more importantly his very presence in the film surely helped to give this odd little sci-fi film much more mainstream attention than it might have had otherwise. Though Connery has surely been in much odder sci-fi films; see above picture.

But the Kurgan, as played by actor Clancy Brown, is the movie’s secret weapon. The Kurgan (he’s only identified by his old barbarian tribe and his real name is never given, which adds to his mythic stature), another ancient Immortal, is a hulking creature of gleeful malice and destruction. There’s not an ounce of honor or goodness in him; he’s driven only by power & pleasure. In addition to playing all these aspects to the hilt, Brown makes full use of his own imposing physicality (at 6’4 he’s enormous by Hollywood standards, and towers especially over the much-shorter Lambert) and deep, growling voice. The actor fully embraces the over-the-top role without a trace of irony, looking as comfortable wearing dragon-themed medieval battle armor in the past as he does made up like a leather-punk skinhead in the present. It requires no hyperbole to say Brown’s Kurgan is one of the all-time great villains, a bad guy who’s fun to watch while still being completely detestable and thoroughly scary. While Brown never did make into super-stardom, he has rightfully become a beloved figure amongst genre film fans and still gets steady work in respectable projects.

That Brown physicality is well-used here, as the Kurgan makes his entrance by breaking through the door of MacLeod’s home. He’s hunting for Connor’s head, but is more than happy to settle for Ramirez’s– the way Kurgan delightedly growls out Ramirez’s name upon recognizing him hints at an exciting history between the two. The Kurgan goes on to display his brute force some more by leaping through the air and smashing Connor’s table. Tactically unnecessary, but certainly intimidating and therefore less gratuitous than a dozen backflips.

Ramirez retaliates with his own bold opening move, his quick swordplay allowing him to get in close enough to slash the Kurgan’s throat, too shallowly for a decapitation but deep enough to leave a permanent scar and damage the villain’s vocal cords– throughout the rest of the film, the Kurgan’s deep rumbling voice will have a creepy rasp to it. Even Immortals feel pain and the Kurgan is clearly put off-balance, allowing Ramirez to control the fight, pushing the bad guy up the stairs while flourishing a bit and making taunts about his wound. Soon enough he is able to knock the Kurgan for a brief fall off the stairs.

Landing on the hard stone probably hurt, but as we saw in his earlier (but chronologically later) skirmish with MacLeod, you can’t stop this villain with blunt force trauma. The Kurgan rallies and turns the tables on Ramirez, pushing him up the stairs. The bad guy is now making full use of his physical power to press back the old Egyptian, swinging hard enough to knock out whole chunks of stone wall. Soon enough they’re in the open air, a sudden lightning storm forming above to mark this titanic battle between ancient enemies.

Ramirez manages to get his sword into the Kurgan’s guts….

“Suck it, Trebek!”

But not only is it not enough, the villain seems to almost feed on it. Letting out a primal bellow into the raging storm, the monster pulls the blade out of his stomach and, still gripping it, bashes Ramirez down, slashes him across the chest, then turns him around and runs him through. Ramirez can clearly see the end is near, and spits in his foe’s face after enduring some taunts and threats against Heather.

So much of MacLeod’s tower has crumbled that their battleground has become a literal stairway to nowhere, an appropriately epic setting for Ramirez’s end. The Kurgan cribs a bit from King Leonidas and tells his victim “tonight you sleep in Hell!” before delivering the film’s “there can be only one” tagline and chopping his head off. The Kurgan then receives his Quickening, the accompanying lightning knocking him off his perch. Note that the Kurgan’s “praying” sword pose after a victory is the closest he comes in the film to showing respect to anything or anyone:

(Connor’s wife Heather also sticks around for the denouement, a decision that turns out very badly for her. She should have run away at the start when Ramirez told her to, rather than staying put & screaming the whole time.)

This is very nearly perfect. The sword choreography is not terribly fancy, but that just lets the audience free to focus on the emotion of the scene and the power of the participants. Again, the audience is quite fond of Ramirez, so even if his death is a foregone conclusion before the fight even begins (we have already seen the Kurgan alive in present day, and no sign of Ramirez), watching him die hurts a good deal, and in fact the viewer’s conclusions about how the fight must end cast a sense of dread over the whole thing.

As good as he was, Ramirez was ultimately no match for the powerful Kurgan. Many action movies have a hard time selling the villain’s formidability without making the lesser heroes they take down look like chumps, but Highlander strikes the ideal balance. Here, the doomed sub-hero puts up a struggle worthy of his impressive stature. He dominates the first half or so of the fight, before the Kurgan’s raw strength & determination allow him to assert control. And with one deft cut, Ramirez managed to leave his killer something to remember him by, forever scarring him both visually and audibly; an extra layer of cool is added by the fact that the scar & rasp make the Kurgan more intimidating.

As far as technical specifics go: the music is minimal and unobtrusive; Mulcahy makes the right call in letting the scene “sing” on its own. The dialogue between the two crackles, and the rapidly breaking tower (they just don’t make ’em like they used to) is a fantastic setting for a mythic duel.

Really, this is excellent work all around. It’s the kind of thing we watch movies like Highlander for. Can it be topped? (spoiler: HECK YES) Regardless…

Grade: A

Recommended viewing: The second half or so (no one seems to have uploaded the full thing for some reason) of this fight, on YouTube.

Coming soon: Along with a rather unlikely witness, we see what happens when the unstoppable Kurgan faces off against the most useless security chief in Naboo history.

Also, Mr. Connery has given me inspiration for this year’s Halloween costume. How do you guys think I’d look in one of these numbers?

Be honest.

Highlander (fight 2 of 5)

And we’re back for more!

When we last left off, we’d gone through a very unusual but telling introduction to this film’s mythology and aesthetic. It’s difficult for those of us who have grown up knowing the ground rules of the Highlander world for decades now to really understand what it might have been like to watch this with virgin eyes, to see it all unfold in a movie theater in 1986 for the very first time. “There’s apparently this small number of magical sword-fighters who occasionally duel secretly in public places, and stuff gets blown up? I’m on board.” One of the more tantalizing hooks of this franchise, what appeals to the inner geek in so many of us, is the idea of this sub-society of Immortals who hide in plain sight, right here in our “real” world. And with the film’s second fight, we get a bit more of that.

2) Connor MacLeod vs. The Kurgan (round one)

This one is definitely a bit more impromptu. MacLeod is being not-so-discreetly tailed by Brenda Wyatt, who will eventually be the film’s main love interest but for now is interested in getting a look at Connor’s sword. That’s not a euphemism: his katana is a historical anomaly, having been forged by the legendary Japanese blacksmith Goro Masamune, using techniques that wouldn’t become popular for centuries to come. The NYPD, having arrived at the Garden just after the previous fight’s Quickening, correctly suspect MacLeod in Fasil’s death, so they’ve enlisted the help of Brenda (she’s a metallurgy consultant for the police, which is apparently a thing) to examine the forensic evidence at the scene. (The cops don’t have sufficient evidence to arrest MacLeod because he stashed the killing weapon before getting picked up, and they haven’t found it because they’re dumb.)

Blah, blah, blah. The thing is, MacLeod is being tracked not just by Brenda but by his arch-nemesis, the Kurgan (more on him soon), and Brenda walks right into a fight between hero & villain in the middle of a dark, generic industrial area. There’s a lot of piping and vague construction-esque structures standing around– basically the type of place that exists for fight scenes in movies, comic books and video games.

The most notable thing about the choreography here is that while the Kurgan came with his own enormous blade, Connor is unarmed. I can’t remember if he is unwilling to use his sword in front of Brenda (who works for the police, and stays there watching the whole time instead of running away like a smart person) or if he merely hadn’t retrieved it yet, but either way MacLeod is left having to improvise– once again Mac deploys a variety of pipes and even at one point a hefty fire hose (again with the euphemisms?). Thanks to the none-too-subtle sound design, we get the impression that MacLeod’s connecting blows do put a serious hurt on the Kurgan, but nonetheless the guy just keeps getting back up, quickly dominating his smaller opponent. Connor’s neck is nearly on the receiving end of Kurgan’s broadsword, but he rallies, and just as the fight continues, it’s interrupted by a police helicopter.

And with that, it’s over. Kurgan vows that they’ll fight again, and takes off; Connor & Brenda run the other direction.

This one is short & largely unremarkable, but solid. As a fight it’s a bit underwhelming, due to its brief nature and lack of resolution, but then, it doesn’t aspire to be anything more. It’s less a real fight than it is a skirmish, a brief diversion to keep the audience excited as the story chugs along. Not every fight in a movie can or even should be a show-stopping number; sometimes it’s best just to give out a little snack between big meals, to keep our stomachs from rumbling. Done right, these little snacks can act as ballast or connective tissue for the meatier sequences– a fact lost on many would-be action filmmakers. It’s all about pacing.

Meanwhile a few bits of character and story are pushed along in this fight. Brenda gets in even further over her head, we see MacLeod being inventive and the Kurgan’s unrelenting brute force. You might ding it for being in such a drab, dark setting, but this is mitigated by some fairly unexpected use of improvised weaponry. Most importantly, this scene does everything it’s supposed to do.

Grade: B

Coming soon: Well, last time I promised we’d cover fights two and three, but this took a bit more verbiage than I expected. Soon enough though we’ll come back to cover the film’s first truly impressive duel, a bravura sequence pitting one of the all-time great genre villains against a flamboyant Egyptian with a Spanish name, a Scottish accent and a Japanese sword. Unfortunately for the latter, there can be only one.

Highlander (fight 1 of 5)

Welcome to the inaugural entry of Grading Fight Scenes! This is the site where, in case you couldn’t figure out context clues, I size up the fight sequences in movies and grade how well each of them does what it’s supposed to do. Many action movies live or die by their fight scenes, so it’s an important art to get right.

What better way to start this project than with a subject like Highlander, which is a) structured almost entirely around fight scenes and b) gloriously awesome & ridiculously messy in equal measure? For better or worse, there’s a lot to unpack about this bad boy.

For those of you so deprived: Highlander is a 1986 fantasy film, directed by music video maestro Russell Mulcahy and starring Christopher Lambert, a raspy Frenchman with a penetrating stare (owing to acute myopia, so it makes total sense to let him swing around sharp objects). Lambert plays Connor MacLeod (of the Clan MacLeod), the titular Scot who discovers that he is one of a rare breed of Immortals—men immune to aging and any type of death besides decapitation. Immortals have walked among us since “the dawn of time” and while not inherently evil or hostile, they are compelled to fight amongst each other, until finally the last one standing will win the nebulous “Prize.” Hence all the sword-fightin’.

I love The Highlander, warts & all. And oh, how warty it is: acting & dialogue quality are all over the place, and logic is more or less thrown out the window along with realism (this is not even getting into the sequels and other franchise spinoffs, which are generally less “warts and all” and more “nothing but hemorrhoids”). Whenever swords aren’t clanging, the movie mainly survives on its bizarre magnetism, owing to elements such as frequent flashbacks, an unpredictably jarring visual style, Lambert’s dreamlike gaze, and its wild soundtrack by Queen:

And of course, that wonderfully bonkers premise. I may have undersold it earlier; The Highlander is less structured around its fight scenes than it is a perfect excuse for them.  And how do they hold up? Let’s take a look.

Jumping right in:

1) Connor MacLeod vs. Iman Fasil

Thankfully, the first fight scene happens not long after the movie opens– take note, lesser action films. Not every movie needs to start out with a bang, but movies sold on the strength of their “bangs” sure do.

MacLeod moodily attends a rather dull wrestling match at Madison Square Garden, but leaves early and gets a strange sensation in the parking lot. His sensation is due to the arrival of Iman Fasil, a fellow immortal (one of the many parts of the film’s complex mythology is that immortals can sense each other when in close proximity) with an unplaceable foreign accent and decidedly non-tactical business suit. They seem to recognize each other, and after a tense moment, MacLeod tries to call the fight (it’s unclear if this was pre-arranged or happenstance) off, but Fasil is having none of it, and begins swinging immediately. Have at thee!

“Let’s fight!”
“Them’s fightin’ words!”

Right away the movie announces its boldness. Even the most casual sword twirl is accompanied by a noticeable “whoosh” sound effect, and half the time blades meet, sparks fly– even when little to no force is being applied. This will continue throughout the film. It’s possible that at least some of it is mere cinematic license on Mulcahy’s part, but mostly it can be attributed to the mystical nature of the combatants. When immortals fight, it’s not just fencing; there’s some crazy, unpredictable energy at play.

There’s more to the choreography here than mere fencing, too: the surrounding environment is quite fully & viscerally utilized. Cars are jumped upon and slid over. Pipes and walls are hit, releasing torrents of steam and showers of even more sparks. At one point some of Fasil’s willful destruction sets off the fire sprinklers, creating an impromptu indoor rain.

Oddly, actual exchanges between the two fighters are brief, and are always interrupted by something or other: Fasil loses his sword, MacLeod loses his sword, Fasil goes running (sometimes to hide, sometimes just to make MacLeod briefly chase him), Fasil breaks something nearby to distract MacLeod, MacLeod accidentally punctures an overhead steam pipe, etc. It’s as much cat & mouse as it is a genuine sword fight. The most awkward part is the extended bit where MacLeod has to track down his sword (kicked under a car by Fasil) while simultaneously hiding from his opponent. Fortunately, Fasil obliges MacLeod with plenty of time to search by… backflipping. Seriously. He’s this near-elderly man in a business suit and he just starts executing a series of completely gratuitous backflips.

Even weirder, in what’s probably due to some shoddy editing, he does two sets of backflips here: once after escaping from MacLeod (who had made up for the loss of his sword by utilizing a nearby pipe, which he drops despite how well it worked for him), then he stops and walks normally, then he does MORE backflips when he is quite definitely clear of MacLeod and has no plausible reason to do so. Quite athletically impressive, but this is a very odd time to display it.

Peter Diamond (actor)

Show-off.

Once Mac is armed again, the fight is all but over: the next exchange ends with MacLeod quickly disarming Fasil (that’s TWO sword losses for the poor guy), and chopping his head off– hard enough to embed the sword in a nearby pillar, in what will become a rather silly plot point. This leads to “the Quickening” a crazy light show that wrecks everything in sight as MacLeod absorbs the essence of his defeated enemy.

This fight is a mixed bag. What little “fight” material there is is adequate, but fleeting. The staging is very confusing and the editing poor– the camera does a lousy job of tracking who is where at any given time, and sometimes characters even come rushing out of places you’re pretty sure they couldn’t possibly be. Also, despite his unexpected acrobatics, Iman Fasil (played by veteran stuntman Peter Diamond, who was 57 at the time of shooting this. Apparently he plays the Tusken Raider who KOs Luke Skywalker) is just not a very interesting foe. He has no emotional resonance with MacLeod, but that’s okay because we’re not supposed to feel anything of the sort at this point in the movie. But despite his definite athleticism there is just something stiff about him; between that and the general weirdness that is Christopher Lambert, this fight comes off looking all sorts of awkward. This is not helped by the decision to stage a fight that involes all manner of strange accidents (losing weapons, hitting the scenery) and running away from each other for no apparent reason. This doesn’t look like what it should: a titanic battle between two master swordsmen who have had centuries to hone their craft. It looks more like two scared normal guys clumsily flailing away at each other in a panic.

However, it’s not without value. Some points are won by a clever use of the environment, and Mulcahy was right to go over the top with all the aforementioned sound & visual effects. That, combined with the appropriately jarring (if not exactly enjoyable) music, goes a long way toward setting the tone for what is going to be a strange, over-the-top experience. A flawed but interesting start to a flawed but interesting film. If every fight in the movie were at this level, I doubt it would have been as successful, but as we shall soon see, they are not.

Grade: C+

Recommended reading:

Excellent piece on The AV Club about the film’s clunky but undeniable appeal

Highlander’s entry on Wikipedia

Coming soon: We tackle fights two & three, get our first glimpse of the villain and say goodbye to a certain sexy Spanish peacock.

“Hello, ladiesh.”