The Mask of Zorro (fight 4 of 5)

HEY GIRL

4) Zorro vs Elena

The Fighters:

  • Alejandro de la Vega aka Zorro, who you know by now. He has already secretly met her multiple times: first in his proto-Zorro outfit just before stealing Tornado, again while hiding from Love’s men in a confessional booth (in a gut-busting scene, he pretends to be a priest), and again during his undercover mission as a wealthy Spanish nobleman. In that last guise the two shared a very sexy flamenco dance at her father’s party, but what they’re about to do now is even sexier. Played by Antonio Banderas.
  • Elena Montero, born Elena de la Vega. Diego’s real daughter, stolen as an infant and raised by his adversary. To her adopted dad’s frustration, she has the untameable passion of her mother and the righteousness of her real father. She’s frustrated by her feelings for Alejandro (he sent her necessarily mixed messages, being torn between his attraction to her and his mission to suck up to Rafael) and has doubts about her father’s behavior, being torn between her justice and loyalty. Played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a star-making performance.

Both are armed with rapiers, as usual.

The Setup: About ready to make his escape, Zorro returns to Montero’s stables to fetch Tornado but is intercepted by Elena, who holds him at swordpoint and demands he return whatever it is he stole. He keeps trying to give her the brush-off but she’s persistent; when he condescendingly tells her (or “mansplains,” to use a hilarious new expression) that he doesn’t “have time to give [her] the proper instruction,” she smirks and tells him that she’s been trained in fencing since she was four.

Even though she’s giving him some (reciprocated) flirtatious vibes– Daddy’s cooped this bird up for waaaaaay too long and she’s totally down to, ahem, fence— Zorro can tell he’s not walking away from this… not that he entirely wants to. She waits while he removes his sword (not a euphemism), and they begin.

Here’s as good a place as anyway to point out what seems to be a deliberate effort (it may just be my perception) on the part of Bob Anderson and all the principal actors: even though they all use the same type of fencing with the same type of weapon, each main character seems to have his or her own trademark fighting style— or at the very least different approaches and attitudes to the same style. Each one’s body language identifies them like a signature.

Alejandro is all limber flash and pizzazz, whereas Diego (especially towards the end) is fluid, effortless, almost lazy. Montero’s style is plain but strong, aggressive and relentless. Captain Love fights more formally & rigidly; you constantly see him with one hand firmly planted behind his back. Elena is somewhat more formal as well, but in more of a dramatic way: during the fight that’s about to ensue, she keeps re-assuming similar exaggerated starting poses, and generally moves about in a florid way.

It’s an excellent little touch that adds richness to the film, even if the audience doesn’t consciously notice it. Anyway, en garde!

The Fight: Paced and staged differently than anything that’s come before, but certainly no less fun.

Elena’s skill is evident early on, as at the end of their first exchange she ends up slashing Zorro on the shoulder… but only his clothing, she doesn’t actually seem to break the skin. He regards the non-wound with a sort of amused frustration, and by unspoken mutual consent they take a quick breather as they both slip into something more comfortable remove their more obstructive layers of clothing: Zorro his hat & cape, Elena the robe she was wearing over her nightgown.

Actually, the amount of humor/sexiness they each put behind small little dialogue exchanges and body language throughout the fight… well, it’s hard to accurately convey it into print, but it’s perfect. Both actors are absolutely on the same wavelength with each other and with what was needed out of the scene, and the resulting chemistry is impeccable. They pull if off so well you’d almost think they were an item in real life as well– and hey, who knows. Both later admitted being genuinely turned on while filming the scene. Don’t tell Michael or Melanie.

Once they begin again without encumbrance, Zorro’s superior skill comes into play, and he repays his torn shirt by ripping her dress to reveal a generous amount of thigh. “Not bad,” she says nonchalantly. “Not bad at all,” he replies as he outmaneuvers her and leans in for a surprise kiss. She gets visibly (and sexily) angry, flustered enough so that in the next exchange he slices off one of her shoulder straps, resulting in her being dangerously close to toplessness. So of course he kisses her again, getting her even more worked up.

She ends up disarming him, but without missing a beat, he outwits her by diving into a nearby pile of hay and blocking her thrusts with a horse bridle. This also allows Zorro to seize her sword, and even though she runs to grab his where it fell, he beats her there, makes her rise slowly, and tells her not to move as the camera focuses on the hero making several rapid but delicate sword swipes. He steps back looking enormously pleased with himself, and when the shot moves back to her, we see why: he’s cut her gown in just enough places so that it will fall apart on its own within seconds, leaving her stripped to the waist, save for some strategically placed hair.

I’ll just leave this here, gentlemen.

She uses his hat to cover her indecency, and after a bit more banter they embrace for their third and most passionate kiss. He disappears to collect his things just as Elena, eyes closed, leans in for more as if entranced. He says goodbye to the señorita and leaves just ahead of Don Rafael and his men. But not before popping back for his hat.

There’s a hilarious little denouement as Elena has to explain to her flustered father what happened while (not) concealing her obvious attraction to him. When she shouts “he LEFT!” it’s clear that she’s more angry that he didn’t stick around for more smooching than she is about having lost the fight. But really, in a fight like this, everyone’s a winner– especially the audience. Don’t you think?

If this scene commits any sin (besides that one from the Seven Deadlies, I mean), it’s that it’s too short, ending not too long after it starts. But that’s a bit of a necessity, given that the two could only plausibly be in there so long before somebody thought to check the stables. Plus it’s stretched out fairly well as it is with the flirtatious material in-between exchanges of blades.

It really is perfectly paced and staged. There’s an energy to it that would be hard to convey in the script, so kudos to not just the actors but also director Campbell for understanding what was needed. James Horner’s score switches to a steady beat of maracas (I think) throughout, helping enormously with the playful tone.

It’s a bit ridiculous that Alejandro, a man who’s only studied for a few weeks (months?) could stand a chance against Elena, who received 16 years of the best instruction. But that’s the kind of silly universe this movie inhabits– one where no one recognizes you if you put a bandana on your head, or where a masked man in dark black can successfully sneak around in broad daylight. It works.

Is it a bit sexist? Well, it features a woman being turned on by multiple unwanted kisses from a criminal who’s (kind of) physically assaulting her, who then humiliates her by stripping off half her clothes, so… okay, technically it is. But, I must mansplain, you shouldn’t take that any more seriously than the idea that the novice fencer can beat the expert, and so forth. It’s willfully silly, so have some fun with it. It’s still less sexist than literally anything that happens in the Twilight books.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: The, ahem, climax.

Zorro’s been looking for Love in all the RIGHT places.

The Mask of Zorro (fight 3 of 5)

Oh, I’m ready for the fun part.

Ready for Love?

3) Zorro vs Captain Love, Don Rafael, and Soldiers

The Fighters:

  • Alejandro Murrieta aka Zorro 2.0. After finding vital intel on Montero’s plans, Alejandro receives Diego’s blessing to don (heh) the full Zorro regalia: mask, hat, sword, whip and sexy Spanish ninja outfit. His training complete and his passion forged into a focused determination, Alejandro– and Zorro– are cooler than ever. Played by Antonio Banderas.
  • Captain Harrison Love, the professional soldier (and real person) who leads Montero’s men. A real sadistic SOB with whom Alejandro has a personal score to settle. Quite a skilled fighter, too; Love is a battlefield, after all. Played by Matt Letscher.
  • Don Rafael Montero, the film’s main villain, who you remember from before. Twenty years older but no less deadly or determined. Played by Stuart Wilson.
  • Montero’s men, about six or so of them. Again here as ballast. The enormous one is missing; presumably because he’s at the dentist.

All are armed with rapiers or sabers. Some of the soldiers have single-shot rifles that prove useless against the speedy fox, and Captain Love carries a pistol but he is immediately deprived of it.

The Setup: Alejandro has just returned from an extended undercover mission, impersonating a young nobleman in order to get in Montero’s good graces and find out his plan: he plans to buy California from Santa Anna, using gold from a secret Mexican mine run by slave labor. Though his performance was impeccable, Alejandro still had to suffer through a few tense confrontations with the man who hunted down his brother: Captain Love, an amoral mercenary with the face of a date rapist:

His mercenary business’ slogan: “Money CAN buy you Love!”

Frustrated at having had to restrain his bloodlust, Alejandro is encouraged by Diego to hide his rage behind the mask of Zorro. On the eve of the would-be California Purchase, the determined hero sneaks into Montero’s home to abscond with the map to his hidden mine. Meanwhile, Diego, in a distant but visible field, puts the fear of God into the villains with some not-so-subtle imagery:

After effortlessly stealing the map, Zorro surprises Love in a hallway. Holding him at sword-point, he deprives Love of his weapons, and when two guards approach, he holds their captain hostage and forces them to let him kick them out the window. He doesn’t want to deal with them; all he needs is Love. Once they’re alone, Zorro steps back and returns the captain’s sword so that they can duel, and he can give Love a bad name.

The Fight:

Who’s holding the other sword? Love, actually.

This Love has taken its toll on the hero, so he clearly relishes the opportunity to defeat and embarrass him. They start out tentatively at first, with Zorro almost teasing the villain with tiny little gestures. But soon the fight begins in earnest and it’s wonderful to behold. Love, being a many-splendored fighter, is quite good, but the power of Love is no match for Zorro. The hero easily dominates the captain and finally sends him sprawling to the ground with a brutal punch. But before Zorro can finish the job and become a murderer of Love, our old pal Don Rafael comes rushing out to the hallway, ready to fight.

Even though the apparent return of his old bete noir surely rattled Montero’s nerves, he hasn’t missed a step in the fencing department, putting up a worthy fight for Zorro.

“Rafael, without your Love, you are nothing!”

Things get even trickier when we’re reminded that despite a good decking Love is all around, and the captain rejoins the fray. Even outnumbered Zorro is still deadly, picking up a second sword and driving his opponents back. That’s a bad long-term strategy, though, so the fox escapes from the hallway and out into a larger courtyard/foyer area, pursued by his two adversaries and with yet more soldiers streaming in.

It gets even more fun from there. Zorro outfences and outmaneuvers the faceless goons even more easily than he did the main villains (who also join the battle). Even more before, Alejandro is always in motion, always in control, always too cool for school. If he’s ever anxious at all during the fight, he doesn’t show it; on the contrary, the look on his face betrays that this new hero is having the time of his life. Swashbuckling hasn’t looked this good since Errol’s days.

The fight is packed with all sorts of delightful incident. Zorro controls the terrain by jumping off & on a large table and bringing the fight up there, he clocks Love again after being momentarily disarmed, he duels Montero from the other side of a huge candle stand, he does Olympic-level gymnastics on a series of tree branches. It’s not until the fight’s end that he’s even briefly put out, when he’s literally up against the wall with all the surviving soldiers ready to close in.

zorromap

But just as they charge, Zorro sidesteps from the wall and cuts loose the enormous hanging map behind him so that it falls on top of his pursuers, leaving them in a state of confused chaos so he can escape with the goods. (There’s bit of poor staging here: Banderas steps away from his foes a few seconds too early, and the careful viewer can see the soldiers would have had ample time to stop or change course on their blind charge. Ah, well.)

Zorro is quite rightfully pleased with himself, but he doesn’t see that his escape has been witnessed by Rafael’s “daughter,” Elena….

Except for the most minor of errors, very little not to love here. The choreography is fantastic, James Horner’s music soars, Banderas’ devilish charm dazzles, and the pacing is perfect– like many of the great fight scenes, it goes on long enough that you don’t feel cheated but short enough that want more. Plus there’s some excellent comic timing at work in the moments before the fight, as Zorro dispatches of Love’s would-be rescuers. If you’re not cheering for the movie now, you’re in a coma.

Grade: A

Recommended Links: Antonio Banderas hung on to his sword prop from this movie, and once used it to scare off a burglar. It’s not quite as cool as burglars being scared off by the very IDEA of Dolph Lundgren, but still.

Coming Attractions: Best. First. Date. Ever.

And here I am, fresh out of “love” puns.

The Mask of Zorro (fight 2 of 5)

In which Zorro gets his “faithful” horse.

2) Alejandro vs Montero’s Soldiers

The Fighters:

  • Alejandro Murrieta, the young urchin from the prologue, all grown up. A semi-reformed bandit under the tutelage of escapee Diego de la Vega. He will, spoiler, soon assume the mantle of Zorro, but based on his woefully incomplete outfit and un-professionalism here, it’s safe to say he hasn’t graduated yet. Played by Antonio Banderas, who isn’t in enough movies lately if you ask me.
    • Armed with: goes into battle with a rapier here, but loses it and improvises with what he can find, including a sword and knife from his opponents, a mounted bull’s head, a pair of cannon balls, and an actual cannon.
  • A barracks full of soldiers, over a dozen or so of them. Working for Don Rafael Montero and under the direct command of professional soldier Captain Love. More cannon fodder, presumably played by stunt men and local actors. The skeezy-looking leader is played by (near as I can figure) Pedro Altamirano, and the only other notable one is a rather enormous fellow, played by Óscar Zerafín González.
    • Armed with: They may have some guns about but none of them really come into play, mostly swords and fists.

The Setup: After twenty years, Don Rafael has returned to California with some sinister scheme afoot. Upon learning of this, Diego escapes his hellish prison (he didn’t think to do that earlier?) to thwart his old rival. But after being stymied in his post-escape efforts to kill Montero, de la Vega instead takes up the cause of rehabilitating Alejandro, himself despondent and suicidal after the death of his brother (courtesy of Captain Love). Diego blows the dust off his old Zorro lair and gives him a crash course in badassery, honing his swordsmanship, strength and agility in order to help him take revenge on Love… and, Alejandro gradually deduces, to groom him as a successor.

I’ll note here that few things in movies are cooler than post-jailbreak Diego during this middle part of the movie. Good old Anthony Hopkins plays the man as a long-haired, cigar-smoking, wine-guzzling, open-shirted bohemian who uses his whip to flick out candle flames for fun.

And also just because he CAN, presumably.

He’s a retired superhero but he’s also the weirdly cool uncle you never had. It’s a riot.

Anyway, after a few training montages, Alejandro spies Montero’s soldiers with a freshly-purchased and unbroken black Andalusian horse, similar to Zorro’s old steed Tornado. Seeing a chance to irk Love’s men and still a thief at heart, Alejandro dons a subpar Zorro mask and sneaks off an unsanctioned mission to steal the stallion from the soldiers. Along the way he has his first meet-cute with the also-grown up Elena, whose natural passion and righteousness weren’t repressed even after two decades of being raised by Rafael. He sneaks into the stable adjoining the barracks (it can’t be great trying to sleep next to that smell every night, come to think of it) and locates his target easily enough, but there are… complications.

The Fight: Alejandro gets on the horse, but as soon as he tries to ride it out, it objects, and the wild bucking eventually sends the pair crashing into the soldiers’ sleeping area. The new Tornado inadvertently handles just a bit of Murrieta’s work for him by kicking a few panicked soldiers out of the way, but when the horse smashes through the wall like the Kool Aid Man, his new “owner” falls off, and is left utterly surrounded by a lot of very pissed off Mexican soldiers.

What follows is a good bit of fun. The fight signals its intentions early, as that traditional Looney Tunes bit goes down where everybody dogpiles on the hero at once, only for him to calmly climb out from underneath the teeming mass. Ridiculous, but it establishes that this is meant to be an amusing scene rather than an exciting one, and for better or for worse it certainly plays out differently than the rest of the film’s action.

And it’s inventive. After pulling off the tried & true method of swinging on the chandelier and using roped counterweights to ascend higher, the hero seizes a mounted bull’s head and uses the horns as a weapon, then ducks inside an open jail cell and when his pursuers on the other side try to stab him through the bars, he uses the sliding door to trap & mangle their swords.

Throughout the whole thing Murrieta never stops moving, constantly punching, kicking and dodging. Soon enough he grabs a couple blades of his own (sword & knife) and does even better, but he backs into a giant soldier who shakes him free of his weapons. The guy looks enormous– seemingly over seven feet tall, but possibly more in the 6′ range since he’s mostly contrasted against the relatively diminutive Banderas.

The remaining soldiers step back to gleefully watch this monstrous Mexican man-mountain take out Alejandro on his own. Backed into a corner, Murrieta grabs the nearest weapons at hand– two cannon balls– and when the giant gets close enough Alejandro bashes them simultaneously against both sides of his foe’s face. The giant is not visibly stunned at first, but after repeated blows, he eventually turns around in a daze and, rather comically, spits out a whole mouthful of teeth at once. Ouch.

While the remaining soldiers were watching dumbfounded, Alejandro loaded and primed the nearby cannon, so that when they looked back up at him the fuse was ready to light.

zorrocannon

Now they’re LITERALLY cannon fodder.

The guards scamper away and Alejandro blows a new hole in the wall, spastically proclaiming that he is Zorro and that “the legend has returned!” Of course, since we can’t leave the scene without one last joke, the hero accidentally blows up the whole building (due to all the exposed gunpowder) and barely escapes alive.

As mentioned, not much to it and more silly than thrilling, but still a lot of fun, and most importantly, a nice bit of action filler to pass the time until the next real fight sequence (which won’t be for a while). Banderas is quite capable, acting cocky but not as cool & competent as he will be later on. The actors playing the faceless goons sell everything well and the music is appropriately mischievous.

(What’s WITH this building, come to think of it? It seems to be a combination barracks/jail/arms room, adjacent to the stables. Logistically impractical.)

Grade: B

Recommended Links: If the Puss-in-Boots films don’t work out, Antonio can always go back to his– how do you say? Ah yes– talk show.

Coming Attractions: Are you ready for the fun part?

Time to play dress-up. No, not like that….

The Mask of Zorro (fight 1 of 5)

I’m excited too, Tony.

The Mask of Zorro, a deliciously fun 1998 film that was a solid hit but got nowhere near the acclaim it deserves. Directed by gifted genre helmer Martin Campbell, its fight scenes were overseen by legendary Hollywood swordmaster and GFS mainstay Bob Anderson. Here, Anderson channeled his vast skill in the service of creating a gloriously old-school Hollywood throwback.

And good thing, too, because as any Zorro fan can tell you, the thing that most separates him from his contemporaries and inspirations (Batman being among them) is the masked man’s sense of style. Even Robin Hood has nothing on the Z-man in that department. A consummate showman, Zorro always fights like he has an audience to entertain (and as he is a folk hero within his stories, he frequently does), and is fond of using his environment in creative ways and making fools of those who oppose him; even sillier incarnations such as the parody film Zorro The Gay Blade don’t fail to present a Zorro who’s always the coolest guy in the room.

Anderson’s staging combined with the flamboyant performances of Hopkins and Banderas (the latter of whom was said by Anderson to be the best talent he’d ever worked with) give the film a “classic” feel and it never fails to entertain. Unfortunately the movie is a bit backloaded when it comes to action; it’s not until well past the halfway point that the real joys begin, even if what precedes that is perfectly serviceable. And of course that only serves to make the payoff that much sweeter.

1) Zorro vs Don Rafael and Soldiers

The Fighters:

  • Don Diego de la Vega, aka Zorro (Spanish for “fox” in case you were wondering, gringo), a wealthy Spanish nobleman leading a double-life as the populist crusader of the title. It’s clear he’s been operating for some time now, but that’s about to come to an unfortunate end. Played by Anthony Hopkins.
    • Armed with: a rapier, along with pretty much everyone else in the movie. Also has a whip, though in this movie it’s largely used as a tool rather than a weapon.
  • Don Rafael Montero, the Spanish aristocrat appointed as governor of then-Spain-owned California. His oppressive policies have clearly put him at odds with Zorro. Played by Stuart Wilson, who’s fine but pales next to the original choice of master ham Armand Assante. Ah, what we missed out on!
    • Armed with: rapier.
  • Soldiers, less than ten or so. Under the command of Don Rafael, and none of them particularly skilled or competent. Pure cannon fodder.
    • Armed with: rapiers (possibly sabers) and also some with muskets. One has a handgun.

The Setup: The beginning of Mask of Zorro practically functions as the ending– if a rather dark one– to another movie that’s not shown to the audience. Between the lengthy text prologue and the implications of the early dialogue, the audience learns that the Spanish colony of California is about to come under the control of the legendary Mexican leader Santa Anna. Montero, however, has yet to leave the soon-to-be-liberated land, in order to take one last stab at killing Zorro, who has clearly been antagonizing Rafael for some time now. Montero’s hatred for the outlaw is deep and personal.

Montero has set a trap for Zorro by organizing the public execution of three random civilians, hoping that Zorro will show up and be killed in the attempt to save them. The audience mainly sees the ensuing confrontation through the eyes of two young boys, Joaquin Murrieta (who was a real person) and his little brother Alejandro (who wasn’t), both of them big Zorro fans.

[Note that this segment combines two short fights– Zorro’s exploits at the gallows and the ensuing confrontation at his home– into one entry. This combination is done in the interest of brevity, as the two battles are both short and largely against the same foes.]

The Fight: Zorro, who arrived disguised as a hooded monk, waits until the last possible moment to interrupt the proceedings, but does so with signature style, seizing one of the firing squad’s rifles with his whip and yanking it into the guns of his compatriots so that all their shots hit their captain rather than the would-be victims. Campbell wastes no time setting up Zorro’s signature cleverness and showmanship.

The battle that follows is well-done. Zorro fends off the remaining soldiers with ease, pulling a few more tricks like escaping through the gallows’ trapdoor, impaling one guard by throwing him into a sword that become lodged in a wooden pillar, and trapping another foe inside a set of stocks (you know, these things) nearby. Hopkins and/or his stunt double make for an appropriately dashing and capable figure, even if makeup and lighting couldn’t quite conceal the actor’s age and physical condition (he was about 60 at the time of filming):

Still sexier than I am, so we won’t dwell on it

The Murrieta brothers, watching from the rooftops, spot the additional set of soldiers waiting to snipe Zorro from a nearby balcony, and foil them by pushing a statue in their direction just before they could take a rather fateful shot. Zorro shows up to thank them in person, and leaves Joaquin his signature silver medallion in gratitude. This will be important later.

Before leaving (via escape into the crowd), Zorro confronts Rafael, and leaves a signature “Z” cut on his neck, telling him to go back home to Spain and never return.

Zorro would come to regret that act of chivalric mercy, because after he rides to his lovely hacienda and attends to his wife & infant daughter, an unmasked Diego is confronted by Don Rafael and a squad or armed guards. Montero has at some point deduced his adversary’s true identity, the revelation of which must be truly cutting as it’s the same guy who married Rafael’s own unrequited love, Esperanza.

Diego, naturally, resists arrest, and after fighting some guards off a heated duel soon begins between himself and Rafael– right there on the stairs, which is always neat. Though Rafael is clearly skilled, it’s likely de la Vega would have won if not for the interference of the gun-wielding soldiers. Seeing them leveling another shot, Esperanza rushes in to defend her husband and takes a bullet in the back that was meant for him, dying instantly. Shell-shocked at his wife’s death, Diego goes down to a cheap blow to the head (courtesy of Montero) as he rushes to attend to his crying infant daughter.

Zorro is hauled off to a third-world prison with his wife dead, his daughter left to be raised by his hated enemy, his home burned with his beloved horse inside. Harsh.

Overall the action is fun but not spectacular. Zorro’s acrobatic exploits in the opening set the stage and tone for what’s to come. The music is serviceable if not soaring, and the actors are all clearly committed. All of the hero’s tricks in the beginning are well-done, but my personal favorite beat is probably Montero immediately killing the soldier who inadvertently shot Esperanza.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Proto-Zorro!

Needs work.

Rob Roy (fight 2 of 2)

Fights like this are the reason I started this site.

And faces like this are why punching was invented.

2) Rob Roy vs Cunningham

The Fighters:

  • Robert Roy MacGregor, a valiant clan chief from the Scottish Highlands. A rugged yet sensitive family man, Rob is fiercely dedicated to honor & integrity. A large and lethal dude who only fights when he must, Rob Roy is essentially the Ultimate Man. He’s like five Aragorns. Played by Liam Neeson at the tail end of his youth, looking like THIS:

… it got hot in here for everyone else, right? Not just me?

  • Armed with: a claymore, the signature weapon of the Scots.
  • Archibald Cunningham, whose fencing prowess was established in the film’s first fight and whose shocking capacity for cruelty has been established ever since. Every bit as foul as Rob is virtuous. Played by Tim Roth, in a performance that would make William Atherton proud.
    • Armed with: a rapier, as before.
  • The Setup: Throughout the course of a somewhat convoluted story involving theft and political positioning, Rob Roy has been unjustly made into an outlaw and pursued by Cunningham on behalf of the sleazy Duke of Montrose. Cunningham’s campaign against Rob in the course of the film has included but not been limited to stealing his money, burning down his home, killing two of his friends/kinsmen and, most unsettlingly, raping his wife.

    Thanks to the intervention of his much-mistreated spouse Mary, Rob was able to gain the protection of Montrose’s more savory rival, the Duke of Argyll. But mere safety is not enough for MacGregor: he has a score to settle with this be-wigged British bastard, so he challenges him to a formal duel. Cunningham has no problem accepting, as he harbors his own share of hatred against Rob Roy for the violence he did to Archie– violence only committed in defensive reaction to Cunningham’s transgressions, of course, but that’s bad guys for you. Both Dukes observe the fight in court, and Argyll, being quite impressed with the honorable MacGregor, foregoes his usual wager with Montrose in lieu of the guarantee that Montrose will forgive Rob’s debts if he wins; if Rob loses, Argyll will pay his bill.

    The two face off as the referee gives their instructions, and both confirm that no quarter (mercy) will either be asked for or given. Two men enter, one man leaves.

    “I have a very special set of skills….”

    Now while we’ve watched Rob Roy in action over the course of the movie and concluded that he’s plenty deadly, we’ve never really seen him in an extended fight, so we don’t know how he’ll hold up against a fencer who’s received the best training money can buy. Notably, we have seen our hero cash in the chips of Guthrie, the boorish lunkhead who Cunningham beat soundly early in the movie… but while Archie spent a few minutes thoroughly embarrassing Guthrie, Rob simply killed the man outright with just two deft moves. Something to keep in mind.

    The Fight: Intense. Relentless. Raw. Shocking. Flawless.

    As with many things that are more complex than a block of cheese, I don’t really know from fencing– real fencing, that is. But if I did I’d imagine it would be like this, or at least more like this than it is like in most Hollywood sword fights: a series of short but frenzied exchanges followed by long pauses, with speed & precision generally being the most important factors.

    And early on it’s clear that Cunningham has the advantage there. Rob Roy is brave, powerful and determined but he’s thoroughly outmatched by the dastardly Brit’s finely-honed skills. There’s definitely a different tempo here than in the prior fight, because outmatched or not, MacGregor is no Guthrie: Cunningham clearly respects this opponent’s tenacity & strength, having learned the hard way not to underestimate him. Throughout the first “rounds” of the battle, even as he scores an early light slash against Rob, Archie comes off very focused and deliberate; it’s not until later on that Cunningham’s signature smugness returns.

    Our hero holds his own valiantly against the Englishman and even frustrates his advances at several points, though he never once scores a hit himself; meanwhile Rob suffers several light wounds from Cunningham’s blade. His hulking size also works against him (as does his heavier sword; claymores are more suited to hacking at armored foes than fencing), as he becomes increasingly and visibly tired throughout the short match, whereas the villain remains calmly composed.

    Eventually Rob is not just tired but sloppy, dragging his claymore across the ground in-between clashes. One final graze along the hero’s chest sends him tumbling helplessly to the ground, and the villain positions his blade under Rob’s neck just as he did to Guthrie’s earlier.

    The hero is utterly at his mercy, and as Cunningham looks to his benefactor for final approval, ominous music begins to play– the soundtrack having been silent the whole fight. The audience even starts to think: Wait, can this really happen, is the good guy going to lose? It’s been so much rough going so far you alllllllmost believe it’s possible. But then:

    robroy

    what

    Rob Roy stops the would-be fatal lunge by grabbing his opponent’s sword with his bare hand. He holds the blade still, retrieves his own, and with an honest-to-God ROAR he lunges up and chops it into his disbelieving foe, cleaving him from shoulder nearly down to navel. Archibald Cunningham is no more.

    Sorry Archie, you’ve got to be a Sith Lord or Batman to take down The Neese.

    Hard to elaborate on what’s already been described– what is, essentially, perfection. As mentioned before, there’s no music until the very end, letting the amazing choreography and the actors’ emotions speak for themselves. The bulk of the fight is all gritty, intense realism and the ending is about as big of a rousing, kickass “Hollywood” moment as there is. The resulting combination is a one-of-a-kind experience, and a modern classic for fight scenes.

    Grade: A+

    Recommended Links: Liam Neeson’s more than capable of branching out to comedy, and don’t you try to disagree with him.

    Also here’s this one more time:

    It’s hypnotic.

    Coming Attractions: The original Desert Fox.

    Rob Roy (fight 1 of 2)

    “Honor is what no man can give you. And none can take away. Honor is a man’s gift to himself.”

    Rob Roy’s a great flick. It’s a weird mix of hard realism (mostly faithful period costumes, and shot entirely on location with castle scenes inside actual castles, etc) with absurdly broad Hollywood archetypes, and the end result is a good ol’ fashioned historical romp filled with its fair share of’ graphic content. It is in fact a bit of a difficult movie to re-watch, featuring some deplorably nasty on-screen activities by the villains and noble heroes suffering through seemingly endless degradations; heck, if it weren’t for the last-second happy ending, the movie would have been a trial run for Game of Thrones.

    There’s a lot of bits of minor action here & there, but only two genuine fights of any note, one of which in particular has gone down in film history. That’s not this one, but we’ll get there.

    First, we have to meet this prick.

    1) Cunningham vs Guthrie

    The Fighters:

    • Archibald Cunningham, a minor noble from England whose foppish appearance belies his lethal fencing prowess and a cruelty bordering on sociopathy. His shenanigans at home have gotten him sent abroad into the care/service of the vile Duke of Montrose (John Hurt, rarely in more need of having an alien burst from his chest). Played by Tim Roth with malicious glee.
      • Armed with: Rapier.
    • Will Guthrie, an obnoxious fighter favored by Montrose’s rival, the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir). Talented but ultimately dishonorable and more of a brawler than a fencer. Played by Gilbert Martin.
      • Armed with: Claymore.

    The Setup: We’ve already spent considerable time with the titular hero, so this scene, set in Argyll’s castle, acts our introduction to the villain Cunningham as well as the two Dukes (and Guthrie, though he’ll mostly be a minor player in the film). The scene opens up with Guthrie triumphing over a fellow Scot in a sort of informal fencing match with several dozen rowdy highlanders cheering on.

    Argyll and Montrose snipe quietly at each other, but when Cunningham and Guthrie exchange some insults (Archie has little respect for the traditional Scottish claymore), a challenge is laid down between the two, as is a wager between their respective benefactors. The two swordsmen take their marks, and as Cunningham takes too long doing his pre-fight show-offs, Guthrie interrupts him in mid-flourish with a casual swing, kicking things off immediately.

    Taking a moment to remind everyone here that Cunningham looks like THIS.

    The Fight: Archibald is surprised a bit at Guthrie’s dick move but he quickly regains his composure and defends himself well. In fact, Cunningham really wastes no time gaining control of the fight, constantly pressing Guthrie and nimbly moving about. Guthrie’s overt lunges and swings are clearly strong but clumsy in comparison; Cunningham easily avoids them all.

    Interestingly, almost as soon as the fight starts Montrose conspicuously turns his back on the proceedings. Not because he doesn’t care, but because he has enough confidence in Archie’s abilities that he’s sure of its outcome, and turning away from it while calmly conversing with Argyll (who’s watching anxiously) is a way to poke his metaphorical finger in his rival’s eye.

    Meanwhile, Cunningham’s swordsmanship is consistently superior, leaving him cocky enough to play up to the crowd (who hates his dandy English ass) with exaggerated gestures, making him resemble nothing so much as a Heel in professional wrestling. Which come to think of it is exactly what he is in the movie, as well: colorful & flamboyant outfit, willful immorality, dishonorable tactics, etc. All he’s missing is a metal folding chair.

    After scoring some light wounds on Guthrie and tiring him out, Cunningham soon corners his opponent with a series of blows, and deliberately walks away without looking in order to provoke a sneak attack. He deftly sidesteps it and knocks Guthrie to the ground with a thwack on the back from his rapier. The brutish highlander is left defenseless on the ground, and Archie puts a rapier up against his neck to stand him up slowly, but ultimately lets him live– it’s just a “friendly” match, after all.

    Low stakes here, and nothing too fancy cinematically, though the choreography is impeccable. The real purpose of the fight is to sell Cunningham’s abilities as well as cement his character, which it does wonderfully. This fight provides a much-needed foundation for what’s to come.

    Grade: B

    Coming Attractions: The main event.

    YES.

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 6 of 6)

    In which our protagonists do their best Cathy Rigby.

    Which is odd, because there’s not a lot of happy thoughts in this movie.

    6) Li Mu Bai vs Jen Yu (round three)

    The Fighters:

    • Li Mu Bai. Played by Chow Yun “I’ve heard all the jokes there are about my name, thank you” Fat.
      • Armed with: a normal taijijian.
    • Jen Yu, who’s had quite a busy day indeed. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
      • Armed with: Green Destiny, of course.

    The Setup: This picks up right after the conclusion of the previous fight. Jen, being a sore loser, rejects Yu Shu Lien’s mercy and slashes her across the arm, just in time for Li Mu Bai to arrive. She flies away (this is a running theme for her) with LMB in pursuit. He catches up to her in a picturesque bamboo forest.

    The Fight: It’s certainly different, a definite change of pace. They spent most of it going on top of or in & out of the trees. The actual element of “fighting” has been dialed down to a bare minimum (occasionally their swords meet), but rather than the intense physicality of the previous battle now the staging is given over to the complicated wirework.

    Complicated indeed; this must have been quite the pain in the neck to block out and execute. Sometimes, it looks pretty cool:

    And then sometimes, it doesn’t. Because the precariously perched participants often look less like warriors whose mystical powers can make their bodies lighter than air… and sometimes they just look like actors who are awkwardly being held up by wires:

    This is a problem with a lot of wire fu movies, or at least a problem I have with them: use it too much or inappropriately and it’s more cheesy than exciting (I think Iron Monkey is about as boring as watching paint dry, for instance). For the most part this is a film that uses its wires judiciously, to enhance rather than replace the action. But this fight goes a bit in the other direction.

    Which, to be fair, is a lofty goal. After all, just a few minutes previous we had an incredibly kinetic, ground-based showdown. Trying to do one of those again would not just be repetitive, but a foregone conclusion: there’s no question that Li Mu Bai could destroy Jen effortlessly if he really wanted to. Instead, this floaty “fight” is more about two characters probing at each other and trying to make a connection. The music, dying down to mostly a lot of soothing string work, is rather supportive of this approach. And there’s the occasional shot like this that is just downright breathtaking:

    Overall I’d say this fight alternates between silly and beautiful, but never at any point is it exciting. Breathtaking, to be sure, and even a few amusing bits as Mu Bai’s simple leg work sends Jen flying from her bamboo perch, or at the end when she challenges him to take Green Destiny away from her “in three moves” and he smirks and seizes it in one. She remains insolent, so he tosses the sword down a nearby waterfall, which she foolishly dives after; her subsequent abduction by Jade Fox marks the end of the encounter.

    (Note: from here the fight scenes are effectively over. There is a rather cool bit later in which the Fox ends up on the receiving end of Li Mu Bai’s sword, but it’s so brief as to not warrant inclusion.)

    I can’t fault it from a dramatic or narrative standpoint, necessarily. However, as an action sequence, it’s lacking. Still… it IS awful purty.

    Grade: B-

    Goodbye, Crouching Tiger. You weren’t always perfect, but you were real good to me.

    Coming Attractions:

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 5 of 6)

    Show-stopper.

    oh em gee

    5) Yu Shu Lien vs Jen Yu (round two)

    The Fighters:

    • Yu Shu Lien. Played by Michelle Yeoh.
      • Armed with: a Dao (saber that can be split into two smaller blades), a spear, dual hook swords, a metal club, and a broad sword. In that order. She also grabs a huge Monk’s Spade at one point but it turns out to be too heavy for her to lift.
    • Jen Yu. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
      • Armed with: the Green Destiny.

    The Setup: Turns out life’s not so fun for a young runaway leaving all she knew behind, and after her awesome adventures at the inn full of kung fu idiots, Jen goes running to her “big sister” Yu Shu Lien at her local… headquarters? Dojo? Safe house? Anyway she’s there awaiting the arrival of Li Mu Bai, who will be “sleeping over,” wink wink nudge nudge.

    After some polite talk, Shu Lien tells her to go to Wudan Mountain, where her and Mu Bai have secretly hidden dragon Lo, Jen’s bandit ex-boyfriend. The news of these two pulling strings behind her back shocks Jen and she lashes out, once again wary of people manipulating & controlling her. At this point Shu Lien, who was really only trying to help, has had about enough of the young lady’s attitude, and fires back angrily, demanding the sword. Jen tries to storm out, but the older woman stops her in the open gym area, telling everyone else in the household to leave… and lock the doors.

    There’s more to this upcoming throwdown than just reclaiming the sword and Jen’s snit, though. Jen is angry not just at Shu Lien but at everyone in her life who’s been pressuring her, and is also eager to prove herself. Shu Lien’s long-simmering feelings for Li Mu Bai (which are mutual, but they’ve denied themselves each other out of respect to her old fiancee dying to save LMB) have led to jealousy over the attention he’s been showing to this troublesome girl. These women are frustrated all over about the freedom they’ve long been denied, and that frustration is about to explode like dynamite. Awesome, sexy dynamite.

    The Fight: is amazing. This is generally considered the centerpiece of the movie– it’s the scene all over the ads, promotional artwork and even the DVD menus– and it’s easy to see why.

    Though both combatants are trying much harder than in their previous fight, the power balance is still roughly the same: Jen is flashy and talented but ultimately can’t hold against Shu Lien’s determination and years of experience. The only difference now is the weapons: Yu Shu Lien basically becomes a one-woman armory in the fight against Jen, or more accurately against Jen and the invincible Green Destiny. The veteran warrior grabs weapon after weapon to use against the legendary sword, and even though she fights excellently, each new implement eventually breaks against the blade’s might. (It’s clear that Shu Lien still could beat Jen, if she saw her as an enemy rather than a rival or annoyance and genuinely wanted to kill her. She had chances.)

    “Want a free nose job?”

    This of course presents opportunity for a marvelous amount of variety, especially for a two-person battle, and Yuen Wo Ping clearly had a blast plotting it out. Each new weapon that’s introduced slightly modifies the fighting style and picks up the overall pace. Ang Lee’s camera jumps around giddily, framing the combatants from up close, far away, and even overhead… but never confusingly, and always with an emphasis on the action rather than the camerawork itself.

    For once, Tan Dun’s music is not terribly noteworthy but it’s still fun and serviceable, accenting the scene appropriately; my personal favorite touch is the deep bass and strings that play up when Shu Lien brings her broadsword into frame. The sound design is tops, perfectly selling every single clash of blades and leaping whoosh.

    Like this one.

    Later on, Shu Lien gives voice to what the audience is thinking: “Without Green Destiny, you are nothing.” Jen, ever the brat, of course dismisses the barb with unearned arrogance and presses the fight on. When the older woman goes to town on her with the broadsword it too ends up sliced in half by the emerald blade, but Shu Lien is still able to bring the remaining stump to a halt within an inch of Jen’s exposed neck. Jen fails to accept defeat & mercy gracefully, but she loses nonetheless.

    Feels strange to say so little about this fight whereas I’ve talked forever about so many others, but sometimes, there’s not much left to say. This is everything a fight scene should be: smart, smooth, creative, packed with emotion, complex but natural, fast and furious. Even a few pinches of subdued humor. There is still plenty left in the film, both in terms of fighting and of the plot being resolved, but after this barn-burner the movie’s pretty much over.

    Grade: A+

    Coming Attractions: Let’s have a walk in the trees.

    Bamboo-zled

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 3 of 6)

    A blessedly small-scale scrap after last time’s chaos.

    3) Li Mu Bai vs Jen Yu (round two)

    The Fighters:

    • Li Mu Bai, the legendary etc etc. Played by Chow Yun Freaking Fat.
      • Armed with: his own Green Destiny sword, though he doesn’t really use it against her as such. Also, a stick.
    • Jen Yu, a very confused young girl. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
      • Armed with: a standard taijijian. Man, look at all the dots that word has.

    The Setup: After some not-so-subtle hints to her civilian identity from Yu Shu Lien, Jen decides to secretly return the sword that caused all this trouble. After doing so she runs into Li Mu Bai, who’d been waiting for her. He’s intrigued with her abilities and, we later learn, is concerned about how much influence Jade Fox has had on her. He pursues her to a temple and offers to train her, but Jen, chafing at years of repression and an upcoming arranged marriage, is in no mood to call any man “master.” She opts to start attacking him instead, which is unwise– this guy’s one hard-boiled killer who could give her a better tomorrow.

    The Fight: Li Mu Bai demonstrates his superiority by parrying all her blows without even removing Green Destiny from its sheath, and lands several strikes on her that would have been crippling or even lethal if they’d been with an actual blade. She continues to act stubborn in the face of a clear master, so he gives her a real shock by unsheathing Green Destiny and breaking off a chunk of her sword in one single move. “Real sharpness comes without effort!” he declares. Okay, sure.

    He chases her out front and continues to fight her, this time defeating her sword strikes with a simple stick he finds on the ground. All the while he’s spouting fortune cookie soundbites at her: “No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint.” Whether you think it’s empty-headed pseudo-philosophy or genuine Deep Thoughts, it’s still quite amusing to watch, and even more impressive that Chow was able to pull off the choreography while delivering complicated dialogue in a language he barely understood; supposedly native Mandarin Chinese speakers laugh their butts off at how silly Chow and Yeoh (who could only speak the Cantonese dialect before) sound in this movie. Once again, being an ignorant foreign devil helps me enjoy something more. U-S-A! U-S-A!

    Anyway, he’s trying to teach her humility but all she gets is frustrated. Even after the impromptu training session ends (with the girl being disarmed), she’s not having any of this, and takes off.

    As fights go, it’s fairly brief, somewhat inconsequential, and one combatant isn’t trying to “win” so much as he’s trying to get the other person’s attention. Still, it’s long & complex enough that it was worthy of inclusion and some manner of discussion.

    Light as it is, it works all right, even if it’s not particularly outstanding. It accomplishes everything it needs to. And, even though it comes not too long after the previous setpiece, it’s a welcome snack because there’s soon going to be a loooooong stretch of this movie without any real fight scenes to speak of. It’s not going to be boring for the next 30 minutes or so, by any means; intrigue and excitement (both of the physical and of the, ahem, “romantic” kind) aplenty await, but it is a while before the movie returns to the chop-socky portion of its plot.

    Grade: B

    Coming Attractions: Jen runs away from home and manages to immediately find herself in a bar full of kung fu jerks. She’s… not that smart.

    Herp derp.

    The Princess Bride (fight 2 of 2)

    2) Inigo Montoya vs Tyrone Rugen

    (no seriously his name is Tyrone)

    The Fighters:

    • Inigo Montoya, the plucky Spaniard we met earlier. Still played by Mandy Patinkin.
    • Count Tyrone Rugen, aka The Six-Fingered Man. He murdered Inigo’s father many years ago and currently is the right-hand (ahem) man of Prince Humperdinck, the hilariously-named overall villain of the movie. Played by Christopher Guest.
    • Four or five guards. They were just doing their job but oh well. Played by who cares.

    The Setup: Inigo, along with Fezzik and the mostly-paralyzed Westley, are in the process of stormin’ the castle (which is fun), when Inigo finds the target of his lifelong quest for revenge: Count Rugen, the prince’s sadistic lieutenant, enforcer and head torturer.

    Inigo is a great secondary hero– much comedy is had at his expense, yet he is still believably dangerous, even after notably losing the film’s early duel— and Rugen is an equally great villain. As the Dragon to Humperdinck’s main bad guy, Rugen is an interest contrast to his boss. Whereas the prince is a loud, preening fop, Rugen is all understated menace and intelligent sadism. He’s a coiled snake, clearly deadly without having to make a fuss. This is a remarkable performance from Guest, who has made his bones as a comic actor; at this point he had already starred in and co-wrote This Is Spinal Tap with Reiner, and would go on to establish his own brand (and extended cast of players) of improvisational mockumentaries such as Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show. Often, comedians can make startlingly effective movie villains & creeps: it seems counterintuitive, but under the right circumstances, their fearless energy and shameless desire for attention can be channeled in some really dark ways.

    The Fight: On spying the trio, Rugen immediately sends his guards to dispatch them, and Inigo makes quick work of them. Though he’s effectively surrounded and fighting alone (Fezzik is busy holding a ragdoll Westley upright), he takes them all down in what looks like one single, smooth motion. Graceful, yet deadly. This isn’t the Inigo whose job forced him into what was essentially an exhibition fight against a guy he liked, this is the Inigo out for blood. He is not kidding around. In fact, immediately after slicing down all the guards, he basically says as much, in the form of:

    Patinkin nails it. The line is fantastic in concept and execution. All set up with simplistic brilliance: earlier in the film, Inigo told Westley he would say this line when he found the Six-Fingered Man, who he would soon find out is in the castle. So we know he’s going to say it, the movie knows that we know, and we know we’re supposed to know. For how clearly & deliberately it’s all been spelled out, it almost shouldn’t work, but it does.

    Rugen pauses, contemplates… and runs the crap away. A sensible, if cowardly option. And a funny defusing of the epic moment we’ve just witnessed, very much in keeping with the film’s winking tone.

    Inigo pursues, but Rugen quickly gets behind a door, leaving Inigo to frantically and fruitlessly bash his shoulder against it. His desperation to catch his prey leads to several humorously high-pitched calls for Fezzik’s assistance, but Fezzik is slow in getting there as he has to find a place to safely leave Westley first. Ultimately, he props the Man In Black against a suit of armor. This bit of comic business also serves the dual purpose of separating both secondary heroes from Westley, so he can stumble off quietly to his true love; once Fezzik gets back he will find Westley gone, setting up his surprise entrance in Buttercup’s bedroom.

    Inigo chases Rugen some more, but unfortunately the villain has taken the opportunity to remove a dagger from his boot, which he hurls into the Spaniard’s gut with deadly accuracy. Inigo slumps against the wall, apparently defeated and dying. All his preparation in the art of fencing has not kept him from being outsmarted by a simple, dishonorable trick. Rather than revel in his victory, Rugen merely observes quietly. His highly academic brand of sociopathy finds Inigo’s sudden failure after years of dedication to be genuinely intriguing. It’s unusual and quite creepy.

    Fortunately, Inigo is not down for the count (ahem), though some cross-cutting to the various other elements of climax in the film leave you in suspense for a few minutes. Inigo surges back to life a bit at a time, despite suffering more minor wounds, and continues to declare his famous oath as he battles Rugen with increasing strength. The declaration gets louder with every repetition, until he’s finally shouting.

    For the only real time in the whole film, Rugen is utterly unnerved. He can’t understand why he’s unable to stop this bleeding bull– the master tormenter has finally found someone he cannot break. Inigo wins this fight by sheer force of will, beating Rugen not through pure skill but because he simply wants it more. Notably, the music here positively soars, chiming in with old-fashioned flourish when Inigo finally beats back Rugen toward the end of the scene.

    The humiliation of the cornered rat is brief but satisfying: receiving the same facial slashes Rugen himself dealt to Inigo twenty years ago, the villain is forced to grovel just before Inigo runs him through, reminding him one final time what he took from the Spaniard.

    Again, this all just works. It stands in contrast to the other major sword fight in the film, being less about flashy showmanship and more about single-minded fury. Having Inigo effortlessly take out a handful of chumps beforehand gets the viewer’s mouth watering, and it also reminds us that even though Inigo Montoya is the funny-talking guy who has lost the only fight we’ve seen him in, he’s still one of the world’s deadliest swordsmen.

    But in keeping with the winking meta-nature of the whole movie, our expectation for a grand clash between hero & villain is subverted: Inigo’s initial wound keeps the choreography from getting as complex as what we saw earlier, and he presses on to the end mostly through ornery determination. Elsewhere in the climax, the main hero Westley is still barely alive, so he has to bluff the able-bodied Humperdinck into surrendering while he himself can barely stand; just as Inigo wins through his vengeance-driven willpower, Westley wins through his superior brain.

    It is not as purely entertaining as the earlier fight, though holding it entirely up to that standard would be using a mean curve indeed. I go back & forth on whether or not cutting away from this action at a crucial juncture is necessary or aggravating or both, and the extended bit where Inigo keeps trying to bash the door down can be tedious. But again, very slight knocks.

    Grade: A

    Coming Soon: Perhaps not as soon as I’d like. Going on vacation a bit this weekend and straight back into work for a while after that, not sure if I’ll be able to get in the required studying & writing time before then. When I do, we’ll give swordplay in general (and Bob Anderson in particular) a break, switching things up a bit.

    Pictured: switching things up a bit