Ong Bak (retrospective, part 1)

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

Though I question your prayer priorities.

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

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

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

“You’re damn right I’m likeable.”

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

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

1) Alley Scramble

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

"Me and THIS army!:

“Me and THIS army!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

You just got Van-Damme'd!

You just got Van-Damme’d!

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

2) Ting Takes On All, part 1

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

Control yourselves, ladies.

Control yourselves, ladies.

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

The Fight: Very nearly a curb stomp.

And definitely a face stomp.

And definitely a face stomp.

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

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

3) Ting Takes On All, part 2

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

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Even if he does have hair like Naruto.

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

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

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

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

jaa6

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

4) Ting Takes On All, part 3

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

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

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

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

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

IT'S A TRAP

IT’S A TRAP

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

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

jaa10

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

jaa11

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

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

"THIS IS VERY PRACTICAL"

“THIS IS A VERY PRACTICAL WAY TO FIGHT”

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

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

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

jaa13

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

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

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

Grade: A

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

This. This is happening.

This. This is happening.

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Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 4 of 5)

Sometimes the toughest guys are the ones you least expect.

For instance.

4) Fronsac vs Gypsies

The Fighters:

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

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

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

fron2

“Be vewy, vewy quiet….”

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

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

fron3

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

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

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

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

So much for the deposit.

So much for the deposit.

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

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Le crunch.

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

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

This is cathartic for him.

This is cathartic for him.

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

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

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

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

He looks a lot like Will Ferrell there.

He looks a lot like Will Ferrell there.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: BOSS FIGHT!

"Je te VEUX!"

“Je te VEUX!”

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 3 of 5)

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

“Venez à moi, mon frere!”

3) Team Fronsac vs the Beast and the Brotherhood

The Fighters:

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

The real wolves of Gevaudan also make an appearance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THUNK

THUNK

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

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

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Should have brought Scott Wolf as backup

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

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

“He was only two days from retirement!”

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Gregoire lets his hair down.

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“They see me lurkin, they hatin….”

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 2 of 5)

A little fun never hurt anyone.

Mani does, though.

But a little Mani always does.

2) Mani vs Gypsies

The Fighters:

  • Mani, everyone’s favorite kung fu Iroquois. He’s now let his hair down in every sense of the word. Played by Mark Dacascos.
    • Armed with: Nothing.
  • Several gypsies, including two women. They’re ostensibly here as part of the hunting party that’s being assembled to catch the Beast, but they’re actually working for the film’s villainous cult. The males are especially weird, with all sorts of feathers & braids in their hair, and they stick out their tongues a lot like a dime store Kurgan. It’s pretty silly. Played by a bunch of stunt people and bit actors.
    • Armed with: Most of the guys have these weird hook/claw attachments on their hands, but they don’t break them out until near the end.

The Setup: As our heroes prep for the big hunting party, Mani has another encounter with the strange lady he saved earlier. She starts getting harassed by a couple of the gypsy dudes, whom she seems to know, but her attitude about it changes from aggravated to aroused (?) when she catches Mani watching. The action cuts away from the meeting, but when we come back, Mani is brawling with the two knuckleheads who’d been pawing at her, while she cheers it on with the crowd.

This girl is one of Brotherhood of the Wolf’s more maddening aspects. She is never named in the film (the credits apparently list her as La Bavarde, which Babelfish says is French for “the talker”) and she barely speaks, yet she instigates a number of important events and the camera seems to treat her like an important character. It’s never really established what her “deal” is; her father seems to be a pretty nice guy who’s just caught up working with the villains, but she’s more or less full-out bad. Mani is inexplicably (and, eventually, fatally) intrigued by her, again for reasons that are never clear. She also seems to despise Mani despite him saving her & her dad, and she has this weird love/hate relationship with the male gypsies. Oh, and she has some form of epilepsy that only manifests once in the movie. You’d think that her character had a bigger role in some scenes that were cut, but if those scenes exist they’ve never made their way to a home release I’ve ever seen or heard of. As it is, La Bavarde just hangs around irritatingly on the story’s periphery, acting nasty and starting trouble like the 18th-century version of a Jersey Shore cast member.

The Fight: Mani first faces the pair of gypsies who’d been messing with La Snooki, and though he clearly outclasses them he actually takes his time to beat them up, using more elaborate & showy movements, and even returning their physical taunts.

Real mature.

Real mature.

He’s treating this like it’s a game, which is basically what it is. The crowd that gathers is rowdy but not really bloodthirsty, and even Mani’s friend Fronsac doesn’t try to stop it, though that’s mainly because he knows Mani is in no danger. The gypsies may increasingly feel their pride is at stake, but for everyone else this is totally schoolyard.

Mani finally takes the two chumps out of commission, and is almost immediately greeted by two new challengers– a couple of not-so-lovely ladies wearing men’s clothing. They stride toward him in faux-seductive slow motion, clearly relishing the challenge. Mani seems perplexed at this development, and trades a priceless glance with a visibly amused Fronsac.

Betcha didn't know Kathy Griffin was in this movie

Betcha didn’t know Kathy Griffin was in this movie

The not-so-ladylike ladies come off a bit better than their male counterparts and are nearly as agile as Mani, but still can’t measure up. After some cool, almost dance-like fighting, he knocks them silly and is greeted with four more male gypsies, this time with their claws out.

The music immediately switches up from playful to a bit more serious, but Mani is unfazed, dodging & smacking down just as before. He takes out the final two with a nifty flip move that puts them down hard. Mani stands around cockily enjoying himself, but doesn’t seem to see a fifth gypsy (presumably one of the original fight starters, but it’s hard to tell these guys apart) try to rush up and claw him in the back. But that gets the kibosh put in it by the mysterious Jean-Francois, who shoots the gypsy right through his claw hand. It’s all fun & games until somebody gets shot while attempting a dishonorable murder, so the fight ends after that and the crowd dissipates.

This is, once again, quite entertaining. It escalates the level & complexity of combat in the film and indulges in some fun silliness (as opposed to the previous fight in the rain, which was also silly but in a very melodramatic, po-faced sort of way). Although its primary cinematic purpose is to inject a bit more action into a scene that otherwise didn’t require any– there hadn’t been a fight in a little while and won’t be another for quite a bit more– this sequence also serves a clever secondary role of memorably introducing the gypsies, who serve as the villains’ henchmen. Two birds, one stone.

So a nice bit of action filler and some more groundwork is laid for what’s in store. Not too shabby.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: That freaking Bavarde ruins EVERYTHING.

"I am, how you say, le bitch."

“I am, how you say, le bitch.”

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 1 of 5)

Only the strong(est) will win.

mani1

Not gonna be that guy.

Brotherhood of the Wolf is an odd bird, and quite definitely by design. It’s a French-language period drama action horror story about how a naturalist knight, his mystical karate Indian pal, and an Italian prostitute/Vatican assassin unravel a conspiracy involving a zealous cult’s use of an armored monster to spread anti-Enlightenment propaganda. It is, of course, based on a true story. It’s completely ridiculous and totally awesome. I wish there were more like it.

1) Mani vs Cross-Dressing Soldiers

The Fighters:

  • Mani, an Iroquois warrior/shaman who’s left America to become the companion of the film’s main protagonist. Mani is friendly but taciturn, very spiritual, and an all-around good guy. His tragic backstory involves the white devil killing his tribe, before he linked up with the honorable Gregoire de Fronsac. He’s also the master of what looks a lot like Chinese wushu, which would have been tough for him to pick up in 18th-century America. It’s never discussed, so the implication may be that kung fu is indeed yet another one of the magic foreign powers that American Indians know (the movie really does have that level of willful silliness) or, as later revelations in the story might allow for, that he actually learned it from Fronsac (who presumably picked it up on his many travels). Played by Mark Dacascos, who never got to be as big a star as he should have. It’s funny that Dacascos should play a Native American, since that’s one of the few ethnicities that’s not somewhere in his rich genetic gumbo. Dude’s like the Tiger Woods of violence.
  • French soldiers, about six of them. They’re all dressed up and nowhere to go like peasant ladies because, as we will later find out, the beast tends to attack females and the local magistrate is trying to draw it into a trap. Anyway, they’re tough & mean, but nobody short of Jet Li is a match for this karate Indian. Played by stunt men, presumably.

Everybody has wooden quarterstaffs. Well, Mani doesn’t at first, but he fixes that right quick.

The Setup: The king has sent his royal taxidermist to the province of Gevaudan to investigate a series of killings attributed to a mysterious “beast” stalking the countryside– the first thing we see, actually, in full-on horror movie style, is a poor woman get devoured by the elusive creature.

It’s a dark and stormy afternoon, with precipitation that Forrest Gump would describe as “big ol’ fat rain,” as our heroes arrive in town. They immediately come across the nasty sight of a bunch of thugs beating up not just a nice old man but also a young pretty girl, which is a twofer in the realm of “excuses to show how tough the hero is” cliches. The conflict is, we will learn afterward, about the soldiers’ refusal to pay the old man for medicinal services rendered to their horses (the girl, his daughter, has probably also instigated it to some extent, considering how much of a troublemaker we later learn she is).

Though the soldiers demand to know who these two strangers are, neither answers. Mani dismounts and casually strides into the group like a boss.

The Fight: It’s pretty clear that Mani means business, so the soldiers waste no time surrounding him. One charges in tentatively and gets rewarded with a kick to the gut, and Mani stealing his weapon.

mani2

“Now I have a quarterstaff. Ho, ho, ho.”

And from there on, it’s Mani’s world, and these skirted chumps just live in it. Nobody even comes close to grazing the Iroquois as he dispatches them all with ease. Since what they’re doing is not too complex, for the most part Dacascos doesn’t even have to show off some of his fancier kung fu– he just moves fast & hits hard. They also mostly try to rush in one at a time, but everything happens so fast, and Mani’s so unpredictably graceful, that you can’t blame them for not thinking to all rush in simultaneously.

As we’ve discussed again & again here, it’s the opening fight scene’s job to introduce what kind of movie we’re going to be watching, and BOTW definitely lives up to its end of the bargain there. In addition to the choreography by Phillip Kwok, director Christophe Gans announces his aesthetic intentions early on. The staging is melodramatic & hyper-stylized: the action speeds up & down to emphasizes hits & motion, blows are accompanied by loud crunches on the soundtrack, and even the raindrops splash out in glorious slow-mo. This film is one of the many to clearly live in the shadow of post-Matrix kung fu films, but still recognizably have its own style.

Anyway, Mani makes quick work of these chumps with several elegant hits. The last is the most notable, when he plants his staff and launches himself into the air for sweet double-kick.

mani3

“Zeut alors!”

After that, even the ones who aren’t too beat up to fight decide it’s time to give up on this one. The dispute is “settled” and the heroes have made some new enemies, although it’s the people they saved who they should be worried about.

(Notably, there’s a deleted sequence here where after Mani puts the hurt on a few of these guys, Fronsac also dismounts and kicks some more ass. It’s pretty cool, but Gans made the right choice in keeping his main hero’s martial arts abilities as a surprise for later.)

This is a lot of fun, and it sets the baseline for what we’ll be seeing throughout: Mani is not to be trifled with, and Gans came here to play.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Someone trifles with Mani.

mani4

Gevaudan is French for “slow learner.”

Ninja Scroll (devil 4 of 5)

Creeper ninja is creepy.

“Who, me?”

4) Shijima

(voiced by Akimasa Omori)

Shijima is arguably the most ninja-like of all the film’s many ninjas: he employs stealth, deception and diversion over outright combat. Also, whereas most of the other devils only have one real “big” power or gimmick (Zakuro stuffs corpses with explosives, Tessai can turn to rock, etc) Shijima has four: he can create illusory copies of himself, he can control people’s minds, he has a sweet chain-claw, and he can fade into & transport himself via darkened areas– allowing him to quite literally strike from the shadows. Though he pops up more than many of the movie’s other villains, he has a such diverse skill set and is interesting enough he could have stood to play a much bigger part.

Armed with: The Claw!

No, not this one.

Not quite….

There you go.

It’s a huge, sharp claw on one hand that he can fire off on a chain at will. And, as I suppose is standard issue for ninjas, a supply of small darts.

The Fights: Shijima has one very brief encounter early in the film, where he attempts to kill Dakuan as the monk is separated from Jubei on a trek through foggy darkness. Through a clever trick, Dakuan just barely managed to avoid the villain’s claw bursting out of the shadows. Not much to it, but a nice way to establish the character early on and tease at his potential.

The second time our protagonists encounter Shijima, they’re all standing in a clearing as they suss out the villains’ overall plot and figure out what to do. Shijima makes his presence known with several furtive movements at their peripheral vision, then goes all-out by surrounding the trio with dozens of his illusion copies.

He throws a few darts at Kagero (which she dodges) to attempt to keep her from sending off her carrier pigeon message for help, and that move turns out to be what Jubei needed to determine which Shijima is the real one. The hero lunges in and cuts the devil’s leg right off. Taking it like a champ, Shijima hops away wordlessly with Jubei in pursuit.

While Jubei hunts down what turns out to be a fake trail, Shijima uses the shadows to double back and kidnap Kagero– it’s implied he got the drop on her because she was stunned after Dakuan dropped some particularly shocking news on her. When the two men return, they find that Shijima has carved a note into a nearby tree telling them to come and get her, if they dare. Dakuan figures it for a trap (duh) but Jubei heads in regardless.

Shijima had, it turns out, taken the unconscious Kagero to an abandoned temple nearby. Between the dilapidated condition of the building and the setting sun, the place makes both a cool backdrop for a fight as well as a tactically advantageous (i.e., shadow-filled) ground for Shijima. Before Jubei arrives, the creepy little devil does something quite lascivious to Kagero, which is implied to be what allows him to mind-control her. So when our hero shows up and finds Kagero, she awakes with a glassy-eyed stare and immediately attacks him.

Kagero was never a match for Jubei, really, but his efforts at defending himself are hindered by the escalating effects of the poison he’s infected with (long story) as well as Shijima hassling him from the sidelines. But mostly Shijima’s contribution here is to use his claw to grab Jubei’s sword, attempting to drag it with him into the shadows. Jubei has to wrestle for control over it, which causes him to get stabbed in the hand by Kagero.

Jubei decides to let him have it, releasing the sword so that it stabs Shijima as it comes in. The creeper slowly tumbles out of the darkness, dead. Jubei passes out and Kagero comes to her senses.

Shijima’s a lot of fun, so it’s a shame that after two really promising build-ups he had so little participation in his own final battle; pitting the two heroes against each other is an interesting twist, but it’s too brief and Shijima’s own presence in that fight is minimal. However, as a whole he’s a welcome and dynamic addition to this movie’s crazy little world. Thanks, Shijima.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Boss fight!

GEMMA SMASH

The Rundown (fight 4 of 4)

In which the Rock finally exercises his Second Amendment rights.

They still apply overseas, because AMERICA.

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

4) Beck vs All the Bad Guys

The Fighters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: I have a good feeling about this.