The Raid: Redemption (fight 1 of 5)

“Be a man and see it. See it and be a man.” Chapel 3929

“Is there a fund we can give to for the families of all these stunt men who clearly died while filming The Raid: Redemption?”Seanbaby

At the very least, you can see it so they didn't die in vain.

At the very least, you can see it so they didn’t die in vain

The Raid: Redemption (gratuitous & inaccurate subtitle added for US release, I will not be using it again in content of posts) aka Serbuan Maut in its native Indonesia, is an action-lover’s dream in all the right ways: it provides consistently entertaining and varied scenes of stylized but gritty violence, puncuated by dramatic sequences that are just enough to make you care while not dragging on so long as to waste your time (how many otherwise spectacular action films have been ruined by “dramatic” beats that were clumsy, pretentious, overlong or all of the above?). It’s confident without being cocky, writer/director Gareth Evans being a true genre auteur rather than a winking fanboy.

Longtime readers may remember that I cited this film as the main reason why it’s sometimes necessary to switch to the “retrospective” format and indeed I planned to do that here; however, upon re-watch I was surprised to learn that, despite remembering the movie being almost non-stop action after it finally revs up (minus a few necessary breathers), there are actually only five sequences amongst all that action that could be reasonably described as fight scenes. But every one a masterpiece.

In an age where cinema is in many ways growing stagnant, The Raid is something truly special, and that’s why I timed it to be the subject of this, the 100th post of the blog. Happy Birthday, Grading Fight Scenes.

1) Hallway Brawl

The Fighters:

  • Rama, the film’s noble hero. A young but extremely capable (and lucky) member of the local police force. Rama is, like the actor who plays him and also like many other characters in the movie, an expert at pencak silat. Being as that’s an umbrella term for all the varied martial arts in Indonesia, it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing that makes it unique, save for perhaps its flowing, constant motion. Played by Iko Uwais, who is destined for great things.
    • Armed with: a standard-issue police baton and combat knife. He had an assault rifle and hand gun, but has discarded both after running out of ammo. Also still wearing most of his riot gear: flak vest, elbow & knee pads, but no helmet.
  • Bad Guys, like 20 of them (it’s hard to keep count). Denizens of the apartment building where the titular raid occurs, they’re all foot soldiers loyal to the film’s villain. All ruthless thugs but most of them here don’t seem to have much more than rudimentary skill. Played by stunt men.
    • Armed with: Various small sticks, blades and even a machete.

The Setup: Although the plot does eventually produce a couple interesting twists, The Raid’s basic premise is refreshingly simple: 20 cops in full SWAT gear storm a building that’s run by a sadistic crime lord. From up in his perch where he has access to dozens of security cameras, the villain sics the building’s inhabitants (most of whom work for or are in some way beholden to him) on the police. Although the protagonists are largely competent and virtuous, they find themselves quickly overwhelmed, their numbers dwindled and the survivors separated.

After a fantastic action sequence that culminated in an exploding refrigerator (I love this movie), our main hero Rama is stuck with his wounded but living comrade Bowo (whose only character development prior to this was “annoying jerk”), searching for safe harbor while the other remaining crew hide elsewhere. Rama drags his non-friend through a hallway on the seventh floor, but the two are quickly discovered.

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The Fight: Fast, mean and complex.

Fortunately for Rama’s sake, the bad guys keep coming in one or two at a time. But for once this old action cliche is justified: the thugs here have mostly been conducting a spread-out, disorganized search, and all of them except for the first few are drawn by the noise, so they rush in at non-coordinated intervals.

Not that these small bursts of baddies give Rama much of a chance to rest, of course; he’s constantly moving and attacking nearly the whole time, a frenzy of focused violence. He wields his baton in one hand and knife in the other, using the two weapons sometimes separately but often in concert, such as when he pulls one guy in by hooking him with the baton’s handle and then stabbing him with the knife.

There’s all sorts of inventive nastiness on Rama’s part. Several times he uses the baton to “deconstruct” opponents, delivering a lightning-fast series of small blows to various points on the body, quickly & systematically overwhelming the victim. Others get slammed harshly into walls and doors. Rama stuns one thug with a club to the chest then reaches around to stab him in the back of the thigh. He stabs another in the upper thigh and then pulls the still-inserted blade nearly down to his knee. He stabs another right in the knee and then twists the knife. Throats get not just sliced but also clubbed. Over & over the knife is used for all manner of quick, punch-like stabbings, and the accompanying sound effect is suitably sickening.

Rama is one ruthless SOB, but not sadistic; he’s just doing what he has to. While many if not most of the wounds he delivers are fatal, often he’s satisfied just leaving a defeated foe injured enough to not get back up again. Indeed, during one of the fight’s few lulls, as Rama creeps his way warily to a T-section of the hallway, he leaves behind a handful of groaning cripples along with all the dead & dying. One of those injured seizes Bowo just as the latter crawls to keep up with Rama, and the visibly agitated cop repeatedly stabs the thug in the chest– it’s Bowo’s sole contribution to the action and one of the film’s few moments of humor.

When baddies rush in again and Rama has to take them on from both sides, things get a bit hairier. First he loses his baton in a close-up scruff, and not long after that he has to abandon his knife when he gets yanked away from behind just after he’s stabbed one poor sucker right in the shoulder. Fortunately he’s almost as deadly unarmed as he is armed, and, wouldn’t you know it, none of the remaining bad guys in this scene happen to run in with weapons either. Rama cleans up the remainders, and takes out the last one with an epically brutal finishing move that was rightfully included in most of the trailers:

“Knock knock.”

Yep, he grabs the man, slams his head into a hallway light fixture, and then slams his head FIVE MORE TIMES down the side of the wall before dropping him. It’s… it’s beautiful. Unfortunately, Rama does not take the time to recover either of his weapons before picking up Bowo again and moving on. That will prove to be a mistake.

This fight, however, is anything but. Though it’s definitely not the first bit of excitement in the movie it’s the first extended physical fight we’ve seen, and as such is as powerful a mission statement as an opening fight can be. Evans smartly turns the limited scope of the hallway into an effectively claustrophobic environment. The choreography switches seamlessly between multiple weapon types and pure hand-to-hand, and the constant stream of bad guys makes for an unpredictable threat. The filmmakers manage to find that sweet spot of being complicated without seeming complicated– there’s never really a moment where you stop and say “wait, why didn’t he just do that more simply?” or suspect the characters are showing off, it all feels very organic.

Much of the credit of course goes to all the meticulous stunt work behind the scenes, but a large amount is due to Uwais as well, who sells the entire thing as natural and unforced. Physically impressive and with a highly sympathetic face, the audience is always rooting and fearful for him, because he’s not some Superman. Although he comes out here miles better than he does in any upcoming battle, Rama does absorb a couple blows here, and has a few of his own attacks stymied one way or the other. He’s awesome, but not invincible.

And you know what the crazy part is? This is the least impressive fight in this movie.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: Machete kills.

Rama don’t text.

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The Matrix Revolutions

Time to get to some unfinished business.

“Aww, do we have to?”

In many ways, The Matrix Revolutions is even weirder than its predecessor. Though filmed simultaneously with Reloaded, the third film plays and feels much differently than the second; indeed, as I remarked in discussing the previous sequel, it seems at times that Revolutions is slyly mocking Reloaded and its convoluted plotting. Reloaded is unnecessarily subversive whereas Revolutions dives headlong into cliche. Questions and elements raised in the first sequel are largely yawned at by the second. The core cast is separated for the majority of the film and their concurrent storylines are not balanced well in the editing room. Even the titular matrix itself gets less screen time than ever.

And, of course, fight scenes get short shrift. There’s a decent shootout sequence early on, though it’s a bit of a rehash, and the extended war sequence defending Zion is nothing to sneeze at. But the one true fight scene comes in the form of the climactic showdown between hero & villain. Fortunately, it’s a doozy.

Neo vs Agent Smith (final round)

The Fighters:

  • Neo, aka The One, with all the enhanced powers that entails. He’s been re-jacked into the matrix after personally entering the machine city and striking up a deal with their overlord (personified by a giant floating baby head that’s called “Deus Ex Machina” in the credits, which is cute) to face down the Smith Army in exchange for relenting in their assault on Zion. Probably not at the top of his game, what with having just watched his girlfriend die a few minutes ago. Played by everyone’s favorite, Keanu Reeves.
  • Agent Smith, the rogue program gifted with the power of infinite replication via assimilation (resistance is futile); if Neo is the One, Smith is the Many. Now that he’s taken over the Oracle, he’s stronger than ever, able to fly, and has some amount of her precognition. Played by Hugo Weaving.

The Setup: Expanding ever-faster, Agent Smith has taken over enough hosts in order to fill a city– or possibly the entire population of the matrix at this point, it’s never stated. Presumably his rampant presence is what’s also messing with the coding in the matrix enough to create the really bitchin’ storm that’s raging in the background, complete with big ol’ fat rain and almost continual lightning strikes. (Artistically, of course, the rain is supposed to evoke the way the matrix’s code looks.)

Still more appealing than Detroit.

Neo strides calmly down a street that is lined with thousands of Smiths, packed shoulder to shoulder. The lead Smith (the one who absorbed the Oracle) steps out of the crowd for some of that wonderful Hugo Weaving trash talk we’ve come to love. He tells Neo that “the rest of me are just going to stand back and enjoy the show, because we already know I’m the one that beats you.” Which is a clever little way to paper over how if the Smith Army REALLY wanted to defeat Neo, they’d all just dog pile him immediately and the fight would be over in eight seconds.

But that would be neither dramatic nor fun, so instead we get this showdown. The two combatants charge each other as Don Davis’ specially composed track “Neodammerung” (again: cute) revs up.

The Fight: It seems like business as usual at first. Hero & villain exchange a series of fast blows & dodges, with neither gaining a real solid win over the other. The camera work is really good here, as the Wachowskis basically use three profile shots of the dueling fates, pushing in steadily each time they alternate which side they’re shooting from– an unobtrusive yet effective way to convey the battle’s intensity.

Then there’s a big slow-motion shot as the two manage to punch each other’s faces simultaneously, resulting in both flying backwards along with an enormous shockwave (the first of like three or four such shockwaves in this fight– they really overdo it) that displaces a huge sphere of rainwater. Neo seems to get the best of this one because he lands on his feet while Smith lands on his back hard enough to push up a whole chunk of asphalt.

Smith flies up angrily and is immediately met by Neo, and they do this strange  mid-air wrestling thing that never comes across as anything more than awkward.

Writhe of the Titans

Writhe of the Titans

Neo is soon thrown through the side of a building, and just barely dodges (with a jumping splits that would make Van Damme proud) when Smith swoops in for a follow-up. The pair slam into each other again and Neo takes a nasty fall, giving some time for Smith to monologue a bit more about “purpose” and how he wants to destroy everything ever. It’s all terribly nihilistic. I mean, say what you will about national socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.

This seems to energize rather than demoralize Neo, however– he rises with a big music cue and does the franchise’s umpteenth iteration of the “come & get it” hand gesture. They re-engage in what’s probably the best part of the battle, with some strong and spirited choreography, mixing in a healthy but not excessive amount of slow-mo. The Wachowskis show this interior part of the duel from several angles, but the most prominent is the iconic view that silhouettes the pair against the building’s windows.

"Ugh, you are the WORST at giving high-fives!"

“Ugh, you are the WORST at giving high-fives!”

Neo kicks some rogue program ass here, almost systematically shutting down Smith’s attacks and beating him back. He finishes by knocking the villain through the huge windows (Smith loses his sunglasses in the process). Neo then joins him in flight and the two continue dueling in mid-air.

The aerial stuff in this segment is a lot better than before, mostly. There are some wide shots of the two circling each other, thrusting in and backing off (the displaced water following them as they zoom along creates de facto contrails, which is neat), and some closer shots as they forego the clumsy wrestling of before in favor of some zero-gravity kung fu. Throughout we can see even more of the black & green sky, with huge lightning bolts constantly flashing.

Eventually, Smith gets far enough away that he can build up some serious speed & momentum as he rushes back to his prey, while Neo just floats there passively. Presumably he has some plan to dodge or counter Smith at the last minute, but if so it doesn’t work. After the blow creates the biggest shockwave yet, Smith grabs Neo and flies him downward at full speed, slamming them both into the ground hard enough to create an enormous impact crater.

It looks pretty rough for Neo, flopping around limply on the ground. As Smith observes his desperate struggle, he ponders why Neo continues to fight, since he clearly has no hope of survival– the only thing logically worth fighting for, in Smith’s worldview. Any other reason– freedom, justice, love– is just an intangible and artificial construct, just as fake as the matrix itself.

Again Neo is inspired rather than dispirited, because it’s then that he finally stands up and assumes a ready stance, simply telling his foe “because I choose to.” This is the crux of one of the series’ many themes, the triumph of humanism over nihilism. The things we value aren’t inherently or objectively valuable, they are valuable because we choose to make them so.

Neo blocks several blows from Smith, and comes back hard with a few of his own. The first of which is that absurd super slow-mo shot that tracks Neo’s fist and we see it distort his opponent’s face, practically one pixelized pore at a time.

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Just like what the Burly Brawl did to excess, again we’re shown that Polar Express-level phony CGI and with all the slow-mo time in the world to observe its fakeness. However, there’s some advantage gained by being able to see Neo’s virtual hand cut through several individual rain drops, a feat that would have been much less doable in reality. Then again, the money shot here is that crazy contorted Weaving face, and most people would agree that the visual is more silly than dramatic, so overall the decision is a wash at best.

A few more punches bury Smith in the side of the crater, but Neo hardly has a moment to catch his breath before the villain flies out of the hole in a rage, petulantly crying out “This is my world, mine!” and beating Neo down some more.

Smith pauses, as he realizes that his prophecy is coming true and he’s almost at the moment where he “wins.” Reciting part of his vision, he inadvertently gives Neo the Oracle’s hint as to what to do, and Neo willingly accepts assimilation. Facing his newest clone, Smith seems to think he’s won, but this actually allows the machines to fill Neo’s real body with a surge of energy that explodes his matrix clone-self and, soon enough, the rest of the Smith Army. Their Smith shells explode, leaving the host bodies behind, Oracle included.

A fitting and unusual end: basically, Neo defeats his enemy by embracing him. He balances (or unbalances) the equation. Even if it does raise the question of, you know, why didn’t he just do that in the first place.

Putting the thematic & philosophical entanglements aside here, what we have here is essentially a straight-up, comic book, superhero vs supervillain fight, and on the kind of scale that had been rarely attempted at the time. The closest prior analogue would be Superman II’s climactic battle against Zod & co, and while that had its moments, the special effects of 1980 were, shall we say, not up to the task. (Or maybe Nuclear Man in Superman IV, but let’s not go there.)

The effects are a lot more up to the task here, if still imperfect. Hero & villain fight on the ground and in the air, they toss each other through buildings and deliver earth-shattering blows. The Gumby-like CGI and occasionally awkward sky-tussling don’t help, but largely the Wachowskis’ effects team and choreography deliver on selling a brawl between two godlike superheroes. Though the excitement dips toward the end, there are enough changes of pace and scenery throughout to keep the overall struggle from betting too boring.

They were really shooting for the stars on this one, and while the fight is missing some element that would make it truly great, it is highly entertaining and satisfying nonetheless.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Tobey-Man, Tobey-Man, does whatever a Tobey can….

He was bitten by a radioactive emo kid.

Ong Bak (retrospective, part 2)

The conflict finally comes to a head.

No one image could sum up the movie better.

No one image could sum up the movie better.

After the bravura sequence where Ting fights three contenders in quick succession, there’s some silliness involving an extended chase on auto-rickshaws (golf carts, basically) that’s kind of cute but really out of place in a martial arts movie. Then Ting accidentally finds some of the stash of Komtuan (the villain), whose main gig seems to be stealing or unearthing religious relics and selling them. He tells Ting he’ll return Ong Bak if Ting fights a traditional Muay Thai bout with Saming, the villain’s Dragon and a fierce fighter himself. Ting readily agrees.

5) Ting vs Saming

Ting Fights: Saming, of course. He’s young, buff, really mean-looking, and basically a total psychopath. Before the match he’s seen injecting himself with a needleful of an unidentified substance that apparently makes him stronger or more pain-resistant or something. It’s completely ridiculous that such a wonder drug would exist (maybe it’s the same venom that Bane uses), but it’s a well-established cheesy action movie trope– much like how in older dramas, blind folks were always one “big operation” away from regaining their sight. Played by Chattapong Pantana-Angkul. Trying saying that five times fast. Or even once at normal speed.

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The Fight: Almost completely one-sided. Komtuan asserts later that Ting deliberately threw the fight, though it looks like he’s struggling mightily here regardless. He could be faking the struggle and still taking a dive, but either way, between the drugs and the maybe-faking, Ting doesn’t really put a dent in his villainous opponent, and he definitely takes a brutal beating himself.

Saming first invites Ting to take several shots at him, and Ting delivers several strong-looking punches & kicks that Saming just shrugs off. When the bad guy fights back, he hits with devastating power.

Saming quickly knocks down the hero, and finishes off the round with a couple of devastating knee drives right into his mid-section– this could kill a man in real life.

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Ting’s corner man tries to haul him off to recover, but Saming pursues even then and keeps wailing on him; it’s pretty clear that whatever aggression he usually has is amplified greatly by his Magical Movie Drug.

Ting rallies back briefly but is quickly beat down some more, even getting hit by a vicious clothesline that sends him spinning through the air an absurd number of times.

Humlae tries throwing in the towel, but Saming won’t take no for an answer and keeps up the beating. He does a running knee so hard that it knocks the hero out of the ring and onto the announcers’ table. He then pursues AGAIN and kicks the fallen Ting in the chest for good measure. That’s about the end of things.

One-sided fights are rarely all that interesting, but this one gains some extra points just for its sheer brutality and Saming’s unrestrained craziness. It serves mainly as a bit of darkening plot material, giving the hero a major stumble and obstacle before he is able to return triumphantly. And fortunately it’s smart enough enough to get its ugly business over with quickly.

Grade: B-

6) Gas Station Brawl

It is not, despite what this picture would imply, a poorly-attended daytime rave.

It is not, despite what this picture would imply, a poorly-attended daytime rave.

Ting Fights: A handful of Komtuan’s goons. After the fight, Ting & Humlae met up with the villain at an abandoned gas station in order to get Ong Bak’s head back. Of course, he reneges on the deal, and presents them with an empty box. Then he has his thugs hold the two at gunpoint and prepare to kill them while he leaves, for some reason. Don’t bad guys know you ALWAYS stay around to make sure the hero gets finished off? It’s like they don’t even watch movies.

The Fight: Ting manages to turn things around pretty well. A few goons stay inside to finish the job while a few others wait outside. Ting waits until the one who’s holding him face down tries to apply a silencer to his pistol (why? They’re in the middle of nowhere), then whips up and starts beating the guy. With some assistance from Humlae, they soon take out all the goons inside. At one point Ting punches a guy so hard that his face smacks hilariously against a wooden table.

The real fun starts when they get outside. The villains eventually figure out that all the noise they hear in the building isn’t good (their biggest hint is one of their buddies get kicked through the door), but when they check the room, Ting has apparently slipped out the window. He cancels out the gun advantage of one thug, who was waiting in the driver’s seat side of a truck, by jumping so hard at the truck’s open door that the force of it closing knocks him all the way through to the other side.

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At least two more guys nearby have guns, though, so Ting avoids them by hiding amongst a bunch of wreckage off to the side. Their shots end up striking a drum full of oil and creating a significant explosion. As they approach looking for Ting, the hero suddenly emerges from the smoke with both of his legs on fire, and takes out the nearest one with a flying knee followed by a kick to the face. While, I’ll remind you, HIS LEGS ARE ON FIRE.

I'll also remind you that Tony Jaa did all his own stunts.

I’ll also remind you that Tony Jaa did all his own stunts.

Ting immediately jumps into a conveniently-located tub full of water, but is soon attacked from behind by another thug, who tries to choke him. Ting breaks free and immediately puts him down with a spinning flip. Possibly the most unrealistic moment in this movie is that the second bad guy actually had the presence of mind to attack Ting, rather than just standing there slack-jawed while going “THAT WAS THE COOLEST THING I’VE EVER SEEN”

Instead, he just had to kill the moment, so this happened to him.

This is what happens to buzz kills.

Ting and Humlae then take out the last jerk just before he escapes on a motorcycle. Just before the thug passes out, Ting gets Ong Bak’s location from him.

A fun and breezy bounce back from the ugly beating Ting took last time (really, he should be in the hospital), something which both the music and the staging reflects. There is some solid physical choreography here but really the martial arts takes a backseat to outrageous stunts for this scene.

In conclusion, Tony Jaa set his legs on fire.

Grade: A-

7) Cave Rumble, part I

Ting Fights: A handful of Komtuan’s goons. Well, two handfuls: Ting sneaks up to the entrance of the cave where there’s four chumps with guns, but he takes them out so quickly it doesn’t really count.

Here, now you've pretty much watched it.

Here, now you’ve pretty much watched it.

Then not far into the cave, he runs into some tougher resistance. For some reason almost all of them are armed with machetes, odd implements for a digging crew.

The Fight: The hero is immediately ambushed by the half dozen or so machete-wielding fools, and he soon grabs a long pole– between the pole’s appearance and the odd sounds it makes when struck, it’s hard to tell if it’s wooden or metal or what– and evens the odds. He smacks them around with the improvised staff for a while, but eventually it gets hit hard enough to break in half. Naturally, Ting just immediately adapts and fights with two sticks– escrima– for a while.

Then he trades that for one of his foes’ dropped machetes, but apparently his inner pacifism takes over and he discards that as well. That leaves him unarmed against a couple lingering thugs, but fortunately he finds a few tonfa, or at least some sort of implement that can substitute for them. Tonfa are almost tailor-made for Muay Thai’s elbow-heavy style, so the rest of this particular ass-beating is like Christmas for Ting.

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That pretty much finishes up this batch, as well as a few late-comers. The last chump is apparently the smartest, since he just up & runs away.

Once again Prinkaew and Jaa have changed up things a bit, this time by showcasing a weapons-heavy fight. And quite a variety of weapons at that: swords against unarmed, staff against swords, escrima against swords, sword against sword, tonfa against sword. And since the alley chase doesn’t really count, this is the first time in the movie Ting has taken on such a large amount of people in close quarters at once. Some cracks are starting to show in the choreography, namely when you can see a few instances of stuntmen moving their bodies into position to receive the simulated blows (the fact that Prinkaew keeps switching to slow motion makes it even more apparent).

Still, it’s an ambitious & fun scene, and nobody’s perfect. Jaa’s performance has the character more determined & fierce than ever. He’s a man on a mission, and this mission is just getting started.

Grade: B+

After this, Ting makes the inexplicable decision not to take ANY of the weapons he’d been using into the next room. Apparently every fight for him is like a whole new video game is for Samus Aran. Anyway, he goes deeper into the cave and discovers Komtuan and Saming high up on some scaffolding, waiting as their crew saws through the neck of an enormous Buddha statue. Komtuan sees Ting and taunts him with Ong Bak’s own head, which he has handy next to him in a bag for some reason. But first the hero has to get through….

8) Cave Rumble, part II

Ting Fights: Another half-dozen or so of the gangster’s thugs. Some of them are even wearing flak vests, for some unknown reason. And at least one of them is not a native Thai but a white guy, so points to the villain for diversity, I suppose.

The Fight: It’s the penultimate battle and the last real melee brawl of the film, so it pulls out all the stops. Unlike last time, weapons are mostly left out (with one notable exception), but the mooks are tougher than ever, and Ting accordingly ups his game with a surprising amount of tricky aerial moves and devastating blows. Some particularly memorable tricks involve Ting laying out two thugs in quick succession with a continuous series of spinning jump kicks, or the time one baddie ducks under a jump kick so Ting just lashes out with his other leg while still airborne.

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It really does take a while for Ting to take all these guys out, though, and you can see him taking a few wallops himself. Sometimes it’s because he’s distracted with one of the other five combatants, but a lot of times he’s simply not ready– the guy’s worn down like nobody’s business. Real-life physical endurance is of course out the door before we started, but Ting’s even pushing past the point of action movie physical endurance.

Our tiring hero gets it worst of all just after he saves Humlae from being hung to death the slow way. The last baddie, who has a glass eye (or maybe it’s just weird-looking), gets ahold of a long, serrated saw and hurts Ting pretty bad with it, first whipping him across the face and back with the flat end, then charging at him with the blade out. With no objects at hand to block with and no time to dodge, Ting is forced to prove the limits of his dedication to rescuing a freaking chunk of stone.

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I’d… I’d say he’s proven it.

They stand off for a little while, until they’re interrupted by Humlae. The eye-guy soon gets the best of the comic relief, though, and breaks his arm in a very painful-looking way. Fortunately, when Ting recovers, he pays the guy back by breaking his leg in an even more painful-looking way.

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Ouch.

As the middle part of the climax, this spout of violence does succeed at continuing to ramp up the action from its already-absurd levels. The weapons-craziness from before has been jettisoned in favor of pure martial artistry, at least until that saw gets whipped out– and oh, how mean that is. All very well done. Except for the music, it doesn’t really work; very light & silly.

Grade: A-

Ting knows the final battle’s coming now, so he takes a quiet moment to himself, wrapping his wounds in tape and putting rope around one fist. Like a man.

9) Cave Rumble, part 3: Ting/Saming rematch

Ting Fights: Saming, duh. Plus a couple goons whose digging he interrupts. Humlae and Komtuan get mixed up in there briefly as well.

The Fight: Whew.

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Either due to his resolve or just not faking it this time (and despite having just exercised enough to drop an elephant), Ting fares WAY better than before. Nevertheless, Saming is still quite fierce, with the two having a nice back & forth. It’s apparent that Ting has the edge, slight though it may be, and he slowly gains the upper hand. Sometimes the two actually just take turns hitting each other, which is so awesome in a very macho & hilarious way.

But Ting only gets more angry, and soon enough he starts willingly absorbing blows without even trying to dodge or counter them– he’s so far into Beast Mode now he may never come back.

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Finally, a double-punch to the head seems to put Saming down for the count. Ting goes up to stop the workers who are still dutifully sawing off the enormous Buddha head, and while he’s beating them up (not too hard), Saming jabs like six needles full of that magic drug into his stomach at once. Ruh roh.

Once Ting finishes up, he comes down to head for Komtuan, and gets blindsided by a flying double-kick to the head (!) from Saming, a blow bad enough it leaves him defenseless against Saming’s assault for a while. The uber-henchman (now red-eyed and even crazier than before) tries to finish Ting off by choking him to death, but just before he blacks out he gazes at the giant stone head, and instantly gains enough BUDDHA POWER that he’s able to break free and put a hurt on Saming. Then, in a moment that would be the insanest part if it happened in most other movies but here it barely cracks the Top 5, the camera zooms in ultra-close on Ting’s eye as it becomes consumed with flame….

It's like he's charging up a super combo in Street Fighter.

Eye of the Thai-ger

… and does a jumping elbow smash on the top of Saming’s head that’s so tough it cracks his skull open.

"I've got a SPLITTING headache!"

“I’ve got a SPLITTING headache!”

I mean… damn.

Saming collapses under the impact of Ting’s Limit Break, but when the hero turns his attention to the mastermind once more, the villain calmly produces a gun and shoots him through the shoulder. He had that gun the whole time and he didn’t use it? What the crap?!

One-armed Humlae then shows up and has a brief tussle with Komtuan that involes the villain getting knocked out of his wheelchair and the comic relief taking repeat sledgehammer blows to the face & torso in order to protect Ong Bak’s head. Meanwhile, Saming, never one to let a fight go the first or second time it’s over (whether he won or lost) comes back for some more, necessitating Ting to put him down by doing a knees-first jump into his stomach that crashes them both through the entire scaffolding.

"GERONIMO!"

“GERONIMO!”

From the bottom floor, Ting can’t do much to help his friend, but a little Buddha ex machina steps in, as the enormous stone neck finally gives away, letting the head fall off onto the evil & blasphemous villain (Humlae rolls away to relative safety, but dies of his wounds soon after anyway). The word “karma” doesn’t flash in huge letters on the screen, but it might as well.

It’s not quite mind-blowing, but still an appropriate finish to a series of dazzling setpieces– remember, the last four or five fights happen practically back-to-back. If anything the last battle might suffer a bit because the viewer is just plain fatigued by a solid 30 minutes of climax. Err, you know what I mean.

Grade: A-

Well, that’s Ong Bak, one of the more impressive debut films in recent martial arts history. It’s not perfect but it’s a shame we don’t see more like it. Perhaps one day Tony Jaa will team up with the guys who made The Raid and all our heads will never stop exploding, but until then we can only hope.

Recommended Links: The one & only Seanbaby on the absurdity that is Ong Bak’s first sequel. “Luckily, all Thai hospitals have a Tony Jaa wing where they treat victims of Tony Jaa.” I certainly hope so.

Coming Attractions: Come out to play.

Ong Bak (retrospective, part 1)

If you’ve been praying for a blog post about an awesomely violent movie, you’re in luck!

Though I question your prayer priorities.

Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (inexplicably subtitled “The Thai Warrior” for US release) is not quite an all-time classic in the martial arts genre, but it’s not far off, either. It takes too long to get going, a few of the battles are less-than-inspiring, and the film often dawdles too long in well-meaning but tiresome attempts at drama and comedy. If anything, the film feels like the dry run for greatness; upon seeing it, the inevitable response is “I can’t wait to see what this guy does next!”

That’s because so much of what makes this movie work is the amazing skills of lead actor Tony Jaa (born Panom Yeerum). A wunderkind student of his native Thailand’s Muay Thai (a martial arts discipline putting heavy emphasis on the use of elbows & knees), Jaa performs all manner of mind-blowing physical feats. And as I can’t speak the language it’s hard to gauge his acting skills, he’s certainly eminently watchable even when he’s not cracking skulls, possessing an expressive face and likeable demeanor.

"You're damn right I'm likeable."

“You’re damn right I’m likeable.”

In the ten years (!) since this movie first opened, Jaa has inexplicably not become an enormous Hollywood star, to the detriment of both parties. The Protector (aka Tom Yung Goom) his follow-up collaboration with Ong Bak director Pracha Pinkaew, was often superb but threatened to collapse under its own silliness. After a falling out with Pinkaew (a competent director who seems to overestimate his cinematic prowess), Jaa made a few Ong Bak prequels that I haven’t seen but are generally regarded as a few amazing sequences drowned out by incomprehensible nonsense. Apparently Jaa is slated to appear in the seventh entry in the Fast & Furious franchise, which might be just the right type of ridiculous he needs.

Anyway, since Ong Bak is a fairly action-packed movie, we’ll be taking the Retrospective approach, breaking the post into two halves for purposes of length. The film’s premise is that someone has stolen the head of the titular Ong Bak, a stone Buddha statue that the denizens of a humble Thai village regard as a sort of deity all its own. Ting (Jaa’s character), the village’s humble Muay Thai champion, volunteers to go to Bangkok and track it down. This leads to lots of “humorous” hijinx with village outcast Humlae and a conflict with a mob boss who speaks with an electronic larynx, not to mention lots of fighting.

1) Alley Scramble

Ting Fights: Peng, a small-time drug dealer and his gang of thugs. Peng is after Humlae and his platonic gal pal Muay Lek, over some scam or another. Ting gets in the middle of it after he puts a slight but intimidating beating on a handful of the goons, which only leads to Peng returning minutes later with serious reinforcements.

"Me and THIS army!:

“Me and THIS army!”

The Fight: It’s more of a chase than a fight, really, because due to a combination of pragmatism and pacifism, Ting decides that discretion is the better part of valor, and books it. Humlae and Muay follow suit, which splits the bad guys up.

Comic relief Humlae has a couple fun moments here, such as throwing spices into his pursuers’ eyes, and scaring more off with a handy meat cleaver… until, in a well-timed bit, a little old lady walks by selling more big knives, canceling out his advantage. But this sequence is mostly Ting’s game, and what a merry game it is.

From Buster Keaton down on to Jackie Chan (one of Jaa’s idols), there’s a grand cinematic tradition of foot chases through urban landscapes littered with all sorts of delightful obstacles, and Ong Bak makes an honorable new entry to it. There’s an absurdly improbable amount of creative hazards in the open-air markets that make up all these alleys, and Jaa navigates them beautifully. He demonstrates not just a trained martial artist’s agility but also his skill as a high jumper, casually leaping several feet either vertically or horizontally.

For instance, there’s the old standby of two men walking through with a sheet of transparent glass (enough of a cliché that Wayne’s World 2 was already mocking it twenty years ago), but Pinkaew puts a nice twist on it by making it two sheets of glass and turning them sideways, so that Jaa can squeeze a backflip between them.

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“I could totally do that too,” you didn’t just say.

Also just so happening to pass through one alley are two men carrying a bunch of rolled-up barb wire, which Ting naturally leaps right through, tucking his limbs as far forward as he can so he can just barely fit. Ting leaps over moving cars in a single bound. He gets cornered at one point and escapes by simply climbing around on the shoulders of his surprised foes. He gets around a rack full of upturned, sharp gardening instruments by jumping over them while doing the splits.

You just got Van-Damme'd!

You just got Van-Damme’d!

And, of course, he fights here & there, whenever he has no other choice. The most extended fisticuffs sequence comes near a multi-story scaffolding, which Ting of course fights all around, flipping on & off it as necessary and looking so cool.

The various beatdowns thin the number of bad guys, but there’s still plenty left when Ting & Humlae end up together again, cornered against a high wall. Ting is agile enough to bounce up to safety, but chunky Humlae can’t follow. Ting has had near enough of Humlae’s crap at this point but relents and assists his old pal when Humlae offers to finally take him to his one lead on Ong Bak’s missing head. Which leads to our next entry, but we’ll get there.

It takes a while for the movie to get to this, its first true action scene, but it’s pretty much worth the wait. We’ve already seen Ting’s raw skill as he demonstrated various Muay Thai stances in a solo exhibition early in the movie, so it’s nice to see a little diversity in his skill set; besides, if you’re looking for extended scenes of pure fisticuffs, the next sequence is most definitely going to fulfill your quota and then some.

Pinkaew films ably and surely deserves some credit for many of the clever sequences. Stylistically this also sets the scene for a trick that Pinkaew will return to again & again: the inclusion of successive takes. Basically, if a certain move or stunt was particularly tricky or impressive, Pinkaew is damn sure going to make sure you watch that move two, three, maybe even four times, and always from multiple angles. Not exactly original and it breaks the fourth wall a little bit, but you can hardly blame him: if you had that much footage of Tony Jaa doing awesome stuff, wouldn’t you want to share it too?

Grade: B

2) Ting Takes On All, part 1

Ting Fights: “Big Bear” (presumably not his Christian name), a big, muscled Australian with long greasy hair. Bear declares that he’s a “freestyle” fighter– i.e., an undisciplined brawler. But still plenty tough enough for the average guy… which Ting isn’t. Played by Nick Kara.

Control yourselves, ladies.

Control yourselves, ladies.

Ting enters the local seedy fight club with Humlae, as that’s where the latter said their thief hangs out, while Big Bear is beating down some schmuck. The announcer sees Ting (he’d been there before and laid a guy out with one sweet kick in order to retrive his stolen money) and tries to egg him on into a match with the Aussie. Bear’s up for it, but Ting demurs. Bear does everything he does to provoke Ting, shouting various curses & slurs at him (in English), and battering a skinny Thai fighter who tries to stick up for his homeland. It’s when the burly man starts harassing a Thai waitress that Ting decides it’s time to put the bear down.

The Fight: Very nearly a curb stomp.

And definitely a face stomp.

And definitely a face stomp.

Ting surprises Big Bear with the above kick into his ugly mug, dropping him to the ground for several seconds– long enough for Ting to call out a taunt via recitation of the form he’d just done: “Foot strokes face!” Hell yes it does.

Dazed but determined, Bear comes at Ting again, but gets beaten back with a series of brutal kicks, knees and elbows– some while propelling himself through the air with alarming speed. The Aussie’s bluster quickly turns to panic, most hilariously when he briefly backs out of the “ring” (a square of jeering onlookers) not to dodge Ting’s blows but merely as he scrambles away from his threatening offensive stances.

Big Bear gets only the briefest of advantages when he distracts Ting by tossing a random audience member at him. Inexplicably, the bystander decides to help Bear out, namely by restraining Ting from behind while Bear lands a few blows on him. Before Bear can follow up with a devastating charge, Ting smartly cancels out his momentum with a knee to the chest, then elbows him in the head. As Bear stumbles back, Ting launches himself into the air, knees tucked in and lands on Bear’s shoulders, finishing him off with double elbows to the big guy’s skull. Bam!

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A nice opening bid in terms of somewhat extended combat. Ting is shown to be great but not completely invincible, able to cleverly extricate himself from bad situations. Like most of the great movie heroes, he doesn’t want trouble, but when he has to dish out the pain he does so with the right mix of humility, professionalism and enjoyment– you can tell that even this aspiring monk relishes the opportunity to take a thug down a peg.

Jaa is of course the centerpiece of it all, moving with a perfect combination of speed, power and surprising flexibility.

Grade: B+

Ting stops to pray, thinking he’s done. But as he gets up to leave, he’s stopped by a sudden kick….

3) Ting Takes On All, part 2

Ting Fights: Toshiro, according what I can find on IMDB/Wikipedia. But I could have sworn that the announcer refers to him as “The Cheetah,” which would work well with his fighting style, and also fits the animal theme of the other two club fighters. An incredible fast & agile fighter who relies almost entirely on amazing legwork. His name is Japanese so he’s presumably using some sort of karate. Played by Nudhapol Asavabhakhin, who is not Japanese.

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Even if he does have hair like Naruto.

The Fight: It’s one that Ting tries to avoid, but the crowd’s thirsty for more blood and won’t let him leave (more importantly, two rival mob bosses, including our main villain, our upstairs taking bets on the proceedings). One crowd member even brandishes a gun to “encourage” Ting to get back in the fight.

Toshiro is much more of a showboat than Big Bear, even vogueing a bit with some high jumps and landing in a wide split. Throughout the fight he keeps swishing his legs back & forth in an effort to confuse and unnerve Ting.

It’s not super effective, however. The Cheetah is fast, but Ting is, for the most part, faster. The rural champion avoids the larger part of Toshiro’s lightning kicks and knocks him around with some strong counter kicks. Other times he just calmly blocks Toshiro’s strikes with his own feet & shins. The two have a rhythm together that’s both impressive and comical.

Ting runs into some trouble when he tries to go on the direct offensive, as Toshiro seems to be able to dodge faster than Ting can strike. He ducks and side-steps an amazing amount of punches, until Ting realizes the best way to hit him is to draw him in. He lets Toshiro lunge in to attack and then clocks him with a twisty reverse-kick.

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Ting presses his advantage from there and batters his opponent pretty badly, even canceling out Toshiro’s speed advantage (as he tries to regain control of the battle space) with some smart footwork and a well-placed jump. Eventually Toshiro goes down hard, and seems to concede to Ting. But as soon as the hero turns his back, Toshiro rushes at him, only to be met with a mid-air knee to the chest that puts him down for good.

"I was just trying to chest-bump you, gosh!"

“I was just trying to chest-bump you, gosh!”

This is a pretty sweet fight, showcasing us a very different challenge to Ting’s skills than Big Bear was. The Aussie was just a big tough thug who relied on strength, Tocheetah has some serious skills and has to be outsmarted. Ting is still unquestionably superior, of course, but he has to really sweat to make it happen. The next fight, however….

Grade: B+

4) Ting Takes On All, part 3

Ting Fights: The very aptly-named “Mad Dog,” a non-martial artist who relies not so much on his muscles (which are not insubstantial) but his wild, relentless and creative ferocity. When he finally drops his newspaper and saunters into the ring (he’d been shown casually reading while Ting fought Toshiro), the announcer doesn’t enthusiastically introduce him but appears genuinely panicked, and screams, “Oh God– not Mad Dog!” Played by David Ismalone, a veteran stunt man.

Wouldn't you want your daughter to bring this fella home?

Wouldn’t you want your daughter to bring this fella home?

[Between this, The Raid, and Hard Boiled, there’s a fine tradition of Asian action films with villains named “Mad Dog.” This one makes a fine addition.]

The Fight: Mad Dog comes off like quite a good boy at first, walking in with a calm smile against the tense & wary Ting. The canine-esque man even offers a gentlemanly hand to his opponent.

IT'S A TRAP

IT’S A TRAP

Of course it’s a trap, if a fiendishly simple one. As soon as Ting reluctantly accepts the shake, Mad Dog’s other, hidden, beer bottle-wielding hand comes down on Ting’s head. Bad dog!

And from there, it’s on like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, Candy Kong, and even that annoying one with the surfboard. There is literally nothing Mad Dog won’t do or use against Ting in his effort to win. Ting keeps raining blows against the unpredictable freestylist but most of the time it’s all he can do just to keep up with the canine man.

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As the battle between the two continues and moves all around the fricking building, the implements Mad Dog seizes and wields against Ting (either by throwing them, swinging them, or charging with them) include more beer bottles, wooden chairs, wooden card tables, a wooden bench, vases, a framed picture, several glass plates, an electric game board, and a live electrical wire attached to the wall.The last of those he rips out and uses to keep Ting at bay. Eventually he pulls it so far out that the building’s power short-circuits a little bit, causing the light to flicker and a shower of sparks to rain down.

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Throughout the barrage Ting is working overtime just to survive: dodging, blocking, minimizing, and occasionally even absorbing Mad Dog’s assaults. Ting’s defense is quite an impressive sight all its own, as he blunts the impact of swung chairs with his knee, or whips back like a snake to evade thrown projectiles.

The fight continues on, but even the ferocious dog starts to get scared of Ting’s skill & resilience. He grabs a female hostage and drags her upstairs, Ting in hot pursuit. When they reach the top floor, Mad Dog lifts a freaking refrigerator and uses it as a weapon.

"THIS IS VERY PRACTICAL"

“THIS IS A VERY PRACTICAL WAY TO FIGHT”

Ting is only momentarily put off by the unconventional weapon, and kicks it until both fridge and Dog get smashed through a wooden wall.

Soon enough, in fact, the pair go tumbling into the room where the two mobsters and all their flunkies are hanging out. After a pause in which Ting locks eyes with both the villain and his right-hand man, the bad mobster (worse mobster?) tells Mad Dog “you disappoint me” and hands him a knife to finish the job. Now granted, it’s a pretty sick-looking knife, but considering Mad Dog’s ability to convert every last bit of the building into his arsenal, it’s a tad anticlimactic.

Anyway, the knife does little to faze our hero. He soon disarms the weary fighter, then hits him with a series of devastating knee strikes. He finishes off by throwing his foe through the glass window that overlooks the arena, and for good measure he follows along with him and knees him again during the fall, putting the dog down for good.

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This fight is amazing, and a great end to the natural progression of the three back-to-back battles: slight challenge, moderate challenge, insane challenge (compare to most Bruce Lee movies, which start out at no challenge and gradually escalate to the slight level at the very end).

As wild as this fight is, there’s a strange element of realism to it. Real fights aren’t matches of pure skill– anyone can theoretically win, if they’re determined and psychotic enough. There’s no question that for all his skills, Ting is in genuine danger, and one slight mistake in defending against Mad Dog’s onslaught could have gotten him killed; as it is, he gets hurt plenty enough.

But more importantly, it’s ridiculously fun. All perfectly choreographed and executed down to the last millimeter and microsecond, it’s a scene notable not just for its invention but its pure audacity. Making a great fight is one thing, but how often do you see something like this?

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: Might be a bit slow in coming, since a trip out of town for a wedding has robbed me of some blogging/prep time. Plus this post is extra long so you have plenty to chew on for now. But soon…

This. This is happening.

This. This is happening.

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 5 of 5)

Our last visit with the cheese-eating karate monkeys.

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5) Fronsac vs Jean-Francois and co

The Fighters:

  • Fronsac, the naturalist knight and heroic beater of asses. His awesome escapades from our last entry landed him in jail, but he was unwittingly helped out of it when his favorite prostitute (and every proper gentleman has a favorite) poisoned him into a state approximating death, then revived him after he’d been removed and buried. (Out of all the crazy things about this movie, the idea that even a high-class prostitute would look as good as Monica Belluci might be the most unrealistic.) Now he’s back to make a surprise entry and finish the job of avenging Mani’s death, even wearing his pal’s old face paint. Played by Samuel Le Bihan.
    • Armed with: Dual short swords, of the “broad” variety.
  • Jean-Francois de Morangias, a prolific hunter and the film’s “surprise” villain. Not the leader of the Brotherhood (that’s Henri Sardis, the local priest), but he’s the one who captured & trained the Beast, and seems to be the cult’s point man for violent activities. Tall & covered with lean muscle, he’s pretty imposing, despite a rather silly-looking outfit. Oh, he also had a stalker-crush on his sister, who he raped a little while before this. Ew. Played by Vincent Cassel, who you probably remember from the second two “Ocean’s” movies.
    • Armed with: An unusual whip-sword made of bones. Normally he wields it as a sword or club but with the right manipulation of the handle it transforms into a segmented whip/chain. I’ve heard that something like this is a real thing, but they’re impractical novelty items at best; it’s near impossible to get them back into their default “sword” mode in the midst of a duel.
  • The gypsies, for the last time. They’re more of a prelude to the real duel, but extensive enough to be included. Fronsac kills about four but all the surviving members are there, including La Bavarde.

Hooker-spy Sylvia also plays a role, as do local magistrate Captain Duhamel and his men.

The Setup: Thinking that their last enemy is dead, the titular Brotherhood meets in a secluded space in the forest.

"This totally normal, meeting in the woods dressed like this."

“This is totally normal, meeting in the woods dressed like this.”

They discuss their plans to turn the public ever more against the King’s heresy, and Sardis closes with a prayer. But he’s cut off by the arrival of the thought-dead Gregoire de Fronsac, who had been hiding in a stone structure above. He interrupts the priest with a prayer of his own.

"There's a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17..."

“There’s a passage I got memorized: Ezekiel 25:17…”

He proceeds to tell the Brotherhood that le jig, she ees ahp, and calls out the names of many of the (masked) members. Most are shocked, but Jean-Francois takes it in stride, proudly unmasking with a smug “amen.”

One of the gypsies tries to shoot Fronsac, but he flips out of the way and lands on the altar before the crowd. He showily draws his weapons.

"Venez et l'obtenir."

“Venez et l’obtenir.”

The Fight: The gypsies come at Fronsac first, especially the guy who is apparently their leader (he’s wearing Mani’s Iroquois bracelet). He seems to harbor special animosity against Fronsac that’s not clear, but a deleted scene shows him bellowing with rage upon finding the final chump the hero had killed in the catacombs, implying that the two were close in some way.

The hero deals with him for a while before kicking him away, then several more rush in. Fronsac beats and kills a few of the other gypsies, including the two females that Mani had “played” with back in Fight #2, before facing off with the leader again. After some intense fighting, Fronsac is able to break the gypsy’s arm and run him through. He then seizes the thug’s head and scalps him, tossing the trophy at the assembled cultists.

They’re shocked but they still outnumber him… until Duhamel’s men arrive and open fire. As the troops swarm in, the cultists & gypsies either scatter or get shot where they stand. Elsewhere in the darkened forest, La Bavarde runs into Sylvia, apparently thinking her easy prey, but nope: as the little tramp lunges with a knife, Sylvia calmly slashes her throat with a bladed fan, putting the gypsy girl down for the count. FINALLY.

That leaves the only two who didn’t flee the meeting site: Fronsac and Jean-Francois.

Even preparing for death he looks pretty.

Even preparing for death he looks pretty.

The slow-motion and dramatic music definitely play up the “final boss” feel as they square off, as does some brief hostile dialogue. But they waste little time before going at it, blade against bone.

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Fronsac is fast & furious, but the lithe and powerful Morangias is more than a match for him. Indeed, Cassel, himself apparently something of a martial artist in real life, is an excellent physical villain. He moves with an awkward grace that doesn’t quite match the complexity of the heroes’ kung fu-like abilities, but is still plenty deadly.

The two don’t just slash and kick in a small patch of ground but really explore the space of the impromptu arena, chasing each  other about and jumping off walls. Early in the fight, Jean-Francois reveals his weapon’s nifty secondary ability, catching his foe enough by surprise with the whip’s versatility that he slashes the hero painfully across the cheek as he retracts the sword lengths back together.

"Mon Dieu!"

“Mon Dieu!”

In fact, it’s Jean-Francois who scores almost all the injuries throughout the fight, using his strength and unusual weapon (he goes back & forth between the two functions several times) to keep Fronsac mostly on the defensive. The hero rallies a few times and pushes back, but the battle remains Jean-Francois’ game. Halfway through the two have a brief exchange about Fronsac guessing the villain’s identity early on, uttering “you sign your crimes with a silver bullet!” It’s the type of operatic line that always sounds better in a foreign language than it does in your own.

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Finally Morangias is able to briefly get the upper hand when he hooks the whip around one of Fronsac’s swords. The knight, unwilling to let go, gets spun in the air and slammed to the ground several times. But during one such trip he gets close enough to his enemy that he’s able to reach in with the other blade and cut Jean-Francois’ neck.

Knowing the end is near, the villain cries out to his (not present, since he raped her and left her for dead. Again, ew) sister, and retracts the whip once more, which somehow yanks the formerly caught blade straight into his stomach.

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Convinced that he’ll see his “beloved” (ew) in death, Jean-Francois falls to the ground after Fronsac removes the sword from his gut, and with his dying effort curls his right arm underneath his back, simulating (for no apparent reason) the way he kept the arm bound & hidden in public for several years. Finally done, an exhausted Fronsac lets out a somewhat comically relieved sigh as he looks to the heavens.

Oh, and Sardis evades the authorities, but gets devoured by the local wolf pack, who were quite upset over being blamed for his shenanigans. Nice.

There’s a certain… perfunctoriness to this fight, even if it is a spirited perfunctoriness. It feels not so much inevitable as it does mandatory, the hero & villain having a showdown straight out of a video game. It’s hard to quantify what’s missing about it, since it is ambitious and technically quite excellent. Though not technically perfect: the CGI used on the whip sword and Fronsac’s final flying blade are laughably bad, standing out like a sore thumb.

Still, on the surface at least it does deliver just about everything you need in a climactic fight scene. Good music, strong (if perhaps overdone at times) choreography, brutal hits sold by great sound design (the unusual chock chock chock sound of blade on bone is a nice touch), an emotional payoff, it’s not too short but not too long, and the changing nature of the whip sword keeps things from getting too stale. It’s not quite the most fitting end to the movie, but it is an undeniably fun one.

Grade: B+

Question: In case you couldn’t tell Ive upped my game with the pictures lately; I figured out the should-have-been-more-obvious fact that if I watch the movie on my computer’s DVD player, it’s not only easier to take notes (typing instead of writing), but very easy to get screengrabs, rather than having to hunt them down via Google image search. The only thing I’m worried about is that this leaves me with TOO many images to choose from, and I keep wanting to put all or almost all of them into the article. Has anyone found this to be unduly distracting, or does it enhance the experience? Comment below if you have an opinion.

Coming Attractions: Let’s Thai one on.

Jaa rules.

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 4 of 5)

Sometimes the toughest guys are the ones you least expect.

For instance.

4) Fronsac vs Gypsies

The Fighters:

  • Gregoire de Fronsac, brilliant scientist and, apparently, a high-level asskicker. As with Mani, Fronsac’s martial arts abilities are never explained or addressed in any way, but unlike with Mani, Fronsac’s skills don’t pop until about the final third of the story. This actually works to the film’s credit: the audience had been misled into assuming that the Fronsac/Mani team was your classic Brain & Brawns pairing, but as it turns out, the brain has brawn to spare. That the movie doesn’t revel in or overly explain this delightful little surprise only helps even more. Played by Samuel Le Bihan.
    • Armed with: A very simple but mean-looking long knife, and a bow & arrow.
  • The gypsies, again. I’m guessing that real-life gypsies were so offended by their portrayal in this movie they put a curse on Christophe Gans so he’d never make a good movie again.
    • Armed with: Their hook claws and a few other stabbing implements.

The Setup: Fronsac spent an unknown amount of time tearfully cleaning Mani’s body and examining his wounds, at one point uncovering a silver bullet. Once the initial grieving period is over, he plots out (using the locations of previous Beast attacks, the place where he had his encounter with it, and the place he found Mani’s body) where he guesses the villains to be: a hunting lodge deep in the woods. He exchanges his more traditional European outfit for some Goin’ To War clothes, applies some camouflage face paint, and sets out to get his kill on. Note that this is all on the same night that the guy had a close encounter with an armored super-lion and later found his best friend dead.

Gotta admit Fronsac strikes a pretty imposing profile, creeping through the woods like a bow-wielding Solid Snake.

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“Be vewy, vewy quiet….”

The Fight: Fronsac is mad as hell, but still pretty tactically sound. First scoping out the lodge and finding that the gypsies are all inside having a party (presumably celebrating how awesome they are for killing a guy they outnumbered twelve to one and STILL had to shoot in the back) and noting that one has stolen Mani’s special bracelet, Gregoire decides to create a distraction.

He approaches the nearby stable full of horses and fires a few flaming arrows into the structure, causing several gypsies to rush out and try to save the place. Most are too frantic to notice him, but when one does, Fronsac calmly dispatches him in a very dignified manner.

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He gives a similar treatment to the torso of a second unfortunate gypsy, then scurries away from the chaos and sneaks his way into the main building. Now most of the lodge’s occupants are out dealing with the crisis, and even if any of them return it’s not going to be all at once. Fronsac has effectively muted their advantage in numbers.

The hero doesn’t get far in the house before he runs into some confused baddies, and he is not shy about confrontation. He storms through the lodge, encountering his enemies either individually or in pairs, and just delivers them straight to the Reaper– no fuss, no muss. His work is efficient; there is no arrogance or flashiness to his physical skills here, just brutal and unflinching destruction… though he does occasionally take just long enough to prolong each victim’s pain.

And after each kill he calmly & purposefully strides on, grimly searching out the next target. Fronsac is a single-minded engine of merciless anger. He’s on a Rip Roarin’ Rampage of Revenge.

Fronsac’s knife (given its crude design it’s probably one of Mani’s) gets a lot of play here as he slices, stabs & chops his enemies down. Late in the fight he throws the blade across the room to pin one escaping villain (the only one who was sensible enough to try to run after seeing an enraged knight at the end of a trail of corpses) to the wall, through his neck. Another he flips over bodily, so hard the chump goes crashing right through the floorboards.

So much for the deposit.

So much for the deposit.

And in my favorite kill, Fronsac seizes one attacker (defender?) and slams him against alternating sides of the narrow hallway– one, two, three, FOUR times– before chopping away at his collarbone with the knife and then slamming his head right through the opposite wall. Then he delivers a spinning jump kick that pushes the guy even farther into the wall.

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Le crunch.

While he kills & kills, Fronsac descends ever deeper into the lodge, discovering multiple hidden copies of the cult’s treasonous books. As he pulls the knife out of the aforementioned skewered guy, he looks in the mirror to find that his would-be sneak attacker is none other than (of course) La Bavarde, whom he only delivers a strong backhand to, inexplicably deciding to just leave her stunned on the ground for a few minutes rather than coughing in a pool of her own bitch blood. If only he’d known how much of a role this French Snooki had played in Mani’s demise.

Soon enough the bad guys stop coming. Sniffing out some secret passages, Fronsac finds first the master villain’s personal chambers, and then the catacombs where the Beast resides. He even takes a moment at the torture implement (a St. Andrew’s cross) where Mani spent his final minutes. Visibly shaken, Fronsac then gets rushed by a lone gypsy, but he quickly turns the tables and runs the baddie through with a spear he found, pinning him up against that very same cross and leaving him there.

This is cathartic for him.

This is cathartic for him.

Gregoire then hears the gypsies coming back in force, and retreats, leaving quite a mess in his wake– eleven dead or presumed as such, plus the girl. To be continued.

This is ridiculously awesome. We feel Fronsac’s righteous rage and are whooping & hollering as he delivers ugly payback. The aforementioned added surprise of Fronsac’s is a pleasant one, and brings an added “wow” factor to the proceedings. Choreographer Phillip Kwok deserves extra credit for staging violence that’s not very flashy but still memorably brutal. Gans wisely pulls back the music for the main action portion and lets the beatdowns speak for themselves.

There’s a crazy, determined energy to this whole sequence and it works like gangbusters. It’s pretty much every guy’s fantasy, and unabashedly so: “If I were pissed off enough, I could kick ass through a whole platoon of guys, no problem!”

The plot still has a few wild left turns to take but this scene has already begun to propel the movie towards its big climax. As a bonus, here’s another angle on the arrow/head guy:

He looks a lot like Will Ferrell there.

He looks a lot like Will Ferrell there.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: BOSS FIGHT!

"Je te VEUX!"

“Je te VEUX!”

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 3 of 5)

Here’s where le merde gets real, as they say.

“Venez à moi, mon frere!”

3) Team Fronsac vs the Beast and the Brotherhood

The Fighters:

  • Gregoire de Fronsac, stepping into the action for the first time so far. A rationalist, scientist and knight of King Louis’ court, Fronsac had been dispatched to track down the Beast but ended up playing the patsy in a political game. Now he’s out to take care of business. Played by Samuel Le Bihan.
    • Armed with: An array of small firearms, which he proves adept with during a pre-fight preparatory sequence.
  • Mani, Fronsac’s quiet Iroquois friend. This time stripped down to nothing but a loincloth, boots and some freaky ceremonial war paint. Played by Mark Dacascos.
    • Armed with: A sweet tomahawk.
  • Thomas d’Apcher, son of the local marquis. Actually a pretty decent & brave chap, despite looking like a spoiled fop. Also the story’s narrator, so he’ll probably survive this. Played by Jérémie Renier, not to be confused with the guy who plays Hawkeye.
    • Armed with: A crossbow, which is kinda funny for the above reason.
  • The Beast, a large jungle predator covered in tough and spiky armor. It’s well-trained and bred for viciousness, though its masters also apparently lets it roam free at times. There’s some ambiguity over exactly what the Beast is– we never see it outside of the armor, and the dialogue doesn’t make it explicit. All we’re told at the end is that its trainer brought back “a new kind of animal” (or “a strange beast” depending on which translation you’ve heard/how good my memory is). In interviews, Christophe Gans has claimed the beast is definitely a lion. It doesn’t really move like a lion (says me, the big lion expert), but then the CGI is so bad it doesn’t really move like anything. Others think it’s a rare hybrid between a lion and another large cat (like maybe it’s a liger, GOSH!). Personally I like the interpretation that it really is a new, heretofore undiscovered breed from the depths of the jungle, but YMMV. Played by various computer and animatronic special effects.
    • Armed with: Teeth, claws, sharp armor and a couple hundred pounds of predatory muscle.
  • Those gypsies again, including La Bavarde. It’s their own home turf and they’re more threatened than ever, so they’re much more nasty than last time. Their mysterious leader also plays a small but pivotal role.
    • Armed with: Their hook claws and torches.

The real wolves of Gevaudan also make an appearance.

The Setup: After being coerced into a cover-up faking the death of the Beast to avoid embarrassing the government, Fronsac returned to Gevaudan in order to get all kissy with Marianne, a local young noble he’d met there. But their rendezvous was interrupted by a strangely targeted attack from the Beast, convincing him it was time to put the monster, and the men behind it, down for good. One late afternoon he, Mani, and young Marquis-to-be Thomas, form a small but determined hunting party and set a number of traps for the Beast. Mani even feeds d’Apcher a peyote-like substance to get his head in the game.

You'd take an unknown hallucinatory substance from this man, wouldn't you?

You’d accept an unknown hallucinogenic substance from this man, wouldn’t you?

A local wolf pack, who have some sort of connection with Mani, offer their assistance by swarming the Beast and driving it to the hunters. They have skin in this game too, since many are blaming wolves for the creature’s attacks.

Note: I’m combining the “battle” of the Beast with Mani’s subsequent human brawl, as they follow directly after one another and the former is too short for its own entry yet too interesting to skip.

The Fight: The first half of the hunt is ambitious, if not overly spectacular. The Beast gets corralled by wolves into Team Fronsac’s prepared area, and they do everything they can to nudge, lure or threaten it into the series of traps they’ve set up. Two of the traps, basically cages or walls made of flimsy bamboo, and don’t hold the Beast for long, if at all. But one device, an enormous swinging log covered with spikes, nails the monster but good and sends it flying.

THUNK

THUNK

The heroes also give their prey some minor wounds in the form of a tomahawk to the snout and a pistol shot in the haunch. But it gives back pretty good by chomping down on Thomas’ arm and dragging him for a while. When the wounded creature retreats, Mani pursues while Fronsac stays behind to tend to the wounded aristocrat.

Mani tracks the creature to the catacombs that serve as its masters’ base of operations. Looking around, he sees evidence of the cult’s existence and even has a nice moment with some of the kenneled dogs the Beast uses for “practice.” But he soon realizes he’s in the belly of a more figurative beast, and he was probably wearing his Bad Idea Loincloth when he decided to come alone.

Mani4

Should have brought Scott Wolf as backup

Now it’s the fight of Mani’s life, and if the gypsy punks aren’t holding back, neither is he. War Paint Mani is absolutely brutal in his dismantlement of the thugs ganging up on him, lashing out with deadly precision, often with his tomahawk. He punches, kicks, slices, and guts them one at a time. Most memorably, he chops off one enemy’s clawed hand and throws it in the torso of another.

But it’s not enough. Mani’s in a tight space and he’s surrounded. For the first time, he gets actually hurt, both by cheap shots: one a kick to the face and another by a claw raking down his back. He doesn’t slow down, and for a while it looks like he might survive… until he grabs one attacker who turns out to be La Bavarde, and while he hesitates to bring the axe down, he gets shot in the back by the group’s masked leader. Unable to move, he’s carried away by the surviving villains, laughing at their foe’s fate. We cut to an unknown amount of time later (the light levels haven’t changed much, but it’s implied the gypsies had “fun” with Mani before finishing him off), as a pair of baddies unceremoniously toss Mani’s broken body down a small hill. Fronsac finds him later, and doesn’t take it well.

“He was only two days from retirement!”

This extended battle marks a turning point for the movie, after which things are going to be not just more focused but even more intense in an already bonkers film. The plot thickens, even as some of the mysteries are being revealed (hey, you think that mysterious villain with the gross-looking right arm could possibly be the snooty, paranoid & hostile Jean-Francois, who claims to have lost his right arm while hunting big game in Africa? You get a cookie), and the action ratchets up from here on. Mani’s death becomes a catalyst for real changes, especially with Fronsac (see below).

Meanwhile, this whole sequence is really well-done. While it’s short and there’s not a lot to it, the showdown with the Beast here has some inventive staging and is a nice change-up from the rest of the film’s action. It’s almost a light version of the climax of Predator, so that’s hardly a bad thing. The second half, with Mani’s last stand, is more traditional but really intense, with the heavy violence and serious music really selling his desperation. It’s rough seeing such a likeable character go out this way, but it of course helps set up the retaliation to come.

All in all, an excellent mid-film mini-climax.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Gregoire lets his hair down.

fron1

“They see me lurkin, they hatin….”