Dark City

In which an unlikely hero finds a way to turn the tables.

Metaphorically and otherwise.

Metaphorically and otherwise.

Dark City

What a little gem of a movie. A cult hit that’s aged reasonably well, Dark City beat The Matrix to the punch by more than a year, though the lead times on each production are too close for the Wachowskis to have truly ripped it off. Both films are darkly stylized & philosophical sci-fi thrillers which feature a protagonist who’s uniquely gifted to tear down the walls of his artificial world, and learns to develop his new powers while on the run from sinister, inhuman pursuers. Understandably, only the one with amazing kung fu battles & gunplay went on to become a trendsetting blockbuster, but don’t count Dark City out. It has its own pleasures, and culminates in an amazing sequence that stretches the definition of a “fight,” but we’ll see if we can’t tackle it anyway.

A note: if you haven’t seen this yet and my recommendation inspires you to do so, I strongly recommend you seek out the newer Director’s Cut edition. Not only does it have more footage, but most crucially, it cuts out the theatrical version’s opening voiceover (mandated by the studio against director Alex Proyas’ wishes) where one character explicitly spells out about 90% of the film’s backstory, rather than letting the mystery be slowly uncovered. Of course I’m about to spoil pretty much the entire ending for you right now, so.

The Fighters:

  • John Murdoch, the film’s hero; it’s not his original name, if he even has one, but he’s sticking with it. One of the many inhabitants of the Strangers’ artificial world, John is a sudden step forward in evolution: he has the ability to “tune” or telekinetically alter the world around him. Having received only the slightest bit of his planned memory implant, John has spent most of the film as a virtual tabula rasa, but that’s all about to change. Played by Rufus Sewell, in a rare non-villainous role.
  • The Strangers, but mostly their de facto leader, Mr. Book (they all have ominously mundane names like that: Mr. Hand, Mr. Wall, etc), played by Ian Richardson. They can tune as well, of course. Note that their human-like appearance is not their true form: they’re all actually a bunch of creepy worm creatures, inhabiting the bodies of corpses– hence their pale & ghostly visage.
"Tell your sister... you were right about me."

“Tell your sister… you were right about me….”

Kiefer Sutherland, in the middle portion of his career (in-between the Hearthrob and Badass sections) where he was mostly tapped to play Creepy, plays a significant non-action part.

The Setup: The Strangers are home invaders in freaky masks a dying race of alien parasites, who have secluded a large number of humans in a large city where it’s always night and the details (memories, architecture, etc) are manually changed every few hours. Ultimately it’s revealed that this artificial habitat is really an enormous ship out in the depths of space, where the Strangers endlessly experiment with humans to see what makes them thrive.

John Murdoch, however, proves suddenly resistant to the Strangers’ power, and involuntarily fights back just as he’s about to be implanted with the memories of a serial killer. He spends much of the movie on the run, piecing together a past that turns out to be false and discovering the true nature of his world. Eventually, he surrenders himself to the villains when they hold hostage his “wife” Emma– their history together is fake, but he has come to feel genuine affection for her.

The aliens believe that Murdoch is the key they have been searching for, and decide to implant him with memories of their own collective history– effectively making him one of them. They wheel out Dr. Schreber (Sutherland), the doctor who invented the process of creating artificial memories in a test tube (a wonderfully wacked idea) and has since turned against his coercive masters to clandestinely help Murdoch throughout the movie. As the Strangers turn away to shut down their reality-warping machine for good, a seemingly docile Schreber explains his instructions to John… but he’s got other plans.

Since this was pre-Jack Bauer, being tied down while Kiefer Sutherland stands over you with a sharp object wasn't nearly as terrifying as it is now

Since this was pre-Jack Bauer, being tied down while Kiefer Sutherland stands over you with a sharp object wasn’t nearly as terrifying as it is now

Schreber switches out the Strangers’ syringe with one of his own making, which John had pocketed earlier after being too wary to trust the doctor. Murdoch is injected with the mystery needle instead, and immediately a series of rapid-fire images with static around the edges (the movie’s established language for flashbacks and memories) starts up. At first it’s the fake “John Murdoch” life the protagonist was originally supposed to have– pleasant upbringing at the seaside until parents die in a fire, and so forth– but a version of Schreber (but more confident, free of the real doctor’s speech impediment and slight disfigurement) keeps recurring: as one of John’s teachers, a firefighter who saves him, a flower vendor on his first date, etc.

"Remember class, the terrorists are only Muslim in even-numbered seasons."

“Remember class, the terrorists are only Muslim in even-numbered seasons.”

As the adult John twitches at receiving an entire lifetime of memories at once, finally the varying Schrebers solidify into one who explains himself with the magnificently bonkers line “You’re probably wondering why I keep appearing in your memories, John. It is because I have inserted myself into them.”

The memory-Schreber explains to John even more fully the nature of the Strangers, the power they share with John, and the machine that is fueled by it. He tells Murdoch, and the audience, that this specialized memory implant is a shortcut to give John a lifetime of instruction on and practice with tuning (previously, he’d only tuned instinctively, and in minor ways)– hey, kind of like downloading kung fu skills directly into your brain. He tells John that he can take control of his destiny, as long as he’s willing to act.

Back in the real world, the Strangers can tell something is wrong, and discover Schreber’s switcharoo… but it’s too late. John comes to, wills the table he’s strapped to upright, and melts his bonds away to step free.

Picture5

“Now *I* have tuning powers. Ho, ho, ho.”*

Lucy, you got some splainin’ to dooooooo

The Fight: As soon as John is free, the film’s score dives right into the full rendition of a composition it’s been teasing throughout the movie– one that’s been so ubiquitous in trailers and bad YouTube re-edits since then, you’ve surely heard it before even if you’ve never seen Dark City. Despite all the years of repetition, though, it’s lost none of its wild energy, sounding both inspiring and chaotic.

Murdoch wastes no time in putting his newly mastered powers to work. He unleashs a psionic blast that scatters several of the Strangers ahead of him, which makes the remaining villains scared and aggressive. Proyas visualizes tuning on-screen in an effective if not particularly original way: as shimmering ripples of otherwise invisible force, flinging people about wildly and often tearing up the scenery.

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John frees Schreber and turns his attention back to the Strangers just in time to get blasted himself by Mr. Book, seemingly the only alien willing to stand his ground. Seemingly unhurt, Murdoch gets back up and returns fire. Visibly angered, Book changes up tactics a bit by ripping open the floor in front of John (which he seems to deflect before it gets to him) and dragging jagged beams up from underneath (which narrowly miss their target).

Rather than continuing to trade blows, the two eventually switch to a full-out mental arm wrestling contest, their psychic energies clashing in the middle.

I'd watch a lot more Presidential debates if they looked like this.

A lot more people would watch Presidential debates if they looked like this.

As their brain battle rages, the resulting feedback starts damaging the area around them, ripping huge chunks out of the building and even somewhat reversing the gravity (!). The few Strangers who haven’t fled (why didn’t anybody help Book?) are lifted into the air.

Soon enough, Book and Murdoch float out of the ceiling and confront each other in the sky.

"MISTER Anderson!"

“MISTER Anderson!”

Mr. Book changes things up again by hurling a nasty-looking dagger at his foe, but despite the added telekinetic push, John is able to stop it just shy of his head, then flip it around and return to sender.

Picture5

If it had hit, it would have hurt only slightly more than my hangover on Thanksgiving 2006.

Mr. Book takes it in the chest and goes tumbling backward, end over end. Murdoch tunes a nearby water tower to rise up high into his enemy’s flight path. Book collides with the new obstacle and, because the parasites are vulnerable to water, the creature piloting Book’s corpse dies shortly after. Go humans!

In many ways, there’s not much to the actual battle: a few psychic punches, a lot of yelling, a light show and what’s frankly a distant second in the cinematic annals of Tossing A Dagger Back & Forth (telekinetic powers are neat and all, but ultimately it’s all in the reflexes). Plus, the other Strangers’ lack of participation is glaring, there’s no logical reason for Schreber to be there, and if we’re being honest, the floating at the very end looks at least a little bit silly.

But looking past the petty stuff, there’s something really glorious about this sequence. As Schreber’s plan quickly becomes apparent there’s a palpable, electric excitement; you finally get to see John Murdoch realize his potential– if not his destiny— and turn the tables on his tormentors. That there’s still an element of danger as he takes his matured powers into battle makes his final victory all the sweeter; I daresay this scene is even more gratifying and well-handled than its equivalent at the very end of The Matrix.

Once again we’ve proven that while the execution of the actual fight is important, the buildup and emotional context can often be just as critical, if not more so. Dark City’s climax thrills like few others.

[Also, the movie is, along with many other things, essentially a superhero origin story. After swearing to give those a break I basically just did another one. Crap.]

Grade: A-

*Blogger Comment: I feel like I’ve paraphrased the “machine gun” quote from Die Hard about five times, but a quick site search makes it seem like it’s just the second. Either way, I’m not stopping any time soon, hope you’re used to it by now. Die Hard rules.

Coming Attractions: We get a lot more Studi-ous.

He’s quite the hearty warrior.

Iron Man 2 (fight 4 of 4)

In which Iron Man teams up with his greatest ally.

Er, no.

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

The Fighters:

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

But, you know, this works too.

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

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

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

“We have them RIGHT where we want them!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture2

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

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

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

Picture3

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

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

Whaddya know, it works.

Whaddya know, it works.

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

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

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

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

Well done.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Stop.

Hammer Time.

Iron Man 2 (fight 2 of 4)

Time for the real Real Steel.

Picture1

Iron Bros

2) Iron Man vs War Machine

The Fighters:

  • Iron Man, aka Tony Stark. You know the drill. Played by Robert Downey Jr.
    • Armed with: the Iron Man Mark IV armor– he’s made some unknown improvements to the Mark III he finished the last film in.
  • War Machine, aka Lt. Col James “Rhodey” Rhodes, the U.S. military’s liaison to Stark Industries and Tony’s BFF. Rhodey has an inner playfulness that helps him bond with Stark, but most of the time he’s very much the no-nonsense type and has to play frustrated straight man to his friend’s antics. Note that while Tony uses the term “war machine” in this scene, it’s an offhand remark and he’s never formally called that in the movie, though by Iron Man 3 it’s acknowledged he did officially go by his comic book alias for a while before switching to (sigh) Iron Patriot. Played by Don Cheadle, who is not Terence Howard.
    • Armed with: One of Tony’s Mark II prototype suits, unpainted and plain, but still quite formidable. It’s unstated in the film but between the fact that the suit has an external power source and also how well Rhodes handles himself in it, Stark has clearly built this suit FOR his friend to use and has already let him practice in it.

The Setup: At the peak of his dying-induced nihilism, Stark is holding a birthday bash at his house, and is entertaining a legion of phony “friends” by hosting in his Iron Man armor and engaging in reckless entertainment. (If anything, this element is probably the biggest contributor to Iron Man 2 leaving a sour taste in many fans’ mouths: narratively necessary and ultimately redeemed such antics might be, it’s just not that fun to see Tony Stark act like a self-destructive dick for such a chunk of the movie.)

Rhodes heads out to not only stop this behavior, but as a last-ditch effort to get Tony to comply with the US government’s demand to turn over his Iron Man technology. Unfortunately Rhodey’s pleas fall on deaf ears, so he has to go downstairs and hop into something that’ll help him be heard.

Picture2

“I’m the party pooper.”

Ordering everyone out (you only have to ask once with a giant suit of advanced armor), Rhodes tells Stark he doesn’t deserve to have such amazing technology. Remarkably, the DJ has stuck around, and Tony orders him to play some music for them to fight to. The DJ picks “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen, so it’s good to know Tony got his money’s worth when he hired the guy.

The Fight: They grapple a bit and Tony rockets the pair through a wall. They land in Tony’s personal gym which, fittingly enough, has its own boxing ring. Iron Man tries to dismissively walk away, but Rhodey starts throwing weight plates at him. Stark retaliates by grabbing a barbell, shaking the bottom weights off, and whacking Rhodey with it like a baseball bat, sending him right through the arena.

Rhodes seizes another pole (hard to see, probably one of the boxing ring’s corners) and knocks his friend through the ceiling, which takes the fight into a foyer where most of the guests had fled (are they waiting for their valets or something?). Here the two exchange in some extended fisticuffs.

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“Jarvis, execute file RockemSockem.exe”

It’s amusing to watch them go back & forth, punching and throwing. Each blow lands with a distinctive clang that is both exciting and funny. Eventually Rhodey goes down pretty hard, leaving Tony to face a crowd of frightened onlookers. After a pause he leans in and angrily roars at them until they run away. It’s right about here that the music dies down, signaling that, like many parties hosted by an narcissistic drunk we’ve all been to, we’ve shifted from fun & games to self-hating anger. Hopped up on booze and adrenaline, Tony is disgusted with himself and everyone around him.

War Machine gets back up and brains his friend with the DJ’s turntable (that’s why the music stopped!), sending him into the fireplace. Rhodes just want to de-escalate the situation, but Tony points his repulsor-charged hand at Rhodey and goads him into doing the same. After a quick exchange of frantic dialogue, they blast at nearly the same time and the beams hit each other in the middle, creating a huge explosion which separates them and dazes Tony.

What did we say about crossing the streams?

What did we say about crossing the streams?

Rhodes flies off with the armor, leaving Stark to stew in self-pity and a wrecked house.

Like most of Favreau’s action sequences, this is short but packed with so much rapid-fire goodness, if not greatness (the movie’s still saving all of its best cards for later). It plays out exactly like such a thing should play out. Yes, that seems like an obvious thing to say/expect, but that really is so much more difficult to pull off than it sounds, when it comes to a mix of CGI and live-action depicting two Iron Men (one of whom is drunk) having a contained brawl inside a mansion, so hats off to the special effects guys, sound team, storyboarders, etc. Downey and Cheadle do great work as well, albeit mostly as voices and occasional disembodied faces, their dialogue a perfect mix of genuine frustration and macho taunts.

In addition to injecting a much-needed burst of action into the film, this fight serves its purpose well in kicking off the final plummet to Tony’s personal nadir. The fact that it’s quite a bit of snappy fun at first makes it go down easier, but when it turns harsh at the end, the movie doesn’t shy away from the genuine ugliness of what the hero’s going through. Favreau pulls off the neat trick of making you want to see Tony take a good beating here, but still feel bad for him when it’s all over.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Justin Hammer’s guards have 99 problems, and they are ALL this lady.

She’ll send you to ghost world

Iron Man 2 (fight 1 of 4)

Hey, remember that big superhero movie we covered, like, a year ago?

Let's have more of that.

Let’s have more of that.

Jon Favreau’s sequel to his 2008 smash hit gets a bit of a bad rap. Sure, it makes some questionable decisions– many apparently the result of a rushed schedule and studio meddling to “build the universe”– but it doesn’t deserve its fanboy scorn as the black sheep of Marvel’s Phase One films. It’s quite entertaining and even improves on some of its predeccsor’s shortcomings.

One of those improvements is action. While the novelty is indeed gone, there are places that Iron Man 2 delivers where Iron Man didn’t. Let’s see if we can’t whip up a few examples.

Get it, ‘cuz whips… okay, I’m sorry.

1) Iron Man vs Whiplash

The Fighters:

  • Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, our returning hero. In the time since the first film he has “privatized peace” by effectively serving as a deterrent to tyrants, terrorists and other geopolitical bad actors. (This sounds unlikely.) Meanwhile, he’s been secretly dying of radiation poisoning from the miniature arc reactor that saved his life, and has been acting increasingly reckless as a result. Played by the one and only Robert Downey Jr.
    • Armed with: Here, the Iron Man Mark V armor, a new variant of the suit which can be folded up into a briefcase– likely a reference to the comics equivalent which Tony often carried around, disassembled, in a briefcase. It’s also distinguished by silver coloring rather than gold, and a thinner, more stripped-down appearance. Presumably the armor sacrifices some features for its portability– we never see Tony fly in it, for instance– but that’s not explored.
  • Ivan Vanko, the film’s main villain and a twisted, Russian version of Tony. Vanko is an incredibly muscled, taciturn and brilliant scientist whose recently deceased father was a former colleague of Tony’s dad, and feels he was cheated out of his share of the Stark fortune. Working off stolen blueprints, Vanko builds his own arc reactor, and tracks Tony down for revenge. The character is a combination of the comic villains Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo, though he isn’t called by either name in the movie. Played by Mickey Rourke, enjoying his career revival.
    • Armed with: Unlike Tony, Vanko didn’t have the resources to make a fully-functioning titanium suit, so his arc reactor merely supports a thin exoskeleton and powers two highly charged whips he holds in each hand. The whips have incredible destructive capability, able to slice through just about anything and even deflect Iron Man’s repulsor beams.
Jeff Gordon's worst enemy.

He’s Jeff Gordon’s worst enemy.

The Setup: Part of Tony’s thrill-seeking behavior has led him to participate in an F1 race in Monaco. (One would think driving a fast car would be a little underwhelming after you’ve worn a suit of advanced armor that not only goes faster but also FLIES and blows up bad guys, but okay.) It’s here that Vanko has decided to make his very public, and likely suicidal, attack on Stark.

The villain has infiltrated the proceedings dressed as a mechanic, but as Tony’s car comes around the corner where he’s chosen the confrontation to be, Vanko opts for the direct route, and marches right onto the track. In a neat little detail, as he activates the arc reactor, the machinery it powers heats up enough to burn through his jumpsuit.

Strangely, it doesn't seem to bother his skin.

Strangely, it doesn’t seem to bother his skin.

Vanko whips one approaching car in half, and does the same thing to Tony’s shortly after, causing a magnificent wreck that leaves him mostly unscathed. Still, he’s at a distinct disadvantage.

The Fight: Once he frees himself from the car, Stark has to rely on pretty much just his wits to survive against a superior opponent. He disappears from Vanko’s sight when he can, he lures Vanko into sparking an explosion in some loose gasoline, he flings some car wreckage at him, and he employs some surprising agility when those whips get too close.

Fortunately for him, Tony’s bodyguard Happy Hogan shows up and rams an SUV into Crazy Ivan, pinning him against a wall. Before Tony can get in to escape, Vanko comes to and attacks the vehicle, preventing the trio (Pepper’s along too, of course) from getting away. Fortunately for Happy and Pepper, Tony is able to find enough time to get the briefcase and don the Mark V armor, which unfolds automatically over his body and evens the odds.

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“Now I have an arc reactor-powered suit. Ho, ho, ho.”

The fight seems like it’s going to take a turn for the better here, but oddly, it doesn’t. Iron Man does kick the car to safety, but every blast he fires at Vanko, the villain parries with well-timed swings of his whips. Immediately after that, Ivan is able to wrap Tony up in his whips and fling him around a bit. The pulsing electricity from the weapon damages Stark’s armor somewhat, making him falter and his viewscreen flicker.

Down but not out, Iron Man decides to use the whips’ now-stationary (because they’re holding him down) position to his advantage, and seizes one by the hand.

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Pulling himself forward one step at a time, Stark gets to Ivan pretty quickly, and subdues him with a few punches. When he falls, the hero leans in and plucks the bootleg arc reactor right off his chest, neutralizing him for good.

Iron Man and the other good guys are all more or less okay, but Ivan gets the last laugh as police drag him off, telling Tony “you lose!” repeatedly. Because while the villain had indeed wanted to follow through with killing Stark here, he already accomplished his baseline goal: proving very publicly that Iron Man is not invincible, and the technology to make him can be replicated.

Not a bad opening bit of action, though it’s unfortunate the movie takes so long to get to it. Despite being over quickly it includes some variety: Tony in the car, Tony struggling outside of it without his armor, the comedically tense bits as Happy distracts Vanko, and then finally Tony’s frantic struggle even after he gets the suit on. Once Iron Man finally gets to lay a hand on his foe, it’s pretty much over, but then of course it would be: Vanko’s apparatus provides him no real defense. In a way this is what the confrontation between Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus should have been like, logically.

Also, note that in contrast to the first film’s first big action sequence, Tony Stark experiences not an empowering moment as he frees himself from captivity, but an upsetting & humbling one as he gets knocked from his arrogant perch. Origin movies build the hero up, sequels gotta bring him down.

Grade: B-

Recommended Links: Mood music.

Coming Attractions: Think you’ve had some regrettable fights when you need to rein in your drunken buddy?

At least your drunk buddy wasn’t a superhero.

Pacific Rim (fight 5 of 5)

Feel free to make your filthy sexual jokes about “disappointing climaxes” here.

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Gipsy and Striker will be hiding from them at the bottom of the ocean.

5) Operation Pitfall

The Fighters:

  • Gipsy Danger, heroic leader of the Autobots our main jaeger, a little banged up from the last fight, but after a quick repair job is good to go.
    • Piloted by: Raleigh Beckett and Mako Mori, who are played by Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi.
  • Striker Eureka, the sleek new jaeger model with the highest kill count so far. Apparently the EMP didn’t do it any lasting damage.
    • Piloted by: Chuck Hansen and Stacker Pentecost, played by Robert Kazinsky and Idris Elba. Chuck’s father, Herc, broke his arm during Fight #2 and is unable to continue, so veteran pilot Stacker has volunteered to take his place and left Herc back in command at Shatterdome. In a completely gratuitous subplot, Pentecost has cancer due to his prolonged exposure to radiation in the poorly-shielded early-model jaegers. The cancer is said to be largely subsided as long as Pentecost doesn’t enter a jaeger again, so presumably the point of this plot element is to show how noble he is for stepping up for duty… but since there are no other worthy pilots on hand, if Stacker hadn’t helped out the apocalypse would remain un-cancelled so he’d die in a kaiju attack eventually, and besides that he (spoiler) dies by other means during the fight anyway. Guillermo Del Toro already pulled the exact same “give a cancer diagnosis to the older mentor figure who’s going to be killed off later” in the first Hellboy, so maybe he’s got a thing for that strangely specific trope. Oh and apparently Hansen and Pentecost are drift-compatible, but the movie is so nebulous about how that works it hardly matters at this point.
  • Raiju, an extremely fast kaiju with a crocodile-like head. Very little is seen of this little beastie, but its body seems almost optimized for swimming. Named after a Japanese mythological beast that has thunder & lightning powers.
  • Scunner, a large kaiju with four arms and a bull-like head. Beyond that, doesn’t seem to do anything special– besides being a huge monster, obviously. It’s named after a Scottish slang word for having a strong dislike for something. It’s never really clear who’s naming these things, incidentally: as soon as they’re spotted on radar, the way the guys at HQ call them out it’s like the names are pre-existing, even though the jaeger program people are the only ones tracking these things. This is such a weird movie.
  • Slattern, the most enormous kaiju yet– he’s immediately identified as a “Category 5” kaiju, even though there’s never been anything bigger than a 4. Again, weird. In addition to its ridiculous size, Slattern has three long tails and a devilish appearance, though given that the two have similar facial protrusions it can be hard to tell it apart from Scunner. The monster’s name (which I don’t believe is ever mentioned on screen, only gained from ancillary material) is taken from an archaic insult for women.

The Setup: Having fended off the assault in Hong Kong, Team Jaeger is now executing their planned operation to directly attack the inter-dimensional breach the kaiju are coming from by dropping a nuclear bomb in it. In a modification of the original plan (thanks to the demise of Typhoon and Cherno), this time it’s Gipsy pulling security while Striker goes ahead with the payload.

As the pair approach the breach, they get word of two large signatures emerging from it, and are on lookout. As they’re deep in the ocean, their visibility is terrible and they have to “switch to instruments” though it’s never clear what that means, and in any case it doesn’t seem to affect their performance. Raiju and Scunner begin to circle the pair, moving too fast to be seen.

As the robots get to the hole where the breach is, both kaiju stop their advance, which clues Pentecost into the presence of a trap. Just then, Dr. Geiszler and his frenemy Dr. Gottlieb burst into command, fresh off their drift with a dead kaiju fetus. The pair tell everyone that the plan won’t work, because whatever weird science that runs the breach will be able to tell monster from machine, and won’t let them through unless they bring a kaiju corpse along for the ride.

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, this is also when Slattern decides to make its appearance.

So: we know that each kaiju is harder to defeat than the last. The previous two monsters managed to easily take out three veteran jaegers, and only fell to Gipsy after it took them on one at a time while using some spectacular moves. This time it’s the good guys who are outnumbered, including one super-duper-jumbo-sized opponent. And it all takes place entirely underwater, where the monsters’ increased maneuverability will give them even greater advantage. How will our heroes overcome these odds?

Luck, mostly. Luck and some cheating.

The Fight: Striker fully extends its wrist blades (where were those in the second fight?) and gets ready. Gipsy tries to catch up and help, but gets attacked from behind by Scunner, who had been hiding nearby.

"I fear you are underestimating the sneakiness."

“I fear you are underestimating the sneakiness.”

We see Striker get knocked down pretty hard by all three of Slattern’s tails. Meanwhile, Gipsy has to tangle with Scunner. It’s able to pin down the kaiju with one hand, but before Gipsy can deliver a killing strike with the sword attached to its free arm, the jaeger gets rammed from behind by Raiju at high speed. The swift little beast knocks the whole limb off, chomping it in half as it swims away.

While Gipsy recovers, Scunner takes the opportunity to bite the robot’s… leg? It has to be the leg, considering what happens later, but the editing is so poor you would swear it went for the intact arm (I rewound multiple times and it really seems like the arm). The leg is also an idiotic tactical decision, because it is indeed the leg right underneath Gipsy’s remaining arm. The jaeger whips out the other sword and shoves it right through the back of Scunner’s head, pinning it to the ground. Attempting to finish it off for good, Gipsy slowly drags the kaiju over to one of several volcanic pits, where the fiery discharge gives it a good burnin’.

Anyone else having flashbacks to Tim Curry in Legend?

Anyone else having flashbacks to Tim Curry in Legend?

Unfortunately, Scunner is able to wrench free before it gets the full Freddy Krueger, and swims off to lick its wounds. Right about this time, Raiju has finally gotten far enough away to start up another charge, and heads straight for Gipsy to finish the job.

With miraculous timing, the one-armed robot is able to duck and lift its sword just in time to catch Raiju right in its ugly snout. The beast has so much momentum that the body just keeps on going, so Gipsy doesn’t have to do anything but stand still in order to slice the kaiju completely in half, length-wise. It’s a really cool kill, but in addition to being an abrupt exit for a brand-new foe, it’s also a bit too easy.

"Well, that was a freebie."

“Well, that was a freebie.”

We go back to Striker, who’s been damaged enough by that one blow it can no longer release the payload. Striker’s more pressing problem, though, is a tackle from the enormous Slattern. After some struggling, Striker’s claws are able to tear up the Cat 5 pretty good, forcing it to draw back and unleash a visualized sonic shout that draws Scunner’s attention.

The (comparatively) smaller kaiju rushes to the aid of its superior, and as the two slowly circle Striker to get into optimal position, the pilots come up with a new plan: they’ll set off the bomb right now to take the heat off Gipsy, who can then detonate its own nuclear reactor to blow up the breach afterward.

After some emotional radio moments straight out of Armageddon, Strikers sets us up off the bomb just before it would have been crunched between the two charging kaiju. Gipsy, at an apparently safe distance away (ha!), keeps from getting flung to Kingdom Come by planting its chain sword in the ground. Meanwhile, the blast displaces all the nearby water, creating a nifty Moses effect. Too bad it’s not to last, and Gipsy’s battered again as the water comes rushing back in.

"nononononononono....."

Surf’s up……. and right back down.

Gipsy grabs a big chunk of Raiju to get through the gateway, and limps toward the breach’s location. (In one of the many humanizing touches the CGI work provides, Gipsy’s limping here, which of course is a natural result of the damage sustained, makes the unfeeling machine look like a human being in pain.) But despite sustaining a point-blank nuclear detonation, Slattern is somehow still alive and seemingly not much worse for wear.

Our heroes improvise accordingly, dropping the Raiju half-corpse and using Gipsy’s jets to tackle Slattern just above the hole leading to the breach. They struggle against each other as they sink, with Gipsy skewering the kaiju through the chin with its sword, and finally finishing the job by burning off a ton of excess fuel through the nuclear turbine in its chest.

"HEAAAAART'S OOOOOOON FIIIIIIIIRE....."

“HEAAAAART’S ONNNNNN FIIIIIIIIRE…..”

After that, it’s pretty much a matter of simply playing out the thread. Gipsy passes through the portal, arms the reactor, both emergency pods eject back up through the portal– how’d they get back through without a kaiju corpse? For that matter, how did they get radio reception back to HQ through another dimension??– bomb goes off and closes bridge. Raleigh ends up surviving process, he and Mako embrace (but don’t kiss), blah blah blah.

Eh, who cares.

Eh, who cares.

Well, this is not bad, per se, but it certainly pales in comparison to the level of carnage we’ve seen before. And it feels like a rush, a cheat. After all those overwhelming odds, the solution ends up being pretty underwhelming: a few lucky hits and a big explosion. Raiju goes down almost as quick as he showed up, getting so little screen time he makes Typhoon and Cherno look like stars in comparison. Scunner isn’t bad, but doesn’t leave much of an impression either. And the actual “boss” is most disappointing of all– after that excellent entrance, Slattern pretty much gives one big blow, then doesn’t do a whole lot else and only showcases one special ability the whole time. And that special ability is basically a glorified distress signal, which means the only noteworthy thing the biggest, baddest monster in the movie does is call for help.

In this, Pacific Rim indulges more in its “war movie” side than it does in its sentai/kaiju side. Which is the filmmakers’ right, but it’s disappointing nonetheless from the perspective of fight scenes. And it’s not without merit: the entrance of Slattern, the bisecting of Raiju, the skewering/cooking of Scunner, and the emotionally-charged sacrifices are all good stuff. But on the whole, it’s the weakest fight of the movie, which is always a bummer to say about the climax.

Grade: B-

Coming Attractions: Wait… more Pacific Rim?

Wait... where'd all the giant robots go?

Where’d all the giant robots go?

Pacific Rim (fight 4 of 5)

Now, where were we?

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Oh, right.

4) Gipsy vs Otachi

The Fighters:

  • Gipsy Danger, our hero robot fresh off its last kill.
    • Piloted by: Raleigh Beckett and Mako Mori, just as it was ten minutes before. Played by Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi.
  • Otachi, the big beast who took out Crimson Typhoon not long ago. We will find out later that Otachi is pregnant which, in addition to inviting some Jay Leno-esque “no wonder it’s so cranky herp derp derp” jokes, doesn’t really mesh with the movie positing that the kaiju are all clones off a bunch of weird genetic assembly lines. The moviemakers have also asserted off-screen that Otachi is female, which again may not make sense but it helps with the confusion I’ve been having with what pronouns to use for these damn things.

The Setup: After parting with Leatherback (rest in pieces), Otachi made a beeline straight for Dr. Geiszler, presumably tracking him by some sort of psychic means. She digs right into the public bunker he’d been hiding out in and gets up close with some sort of weird glowing tendrils.

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Anal probe pain level: MAXIMUM

But before Otachi can grab Geiszler and make him wish he’d never left sunny Philadelphia, the kaiju turns at the sound of Gipsy Danger’s trademark blare. Come to think of it, I never was clear on if Gipsy’s Inception-like BWAAAAAMPS are heard by characters in the movie or if they’re just part of the soundtrack.

As the camera gradually reveals, the dangerous one is dragging a hefty oil tanker lengthwise in its left hand. The music here is a lazier, jazzier version of its main heroic theme, matching the cocky tone of the jaeger’s entrance. It’s fitting, because the heroes are hot off a much-deserved win. While Gipsy was confident in the last fight, here the robot– and the movie– is outright swaggering.

The Fight: As Gipsy closes in, the robot casually swings the ship up so that it’s being held in both hands like a club, and brings the improvised weapon crashing down on Otachi’s stupid lizard face. The villain receives several more blows before she uses her tail to pluck it out of Gipsy’s hands and fling it to a distant street. Where, in a nice touch, it bounces a few times and lands embedded horizontally between two buildings.

At least it will be easy to find later.

At least it will be easy to find later.

The tail also knocks Gipsy down with a strong blow to the chest, and Otachi uses that opportunity to scamper off around a corner. Gipsy gives chase but has a hard time finding the kaiju, which seems hard to believe. It’s like Where’s Waldo, if Waldo was a 3,000-ton space monster.

In another nice touch, as Gipsy clomps around Hong Kong, it passes a small car bridge, and the pilots actually go out of their way to step over it. Even while holding armageddon at bay, still showing at least some consideration to the surrounding environment. It’s not hard, Zack Snyder.

Unfortunately Otachi shortly more than makes up for Gipsy’s apparent respect for property values when she crashes right through a high-rise building and tackles the jaeger.

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“I think I found her!”

There’s some more tussling here, the best part of which is when we see a ducked punch from Gipsy clear right through an empty office area, with the fist coming to a stop juuuuuuust in time to nudge a Newton’s Cradle into motion. It’s Del Toro’s playful streak showing– completely gratuitous but very funny.

Otachi grabs the jaeger and slams it back & forth between a few buildings, finally shoving Gipsy all the way through one of them. The kaiju tries to follow that up with an acid spit finisher, but Gipsy dodges just in time. Before the gross monster can spit again, Gipsy shoves a fist right in her mouth (wouldn’t there still be lots of acid left in there?) and grabs hold of something. Otachi brings her tail over and coils it all the way around Gipsy’s arm, effectively trapping the robot while trying to snap its head off.

"Caught between a mouth and a hard tail," I believe is the expression.

“Caught between a mouth and a hard tail,” I believe is the expression.

Quick-thinking Raleigh counters this by venting the coolant on the machine’s left flank. The super-cold discharge ends up freezing Otachi’s tail so hard the jaeger can snap it right off. Now she’ll never be the tail of a major corporation. With its hand newly free, Gipsy is able to hold Otachi still and rip out the mouth sac that launches her acid spit. Yowch.

The enraged kaiju jumps onto Gipsy and digs the claws on her hind legs deep into Gipsy’s spine. With a solid grip, Otachi springs her surprise: the hidden leather wings on her forearms. As an even heavier version of the old-school monstruous kaiju tune plays up, Otachi pulls Gipsy high up into the sky, smacking the robot along a few buildings for good measure. It’s kind of poorly edited, with literally no transition between the pair just barely passing the rooftops and then suddenly being almost in orbit.

Out of plasma ammo and about to run out of atmosphere, Mako reveals (how is it possible for them to be surprising each other at this point? They’re literally sharing a brain) Gipsy’s own secret weapon:

Letting out a delightfully hammy declaration of revenge in Japanese, Mako makes Gipsy swing hard enough to cut clean through the bat-lizard.

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Again, if you spoke kaiju you’d know Otachi was saying, “that really was a Hattori Hanzo sword.”

This is awesome, and if anything it only suffers from being not quite as awesome as what immediately preceded it. There’s a lot less direct physical fighting between the two combatants this time, but that’s replaced by a healthy amount of other incident: the brief chase in the crowded city, the acid spit, the tail freezing, and that unusual aerial ending. So while it’s less of a “fight,” than the Leatherback duel, that’s fine, because we didn’t need too much more of the same so soon.

And of course there’s that opening where Gipsy Danger strolls in Like A Boss and wields a tanker like a baseball bat. That forgives a lot.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: A disappointing finale.

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“im un ur ocean, bitin off ur arms”

Pacific Rim (fight 3 of 5)

“Pacific Rim is the ultimate otaku film that all of us had always been waiting for. Who are you, if you are Japanese and won’t watch this?”Hideo Kojima, master video game creator

If the movie impressed you before, here’s where it really shines.

And/or rips stuff off of it.

Shiny, indeed.

3) Gipsy vs Leatherback

The Fighters:

  • Gipsy Danger, our friend from the opening battle, repaired and given a couple modifications. The most notable of them is a chain sword hidden in each forearm.
    • Piloted by: Raleigh Beckett and Mako Mori, played by Charlie Hunnam and the strangely charismatic Rinko Kikuchi, respectively. After barely surviving the Knifehead incident, Raleigh spent about five years in anonymous construction work, recovering from the traumatic loss of his brother. As part of the now-cancelled* jaeger program’s last-ditch effort to proactively end the war, Stacker Pentecost tracks down Raleigh and pulls him back to active duty. His new co-pilot Mako turns out to be Pentecost’s own surrogate daughter, who he’d been caring for ever since her family’s death in an early kaiju attack years before. As you can guess, she has scores to settle.
  • Leatherback, the ape-like latecomer in the previous fight. Having sustained minimal injuries in that five-colossus brawl, he’s pretty much good to go.

[*The film’s “Pan Pacific Defense Corps” has discontinued the jaeger initiative due to high costs and increasingly unsatisfactory results in the face of ever-stronger kaiju attackers. They’re funding Pentecost for only eight more months as they put their focus instead on an enormous coastal wall that doesn’t even look like it will repel a sustained kaiju attack… and it doesn’t, as we see earlier in the film, but the global bureaucracy charges ahead with the same plan anyway. The staggering political incompetence necessary for this premise is a lot more plausible in light of the real-life U.S. government’s disastrous attempts to overhaul its health care system in late 2013.]

The Setup: As Beckett helpfully (and falsely, according to real-world science) explains, since Gipsy’s power source is a nuclear reactor, it’s “analog” rather than digital, and unaffected by the recent EMP blast. Regardless, it’s been maybe five minutes since that pulse went off– barely enough time for the pilots to get into their flight outfits, never mind the climb into the jaeger, get into their delicate “drift” state, do all the pre-flight checks, hook the machine up to a dozen helicopters, etc. But why let logic get in the way of such a great entrance?

Gipsy gets dropped off pretty close to the kaiju and assumes a ready stance. Raleigh quietly asks Mako if she’s ready for the real thing. She SO is.

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For those who hadn’t given up on Pacific Rim entirely by this point, this is the part where it really wins them over. After not just that long dry spell but the devastating losses in the previous battle, the story is in desperate need of a little turnaround. You can really feel the excitement here, and even before the first punch is thrown the audience understands that although it won’t be easy, our heroes won’t let us down this time: Gipsy Danger’s about to kick some ass.

The Fight: The jaeger judo-dodges around Leatherback’s initial charge and is able to seize the monster from behind. Even though it’s unnecessary because Gipsy is immune to it, the robot still rips the bio-electrical EMP device right off from Leatherback’s, uh, back. From the top of the powered-down Striker Eureka, the pilots cheer on Gipsy, with even the erstwhile dickhead Chuck Hansen enthusiastically urging his rivals to take down the beast.

Leatherback is understandably pissed off at having chunks torn off him, so the kaiju breaks free and turns the tables. Using its advanced size smartly, the monster catches Gipsy in a bear hug.

The kaiju then spins around to get momentum and throws Gipsy a good mile or two through the air to the Hong Kong coast, resulting in that long ponderous fall & slide that was spoiled in every single trailer. The jaeger finally comes up in a ready crouch at a dock area, and Leatherback sets foot on land, unleashing a great big giant monster scream apparently as the world’s biggest “come at me bro.”

Both monster and machine charge each other at full speed, with Gipsy’s pilots clearly relishing the thrill (it’s stated earlier in the movie that piloting a jaeger is basically the world’s greatest adrenaline rush). The music builds to a crescendo as they close the distance and Gipsy gets the better of it their simultaneous leap, launching higher up and coming down with a hammer punch on top of Leatherback’s scaly noggin.

"Hello! McFly!"

“Hello! McFly!”

The jaeger hits its foe a few more times (including one with the awesomely impractical Elbow Rocket), but when Leatherback goes down he seizes a piece of control tower and clocks Gipsy with it a few times. Following the kaiju’s example (and maybe also Hulk’s), Gipsy grabs several shipping containers in hand and uses them to smack the enemy around, culminating in a simultaneous smashing to both sides of Leatherback’s face. It’s questionable at best, because surely those shipping containers aren’t made of harder metal than Gipsy’s own “skin,” but again: rule of cool. Del Toro films the blow smartly, slowing down time nearly to a standstill as we see a stunned Leatherback amidst a cloud of suspended debris.

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Then everything revs back up and the fight continues. After some more tussling, the kaiju uses his size advantage again and just rushes into Gipsy, steadily pushing the jaeger back. Stuck in close quarters, the pilots decide it’s the best time to whip out the trusty old plasma cannon.

"Don't plaz me, bro!"

“Don’t plaz me, bro!”

Using the right arm cannon, Mako “empties the clip” per Raleigh’s instruction, tearing increasingly bigger holes in Leatherback’s hide until the monster’s arm falls clean off and it eventually topples, just before it would have pushed Gipsy into the water.

Gipsy starts to walk away, but Raleigh clearly remembers how he assumed Knifehead’s death too soon. Wanting to “check for a pulse” Gipsy revs up the other plasma cannon and blasts the monster several more times, ripping enormous cavities in its chest. Presumably a simpler and more ammunition-efficient way would be to just jump on the monster’s head or something, but this is way more fun.

In real war, double-tapping is technically illegal. Good thing the kaiju don't know about the Geneva Convention.

In real war, double-tapping is technically illegal, so good thing the kaiju don’t know about the Geneva Convention.

Satisfied that Leatherback is not merely dead but really most sincerely dead, Gipsy looks to elsewhere in city at its next target: the deadly Otachi.

This is basically non-stop awesome. It fully delivers on the promise of inventive, epic excitement that you went to the movie for. More importantly, as discussed above it comes at just the right time in the narrative, giving the heroes a win they sorely need. And there’s that promise of more to come.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: The ship hits the fan.

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Pacific Rim (fight 1 of 5)

“Remakes, adaptations, and sequels, that’s all Hollywood does now,” complain the same crowds who declined to see last year’s Pacific Rim, a genuinely new intellectual property which Legendary Studios gambled a ton of money on. You can’t both whine about Hollywood only making safe bets on established franchises while simultaneously refusing to check out a new thing because you don’t know what it is.

I know what THIS is. It's awesome.

I know what THIS is. It’s awesome.

Pacific Rim is an odd & frustrating movie, though. Its flaws are glaring: Despite the bold & unusual step (in an era where we’re bombarded by origin stories) of beginning the movie late in a pre-existing conflict, it nevertheless feels like the sequel to a movie that never existed. It has gaping plot holes and people making nonsensical decisions. It grounds its more interesting characters & designs in the background and then dispenses with them too early. Its whole middle section is almost entirely free of action. It clearly foreshadows thuddingly obvious plot points, then delivers them like they’re huge revelations. Pretty much all its fights take place at night and many in or under water that it’s often hard to see what’s going on. And its willful adoption of nearly every cliche in the book (it openly steals from many films, but none more egregiously so than Independence Day) alternates between amusing and disappointing. Despite what some of its more ardent supporters claim, it’s not the next Star Wars… but with a little tweaking, maybe it could have been.

But what works about it works SO well. The action scenes are astounding in their inventiveness & scale. The designs and special effects are similarly outstanding, born out of a clear yet professional love of their inspirations. The actors are well-cast and clearly having a grand time of it; between their efforts and a pretty sharp script, that aforementioned draggy middle never comes anywhere near the teeth-grinding tedium of Michael Bay’s non-action filler. (Another reason why this movie’s dismissal as “ugh, just another Transformers” by the masses is so irritating– it’s more like what Transformers SHOULD have been.)

Though even Perlman couldn’t have saved Transformers.

So, anyway, Pacific Rim. Giant robots vs giant monsters, Voltrons vs Godzillas. In concept it’s a child’s notebook doodles brought to life, yet it executes with a winning mixture of straight-faced solemnity and wicked playfulness. What does all that clanging & smashing come down to?

[A note on the final grades here, which will also explain why this film’s fans are so willing to overlook its disappointments: I grade all fights based on how well they work as fights, and in Pacific Rim, like most movies, some fights are not as good as others. But a “pretty good” fight of giant robots against giant monsters isn’t exactly the same as a “pretty good” fight of, say, Tony Jaa beating up a bunch of anonymous stunt men. Not sure if you’d call it a grading curve or what, just something to keep in mind.]

1) Gipsy Danger vs Knifehead

The Fighters:

  • Gipsy Danger, our main “jaeger” (German for “hunter,” the film helpfully explains) as they call their giant robots here. Though one of the least visually distinctive machines in the movie, Gipsy still cuts a striking figure as a lean blue sentinel of justice. Despite being an earlier model, Gipsy is still plenty dangerous. Each of its hands can shift into enormous cannons capable of firing a handful (ahem) of deadly plasma bursts, though it takes a few moments to charge up. But Gipsy’s main offensive power is in direct physical combat, with blows administered by its skilled pilots. The unusual spelling of the somewhat un-PC term “gypsy” is apparently a reference to the de Havilland Gipsy engine.
    • Piloted by: Yancy and Raleigh Beckett, two American brothers cocky from their four confirmed kaiju (Japanese for “giant monster,” more or less) kills thus far. They’re talented but their rash attitudes & egos are about to get them in over their heads. Played by Diego Klattenhoff and Charlie Hunnam, respectively.
  • Knifehead, which is not its real name, if it even has one; all kaiju titles are assigned by some unseen person at UN HQ or whatever, mostly for tracking purposes. The reason behind each name is not always obvious, but this one’s pretty on the nose– specifically, Knifehead’s nose, as the top of his head is one super-elongated snout that comes to a sharp point. He also has extra-long arms with large claws at the end, and is apparently the first to exhibit anything resembling advanced tactics. It’s also big, ugly, and mean, but that describes literally every kaiju. Another thing the beasts have in common, unfortunately: while each is neat-looking, none really have anywhere near the iconic design or “personality” of the classic Toho B-movies that inspired them. But to be fair, what does?

“Hey, I got personality falling out my ASS, blog-nerd!”

The Setup: At the sign of a new kaiju winding its way toward the 49th state, the Beckett brothers are roused to duty and sent to guard the coastline and keep it away from Anchorage. Their commander, Stacker Pentecost (a name so ridiculous it makes the actor’s, Idris Elba, look bland in comparison), orders the boys to hold back closer to land and wait for the beast to come near, rather than intervening to save a small fishing boat caught in its path (“Your orders are to save a city of two million people!” he intones, which means a LOT more folks must move there in the future because the entire state of Alaska currently boasts less than half that). They don’t go into why not, though presumably it’s because the kaiju has the edge in deeper waters. Apparently the novelization goes into more detail about the tactical advantage of the “miracle mile.”

Grinning mischievously, the brothers decide to be Big Damn Heroes and go save the boat anyway. The film cuts away from Gipsy’s slow march into the water and takes us to the ship, the SS Saltchuck, getting buffeted pretty hard by storm waters even before Knifehead rises menacingly from the ocean. But shortly after, Gipsy Danger, accompanied by the soundtrack’s trademark Inception BWAAAAMP, arises on the opposite side of the monster. Without so much as a “come with me if you want to live,” the robot plucks the endangered ship out of the water. If not for the courage of the fearless jaeger crew, the Saltchuck would be lost. The Saltchuck would be lost.

"Don't worry, it'll just be a three-hour tour."

“Don’t worry, it’ll just be a three-hour tour.”

Even as our heroes cradle the (comparatively) tiny ship, it’s time for the fight to get down to business.

The Fight: From a far distance, Knifehead uses his long arm to take a swipe at Gipsy Danger, but only grazes the robot’s back as it leans down to put the Saltchuck out of the way. As soon as the ship is safe, Gipsy retaliates with a few punches, the second of which doubles the kaiju over. Gipsy then raises both hands up high and slams them down together on top of Knifehead’s, uh, knife-like head.

As Wayne Campbell would say: "So it's not just a clever name."

As Wayne Campbell would say: “So it’s not just a clever name.”

The monster is hurt but not badly, and tries to lunge in with a chomp to Gipsy’s face, which the robot blocks and instead gives Knifehead a mouth full of wrist. The heroes are able to wrench themselves free and hit the kaiju with two shots of plasma, the second of which sends it flying back into the water.

After Knifehead doesn’t emerge for like ten whole seconds, the brothers stupidly assume it’s dead and crow about their “victory” to Pentecost, who is irritated at them for disobeying orders. Sure enough, HQ starts picking up the monster’s signal again, moving too stealthily underwater for Gipsy to find. Before the boys can retreat, Knifehead suddenly jumps out from the waves and gets real close to the jaeger. Gipsy pushes it away and tries to charge up another plasma shot, but the kaiju pushes the blaster down with one long arm, then lunges in head-first at Gipsy’s shoulder. Knifehead’s ugly noggin cuts right through the robot’s left arm, leaving it useless and sending Raleigh (who controlled that hemisphere) into painful convulsions. Immediately after, the beast comes back in and yanks the arm all the way off, finishing the job.

With Gipsy’s capabilities degraded and its pilots scrambling to react, Knifehead presses its advantage, getting in even closer and putting its claw right through the machine’s visor.

Should have used the Three Stooges Defense.

Even the Three Stooges Defense couldn’t have stopped this.

Even as Yancy tries to form a plan, Knifehead tears all the way through and unceremoniously yanks him right out of his virtual seat. We never explicitly see the older Beckett’s final fate, but, well, you can guess.

Raleigh, meanwhile, is left not just with grief and panic, but has to handle Gipsy’s functions all alone– a task supposedly insurmountable for the “neural bandwidth” of a single mind. He screams as the kaiju goes Gipsy through the chest, then slams the seemingly helpless robot against an iceberg, tearing & biting into even more of its innards. (If you spoke kaiju you’d know that Knifehead’s roars here were a Tony Stark impression: “This looks important!”)

Fortunately, the kaiju’s gleeful destruction seem to distract it long enough for Raleigh to slowly activate the plasma cannon on the remaining arm and fire it at close range.

p7

With that, the film cuts away and HQ announces that the plasma blast has cut off radio contact, leaving Gipsy/Raleigh’s fate in the dark. At least until a few minutes later (but the next morning in the movie), when we see Gipsy stumble and fall onto a barren Alaska beach. Though considering Raleigh’s been narrating for like the first ten minutes of the movie, you probably could have guessed he survived.

There is not a lot to this fight–there are few moves involved, the action stays in one small area, etc– but it sets the stage pretty solidly for what’s to come. Though it’s clearly inspired by previous monster movies, Power Ranger-type shows & animes, and superficially resembles the action in Transformers films, the combat in Pacific Rim is something new entirely. There’s a truly gratifying sense of heft, a kind of slow & lumbering grace befitting their size and strength. It’s Big Dumb done smart.

Also, even as we see the sheer power of the jaegers, we simultaneously learn just how precarious victory is in a fight like this. Just as in a real fight between humans, one small miscalculation can be the difference between life & death. Only here, the stakes are much higher. And bigger.

“Big” is the operative word here. This is not a great fight (it’s just setting the baseline), but it is a big one. Just about everything Pacific Rim does is done enormously if not perfectly: the size and the loudness are rarely so awesome as they are in this film. And while that sounds easy– just turn all dials to the max and you’re good to go!– it really isn’t. As countless blockbusters and would-be blockbusters have taught us, you can have all the money in the world to pour into special effects, but if you can’t put it together skillfully and can’t put some real weight behind it, everything eventually dissolves into just so much bland noise.

But not here. Here, the dials really do go to eleven.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: We hardly knew ye.

Only the cool ‘bots die young.

The Matrix Revolutions

Time to get to some unfinished business.

“Aww, do we have to?”

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

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

Neo vs Agent Smith (final round)

The Fighters:

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

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

Still more appealing than Detroit.

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

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

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

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

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

Writhe of the Titans

Writhe of the Titans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

m4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

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

He was bitten by a radioactive emo kid.

Star Wars, Prequel Trilogy (retrospective, part 2 of 2)

Sith Happens.

And how.

For all the credit fanboys give it for being “dark” (it got a PG-13! And KIDS get killed!… off-screen, kinda. Ooooooh so edgy!) Revenge of the Sith is, to me, where the prequels went from troubling & highly flawed to outright unwatchable. The storytelling gets even more muddled, characterization implodes, dialogue reaches a new low, the entire franchise’s biggest moments are fumbled, and the action is mostly half-hearted & disappointing.

It’s also where lightsaber fighting, once the coolest of the cool, kinda jumps the shark. It already received heavy exposure in the previous two installments but here it’s outright abused. Seeing a single Jedi calmly slice through overwhelming odds or two Force-powered foes go at it has officially gone from awe-inspiring to commonplace, even banal. It is my sincere hope that when JJ Abrams (or whoever) takes over the reins for the next trilogy, they severely dial back both the number of Jedi and the display of their powers. Jedi need to be special again. Anyway:

4) Anakin and Obi-Wan vs Count Dooku (rematch)

“I’ve been looking forward to this.”

The Fighters:

  • Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by a visibly-bored Ewan McGregor.
  • Count Dooku aka Darth Tyranus, played by Christopher Lee.

The Fight: Meh.

There’s an air of… perfunctory-ness to the whole thing. Skywalker and Kenobi walk in and greet Palpatine, who simply responds with a flat “Dooku” indicating that he’s entered the room behind them (they’re Jedi, shouldn’t they have sensed him?). For his part, Dooku opts not to walk down the stairs near the entrance of the room but instead jumps & CGI-flips down off the railing. It’s very awkward to watch this 80+ year-old man “do” that, and doesn’t really fit with his more stately character– this guy isn’t Darth Maul, he shouldn’t act like it.

Whenever the scene’s not perfunctory, it’s painfully lame, such as when Obi-Wan tries to calm the Chancellor by telling him “Sith Lords are our specialty.” Dude, you’ve killed exactly ONE Sith Lord: it was 13 years ago, and you got lucky. Anakin hasn’t killed any. Last time you faced a Sith it was this guy and he beat your ass in 30 seconds, then got away because Yoda stopped to save you– don’t act so cocky. (To any nerd who tries to object by bring up the Clone Wars cartoons: shut up.)

The fight that follows is smooth & graceful, and it tries to make the most of its rather bland setting by having the combatants move around a lot through the two stories… but it’s missing anything to make it truly impressive. Some of the choreography doesn’t work either, like when Dooku delivers a kick that sends Anakin flying– Lee (or his stunt double) sells the blow terribly. It all adds to the sort airy weightlessness of the battle; it’s like watching cartoons fight.

Dooku Force-punches Obi-Wan twice, the second time being a full-fledged body seizure that takes him out of commission for the remainder of the fight. This movie also muddies the water much farther into how Jedi’s telekinetic punches work: you wonder if there’s no way to defend against it, why don’t they do it more often, etc.

The music kicks in when Anakin is left alone with the Sith Lord, and in a brief but furious fight he manages to literally disarm Dooku with one swift move, chopping off his hands and plucking his fallen lightsaber out of the air.

He holds Tyranus in a scissor-lock and agonizes over killing him. After some goading by Palpatine, he eventually does. Lee does some nice work here when he reacts to the Chancellor’s command: it’s ambiguous enough that Anakin could reasonably interpret it as “oh no, I’m panicking because I’m about to die,” when in reality it’s “my master is betraying me, WTF!” But that only raises the question of why he doesn’t speak up and at least try to drag Palpatine down with him by revealing his role in all this– there’s nearly 20 seconds between when Sidious first gives the order and when Anakin finally gives in, plenty of time for him to get over his shock and start squealing like a stool pigeon. Hell hath no fury like a Sith scorned, one would think.

At its best, the fight is gorgeous yet empty, and its worst it’s awkward. If this were merely the warm-up for better things to come, it wouldn’t be so bad, but unfortunately that’s not the case.

Grade: C

5) Obi-Wan vs General Grievous

[no good quotes]

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor.
  • General Grievous, played by CGI and voiced by Matthew Wood.

The Fight: Oy.

Just a waste. General Grievous had been built up in supplementary material to be this super-awesome dueling master– a killer cyborg designed expressly to be the ultimate lightsaber fighting machine!– but in this fight the actual “dueling” part is over within less than a minute, and isn’t too interesting watch, besides. (“This food is terrible!” “I know. And such small portions!”) Not since the Matrix Reloaded’s Twins has such a great fight scene opportunity been bungled.

All Grievous’ amazing skill comes off more like just a cheap trick. Despite pulling some crazy four-armed lightsaber-wrangling (two used for fencing while two more spins like fans above), Kenobi defuses the threat very quickly, and not in a way that builds the hero up so much as it brings the villain down. Grievous looks more here (and in his previous scenes in the film) like a poser rather than a genuine threat– he’s cowardly, ineffective and just plain weird. He’s not a Vader, a Maul, or a Dooku. He’s just kind of a clown.

Kenobi himself doesn’t fare all that much better: Lucas fumblingly tries to give the character a Too Cool For School attitude as he non-chalantly drops into Grievous’ meeting with no apparent backup, and McGregor seems uninterested in trying to compensate for the poor writing. His big comeback (to being told he won’t leave alive) is a rather generic and half-hearted “Oh, I don’t think so!” Frankly even Fred Willard sounded more intimidating saying it. The “combat-ready” stance Kenobi assumes twice early in the confrontation (and several times throughout the film), where he holds his blade in one hand above his head, coils his body back, and points his other hand forward is really silly-looking.

Anyway, after the arrival of clone trooper reinforcements and a really lame-looking Force punch (even worse than Dooku’s kick) that sends Grievous into the ceiling, the villain opts to scamper away on this weird giant wheel of a vehicle, with Kenobi in pursuit on this cool giant lizard that can somehow keep up. There’s a chase in which Kenobi drops his lightsaber (odd, considering how much he chewed out Anakin for doing the same thing in Episode II… also during a vehicle chase, coincidentally. But it’s understandable– it’s not like he has some kind of telekinetic power with which he could have retrieved it), then a crash that leaves the two on the edge of a precipice and both lightsaber-less.

Kenobi does kind of well at first with a droid’s electric staff thing, but Grievous’ droid strength gets the better of him. Disarmed, the Jedi’s physical blows are no good (why doesn’t he Force-punch him again? Especially with that pit right there?), but he does pry open the villain’s chest plate, leaving it exposed for several blaster shots right to the heart. Grievous goes up in flames kind of awesomely.

“… and you’re to blame!”

Of course, since back in Episode IV Kenobi compared the lightsaber as being a more “civilized” weapon than a blaster, here he discards the blaster in disgust by saying “how uncivilized!” Which is just a notch or two beneath “why do I feel like you’re going to be the death of me” in the Herp Derp Remember That Scene In The Old Movies?! category.

I appreciate the scene’s ambition in trying for a new kind of battle here, especially considering it’s a lightsaber-heavy enough film as it is. The idea of Obi-Wan beating the bad guy with a blaster is a pretty ballsy and unexpected one, to be honest I’d appreciate it even more if I thought the movie had wit enough to be trying something “subversive” here, but of course it isn’t. It’s a short & lackluster lightsaber battle followed by an uninteresting chase and a quasi-interesting physical scuffle. And all against a weaksauce bad guy.

Grade: C

6) Darth Sidious vs Mace Windu

“It’s treason, then.”

The Fighters:

  • Mace Windu, played by Samuel L (mothereffing, etc) Jackson.
  • Chancellor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious, played by Ian McDiarmid.
  • Three other Jedi Council members, whose contributions in the fight don’t even rise to “minimal”: Kit Fisto, Agen Kolar, and Saesee Tiin (I had to look up the names of the two who don’t have awesome green dreadlocks), played by Ben Cooke, Tux Akindoyeni, and Kenji Oates, respectively.

This is so much less cool than you’d think.

The Fight: Ugh.

If the previous fight scene was merely disappointing and underwhelming, this one is just plain bad and stupid. The choreography is weak and uninspired, the characters less resembling two cosmic-powered titans having an epic showdown than two, ahem, “men of a certain age” awkwardly swinging swords at each other– even more so than Episode IV’s Kenobi/Vader showdown, but that was simply uninteresting; this is outright embarrassing. And yet, while it manifestly fails to deliver on its epic status, it’s also paradoxically too long.

And did I mention stupid? The fight opens with Mace Windu and three other senior Jedi Masters approaching to apprehend Palpatine and, after some very mediocre dialogue, they engage in battle. Sidious opens up with this bizarrely unnecessary corkscrewing jump while he screech-howls like an animal. He then manages to kill Agen Kolar and Saesee Tiin, two of the most powerful and experienced Jedi Masters in the universe, with his opening strikes– in fact, the former falls prey to one of the most telegraphed lunges of all time. Lucas and co have a very hard time selling the awesomeness of one fighter without making his opponents look like total losers.

Kit Fisto takes one to the gut a few seconds later, so then it’s just Windu and Palpatine alone. They do not acquit themselves well.

Yeah, about like this.

Samuel L Jackson is a man of many talents, but sword-fighting on-screen is not one of them, and probably wasn’t even before he filmed this scene at the age of 53. And Ian McDiarmid… oof. He’s not a bad actor, as he’s spent a lifetime making quite a name for himself on stage, including in many Shakespeare productions. And his previous work as the unctuous & charming Senator Palpatine was actually very good, as was his work in Return of the Jedi. But his performance as Darth Sidious is absolutely, 100%, irredeemably awful. He’s a cartoon character in all the worst ways: he contorts his mouth like a buffoon, he cackles incessantly, and hisses like a snake when he’s angry. The overlord who spent decades methodically masterminding his gradual rise to absolute power has the same mannerisms as a schizophrenic hobo. McDiarmid’s performance (which I have to believe was molded by Lucas) is worse than five Jar Jars, because at least you were never supposed to take him seriously.

Anyway, Mace Windu and Captain Clownface twirl around awkwardly throughout Palpatine’s spacious high-rise apartment. One of the fight’s few and fleeting moments of gracefulness is when it moves close to the enormous bay window and an errant saber swing shatters the glass. That’s kinda nice.

Windu disarms Palpatine and he goes scampering about (again, like a cartoon), seemingly helpless. The duel ends with Windu’s blade in the villain’s face, which is of course just when Anakin The Dumbass enters. There’s some argument about whether Windu should execute Sidious on the spot, while Anakin wants him to live because he’s promised to help save Padme from dying. Palpatine can’t decide whether to play the helpless victim or whether to act overtly evil and, in what’s probably McDiarmid’s lowest point, he croons out “No, noooooo, noooooooooooooo!” and tries to zap Windu point-blank with Force lightning, which the Master just reflects back on him with his lightsaber. The lightning zaps throughout Palpatine’s body and either scars him permanently or reveals his true appearance, depending on what you believe (certainly Force lightning hasn’t marred the face of anyone else who’s ever been hit with it before this). Either way, he now looks more like he did back in Episode VI, though in a way that’s a lot more difficult to take seriously.

The real kick in the gut happens here, after the fighting’s done. Although it would take just a few more inches of effort for Windu to shove his blade through Palpatine’s face, he instead rears back his arm dramatically so that Anakin has plenty of time to draw his own weapon and cut off Mace’s saber hand. With Windu defenseless, Sidious surges back to life and releases another torrent of Force lightning, graphically electrocuting him and sending him flying out the window. Prior to Episode III, Jackson was fond of declaring that he was happy to be in the prequels as long as he didn’t “go out like a punk.” Looks like he didn’t get his wish.

[There are many who theorize that Sidious was never in any danger throughout the entire fight, and only prolonged it so that Anakin would walk in at the exact right second. This interpretation involves too many variables for the Sith Lord to rely on; considering he’d spent years & years playing out his meticulous plan it seems strange he’d gamble it all so boldly right now. Plus, Sidious should not be so much stronger than Windu that he’s able to play possum so well against him; Windu is second only to Yoda, and Yoda comes within an inch of beating Sidious later.]

But the worst part is how this one action undoes all of the franchise’s thematic resonance and years of emotional build-up. Anakin Skywalker didn’t turn to the dark side out of pride and anger, nor did he do so as a completely selfish and calculated decision. He did it in a now-or-never moment of pressure, for a noble reason: saving his wife. He isn’t evil, just paranoid and misguided. Luke’s personal victory in ROTJ no longer has the same power; he didn’t win the battle his father lost, because his father turned “evil” under completely different circumstances. Anakin gave in to love, not aggression. Arguably there’s some poetic symmetry to the reveal that Anakin joined the dark side to save someone he loved and left it for the same reason, but it also makes his final decision a no-brainer: of course he’ll save Luke at the end, because saving family has always been his motivation.

So. This fight is completely un-exciting, frequently clumsy, and the ending undoes a huge part of what makes Star Wars tick. I’ll be generous.

Grade: D-

And let’s take a moment, if we may, to spotlight the absolutely horrible makeup job on Darth Sidious. The idea here is to make him look like the wrinkled, sagging freakshow audiences were introduced to in 1983 and indeed it follows the same general template, but too many things are just… off. Even without McDiarmid’s much more spastic performance and choreography that contorts him in very un-flattering ways, the overall effect of the new Palpatine is not comical but creepy.

sidiouscollage

From left to right: Yes; No; CHILD MOLESTER

This is the ultimate dictator of the galaxy and the evil mastermind behind six epic films. I shouldn’t wince every time he’s on screen.

7) Yoda vs Darth Sidious

“Not if anything to say about it, I have.”

The Fighters:

  • Yoda, by Frank Oz and CGI he is played.
  • Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious, played by Ian McDiarmid.

The Fight: Derp.

Is it possible to create a really good sword fight featuring a 60-year-old robe-wearing & makeup-slathered actor against a diminutive CGI muppet? Maybe, but ROTS doesn’t provide a lot of evidence in favor.

This time around there’s actually some gravitas at play, thanks largely to audience anticipation, Frank Oz’s performance, and John Williams’ music. Yoda’s entrance into Palpatine’s chambers is pretty cool– he casually flicks a hand and it drops the two door guards to the ground. He is, however, weirdly unprepared for the jolt of Force lightning that knocks him into the wall, even though (again!) Sidious telegraphed the fact that he was about to do it pretty heavily. It looks like Qui-Gon Jinn’s “he can see things before they happen, that is why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It’s a Jedi trait,” in TPM is just below Kenobi’s “only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise” in terms of Statements Not Supported By Reality.

Yoda dusts himself off and retaliates with a strong Force punch* that sends Palpatine across the room. Switching emotional polarities really quickly as usual, Sidious panics and tries to escape with a cartoony flip that really doesn’t match his look (and his naked cowardice doesn’t inspire much admiration for him as a villain), but he’s cut off by Yoda, who utters a smug, “If so powerful you are, why leave?” Sidious’ retort is weird: “You will not stop me. Darth Vader will become more powerful than either of us!” The way McDiarmid delivers it, it sounds like the second sentence is being offered as a justification for the first, even though that makes no sense. At this point, viewers had certainly become accustomed to George Lucas writing dialogue exchanges where each character’s lines didn’t seem to have anything to do with the other’s, but it’s rare that a single character can’t even follow his OWN lines.

[*Once again: what’s the deal with Force punching? If it’s as effective and practical as a regular punch, why don’t they do it more often? More importantly, as we see here, it’s the good Jedi’s long-range equivalent of Force lightning, so if they achieve roughly the same purpose in combat, why is one good/neutral and one “bad”?]

Anyway, after some really awkward posing by Sidious and a cut away to the Anakin/Obi-Wan fight, the two find themselves dueling on the platform that rises into the middle of the empty Senate chambers. It’s here that the combat is actually the most interesting. Yoda is flipping about still, but with much more actual sword work than in his clash with Count Dooku. The new music trailing in from the other fight & some smart camera work really convey the epic scale of the conflict, and of course the symbolism of this deciding battle occurring in the very heart of the Republic’s political system is powerful if obvious.

The fight gets a lot less compelling after the next cut, when we find the two have somehow separated: Sidious is several stories above Yoda in the enormous chamber, ripping out empty Senate seats (again: symbolism!) with the Force and throwing them at his tiny foe (“Duel of the Fates” plays from this point on, but it doesn’t gain much in being repeated from Episode I). The acrobatic muppet has little trouble dodging them as they come, and he finally gets Sidious on the defensive by seizing one & returning it to sender. As he does with every other emotion, McDiarmid WAY oversells his panic at having to dodge a single projectile.

As soon as he re-orients himself Palpatine is face-to-face against Yoda, but he knocks the saber out of the green alien’s hand with a quick burst of Force lightning. It now becomes pure strength against strength, as Sidious pours on the juice and Yoda tries to push it back. Yoda seems to get the upper hand and when he repels the attack it creates an explosive pulse that sends them both flying. Sidious is able to get hold of a guard rail but Yoda is not so lucky, so he falls a loooong way down and takes a couple hard thumps on the way.

Yoda then scurries off and… that’s it. The contest of the two most cosmically powerful figures imaginable comes down to an accident of footing, the fate of the galaxy is lost on a technicality. It’s hard to understate just how monumentally disappointing this is. And besides that, it’s stupid: it’s understandable that Yoda wouldn’t want to continue the fight after suffering such a nasty fall (when 900 years of age you reach, as resilient your back will not be), but it’s frankly astonishing to think he’d tuck his tail between his legs for 20 years to avoid a rematch to a fight he probably would have won, especially with billions of lives on the line. Lucas once again chickened out as a storyteller; he wanted to find a way to have the good guy lose without making him “really” lose, and the resulting compromise is baffling rather than comforting. (And don’t even try to come at me with the silly rationalizations from the crappy novelization.)

More baffling is the pervasive laughter on the part of Darth Sidious throughout the fight. Not just laughter but straight-up cackling, with all the professionalism of a tenth-grade drama student playing a witch in Macbeth. He cackles after he’s zapped Yoda with lightning at the beginning, he cackles several times when they’re locking swords, he cackles as he’s heaving Senate pods at Yoda, he cackles while Yoda is seizing the Senate pod and spinning it in place in preparation to send it back, he cackles while Yoda is falling. He cackles without any regard to whether it’s an appropriate time to do so or whether it will impress the audience. Yes, way back in ROTJ the Emperor’s creepy laughter was a continuous presence in his climactic scene, but there it made sense: Palpatine had Luke right where he wanted him, he was steadily working to unnerve & aggravate the man, and he had every reason to believe his ultimate victory was achieved. Here he just cackles compulsively and ceaselessly. Like most everything about McDiarmid as the Sith Lord, it’s meant to be grand & scary but it comes off as petty & comical. When it comes to over the top acting, there’s a fine line between hammy and vampy. This is so far on the wrong side of that line it makes the 60s Batman villains look like Mark Ruffalo.

There’s more to like here than in most of ROTS’ other fights, but it’s weighed down by too many clumsy missteps and unforgivable errors. Wasted potential.

Grade: C-

8) Anakin vs Obi-Wan

“You were the Chosen One!”

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor
  • Darth Vader formerly Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen.

The Fight: Improvement.

After some truly terrible opening dialogue (“only a Sith deals in absolutes!” Hmm, ONLY a Sith, huh? Sounds like an absolute statement there, buddy), the duel kicks off more spirited than anything since the Episode I.

For those first few minutes, everything comes together perfectly. The actors, via either their own skill or just through sheer repetition, move at an incredible pace through an exquisite dance of death, never missing a single beat. Christensen in particular– with his tall & lean physique, striking black outfit and don’t-give-a-crap long hair– cuts the most imposing profile in the trilogy since Liam Neeson took a dive. Lucas shoots the whole thing like a pro, alternating skillfully between close-ups, mediums, wide shots, overhead angles, and even one striking behind-the-back view as the pair duel through a narrow hallway. Remarkably, even though the opponents are using the same color lightsaber (a first in Star Wars history!) and seemingly move in fast-forward, you can actually keep track of the action and see what’s going on. And John Williams’ specially composed piece “Battle of the Heroes” plays up immediately and keeps going for quite a while– it’s exciting, memorable, and hauntingly tragic.

This is the only fight in the whole movie that’s firing on all cylinders. There are some interesting beats in the control room, including some more intimate physical work like a disarmed Vader choking Anakin with his robot hand and doing the “why are you hitting yourself?” thing as he tries to turn Kenobi’s own saber against him.

In another cool beat, the two conclude a dazzling series of point-blank blows by trying to simultaneously Force-punch each other, which turns into an impromptu telekinetic wrestle that results in both flying back– odd, because while it’s believable that in a straight duel Obi-Wan’s experience and intimate knowledge of Anakin’s technique might put him on even footing, in a contest of raw strength the Chosen One would surely have the advantage.

Anyway, unfortunately, it’s not long after that an errant strike from Vader manages to hit the “press here to destroy whole chunks of the installation” button on a control panel. And naturally the two Jedi, with their finely-honed instincts and powers of precognition, think that’s the perfect time to venture out from the relative safety of the control room out onto more precarious and crumbling parts of the facility, where they’ll be exposed to the continuous splashing of liquid hot magma. Right.

What follows after could not possibly be more boring. The combatants still take occasional swings at each other but they’re mainly preoccupied with jumping around as pieces of the facility fall down and dodging lava. It’s meant to be spectacular but it’s all just so much green screen sound & fury, signifying nothing. It completely interrupts the flow of the fight and makes this all-important confrontation wind down rather than build up.

“Don’t touch the floor, the floor’s lava!”

Once the erstwhile master & apprentice find a some real estate in the lava river (a floating droid and a chunk of metal with its force field still working, that is. Even still, shouldn’t the proximity to that much heat be enough to kill even a Jedi?) the two have a few more up-close clashes, but nothing near the furious beauty of the fight’s opening. They also talk a little more, and Ewan McGregor gets in his only affecting bit of performance in the entire sequence, if not the whole film: as he tells Anakin that he’s sorry how he failed him, he has the look & sound of a man who’s lost so much he can only laugh grimly at his awful situation. He’s actually smiling as he says it, in a crazy sort of way.

Unfortunately it is soon overshadowed by what’s the worst line that George Lucas ever wrote, indeed one of the worst lines in the history of cinema: when Kenobi declares that Palpatine is evil (hey Obi-Wan, is he ABSOLUTELY evil?), Vader replies, “from my point of view, the Jedi are evil!” Which… gah. That’s not something anyone would say in that situation, in fact it’s not even actual dialogue– it’s an actor reading his script notes out loud (“ANAKIN: 22 years old. Tall. Headstrong. Driven by love to paranoia. From his point of view, the Jedi are evil. Hates sand”). And the movie still can’t decide if Anakin has only joined the dark side on a selfless mission to help Padme, or if he’s genuinely swallowed Palpatine’s silly story about the Sith being misunderstood good guys out to bring order to the galaxy. Neither, of course, matches the Darth Vader we were introduced to in 1977, but of course that’s been off the menu for a while now.

Shortly after this, Obi-Wan spots some safe terrain atop a nearby small hill, and flips to safety. He announces that the fight is over because he has “the high ground” and warns Anakin not to come at him bro.

Vader disregards and tries to flip all the way over Kenobi’s head and directly behind him, but Obi-Wan lunges in and with one quick strike he chops off the other three of Vader’s remaining original limbs, leaving him to tumble down towards the lava and eventually catch fire.

There are so many ways in which this makes no sense. Search throughout the entire previous six movies for a Jedi duel where “the high ground” was a deciding factor in anyone’s victory. Your search will be in vain. In point of fact, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself flipped directly over the head of a ruthless Sith Lord not once but twice back in Episode I, at the beginning of the fight and (even more so) at the end– yes, that’s right, the arrogantly foolish move reduces Anakin to a torso is the same move that Kenobi used to WIN a fight. In fact Anakin himself got away with flipping over Kenobi’s own head (to land on his platform) about a minute before this! Besides that, even if it was a stupid idea, there was plenty of room on that mound for Vader to land on that wouldn’t have put him within his opponent’s striking distance. With all the various listings of Lucas’ faults that populate the Internet, “he doesn’t know how to end a fight” gets a surprisingly small amount of play.

So Obi-Wan chews out his old student one last time, takes his lightsaber and leaves him to die. Others have complained that it was foolish for Kenobi to just assume Vader died rather than finish him off, but given McGregor’s performance the more obvious (and compelling) interpretation is that he’s just too sad and disgusted to even look at Anakin anymore.

And that, of course, is that. The emotional and aesthetic linchpin of the entire Star Wars series ends not with a bang but with an idiotic whimper.

At least there’s this.

As with the Matrix Reloaded’s signature brawl, this duel is a mixed bag. What works REALLY works, but there are so many bad decisions which simply cannot be ignored. This is a 6+ minute fight in which only two minutes contain actual fighting, and the rest are largely filled with scrambling around on CGI backdrops. There’s no excuse for that. It averages out to:

Grade: B

Well, that’s it for Star Wars, unless this blog hangs around until 2015 or so. I wish I could have gotten the more painful-to-review prequel fights out of the way first and followed up by commenting on the glory of the originals, but I suppose that’s sort of fitting.

Coming Attractions: After all this star warring, we’ll unwind with some really, really, ridiculously silly. I won’t give away what it is, though I kind of just did.