Pacific Rim (bonus round)

As I’ve said umpteen times already, there’s a huge gap between Fight #1 and Fight #2 in Pacific Rim. But that’s not quite true. The much-anticipated giant robot vs giant monster throwdowns are indeed thin on the ground during this period, but amidst the various cliche-ridden shenanigans and melodrama, there’s a handful of honest-to-gosh real physical human fights which aren’t too shabby. It’s of course a few thousand tons shy of the action scale we came for… but it’s well-done enough that I feel bad completely ignoring it.

And yes I usually stick to my self-imposed rules for which movie’s fights I do and do not count, but you know what, it’s my blog, so whatever.

Mako is not impressed with my reasoning.

Mako is not terribly impressed with my reasoning.

So consider it a bonus round, a breezy way to burn through the rest of the week before we start on the next subject. “Breeze” being the key word: we’ll do all three at once here.

Handily they all involve our boy Raleigh Beckett, who is a lot more fit and combat-ready than you’d expect for a guy who’s been off feeling sorry for himself the last five years.

1) Nobody Candidates

Raleigh‘s Opponents: Three Chinese gentlemen, apparently selected by Mako as the best possible potential drift partners. Consistent with Pacific Rim’s treatment of non-main characters, we don’t know these people’s names or really anything else about them.

And not to be the awful white devil who can’t tell Asians apart , but the fact that they’re three young Chinese men with similar heights, builds, clothes and haircuts is a bit confusing considering that a few minutes ago we were briefly introduced to the Wei Tang triplets who pilot Crimson Typhoon; you’d be forgiven for briefly thinking they were sparring with Raleigh for some reason– like, Typhoon was going to give up one of its pilots. That wouldn’t make sense, but a lot of this movie doesn’t make sense. (The triplets are actually part of the small crowd watching the fight, but no one could blame you for not noticing that the first time, either.)

Why there weren’t more than three candidates, I don’t know. Also the tests are done using wooden sticks as kendo swords, which is odd because that’s largely not how jaeger combat works. Each duel works on a point-based system, with every blow or simulated blow counting as a point and the first man to four points the winner. Raleigh calls these a “dialogue” rather than a fight, but they sure look a lot like fights.

The Fight: It moves quickly enough that we immediately get the idea we’re not seeing all of each fight, just the final stroke or so each one. We even hear Mako grumpily calling out each final score, always with Raleigh way ahead. The Chinese guys are fit and skilled, but no match for Beckett– he consistently takes them down with little to no effort, and maintains enough control of each fight that he can do so without hurting them.

"Events occur in real time," Kiefer Sutherland whispers.

“Events occur in real time,” Kiefer Sutherland adds in a whisper.

It’s nothing too great, but there’s some fancy footwork here and it’s fun to watch. We get our first glimpse of Raleigh doing his thing outside a jaeger cockpit.

Grade: Not Bad

2) Mako’s Got Spunk

Raleigh‘s Opponent: Mako, duh.

After facing them all down, Raleigh calls out Mako on her attitude, and she replies that if he applied himself better he could have taken them out even faster. This leads, despite some resistance from Pentecost, to Mako entering the ring herself so she can bring our boy down a peg.

After some low-key trash talk/sexual tension, the two have at it.

My wife and I met the same way. No we didn't.

My wife and I met the same way. No we didn’t.

The Fight: Surprisingly, Mako just stands there coolly when Raleigh darts in with the opening move, not flinching as he stops the stick less than an inch from her head. He interprets it as her being unready, but it’s implied she may have deliberately done it to screw with him. Just as he steps back to begin the next round, she herself darts in and catches him unawares, which is kind of dirty pool if you ask me. (And of course you asked me, that’s why you’re here.)

After another “easy” hit puts Raleigh back in the lead, the two have a longer exchange and she finally gets the better of him. After an even longer back & forth, Raleigh tries switching his fighting stance halfway through but still loses the point to Mako after some up-close tussling and getting flipped over. He does better in the next round, though, making the score all tied up.

The last exchange is the longest of all, with both players ratcheting up the intensity. Raleigh takes a fall but isn’t out, as he’s able to lock up her weapon so they’re in an apparent stalemate.

Picture4

The match gets called off by Pentecost, but Raleigh has learned enough to want Mako as his partner. Which the movie will make happen, albeit by the painfully long route.

After a quick little scene establishing Raleigh’s skill, we get a longer bit that establishes Mako’s own prowess simply by having her show him up, if not too much. The scene doesn’t overly sell that they’re “drift-compatible,” as Raleigh gushes later (again, that whole process is vague), but there is a definite tension between them here in this solid fight with a nice ebb & flow.

Grade: Pretty Good

3) Aussie Smackdown

Raleigh‘s Opponent: Chuck Hansen, Raleigh’s unnecessarily aggressive rival/bully. This encounter happens just after Raleigh & Mako’s first drifting attempt nearly resulted in Gipsy blowing a hole in Shatterdome. Chuck is understandably upset, but goes way too far in needling the would-be pilots as they wait outside Pentecost’s office for their punishment. Raleigh is able to take the high road at first, but loses it when Chuck calls Mako a bad word.

Picture5

Chuck’s taken by surprise at first but gets into the swing of things pretty well. The pair’s battle is an interesting mixture of unpolished street fighting and complex, MMA-style maneuvers– the latter of which largely come from Raleigh.

Indeed, Beckett is the one who is largely in control of the fight, though Hansen puts up a pretty good effort. They have a nice extended struggle and exchange of blows that culminates in Chuck getting slammed painfully against a wall. He hits hard enough to rupture some piping, which releases a bunch of steam around him as he glares hatefully at Raleigh– an effective if obvious visual metaphor.

Our hero does even better in round two, systematically shutting down Chuck’s assault and even slapping him at one point, apparently just to rub it in. Finally Beckett is able to wrap his legs around one of Chuck’s arms, bringing them both down in a strong hold.

Try not to let someone do this to you.

Try not to let someone do this to you.

Thankfully the grown-ups arrive and break things up before Raleigh can break the arm of one of the few remaining jaeger pilots. Gipsy’s pilots are sent to the principal’s office, and Chuck’s left in the hallway with his old man, getting restrained so he doesn’t rush over and get beat up some more.

This image sums up the entirety of these two characters and their relationship with each other.

This image sums up the entirety of these two characters and their relationship with each other.

This is the best of the bunch, being the most technically complicated and emotionally charged. It’s also unusually layered for this movie, since on one level the audience is happy to see Chuck get smacked around, but on another we understand that Raleigh really did screw up big time, and his rival is right to be upset with him. Deep! Well not really. But still very well done.

Grade: A Lot of Fun

Coming Attractions: Take it easy there, Pilgrim.

“If your blog had a face, I would punch it.”

The Matrix (fight 2 of 4)

“I know kung fu.”

Just so we get that line out of the way.

What I wouldn’t give for that chair and a USB headport.

2) Neo vs Morpheus

The Fighters:

  • Neo, recently-inducted member of the human resistance and prophesied reincarnation of the man who has complete control of the Matrix. You know that saying “if you believe in yourself, you can do anything”? In the case of Neo within the world of this movie, that’s literally true. Played by Keanu Reeves, who’s a frequent target for jokes but I like the guy.
    • Armed with: downloaded martial arts skills.
  • Morpheus, a leader of the resistance, captain of the ship the movie largely takes place on, and Public Enemy #1 for our robot overlords. Played by Cowboy Curtis himself, Laurence Fishburne.
    • Armed with: presumably all the same downloads as Neo has received, but he has the added advantages of being more experienced and, more importantly, having a more flexible mental state that allows him to better bend the rules of his virtual world.

The Setup: Recently freed from the cyber version of Plato’s Cave, Neo is beginning to adjust to his life, and (in a rather fun sequence) his mind has taken quite well to all its combat updates. Eager to try out his new mad skills, Neo enters a virtual sparring program with Morpheus, which takes on the appearance of a traditional dojo/gym. The program has rules similar to that of the Matrix and, as he advises his student, like any other computer program its “rules” (and therefore the reality they govern) can be tinkered with. He challenges Neo to hit him, if he can.

The Fight: It starts out a little silly, actually, and in a way that’s so over the top I must assume silliness was the intended effect. Both fighters assume exaggerated, cheesy poses, and Don Davis’ musical score trots out some very cliched Eastern drums & cymbal clashes for the first several blows. This adds some levity to the early proceedings, effectively loosening the audience up before reeling them in for what’s going to be a genuinely exhilarating fight. By consciously invoking the well-known tropes of corny kung fu flicks, the filmmakers establish a familiar base, and build from there.

Even their first, brief pass demonstrates a commitment to elaborate, focused choreography… and no small wonder, since the Wachowskis enlisted legendary choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (he had worked for decades in Hong Kong action films and would go on to make the magic happen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to stage their fight scenes. Each series of blows, swings and blocks is intense, fast and complex. Also, here even more so than in the opening fight with Trinity, almost every striking limb is accompanied by a melodramatic whoosh or swish on the soundtrack. It’s cheesy as all get-out, but it works excellently in selling the kinetic power of the fights, and unlike a lot of other movies’ indulging of similar artistic license (say, for example, the way every Indiana Jones punch sounds louder than a watermelon exploding on pavement after being dropped from the tenth floor), it has a sort of in-world justification. The Matrix and its similar programs are quite literally fake, so some aesthetic liberties being taken underscores the world’s inherent artificiality; note that none of these liberties are exercised in the film’s drab, grimy, “real” world.

Neo acts a bit cocky after the first round and drops his faux Eastern discipline for some showboaty hopping & grinning. His puppy dog enthusiasm may be infectious to the audience, but Morpheus remains all business and merely beckons him on, leading to a hand gesture that’s just one of the many things this movie indelibly imprinted on pop culture:

For their second exchange, you can see that Neo is starting to enjoy his newfound skills and the digital playground he uses them in. He opens up with an impossibly high jump during which he launches three consecutive kicks (the wire work here is subtle), and the tempo of the battle increases slightly. But he still can’t hit Morpheus, all of his blows either missing or being blocked. Morpheus ends this round with a distinctive move where he intercepts one of his Neo’s kicks and uses his foot to spin him like a corkscrew, sending him to the ground. Morpheus briefly compliments & encourages his protege, and from there things pick up significantly.

Neo lays back into Morpheus with renewed determination, and when the music abruptly picks up again, it’s no longer the stuff of cheesy kung fu flicks but a more distinctive & hyperactive techno beat, very much in keeping with the movie’s own unique (at the time) style. We quickly cut away from the match to back on the real world of the ship, where supporting player Mouse finds the rest of his comrades in the mess hall and excitedly blurts out “Morpheus is fightin’ Neo!” and they all frantically rush to join in (they’ll continue to spectate the rest of the fight, but not intrusively so). On the one hand it’s quite reasonable for them to be intrigued at watching the new & promising recruit test his skills against the veteran, but what makes the moment work is the more raw, giddy, immature side of it. It’s very… schoolyard— kids eager to see if the new scary student from out of town can beat up the resident alpha male. The characters’ excitement is so palpable that it extends to the viewer. Such a small & simple moment, yet it accomplishes so much.

The moves get even crazier. Not just punches & kicks but all sorts of intricate blocks, last-minute dodges, flips, fancy footwork meant to trip the other, etc. The camera moves around dynamically but not distractingly, tracking the fighters as they take Bruce Dickinson’s advice to heart and really explore the dojo space.

Neo still can’t land a hit on his teacher, though. Morpheus even mixes things up a bit by launching himself hiiiiigh into the air (lots of slow-mo and everything) to come down with a crashing knee which Neo barely dodges.

They clash some more, and Neo tries a similar aerial trick by running straight up a support beam and trying to back-flip behind his opponent. Morpheus is more than ready for it, though, and kicks Neo but good as soon as he lands. He takes this opportunity to ask the downed newbie some illuminating questions, reminding him that physical strength takes a backseat to willpower when you’re plugged into the machine. Even ostensibly vital functions like breathing are just vestigial habits within its boundaries, and clinging to such physical limits will only tie you down. (In a nice touch, from this point on neither of the two are shown to visibly breathe or pant while in this program.)

This begins yet a third distinct portion of the fight, and the music changes up to match it, switching to a rapidly escalating tune connoting excitement & potential. Neo noticeably steps up his game with more ferocious moves and Morpheus continues his Yoda routine, dropping little nuggets of Zen wisdom and encouragement at every turn.

“Stop trying to hit me, and kiss me! Um, I meant HIT me! I meant to say ‘hit’ both times!”

This seems to do the trick and soon Neo’s skills are more crazy than ever. Eventually he’s moving so fast his fists blur like a Super Saiyan:

One of those groovy punches halts less than an inch from Morpheus’ surprised face. He doesn’t hit him, but he could have, if he’d wanted. Probably. He seems almost apprehensive, muttering “I know what you’re trying to do….” The fight ends the only way it can, because Neo is full of potential but, as we will soon learn, is scared about what assuming his destiny could mean. As such the excitement slowly built up throughout the training session doesn’t explode or release, but just bottles up, to be used for later.

What else can I say? This scene’s got it all. Fantastic choreography, excellent camera work, believable acting/stunts, fun music, a brisk pace, smart escalation, and the whole thing plays excellently as characterization for both participants. Unfortunately none of the remaining fights fire on as many cylinders as this one, but we’ll get there.

Grade: A

Recommended Links: It’s become known lately that Keanu Reeves is a genuinely, in fact shockingly, kind & humble human being. Reddit collected a lot of first-hand stories of his unexpected generosity.

He may also be immortal, so there’s that.

On a somewhat less mature note, here is a bunch of scenes from the movie with farts added in. You think that’s air you’re breathing now?

Coming Attractions: Morpheus has the second-worst bathroom encounter of his life. (The first being when he stumbled into the one frequented by the trucker called “Sea Bass.”)

That one went kinda like this, too.

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.