Fearless (retrospective)

And now we resume our schedule of Asian people kicking the crap out of each other.

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Am I the only one who thinks this pose is more fitting to a Slap Fight?

Fearless (retrospective)

There’s a surprising dearth of genuine kung fu on the site, and Fearless (aka Jet Li’s Fearless, originally Chinese title “Huo Yuanjia”) is a great way to rectify that. It’s not a great film by any means: it’s full of cliches, it does a disservice to history, and it smacks vaguely of nationalism. But it doesn’t skimp on the ass-kicking, giving any fan plenty of kung fu awesomeness for his buck. And despite the shortcomings, it’s a genuinely heartfelt tribute to real-life Chinese hero Huo Yuanjia. It’s a fitting end for Jet Li’s career of making wushu epics, or at least it would have been if he’d actually kept to that promise.

Once again, since this film is quite agreeably packed with fights, we’ll be taking the macro view and doing a retrospective. Since (nearly) every fight is just the protagonist fighting against some opponent(s), the format will be altered accordingly, and first off introduce said protagonist:

  • Huo Yuanjia, a supremely talented martial artist & Chinese patriot. A prodigy who overcame asthma to follow in his beloved father’s footsteps, Huo (that’s his family name; Chinese naming conventions are the opposite of how Westerners’ work) is a master of wushu– a sort of offshoot of kung fu geared primarily towards sporting & competition rather than real-life offense & defense. At the beginning of the film, we meet Yuanjia as a serene & peaceful grand master, then flash back to show how he went from being an arrogant snot to a selfless hero; it’s a canny cinematic move, if not a new one. By most accounts, the real Huo Yuanjia was never such a dickhead even in his youth, but he really did dedicate much of his life to restoring Chinese cultural pride at a time when it was on the wane. Played by the incomparable Jet Li, who had also played Yuanjia’s fictional student Chen Zhen in Fist of Legend, 12 years previously.

Also note that the opening three fights will be bunched up into one. They’re three distinct fights and they’re all shown in their entirety, but they happen in quick succession and under the same circumstances, so we’ll save some space and a formatting headache by lumping them all together.

1-3) Suck It, Roundeyes

Huo Fights:

  • Peter Smith, a British boxer with sick mutton chops. Played by Jean-Claude Leuyer.
  • Han Herzon, a Belgian lancer with a bad attitude and a military dress uniform that doesn’t look optimized for combat. Played by Brandon Rhea (who according to IMDB actually did pass out wearing that outfit).
    • Armed with: A spear, which is noticeably longer than the similar one Huo Yuanjia brings along.
  • Anthony Garcia, a Spanish fencer. Played by Anthony De Longis.
    • Armed with: A European military saber. Yuanjia, meanwhile, packs a jian (Chinese straight sword) for their duel.

I don’t rightly know where these characters’ names or nationalities come from; they don’t seem to be mentioned in the cut of the movie I saw.

boxer lancer fencer

The Setup: We’re actually dropped into this thing right at the start of the movie with very little context; it will eventually be revealed that Huo Yuanjia, who has lately been making some serious waves by opening wushu school and re-invigorating Chinese pride, has been challenged to a series of diverse skill matches by an international conglomerate that’s currently throwing its weight around in his homeland.

At a public exposition, Huo agrees to consecutive matches against the three European champions and one Japanese fighter, which will come later. Both sides see a chance for a big win: given the overwhelming odds, if Huo triumphs it’ll be a major PR boost for wushu (and China); the foreign devils, meanwhile, ostensibly see this as a chance to put the little upstart Huo back in his place… but in reality, their intentions are far more sinister.

The main rule seems to be that the first one to fall wins.

The Fight(s): All three move quickly and quite continuously, giving the film’s opening a welcome charge of energy.

The match against Smith, the boxer, is shortest. He launches a lot of would-be haymakers, which Yuanjia avoids gracefully. Along the way, he delivers several small but surgical strikes to the larger man, and finally is able to take him down by chopping Smith to the face and, when he’s stunned, hitting him from above and sending him face-first into the mat.

Herzon lasts a lot longer than Smith, but takes more of a beating– including some painful shots to the ribs and slices on his pretty uniform. Despite having a longer spear, he too is outmaneuvered by Yuanjia, thanks to not just speed but some wire-assisted flips. Han gets increasingly agitated throughout the fight, and finally snaps his own weapon in half so he can go after Huo up close. He still can’t make a dent, though, and at one point Yuanjia even holds him at bay by suspending his spear’s tip less than an inch from Herzon’s neck, because now he has the reach advantage.

The silly laowai can’t accept that he’s clearly lost, and still charges away (after brushing Huo’s spear aside, of course). Soon enough, Yuanjia uses the haft of his spear to literally sweep Herzon off his feet. Disarmed and definitely defeated, he gets back up with rage in his eyes and it looks for a second like he’s going to attack his foe again out of spite, but he decides not to at the last second.

Good call.

Good call.

(Reminds me of one of the few good lines from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie: “Dashed unsporting! Probably Belgian.”)

The sword fight is the most dazzling of all, and Garcia actually does fairly well for a little while; he never does score a hit of his own but he gets awfully close. The two move with almost unbelievable speed and intensity.

Eventually, of course, Huo is able to find his openings. Displaying incredible precision, he slides his thin blade inside Garcia’s fencing gauntlet, cutting the troublesome thing off without harming the wearer in the process.

Don't ever play "Operation" with this guy.

Don’t ever play “Operation” against this guy.

Several furious exchanges after, Yuanjia pulls off a similarly smooth move when he takes possession of Garcia’s sword by slipping his own through Garcia’s hand guard. Much more amenable than his Belgian predecessor, Garcia accepts defeat like a man. (Maybe good sportsmanship is a tradition amongst fencing Spaniards.) The film cuts away just as Huo faces off against his final challenger, Anno Tanaka.

Meanwhile, we the audience have been shown a dazzling and diverse display of martial arts talent. In addition to starting an action movie off with a bang, these fights are critical in establishing the protagonist’s skill… and they do so not by facing him off against chumps but with genuinely skilled masters, who he nonetheless triumphs over with seemingly little difficulty. Making a fight look simultaneously easy and hard is a tough road to walk, but director Ronny Yu and choreographer Yuen Woo Ping execute it flawlessly here.

Almost as important to establish is Huo’s personality, and it shines through even in combat. Yuanjia moves with simple grace and conducts himself with humility & restraint, even when his foes become agitated. This is vital because it will establish a stark contrast between the aggression and outright meanness of the young Huo we will see soon enough in the film. (No guessing as to which of those personalities Jet Li, with his effortlessly likeable screen presence, is better at.)

Grade: B+

4) “My Dad Can Out Wire-Fu Your Dad”

Huo Fights: Actually, he doesn’t– not our Huo anyway. This is the only fight in the movie that doesn’t involve our hero. Instead, it’s Huo Endi, Yuanjia’s late father (in real life, Endi lived to be a very old man and even outlived Yuanjia), in an extended flashback. Huo Senior is a distinguished & respected martial arts instructor, who inspires equal parts admiration (for his sweet wushu prowess) and irritation (for forbidding him from learning the family trade) in his young, asthmatic son. Played by Collin Chou, aka Seraph from everyone’s least two favorite Matrix movies. Endi’s opponent is:

  • Zhao Zhongqiang, a local wushu competitor who’s a bit of a dick. Played by Zhao Zhonggang.
I don't know about you guys, but my money's on the Chinese guy with long hair

Don’t know about you guys, but my money’s on the Chinese guy with long hair

The Setup: Zhao and Huo have agreed to compete in a sanctioned leitai match. Not much to it, really.

Meanwhile, against his father’s wishes, young Yuanjia has not only attended the fight but wormed his way to the front of the crowd. He stands next to Zhao’s own son, and the two exchange trash talk throughout the battle.

The Fight: This one’s short but significant. Endi takes the lead early on, and while Zhao is no slouch, he’s clearly outclassed by Huo. None of the moves are as fancy or impressive as what we saw in the previous clashes, but at the same time, you can see why Endi’s stately and powerful presence would inspire his boy so much.

Unfortunately, when Endi gets the chance to finish the fight decisively, he pulls back his blow– a devastating punch to the head– at the last second, and suspends his fist there.

FINISH HIM

FINISH HIM

Zhao takes advantage of his mercy, and lands a surprise kick that knocks Endi out of the elevated ring. Rather than protesting his opponent’s dishonor, Huo respectfully salutes and accepts his loss. He understands that protecting life is a victory in itself, a lesson his kid is going to learn the hard way later on.

But for now, Yuanjia can’t understand it. Later on he challenges Zhao’s sneering brat to a fight, and of course loses horribly. (It’s not substantial enough to warrant inclusion here, but it’s still less silly than the Karate Kid remake.)

Grade: B-

5) Yuanjia Gets High

Huo Fights: Didn’t catch the name, but it’s implied that he’s the son of Zhao Zhongqiang– the one who beat up little kid Yuanjia earlier. If so, according to the credits he’s Zhao Jian, and played by Ma Zhongxuan. An arrogant and crude, but still skilled fighter. Before the match begins, he’s bragging about his undefeated record.

The Setup: In the years since his ignominious defeat, Yuanjia sneakily learned his father’s wushu style and has been making a name for himself in local competitions, hoping to one day become the “champion of Tianjin.” Also in the meantime, his father has passed away, he’s had a young daughter and has become a widower, but what he’s most focused on is his martial arts accomplishments.

He attends this arranged leitai match with Zhoa Jian, which for some reason takes place atop an absurdly elevated platform– like three stories up, and accessible only by rope or or a series of very unsafe “stairs.”

I mean, would it even be worth the effort to build the thing just for this?

I mean, would it even be worth the effort to build the thing just for this?

Jian is already waiting for his foe up there, and taunts him as he approaches. Even worse form: he tries to attack Yuanjia as he climbs to the platform.

The Fight: Yuanjia avoids the cheap shots pretty well, and once he sets foot on the platform they waste little time getting to business.

This match is a lot closer than anything we’ve seen thus far. Huo’s skill is certainly on display, but he’s up against a particularly ornery and savage opponent. Zhao’s specialty seems to be (and he brags about it later on) his physical sturdiness; it’s not that Huo never hurts him, but he does land plenty of body & limb blows that Jian is able to seemingly absorb while barely flinching. Little wonder he favors a combat arena where keeping your footing is a priority.

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Meanwhile, Yuanjia himself nearly takes a dive on several occasions, but keeps returning to safety thanks only to some quick reflexes.

After some more taunts, the two go at it again and Huo gains the advantage when he kicks a wooden plank from the floor hard enough to make it go vertical, and punches through it to hit Jian.

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Pressing his lead, Yuanjia knocks Jian very nearly out of the ring, but he barely holds on to the scaffolding, and is able to keep Huo at bay for a while using a scratching “Tiger Claw” technique (which Huo derisively calls “cat’s paw”).

After another near tumble, Huo is able to come back strong by breaking several of Zhao’s fingers on each hand. This emphasizes something that will come in useful for Yuanjia in the future– his ability to strike surgically against opponents who seem otherwise implacable. (We already see a little bit of that in the fencing duel.)

Zhao refuses to give up even after the injuries to his hands, but after some more clashing, Huo finally knocks him down with repeated fists to the groin area.

Above: pretty much the last place you want Jet Li's fists to go near

Above: pretty much the last place you want Jet Li’s fists to go near

Yuanjia panics at the last second with concern for Jian, but the warrior’s fall is broken by a few ropes and his landing ends up being non-lethal (but probably painful as hell). Now, all leitai matches are accompanied by a “death waiver” which both parties sign in order to dismiss legal liability if either perishes in the match, but it’s telling that Huo isn’t so far gone that he’s genuinely willing to kill an opponent. Yet.

Speaking of which, aside from being a thoroughly entertaining little duel, what really sticks out about this fight is the difference from the Huo Yuanjia we saw at the opening of the movie. Not just in skill level, but in his conduct and even his body language as he fights. He’s competent, but his attacks are often desperate & angry, rather than calm & graceful. At other times he’s cocky and just flat out mean. Clearly something’s going to change soon in order for him to become the man from the opening.

Grade: B

6) Montaaaaaaaage!

Huo Fights: A whole lotta people, actually. Yuanjia’s victory over Zhao gave him a major boost, which leads to his skills and status (and arrogance) increasing as he takes on ever more opponents. The tried & true way to cinematically convey all this in a brief, efficient and entertaining way is, well, you know.

The Setup: Er, see above. They’re all leitai matches. None so high as the last match, fortunately.

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The Fight(s): The first significant challenger we see Huo mow down is a big ugly guy with a self-described “head of iron,” which Huo nonchalantly kicks the top of and sends him down. He also fights two acrobatic brothers who fight in tandem, taking them out with consecutive blows. He faces a dual saber-wielding swordsman with just a simple wooden stick, and wins the match by pinning both his foe’s arms behind his chest and using the short staff to “lock” them there.

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Probably the most entertaining and illustrative bit of the montage is his brief clash in the rain, which he cockily performs one hand because his other hand’s casually holding an umbrella– leaving his opponent humiliated, beaten up and soaked.

Immediately after one display of poor sportsmanship, Yuanjia declares that the process of taking challengers on consecutively (as apparently they’d been doing) is going too slow, and invites everyone who’s already signed a waiver to step on up. About two dozen of them do, and he takes them all on simultaneously. There’s about a minute or so of furious combat, and Huo emerges not just victorious but completely unscathed, taking his post-match tea without even breathing hard. He comes off like, well, like a hero in a kung fu movie. Which is fun, but the movie’s going to show us there’s a dark side to that sort of thing.

Grade: B

7) Just A Big Misunderstanding

Huo Fights: Chin Lei (or “Qin” Lei, depending on your subtitles), a highly respected martial arts competitor and instructor in Tianjin. He and Huo are rivals and have had verbal altercations before, but have yet to fight competitively. Played by Chen Zihui.

Both Chin and Huo come packing huge, curved Chinese sabers. Chin’s has a bunch of rings on the flat side which presumably serve some practical function.

The Setup: A bunch of Huo Yuanjia’s students have brought one of their badly beaten friends to their instructor, saying that Chin Lei was the one who attacked him. So Huo heads off to confront Chin publicly, death waivers in hand– at a restaurant owned by Huo’s old friend, Nong Jinsun. Lei tries to demur and explain, but Yuanjia is so belligerent he makes the fight inevitable.

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What Huo’s students don’t tell him, unfortunately, is that the kid who Lei beat up actually provoked Lei by insulting his wife. But of course that’s beside the point; Huo’s real motive here is his own pride & ambition, not his students’ well-being.

The Fight: This is easily the most involved, prolonged and emotionally charged battle of the film thus far, and probably the film as a whole. In addition to the dazzling choreography on display, there’s a vague & uncomfortable feeling of inevitability. Even prior to the later revelation that Yuanjia doesn’t know the whole context, it’s still quite obvious that he’s in the wrong. And while a part of us still wants him to win (because he’s the hero, and played by lovable movie star Jet Li), we also know deep down that he shouldn’t. The excitement mixed with dread makes for an uneasy experience.

The fight starts out furious right off the bat, and only escalates from there.

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The two break tables & chairs, they knock each other down and fight while prone on the ground, they fight while one of them is suspended by his feet from the ceiling. They fight on multiple floors, running & leaping with the aid of the type of wirework that’s fantastic but not ridiculous. They leave shallow wounds and each have a lot of close calls. They fight ugly.

Eventually, Huo’s sword gets its topped chopped off.

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He still fights with the diminished weapon, but it’s clear he has to be more defensive. Shortly after, their fight brings them down to a small pond in the middle of the restaurant’s ground floor (this is the most insanely huge and complex restaurant ever; it’s practically an apartment complex), and the rest of his blade is broken off as well.

He’s able to disarm Chin by grabbing onto the rings on his sword right after dodging a slash, and then flinging it away. The fight gets even uglier when it’s hand to hand, and eventually leads the pair into a nearby storeroom/pantry. As we approach the inevitable conclusion, Ronny Yu pulls away most of the music cues and adds some extra slow motion for the more brutal blows. Huo becomes increasingly aggressive and almost deranged, so desperate is he to win.

Finally gaining an advantage, Yuanjia batters Lei to the point where he can barely stand, and, seeing him vulnerable, delivers the tragically unnecessary coup de grace: a devastating punch to the chest, right on top of Chin’s heart.

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Leaving his opponent unmoving on the ground, Huo shakily exits the restaurant. He seems to on some level grasp the enormity of his actions, because he’s still in a state of shock even as he reunites with his celebratory students. The next day, Yuanjia’s now-alienated friend informs him that Lei died from his injuries, a few hours after the fight. The news causes Huo to vomit, and Jinsun bitterly rubs it in, telling Yuanjia he’s “finally the champion of Tianjin.”

But the real kicker comes shortly after, when Chin’s godson takes revenge by murdering Huo’s mother and daughter. He waits for Huo to track him down, then he confesses and kills himself right there, denying Huo even the satisfaction of killing him. And as a cherry on top, Huo’s students soon come clean about the reason Chin Lei beat one of them up. Oof. Southwest Airlines should have contacted this guy for their old ad campaign.

In any case, the fight is superb. Nearly flawless choreography as the battle escalates and spreads throughout the building. The closeness in each combatants’ skill levels is very well-communicated: you really do get the sense that on a different day, if one or two things had been different, Chin would have been the winner. But he wasn’t, and now Huo Yuanjia has to live with it.

Grade: B+

7) “Herc-u-lees, Herc-u-lees, Herc-u-lees!

Huo Fights: Hercules O’Brien, an American bodybuilder and wrestler. How much O’Brien is he?

MILES O’Brien!

28425-jet-li-fearless

I will NEVER apologize for that joke.

As you can see, Hercules (what a lucky coincidence his parents named him that!) is absolutely massive. An arrogant & almost bestial warrior, O’Brien has been performing public feats of strength (dragging train cars and such), as well as taking down local challengers left & right. Played by Nathan Jones, a real-life professional wrestler and strongman with a 6’11 frame. (And from Australia, not America. Most of the Western actors in this movie don’t play the nationalities of their characters, which is probably only fair payback for how Hollywood uses Asians interchangeably.)

The Setup: Due to the aftermath of the previous fight, Huo Yuanjia had what was more or less a nervous breakdown. After wandering in the wilderness for a while and nearly dying, he was taken in by a remote village full of kindly cliches, and slowly rebuilt himself, this time as a more peaceful and humble man.

Returning to his hometown, he makes amends with those he has wronged, but is distressed to see what’s become of the city due to a sudden influx of foreign (mostly Western) business & government interests. O’Brien’s physical dominance in particular has led him to declare China as the “weak men of the East.” Seeing a chance to put his skills for violence to selfless use, Yuanjia challenges Hercules to a public fight.

The two meet in a boxing/wrestling-style ring, surrounded by a crowd of bloodthirsty fans. Theannouncer, a Chinese man who has clearly gone over to the dark side (he dresses in Western clothes and has learned passable English), asks Huo to sign the death waiver. Huo politely declines, and asks the official to tell O’Brien that this should be a friendly competition without lethal intent.

The sycophantic announcer deliberately mistranslates so he can rile the wrestler up, humorously telling O’Brien that Huo said he “wants to kick your butt.”

Pictured.

Pictured.

The Fight: The perceived insult merely amuses O’Brien, and he laughs as he shrugs off his robes to reveal his mountainous physique.

Not unreasonably confident in his power, O’Brien allows Huo to casually place a hand on his chest in order to execute a probing attack. But his amusement turns to rage when Huo’s point-blank palm strike actually knocks the giant back a few feet, kicking the fight off in earnest.

In a lesser movie, this could have easily turned into a “nimble kung fu warrior easily avoids and humiliates a stupid lumbering beast” situation. And indeed, Yuanjia spends much of the fight either barely evading O’Brien’s devastating strikes or trying to squirm out of his powerful grasp. But he’s not always successful, and has more than his share of close calls.

“No it’s okay, I’ve got him right where I want him!”

“No, it’s okay, I’ve got him right where I want him!”

Multiple times Huo is successfully picked up or grappled by the bigger man, and he has to think fast in order to escape from or minimize the damage he’s about to sustain. The film goes out of its way to communicate the genuine danger of Hercules’ size & power, which is both laudable and realistic– real fighters emphasize that all the skill in the world won’t do you much good if someone much bigger & stronger traps you.

Here, Huo largely neutralizes the wrestler’s abilities by using unexpected or surgical strikes to escape the holds. This includes slipping out of an elevated chokehold by twisting his leg off of Hercules’ arm, and breaks out of a later hold by digging int0 the giant’s sides with his fingertips.

He picked this trick up from his Indian pal, Mola Ram

He picked this trick up from his Indian pal, Mola Ram

There’s even a brief sequence early on where Hercules slams the his Chinese foe up against the ropes, and they have an extended back & forth grapple where Huo keeps breaking free only to be repeatedly re-seized, helpless in a small space against Hercules’ strength. Even a veteran wushu master has to struggle against a crazed bodybuilder.

When both combatants are upright, Huo is constantly on the move to avoid O’Brien’s reach, and several times uses his opponent’s charging momentum against him for some nifty throws, with occasional surgical strikes to less protected areas. The one time he tries a force-on-force attack directly on the American’s chest, the impact seems to hurt Yuanjia more than it does Hercules.

As the fight wears on, Huo is able to grab Herc’s hand and yank it back painfully, but the colossus breaks free of the hold by scooping up Huo and throwing him across the ring. Wasting little time, he tries for a big finish by quickly climbing to the top turnbuckle and coming down on Yuanjia with a body splash. It happens too fast for Huo to get up, but not fast enough that he can’t put up his knee to negate the impact and, even worse, extend his elbow to within less than an inch from where O’Brien’s neck lands.

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Knowing that O’Brien sees that Huo could have crushed his wind pipe, Yuanjia assumes the fight is over, and tries to leave the ring respectfully. Hercules, enraged even more by having the crowd turn against him, is having none of it, and pulls him back into the ring. After a brief clash, Huo is able to kick O’Brien over the ropes and out of the ring… right onto where an earlier impact had exposed a set of heavy nails. But just before they would have slammed right through the American’s bald skull, Huo braces Hercules with his foot and pulls him to safety.

"I saw my whole life flash before my eyes! Even worse, it was mostly the gym and protein shakes."

“I saw my whole life flash before my eyes! It was mostly the inside of gyms.”

Finally realizing he’s outclassed, Hercules visibly suppresses his Beast Mode, and admits defeat. He gives a traditional Chinese gesture of respect, and enthusiastically hoists Huo Yuanjia’s hand in the air as the crowd cheers.

Again, a new and inventive type of fight for the movie. Fast, intense, relatively believable and with quite the rousing ending, this battle is everything it needs to be. Especially at this point in the movie, when there’s been so much gloom & sadness beforehand, and Huo himself needs a meaningful victory. He’s gone from ending lives to saving them.

Grade: A

9) Huo Yuanjia’s Last Stand

Huo Fights: Anno Tanaka, a Japanese champion. Though a veteran fighter, he’s noticeably younger than Yuanjia. Intense & competitive, but very honorable. In fact, prior their fight, the two enjoyed a friendly discussion over tea, and come to respect each other. Played by Nakamura Shido.

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They became so friendly, they even hold hands like this in public

For the first half of the fight, he’s armed with a katana sword, while Huo Yuanjia wields a three-section staff.

The Setup: Remember, this movie does the thing JJ Abrams loves so much where it starts towards the end, then rewinds to the beginning, catches up, and then finishes. So now we’re back to the final part of the tournament, with Huo about to face off with his Japanese counterpart.

Tanaka finds the whole thing shady, and openly distrusts his zaibatsu handler. As the two meet in the arena, Tanaka offers to re-schedule their fight for another day, when he’s more rested. Huo politely declines, saying he prefers it this way. (And it’s not like he broke a sweat taking down those white guys, anyway.)

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The Fight: The battle is crazy intense right from the start. Tanaka is excellent with his katana (some online research indicates he uses it less like an actual kendo swordsman would and more like a Chinese straight sword), but Huo is more than a match with his set of super nunchaku, using them to fend off his opponent in all sorts of creative ways.

At one point he even manages to encircle Tanaka with it, but he breaks free immediately. In the ensuing struggle, they manage to pull a Hamlet and each ends up holding the other’s weapon. Yuanjia proves adept enough with the samurai sword, but Tanaka can’t do anything more than basic defense with the complicated staff, and to the audience’s delight he even manages to whack himself in the face.

The pair respectfully exchange weapons and begin anew, this time with notably more gravitas. Tanaka is soon able to cut through one of the staff’s connective chain and then another, which fortunately still leaves Huo with two metal clubs.

 It's kinda like Mitch Hedberg's joke about how an escalator can never "break," it can only become stairs.

It’s kinda like Mitch Hedberg’s joke about how an escalator can never “break,” it can only become stairs.

One furious exchange leaves the two with their weapons simultaneously stopping in front of each other’s throats, ending the first round in a draw. They retire to their corners to prepare for the next portion which will be hand-to-hand.

But unfortunately while everyone was gawking at the previous clash, someone surreptitiously switched out Yuanjia’s tea with another, identical-seeming cup. We don’t see who, but we know that the international conglomerate had something “special” planned to ensure Huo did not survive the day. This is historically “accurate” inasmuch as it reflects a very unpopular but unproven theory about the real Huo Yuanjia’s death.

Yuanjia does indeed drink it during the break– hey, who drinks tea in the middle of an intense athletic competition, anyway? Isn’t the stuff supposed to soothe & calm you? I know they hadn’t invented Gatorade yet, but sheesh– and returns to the ring. It’s not long at all before something goes wrong.

“Argh, and I PROMISED myself I wouldn’t have matches the morning after Taco Night!”

“Argh, and I PROMISED myself I wouldn’t have any more matches the morning after Taco Night!”

Though the round begins well at first, Huo’s vision immediately gets blurry and his reactions slow down. He barely blocks a simple blow to the chest, and vomits up a huge amount of blood.

Tanaka can immediately see that something is up, and he steps away. The referees suspend the fight, and everyone–including Tanaka– urges Yuanjia to leave and go to a hospital. But he demurs: knowing the end is near no matter what he does, he’d rather finish what he started, facing the end with courage. He urges his followers to not take revenge (which is funny, because, again, in 1994 Jet Li made a movie entirely about a Huo Yuanjia student who did just that), and heads back into combat, despite Tanaka’s warning that he won’t hold back.

The crowd chants Huo Yuanjia’s name, but things start to go a lot worse for him. He fights desperately and actually surprisingly well for a man on his last legs, but still takes a beating. The sad music overwhelms most of the sound effects, emphasizing the tragedy that’s happening now instead of excitement. Huo continues to hold his ground, but takes a devastating punch to the chest and staggers. With the last of his strength, he lunges in when Tanaka leaves an opening and uses the same twisting death blow to the heart he finished off Chin Lei with…

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… only he stops it just short of deadly impact, allowing it to harmlessly land on Tanaka’s robe. With that, he smiles and collapses. Tanaka sees how he was spared from a fatal blow, and stops the referee from calling the fight in his favor. He instead declares Huo Yuanjia to be the winner, helps Huo back up, and bows to him. The crowd erupts in cheers and Yuanjia is swarmed by his friends.

Tanaka storms out and confronts the Japanese businessman from his corner, telling him that his dishonorable actions have made him “a disgrace to Japan.” It’s a nice nod away the overt nationalism that has often plagued kung fu movies– Tanaka’s words here confirm that Tanaka is not the aberration of his country for being good, it’s the businessman who’s an aberration for being bad.

Meanwhile, as the crowd venerates Huo Yuanjia, he looks upward through the building’s skylight, gazing at the stars as he dies. His ascent to the afterlife is symbolized by a ghostly vision of him practicing wushu forms on an open field: a pure expression of martial artistry free from violence. Aw.

Grade: A-

Fearless isn’t the be-all-end-all period action flick it aspires to be, but it’s nonetheless mandatory viewing for the diehard action fan. Get on it if you haven’t already, and praise Saint Jet.

Coming Attractions: Know who’s an even bigger badass than Jet Li?

It's-a-him.

It’s-a-him.

Big Trouble In Little China (fight 2 of 2)

Yet another Schwartz-measuring contest.

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2) Good vs Evil

The Fighters:

  • Jack Burton, a cocky but good-hearted American trucker who’s become embroiled in this ridiculous plot. In addition to never driving faster than he can see, Jack is a burly man of action whose gutsy impulsiveness screws him over about as often as it saves the day. Curiously, though Burton is presented as the protagonist, if you look at his role in the story objectively he’s much closer to being the sidekick– another clever move on Carpenter’s part. Played by national treasure Kurt Russell.
    • Armed with: A small machine gun and a knife hidden in his boot.
  • Wang Chi, Jack’s friend and arguably the real hero of the story. A first-generation Chinese immigrant, Wang is quintessentially American, having built a business and a new life through pure hard work. He’s also a capable martial artist and is determined to do anything to recover his beloved. Played by Dennis Dun.
    • Armed with: A Chinese sword.
  • Egg Shen, the Yoda/Obi-Wan of Chinatown– a lovably crotchety old sorcerer who fights on behalf of good. Though an excellent character, Shen is one of the looser parts of the movie’s backstory; it’s not fully explained who he is besides being Lo Pan’s ancient enemy, and if he is, shouldn’t that mean he also is over 2000 years old, but better preserved for some reason? Regardless, he’s a real hoot, especially as played by the late Victor Wong.
    • Armed with: His own significant mystical powers, and also a bag filled with several stones that act as, essentially, magic grenades.
  • The Chang Sing, or at least the five members who survived the previous encounter.
    • Armed with: Various handheld weapons.
  • Lo Pan, the film’s villain. An ancient, evil wizard whose power has been trapped for 2000 years in the decaying (but never dying) flesh of a mortal businessman. Up until this point, Pan has switched between his crippled human body and his mystical but immaterial & largely powerless true form. Played with unmatched gusto by the great James Hong.
  • Thunder, the most active and visible member of the Three Storms. As fits his name (note: unless I missed it, none of the Storms are addressed by name on-screen), Thunder’s power lies in his incredible strength. Played by Carter Wong.
  • Rain, the member of the Three Storms who specializes in high-flying agility. Played by Peter Kwong.
  • Lightning, the member of the Three Storms who can fire electricity. Played by James Pax.
  • The Wing Kong, a couple dozen or so of them.
    • Armed with: Various handheld weapons.
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“The Wing Kong can’t beat us. We’re on a mission from Buddha.”

Just before the good guys enter the chamber, all of them chug a potion provided by Egg Shen, which gives them a temporary magical boost to put them on par with their enemy’s superior numbers (and the power of the Three Storms, who the mortals had previously been unable to touch). Additionally, it provides a “great buzz” and seems to help one of the Chang Sings be more open about his sexuality.

Also present are the captive ladies, Gracie Law and Miao Yin.

The Setup: The heroic duo’s previous effort to infiltrate Lo Pan’s headquarters and rescue Miao Yin turned up largely fruitless (or worse, since Gracie got kidnapped at the end too), they’ve returned in force now. They arrive just in time to interrupt Pan’s wedding ceremony. He needs to marry and then sacrifice a green-eyed woman, which will appease his dark god and restore his youth, blah blah blah mumbo jumbo. Since fate dropped another green-eyed temptress in his lap in the form of Gracie, Pan intends to sacrifice one bride and keep the other for himself. I know what you’re thinking: Son of a bitch MUST pay.

Having made their way through the catacombs Burton’s band of magically juiced-up soldiers break into the wedding chamber.

The Fight: As the good guys cheer just before their assault, Jack goes a bit too far, and fires his gun into the ceiling.

Whoops.

Whoops.

It ends up knocking loose some chunks of the stone ceiling, which fall on his head and daze him for a few minutes. Nice job, hero.

For everyone else, the battle goes from zero to crazy pretty quick. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the good guys kick some serious ass. For the most part, their enhanced abilities are underplayed– when they start fighting against their evil counterparts, it looks like they’re fighting normally (i.e., no crazy special effects or sped-up movement), but they’re consistently able to overpower and outmaneuver their foes.

Of course, it helps that Egg Shen is there to even the odds a little bit more by intermittently tossing off his magic grenades.

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Wang spends almost the entire battle occupied with Rain. The mortal man’s agility is greatly improved by Egg’s potion, and he cockily shows off no shortage of impossible leaps, multiple consecutive flips and other gymnastic feats as he duels with the high-flying demi-god. It’s neat, and Dennis Dun (with help from his stunt double, presumably) cuts quite the impressively nimble figure, even stopping to occasionally throw some non-verbal taunts at his opponent. But it goes on just a bit too long, it’s fairly repetitive, and Hollywood’s facility with wire-fu was about a generation away from capturing what Carpenter was aiming for here; it’s not exactly Crouching Tiger.

But on the plus side, it won't make you cry like Crouching Tiger.

But on the plus side, it won’t make you cry like Crouching Tiger.

Meanwhile, the handful of Chang Sing cut pretty effortlessly through their remaining rivals, and Jack eventually rejoins the battle. He tries to open fire on Lo Pan, but his gun is seized and crushed by the deadly Thunder.

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Who was immediately booked as a guest on Piers Morgan

One of Egg’s bombs is able to take Thunder out of the combat zone temporarily, but that still leaves Jack to deal with an armored warrior. He struggles to get the knife out of his boot, and ends up surprising his foe by shoving the blade through the bottom of his footwear and kick-impaling it through his chest.

Unfortunately, he gets it so deeply embedded that he ends up awkwardly pinned underneath the warrior’s corpse.

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“This isn’t what it looks like!”

This leaves Egg Shen to deal with Lo Pan, who has conducted enough of the ceremony to make himself flesh once again. Interestingly, Hong’s reactions to Shen convey more about their rivalry than anything in the dialogue; the mixture of irritation and hesitant condescension he greets Shen with indicates the old man isn’t quite the Superman to his Lex Luthor, but Shen’s still powerful enough for Pan to take him seriously.

Egg first launches a firework-like projectile that misses L0 Pan, which the villain scoffs at as “peasant magic.” The two then each fire a magical beam from their rings, and when the lights meet in mid-air, the clash of the sorcerers’ power is represented by the silhouettes of two imposing warriors who fight in stately, slow-motion combat.

I don't know if I mentioned it before but this movie RULES.

I don’t know if I mentioned it before but this movie RULES.

It’s an unexpected bit of bonkers filmmaking and really quite delightful. Hong makes it even wilder when he gleefully twitches his thumbs, as if he’s pantomiming playing a video game.

The magic-hologram battle ends in an apparent stalemate after the projections have a particularly strong clash which collapses the entire thing. Still, Lo Pan even finds room to sneer over a tie, telling his old foe “you never could beat me.”

Lightning arrives and tries to take out Egg Shen, who bounces his blasts back with a metal fan. Meanwhile, Lo Pan escapes with Miao Yin and Thunder, and Lightning knocks some debris loose to block the entrance to any pursuers. Wang finally finishes off Rain with a thrown sword, sending the warrior through a wall that allows the heroes to pursue.

From here it’s pretty much over. Even a surprise encounter with the Rob Bottin version of Chewbacca is handled with alarming ease. By Gracie, no less.

Cattrall's experience in handling beastly abominations would came in handy years later when working with Sarah Jessica Parker

Cattrall’s experience in handling beastly abominations would come in handy years later when she had to work with Sarah Jessica Parker

Jack and Gracie share some smooches in the elevator (leaving him with some rather undignified lipstick smear for the climactic showdown). They track down the two villains, and first face off with Thunder, who Wang is able to sidetrack by drawing him into another room. This leaves Jack to share another one of his patented half-amazing/half-bullshit speeches, then he flings his knife at Lo Pan.

It misses. Wildly. Looking amused (while everyone else groans at Jack, Jack included), the villain retrieves the blade, admires it, and throws it back. But with catlike speed, Burton catches it in air, and throws it right back at Lo Pan, hitting him square in the forehead.

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That’s because it’s all in the reflexes.

From there it’s not too interesting. Lightning gets taken out in a rather boring way as the heroes all escape, letting a chunk of stone drop on his immortal head. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Thunder, after seeing his boss’ corpse, does this:

Pictured above: most YouTube commenters

Then he explodes, accomplishing exactly nothing because the heroes avoid it simply by going around the corner. It’s wild, though.

The bulk of this fight is taken up by a similar sort of chaotic mass battle we saw last time, but executed with much more panache and given lots of extra flavor by adding in our known characters, some crazy magical combat and bits of comedy. Though they do suffer some delays accomplishing their overall goal, the momentum is very clearly on the protagonists’ side during the fight and they don’t experience any true setbacks or pains along the way. This ought to rob suspense from the encounter but instead gives it a manic energy, making it thrilling and triumphant.

And that ending! In another sly move, Carpenter effectively takes his “hero” out of the action for the majority of the fight, leaving the ostensible supporting cast to do most of the work. But Jack Burton still comes through when it means the most, even after a ridiculously stupid setback. It takes a genius like 1980s John Carpenter to be able to have his cake and eat it too– to make Burton a badass AND a clown.

On a purely technical level, this showdown is no great shakes, but everything taken together it’s a rollicking good time for the ages.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: A man without fear.

“Hey, it’s that guy from the site banner!”

Big Trouble In Little China (fight 1 of 2)

Now for yet another movie that wasn’t taken seriously by audiences at first.

For some reason.

For some reason.

John Carpenter’s 1986 flop Big Trouble In Little China was intended at the time to be a big hit, but looking back now it’s almost the definition of a cult classic. It’s an early entry in the East-Meets-West genre, crudely tossing an obnoxious American trucker into a convoluted martial arts fantasy amidst all sorts of cheesy special effects and winking humor. This is a movie with so many volatile ingredients; had it tipped the scales too far at any point (too weird, too serious, too funny etc) and the whole thing could very easily have been an unwatchable disaster. Yet Carpenter and his crew managed to nail the perfect alchemy which resulted in an endearing, hilarious and truly one-of-a-kind experience. Even its imperfections– among them a sloppily constructed mythology, dialogue so blunt it sounds like it was written by Jack Kirby, ambitions that outstripped the current state of martial arts choreography/special effects, Kim Cattrall’s acting– are somehow endearing.

So while it’s a shame the movie didn’t catch on at the time and prompt studios to make more of the same (perhaps even a sequel?), in the end it’s unlikely this lightning could have ever struck twice.

1) Chang Sing vs Wing Kong

The Fighters:

  • The Chang Sing, an old Chinese society that’s good.
  • The Wing Kong, an old Chinese society that’s bad.

Both are filled with able-bodied kung fu warriors and are armed with an assortment of swords, knives, machetes, sticks, cleavers and various firearms (including one tommy gun). Also joining the party at the very end will be the mystical “Three Storms,” but they contribute so little we won’t discuss them much here. Ditto for the film’s protagonists, who mostly just observe from Jack’s truck.

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Most of the combatants are unrecognizable stuntmen, but noticeable among the bad guys is Jeff Imada, legendary Hollywood stuntman and coordinator.

The Setup: Our heroes, Jack Burton and Wang Chi, travel to San Francisco’s Chinatown to save Wang’s fiancee, Miao Yin, from her fresh-off-the-plane abduction by Chinese gangsters. (This broad-daylight kidnapping isn’t even the tenth weirdest thing to happen in the movie.)

Their pursuit leads them to a narrow alley where they come close to a funeral procession consisting of dozens of Chang Sing members, honoring a fallen leader. But Wang has barely finished explaining this to Jack when the Wing Kong stroll in from behind the truck, ready to confront their ancient rivals in an ambush.

The Fight: There’s a brief standoff as both sides brandish their weapons and glare angrily. It’s finally broken when one of the Tongs unload with a machine gun, prompting a hail of bullets from the other side. Sings and Kongs both fall, until each side is apparently out of ammo. Then both come out from cover and there’s a longer stare down.

The “Chinese standoff” (as Wang calls it, with hilarious seriousness) ends when both sides scream and charge at each other. They collide in a huge, bloody martial arts brawl.

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“A MAAAAAADHOUSE!”

What follows is very well done, if not spectacular, example of a chaotic free-for-all. There’s kicks and punches and stabs and chops and smacks and all sorts of delightful mayhem. It’s pure Red Shirt on Red Shirt violence– we don’t know the names of any of the participants, and only from context (and a couple colorful casting/costume choices, on the bad guys’ side at least) can we even infer who some of the lead fighters on each team are. Both heroes & villains suffer their share of losses.

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One guy suffers through this.

The martial arts choreography’s about as good as you can expect in a (somewhat) mainstream Hollywood action film from the time period– fun, varied and cool-looking, if a little stiff by modern expectations.

Eventually the pace picks up (via rapid editing) a bit, and it seems the odds are beginning to turn in the Chang Sings’ favor. But before that can get too out of hand, the battle is interrupted by the Three Storms, demi-godlike warriors loyal to the Wing Kong’s leader. They arrive one after the other, each in a way that corresponds with their powers and names: Thunder emerges from out of a loud explosion, Rain glides down from overhead after a brief downpour, and Lightning appears from a lightning bolt.

The Storms execute a bunch of scary moves and provides some super-intense glares, then they all line up together to stare down the shocked gangs. Several Chang Sings raise pistols and unload at the mystical warriors, but their bullets seem to have no effect.

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It’s like a Mortal Kombat game where you can only play as Raiden

In response, the Storms simultaneously draw their curved blades and fling them at the Chang Sings, with deadly accuracy. Jack & Wang take this as their cue to book it, and drive through the narrow alley. Before escaping they have a brief encounter with the intangible form of Lo Pan, the film’s villain, but it doesn’t come to much. More on him later.

Again, all well done fun even if it’s not amazing. It serves as a pretty good escalation to the movie’s stakes as established so far– an obnoxiously awesome trucker gets embroiled first in a kidnapping plot, then in a kung fu gang war, and now in a magical epic. Or at least it would, if the studio-mandated prologue hadn’t spelled out right from the beginning that the movie would eventually dive headfirst into Eastern mysticism.

Ah, well. Regardless, the best is yet to come.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: The movie gets even weirder, in the best possible way.

It has a lot of big fans.

It has a lot of big fans.

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.

Enter The Dragon (retrospective)

“Finally! What the hell took you so long?”

I can tell the wait has distressed you.

Enter The Dragon! One of the most famous, beloved, iconic kung fu flicks of all time. Starring Bruce Lee, the man who, via a combination of superb skill, airy philosophizing, fiery charisma and a tragically early death, did more than any one man to bring chop-socky action to the wider world.

Is it a great movie? Good grief, no. It’s strange and choppy and at many times laughable. But is it a great action movie? Well… not entirely. It’s unevenly paced and there’s little suspense, given that the majority of the fights are so uneven. Indeed, this is the failing of most Lee movies: typically, his character’s arc goes from most fights where he is in no danger whatsoever, to the final fight(s), where he is in moderate danger. This is a type of action that’s meant to be enjoyed less for the suspense or excitement, and more as simply a showcase for the godlike physicality (and absolutely magnetic personality) of its lead. The Raid, this is not.

Again, this flick is just packed with fights, many of them small or inconsequential, so we’ll look at it as a retrospective and give each battle a light touch.

1) Lee vs Fat Guy

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Still way less homoerotic than Top Gun.

Enter The Dragon certainly wastes no time getting down to business. Before the title appears and barely after the production company logos have faded, the audience is taken to an open-air duel between two men. Surrounded by Shaolin monks, the pair are for some reason dressed in nothing but speedos, shoes, knee-high socks and light boxing gloves.

The camera immediately and purposefully zooms in on Bruce Lee’s character (simply known as “Lee,” because why not), capturing his focused intensity. Of course even amongst perceived equals Bruce’s physique and persona would stand out, but here he’s faced off against a very unimpressive opponent. Visibly overweight, unimposing and never seeming particularly skilled, Lee’s unnamed foe is laughably doomed from the start. (Apparently this hapless opponent is a very young Sammo Hung, a contemporary/close friend of Jackie Chan and someone who would go on to become a Hong Kong legend both on and off the screen. All of which makes his non-entity appearance here more puzzling.)

As could be easily predicted, Lee wipes the floor with Sammo, taking him down multiple times with quick, powerful blows and skillfully evading all his counter-strikes. Hung performs a nice backflip evasion at one point (one of his career trademarks is how spry he is for such a large man), but he’s no match for the star. In the end, Lee defeats him by curling him up into a wrestling hold and making him tap out.

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“Matte!”

Again, this is all too easy for Lee. It’s also fairly cheesy, full of the HK exaggerated sound effects that defined the genre at the time. Still, there’s a loose, unpredictable energy here that distinguishes the battle from the kind of action both sides of the ocean had been used to, and that’s all due to Lee and “Jeet Kune Do”– the actor’s self-created martial art/philosophy which mandated improvisation and adaptability, rather than other rigidly traditional Chinese disciplines and their limited move sets. (Many argue that Lee essentially created what is now modern mixed martial arts.) You can even see some of JKD’s more explicit influence, such as the wrestling-like move he finishes with, and a foot-punch he pulls off early in the match.

All in all, not a bad introduction.

2) and 3) Williams and Roper

Bunching these two together for brevity’s sake. They’re our secondary protagonists. Before they even got to the villain’s island, we already saw both of them in some quick defensive bits that are too simple to feature here, but very telling as to their characters: Roper beat up some loan sharks on a golf course because he’s a reckless gambler, while Williams knocked out a couple racist cops because he’s an awesome 70s black dude who doesn’t have time for Whitey’s bullshit.

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As you can see, he doesn’t have time for this guy’s face, either.

Williams is played by the late Jim Kelly, a genuine karate champion who parlayed his role in this movie into a healthy stint as a blacksploitation star. Roper is played by John Saxon, apparently another black belt, who would later go on to be better known for his appearances in the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Both are apparently world-class martial artists, and have been invited to Han’s secluded island tournament. After a brief demo with spear-fighting, the first match is of Williams against an unnamed western fighter. Williams blocks all the man’s blows with ease, and puts him down twice, the second time for good. Afterwards, he gets some money from Roper, the two friends having an agreement to bet on each other with other viewers and then split the winnings.

The next match, in fact, is more dragged-out gambling joke than an actual fight. The “chump” these two pals are stringing along is a goofy-looking, middle-aged Asian man who inexplicably has a Hitler mustache. In addition to being a big gambler he’s also the most oblivious person alive because he fails to miss the painfully obvious collaboration Roper & Williams are doing right in front of his freaking face.

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“Hey Williams, don’t forget to tell me when I can op-stay owing-thray the ight-fay.”

Basically, the plan is that Roper takes enough punishment to the point where their sucker agrees to tilt the odds/payout ratio heavily against Roper. I don’t really gamble so I don’t know, but this doesn’t strike me as standard betting procedure or even common sense– can you really change the odds in the middle of the contest, and if someone was offering to do that for you when it looks like they’ll lose, wouldn’t you suspect something? Anyway, Asian Hitler doesn’t, and after Roper gets battered enough, he finally goes along with Roper’s hoped-upon 8/3 odds. At a completely un-subtle hand gesture from Williams, Roper gets up and knocks his erstwhile tormentor out with one punch.

Which reminds me: I might have missed something but the rules of this tournament don’t seem really clear. You would think they have a “best of X falls” system, because when any fighter goes down, they both stop fighting and then line up against each other to start the next round. But so far the fights only end when one party is unconscious. Meanwhile, Roper hits the dirt a total of three times before he wins, so if there’s any TKO, it’s some time after three falls. Say what you will about Bloodsport, at least it established some firm rules.

Anyway, of these back-to-back sequences giving us a fuller introduction to our secondary heroes, Williams undoubtedly comes out better. Saxon is indeed enjoyable and his character has a certain lazy charm, but he pales (ahem) in comparison to Kelly’s size, power, and cool-guy attitude. Williams also gets the only thing resembling a real fight, whereas Roper’s is more of a comedy routine (which, arguably, pulls the “rake joke” trick of going so far past tiresome it actually comes back around to amusing).

4) Bolo vs Unlucky Guards

Uh oh. This guy look familiar?

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He’s hard to forget.

Yep, our old pal Bolo Yeung had an early role in Enter The Dragon. Like Bruce, his character has one name but it’s actually not the same as his real name. Yeung was born Yang Sze and is credited that way in this movie; in a strange case of life imitating art, enough people started giving him the nickname “Bolo” because it’s the name of his character in this movie, and eventually it stuck.

Whatever his name is, young Bolo (see what I did there) is just as enormous and creepy as he would later be in Bloodsport, though so smooth-skinned and young-looking he seems almost boyish, like an embryonic Chong Li. But there’s nothing boyish about his hulking physique and the occasionally manic grimaces we’ve come to expect from before, though his rictus grins are more like a rough draft of what we’d eventually see in the Van Damme film.

Anyway, Bolo is introduced in this scene to dispense some very public punishment to four hapless guards who failed to stop an unidentified post-curfew prowler the previous evening (the culprit was Lee, skulking about doing recon, who knocked out or evaded all guards before they could identify him). Han shows he means business by having Bolo basically execute these chumps in front of the tournament crowd.

And an execution is definitely what it is. One at a time, Bolo calmly approaches and dismantles the terrified, smaller men. They try to fight back but their blows are either quickly blocked or calmly absorbed by the quiet killing machine. Bolo tosses one man casually over his head as if he were a rag doll (showing off that crazy strength) and then steps on his face, apparently fatally. After knocking the second opponent face-down to the ground, Bolo pulls back hard on his head from behind until his neck snaps from the pressure. Conspicuously, the third doesn’t seem to receive any killing blow, just a very painful-looking knee to the nuts.

But the final victim gets it worst of all: after being knocked around by the giant villain, he’s cradled in Bolo’s mighty arms almost like a child, and Bolo pushes him together until his spine breaks– he literally folds the man in half. Holy shit.

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Is… is this even possible? Holy shit.

Not very exciting, of course; just a nice bit of focused cruelty. Even young, rookie Bolo Yeung is plenty entertaining, even if his move set isn’t much more complicated than what we saw in the rather simplistic Bloodsport fights. But this is all a lot less stiff.

5) Lee vs O’Hara

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Finally, Lee shows up to work his mojo. (It only took, what? A little over an hour?) His designated opponent is one of Han’s top men, O’Hara, played by martial artist and veteran actor/stunt coordinator Robert Wall. The fight is a personal one for Lee, since it was O’Hara’s pursuit of Lee’s sister (who had been investigating Han) which ended with her killing herself to avoid capture. He got that ugly scar in the same encounter.

Lee simply gives one of his trademark smoldering glares, but his opponent opts for a more ostentatious approach, smashing a wooden board he’d brought along just for show. Lee is not impressed, uttering his famous “boards don’t fight back,” maxim. They line up, wrist to wrist, for the opening blow, and Lee scores it immediately, his fist striking out with blinding speed and intensity to hit O’Hara in the face and send him to his knees. Then he does the exact same thing again. The third time, his foe is able to block a bit, but Lee still gets him on the follow-up. (Again, any kind of “points” system in these matches and what indicates when they will take breaks from the fight to line up again is quite opaque.)

Eventually, O’Hara gets unhinged and desperate. He tries to grab Lee’s foot from the ground, which only earns him a backflipping kick in the face. When he tries to charge in with a powerful jumping kick, Lee simply ducks underneath him and puts his foot right where O’Hara’s nuts will land.

owowowowowowowowowow...

owowowowowowowowowow….

Rather improbably for a man whose genitals just had an unfortunate encounter with Bruce Lee and gravity, O’Hara can still continues to fight, though he only gets sloppier. Lee, however, only gets more worked up: at the beginning of the fight, he only moved to attack, but soon enough he’s bouncing around energetically, bobbing & weaving in the combat space.

Lee repeatedly puts O’Hara down with strong, single strikes, to the point where the audience even stops applauding since it’s not even a contest anymore. Lee puts O’Hara down harder with a strong kick to the chest he executes from very close, sending him into the audience.

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Ooooooh that’s a lot of straightening for his leg to do.

It certainly seems like a finishing move– it’s even in slow motion and everything– but O’Hara can’t seem to get enough. Over Han’s objections, he breaks two random glass bottles nearby him and tries to take Lee out, barfight style. Lee doesn’t exactly say “wow, seriously?” but it’s implied. He easily disarms O’Hara and knocks him on his back. He ensures it’s the last time when he leaps onto the man’s (not shown on camera) body with a look of deranged intensity.

Some sort of doctor confirms it afterward: he’s dead, Jim.

This is an improvement from a lot of what we’ve seen before, but still not too great. For all his stature and build-up as the villain’s right-hand man, O’Hara is reduced to a stumbling ox for Lee’s swift, flawless strikes– basically a walking punching bag. Bruce is, as ever, fantastic and graceful in his almost-too-quick-to-see attacks, but this barely seems like a workout for him.

6) Williams vs Han

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Having been shamed by O’Hara’s disgraceful behavior, Han cancels the rest of the day’s matches, and calls Williams in to his office for a private meeting. Han, played by longtime Hong Kong star Shih Kien (and whose voice was dubbed by Keye Luke), is a major criminal mastermind and drug trafficker. He holds these tournaments every three years as a covert way to find new talent and connections for his organization. He’s pretty much a straight-up supervillain, “right out of a comic book,” as Williams himself says in this scene. Dude even has a white pet cat he carries around sometimes.

He tries to get Williams to play ball by asking him who he saw snooping around last night, but Williams doesn’t have time for that jive crap. The confrontation turns ugly and Han calls in several guards, who the hero of course defeats easily.

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Once Williams has awesomely dispatched those punks, Han springs into action personally. The American is immediately caught off-guard when his opening strike gets blocked by what turns out to be a heavy iron prosthetic replacing his left hand. Besides that, Han turns out to be a surprisingly agile and canny fighter in his own right, dodging most of Williams’ attacks and making excellent use of his handy (heh) advantage.

There’s some nice camera work here, such as alternating POV shots as the two trade blows, and a brief view of both characters’ silhouettes as they battle behind a paper screen. And a fun bit of background detail: after a stray blow from Han’s hand breaks open a bird cage, the occupants of which fly around the room and at one point into Williams’ face.

The fight spills through the wall into some kind of disco-themed opium den, where several slave girls baked out of their minds laugh uproariously at everything they see.

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“Talk to the hand!”

An ignoble place to die, and too bad because the fight’s pretty much over for Williams at that point. Increasingly tired and beat up, he admirably continues to rise and gamely fight back, but Han is able to take him down for good with repeated iron blows to his back. Brutal.

This marks the unfortunately too early departure of Williams from the film, leaving us with the less interesting Roper as the sole secondary protagonist (and we all know why). But at least he goes down fighting, and in a scene which proves that the movie isn’t afraid to kill the guy you like halfway through. Not a bad fight, either, especially in the beginning. So long, Jim.

7) Lee vs Everybody

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This is the big one, the centerpiece. The legendary sequence. It was even the centerpiece of this movie’s parody in Kentucky Fried Movie.

But here’s the thing: it’s… not very good. It’s not even the best fight in this movie.

“Dude, what are you talking about?” I inevitably hear when I say this. “It’s awesome! That’s the scene where Bruce Lee fights like 50 guys!” Well, that’s true in only the most technical sense. It’s more accurate to say it’s the scene where about 50 guys run right into Bruce Lee’s fists & legs one or two at a time, and stay down after they’re hit once. Less exciting, but more accurate.

Although one of those 50 guys is Jackie Chan. This one, I believe.

Although one of those 50 guys is Jackie Chan. This one, I believe.

Not once does Lee ever seem like he’s in danger here, not just because the individual guards he attacks (setup: after he Metal Gear Solids his way into Han’s underground lair to find evidence and send a message to his MI6 handlers, someone sets off an alarm and Lee has to fight his way out) pose no threat to him whatsoever, but also because there’s barely any sense of scale to the conflict. Only once toward the very end is there an angle showing a large crowd of thugs at one time; otherwise, both because of poor camera-blocking and because Lee encounters the bad guys in waves, you really have no idea how many foes he’s facing at one time. On several occasions, the camera keeps so tightly on Lee you don’t know there’s anyone else in the room at all until one of the hero’s limbs lances out and strikes someone.

The poor execution mutes the concept of what it should be… and again, Bruce Lee is so perfectly invincible in the world of this movie it probably wouldn’t have been thrilling even if it had been shot better. Look at more recent scenes like the dojo encounter in Jet Li’s Kiss of the Dragon or the famous hammer hallway rumble in Oldboy if you want to see this sort of scenario done right.

As ever, the entertainment value is just in watching Lee’s dazzling speed and power. He strikes with sudden wild ferocity of a coiled snake (incidentally, Lee did use a poisonous cobra as an improvised stealth tool just prior to this scene), taking down each thug with ease. Eventually they start coming in with weapons, but he simply disarms them and uses them himself.

"Great, we just made him MORE dangerous!"

“Great, we just made him MORE dangerous!”

First a bo staff, then two smaller sticks, and finally Lee’s signature nunchaku. Curiously, he spends more time twirling those around to scare a bad guy than he does actually using them to take down opponents. Considering his remarks about O’Hara’s board-related antics, Bruce is oddly hypocritical when it comes to showing off.

The only other bit of interesting incident is when the fight wanders down to where Han’s prisoners/experimental subjects are being held behind bars. They provide Lee with some help by seizing guards who get too close to their cells, but it’s not like he needed it.

The fight ends when Lee is trapped between several slamming steel doors. Lee sits down resignedly to await his fate.

"I just took down like 50 guys and I get defeated by a DOOR?! fml"

“I just took down like 50 guys and I get defeated by a DOOR?! fml”

You always have to wonder about what guys through the minds of henchmen in movies like this: “Hmm, I just saw this unbeatable superman mow through 30 of my colleagues, should I rush in at him too? Sure! One of us HAS to get lucky and it might as well be me!”

8) Roper vs Bolo

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After Han captures Lee, he brings him to the tournament grounds, and demands that Roper– who he’d been courting as an employee– execute him. After some hesitation, the cocky American decides there are limits to his sleaziness, and he refuses. Incensed, Han has Bolo fight Roper, instead.

As the hulking fighter approaches, Lee moves as if to help, but Roper gestures him away, preferring to handle this himself. Pretty gutsy, if not suicidally so.

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“You sure about this? I mean, you can see it’s Bolo Yeung, right?”

Their fight is the most entertaining one so far. They have a very solid back & forth, especially at the beginning. But soon Bolo’s strength advantage puts Roper on the ground, and Bolo pins him in an arm lock. Roper resists but he’s held quite tightly, and it looks like only a matter of time before his arm breaks. However, the plucky gambler takes the unusual step of biting Bolo’s leg, which lies conveniently near his mouth. Considering how much pain it puts Bolo in, and how he’s limping a bit after he finally lets go, Roper might actually have chewed some flesh right off.

But an hour later he was hungry again BECAUSE BOLO IS CHINESE GET IT

but an hour later he was hungry again BECAUSE BOLO IS CHINESE GET IT HA HA

When they both get back up, Roper presses his advantage, but Bolo still comes back strong, at one point throwing him down with an overhead press. Eventually, Roper is able to wear him down with repeated, rapid strikes to the face, and finishes him with a deadly combo ending with a kick to the nuts. Down goes Bolo. Freddy Krueger will avenge him.

This one’s a lot more fun. It’s fairly quick but neither is it too drawn out, and is relatively varied in terms of content. Saxon acquits himself well and all kidding aside, between his performance and the choreography you can actually buy him being able to defeat this massive warrior. Indeed, for most of the fight it seems like either of them really could win at any second– a crucial ingredient in crafting a suspenseful battle.

“Okay, but this is just one of my early roles. Surely I won’t continue to be known as the big hulking kung fu fighter who loses to inferior white guys, right?”

“Okay, but this is just one of my early roles. Surely I won’t continue to be known as the quiet villain who loses to inferior white guys, right?”

Bolo’s boss, obviously, is furious about the outcome, so this segues directly into….

9) Free For All

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Han starts barking out orders and having several students attack Lee and Roper at once. This goes about as well as you’d expect, but Han just keep sending in new ones. Hilariously, he keeps picking out random students by name, when it would be quicker and more likely to succeed if he simply said, “Everyone, attack those two!”

Since the heroes are effortlessly mowing down these goons left & right, this is conceptually similar to the underwhelming sequence of Lee in the dungeons, but it actually works a lot better. The camera pulls back enough so that we get a real sense of the number of enemies the heroes are facing, the takedowns are a bit more complex than just one or two blows, and the whole thing is faster, looser, more fun.

Unfortunately Lee & Roper merely fight as discrete units rather than actively cooperating, though they get the job done just the same. The sheer amount of foes might have overwhelmed the pair eventually, but we’ll never know because early into the encounter, a British mole within Han’s organization springs all the prisoners and sends them to even the odds. Now it’s total chaos.

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A MAAAAAAADHOUSE

The film takes a little bit of time, but not too much, to savor in this free-form carnage. We see Lee & Roper continue to stomp away, but director Robert Clouse also takes the time to highlight a few other moments of combat amongst faceless fighters of either side. It’s pretty darn cool.

Eventually, Han decides it’s time to join in on the action, and he gets his bear claw. Not the pastry, an actual bear claw. His iron hand is detachable and can be replaced with several other alternates, one of which is a bear claw with fur and everything. He and Lee eye each other amid the chaos.

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Bruce Lee making this face at you is a more surefire guarantee of your death than seeing the Grim Reaper with a rocket launcher.

10) Lee vs Han

Wasting little time, the two have a great battle outside for a little while, with Han’s uncanny agility actually giving Lee some trouble at first. After the villain takes a fall and loses his bear claw when a missed swing embeds it in a wooden board, Han hightails it out of there while Lee is briefly distracted by a random goon.

He flees back up to his office, where Lee quickly catches up to him just as he’s attaching an even more deadly claw: an all-metal one with four knife blades. Lee is unfazed by the Wolverine-wannabe and coldly informs him “You have offended my family, and you have offended a Shaolin temple.” SICK BURN. The melee continues outside unabated but no one else has followed them to this odd little office/trophy room. Now it’s just Lee against Han, solo.

Lee mostly sticks to long-range attacks here and doesn’t follow up most of his successful strikes, in order to stay away from the claw. Still, Han gets in a few slashes on his face and torso, though they’re mostly just on the surface and Lee is clearly the superior. He’s able to pull off this classy move where he doubles Han over, puts him in a headlock, and delivers a scorpion kick to his head. It’s almost as painful as it is insulting.

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He also gives Han a close-up view of his butt. Rude.

Even crazier, Lee executes this wild double-trip thing where he slides his whole body in to attack one of Han’s legs, then, while Han is off-balance, Lee pivots his whole body and kicks Han’s other leg from the other side. It’s completely bonkers and I love it.

Knowing he’s losing, a dazed Han seizes a spear from a nearby statue, but it’s of little use and only ends up embedded in a nearby wall. Said wall turns out to be a revolving door– a hidden entrance to Lee’s private hall of mirrors where their showdown finally ends.

This is the other iconic part of the movie and it’s just so weird. Why does Han even have this place– did he have it built for just such an occasion? If so, that’s amazing. Also, I don’t think I’ve even been to a normal, non-supervillainous, funhouse hall of mirrors– are they as disorienting as the movie makes them seem?

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Yeah, that’s definitely a stuntman as Han and not Shih Kien.

It certainly is plenty disorienting to Lee, almost cartoonishly so. He advances cautiously everywhere he goes, not knowing which Han he’s seeing is real and which is the reflection. The hero’s confusion defies believability at a few points, because he does manage to stumble into the villain a few times and nail him, but then somehow can’t find him again a mere second later. Is Han disappearing into the mirrors somehow, like by magic or something? It almost seems that way.

Also triggering your “come ON!” alarm is the point where Han is able to sneak right up behind Lee and rather than deliver a killing stroke– he really does have him dead to rights– instead opts for a light slash on the back of his shoulder. Maybe next time aim for an artery, dumbass.

As with the big underground brawl, this is a great concept but somewhat underwhelming in execution, not to mention repetitive and overlong. There are only so many times you can watch a dozen refracted images of Lee sidling forward an inch at a time while a dozen refracted Hans sneak up behind him.

The whole thing comes to an end when Lee remembers his master’s advice about an enemy using “illusions” to win battle (a piece of wisdom that seems suspiciously apt for the bizarre uniqueness of this encounter), and he smashes every mirror he can reach. This allows Lee to easily find the Freddy-wannabe and kick him hard enough to impale him on the spear he’d left sticking through the wall.

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Schwarzenegger would have found a great way to make a “seven years’ bad luck” pun here.

Bye bye, Han.

In the end, though Enter The Dragon is highly flawed and disappointing, it’s hard to hold that against it. Since the film was such a breakthrough in so many ways (not the least of which was it being the first Hollywood production of an authentically Chinese martial arts film, a clash which accounts for much of its awkward sensibility), it pioneered a lot of what was to come. Earlier I compared the dungeon fight unfavorably to similar battles in more recent films, but without the success of Enter The Dragon and Bruce Lee’s legacy, it’s doubtful the scale of action would be where it is today. It’s the perfect example of a movie that needs to be seen primarily within the context of its time, and, in what’s recurring lesson here at this site, proof that movies are more than the sum of their parts.

There were no grades given for the ten fights in the movie; it seemed unnecessary. But the top three worth truly singling out are, in order: the final Lee/Han duel, Roper vs Bolo, and the wild brawl which happens between the two. Strangely those happen to be the last three fights to happen– a rare treat for such a succession of excellent bits to happen one after the other. Wataa!

Coming Attractions: It’s time to go back.

Bloodsport (day 3 of 3)

Toss one more off.

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Look folks, not all the puns can be winners.

Here we are at the grand finale!

8) Frank Dux vs Paco

The Fighters:

  • Frank Dux, the kumite’s new man-to-beat. Possessed of a new determination to win after visiting his buddy Ray in the hospital, and even outwitted the CID thugs pursuing him so he could attend. Played by Jean-Claude Van Damme.
  • Paco, the Muay Thai kickboxer we’ve seen a few times already. Never addressed by name on film and without any spoken dialogue, he nonetheless leaves an impression. (Would a modern action film give little bits of characterization to secondary/tertiary competitors like Pumola?) Played by Paulo Tocha.

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The Fight: Actually a nice little rev-up before the main course, suitably difficult for Frank but not an easy stroll through the park like his early fights.

As they start, Paco does the classic cheesy villain/bad guy wrestler thing where he holds out his fists so the two can bump together as a sign of respect, only when Frank goes in, Paco sucker-punches him in the face. Ha! Evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.

Ahem. Frank, always one to turn lemons into karate-lemonade, retaliates by tripping up Paco while he’s still on the ground. Paco gets up and Frank takes him down again. Soon enough, both are on their feet and just outright trading blows, even outright inviting the other to take free hits, which they absorb into their meaty thighs. It’s actually very cool, in its raging-testosterone way.

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There’s a deleted scene right after where they each drop their pants and see who’s got the biggest junk.

This goes on for longer than you might expect. Eventually, Frank’s power is too much even for Paco’s surely formidable calcium deposits, wearing him down. Dux finishes his enemy off with, what else, a high spin kick. On to the finals!

9) Chong Li vs Chuan Ip Mung

The Fighters:

  • Chong Li, the villain, of course. Played by Bolo Yeung.
  • Chuan Ip Mung, who seems to be one of those super fast kung fu fighters we saw before. Played by Dennis Chiu.

The Fight: Gonna be honest: this fight was unremarkable enough I apparently forgot to get any screen grabs for it.

Instead, just look at this and revel in what could have been.

Chuan is very fast and gets in a couple licks on the champ, but not enough to faze him. Soon, Li is countering everything, which puts the challenger down. He finishes with a verrrrrrry drawn-out punch to Chuan’s face while he’s lying motionless on the ground, which outright kills him.

Chong Li wants to revel in the glory, but is angered when the judges– and soon the crowd– turn away from him in order to pray for the fallen fighter. Writing them off as sentimental fools, Li has a quick warning for Frank before he sits back down: “You are next.” (Which sounds like “necks” with his accent, but I wouldn’t laugh at his English if I were you.)

10) The Final Showdown:

The Fighters:

  • Frank Dux
  • Chong Li

They prop up all but the middle the ring beforehand for some reason, so that most of the ground is now slightly inclined. Presumably it’s for the added challenge, but it seems unnecessary. Does any other sport do this?

Badminton, maybe?

Badminton, maybe?

Also, as the two prepare in their respective corners, the camera makes sure we see Chong Li’s coach furtively stash a little capsule of something into his shorts. Foreshadowing!

The two meet, and before the ref calls things to a start, Li– sporting Ray’s bandanna tied around his knee, because why not– does another nice little bit of intimidation: “You break my record. Now I break you.” [points to bandanna] “Like I break your friend.” The man has a way with words.

The Fight: Frank kicks Li right in the face as soon as the match starts. Proactive! Li responds by grabbing the referee and throwing him right at Frank, which makes you wonder why the ref (to the extent he serves any purpose to begin with) has to be physically IN the ring anyway– it’s at ground level, not like an elevated boxing ring, so he could still see just fine from a few steps outside. Anyway, the tactic is useless, because Frank just climbs right over the ref and delivers another jump kick.

"They don't pay me enough for this."

“They don’t pay me enough for this.”

At this point it’s pretty much Frank’s game. Li does score some big hits and gets a throw in, but Dux always comes back and is clearly the more skilled. A series of awkward and stiff punches drops the reigning champ to the ground, but just as Frank charges in for the big finish, Li, having “stealthily” ground up the capsule into powder, tosses it right into his opponent’s eyes. Like, in full view of everyone.

Chong Li tries to get in an immediate follow-up kick, but Frank still blocks it, which is hilarious. Soon enough, though, the powder starts to take effect, damaging Dux’s vision to the point of near blindness. He stumbles around like a confused baby.

Many years later, Jean-Claude would make a similar face when told he'd be co-starring with Dennis Rodman

Many years later, Jean-Claude would make a similar face when told he’d be co-starring with Dennis Rodman

This was always the part I hated most as a kid, not so much because the hero was getting beaten up but because it takes him waaaaaaay too long to remember something the audience showed him flashing back to like 70 minutes ago: namely, that he specifically trained to be able to fight blind. I mean, come on. There’s only so much slow-motion flailing and screaming you can do before it mutes the payoff.

Meanwhile, Chong Li is just beating the crap out of the helpless hero, though his grandstanding tendencies keep him from finishing Dux off too quickly. With the help of a repeated flashback, Frank is able to finally calm himself enough to enter the Zen zone where he can magically fight blind. He demonstrates this skill right away by plucking Li’s next punch right out of the air.

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He just catches that punch, by the way– he didn’t push it to the side right before this frame or something. It was nowhere NEAR his face. Is Chong Li blind too?

And I do mean “magically.” It’s not specified what the justification is for how he can fight without seeing (he can even distinguish between targets, as he proves when he deliberately doesn’t strike the referee when Li shoves the poor guy at him again), but presumably it’s by listening carefully and picking up the sounds/vibrations. However, this is a relatively small room filled with about a hundred screaming spectators– his sense of hearing would be completely boned here. Even the superhero Daredevil, whose powers are ridiculous, would have had his radar sense wrecked in this situation. But you know what? It’s that kind of movie. Frank Dux is a karate sorcerer, end of story.

In fact, if anything, Dux is even better from this point on. Before this, the villain was able to at least put up a good fight, but now he’s completely useless against Frank’s sense-deprived, slow motion and cheerful music-aided comeback; Li doesn’t even land a single hit. Dux should have blinded himself right from the beginning.

Frank knocks Li all over town, turning this into the biggest showcase yet for Van Damme’s acrobatic skills– the most impressive of which is when he for NO reason does a jumping split high into the air, and Li subsequently rolls right under it to no apparent tactical gain. This ridiculousness culminates with Frank delivering the exact same spin kick FOUR times, and Li just stands there like a dunce for all of them. After the last, Li falls to his chest, for once finding himself at the mercy of a deranged opponent.

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“Ah, I see now how this is not a nice thing to do to people.”

With some helpful encouraging from Dux, Chong Li does the unthinkable, shouting “matte!” and willingly surrendering. Total ownage!

Day Three is kind to the viewer by not diving straight into the final showdown, though it might have helped showing Li be a little more vulnerable– especially considering how much the hero is going to school him anyway at the end. Similarly, while the climactic match has some strong choreography, it could have been handled a bit better, been more even, and descended less into absurdity.

Or would it? Bloodsport is a curious case, where nostalgia and an ever-escalating cheese factor really do serve the movie better than tackling the (let’s face it, very silly) material straight-on would have. It does make a strange sort of sense for the movie to take a hard left turn into full-on camp at the conclusion.

Grade: A

Recommended Links: Once again we turn to Internet hero Seanbaby for the best paean to Bloodsport in this language or any other.

Coming Attractions: A smashing good time.

The madder Hulk gets, the more teeth-grinding Hulk does

Bloodsport (day 2 of 3)

Kumite, kumite, kumite, kumite…..

"I figh to surVIIIIIIIIIIIIVE"

“I fight to surVIIIIIIIIIIIIVE”

Here we are on Day Two, which is I suppose the semi-finals. It is, as they say, where Shit Gets Real.

6) Montage 2

This second tournament montage stretches the definition a bit. The clips are much more uneven: some fights are shown seemingly from beginning to end, while others are only glanced fleetingly, but we do see the conclusion of almost all of them. With all the chumps having been eliminated in the first round, only serious fighters remain, allowing for some better competition.

First up is our pal from before, Paco, now wearing much more stylish black shorts and up against an Asian man named (as best as I can tell from squinting at his name on the board in a wide shot) Toon Wing Sum, played by John Cheung. Well, whatever his name is, he gets in just one solid hit against Paco, whereas the Muay Thai fighter is able to destroy him with a series of strong elbows & knees. He finishes off rather cruelly, holding a clearly helpless Toon still while raining down more gratuitous blows. The crowd boos.

Frank goes up against an anonymous karate man. With almost dance-like precision, they do alternating round kicks which barely miss, then try simultaneous jump kicks against each other. Frank wins due to, apparently, going higher. He later scores another flawless victory against another nobody.

A couple more random Asian men fight, and again it’s quite complex but glimpsed only briefly. The one in black pants wins.

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One of the more notable matchups is the sumo-esque man, Pumola, going head to head with Ricardo Morra, the wiry little fighter who bounces around like a monkey. Morra’s technique serves him well at first: he gets in some good harassing blows on Pumola, including one to the crotch area that looks like it should hurt worse than Pumola makes it seem. But ultimately the larger man is able to use his size to repel Morra’s attacks, and even worse, he catches the little dude in a bear hug. After that, it’s all over: a distinct snapping sound is heard and Morra stops moving.

Later on, Dux goes up against a tall, muscular and intimidating black guy– he sort of looks like a male Grace Jones. (Please restrain yourself from making the obvious joke.) Frank’s opponent halts the referee just before he calls for the match to start, so that he can do a comically prolonged threatening gesture (sloooooowly dragging his finger across his throat) and signal that he’s going to put the hero down. But it’s a big buildup for no reason, because Dux is unfazed: he immediately opens with a quick kick to the face, and knocks not-Grace out of the ring shortly after.

Chong Li also gets to work his magic in three separate fights. The latter two are pretty easy fights against nondescript chumps who he takes down while pumping the crowd up. But his first one is against Suan Paredes, the kickboxer we saw in the very first battle, and Suan seemingly does fairly well at first. He lands several good blows to Li’s face, leaving the champion slightly dazed and oddly amused. He comes back strong and systematically breaks his opponent down. Suan briefly rallies with a punch to the stomach but the villain is unfazed, putting him down hard. Li finishes by hoisting his senseless foe back up, and kicking Suan’s leg so hard his bone pops out. Ouch. Afterwards he works the crowd harder than ever, reveling in his own sadism.

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The big finishing number is Frank vs Pumola. Dux takes a hit early on, which prompts him to remove his shirt (so you know this is Serious Business). The big guy is clearly pained as Frank delivers some strong blows, but also strangely enthusiastic.

“If I were anyone besides Jean-Claude Van Damme this would REALLY hurt!”

“If I were anyone besides Jean-Claude Van Damme this would REALLY hurt!”

Much as he did with Morra, Pumola is soon able to take advantage of his size and negate the impact of several of Frank’s kicks. He then catches the hero in that same bear hug, but Dux escapes from that with some headbutts.

Here our hero makes the transition from serene ninja to deranged berzerker. He delivers a fierce palm strike to Pumola’s abs– probably liquefying the dude’s internal organs, if he’s using the same skill as the “Dim Mack” from earlier– and lingers on the blow with a wild, slow-motion shriek.

Pumola's expression looks like he took a break from the intense pain to wonder "wow, seriously?"

Pumola’s expression looks like he took a break from the intense pain to wonder “wow, seriously?”

Dux follows that up by doing the splits (because why simply duck when you can do the freakin’ splits) and uppercutting Pumola right in the crotch. You’d think he was hitting him in the balls, but according to the real Frank Dux (who, as we know, never lies), it was actually the bladder. Either way, Pumola’s groin has seen a disproportionate share of action today, and the big guy is so stunned with pain that a simple nudge from Frank just tips him right over.

7) Ray Jackson vs Chong Li

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Don’t congratulate yourself if you can guess what happens.

The Fighters:

  • Ray Jackson, our hero’s loutish buddy. Played by Donald Gibb.
  • Chong Li, the unstoppable villain. Played by Bolo Yeung.

The Fight: Just before he heads to the ring, Jackson receives some advice from Dux, who has been watching Li carefully: stay away from his right leg, and go for his abdomen. “Chong Li is weak in the gut, that’s how Paredes surprised him,” Frank cautions, even though that’s not an accurate depiction of what happened in the Li/Paredes fight. Correct or not, Jackson is cocky as ever and waves off Frank for being over-anxious.

The two have a pretty even exchange of blows at first, and soon Ray is actually able to hit Li hard enough to send him to the mat– much to the latter’s surprise.

He probably could have broken Li's leg here, but they probably don't teach you that at the Drunken Brawling Idiot dojo.

He probably could have broken Li’s leg here, but they probably don’t teach you that at the Drunken Brawling Idiot dojo.

Ray wastes no time (but a lot of energy) celebrating his “victory” prematurely, running around the ring and boasting about how awesome he is, despite Frank’s sideline urgings to finish the job. However, Chong Li is nowhere near finished. He arises and engages with Jackson again, this time neutralizing his opponent with the same brutal efficiency as he did all the rest. When Ray hits the mat, Chong Li doesn’t let up, repeatedly kicking the clearly defeated American.

As Van Damme screams in hilarious protest from nearby, Li finishes Ray off with a monstrous stomp to the face. Then he gives Frank the mother of all Mean Muggings:

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Women all over Asia dread seeing Chong Li’s “O” face

Adding further insult to injury, Li removes Jackson’s signature Harley Davidson headband as a trophy. He even dangles it above Frank’s grasping hands, like a schoolyard bully. It’s so awesome.

Incidentally, at no point do you ever buy that Jackson is a serious threat against Li– or that he should have even gotten this far, really. He’s probably a handy guy in your average bar brawl, but not anywhere near the level of this gathering of the best martial artists in the world.

Still, Gibb’s performance does its job. Ray is likable & amusing, so his defeat (and subsequent hospitalization) puts a real human face to Chong Li’s cruel villainy, and higher stakes for Frank than just the honor of victory.

Day Two on the whole is an improvement. There are less matches, or at least fewer glimpses of matches, but that’s largely a function of the movie having gotten all its throat-clearing out of the way. Here we see our principals get in some higher stakes match-ups (even Frank takes a few blows!), as well as bringing back some of the non-speaking fighters from earlier on. Well done.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: One more post and then it’s Splitsville.

Go ninja, go ninja, go!

Go ninja, go ninja, go!