The Rundown (fight 4 of 4)

In which the Rock finally exercises his Second Amendment rights.

They still apply overseas, because AMERICA.

It was a bit hard to write about this one, given that even though there’s fighting it’s not really “a fight”– so much generalized chaos that it’s a bit hard to boil down, more of an all-purpose action scene. But there’s enough blows thrown and clever choreography that I couldn’t ignore it in good conscience.

4) Beck vs All the Bad Guys

The Fighters:

  • Beck, the would-be chef whose bounty hunting got him caught in the middle of a South American uprising. Played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
    • Armed with: Beck is determined not to go in guns blazing, but he soon discovers the limits of that approach and makes Charlton Heston proud.
  • Travis Walker, not one of the main players here but is featured just enough to warrant his inclusion. Spoiled and silly but also unpredictable, he does prove a bit useful here. Played by the always-welcome Seann William Scott.
    • Armed with: Travis packs a gun right from the beginning. Also his pals Mr. Thunder and Mr. Lightning.
  • Hatcher’s men, pretty much all the remaining ones– around 15-20. They’re posted strategically throughout the ramshackle little village. Including Cornelius Bernard Hatcher himself, hapless brother Harvey, and the awesome Swenson; played by Christopher Walken, Jon Gries and Stuart F. Wilson, respectively.
    • Armed with: all sorts of guns, and of course Swenson brought whips, as did his two buddies.

The Setup: Beck, Travis and Mariana found the Gato earlier, but she, wanting to sell it so her people could be free of Hatcher, drugged the other two just to be safe and left them in the jungle. Unfortunately she ended up getting snatched by Hatcher’s men while they were separated, and Beck gets word that the bad guy’s holding her in the town square and will likely execute her soon. [Also, after the last fight, Beck made nice with the rebels but the proceedings were interrupted by a raid from Hatcher, who personally shot & killed Manito. Boo!]

Beck is free to take Travis and fly out of there, but the pair’s consciences can’t allow the distressed damsel to meet her fate. Off to settle Hatcher’s hash it is, then.

The Fight: Beck kicks things off on an odd note, by sending his Scottish pilot-for-hire Declan in, blowing on bagpipes, to trash talk at Hatcher using Biblical rhetoric. He presumably  serves not as an omen but as a distraction, so that no one would hear the incoming stampede of bulls until it was too late.

Yep, bulls. A clever use of Chekov’s Gun, the presence of a nearby bovine herd had been set up early in the film. They rampage through the small town square, scattering (and in a few cases trampling) Hatcher’s men and tearing up structures. As the villain himself wryly remarks, “that’s a lotta cows.”

They also provide excellent cover for Beck to storm right into the midst of Hatcher’s men. He tears up several using his strength and creativity before they can take a shot at him– possibly my favorite bit is when he stomps the end of a loose floorboard to throw one bad guy’s aim off. He takes out a handful, depriving them all of weapons and even using their guns as clubs. Meanwhile Travis gets isolated in a small shop and has an epic length confrontation with one (1) squirrelly thug, who he eventually takes down rather humorously.

But eventually Beck’s non-projectile strategy reaches its limits, and with all the bulls having come through the bad guys have a clear line of sight on their adversaries. Both Beck and Travis are pinned down by sustained fire in separate locations, and there’s a long, desperate while Beck realizes he’s going to have to go his Bad Emotional Place and use guns again.

But once he does, it is on. The hero rises to triumphant guitar strings, bearing a shotgun in each hand, and engages Beast Mode as he strides across the battlefield and blasts down every henchmen in sight. Here I’ll defer to my gun nut readers’ expertise but I’m pretty sure many of the distances Beck is shooting from would be very hard to manage with a shotgun– a weapon hardly known for its precision from afar. Still, he looks cool doing it. Especially when he causes a leaky tanker truck to blow up and walks away from the fireball in slow-mo, as all action heroes have been required to do ever since the days of Mosaic law.

Out of bullets, Beck finds himself pinned down again across from a group of henchmen in a sniper’s nest, but no problem: the Rock simply leaps the distance between structures and starts punching out all the support pillars, bringing the whole rickety perch tumbling down.

His arm still smarting, Beck is confronted by Swenson and his two fetishist pals. Time to get kinky.

The three quickly surround Beck, and here Berg tries something ambitious, because it’s difficult enough to stage an inventive fight sequence (with a real sense of back & forth) involving a whip, and this fight has three whip-users. Four whips total, actually, because Swenson is dual-wielding.

It must have been a pain to block this fight out, but the result is a real blast. Beck gets knocked about and snapped at but still gives back pretty good as well. He manages to neutralize Swenson’s two cohorts simultaneously, seizing the guns from their belts while on the ground and firing after kicking them down. Why they (or Swenson, who also was shown to have a gun) did not just shoot Beck despite having ample opportunity, is not mentioned. It’s especially odd in light of Swenson’s own “you should have kept the gun” admonition to Beck during the bar fight scene.

After tangling a bit more with Swenson, Beck is able to disarm the knockoff Belmont and go hand-to-hand with him for a few rounds. And while I think Swenson’s tops as a henchmen, there’s no way their little scruff would even last this long if not for Beck being so visibly worn down during it. Hero finally subdues henchman, and Beck is nearly taken out by a lingering sniper, before that shooter is fortuitously shot by Travis. Beck grabs the man’s fallen gun and immediately blasts the pistol out of the hand of Hatcher, who’d been quietly approaching and nearly taken out Beck from behind.

From there, it all winds down. Walken gets a few more hammy lines as the character refuses to contemplate how he’s lost everything, and is ultimately shot by an anonymous villager. Oh, and Travis subdued Harvey by crashing his escaping car into a water tower.

Do you know what this fight is? It’s a video game. It’s SO a video game. Especially after Beck arms himself– just put the camera into first-person view and his unstoppable rampage will be a lot more familiar. I say this with affection, obviously.

A few demerits, however. Aside from the aforementioned Gun Accuracy Fails and Swenson’s men choosing to get suicidally physical, the big one is Beck’s own decision go all NRA Poster Boy. It works quite well as a badass hero moment, but there’s literally no payoff to Beck’s earlier reticence to use guns. He doesn’t seem to be any more bloodthirsty than usual (certainly no more than the situation requires) and has no trouble dialing himself back down once the danger has passed. Nobody has to talk him off the ledge. He even gives Hatcher multiple chances to walk away alive! There’s no emotional consequence for the character, or even the illusion of same. Of course, this is a self-consciously silly movie, but it still oughtn’t introduce “serious” character beats it has no intention of following through on.

But the action is still fast, creative and continuous. It may not be as outright fun and inventive as the big jungle throwdown, but the scale and intensity is ratcheted up to appropriate levels for the climax. Just a good ol’ fashioned ass-whoopin’ writ large. This is the Rock’s destiny.

I demand sequels. Or at least Peter Berg signed on for a Castlevania adaptation.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: I have a good feeling about this.

The Matrix (fight 4 of 4)

think again buddy

4) Neo vs Agent Smith

The Fighters:

  • Neo, the prophesied savior of blah blah blah etc. Much less whiny and unsure than before– paradoxically, this is because, not in spite, of the phony reveal from the Oracle that he’s not The One. Since destiny was not going to make him an amazing hero, he had to make himself one… and Morpheus’ capture necessitated him getting to that lickety split. Played by Keanu Reeves.
    • Armed with: a handgun.
  • Agent Smith, leader of the Matrix’s evil Agent trio. Even without backup he’s more than sufficient to be a deadly threat, as we learned last time.
    • Armed with: also a handgun.

The Setup: Neo & Trinity have successfully saved Morpheus from capture/interrogation, and made their way to an “exit”  from the virtual world– a land line phone in a quiet subway station. Morpheus exits first, but the group’s antics are witnessed by the only other person in the station, an old homeless man. All humans still connected to the Matrix via the machines’ breeding farms can act as unwitting sleeper agents for its cyber enforcers, so when this unfortunate derelict witnesses Morpheus’ disappearing act, he’s overtaken by Agent Smith. The two lovebirds dawdle for so long that Smith has plenty of time to materialize, get his bearings, and take aim at Trinity, who disappears just in time to avoid the bullet that disables the pay phone. Neo is left alone against his most powerful enemy.

The hero contemplates the stairs behind him, but he makes a conscious choice to face Smith head-on rather than make a run for it. Watching at the monitors in reality, Trinity is worried but Morpheus is excited at Neo seemingly ready to embrace his potential. Back in the cyber world, the Wachowskis prep the viewer for the impending clash, overtly using the cinematic language of classic Westerns just as surely as they invoked chop-socky flicks during the training fight: there’s a cheesy musical riff, a dirty newspaper blows across the screen in lieu of a tumbleweed, and mirroring low shots of hero & villain as they stare each other down. Showdown time, pilgrim.

The Fight: Fittingly, considering the Western homage, the two first draw their guns and open fire. Both miss, but they continue to shoot, while also dodging the other’s shots and zig-zagging towards each other. Then they leap in the air and this happens:

The Wachowskis do their by-now-patented slow-mo/rotation thing as the two combatants wrestle & fire in mid-air. All rounds just barely miss and the two fall to the ground, both guns empty. They rise and things get more physical. (No, not THAT way, perv. Go back to your slash fiction.)

Several things are clear early on: Neo is not just better than he was before but also fares even better than Morpheus did against Smith. Smith however is still clearly superior– stronger, faster, and most importantly, being a machine he cannot really feel pain or tire. While neither fighter is really “there,” the blows Neo receives are still wearing down his physical body, whereas each hit that lands on Smith merely staggers him briefly.

Even without that endurance, Smith’s raw power is tremendous; as with the previous fight we get some intimidating shots of Smith punching holes right through hardened brick & plaster. One especially strong blow sends Neo flying back a dozen feet and landing face first. He coughs up blood in both the real and virtual worlds, but marshals his remaining strength and remains defiant, repeating Morpheus’ cocky little taunting gesture, which actually seems to piss off the machine even more.

Neo’s determination is amazing and he presses the frustrated Smith back (his little triple-kick trick actually works this time and he manages to turn a stopped punch into a throat jab), but he is still only human, so Smith is ably to quickly whittle his resistance down. Things get even worse for the hero when he’s pinned against the wall by Smith and pummeled by his 100 mph fists.

Neo’s left too weak to fight back, so when Smith hears an approaching subway train he thinks of a sadistic way to finish off the would-be savior, and takes him down to the tracks. Holding him down as the train draws closer, Smith sinisterly lectures “Mister Anderson” about the inevitability of his death. This shoddy treatment inspires the hero to summon up a last surge of strength, which he uses to leap upwards into the ceiling and dislodge himself from Smith’s grip. He then jumps off the tracks just in time to watch the evil program get flattened by the oncoming train. His name is Neo, jerk.

Good stuff here. The setting is used well, playing on both the plausible isolation as well as the fortuitous presence of trains as a game-changer. As stated previously the choreography (and the actors’ performances) make the power dynamic abundantly clear, though things are not so lopsided as to be a complete beatdown. You can almost feel Neo growing stronger and inching toward his destiny as the fight unfolds. It’s still not enough to stop his implacable foe, but that only serves to set up satisfaction of the power-reversal of their final showdown.

From an entertainment perspective there are limited thrills in watching someone fight a guy who’s basically a brick wall (this fight is certainly less fun and joyful than Neo’s epic sparring session), but it helps that this plays very well into the narrative and character work. Similarly, it’s a little unsatisfying that Neo wins via what’s essentially a cheat. But you can look at it another way and conclude that the hero triumphs through a combination of skill, willpower, and sheer luck; what could be more “human” than that?

[As you probably guessed from the title this is the last of the entries on the first Matrix. The climactic rematch between Neo & Smith is barely even a fight, as it lasts only a few seconds and is utterly effortless on Neo’s part. Good stuff but not worth grading. Goodbye for now, The Matrix.]

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Bossanova!

… Chevy Nova?

The Matrix (fight 1 of 4)

This movie was kind of a big deal, yeah?

I can see my house from here!

Interesting to go back to it now, with 14 years full of discussion, dissection, influences, knock-offs, jokes and controversial sequels (seriously, the Matrix series would probably be universal fanboy shorthand for “disappointing follow-ups” if George Lucas had never turned to the dark side) having passed. Love it or hate it, it was a landmark movie in countless ways, having brought deeply geeky obsessions like deep sci-fi concepts, fantasy-laden martial arts sequences and Eastern philosophizing to mainstream audiences. Its impacts are still being felt today; if Keanu had never taken the red pill and donned that black leather, would there ever have been an Inception?

A billion gallons of digital ink have already been spilled on the philosophies and construction of The Matrix so I won’t add too many more drops to it here before I get down to business, except to say that what really strikes me now is the movie’s confidence. The Wachowski brothers (before a little carefully-applied surgery and hormone shots made them the Wachowski siblings), on their sophomore filmmaking effort, undertook the massively challenging task of wrapping a number of wacked-out concepts into an entertaining summer blockbuster that was also an R-rated movie based on no existing known property, yet not once does the finished product project anything but absolute self-assurance. It’s that confidence that was a big part of what made so many respond to it.

One of those other important parts, of course, is its bravura action sequence. I’ll be thankfully leaving off on some of those, since a lot of them, such as the lobby fight or Neo’s first encounter with an Agent, are excellent but don’t really constitute what I’m looking for when I’m thinking of “fight scenes.” Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that stuff to work with, either.

1) Trinity vs Unfortunate Cops

The Fighters:

  • Trinity, master hacker and soon-to-be love interest. One of the most deadly members of the human resistance. You have to dig pretty deep to find thematic resonance in her name choice (unlike such obvious ones as Neo, Morpheus, Cypher, Bane, etc. So, what, she’s three people in one? Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in her?), so I assume it’s mostly just because it sounds cool. Played by Carrie-Ann Moss.
    • Armed with: nothing but that sick leather outfit. Does anyone know if it’s actually easy to fight in that stuff? It looks tight to me. Is it constricting, or more limber? I really don’t know. After this scene ends we see her with two hand guns but it’s unknown if she took those from the defeated cops, had them but didn’t use them here, or they were with her but out of reach when the fight started.
  • Three police officers who got more than they bargained for when their lieutenant sent them to capture Trinity, who is a wanted criminal. No names, but you can think of them as Officer Chest Kick, Officer Face Kick, and Officer Shot, if you want. I bet one of them was just two days from retirement. Played by Bernard Ledger, Robert Simper, and Chris Pattinson, according to IMDB.
    • Armed with: service pistols. And flashlights, I guess.

The Setup: Trinity is cornered in a ratty old building by a large number of police. Rather than awaiting for assistance from the sinister Agents, the officer-in-charge sent in three unlucky chumps to apprehend her. There’s three of them, they get her with her back to the wall, they’re armed and she’s not, so it would seem like she’s screwed here. But as Agent Smith calmly chides the lieutenant who jumped the gun, “Your men are already dead.” The movie immediately cuts back to the dingy room where Trinity has her hands up.

The Fight: Our gal immediately takes advantage the officers’ assumption that she’s cooperating. She whips around at lightning speed and uses a chop to break one of the arms that had been reaching to handcuff her. Then she palms him in the face and leaps into the air to do her signature move, which is apparently called the Double Eagle Kick.

The action slows and stops here, while the camera rotates a couple hundred degrees, showing us a multitude of angles while the heroine is seemingly suspended in mid-air. There’s not much practical purpose to this trick (which I believe was achieved by having a lot of special cameras operating simultaneously, and was originally engineered for a Gap commercial), but stylistically it’s a big deal. It’s the Wachowskis announcing Yes, you are seeing what you’re seeing; what she’s doing should be impossible but for her it’s not; this is deliberate and fun and this is the kind of movie we are making, so get used to it. See what I mean about confidence?

Anyway, the kick lands in the big guy’s chest and sends him flying into the wall, so ouch. Problem is the other two officers had been following procedure and standing at a safe distance, which leaves Trinity vulnerable. She makes up for the distance with one of them by kicking her chair into his face, and while that one’s stunned she dodges the other’s gunfire by running up the wall (making good use of the limited light as she moves) and is able to rapidly get behind & around him. Before he knows what’s happening she seizes control of his gun arm, shoots the other standing officer with his comrade’s weapon, and knocks out the poor guy with a vertical kick that goes so high it hits him right in the face.

She makes fast work of all three of them (the whole thing’s over in less than 25 seconds), a fact further underscored by the quick cut to a ceiling shot of Trinity standing tensely amongst the havoc she has so quickly wreaked. It’s so short I considered not including it, but it’s complex and admirable enough that I felt it merited discussion. Although it’s just an appetizer for what’s to come, this fight works excellently as a statement of intent for the movie. The movie’s action and aesthetic style is spelled out, and plot-wise we learn that Trinity can do seemingly impossible things but as amazing as she is there are other people she’s scared of. In one dense little fight (and the scenes surrounding it) the audience picks up a lot of information. It’s slight yet effective. I like it, but there’s better to come.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: A fight that’s most non-heinous.

Pop quiz, hotshot.