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.

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    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

    The Princess Bride (fight 1 of 2)

    BUON GIORNO, PRINCIPESSA!

    "So this is a movie about horses, or...?"

    (spoilers)

    What needs to be said? It’s The Princess Bride. You either love it, or you don’t love it, or you somehow haven’t seen it. In those last two options, you’re deeply weird (… said the grown man who spends several hours a week ranting about fight scenes on the Internet), but whatever. Directed by Rob Reiner and written by screenwriting legend William Goldman, adapted from Goldman’s own book (which you owe it to yourself to read if you like this film).

    Speaking of Hollywood legends, the fight choreography here was done by Bob Anderson, the veteran sword master and stunt man who had a hand in pretty much every Hollywood sword fight you ever loved, including not just our previous subject Highlander, but the original Star Wars, Lord Of The Rings, The Mask of Zorro and dozens of others. He also played Darth Vader during most of the original trilogy’s Jedi battles, and swung that red lightsaber far more than the famously vain David Prowse ever did. The sheer variety of movie sword fights he’s been responsible for speak to the amazing depths of the man’s skill, and the movie business is all the lesser since his passing last year. RIP Bob.

    There are, basically, two fight scenes in this excellent, and very “meta,” fairy tale. You might object, “But wait! What about Westley vs Fezzik? That’s a fight!” Well… not really. Yes, it technically is, in the sense that it’s two parties who face off and exchange violence until one party is subdued. But not really, and certainly not enough to be graded. How does it play out? They walk slowly at each other, Westley (rather foolishly) tries a few running tackles that are ineffective which Fezzik doesn’t respond to, Fezzik throws a couple punches that miss, Westley jumps on his back and chokes him out, Fezzik rams Westley into two or three boulders as he loses oxygen, then he passes out; they talk convivially the whole time. It is a highly entertaining and memorable scene, but not for the fighting. The “fighting” part is inconsequential.

    Sorry, buddy.

    You might also object, “Hey, what about the scene where Westley outsmarts Vizzini? That’s a fight, if you really think about it. A mental fight!” In which case you are being an insufferable smartass, knock it off.

    1) Westley vs. Inigo Montoya

    The Fighters:

    • Farmboy turned super pirate Westley, who has spent the last two years under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts but is presently described only as The Man In Black, both disguises effective only if you forgot what the love interest you last saw 12 minutes ago looked like and/or you have the visual recognition skills of Lois Lane. Played by Cary Elwes.
    • Inigo Montoya, a likable Spanish mercenary who has studied fencing for decades as part of a long-term revenge quest to avenge his father. Played by Mandy Patinkin.

    The Setup: Really, The Princess Bride? You need me to tell you? Okay, fine: Inigo is one of a trio mercenaries who have kidnapped Florin’s princess, being pursued by the mysterious Man In Black. Inigo is left behind by his partners to kill/stall MIB after he scales up the cliff to his target.

    This is arguably where the movie starts to become genuinely lovable and unique (the story-within-a-story premise has already been used notably, but this is where the movie really starts to play), because it’s here that, before their inevitable fight, Inigo actually helps Westley (a stranger and adversary) first by pulling him the mountain and then by giving him time to rest. As Westley recovers, the two chat amiably & respectfully, managing to work in some exposition in about Inigo’s backstory. We even get a close-up of Inigo’s sword– he actually trusts the Man In Black enough at this point to let him hold it– which strikes a nice balance of looking gorgeous & fancy while still seeming deadly. This is an element Peter Jackson bungled horribly, as his version of Aragorn’s reforged blade Anduril looked painfully mediocre.

    But friends or no, each has a mission to complete, so fight they must.

    The Fight: You know how this plays out. They jab at each other a few times, experimentally. The pacing picks up a bit, and their pleasant dialogue throughout is just so much Boys Being Boys, each subtly bragging about all the techniques he knows and how to overcome them. There is a genuine sense that the characters (not just the actors, but they look like they’re having fun too) are enjoying this– not the violence but the craftsmanship of the fencing. This challenge is a rare pleasure for each of them, and the scene is a joyful celebration of skill & discipline.

    In fact if you watch closely, there is no shortage of opportunities for each of them to kill each other, such as when one does a very show-offy flip over the other and utterly exposes himself to a healthy stabbin’, or the several occasions when one or the other is disarmed. But they don’t take those opportunities, and why would they? They’re having the time of their lives, and they clearly like each other; this isn’t Highlander, where the fights are life & death so you take whatever chance you get. Plus, the flips & tricks are, to them, as much a part of the fight as the actual swordplay; it would almost be a crime to disrupt them, especially with something as unsavory as a kill.

    The pace escalates and the dialogue dies down. We get the reveal (well, if you paid attention it was established during an earlier scene) that Inigo, who has been fighting with his left, is not left-handed, and has been deliberately fighting with a handicap to make things more interesting. This is very, very cool. But not nearly as cool as what comes next, the thing everyone remembers: once Westley is pushed back by the un-handicapped Inigo, he reveals that he’s not left-handed either. Oh snap, etc.

    Pictured: no left-handed people, anywhere

    Speaking of which, a word about the dialogue: it is steady, it flows believably from each of the characters, it’s clever & snappy while not being overly precious, it’s delivered capably by the actors. It is, in short, perfect. Perfect bordering on miraculous. You may have noticed that I’m not reproducing it and certainly not peppering it throughout this entry, and that’s because if you want to hear Princess Bride quotes you can go literally anywhere. I love TPB and can still watch it today (I just did a few days ago) but the only film that gets quoted more often is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    Anyway, Westley now regains control of the fight and he never loses it again, though Inigo puts up a worthy struggle. The intensity ratchets up, and there are several times where Westley’s swordplay outright mocks Inigo. This somewhat undercuts the “highest respect” he will later say he holds Inigo in, but the arrogant behavior doesn’t completely contradict it: his actions in the latter half of the fight are his way of declaring himself the Alpha Dog, a necessary reminder even when you like the lesser dogs. Also, the frustration he deals out to Inigo can only disorient and tire him down further, which Westley definitely wants.

    The Man In Black wins, disarming Inigo and sending him to his knees. Inigo expects death but Westley won’t think of it. It’s sometimes dissatisfying to see a determined sword fight with no kill at the end, but here such bloodshed would only sour what’s preceded, since these two are so darn lovable. Westley knocking Inigo out, and his dialogue immediately before and after, could not possibly be more satisfying.

    This is quite reasonably considered one of the greatest movie fight scenes of all time, which, strangely, makes it more difficult to write about, not less. What can you say that hasn’t already been said? The action ramps up believably and occurs in distinct stages. It has a unique setup and an excellent conclusion, which is difficult to pull off when you pit two good guys against each other. The dialogue pops, the swords tink and clang, the actors deliver– it all works. What stuck out to me most on this recent re-watch, though, was how incredibly fake the fight, and really, the whole movie is. The fencing is clearly rehearsed, the cliffside location is obviously a set, the “sky” in the background is a painted wall. Heck, once or twice when someone jumps from a great height you can see the safety mat they land on shake underneath the dirt.

    This is not bad, it’s good. The Princess Bride is a fairy tale that is itself within a movie, which is in turn based on a deceptive book, the genesis of which was William Goldman improvising bedtime stories to his own daughters. Arguably, everything we’re seeing on screen is stuff pulled from the mind of a sick, grumpy pre-adolescent boy as the story gets read to him. Of course it’s artificial, that’s part of the charm, like the way sugar makes candy taste. Some of this arguably goes a bit too far, namely in the sound department: some of the musical cues and sound effects are too tinny and on-the-nose, even considering the film’s chosen aesthetic. It’s generally tolerable but at times the sound effects approach the level of bad children’s cartoons or “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” It is, however, a very small gripe in a very wonderful fight scene.

    Grade: A+

    Recommended links:

    • Good AV Club mini-review of the film overall and the fight scene in particular. Hits some of the same points I did but I swear I didn’t read it right beforehand.
    • The fight redone with lightsabers.

    Coming soon: We go all the way to the climax for the second “true” fight scene of the film. And no, it’s not against an ROUS, but rather a veteran comic actor who, despite his famous improvisation skills and ample warning, failed to prepare to die.

    The one in the middle.