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 1 of 6)

One Piece is the greatest thing ever.

Try not to look TOO smug about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fighters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skee ball. It's clearly skee ball.

Skee ball. It’s clearly skee ball.

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

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

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

This is starting to get downright cartoonish.

This is starting to get downright cartoonish.

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

You'd think THIS would be enough, right?

You’d think THIS would be enough, right?

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

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

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What a Foul move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

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

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

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There’s a reason for that.

The Last of the Mohicans (fight 2 of 2)

Don’t mess with the old man.

Or he'll Chingach-get ya.

Or he’ll Chingach-get ya.

2) Magua vs The Mohicans

The Fighters:

  • Chingachgook, the Mohican elder. Played by Russell Means.
    • Armed with: Gunstock war club, same as before.
  • Uncas, the young Mohican brave. Played by Eric Schweig.
    • Armed with: Knife and rifle. Later he grabs a tomahawk.
  • Magua, the spiteful villain. Played by Wes Studi.
    • Armed with: Tomahawk and knife.

Magua is also leading a party of about a dozen Huron subordinates. Hawkeye is on hand but mostly just shoots down the cannon fodder.

The Setup: After having successfully killed Colonel Munro, Magua captures his daughters Cora & Alice (and Duncan too), then takes them back to a Huron village. Hawkeye arrives unexpectedly and tries to sway the local chief to have the girls set free. The sachem reaches a Solomonic compromise: have one daughter burned at the stake as repayment for Magua’s suffering, and have him take the other as his wife to heal his heart. This’d be an awkward arrangement for all involved, one would think.

Hawkeye tries to put himself in Cora’s stead (the sacrifice thing, not the wife thing), but Duncan, knowing that Bumppo stands a better chance than he at getting Cora to safety and rescuing Alice (and also finally accepting that Cora loves Hawkeye, not him), offers himself, which the chief accepts. Team Hawkeye leaves with Cora and, once they get far enough away, Natty use his rifle to perform a mercy killing on the burning Duncan to end his suffering.

This delay ends up staggering the party as they pursue Alice. Between his fleet-footedness and his own desire for Alice’s safety (the pair have been having their own quiet, parallel romance throughout the film), Uncas catches up to Magua at a scenic cliffside path far ahead of his father & brother. This will prove unwise.

See all those bad guys? It's called "wait for backup," smart guy.

See all those bad guys? It’s called “wait for backup,” genius.

 The Fight: Uncas moves so fast he actually gets ahead of Magua’s convoy, and ambushes the lead man by popping out from around a corner he was approaching. He cuts his way through several Huron warriors using a combination of guns and brute force. He finally gets to Magua, who greets the challenge with his own knife and tomahawk at the ready.

They clash, and Uncas makes crippling mistakes early on– he goes up against Magua too close, and isn’t ready for Magua’s craftiness. Whenever the villain blocks Uncas’ axe with his own, his other hand darts in and uses his knife to get several small but damaging slices on the kid’s torso. After this happens two or three times, Magua falls back to higher ground, and Uncas can immediately tell the seriousness of his wounds.

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Whether through remaining recklessness or a Hail Mary attempt to finish things before he loses even more blood, Uncas refuses to let up. He clumsily shoves in closer to Magua, and the two end up tussling around on the surface of a flat rock. Magua again gets the upper hand and takes Uncas’ knife. This happens in wide shot and Mann doesn’t show us what happens immediately after– he cuts back to Hawkeye & Chingachgook in frantic pursuit, and Alice watching from nearby, crying & turning away as she can already see how this ends.

When the action comes back, Uncas is still on the ground, perhaps wounded more, and Magua is standing warily just a few feet away. Interestingly, the villain doesn’t take the opportunity to strike immediately, even though he easily could because Uncas takes a long time to rise unsteadily to his feet, leaving himself wide open. Magua’s giving him the chance to die honorably, on his feet.

Uncas tries to lunge in one last time, but Magua easily intercepts and stabs him in the side. He spins the Mohican around and plunges the knife in deeper, finishing the job.

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Uncas cries out in pain, but there’s no real malice or gloating in Magua’s wordless execution– just cold, calculating efficiency. It’s rough stuff: Uncas was a likeable and noble co-protagonist, and it’s fairly horrifying to watch him die in helpless agony. Magua finally lets the boy go, and pushes him down the cliff.

Too late and too far away to help, Chingachgook is still close enough to see his son die. In a heartbreaking slow-motion shot, we see him scream in grief & protest, but his voice isn’t heard, drowned out instead by the unrelenting music. Russell Means’ haunted face does the job well enough on its own.

As the war party starts to pack back up again, Alice steps away from her captors, looking over the cliff side where her friend had just fallen. The villain confusedly beckons her to come back, and she quietly considers: a quick death alongside her love, or a life with Magua as her husband?

She makes the right call.

Good call.

Magua and his flunkies move on, but soon the good guys catch up with them, this time from the rear. Father & adopted son work quite well together to break through, with Chingachgook acting as the tip of the spear and Hawkeye supporting him from just behind with gunfire. Indeed, the old man is a single-minded engine of destruction, cutting through Hurons while barely slowing down.

Magua welcomes the new challenge, and the old warrior charges right at him. He ducks & rolls under Magua’s opening swing and, in one smooth movement, springs back up and bludgeons his foe in the back with his war club. Magua tries to counter-attack but the Mohican cuts it off prematurely by striking the swinging arm at the elbow. As Magua reels in pain, Chingachgook smashes his other arm, rendering both limbs useless.

Thankfully, Magua doesn't try to continue using the "Black Knight" offense

Thankfully, Magua doesn’t try to continue using the “Monty Python Black Knight” offense

In just a few quick seconds, Magua has been completely shut down, left with nothing to do but stand there in awkward confusion. With victory assured, Chingachgook gives Magua an odd look: not vengeful or satisfied, just disgusted. With one mighty swing, the last of the Mohicans buries the sharp end of his club in Magua’s gut, and leaves him where he falls.

This is a great movie, but during its final stretch it enters another realm entirely. As soon as Duncan Heyward is tied up for his funeral pyre, a beautiful & haunting composition begins on the film’s soundtrack, and doesn’t let up until Magua dies. It often rises and falls in response to the on-screen activity… but it sometimes doesn’t, which in its way is even more affecting. It occasionally drowns out other sounds, most memorably resulting in Chingachgook’s silent scream, but the whole sequence is already virtually dialogue-free, featuring only one spoken word (Hawkeye calling out Uncas’ name after seeing him fall). It plays out almost like a silent movie.

The choreography is effective enough, but there’s relatively little complexity or traditional suspense in it. It’s all rather straightforward: Magua kills Uncas with little difficulty, then Chingachgook kills Magua with even less. But the way everything is handled– the music, the gorgeous backdrop, the various charged emotions that begin with Heyward’s awe-inspiring sacrifice, the ugliness of Uncas’ death and the bittersweet payback for it– combine to create an experience that’s far more than the sum of its parts, let alone the sum of just its punches, kicks and stabs. This is a straight battle that’s legitimately exciting but it’s also something lyrical, almost beautiful. Once again we’re reminded that it’s not just fights being graded here but fight scenes— the cinematic language is often just as important as the choreography. And this movie’s definitely speaking my language.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: Yo ho ho.

The Last of the Mohicans (fight 1 of 2)

All right: for real now, we’ll ditch superheroes for a while.

It's not even going to come flying back at him like Mjolnir.

It’s not even going to come flying back at him like Mjolnir.

The Last of the Mohicans, a throwback to old-style epic Hollywood filmmaking but with a new(-ish) gloss & polish. It’s a rare gem that’s both artfully elegant and genuinely exciting, thanks in large part to the lyrical direction of the Michael Mann– frustratingly unpredictable as ever.  It’s even got a star turn from the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis, from the period when he was just a very talented & handsome leading man and not a Mind-Blowing Super Actor with a yen for purloined milkshakes.

Let’s not get into the film’s historical inaccuracies. It’s a Hollywood action movie which is loosely based on an old book which itself was only loosed based on then-recent history; we’re quite a few layers away from “reality,” here. Also: I’m hardly the most politically correct guy in the world, but I’ll try to tread respectfully with regards to terms used to describe the story’s native characters.

1) Huron Ambush

The Fighters:

  • Hawkeye, aka Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo, a British citizen who was raised by the vanishing Mohican tribe after being orphaned at a young age. Hawkeye (in Fenimore Cooper’s other stories he accumulates an impressive number of additional nicknames, including Long Rifle, Deerslayer, Leatherstocking, Pathfinder, etc) is an excellent tracker, and is unparalleled in marksmanship. Played by Daniel Day-Lewis.
    • Armed with: A tomahawk/short axe and a Pennsylvania Flintlock Rifle. (Note this is not a musket as previously indicated; as a commenter points out, while most of the other soldiers and militias use various types of muskets, a marksman like Hawkeye favors the Pennsylvania Flintlock. More details here.)
  • Chingachgook, Natty’s adoptive Mohican father. Noticeably older but still quite spry. Played by the late Lakota actor and activist Russell Means.
    • Armed with: In addition to his rifle, Chingachgook uses (I had to look this up) a gunstock war club, a length of thick wood that roughly resembles a long rifle but is actually a tricky weapon useful for both bludgeoning and stabbing.
  • Uncas, Chingachgook’s biological son and Hawkeye’s adopted brother, renowned for his speed. Played by Eric Schweig.
    • Armed with: Musket and knife.
  • Major Duncan Heyward, the British officer charged with transporting his commander’s daughters to their father’s command post. A competent soldier with an overly narrow sense of right and wrong. Played by Steven Waddington.
    • Armed with: Pistol and a stiff upper lip.
  • Magua, the film’s villain. Out to kill the entire Munro family over grievances he has with the father, Magua is a ruthless, vicious yet somewhat sympathetic antagonist. Played by the great Wes Studi.
    • Armed with: Tomahawk, knife and whatever guns he can gets his hands on.

There’s also a small detachment of British soldiers, about two dozen, under Heyward’s command. Magua leads a similarly sized contingent of Huron raiders. The Munro girls are there too, but they mostly just stand off to the side looking scared. It’s not very empowering.

The Setup: Magua has been hired as a local guide for the Munro girls’ escort, but he’s secretly been plotting to betray them, and is leading the platoon into an ambush. Not long before things get in motion, Team Hawkeye finds the remains of the Huron war party’s camp fires, and decide to keep an eye out for them.

As the redcoats near the ambush point, Magua abruptly turns around and walks quickly to the rear of the marching column. He discreetly draws an axe from his cloak and, approaching a fresh-faced young lad in the back, buries the weapon in his face.

"For the last time: I will NOT sign your Street Fighter Movie poster!"

“For the last time: I will NOT sign your Street Fighter Movie poster!”

The Fight: Moving so quickly the Brits couldn’t react in time even if they weren’t shocked by the unexpected brutality, Magua immediately seizes the fallen soldier’s rifle and uses it to shoot down another. This acts as the signal for the other Huron raiders hidden in the wilderness to open fire. Most of the shots hit their targets, with several soldiers even tumbling down the steep hillside on the other side of the path. Magua chose the terrain well.

The stunned British quickly cluster together in orderly ranks, and send a volley of fire against the still mostly hidden Hurons. But the bad guys came prepared, and have already set up their cover. When the volley’s over, they charge down into the remainder of the platoon well before they can reload.

The redcoats are fairly well-trained, but in close quarters they’re no match for the natives. Mann treats the audience to an extended sequence of ugly carnage, consisting mostly of British soldiers being steadily felled in increasingly ugly ways.

This fellow, for instance, is about to be sold some football tickets at an inflated price

This guy on the ground, for instance, is about to be sold some sporting tickets at an inflated price

It’s not pretty. Heyward is the only one who manages to hold his own. That’s mostly due to his being a little bit separated from the main action, but he does take down two bad guys by himself: one with a well-aimed pistol shot, another with some quick fisticuffs after Heyward’s horse is cut down and he’s faced with a lone straggler.

Soon enough the main group of Hurons finish up with the British platoon, and start to charge in on Heyward and the girls, when they’re interrupted by three shots fired from off-screen, each one of which takes down a Huron warrior.

Surprise! It’s the movie’s heroes, here to save the day. Which they actually do with cool efficiency, each of them shown joining the fight separately. Of course, it’s Hawkeye who comes out looking coolest, demonstrating some sweet moves as he cuts through two Hurons in a row just in time to stop Magua from firing on the Munro women.

A tomahawk will do in a pinch when you don't have a bowling pin.

A tomahawk will do in a pinch when you don’t have a bowling pin.

The two men have a brief gun face-off: Magua quickly swivels his musket to aim at Bumppo, but the hero dodges it, having instinctively begun ducking before Magua even pulled the trigger. Before Hawkeye can return fire, the villain escapes in the excessive smoke, disappearing into the woods like an evil Batman.

Chingachgook gets to finish out the encounter, cutting down the last fleeing Huron (along with Magua, most seem to have run out of fear and confusion) by hurling his war club in an overhead toss into the chump’s back. Nice little stinger of an ending and, in another nice touch, right before it Hawkeye prevents Major Heyward from accidentally shooting Chingachgook in confusion. The movie repeatedly makes Heyward out to be an overly fussy and foolish dweeb, which pays off at the end in a shockingly poignant way.

Mann and his choreographers employ a type of physical combat here that’s believably genuine and unpolished; stiff, but in a good way. Which makes sense, as these warriors are veterans in the art of killing rather than elegant combat. You couldn’t have a period piece about Indians who use a bunch of fancy & stylized ninja moves, that would be completely ridiculous.

This is not the grandest of fights, not even the best one in this movie, but in broad strokes it establishes everything we need to know about all the particulars: the heroes’ smooth competence, Magua’s villainy, the casual brutality of frontier life/combat, and how out of their depth the foreign Europeans are here in this wilderness.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: The movie lives up to its title.

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Also, this happens.

Spider-Man 3 (fight 5 of 5)

In which Spider-Man receives help from an unlikely ally!

Uh, no, she's not who I'm talking about. But it's about time she contributed

Uh, no, she’s not who I’m talking about. But it’s about time she contributed

5) Spider-Man and New Goblin vs Sandman and Venom

The Fighters:

  • Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker. Back in his red & blue outfit. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • The New Goblin, aka Harry Osborn. About half his pretty face got burned real ugly in the last confrontation, but considering the size of the explosion he was lucky that’s all he got. Playing the hero this time. Played by James Franco.
    • Armed with: His full bag of tricks.
  • Sandman, aka Flint Marko. He’s using the excessive amount of dirt in the vicinity to make himself bigger and denser than ever. Played by Thomas Haden Church.
  • Venom (he’s never called that in the movie), aka Eddie Brock, Peter’s sleazy rival. Brock’s role here is roughly the same as in the comic– disgraced journalist blames Peter Parker & Spider-Man for his troubles, even though they’re really his own fault– but the character has been subtly tweaked to be a “dark,” conscience-free version of Peter even before his transformation (the casting of Grace enhances this, considering the comic Brock has a physique much closer to, well, Thomas Haden Church’s). After Peter expelled the symbiote suit from his body, it bonded with the nearby Eddie*, creating a monster with every reason to hate Spider-Man. As Venom, Brock sports an altered version of the black Spidey costume, and boasts physical strength and black webbing that are superior to Spider-Man’s. Missing from the comic book is how the symbiote allows Venom to bypass Peter’s spider sense, and the unnerving way Venom, being two personalities in one body, refers to himself as “we.” Played by Topher Grace.

Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane is along as the bait yet AGAIN. She helps out a smidgen this time, but mostly her role in this consists of falling through the sky over & over. Oddly, the movie never addresses the fact that the big obstacle between her and Peter in the first two movies is how her being close to Spider-Man could make her a target, and yep, that’s exactly what happens here. Speaking of which, how come nobody else in New York ever asks why this lady keeps getting held hostage by supervillains looking to rumble with Spider-Man? The first and third kidnappings were quite public, and the police at least knew about her abduction at Doc Ock’s lair in part 2.

[*Eddie was nearby because, in an amazing coincidence, he just happened to be downstairs in the church while Peter was ridding himself of the symbiote. Everything creepy & weird about Brock is encapsulated in how he a) went to that church to pray for God to murder Peter Parker for him, and b) he addresses Jesus as “sir.”]

The Setup: Fairly involved. Having worn the suit for too long, Peter eventually hit rock bottom and accidentally hit Mary Jane after an evening spent emotionally humiliating her. Knowing that the suit is enabling his behavior, he tries to take it off, but it resists, having bonded too closely. Only the ringing of a nearby church bell seems to stun it long enough to him to escape its grasp. (This is actually straight from the source material.) The suit desperately heads for the nearest replacement host, who happens to be Eddie Brock.

Soon enough, the suited Venom finds Sandman (… somehow) and offers an alliance, seeing as they have a mutual interest in stopping Spider-Man. One would think that Marko would have every reason to stay faaaaaaar away from Spider-Man, actually, but instead this noble victim of tragic circumstance immediately agrees to team up with psychopathic alien monster so they can murder a hero together. Makes perfect sense.

Rather than opting for something sensible like sneaking into his house at night and stabbing him, the two abduct Mary Jane and dangle her from an enormous web structure atop a construction site. Yes, a superhero fight at a construction site, sorry to blow your mind. When the news cameras show up, the villains ensure their invitation is suitably blunt.

One of Eddie's many failings was that he took the wrong moral away from reading Charlotte's Web

Another weird thing about Eddie Brock was that he took the COMPLETE wrong lesson away from reading Charlotte’s Web

Between the two of them, no police are able to get close enough to effect a rescue, and apparently the city’s National Guard unit was on field maneuvers or something.

Meanwhile, Peter correctly figures this is too much for him to handle alone and goes to Harry to ask for help. Harry lays on the guilt trip again, but rather than apologizing or quite reasonably pleading self-defense, Peter offers a simple “she needs us.” Harry waves him off, but later on his elderly butler strolls in and offers his unsolicited medical opinion on how Norman’s wounds were clearly caused by his own glider, so maybe Harry should get over himself already.

Still, Spider-Man shows up alone, though the gathered crowds still cheer him and he takes a second to pause before Old Glory one last time. He makes his way to where MJ’s being held in a taxi suspended high up and tries to comfort her, but Venom ambushes him shortly after.

The Fight: With his advanced speed & strength, Venom shuts Spider-Man down pretty quick, and pins him to a bed of webbing dozens of feet below Mary Jane’s taxi. Revealing his face, Eddie taunts his rival for a bit, urging him to remember the humiliation he put Eddie through. Ever lacking in his comic counterpart’s verbal dexterity, Peter just sits there silently, rather than reminding Eddie that he only “humiliated” the guy in response to false & defamatory pictures Eddie made of him. Oh, and also while under the influence of the very same suit Eddie’s wearing now. But whatever. Not like he’s persuadable by logic at this point.

"Well, I hadn't thought about it that way. Good point."

“Well, I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way. Good point.”

All this monologue-ing gives Mary Jane plenty of time to retrieve a loose brick and drop it on the back of Venom’s head just before he delivers the killing blow. While Venom shrieks, Spidey breaks free from the webbing and fights back, causing both to lose their footing. As they tumble through the air, they have a silly but fun mini-battle, slugging it out and launching web projectiles at each other in free-fall. Spider-Man tries valiantly but the villain largely gets the better of him here, finally restraining the hero once again. Peter eventually frees himself but doesn’t web away in time to entirely negate the impact of his fall… in a pile of sand. Ruh roh.

Soon enough the ground itself starts moving, and Sandman emerges, bigger than ever.

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At least he didn’t try climbing with MJ to the top of the Empire State Building.

Our hero avoids Marko’s lumbering swings for a while, then heads back up to rescue Mary Jane, who’s started to fall through the webbing. This leads him wide open to getting blindsided by Venon again (priorities!), and the villain pins him on a girder, then hops down and holds him in place from behind via webbing around the neck.

Sandman repeatedly brings his huge fist down on Spider-Man, slowly pounding the life out of him as the crowd (and one particularly overwrought newscaster) watches in dismay. But just before Marko rears back for the final blow, a small projectile lodges in his neck from off-screen. As the background music fades to hear its rapid beeping and the camera zooms in, we see it’s one of those damned pumpkin bombs.

Hooray! Harry showed up after all. It’s the most predictable Marvel Team-Up ever, but Raimi juices it up with the expert timing of the grenade reveal. As Sandman reels in pain from his half-exploded head, the New Goblin flies by and knocks Venom down for good measure. Raimi continues his directoral swagger by having the inspirational hero music play up as Harry rises dramatically on his glider and offers his friend a hand.

Back to back, the two get to work immediately. Harry first uses the momentum from his board to spin Spidey into a perfectly timed kick at a leaping Venom, then he turns his jets directly onto Sandman, super-heating a good chunk of him into glass.

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Sick burn

They fly up together and Peter gets dropped off to save their mutual ex-girlfriend, who had started falling down again. They have a bit of a tender/awkward moment as he drops her off higher in the same building (not down below with the police to keep her safe or anything, that would be crazy) and returns to help Osborn deal with Sandzilla, which only gets him punched and knocked down into a half-finished building.

Apparently tiring of this, the Goblin gets sufficient distance from Marko, and fires two missiles at him. Both hit their target with sufficient force to make him topple and break.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man is left alone in a half-finished building, searching for the elusive Venom. After creeping the hero out by making noise from unseen places, he soon reveals himself and smacks the hero down effortlessly, then webs him up once more.

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Maybe James Cameron’s infamous “web bondage” script wasn’t so crazy after all

Eddie draws out Peter’s execution again, and Peter tries to talk him out of it, telling him he knows all too well the rush of evil power the suit can provide. In a line that perfectly straddles ridiculous and brilliant, Eddie calmly says “I like being bad. It makes me happy.”

Before he can skewer his nemesis with a length of jagged steel, he’s disarmed by two of Harry’s pumpkin blades. The Goblin himself flies in soon after, attempting to stab Venom with the blades in his own glider. Venom dodges and uses his webbing to seize the glider for himself. As Harry falls, he knocks over a few steel bars on the way down, the clattering of which has a brief but noticeable effect on the villain.

Venom leaps over to stab the still-trapped Peter with the glider, but Harry, taking one for the team one last time, leaps into Venom’s path and takes the blades instead, dying the same way his father dead but for the exact opposite reason. Bummer.

His friend’s sacrifice gives Peter enough strength to break free. He hits Venom pretty hard, and keeps him down by using the nearby metal poles to create a constant cacophony– boy genius Peter Parker has been able to deduce that the symbiote is weak against extremely loud noises. Spider-Man wastes little time exploiting this and, in one continuous CGI shot, shoves several poles into the ground around Venom and keeps clanging them together, effectively creating a “cage” of sound. It’s nifty.

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Good thing it’s not a JOHN Cage of sound, as that would have accomplished very little

The symbiote roils in ever-escalating pain, and when it contorts itself loosely enough, Peter uses his webbing to pull Brock out of it. Meanwhile it becomes a big ugly mess, towering into an even more monstrous form. Spider-Man shrinks it back down with one more clang, and flings one of Harry’s spare pumpkin bombs into the writhing mass. Conveniently, Eddie tries to jump back in to save it, and dies in the same explosion that also destroys the suit.

Oh, and afterward, Harry dies in Mary Jane’s arms, and Marko shows up again in more human form but he and Peter just talk it out. Yawn.

This fight scene is basically Spider-Man 3 in miniature: it’s epic, overstuffed, convoluted, clever, and occasionally awesome. The setting is the very definition of generic, but it’s used well enough. You get the real sense of Spider-Man being overmatched by either of the villains separately, let alone together, thus making Harry’s arrival even more welcome– cheesy as it may be. The two friends make a good team, fighting not just alongside each other but cooperatively at a few key points.

But all the creative thinking on display contrasts pretty starkly with just how repetitive and uninspired the staging frequently is. For instance, it’s easy to lose track of how often Venom HAD his nemesis dead-to-rights only to delay giving the final blow juuuuuust long enough for some outside interference to give Spidey a break. After the third or fourth time that happens, the suspense dries out pretty quickly. Similarly, Mary Jane repeatedly finds herself nearly falling to her death– not to mention this whole setup of her as the hostage/bait to kick off the climax was done in each of the previous two films. And Harry’s sacrificial death is the least surprising thing this side of a Scooby Doo episode.

It’s flawed and ambitious, but big enough to make a fitting end to Raimi’s Spider trilogy.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Let’s get mental.

City Trek Into Darkness

City Trek Into Darkness

Oldboy

“Can fifteen years of imaginary training really be put to use?”

Honestly, the fact that the dude on the ground with a knife in his back manages to win this fight isn't even the third most shocking thing to happen in this movie.

Honestly, the fact that the dude on the ground with a knife in his back manages to win this fight isn’t even the third most shocking thing to happen in this movie.

A lot of times people tell you that a movie is “so messed up” that it will “blow your mind” and it mostly turns out to be either mindless garbage (e.g., Riki-O) or tiring “provocative” pap (e.g., pretty much every Tarantino-wannabe in the wake of Pulp Fiction). Oldboy, the original 2003 cult film out of South Korea, is one of the few films that really lives up to that moniker.

A tale about the depths of revenge and obsession, Oldboy is a thriller but not a true action movie; nevertheless, one of its most talked-about (and believe you me, there is a LOT to talk about when it comes to Oldboy) scenes is an extended fist fight around the middle. Even without hearing the hype, when you first see the movie and come across this sequence, you know instinctively you’ve witnessed the birth of a new legend, and that director Park Chan-wook has made something indelible and unique. And he did it all in a single, continuous take.

Oldboy: The Hallway Fight

The Fighters:

  • Oh Dae-su, our protagonist. A philandering, alcoholic businessman whose life took an abrupt turn when, without warning or explanation, he was kidnapped and imprisoned. For fifteen years Dae-su was locked in a hotel-like room with no contact with the outside world besides the TV, and eating the same food shoved under his door every day. Trapped for a decade and a half, Dae-su goes more than a little crazy, and hardens his body & mind into an instrument of vengeance against his tormentors. Then, with just as little warning, he’s set free. Played by Choi Min-sik.
    • Armed with: An iconic hammer. Not like a medieval war hammer or something, just a simple household tool.
  • Thugs, about a dozen or so. Employed by the man who runs the place where Dae-su was locked up. They’re mean but unpolished, and in various degrees of fighting trim.
    • Armed with: Several have simple wooden boards or tubes as crude weapons.

The Setup: After a little while on the outside, Oh Dae-su has tracked down the place where he was locked up, but the man who runs the place is not the man who ordered the imprisonment, nor does he work directly for him. Apparently this kind of thing happens enough in Korea to warrant such a dedicated third party’s existence. After some decidedly physical interrogation of the business owner, Dae-su learns everything he can from him, and holds him at knife-point as he approaches a hallway full of thugs who block his way out.

He asks the goons which of them have the same blood type as their boss, and when he gets a volunteer, tells him to take the tortured man to the hospital so he’ll live. Then, without wasting a moment, our “hero” charges into battle. Notably, he drops the knife he’d been holding.

A questionable call, tactically speaking.

A questionable call, tactically speaking.

This is significant, because, along with his helping to save the life of the man he’d just brutalized, it shows that for all his pent-up aggression looking for an outlet, Oh Dae-su isn’t looking to kill, at least not yet. He’s looking to hurt.

It’s pretty messed up.

The Fight: Dae-su’s fighting is both canny and frantically unfocused, paradoxical as that might sound. He does what he can to keep moving and changing targets, not staying in one place long enough. Still, it’s not long before he finds himself surrounded by the goons rather than having them all to one side, and he tries to correct that by seizing one around the neck as a temporary hostage, keeping the others at bay.

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He can’t keep that up for long, of course, and quickly loses control of the situation. He takes a few hits, loses his hammer, and goes down, getting repeatedly kicked & stomped by the mob. Surprising the group with his ferocity, Dae-su gets back on his feet and tackles the goon nearest to him, shoving him back into the crowd.

But numbers are numbers, and the underdog gets put down again, this time for even longer and with far more blows. When one thug stabs Dae-su square in the back with his own dropped knife, everyone seems to think it’s over, as they all back off while the intruder stays doubled over in pain for many long seconds.

Incredibly, Dae-su rises again and goes back on the offensive; this is the sort of thing that can happen when you spend fifteen years building up your Beast Mode. This time he manages to remain on the opposite side of the hallway and take his foes on in a more manageable way– largely because they seem, and not without good reason, afraid of this unpredictable wild man. The gang’s collective body language conveys a sort of “I don’t wanna be next, YOU be next!” feel, as they stay clustered at a safe distance and only close in haltingly.

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Many are still armed with wooden boards, but few can really put them to good use as Dae-su is able to avoid them (one snaps against the wall in a wild swing) or break them with his elbow like a badass. Between the protagonist’s intimidating wildness and their own exhaustion & injuries, the gang gets even sloppier, missing easy blows and even just falling to the ground of their own accord. One of them picks up Dae-su’s hammer and tries to use it, but Dae-su is quicker and puts him down with a series of punches.

The last man takes several blows to go down, but when he does, no one gets back up again. Dae-su’s the last man standing in a corridor full of wounded, tired, terrified thugs. With, incidentally, a knife still stuck in his back.

Triumphant, Dae-su retrieves his hammer and heads for the elevator. He doesn’t even react when a cut in his head finally starts gushing blood. After a few seconds, he breaks out in a deranged smile, and since we can’t see what he sees, we assume it’s just pure self-satisfaction, pride in what he’s done.

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This is not the smile of a well-adjusted man.

But the next cut reveals that it’s even creepier: the elevator has just opened to reveal another handful of glaring goons. Dae-su’s not happy because he survived a gruesome ordeal, he’s happy because it isn’t over yet.

Moments later we see the elevator open up on the ground level, and Dae-su exits amidst a cluster of slumped over enemies. Of course.

This is a rare cinematic feat where a sequence dives so hard into the mundane that it comes out the other side as Epic. This isn’t a titanic clash between a champion martial artist and a group of skilled opponents; it’s a simple brawl between hard men. The weapons are crude and ordinary. Given that it’s all in one take, there’s very little room for cinematic trickery to make the combat and the combatants seem more impressive than they are. Even the music is understated, a haunting mixture of sadness & excitement. There’s even neat little touches, like the slightly chubby, shirtless thug who takes a hammer to the thigh early on and spends the rest of the battle limping.

Oldboy’s signature fight seemingly breaks so many rules of cinematic fighting, and while rubbing your face in gritty realism it somehow makes you believe the impossible. Quite the achievement indeed.

“Apparently, it can.”

Grade: A+

Coming Attractions: FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!

Ah, the things homeschoolers miss out on.

Iron Man 2 (fight 4 of 4)

In which Iron Man teams up with his greatest ally.

Er, no.

4) Iron Man and War Machine vs Whiplash and Hammer drones

The Fighters:

  • Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, our hero. Doing a lot better than before, since he’s not dying. Played by Robert Downey Jr.
    • Armed with: The Mark VI Iron Man armor. It’s powered by a new element Tony invented (building off his father’s unfinished work), and in addition to powering his suit better it also overcomes the issue of the old arc reactor slowly giving Tony palladium poisoning even as it kept shrapnel out of his heart. (Iron Man 3 would later skunk this entire plot development with the casual revelation in the epilogue that Tony could have just had surgery to remove the shrapnel in the first place. Which… huh?) Along with the triangular chest plate that Joss Whedon hated, the Mark VI boasts a few modifications, though it’s not clear which are new.
  • War Machine, aka James “Rhodey” Rhodes. Stark’s reconciled pal and Air Force big shot. Played by Don “The Dragon” Cheadle.
    • Armed with: The same Mark II suit as before, but kitted out with tons of extra armaments courtesy of the DOD and Justin Hammer. Plus a new paint job, trading in the too-shiny silver for ominous grey.
  • Hammer drones, a couple dozen of them. Built by Vanko for Justin Hammer. There’s some slight variation amongst them depending on what function (land, sea, air) they’re built for, but they’re largely the same: arc reactor-powered, remote-controlled robots based loosely off the Iron Man designs. Outfitted mostly with automatic and missile weapons, and able to fly. They also go down very easy, whether it’s to a repulsor blast, a strong punch from the Mark VI, or a barrage of regular bullets; it’s strange because these are supposed to basically be Iron Man replacements, so they ought to be more durable. Perhaps Vanko deliberately built them to be inferior, or maybe they’re just prototypes.
  • Whiplash, aka Ivan Vanko. Stark’s new nemesis, who escaped prison and built up some new toys thanks to Hammer. Played by Mickey Rourke.
    • Armed with: A much more sophisticated version of his last getup. The improved Whiplash armor covers Vanko’s entire body much like the Iron Man suit. It’s also huge, though not quite the size of the Iron Monger. It contains a couple neat tricks like retractable plates in the feet which are good for locking down an opponent, but its main offensive capability is the two extra long energy whips housed in its forearms. There are cycling mechanisms visible in the back which make the whips extendable and constantly charged with electricity. It’s an intimidating design, but oddly lacking the iconic look of the previous incarnation, with all its fearless & bare-chested simplicity.

But, you know, this works too.

The Setup: Vanko has baited Tony into a trap at the Stark Expo in New York. After Iron Man arrives there and greets War Machine (who’d been demonstrating his new look on stage along with the drones), Vanko takes remote control of all the drones, as well as War Machine, and sends them all against Iron Man.

This launches an amazing chase sequence where Tony draws his pursuers away from the Expo and out into the streets & skies of Queens, evading fire and even managing to take out several of them. Eventually Iron Man is able to isolate himself and War Machine inside a large garden dome. Tony contains its attacks without hurting the helpless pilot inside until, in the aftermath of glorious Fight #3, Black Widow gets into Hammer’s computer systems and restores control of War Machine back to Rhodey.

The two’s reconciliation quickly devolves into macho one-upsmanship as they squabble over whose suit is the best; it’s highly amusing to watch such a silly argument play out with both characters wearing super high-tech armor. They spend so much time bitching that they don’t quite get into tactical position before the drones land and, one by one, surround the pair.

“We have them RIGHT where we want them!”

“We’re surrounded.”
“Good, that means we have them RIGHT where we want them!”

Without saying a word, the two close their face plates and go to work.

The Fight: At first, there’s actually no music– Favreau lets the endless cacophony of battle provide all the noise he needs. And what a cacophony it is: staccato bursts of automatic fire from the drones and War Machine, occasionally punctuated by repulsor blasts from Iron Man.

So much is happening at once you barely know where to look at any given time. The camera pans around smoothly to show the carnage as the two heroes unload at and dodge fire from the iron platoon surrounding them. Rhodey fires from both wrist gauntets and his shoulder cannon simultaneously, while Stark mixes in repulsor rays with punches for those that get too close.

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After the initial shot just showcasing all-purpose chaos, Favreau goes on to highlight a couple moments of particular badassery. War Machine grabs a drone that had gotten close and delivers a point-blank spray of machine gun fire that cuts it in half down the middle. Iron Man reprises a hit move from the first movie when he leans back casually to dodge an incoming missile (in a subtle detail, we hear a beeping sound from his HUD to indicate the computer has detected a lock), then returns fire in the form of small missiles from a hidden compartment on his wrist, which take down three drones at once; it’s so neat Tony even happily calls it out, and his friend compliments it.

It’s about 45 seconds of perfectly exhilarating CGI chaos– intense, glorious, undiluted. And it doesn’t outstay its welcome, either: when Stark realizes that there’s just too many bad guys to deal with, he orders his friend to duck and then activates two extremely powerful laser beams, which cut down all remaining drones as he pivots in a circle.

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Tony responds to Rhodey’s quite reasonable suggestion that he should lead with such an attack next time by pointing out that the beams are a one-time thing; they burn for a few seconds and then they’re done. Which is too bad, because what they initially think is just the last drone coming in is actually Vanko himself, big as life and twice as ugly.

After some talk, Rhodes launches what he assumes will be his secret weapon, the “Ex-Wife,” but it fails terribly, bouncing harmlessly off Whiplash’s armor and falling to the ground with a pathetic little fart noise. It doesn’t really make sense (would Vanko really know it wouldn’t work? Shouldn’t Rhodey have gotten farther away if HE thought it was going to work? etc) but it’s a fun excuse for just one more joke at Hammer’s expense.

Tony fires his own opening salvo– in another callback to the first film, it’s all those little smart dart-rockets he used against the terrorist hostage-takers in his Mark III debut) at Vanko’s exposed face, but his helmet comes back instantly and deflects them. Now it’s Ivan’s turn.

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From then on, it’s really mostly Ivan’s fight. The new Whiplash armor provides a seemingly perfect mix of durability, speed, and offensive capability. War Machine’s more conventional weapons can’t put too much of a dent in Vanko before he’s able to evade or fight back, and Iron Man’s quick maneuvers are canceled out by the long reach of those unpredictable whips. In what turns out to be a fairly brief struggle, both heroes are repeatedly knocked around, seized by the whips and slammed to the ground. Poor Rhodey even gets his shoulder cannon cut right off.

Stark gives Vanko the best run for his money when he comes in hard with a flying punch as Vanko is distracted by beating up on Rhodes, but a few blows later Ivan comes back even harder with a headbutt. Soon, Whiplash lassos a hero in each whip, holding them on opposite sides of him. It seems pretty bad at first, but at Tony’s suggestion, the two re-visit the idea of “crossing the streams”– having their two repulsor blasts meet in mid-air and creating an enormous energy feedback, this time with Whiplash in the middle.

Whaddya know, it works.

Whaddya know, it works.

The irony is, at that point the heroes didn’t necessarily have to resort to such a crazy tactic, because the very nature of Ivan’s double-hold meant that he left himself wide open to any attack. They were free to shoot at him in more direct ways as well.

After the smoke clears, a dying Vanko reprises his words from the race track, telling Stark “you lose.” Pulling a Metroid, Vanko starts the timer on bombs built into his suit as well as those of all the fallen drones, hoping for a Pyrrhic victory. Unfortunately for the villain, it would have been, in the words of comedian Doug Benson, more accurate for him to say “you lose… unless you happen to be wearing a suit of armor that flies really fast,” because the bombs have a long enough fuse for Stark & Rhodes to not just fly out of the blast zone but also for one of them to swing by and get Pepper to safety. Whoops.

For all Iron Man 2’s faults, where it really improves on the original is in its climax. The first film ended on a sort of limp note as it had the hero hobbled from the beginning and only barely limping to the finish line. The sequel, on the other hand, is a three-part roller coaster ride that starts with an extended chase scene, segues quickly into the chaotic destruction of the drones, and ends with not one but two fully-powered heroes up against a seemingly implacable boss.

The final fight is, unfortunately, a little too one-sided, but this is balanced out somewhat by just how one-sided (in the other direction) the showdown with the drones was. Also, while “believability” is a relative term when it comes to things like this, Whiplash’s dominance comes not from objective superiority but from a mix of quick-thinking tactics, technology, and surprise– exactly the kind of thing that would let you prevail in such an encounter. Just as in a real-life fight, you don’t win by gradually wearing down the other guy’s “hit points” or some such, it’s all a matter of acting decisively and applying just the right amount of pressure at the right place & time.

Well done.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Stop.

Hammer Time.

Iron Man 2 (fight 3 of 4)

Redheads. Am I right, fellas?

Yes, unfortunately.

Yes, unfortunately.

3) Black Widow Cuts Loose

The Fighters:

  • Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff. A former Russian spy & assassin who’s become one of SHIELD’s greatest assets. Supremely skilled at infiltration, interrogation and various forms of combat, Natasha is the ideal agent. The comics have all sorts of wild stuff about how she got her abilities but so far the movies have wisely avoided that. But one element is that she’s a former ballet dancer, which definitely shows up in her gracefulness here. The Widow has gone undercover in Tony’s organization as “Natalie Rushman” in order to… it’s not really clear. Monitor him for SHIELD and help out just in case any supervillains show up, I think? Anyway, it’s fortunate she’s around for this. Played with understated gusto by Scarlett Johansson.
    • Armed with: Like, half a James Bond movie’s worth of little toys and weapons, all secreted in her various belt and wrist pouches. A pity the Avengers movie eschewed most of these in favor of simple if effective guns.
  • Security guards, about six or seven of them, working at the offices of Justin Hammer, Tony Stark’s corporate rival. Played by stunt men.
  • Also present is Happy Hogan, Tony’s loyal bodyguard, but he’s sort of a humorous non-factor here. Played by director Jon Favreau, who’s so money, baby.

The Setup: Hammer has secretly been conspiring with Ivan Vanko, our friend from Fight #1, to utilize arc reactor technology to make his own set of weaponized Iron Man-style drones. When said drones, along with a manually overriden War Machine, run amok at the Stark Expo, Romanoff and Hogan drive off to the Hammer building to investigate. On the way over, Natasha changes in the backseat into her special ass-kicking outfit.

When they arrive, Happy insists on coming in to “help.” Tee hee.

The Fight: It is so cool, you guys.

The first guard accosts them and Hogan immediately engages him in a fistfight. Black Widow just keeps right on moving, and when a second guard approaches, she nonchalantly slides right past him and, still moving, turns around and tosses two little discs towards the guard which paralyze him with a slight electrical charge.

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This pretty much sets the tone for the entire sequence. Johansson’s Romanoff is graceful, smoothly unpredictable, and frighteningly competent. She’s not always moving forward but she definitely never stops moving— she slides, jumps, runs, dodges, ducks, dips, dives, and all the rest with purposeful swagger. Every move and decision just flows seamlessly into the next. It’s glorious to watch.

The other little technological tricks Natasha employs are two small gas pellets she throws around the corner to stun another pair of guns so she can lay them out, and later she hooks one guard’s neck with an extendable cord (not a wire, those are for killing) to hold him in place while she takes down his buddy.

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But occasion permitting she often goes the physical-0nly route, as well. She rides a push-cart and jumps off it to double-kick one guard in the chest. She slides (again!) in-between another foe’s legs and attacks them as she does so, then jumps off his double-over body to land on the shoulders of another.

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The best is the penultimate takedown, when she tackles a guard and does this crazy thing where she spins all over his body while he’s still standing, raining blows on him the whole time. Then as she strides calmly away she uses his chemical spray to do a no-look neutralization of the last straggler just as he tries to sneak up on her.

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This is all over in a minute or so, and the action keeps cutting back to the progress of Happy’s brawl with the very first guy. It takes some doing, but Hogan finally knocks him out with a strong uppercut, and jubilantly looks up with “I got him!” only to find this:

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Between the red hair and this, are we sure she’s actually Russian and not Irish?

It’s a gag that works all the more effectively because the movie treats Happy’s artless tumble with just one guy with the same gravitas as it does a super ninja-spy methodically destroying half a platoon; whenever the camera cut back to Hogan, there weren’t any overtly comedic signifiers like a change in music or something. You get caught up in all of it equally and, like Happy, don’t realize how much she accomplished while he was toiling away. Very clever.

This scene does cheat a little. On close examination (ever the bane of the summer blockbuster), a good number of Widow’s attacks really should not have incapacitated her targets. There are times we merely see her punch someone’s leg, shoulder or what-have-you, and then boom, the guy’s down for the count. Doesn’t matter how hard she’s hitting, unless she’s packing knockout darts or doing some kind of crazy nerve strikes (neither of which is visually apparent or brought up in the dialogue at some point in the film), they simply shouldn’t be getting knocked out.

However, no amount of rewinding and freeze-framing can get around the fact that this is ridiculously fun. Again, it’s brief, but the scene just glides with the same effortless charm as the Widow herself does, possessed of a too-cool-for-school cockiness that’s just on the right side of the endearing/pandering balance. In a movie that’s about high-tech armored superheroes blasting and whipping each other, a quick sequence starring a 5’3 jumpsuited girl in a running around in a hallway comes perilously close to being the best fight of the bunch.

The scene’s not perfect but it’s breezily, joyfully confident, and just like all those sleazy pick-up artists book tell you: confidence goes a long way.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Take down Iron Man?? Ha, you and what Army?

… oh.

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.