One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 6 of 6)

Rematch time.

Luffy looks ready.

Luffy looks ready.

6) Luffy vs Crocodile, final round

The Fighters:

  • Monkey D. Luffy, same as before. The daring hero with the rubber body. Voiced by Mayumi Tanaka.
  • Sir Crocodile aka Mr. 0, same as before. The sadistic villain with the power of the desert. Voiced by Ryuzaburo Otomo.

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Both are more tired and beaten down than before– Luffy more so, but even Crocodile noted that their previous battle took a lot out of him.

The Setup: After drying him out at the end of their fight, Crocodile unceremoniously dropped Luffy from the roof of the palace, then left the scene himself. Either from extreme luck or very good planning, the four water bubbles Luffy had fired straight up at Crocodile earlier come right back down and land on him, giving him an emergency re-hydration. Good as new!

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Well, more or less.

Once again unaware that his adversary has survived, Crocodile goes to join Miss All Sunday and King Cobra at the underground tomb. Thanks to some directions from Marines who have entered the conflict, Luffy’s able to pursue. He ends up collapsing at the entrance to the tomb and taking a short nap. Can’t blame him.

Back underground, Crocodile discovers that the ancient inscription he’s uncovered doesn’t have the information he wants, so he stabs Nico Robin with his hook, deciding she’s outlived her usefulness. The king then hits a fail-safe device that will collapse the entire tomb in a few minutes, hoping to take the two villains down with him, but Crocodile just laughs it off, as he could easily survive with his powers. He gloats it up, reveling in the fact that with the collapse of the tomb and the imminent detonation of the bomb up above, his plan to overtake Alabasta is finally about to come to fruition. Then right on cue, someone breaks through the wall.

No points for guessing who.

No points for guessing who.

Irritated beyond all belief, Croc asks Luffy how many times he has to die. Luffy simply responds by saying that Crocodile hasn’t given back what he stole: Vivi’s country. The villain laughs and says he hasn’t taken it quite yet, but Luffy, with a strangely child-like determination, says that if the country were really still Vivi’s, then she would be able to smile.

This is the thing about Luffy: most genre heroes would take down Crocodile just on general principle, but the thing this one focuses on is how his friend is hurt.

The Fight: Again, Luffy charges in without thinking, and Crocodile laughingly asks how he’s going to strike him without any liquid. Luffy answers non-verbally.

Ah. That'll do it.

Wet enough for ya?

Luffy’s kick and follow-up punch both connect, hard, and send their target through the wall. As Crocodile correctly surmises, Luffy is bleeding enough (as Crocodile soon will be) that the moisture from his blood is enough to negate the villain’s sand powers.

It’s difficult to believe, especially considering how much liquid was constantly at play in the last fight, but it’s essentially a thin excuse for the real reason much of the super-science has gone out the window: the battle is taking place on a much more primal level now. It’s less a battle of wild powers and more character-based, with two people just trying desperately to kill each other.

Accordingly, Crocodile announces that he will finally take Luffy seriously, and removes the outer covering from his hook, revealing a much smaller, grey hook with noxious fumes emerging from a few holes. He says that since duels between pirates are to the death, there’s no such thing as “fair.” In the next few exchanges, he manages to barely nick two of Luffy’s limbs with the curved blade– enough for the poison (derived from scorpion venom) to start its work.

Hey, I didn't say ALL of the crazy powers stuff was over

Hey, I didn’t say ALL of the crazy powers stuff was over

The two continue to fight (largely off & on, as the bulk of a few episodes here is devoted to the other Straw Hats finding the hidden bomb), with Luffy getting a few good licks in. But Crocodile merely laughs, and says that no matter how hard Luffy fights, he can’t defeat the poison that’s already coursing through his veins. Sure enough, Luffy soon starts to feel numb and collapses.

Up above, the bomb plot is finally resolved– it’s discovered but can’t be disarmed, so the guardsman Pell apparently sacrifices himself to take the bomb in his falcon form and let it detonate safely above the city. (The whole point seems kind of moot, considering explosions are like an inconvenience at worst in this show’s world.) But Crocodile, who only hears the explosion, doesn’t know this, and cackles with glee at how his “new era” has begun.

Incredibly, Luffy begins to twitch at this news, and rises to his feet again, vowing that he won’t give up as long as Vivi doesn’t. He tells the incredulous Crocodile “you cannot defeat me,” and declares his goal to become the next Pirate King. This only aggravates Crocodile more, who lunges at Luffy with his hook & tells him his dreams are foolish, that he will one day learn they are virtually impossible given the sheer scale of the sea– its vastness, complexity, and how filled it is with powerful warriors. (It is not stated at this point, but we find out later– MUCH later– that becoming the Pirate King was once Crocodile’s dream as well, and giving up on it was part of what made him so cold and cynical, hence his violent reaction to hearing it from someone else.)

Luffy continues to not give a shit.

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Pictured: Luffy, giving zero shits

He avoids Crocodile’s swipe and slams the hook attachment onto the ground with his foot, snapping the actual hook right off and declaring that he WILL surpass him. Screaming maniacally, he deliver a point blank Pistol shot to the villain’s gut. As the Croc is still reeling, Luffy brings a fist down on the side of his face, driving him into the ground. Then he seizes him by the collar and throws him into a wall. It’s relentless.

Crocodile rises shakily, looking more battered than ever. He wonders to himself why this man hasn’t fallen to the scorpion poison yet, and flashes back briefly to all the times he was informed of Luffy and his crew surmounting the seemingly impossible obstacles Baroque Works set before them. He flicks his wrist and a small knife blade emerges from his fake hand, then he rushes Luffy, asking if he truly understands who he– Crocodile, a member of the mighty Shichibukai– is.

Luffy says he doesn’t care who Crocodile is, because Luffy will surpass him. He ducks the villain’s stab, and kicks him upwards, almost to the ceiling of the catacomb. Crocodile is able to use his power to halt himself in mid-air, and resolves to take Luffy out if he has to bring down the entire temple with him. He launches another “Heavy Sands” attack, a localized whirlwind which Luffy avoids even as it trashes the surrounding area.

The hero rapidly sucks up a ton of air, swelling his rubber body to huge proportions, twists himself into a corkscrew and then discharges all the air at once, propelling him rapidly upwards. Crocodile tries to counter with an impressive attack called Desert La Spada (“Great Desert Sword”), where he extends his sandy body into four enormous, scythe-like blades. Luffy dramatically meets it with a new move, the Gomu Gomu Storm.

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Now, for a while before this, the soundtrack had been silent, only punctuated by the sounds of dialogue and blows. But as soon as Luffy started rising in the air, the opening chords of a famous piece of music begin. Classical music fans will recognize it as the fourth movement of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, a beautiful and hugely influential 19th century composition. This is something unusual for the shounen genre: most sequences are scored with in-house music that gets recycled a lot throughout a series, with outside tunes being deployed very sparingly if at all and those usually being pop songs.

But as shocking as this selection is, it couldn’t be more appropriate in the context. Right as the opening breaks into a crescendo, Luffy’s fists connect with Crocodile’s blades and hit them with such force that they collapse right back into sand. In a bravura piece of animated directing, the “camera” tracks Luffy’s hand in a time-slowed shot after it pops through the last scythe and follows it all the way up through the sand stream until it connects with Crocodile’s ugly mug. But not for the last time.

Luffy’s new attack uses all the propulsion from his corkscrewed leap and channels it into a blurred storm of ferocious punches. It’s so intense that Crocodile is unable to defend himself, getting pounded into and eventually through the ceiling. As the astonished King Cobra remarks, this shouldn’t be possible– there’s dozens of yards of pure bedrock above the burial chamber. But Luffy keeps it up until the villain breaks all the way through to the surface and up into the sky.

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Only then does Luffy pull his arm back, letting the unconscious villain to crash down right in the middle of the civil war raging on the streets. From up high in the clocktower where the bomb had been hidden, Vivi has a clear view, and sees that her captain has done the impossible. The rest of the crew, down below, merely see Crocodile’s body fall, but know that only Luffy could have pulled it off.

The war rages on, but within minutes, rain begins to fall– the same life-giving rain that Crocodile’s powers had secretly been preventing from falling on the capital, which is how he began to engineer Alabasta’s ruin. The return of the miraculous rain makes both sides stop fighting in astonishment, and quickly smothers the dust clouds that had been obscuring everyone’s sight. In the shocked silence, Vivi is able to call out to her people to lay down their arms, and let them know they’ve been played against each other: she can finally be heard again.

Down below, Cobra smiles for the first time in years, his long nightmare over. With simple humility, he gives this stranger his gratitude for saving his kingdom. The hero’s exhausted reply:

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The fight itself is exceptionally well done, deploying each player’s particular powers in a reasonably believable context. It’s paced excellently, with a solid start, then being shown only fleetingly over a period of time mostly devoted to the above-ground storyline, then it all comes back for an extended finish. Luffy emerges as an even more powerful figure than ever, but at no time is his adversary’s threat level diminished as a result. The animation gradually steps up in quality as the end nears until we hit the final stretch and the moves are deliberately less fluid, coming off more stately & exaggerated.

Taken as a whole, this battle and its conclusion are an amazing, singular accomplishment. Dozens of episodes of build-up are successfully & skillfully paid off in an extended, multi-part climax, which itself culminates in a powerfully triumphant moment of catharsis. This is one of those pieces of art so impacting that I’ll never forget where I was when I first saw it, and even now it never fails to inspire me with its sheer, gorgeous audacity.

Much of this is owed to the genius selection of Dvorak’s music. By the time the two combatants lock in to their final positions, the audience certainly has a sense the fight is going to end soon enough, but when those first chords of the symphony chime in, there’s no doubt: Luffy’s going to finish things right now, and finally stop this monster who has taken so much from so many. (Not only was the symphony well chosen for its triumphant sound, but its alternate title, “From The New World,” is a subtle hint about things to come. As the show winds on, it is gradually revealed that with the emergence of the Straw Hats, a New Age is beginning, defined by dreamers like Luffy. Some of the characters believe that the new era begins here, when Luffy defeats a Shichibukai and therefore alters the balance of power between the organizations who rule the seas.)

There is a lot that’s silly about shounen anime shows, and much that is especially silly about One Piece in particular. But this moment, here, the one that had me whooping with joy in a cramped trailer in Iraq, is the kind of payoff you receive if you’re willing to put aside your cynicism and go along for the ride. If you let the spell take you, the rewards are worth it.

GOOD GUYS: 5, BAD GUYS: 0

Grade: A+

Coming Attractions: Devil Fruit powers are nice and all, but ultimately it’s all in the reflexes.

Probably shouldn't come along on any ride this guy offers you

Probably shouldn’t go along with any spell this guy tries to put you under

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One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 5 of 6)

The boss is back!

You guys can all take five.

You guys can all take five.

5) Luffy vs Crocodile

The Fighters:

  • Monkey D. Luffy, captain of the Straw Hats and hero of the series. An ambitious young dreamer whose goal is to one day become the next Pirate King, the undisputed champion of the entire sea. Luffy’s dream is seemingly impossible given its daunting scope, but his relentless optimism, deeply good nature and knack for picking up the right companions have served him well so far. Luffy is incredibly simple-minded (bordering on and even crossing into Stupid at times), the very definition of a guy who sees the quickest path to everything as a straight line. While he lets nothing stand in the way of his dream, Luffy is also fiercely loyal to his friends & crew, ready to die for them if need be. Voiced by Mayumi Tanaka.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Luffy’s powers are derived from a Devil’s Fruit that gives his body the qualities of rubber, so he can stretch any part of his body at will. Combined with his strength & training, Luffy is not only surprisingly resilient (it’s pretty hard to hurt rubber), but also capable of delivering powerful attacks by utilizing the velocity of his stretchable limbs, striking with the force of a human-sized rubber band. Most of Luffy’s special attacks are named after firearms (Pistol, Bazooka, Shotgun, etc) despite largely being variations on simple punches, always prefaced by “Gomu Gomu,” the Japanese word for “rubber.” Not the most original superpower (it’s reminiscent of Mr. Fantastic, Plastic Man etc), but narratively speaking it’s an ingenious ability for the main character of such an epic story to have, simple in concept yet remarkably open-ended in terms of conceptual opportunities.
  • Sir Crocodile, the head of Baroque Works (Mr. 0) and arch-villain of this entire storyline. Incredibly tall and always wearing a fancy fur coat. Utterly amoral and sociopathic, Crocodile has no sense of honor, respect, or sympathy. He is one of the Shichibukai (roughly “Seven Warlords of the Sea”), particularly dangerous pirates whom the World Government of One Piece has pardoned for their past crimes in exchange for them enlisting as privateers– they’re not exactly government employees, but loose allies who basically agree to only attack other pirates rather than civilians, and share a portion of their plunder with the authorities. Naturally, Crocodile has been running Baroque Works in secret. Voiced by Ryuzaburo Otomo.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Crocodile’s Devil Fruit power gives him the ability to turn into sand at will, which makes him frustratingly hard to hurt, since he can dissolve part or all of his body into sand and re-materialize whenever he needs. Additionally, Crocodile has the power to manipulate & control sand, and, via contact of his uncovered right hand, he can unleash an invisible force of absolute dryness, sucking all the moisture away. Also, his left hand has been replaced by a large prosthetic hook, which has a few surprises of its own.

  

The Setup: Crocodile’s been playing a long game, spending several years patiently working to undermine the stability of Arabasta so that he can emerge from the rubble and claim the nation for himself. In the meantime, he’s been living in the kingdom and playing the part of a popular hero.

Vivi and the Straw Hats have set out to undo his Croc’s plans, but it may be too late, especially now that the rebel army the villain encouraged has entered the city, and Crocodile himself has captured both Vivi and her father, the noble King Cobra, atop the palace. (Also present is Nico Robin, aka Miss All-Sunday, Crocodile’s partner.)

Mr. 0 believes Luffy is dead, having easily defeated him several episodes previously– it wasn’t even a fight, since none of Luffy’s attacks could harm his sandy form– and left him to die in a pit of quicksand. However, thanks to some timely assistance he survived and was quickly nursed back to health.

So, knowing that the rebellion has succeeded in eliminating most of his opposition and that a bomb he hid in the middle of the city will soon take care of the rest, Crocodile sadistically mocks Vivi for her failure, and drops her from the top of the building.

She’s saved, of course, by her captain, who comes swooping in on the back of Pell, a Royal guard and Devil Fruit user who can transform into a giant bird.

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He drops the princess off on the ground where she’s reunited with all the other victorious crew members, and they split up to find the hidden bomb. Luffy stretches his arms to the top of the palace and propels himself upward, announcing to Crocodile that he won’t lose again.

Throughout this last phase of the ordeal, Vivi has been in agony because she’s been unable to reach her people, to let her know the war is a sham and that they’re being played against each other. She continuously verbalizes it as “they can’t hear me”– not just because her efforts have been thwarted but because her cries from above are being literally drowned out by the din of fighting and an obscuring sandstorm created by Crocodile. After Luffy first swooped in to catch her, she despaired that her voice wasn’t reaching anyone.

“Don’t worry,” Luffy says. “We can hear you just fine.”

The Fight: After the initial shock at seeing Luffy alive again fades, Crocodile smiles and waits patiently for his adversary to show up. He declares that this will be just as easy as the last time, because Luffy can’t even touch him.

Oh yeah?

ABOUT F***ING TIME

ABOUT F***ING TIME

Gleefully triumphant music swells as Crocodile finally takes a hit and goes down, hard. Without skipping a beat, Luffy stretches out to seize Croc from a distance, and spins up his torso in place for an attack he calls the Buzzsaw.

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Luffy instantly uncoils and whips forward, putting all the force into a headbutt that sends the villain reeling again.

As Crocodile lies dazed on the ground, Luffy explains how he was able to deduce his weakness from a small moment in their last encounter: water. If Crocodile or something touches him gets even slightly wet, his body hardens and he can’t dissolve safely into sand. Hence Luffy showing up this battle with a huge barrel of high-quality H20 (with attached hose) on his back.

The current episode concludes with Luffy declaring: “Now I can kick your ass. Let’s fight.” He’s a man after my own heart.

When we rejoin the action, Crocodile arises and laughs maniacally– always a welcome tendency in a villain. He asks if Luffy really thinks he can beat him, a member of the Shichibukai. In a moment of straight-faced comedy, Luffy says if Crocodile is Shichibukai, then he himself must be HACHIbukai. [Language-pun nerd hat] “Shichi” means seven, while “hachi” means eight; Luffy thinks that upping the number makes him more dangerous, failing to realize that it refers to the number of members in the group.

(If you think this level of stupidity is unrealistic: I once knew a girl who had someone seriously tell that she’s so crazy, she wasn’t just bipolar, she was “tripolar.” Oy. She really was crazy though.)

Anyway, Luffy is still determined, but his next rocket-punch (Gomu Gomu Pistol) is easily dodged, and Crocodile displays a new power when he seizes the arm and dries it all out.

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Shocked, Luffy frees himself, realizing the power Crocodile still has even when he’s being “weakened.” The hero chugs some water and his arm returns to its natural state. He then drenches his whole body with the hose, and tries a Pistol attack again, but halfway through he “twangs” his arm at the base so that it twists unpredictably for what he calls the “Shotgun” attack.

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Crocodile is surprised but jumps back just in time, and counters with “Desert Sword,” an invisible pulse of energy that splits the ground. Luffy barely sidesteps it, and again tries a Pistol punch. Crocodile is incredulous that Luffy keeps doing the same thing over & over, but pays for underestimating him when Luffy surprising jumps all the way forward and strikes the villain up close.

Luffy tries soaking Crocodile with the entire barrel while he’s down, but Crocodile predicted the idea and sends them both into the air with a localized sandstorm. Luffy barely manages to keep a grip on the barrel, and the Shichibukai mocks his reliance on it. So Luffy tries an unexpected tack: he swallows the rest of the barrel’s contents at once, stretching his rubber body to comically oversized proportion.

still in better shape than I am

Looks like me after a trip to Golden Corral

The hero declares now that he’s Water Luffy, Crocodile’s worst nightmare. Understandably, the criminal mastermind doesn’t take him seriously (it doesn’t help when Luffy springs a few leaks), but pays for that once again when Luffy soaks him by spitting out several large water bubbles, and hits him with the Gomu Gomu Bazooka– a two-handed punch right to the gut.

Crocodile’s finally angry enough to pull out the big guns. He tells Miss All-Sunday to leave with the King (they need him to find an artifact in the city’s catacombs), because it’s about to get ugly up in here.

Crocodile puts his hand to the ground and begins spreading his own infinite dryness to the environment. The ground cracks, the walls split, the surrounding gardens disappear, and finally huge portions of the buildings collapse, all due to Crocodile’s “Ground Death” attack soaking up moisture and accelerating decay. Even Luffy’s shoes crumble into dust.

When the dust clears, Water Luffy is barely clinging to the edge of a mostly wrecked palace. Before he can pull himself up, Crocodile materializes in front of him and grabs him by the neck.

Luffy frantically spits several more water globs at him, but Crocodile dodges and they go straight up in the air. In a few seconds, his hand sucks the liquid out of Luffy’s body, leaving him frail and dessicated. “You lose,” he declares, as the episode ends.

Certainly looks that way.

Another fun battle, returning more to the pattern of a genuine back & forth. Notably, Crocodile actually hurts Luffy very little until the end, but he still ends up deploying enough tricks to keep Luffy from scoring any decisive victory. From a storytelling standpoint, this also helps to maintain the villain’s intimidating mystique while still giving him a well-deserved black eye– the audience has been waiting a LONG time for someone to knock this dude on his ass. And of course the battle concludes with Luffy going down once again– keep in mind that prior to coming to Alabasta, we’d never seen Luffy lose even once, and now he’s bit it to the same guy twice in a row.

The fight also strikes an excellent balance between straight-up physical combat and the other type of offbeat maneuvers we’ve seen so far, what with selective deployment of water as a weakening agent and all. Luffy’s unpredictable tactics– such as three different variations of the Gomu Gomu Pistol to surprise his foe– also add an element of chaos to the mix.

All in all, not the greatest, but that will come in their rematch.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: The battle concludes.

Spoilers: The hero’s not dead

One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 4 of 6)

Now that’s more like it.

Believe it or not, he's only at 2/3rds capacity.

Believe it or not, he’s only at 2/3rds capacity.

4) Zoro vs Mr. 1

The Fighters:

  • Roanoa Zoro. Luffy’s first and most dangerous crew member (after Luffy himself, anyway), Zoro is a taciturn warrior whose dream is to become the world’s greatest swordsman– and of course traveling with Luffy has given him no shortage of opportunities to practice. Yes, his name is Zoro, like the Spanish hero. Voiced by Kazuya Nakai.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Zoro has exaggerated strength and agility, but he fights almost exclusively using his three katanas. A practitioner of what he calls “Santoryouu” (“Three-Sword”) style swordsmanship, the amount of blades he is using at any given time will vary depending on the situation, but optimally he uses all three at once: one in each hand and the third in his mouth. Such is the glory of One Piece that an idea so absurd can actually work on-screen. All three of Zoro’s swords are considered to be “special” in some way, but the most valuable and powerful is white-handled Wado Ichimonji sword, an heirloom from his dead friend and the one he favors most (and frequently puts in his mouth).
  • Mr. 1 (real name Daz Bones), one of the most powerful Baroque Works agents. Not as actively cruel as many of his compatriots, he’s still a ruthless killer. Voiced by Tetsu Inada.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Daz Bones consumed a Devil’s Fruit which makes him able to turn any part of himself into blades at will, and effectively makes his body into organic-looking steel; think of him as sort of a cross between the T-1000 and Colossus. Naturally, this makes him very hard to hurt.

  

The Setup: We actually see the beginning of this confrontation during a brief cutaway from Sanji’s fight. The #1 team is pursuing Nami and Zoro arrives just in time to save her. The two face off, leaving Nami and Miss Doublefinger to tangle elsewhere.

Zoro soon recognizes the nature of Bones’ power. Mr. 1, meanwhile, deduces that Zoro is the swordsman who defeated 100 of Baroque Works’ lower-ranking members recently, and also killed the previous Mr. 7 several years ago, when the agent tried to recruit him. Cool as ever, Zoro smiles and asks, “You wanna try to recruit me, too?”

Thus begins the perfect matchup: an aspiring swordsman against someone who’s effectively a living sword.

The Fight: The combat here is unusual even when neither opponent is pulling off fancy moves– it’s just so strange to see swordplay deflected by limbs.

After some initial clashing and more trash talk, Zoro dons his trademark bandanna and bites down on sword #3. He uses his Bull Horn attack charge immediately…

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… but the strikes doesn’t even faze Mr. 1, who simply closes his eyes and hunkers down. Zoro lands on the other side of him, and realizes that what he’s seen about the villain’s Devil Fruit power is true: his body (or at least his skin) truly is steel. He muses out loud about how if he can’t cut steel, then he can’t cut Mr. 1. Smiling cockily, he actively relishes the challenge: he’ll just have to figure out how to cut steel. He even pities Mr. 1 for being the poor bastard Zoro’s new skill will be tested on. Daz Bones is dubious, as no swordsman has ever been able to cut him before. Zoro’s reply: “You’ve never met me before.”

Zoro’s pretty freaking cool, you guys.

Though they have somewhat similar powers (most Baroque Works teams are built around a theme), pound-for-pound, Mr. 1 is far more deadly and interesting than Miss Doublefinger. Zoro is sometimes able to keep him on his toes, but often it’s about all he can do just to keep up. After all, how do you keep up the offensive against someone whose skin is so impenetrable he barely even needs to defend himself?

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Zoro manages it intermittently through aggression, creativity and the relentlessness of his attacks. A perhaps sounder method might have involved wearing down Bones with blunt force rather than cutting or stabbing (the one time Mr. 1 visibly registers pain is when he’s kicked in the gut), but that’s not Zoro’s specialty and more importantly, it’s not his way– if he can’t do the job with his swords, he won’t do it at all.

The swordsman tries a combination of special moves at first– a “Demon Slash” maneuver which knocks Bones down, and a “Tiger Hunt” attack from above while he’s still falling– but despite Zoro’s visible exertion, Mr. 1 is only knocked back by the force of the attacks, and arises without a scratch. He counters with a series of moves Zoro barely avoids, and when he’s pressed against a wall, Mr. 1 hits him with an air-cutting technique. Zoro resists the force of the attack itself, but the power of the slashes damage the buildings behind him so greatly, they all collapse and Mr. 1 shoves him into the path of the debris.

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“You should see the other guy.”

Seemingly trapped under a building, Zoro thinks to himself how this is the worst predicament he’s been in so far (it would be for me, too), and has an obligatory flashback to an element of his childhood, training with his sensei. Conveniently, little Zoro had once asked his teacher how it would be possible for a man to cut steel, and the elder responded by slashing at a thin piece of paper and not cutting it, despite hitting it dead on. He explains that true mastery entails being able to cut what you choose to and not harm what you don’t; a sword that simply cuts everything it touches is inferior. Whoa.

Still not quite getting the lesson, adult Zoro is nonetheless energized to keep fighting. He pulls himself from the rubble, picks up the house he’d been trapped under, and THROWS it at Mr. 1.

How terrible. I know a lady whose sister died the same way.

How terrible. I know a lady whose sister died the same way.

Undaunted, Bones uses an even stronger air-cutting technique and slashes the house to bits before it hits him. Zoro charges through the debris and renews his attack, pulling a few nifty moves but again failing to make a dent with his brute strength. Stoic as ever, he simply tells Mr. 1 “you’re beginning to piss me off.”

The feeling is apparently mutual, because the assassin finally decides to break out the big guns, so to speak, and reveals he can make more than just simple blades. For instance, he can turn his forearms into buzzsaws:

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Well, that’s just cheating.

The spinning blades nearly break Zoro’s own katanas, and when he tries to evade without them, it isn’t enough. Mr. 1 lightly slashes Zoro’s chest with one glancing blow, and hits him with another directly to the torso.

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That’s… gonna leave a mark.

Incredibly, Zoro survives, but the hit slams him back into a pillar and he drops all three of his swords. Unarmed and bleeding badly, he tries to stand and face Daz Bones again. The villain is mildly curious about Zoro’s resolve to keep fighting, but Zoro says he wouldn’t understand. Mr. 1 agrees and hits the swordsman with a devastating attack that slices Zoro’s chest even further, and travels through the air to the pillar behind him, bringing the whole thing down.

It seems like it’s over, but again Zoro has miraculously survived. He thinks to himself about Luffy’s last order for them all to meet back up at Vivi’s palace, and wonders if any of his crew have even survived. He sees that he’s standing in the one rubble-free portion of the collapsed pillar, and realizes that he didn’t dodge the falling debris– he instinctively moved to where he knew they wouldn’t fall. Just as he can instinctively sense the location of his Wado Ichimonji, under a nearby piece of stone.

Retrieving it, Zoro ponders that now, on the edge of death, he has reached a state of heightened awareness, where he can sense “the breath of all things”: rocks, ground, air, even steel. (Amusingly, his inner monologue drowns out the dumbfounded verbal reaction from Mr. 1.) He thinks that this awareness might be the key to cutting only what he chooses, and tests it by first swinging harmlessly at the fronds of a palm tree, then casually slicing a chunk of stone pillar in half.

Ready for one last effort, Zoro levels his blade at Daz Bones, then sheathes it to prepare for a quick-drawing slash. Mr. 1 lunges in with another attack, but the camera cuts away to a cliched shot of birds flying. When we come back….

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Zoro calmly re-sheathes his katana, smiling confidently over the victory he already knew was his. Mr. 1 begins collapsing in a pool of blood, and asks Zoro if his next challenge will be to try cutting diamond, but the hero says that would be wasteful– he is a pirate, after all. Smiling ruefully and cursing softly, Daz Bones accepts his defeat like a man.

The victor takes a well-earned rest and removes his bandanna, having become a man who can cut steel.

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This is a much better return to form, and a lot more fun to boot. In addition to the aforementioned novelty of animating a fight of sword against sword-like flesh, there was also a narrative challenge: how do you make the fight interesting if Zoro can’t hurt his opponent until the very end?

They somehow managed it, and without succumbing to the silly running around & theatrics of Nami’s similar predicament. In-between all the times he nearly gets killed, Zoro manages to take the fight to his foe fairly effectively, even if he never truly gets him on the ropes. In the end, he wins not through physical strength but from accumulated wisdom, even if it’s achieved via a cliched flashback and tactically questionable advice. The staging works well too: in addition to all the wild, named move-sets, the two have their fair share of complicated up-close maneuvers and rapid-fire back & forths. (A dirty little secret about the latter is that anime shows often save time by looping the same handful of frames over & over, so quickly that you probably don’t notice unless you’re, say, freeze-framing the action to get cool screen grabs for your blog.)

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This, for example. You’d think Mr. 1 would have figured out the attack pattern after it repeated the third or fourth time.

Probably the biggest flaw is the extent of Zoro’s injuries– the second blow from Bones’ buzzsaw arms ought to have been enough to kill him outright, let alone how he survived a point-blank “Spar Break” attack directly after. Again, it defies believability even under the circumstances, and relentlessly punishing the hero just before his last-second victory is a bit tired.

All in all, a worthy end to all the warm-up matches, before we approach the main course.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a man!

Who's, er, riding a bird.

Who’s, er, riding a bird.

One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 3 of 6)

Today: a reminder that they can’t all be winners.

This is actually more silly than it looks.

This is actually more silly than it looks.

3) Nami vs Miss Doublefinger

The Fighters:

  • Nami, the Straw Hats’ genius navigator and quartermaster, and its only (not counting Vivi) female member at this time. Resourceful, spunky, and comically greedy, with a soft spot for her friends. Voiced by Akemi Okamura.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: While athletic and canny enough, Nami does not have any physical skills beyond basic self-defense, and until now has played a more supporting or behind-the-scenes role in the crew’s battles. It’s revealed just before this fight, however, that she commissioned Usopp to create a special weapon to help her overcome her limitations. The item he made is called the Clima-Tact, a staff made up of several detachable segments and all sorts of hidden functions, mainly relating to either weather manipulations or party tricks. Up until now, she hasn’t practiced with it or even read the instructions.
  • Miss Doublefinger (real name Paula), the female half of Baroque Works’ #1 team and therefore one of the most dangerous members of the organization. Her cold-blooded spitefulness is an odd contrast to the caricatured “sexiness” both in appearance and the exaggerated way she moves her hips while walking. The holiday her code name refers to is One Piece creator’s personal way of referring to New Year’s Day (1/1 = two index fingers held up side by side), which is also his birthday. Voiced by Yuki Tachibana.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Miss Doublefinger ate a Devil Fruit which enables her to turn any part of her body into spikes, something she uses in fairly creative ways.

  

The Setup: The #1 team encounters Zoro and Nami together on the streets of Alabasta, and at first pursue only Nami, correctly identifying her as the weaker threat which should be eliminated first. Zoro intercedes and squares off against Mr. 1, leaving Miss Doublefinger to deal with Nami.

The navigator promptly runs & hides, at which point we get the (convenient) flashback about the creation of the Clima-Tact. Drawing the weapon, Nami finds the courage to stand her ground… just in time for her opponent to stab her through the wall she’d been leaning against.

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Fortunately it’s only through the shoulder (that happens a lot in this show), so Nami’s alive when Miss DF cuts her way through the wall and introduces herself. Time to fight!

(Or “fight.”)

The Fight: Nami quickly tries to fight back with some of the Clima-Tact’s features (most of them done using different configurations of the sections), but finds them to be, shall we say, less than useful. First it fires a small smoke cloud which doves fly out of. Then she shapes it like a gun, which only produces a bouquet of flowers.

Sheesh, even Piers Morgan wouldn't be threatened by this.

Sheesh, even Piers Morgan wouldn’t be threatened by this.

Later it produces a cartoon boxing glove which doesn’t even reach all the way to its target, and much later it will shoot out small streams of water like a sprinkler (which Nami will actually use to her advantage). Throughout, Miss Doublefinger looks on at Nami with a mixture of pity and confusion.

In fact, this forms a loose pattern for the two’s duel: Nami will be chased, be cornered/fight back after reading & remembering more about the Clima-Tact, her opponent will stand by while Nami uses the weapon in a way that is varying degrees of ineffectual, and the cycle will repeat, with Nami suffering minor injuries along the way.

There are some very neat iterations of Miss DF’s powers. At first she just uses them in a fairly straightforward manner, such as turning her fingers into elongated daggers:

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But as the fight wears on the villain deploys her thorny nature in several wild & inventive ways. She transforms other body parts (including her nose and the tips of her bra) into sharp points as well, she forms spikes out of her heels so that she can walk upside down on the underside of an archway, she turns her entire hair into a bed of needles, and at one point she even becomes one big giant ball of spikes and rolls after Nami like Sonic the Hedgehog.

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Smack that bitch and takes her rings

Later on, she displays her own form of Beast Mode when she injects her own arms with her needle fingers, which somehow turns her into super-buff, spiky clubs.

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For her part, Nami displays some ingenuity, both with and without her impossible weapon. She wins a little respect from her adversary by getting Paula to chase her through a window, then rips off her own cloak and tangles the villain up in it (while still in ball form) to buy herself some more time. She’s soon able to use the Clima-Tact to create a wind attack which fires off one portion like a boomerang, knocking the villain back a bit.

Eventually Nami comes to realize that the true power of the odd staff is how it can generate small spheres of heat, cold, and electricity… and due to the odd science rules that govern shounen anime, have the correct combinations of these otherwise harmless discharges add up to devastating effects. She can also create a mirage version of herself (which she uses to briefly trick Miss DF into thinking she’s been killed) by causing light refractions from the difference in temperatures.

Yeah, right.

Yeah, right.

Finally, Nami reads up on the Clima-Tact’s ultimate movie, a one-time only attack called the “Tornado Tenpo.” Since she only has the one chance to use it, she makes sure to create an opening. She creates a cloud by making a bunch of cold spheres, then merging them with hot spheres which have soaked up water from her sprinkler move, and when the cloud gets big enough, it close in on Miss Doublefinger and Nami juices it with some electricity.

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Meteorologists LOVE this show.

Paula is hurt, but even more mad. She charges through what turns out to be another mirage, and Nami appears from behind, sarcastically telling her what the “forecast” is. However, she has trouble standing due to her wounds, but in the battle’s most inspiring moment, Nami thinks back on the suffering Vivi has endured thanks to Baroque Works, and knows she has to hold herself together for her friend’s sake. She even explicitly says that her pain is nothing compared to Vivi’s; this is the kind of outsized emotional bombast this genre is so well-suited for.

She even powers through getting impaled in the foot after Miss DF tries her urchin-head attack again. She uses the leverage to get close to her foe, then opens the Clima-Tact right in her face to execute the Tenpo. Surprising both of them, at first it only shoots out a pair of clockwork doves. Nami is enraged that it appears to be another joke, but shortly after the little birds wind their way around the target’s body.

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Then the “T” bar on the end begins spinning rapidly, and with incredible centrifugal force, propels Miss Doublefinger through three buildings, knocking her out and then some.

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Nami controls the horizontal, Nami controls the vertical.

Well, this is proof that even the best of the best isn’t always made up of 100% winners. It’s not offensively bad or anything– at about an episode and a half like its predecessors, it stops well short of outstaying its welcome– but it’s hard to love, too, especially sandwiched in amongst much better material.

Cool powers or not, Miss Doublefinger doesn’t present as great a threat as one would think, given her rank in Baroque Works. She’s conspicuously generous in waiting to let Nami pull off all sorts of complicated maneuvers, and after sustaining mostly mild damage throughout the battle, she ends up falling to an attack that seems fairly tame by One Piece standards.

The Clima-Tact is sort of an interesting idea, but it’s not handled well here (it will play out better later in the series). It’s always tough to know where to draw the line on believability, but for my money, the idea that it can generate a bunch of small charged blasts is on one side of that line, and the idea that it is somehow hiding several live animals and other party gags is on the other. To say nothing of the idea that Usopp would have designed the weapon primarily with amusing magic tricks in mind, or that Nami wouldn’t have studied & practiced with the Clima-Tact before now, given how important she made it seem to her in the flashback.

Credit is due for providing yet another left turn in terms of the nature of combat, compared to the more directing fighting in most of the other battles, and even the more explosive and convoluted maneuvers in the Southeast Gate throwdown. Plus it’s nice to finally give Nami her first big win.

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Still, with the actual fighting too unevenly spaced and the silly plot mechanics, this is easily the weakest of a great bunch.

[Also, this was probably the beginning of the series’ unfortunate trend of oversexualizing Nami; around this time (if not this actual battle, specifically right when Nami rips her cloak off), the artists started to draw her with Jessica Rabbit’s proportions but far less modesty. So there’s that.]

Grade: C

Coming Attractions: En garde!

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Clang clang.

One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 2 of 6)

Some mixed gender violence.

The Japanese version of Swan Lake took a few liberties.

2) Sanji vs Mr. 2

The Fighters:

  • Sanji, the ship cook of the Straw Hat pirates, and one of its more delightfully weird characters. In addition to being a chef who’s almost religiously obsessed with food, Sanji is self-consciously “cool” to the point of parody: he’s perpetually smoking a thin cigarette, is always laid back & sarcastic with his hands in his pockets, has hair draped over one eye, and never wears anything but a spiffy suit & tie. In the presence of beautiful women his laconic cool is instantly replaced with over-the-top, eye-bulging romanticism– the kind of transparent (yet oddly wholesome) horndoggery that would make Tex Avery’s wolf say “hey dude, dial it back a notch.” Voiced by Hiroaki Hirata.
    • Powers/abilities/weapons: Sanji has no “superpowers” per se but is nonetheless one of the more dangerous of Luffy’s crew, largely due to his skill in the “Black Leg” martial arts– a fighting style emphasizing powerful & complex legwork.
  • Mr. 2 Bon Kurei (real name Bentham) is an outrageous caricature of a self-professed “okama”– a Japanese slang word variously meaning gay man, cross-dresser or transvestite (yes, those are three different things). The only thing more flamboyant and ridiculous than his outfit is his personality, so aggressively manic and infectious is it. Though a vicious killer, Mr. 2 has a soft spot for melodrama, friendship and performative acts. Notably, Mr. 2 is the only officer-level member of Baroque Works to not have a partner; being a transvestite, he fills both the male and female halves of his “team” simultaneously. (“Bon Kurei” being a specific night in the traditional Japanese Obon festival.) Voiced by Kazuki Yao.
    • Powers/abilities/weapons: Bentham’s outsized temperament may be the polar opposite of Sanji’s too-cool-for-school stoicism, but their fighting styles are nearly a perfect match. Mr. 2 uses a dance-based martial art called “Ballet Kenpo” which similarly emphasizes footwork. Additonally, his Devil Fruit power allows him to instantly shape-shift into the appearance of anyone he has seen or touched. To activate it, he has to touch his right cheek, and turns it off by touching his left. During an earlier (and friendly) accidental encounter with the Straw Hats, Mr. 2 bonded with all the members of the crew, and learned to copy their forms to impress them… except for Sanji, who was belowdecks cooking, and whose existence therefore comes as a surprise to both Mr. 2 and Baroque Works. Additionally, the two decorative swans on Mr. 2’s shoulders double as flexible footwear (with hardened metal tips), adding more reach and power to his attacks. And the mascara marks under his eyes are sharp boomerangs.

 

[In case you’re wondering, the story here is going straight from Mr. 4 and his team to Mr. 2 because the Straw Hats have already defeated Baroque Works’ #3 pair several episodes back. Long story.]

The Setup: Mr. 2 is tasked with preventing Princess Vivi from reaching the royal palace. His first attempt at subterfuge fails and he pursues her through the city… until they’re intercepted by Sanji, who volunteers to hold the okama off while Vivi escapes.

Mr. 2 asks if Sanji is the unaccounted-for Straw Hat who has ruined several of Baroque Works plans recently, and Sanji asks if Mr. 2 is “the one who does those shitty impersonations.” The cook easily blocks Bon Kurei’s opening swipe, shocking him with his strength.

The Fight: We don’t come back to their showdown until after the conclusion of the fight at the southeast gate, and the two are already fighting furiously. After a couple clashes end in “draws” where they both finish by kicking each other in the face simultaneously, Mr. 2 tries a different tack, and uses his Devil Fruit power to custom-make the most ridiculous face imaginable, apparently in an effort to distract/unnerve his opponent.

Unfortunately it ends up mostly being Mr. 2’s own face, only with a longer nose.

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If my dog looked like that, I’d shave his butt and run him over.

While Mr. 2 cries into a mirror over his injured vanity, Sanji boots him right in the face. Bon Kurei is offended by the lack of pity, and mimics a crew-mate’s (Usopp’s) face, in the hopes that it will make him hesitate to attack.

Predictably, this also doesn’t work. Sanji strikes again and gives a brief speech about being able to see through illusion and straight to the heart. Mr. 2 is shocked and admires his foe’s purity. In despair, he absentmindedly switches his face to Nami’s, lamenting how it wouldn’t work either.

Except it totally does.

Dude has issues.

Dude has issues.

Mr. 2 quickly catches on, and even he is shocked by how absurd Sanji’s behavior is. There’s a great bit of deadpan humor here, as he turns the Nami-transformation on & off repeatedly, and every time Sanji’s demeanor instantly turns to that of an enraptured sycophant, like flicking a light switch. The okama’s internal monologue keeps saying “It can’t be this easy.” He finally realizes how glaring his opponent’s weakness is, and grins evilly.

After a cut back to Vivi at the palace, the episode ends on a cliffhanger, and comes back to the fight continuing. Sanji suffers repeated blows because every time Mr. 2 switches to Nami’s appearance, he’s not just unwilling to hit a woman but nearly paralyzed with lust. At one particularly funny moment, Mr. 2 overcomes Sanji’s attempt at resistance by complaining about how hot it is and starting to unbutton his blouse (thereby nearly revealing “Nami’s” chest), then attacking him once again when he rushes over.

Sanji takes some more licks when the sight of Nami’s face keeps him from being able to dodge the backswing of the villain’s mascara boomerangs, cutting him on each side.

Mr. 2 decides it’s time to put an end to all this fun, and begins spinning around rapidly, building up power. But when he switches back to his normal form halfway through, Sanji figures something out: Bon Kurei can’t use his Ballet Kenpo techniques while he’s assuming someone else’s form. Knowing that Mr. 2 won’t switch while attacking, Sanji strikes him before he finishes his spinning technique, sending him crashing into a nearby building.

The okama is angry that he’s been figured out, so he uses his trump card and dons his swan shoes. Sanji dodges the first lunge, which puts a neat hole into the wall behind him, as if it had been shot by a rifle. The next time they tussle, it ends in another stand-off with the two striking simultaneously, only this time Sanji is stabbed through the shoulder while his own foot doesn’t quite reach the target.

Sanji thinks again and realizes that although 2’s reach has increased, wearing the swans will make him take longer to get in to an attack stance, so if he avoids the first strike he should be able to counter. He leaps over Bon Kurei’s next attack, but the villain tries to stifle him by quickly switching to Nami’s face. However, while Sanji is still in mid-air (anime physics are so awesome) he bluffs Mr. 2 into undoing it by telling him there’s something on his left cheek. The chef is able to deliver a few good hits, but 2 rallies and stabs his chest.

After a short breather, the two clash again. Now, they know all each other’s tricks and advantages, so it’s just a matter of skill and strength. What follows are two fairly extended, furious exchanges that are of outstanding animation quality, especially by television standards.

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The two walk upside down on their hands while exchanging kicks, rising & falling as they take shots at each other. By the end, they’re both absorbing numerous blows as they frantically try to take each other down, calling out their distinctive moves all the while.

Finally, they both collapse, gasping for air. They pause, then leap at each other for one final shot, Ninja Gaiden-style.

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Both land, and Sanji’s legs buckle, toppling him over in pain. But his legs only hurt so much because his blow was the one to land successfully– Mr. 2 howls in pain, and goes down for good (after flying into another building, apparently from some kind of delayed reaction effect).

Barely able to move, the okama willingly surrenders to Sanji and accepts any fate his opponent will give. Sanji (having risen and dramatically re-lit his cigarette, because of course he would) says he won’t kill him, that it was a good fight, and offers him a handshake. Touched by the gesture of honorable friendship, Mr. 2 Bon Kurei shakily raises his hand. Except:

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The “Dark Helmet” tactic. FOOLED YOU!

Yeah, honor amongst adversaries is great and all, but there’s a civil war going on. You can’t leave a crazy bastard like this running around.

Sanji walks away calmly, thinking that he probably has a few more broken bones. But, you know– whatever.

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GOOD GUYS: 2

As with the previous battle, this one takes up about an episode and a half’s worth of time, and the hero’s chances rise & fall on roughly the same trajectory. There’s a different vibe here, though, because even though Mr. 2 is quite powerful, we KNOW Sanji can kick some serious ass– if you’ve been watching the show up to this point, you’ve seen him do it several times. Between that and his cocky attitude, this is more of a pure strength-vs-strength contest, rather than wondering how the overmatched Usopp and Tony will overcome impossible odds.

And since it’s strength-on-strength, that means there’s more direct combat, and less of the weird dog-cannons and tunneling mole ladies stuff. This being One Piece, there’s no shortage of silliness, but it’s all in the service of enhancing & escalating the fight.

Mr. 2 is perfectly matched with Sanji, making for both great combat and hilarious interaction. I suppose it’s possible to be offended by this kind of trans portrayal, if you’re into being offended, but from a purely narrative standpoint, this villain is a delightful character. He’s just outrageous and silly enough for his shrillness to be endearing rather than irritating, and he’s actually likable enough while still being sold as a dangerous threat. Later (MUCH later) in the series, he’ll emerge as a heroic character of sorts, but for now he’s an effective villain.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Chick fight!

... it's not as hot as it sounds.

… it’s not as sexy as you might think.

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.

Spider-Man 3 (fight 4 of 5)

In which two bros can’t just hug it out.

It’s like this, but it’s also not like this.

4) Peter vs Harry

The Fighters:

  • Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. More accustomed than ever to his black suit. Played by Tobey Maguire.
  • Harry Osborn, aka the New Goblin. Renewing his ill-fated quest for vengeance against Spider-Man. Played by James Franco.

The Setup: In what is possibly the most ridiculous head-slappers of this movie, Harry got freaking amnesia from the injuries he suffered at the end of his last fight. Amnesia. Is there any more clear sign of screenwriters just transparently giving up at finding a way to put a character in narrative “time-out” until it’s convenient? Gah. Specifically, a form of his amnesia that transported him mentally back to around 19 or so, before his life started turning to crap. (Judging from some of Franco’s performance, though, he actually regressed all the way back to kindergarten.) This plot device wears off just after Innocent Harry had an inadvertently romantic moment with a vulnerable Mary Jane, and Osborn decides to seize on this as his chance to hurt Peter on a personal level before baiting him into another confrontation.

Harry blackmails MJ by promising to kill Peter (you know, that thing he’s determined to do anyway) if she doesn’t pretend to dump him for good. After the staged breakup, Harry rubs salt in the wound by violating the Bro Code and telling Peter he’s been having an affair with her. Peter, ever the genius, realizes soon enough that Harry has regained his memory, and goes off to confront him at his home as he melodramatically mixes cocktails in anticipation.

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Weird how so many people don’t take this movie seriously.

It should be noted that while Peter, shocked at what his new “outfit” was making him do, had taken it off for a while and made an effort to straighten his life out. But when he goes to face Harry, he deliberately puts the suit back on, wanting it to enable his negative behavior.

Also note even though Peter is wearing most of his black suit underneath civilian clothes and Harry’s packing a surprise up his sleeve, both fighters are essentially out of costume. In fact, both times these two fight in the movie, they’re unmasked. Hence the title entry using their real names rather than their alter egos; this isn’t superhero vs supervillain, it’s two “friends” settling old scores.

The Fight: After some more taunting from Harry (he even lifts Sean Bean’s pervy line from Goldeneye about MJ tasting “like strawberries”), Peter goes straight to fisticuffs. He gets in a few good licks, but his eyes open wide when he gets a surprise stab to the gut from his old pal.

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“I just realized I had sex with Iron Man in Wonder Boys!”

The dagger doesn’t go very deep before Peter slowly pushes Harry’s hand away, but just as the knife is removed from play, Osborn swings at him with some of those forearm claws concealed underneath his dress shirt. He’d been expecting this confrontation.

The weapon is pretty effective at pushing Parker back for a little while, and he even gets a close call when he barely stops it from going right into his eyeball. He catches a lucky break when an errant swing lodges in the wall, allowing the hero to break the blades off with a blow to Harry’s arm.

The two continue to have a pretty solid, mutual beatdown, knocking each other into walls and through windows. The taunts make it even better. After one nasty blow, Osborn asks “How ya like that, Spidey?” to which Spidey replies “That all ya got?” Even better is Harry, when it’s his turn on the ground, growls “I used to protect you in high school, now I’m gonna kick your little ass!” which elicits a delightfully sarcastic “ooooh!” from Peter. It’s not exactly Stan Lee, but it’s appropriately schoolyard.

Franco makes a couple interesting choices in this scene, using subtle body language & snarls to act animalistically– i.e., like a goblin, in contrast to Parker’s graceful, arachnid-like movements.

He gives good Dafoe Face, too

He gives good Dafoe Face, too

For this portion of the fight, there’s no webs, no gadgets, no flying and no swinging. If not for the superhuman strength on display and the extraordinary abuse their bodies are taking, you’d swear this was just a regular fight between two normal people. And that was surely a conscious choice: by keeping the brawl relatively simple, Raimi not only provides variety from the movie’s more wild encounters, but he makes it more personal for the audience.

Eventually, Peter tackles Harry through the mirror that’s actually the entrance to Osborn’s secret Goblin lab. Harry immediately grabs that green sword from its place and starts swinging away again. Peter dodges it all skillfully enough so that it instead ends up hitting pretty much everything else in the lab, including the spare glider that had been idling in the center.

Freed from its tether, the glider goes spinning uncontrollably around the room as the fight rages on. Sensing an opportunity, Peter does a nifty spider move where he grabs Harry by the lapels and pulls them both to the ground. When the board comes around again, Peter throws him into its path. He gets smacked in the face and goes flying into a rack of pumpkin bombs.

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Remarkably, none of them go off, but Harry’s pretty hurt anyway. He asks if Peter will kill him like he did Norman, but the wayward hero expresses disgust rather than pleading for understanding. He twists the knife by telling Harry his father despised and was embarrassed by him, playing on his friend’s worst fears. Especially jarring is how he finishes it with a “what? You gonna cry?” like he’s a grade school bully.

Harry tries to rise to continue to fight, but a swift chop to the neck puts him right back down, and Peter storms off like Harry is utterly beneath him. Osborn tries to get the last word in by throwing one of the grenades at his old friend, but Peter side-steps the projectile, snags it with a web and returns it to sender.

The world’s deadliest yo-yo trick

The world’s deadliest yo-yo trick

Blessed with no such reflexes, Harry can’t get out of the way in time, and gets caught up in a small explosion. Peter doesn’t even stick around to see if he lived.

This one’s probably my favorite. It’s just the right mix of genuinely fun while still being legitimately off-putting (vis a vis Peter’s behavior), and the more humble choreography is both a bold choice and a welcome change of pace. Being able to see the actors’ faces and know that they’re not being swapped out with a bunch of digital pixels helps to draw you in closer to what’s a very intimate conflict. Granted, if every fight in the franchise were like this, it wouldn’t really feel like Spider-Man, but it’s nice to see Spider-Man branch out a bit every now and then.

The music is serviceable if not spectacular, a dark & playful little tune that revs up appropriately with the action. If there’s any flaw it’s that it ends too soon after they get to the lab, and the blow that knocks Harry into the wall and effectively ends the fight, while surely painful, seems a bit anticlimactic for what had come before. But Peter’s cruel taunts and the too-cool bomb throw back help put an appropriate punctuation mark on the encounter.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Spider-Man might be tough, but Venom is Topher.

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At least he’s not Kutcher.