The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Part-Time Recommendation: Paul - A Biography

6:24 PM 0
Part-Time Recommendation: Paul - A Biography
I'd like to take a moment and recommend to you N.T. Wright's biography of the Apostle Paul simply titled Paul. It has captured my attention and thoughts for the past couple months as I have read it and re-read it while taking copious amounts of notes (35 pages, no joke). I'd recommend this book to two types of people: 

1. Anyone who would like to get a deeper understanding of the cultural context, life, and message of the Apostle Paul without diving into what feels like a theological college textbook. It is meaty enough for someone like me to still learn new things without feeling like I've lost the main story in a sea of academic propositions. However, it's also not as basic as a typical 12-week "Meet Paul" bible study. I think it hits a nice middle ground.

2. Anyone who has heard the name of N.T. Wright and would love to get an overview of his main arguments without buying a number of books on multiple topics. This is the book I'd present to lay Christians looking to be introduced N.T. Wright as the narrative of Paul's life allows for his most accessible book, but also allows for great introductions to all sorts of Wright's main arguments without having to read those books individually. Wright sticks to the narrative of Paul's life pretty well, at times very compellingly, but uses the events of his life to summarize key arguments he has made at length in other books. It's really a fantastic way to dig deeper not just on Paul, but on the breadth of Wright's best arguments.

This doesn't mean it will be an easy read, but it is written well and contains numerous maps and a very helpful timeline, that I think most Christians will be able to benefit greatly. This isn't a review, so I won't get into the lowlights and highlights, but I will share with you my summary of Wright's view on Paul - really my summary of the 35 pages of word for word notes I took on it. If the summary doesn't interest you, perhaps the book isn't your bag, but if it does - get it and enjoy!

Overview: The Apostle Paul’s impact on the world is unparalleled. He was not just some theoretician of philosophy, but someone who spent most of his life working, conversing in the streets, praying, and hammering out his mature thought in the practical task of planting and pastoring churches. He was a first rate intellectual who absorbed the Hebrew scriptures and zealously obeyed them. He was familiar with all the major philosophies of the day and seemed able to weave the Jewish, Roman, and Greek thought worlds together at ease. Saul’s Damascus road conversion was not losing and gaining a new religion, it was Saul recognizing that all of God's promises are made full in the person of Jesus Christ. 

After his empowering baptism and filling of the Spirit, he spent time in Damascus and Arabia where he received his gospel and prophetic/Apostolic calling to go and announce the word of God and the anointing of a new King. After 10 silent years in Damascus Paul began planting and pastoring in Antioch. We begin to see Paul living out how Israel's story shockingly merges together in the person of Jesus, overcomes the evil powers that held the world, and that all humans, not just Jews, were free to worship the one God. Questions and issues arise with Jewish practices as Gentile converts join the community. To begin to resolve these issues, Paul must dig deep into the Scriptures, and learn how the Messiah community is to live into this new future.

After Antioch, Paul goes on missionary journeys throughout the heartland of the Roman empire planting churches and confronting locals. He would typically begin in local synagogues sharing a message not just about getting people “saved” (though this mattered to him), it was intending the establishment of a new kind of kingdom on earth (as in heaven), with Jesus as king. Paul’s message of a new age dawning in Jesus as King and defeater of the forces of darkness was accompanied by powerful signs and bursts of healing activity, enthusiastic embrace by some Jews and gentiles, and a zealous rejection that led to persecution and great personal suffering. Paul would learn that the great physical suffering and persecution experienced by himself and ministry partners is not random and disconnected, but a physical sign of his apostleship in sharing in the ministry of Jesus. Paul has learned the hard way that the dark powers of the world will strike back. This has forced him to dig deep into the truth of the God who raises the dead, to imitate the Messiah, and to reflect the mind of the Messiah. This depth is reflected in the poems and exhortations of his letters Philemon, Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians.

In the end, in the churches Paul planted, in the Messiah-centered communities he pastored, and in the theological teachings, exhortations, and “vision of the One God reshaped around Jesus and the spirit and taking on the wider world of philosophy” found in his writings; Paul was not producing a new religion but by the power of the Spirit launching “a new kind of humanity – a new people, a new community, a new world. A new polis. A new kind of life.” A new kind of life lived in the wake of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in anticipation of his return. He did this with all “his heart, his mind, and his strength. And, finally, with his life.”

Finally - here is perhaps my favorite quote of the entire book:
“God has accomplished, and will accomplish, the entire new creation in the Messiah and by the Spirit. When someone believes the gospel and discovers its life-transforming power, that person becomes a small but significant working model of that new creation. The point of being human, after all, was never simply to be a passive inhabitant of God’s world. As far as Paul was concerned the point of being human was to be an image-bearer, to reflect God’s wisdom and order into the world and to reflect the praises of creation back to God. Humans were therefore made to stand at the threshold of heaven and earth – like an ‘image’ in a temple, no less – and to be the conduit through which God’s life would come to earth and earth’s praises would rise to God.


Here, then, is the point of Paul’s vision of human rescue and renewal (‘salvation’ in traditional language): those who are grasped by grace in the gospel and who bear witness to that in their loyal belief in the One God, focused on Jesus, are not merely beneficiaries, recipients of God’s mercy; they are also agents. They are poems in which God is addressing his world, and, as poems are designed to do, they break open existing ways of looking at things and spark the mind to imagine a different way to be human." -N.T. Wright


Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Bruce Lee Edition

12:28 AM 0
Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Bruce Lee Edition
*Scroll past the paragraphs if you want to skip the jabbering and get to the sequences.

Is Bruce Lee the most overrated martial arts star of all-time? Have I got you interested? Let me not drag out my view and give you a straight answer: No, he's not. However, I do think his legend has grow much larger than the actual martial-arts sequences he left behind. After getting his big break on television programs like The Green Hornet, Lee became best known for his five feature length films coming out in the early 1970's; a partial film called Game of Death was released around 1978 and remastered in 2000. These films, coupled with his fighting philosophies and his pop culture impact have created a legacy and influence that few other individuals can claim.

Despite his immense legacy and credentials as a martial arts practitioner and teacher, I find his filmed action sequences to be generally mediocre. Bruce Lee’s primary principles in fight choreography seem to be quickness, impact, and simplicity. In most of his fights, the actual choreography is short and is punctuated by a series of quick kicks to take his opponent out. While it is flashy and when filmed right can be brutal and fun to watch, it’s over very quick for the viewer. This was a purposeful departure from the more acrobatic and intense back and forth choreography that was traditional in Chinese kung fu and wuxia films as well as Chinese opera. 

A lot of this list will boil down to my personal preference in filmed fighting, but I do want to address one myth that I think many action fans imagine is true: Bruce Lee advanced film fighting from the clunky punches of James Bond to the furious fighting choreography we see today. If the only movies you watched at the time were western action films, then this might be true (for you) and Lee's Hong Kong films might have been a revelation. However, complicated and interesting fight choreography was already happening in Hong Kong films for decades. For example, check out this clip from the 1971 film The New One-Armed Swordsmen directed by kung fu film legend Chang Cheh; it came out the same year as Lee's first film The Big Boss. The films that followed shortly after Bruce Lee, especially the efforts of Lau Kar Lueng, Yeun Woo-Ping, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Jet Li, would easily eclipse and outdo his sequences. This isn't his fault, but when doing retrospectives, it is an important part of the context. I've no doubt if Lee had lived longer he would have made better sequences and worked with better directors.

Lee's stuff is still good and for many westerners, it was probably the first good martial arts sequences they ever saw. To get a better understanding of his legacy I watched all 20 action sequences in the six films that cover his filmography and ranked them below. I'll provide commentary on Lee at his worst and Lee at his best. I hope to highlight why I think his legacy has developed and the sequences that support it while also identifying his weaknesses. I took the time to link each fight to a youtube video to help you follow along. Feel free to watch them and let me know your thoughts.

Top 20 Action Sequences
20. “Bruce Lee vs. the Italian Mafia feat. the Skylight Kick” -Way of the Dragon (Link)
19. “Opening: Bruce Lee vs. Sammo Hung at the Shaolin Temple” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
18. “Bruce Lee Introduces Italian Thugs to Chinese Boxing” -Way of the Dragon (Link)
17. “Bruce Lee Breaks Up a Melee Attacking Striking Workers” -The Big Boss (Link)
16. “Bruce Lee vs. O’Hara” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
15. “Bruce Lee vs. Japanese Dojo Part 2: Students & Yoshida” -Fist of Fury (Link)
14. “Bruce Lee and the Prisoners Take on All Han’s Men” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
13. “Bruce Lee vs. Hapkido Master Ji Han-Jae” -Game of Death (Link)
12. “Finale Fight: Lee vs. Han in a Glass Maze” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
11. “Underground Drug Lab Fight” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
10. “Taking Out an Alleyway of Bad Guys with Two Nunchaku” -Way of the Dragon (Link)
9. “Finale Fight: Bruce Lee vs. Big Boss Man in the Field” -The Big Boss (Link)
8. “Bruce Lee vs. Hiroshi Suzuki: Nunchaku vs Sword” -Fist of Fury (Link)
7. “Bruce Lee vs. Bob Wall and Friend” -Way of the Dragon (Link)
6. “Ice House Fight” -The Big Boss (Link)

When Bruce Lee is at his worst...his action sequences are very similar to what Van Damme and Seagal would use as their bread and butter - the humiliating defeat of incompetent bad guys. For Lee, these sequences would be fairly short and consist of lame looking bad guys offering up limp punches or kicks (if anything at all) only to be knocked unconscious by a quick kick. Rinse and repeat this with un-engaging camera composition and editing and you have yourself a mediocre fight sequence. If we are being honest, basic television productions produce technically better fight scenes in their sleep than many of the sequences listed above. Like much of Van Damme and Seagal's work, these sequences are typically less about any kind of back and forth active struggle and more about just dominating over lesser opponents. Most of these qualities are demonstrated in the fight scenes above, most notably by sequence number 20. 

I would make two arguments in Lee's defense here: First, I find these scenes mediocre, but there is at least an attempt at a clear philosophy behind filming the scenes this way. Lee wished for his sequences to reflect a more realistic approach to how fights work while still conceding to some film cliche's for entertainment purposes. Thus, instead of long, stylish, and drawn out choreography, the fights are quick and simple. While I think this philosophy is a valid and may be closer to real martial arts, it doesn’t exactly make for great martial arts to watch or re-watch over and over. Finding the right balance is key here and my personal opinion is that much of Bruce Lee’s stuff falls too far on the short/quick/simple side. Perhaps if Lee was helped by today’s camera work to better emphasize his quick and powerful nature then I’d have a better opinion, but he didn’t. The second argument I would make is this: despite the mediocrity and simplicity of some of these scenes, Lee's charisma still carries them to be watchable and workable sequences. It's undeniable.

5. “Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” -Game of Death (Link)
4. “The Bamboo & Nunchaku Duel” -Game of Death (Link)
3. “Bruce Lee vs. Petrov in a Japanese Garden” -Fist of Fury (Link)
2. “Bruce Lee vs. an Entire Japanese Dojo & it’s Frumpy Master” -Fist of Fury (Link)
1. “Finale Fight: Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris in the Coliseum” -Way of the Dragon (Link)

When Bruce Lee is at his best...his charisma remains a feature of his sequences, but it is surrounded by an athletic and intelligent showcase of his skill and the skills of his opponent. To commit to his short and simple philosophy while also getting lengthier fights, Bruce would often fight large groups of people. When these sequences were filmed too closely, edited too tightly, and choreographed too simply, you get moments that feel better than they actually are on inspection - like his underground drug group fight scene in Enter the Dragon (#11). When the camera work is done right, we get the iconic gem of a sequence found when Lee takes out an entire dojo in Fist of Fury (#2).

If you are looking for a sequence that epitomizes the best qualities of Lee, look no further than his masterpiece fight with Chuck Norris from Way of the Dragon (#1). Unlike many other fights that lean too heavily on his style and charisma, this one actually delivers on the action substance as well. All the best features are present: Lee's iconic silhouette, showing off his lean physique (Van Damme 'esque upon review), intense facial expressions with a focus that looks like he is quickly breaking down his opponent in his mind mixed with a zeal for winning, and most importantly, a rhythm of quiet preparation and expectation followed by a quick attack or sometimes a succession of thrusts, parries, and counters. The fight with Norris stands out because it showcases Lee's intelligence, charisma, and skill while allowing Norris to stand as a competent opponent who acts, reacts, and is ultimately bested. The only iconic quality missing from the sequence is the use of nunchaku.

As great as Lee's fight with Norris is, and it's better than anything Van Damme or Seagal or Statham ever put together, in the genre of "martial arts sequences" it doesn't quite compare to the masterpieces. It's not Lee's fault that in our contemporary context he is ultimately more a charismatic and skilled pioneer than he is at making timeless masterpiece sequences. It is our fault if we make him out to be what he isn't. I do think it's possible had he lived longer that we would talk about him differently today, but that's a timeline we can only imagine.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jean-Claude Van Damme Edition

7:06 PM 0
Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jean-Claude Van Damme Edition
From the ages of eight to fifteen, Jean-Claude Van Damme was one of my favorite movie stars. I can’t remember when I first saw his 1988 film Bloodsport, but it was everything I wanted in a film; a young American boy is trained in martial-arts by a master and grows up to defeat everyone in an underground fighting tournament with fighters from all over the world. While I was allowed to watch his popular follow-up Kickboxer, he made a lot of R-rated films I only saw glimpses of before my parents shut it down. Despite not experiencing all of his work, I nurtured my fan boy love for Van Damme on just a couple of films. However, sometime around 1995 or so, Van Damme no longer interested me and it kinda happened overnight. Why? I kind a liked his Die Hard-light 1995 film Sudden Death, but it was 1996’s horrible The Quest (that I went to the theaters to see) that demonstrated to me why Van Damme just wasn't going cut it anymore. To use a pun for analysis– I realized he was a one-kick pony. 

There are likely many factors for why Van Damme fell out of this teen boy’s favor (tastes changing, quality of his movies changing, etc.), but the single major factor was Jackie Chan. After watching the athleticism, speed, and skill of Jackie Chan, Van Damme just couldn’t compete. Chan's fight's were like feasts and Van Damme's only gave a few meaty morsels. The difference to me was night and day. It seems most of the world agreed, because it wasn’t long before Hollywood and Van Damme in particular began imitating Hong Kong action cinema…or in Van Damme’s case, not just imitating but adopting wholesale by hiring their directors. I'll flesh out that thought more in the commentary below.

So what are Van Damme’s best action sequences? This proved a tougher task than you would imagine for two reasons: First, he doesn’t have a lot of great sequences (that stand alone) and second, those few great sequences are not his most iconic ones; meaning, his "Best" list lacks representation of his most popular movies. So what I’ve done is put together two lists; a most definitive fight scenes and best fight scenes. I feel like more people will understand and connect with the definitive list because while those fights best encapsulate what originally made Jean-Claude Van Damme such a big star and hero. Also, it will give me a place to share all the random commentary I want to share after re-watching them. My standard "Best Action Scene" list will be what I think are his objectively best sequences. I re-watched nearly every action sequence Van Damme created, but I’ll be honest, I drew the line at most of his direct-to-DVD films in the 2000’s-2010’s. They are mostly missing here. I’ll start with the most definitive list.

Top 5 Definitive Action Scenes:
Watch these Scenes and You'll Know Van Damme
5. “Van Damme's Enters Chernobyl: One Take Shootout and Knife Fights” -Universal Soldier: Regeneration (Link)
- This sequence comes from the straight to DVD film Universal Soldier: Regeneration. At this point in Van Damme’s career, he’s not starring in any major action films and mostly taking legacy/cameo roles. It was sometime around 1993, probably accelerated and confirmed by the debacle of 1994’s Street Fighter, that Van Damme made a conscious decision to move away from the typical “Van Damme” film and try appeal to a broader audience. Who knows whether this was the choice of Van Damme or Hollywood producers, but it must have been a blow to his pride. The importance of that decision means that since 1993, Van Damme no longer was setting any action trends, he followed them. 

In this sequence you see the best Van Damme does the gritty realism "Krav Maga/UFC" trend that resulted primarily from the Bourne series. In this sequence he is working with a strong action director and we get a “one take” shootout in an abandoned building that wouldn’t be out of place in John Wick. It’s followed by a really strong knife fight sequence that is perhaps the best extended choreography Van Damme has ever given to film.

4. “Finale: Carnival Warehouse Shootout” -Hard Target (Link)
-In 1993, Van Damme was looking to stretch his appeal and the legendary Hong Kong action director John Woo was looking to crossover into American films. Van Damme and John Woo collaborated here to mixed results. By my calculation, this was the first of Van Damme’s purposeful attempts to get outside his action wheelhouse (I don’t count the first Universal Soldier). His objectively best looking/edited sequences came from this film and I credit John Woo for that. Unfortunately, it was a stinker of a story. Bonus - look at how Woo films Van Damme's traditional action sequence HERE. It's the best those moves have ever looked.

I can see what Woo was intending for Van Damme, “Let’s turn him into a Chow Yun-Fat but with better kicking!” He was mostly correct – you could more easily turn Van Damme into a cool gunman that can also fight if needed rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, Van Damme lacked the "cool and smooth" presence of Chow Yun-Fat and his character never clicked. When you watch this sequence, you can see Woo re-using some of the ideas and stunts from the hospital shootout of Hard-Boiled. It’s great film-making and probably Van Damme’s best objective sequence (spoiler!), but it’s still lacking something with him as the star. Van Damme would use other Hong Kong cinema directors like Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark (who tried turning him into a low-rent Donnie Yen in 1997's Double Team) – but it also felt like imitation rather than the genuine thing. Still, watch this sequence to see Van Damme do "Hong Kong action."

3. “Home Ambush Fight Leads to the Splits on the Counter” -Timecop (Link
- Timecop represents Van Damme’s biggest move away from a traditional martial arts/action film and into a more traditional Hollywood blockbuster. I would argue that along with 1992's Universal Soldier this was his science fiction action in the Arnold Schwarzenegger mold play. It's nice to see him working with a competent director and a decent budget and screenplay, also a campy and fun Ron Silver. This sequence isn’t especially great, but it’s definitive in that it highlights some of the qualities of a “Van Damme” action sequence and merges them with the higher production capabilities of a major science fiction action blockbuster. The most memorable and iconic moment here is Van Damme (in his short shorts of course) jumping up onto the counter-top doing the splits to evade a taser being fired into water on the floor. If Van Damme is in a movie and he doesn’t do the splits, was “Van Damme” actually in the movie?

2. “Thai Bar Drunk Dancing and Fighting” -Kickboxer (Link
- You’ve probably seen a gif of this dancing sequence at some point in your lifetime. If you haven't, stop reading and just watch the scene first. It's glorious. It’s instantly recognizable and must have been cringy, to all but those who struggle with self-awareness, even when it was released. It’s a sequence that comes from 1989’s Kickboxer, a popular follow-up to Van Damme's breakthrough Bloodsport and one of the two main films that nurtured my childhood love for him. This sequence illustrates everything you need to know about how Jean Claude Van Damme saw himself as a martial artist and movie star in the late 80's/early 90's: he was a good looking man and he would have told you he was. It’s one of the only times I can think of where a filmmaker had two women trying to dance sexy only to highlight the male figure as the better and sexier dancer! To be fair, I think Van Damme knew his looks were one of the few "assets" that separated him from other martial artists.

He dances this way of course because he’s drunk and it’s his master’s way of testing and training him. After dancing with the women in the bar, Van Damme takes out all the jealous men with ease in classic Van Damme fashion. We laugh at this sequence today not because of the humor of the actual story beat, but because it’s the epitome of Van Damme’s ego on display: He’s a better dancer, a better fighter, and a sexier man than you and doesn’t that make you jealous? If you’ve seen this sequence, then you have a good insight into one of the core limitations of Van Damme, his narcissistic ego. It's also a core insight into his appeal, who wouldn't want to be thought of that way?

1. “Finale Fight: Frank Dux vs. Chong Li (Bolo)” -Bloodsport (Link)
- Van Damme's other core limitation, and this is the one that put a true glass ceiling on his stardom, is that he’s only got about three really good cinematic fighting moves and that’s about it. He can do the splits, his high kick looks great and goes extremely vertical (like a vertical splits), and his jumping roundhouse where he does the splits; if you think about it, that’s essentially three variations on the splits. Outside of those moves, Van Damme is a really pedestrian action star.

So how did he get around those two core limitations? Look no further than his most definitive fight, the finale from Bloodsport. I believe that if you watch this fight, you have seen the best that Van Damme has to offer. You see his truest form. Rather than use dynamic back and forth choreography that highlighted a full range of fighting skills and athleticism and expose Van Damme's limits, this sequence wisely chooses to focus on dramatic spectacle with a very limited moveset. In essence, Van Damme gets around his limitations by turning this finale fight into a classic good vs. evil 1980's WWF wrestling matchup.

The villain here is Chong Li, played by action legend Bolo Yeung, and Van Damme’s Frank Dux is not just fighting to win the tournament, not just fighting to keep his life, but fighting to avenge his friend who was put in the hospital by the remorseless Chong Li (who killed a guy last tournament and “just watched him die”). In the WWE analogy, Van Damme is Hulk Hogan, the pure and good babyface representing America, and Chong Li is the evil villain representing the foreign and remorseless threat. Like in those WWF matchups, it wasn’t necessarily about skill, it was only about momentum and the eventual dramatic win.

At first, the villain always gets the upper hand and puts our good guy on his back foot – it doesn’t matter that the action is limited and Van Damme isn’t really blocking anything, it’s more about operatic storytelling here. Eventually our good guy fights back and takes the lead forcing the villain to resort to his most dastardly deed to gain the upper hand, in this case, it’s throwing the chalk in Van Damme’s eyes. Van Damme demonstrates his worthiness by taking the punishment and calling upon his training and overcoming the evil of the villain. We’ve waited long enough and we are now ready and primed for the finishing moves, the most interesting move our fighter has.  We are treated to Van Damme's gorgeous and big spinning split kicks set to wonderful 80’s snyth and the glorious cheesiness of the moment comes to a satisfying (in a true guilty pleasure way) conclusion.

Van Damme got around his limitations by making sequences like this finale against Chong Li become classic WWF style matches where his one true standout move would become the finisher everyone waited for. Unfortunately for Van Damme, that only worked for a while. He did the same thing in movies like Kickboxer and Lionheart all the way up through the early 90’s to diminishing returns. The pinnacle "Van Damme" ego and style is probably Double Impact featuring two Van Damme's for double the ego. That’s when he made the choice to appeal to a broader range of fans through different styles. Unfortunately, while he adopted the Die Hard/Sci-Fi Action/Hong Kong/Bourne trends, he always felt second rate in them.

Young Kyle was so into Bloodsport because it was the most essential and definitive expression of Van Damme’s best qualities packaged in an operatic good vs evil tale. As I grew older and demanded more from my film actions, Van Damme just couldn’t cut it. When he stepped outside his wheelhouse, he was just another limited action star. I think he might have been remembered better if he was able to find a television series, kinda like Chuck Norris did with Walker Texas Ranger, where he only ever had to do a couple of kicks each episode to satisfy his audience. In television, where formula can be repeated episode after episode, is where this winning Bloodsport formula could have persisted. Who knows? Still, I’m grateful for the joy I got as a kid.

I think you’ve gotten a good idea of my thoughts on Van Damme by, so I’m gonna present what I think are the objectively best Van Damme sequences below without commentary. 

Top 20 Best Action Scenes
Double Team (1997) - IMDb
20. “Finale Fight: Frank Dux vs. Chong Li (Bolo)” -Bloodsport
19. “Finale: Final Fight with Atilla for All the Money” -Lionheart
18. “Rickshaw Competition leads to a Shootout in the Supermarket” -Knock Off
17. “Finale: Coliseum Showdown with Mines and Tigers” -Double Team
16. “Escaping Angry Workers in a Knockoff Storehouse” -Knock Off
15. “Home Ambush Fight Leads to the Splits on the Counter” -Timecop
14. “Van Damme vs. Arlovski” -Universal Soldier: Regeneration
13. “Hotel Fight: Van Dumme vs Gunman and Foot Knife Man” -Double Team
12. “Boxing Ring Fight: Playing the Crazy Russian” -No Retreat, No Surrender
11. “Roughing Up Some Thugs Who are Harassing a Lady” -Hard Target

Oral History: The making of hockey action movie 'Sudden Death ...
10. “Finale: Tong Po and Van Damme Fight” -Kickboxer
9. “Van Damme vs. Stallone” -The Expendables 2
8. “Van Damme vs. Icey the Penguin Mascot in a Kitchen Brawl” -Sudden Death
7. “French Quarter Chase & Shootout Ends on the Highway” -Hard Target
6. “Finale: Slip-sliding Shootout on a Cargo Ship” -Knock Off

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning' Trailer Will Ready You for ...
5. “Van Damme vs. Dolph Lundgren” -Universal Soldier: Regeneration
4. “Finale: Van Damme vs. Michael Jai White” -Universal Soldier: The Return
3. “Machete Fight: Van Damme vs. Adkins” -Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
2. “Van Damme's Enters Chernobyl: One Take Shootout and Knife Fights” -Universal Soldier: Regeneration
1. “Finale: Carnival Warehouse Shootout” -Hard Target

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jet Li Edition

6:02 PM 0
Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jet Li Edition
Fearless (retrospective) « Grading Fight Scenes
For most, this list is going to be obscure. Some people might be familiar with Jet Li from a couple of his American films - Lethal Weapon 4 and The Expendables being the most popular. However, Jet Li is a martial arts icon and, in my humble opinion, has produced far more high-quality action set pieces than any of his Expendables cast mates. Yes, Li has more high quality action than Stallone or Statham. Did you know that? Can I prove it? How about I try by sharing Jet Li's 20 best sequences? Check them out.

15 Foreign Action Movies Guaranteed to Kick Your Ass | Moviefone
20-16

20. “Fight to Name a New Master at Jing Wu Men” -Fist of Legend
19. “Jackie vs. Jet” -The Forbidden Kingdom
18. “A ‘Friendly’ Pole Fight: Yen vs. Jet Li” -Once Upon a Time in China II
17. “Escape from the Hotel: Down the Laundry Chute and Out the Laundry Room” -Kiss of the Dragon
16. “Wong Fei-Hung vs. The Immortal Kung and the White Lotus Sect” -Once Upon a Time in China II
10 Things You Didn't Know About Kiss of the Dragon – BULLETPROOF ...
15-11

15. “Temple Pole Fight Mayhem” -Tai-Chi Master
14. “Apartment Fight: Colin Chou vs. Jet Li” -The Bodyguard from Beijing
13. “Former Brothers Platform Fight Over Michelle Yeoh” -Tai-Chi Master
12. “Police Station Finale: Lobby, Dojo, and Twins Single Handedly” -Kiss of the Dragon
11. “Red Flower Society Broken Up by the Emperor's Assasins: Li vs. Zhao Pt. 1” -The Legend

Hollywood Wallpapers And Pictures: jet li hero
10-6
10. “Finally: Huo vs. Four Fighters; Boxing, Spears, Fencing and Tanaka” -Fearless: Director’s Cut
9. “Nameless vs. Sky in the Mind” -Hero
8. “Finale: Rescuing his father - Fong Sai Yuk vs. Vincent Zhao Pt. 2” -The Legend
7. “Dojo Disaster: Chen Zhen Rampages on Students & the Master” -Fist of Legend
6. “Blindfolded Teaching: Li vs. Kurata” -Fist of Legend

Jet Li Capsule Reviews - The Chinese Cinema - Medium
5-1

5. “Finale: Wong Fei-Hung's vs Iron Robe Yim in a Ladder Fight” -Once Upon a Time in China
4. “Trashing the Restaurant: Master Huo vs. Maser Chin” -Fearless: Director’s Cut
3. “Finale: Re-capturing Danny - Li vs. Lambert” -Unleashed
2. “Can't Touch the Ground: Fong Sai Yuk Fights Soo Ahn on the Crowd's Shoulders” -The Legend
1. “Finale Fight: Chen Zhen vs. General Fugita” -Fist of Legend

Becoming a star in the wake of Jackie Chan, Jet Li separated himself from other kung fu stars by featuring a unique quickness, stylish acrobatics mixed with traditional styles, strong weapons work, and the ability to do acrobatic wire work all within a compact underdog stature.

Li became a true star through his Once Upon a Time in China series that, unique for the genre, featured high production values, traditional martial arts, and lots of wide shots where he can do big quick sweeping moves to large crowds of people. His small stature and quick movement contrasts well against large forces of enemies. Jet's run of martial arts films from 1991 to 1994's kung fu masterpiece Fist of Legend is prolific (13 films in 4 years!) and produced most of his best sequences. Check out sequence #1 and #2 to see just how versatile, acrobatic, and quick Li was in this period.

After this phase of his career, Li began to focus on American crossovers (again in the wake of Jackie Chan). Like Chan, Li's international work didn't bring out the best in him. It wasn't until he teamed with Luc Besson that he found an international partner that was able to get memorable stuff. Check out Kiss of the Dragon and Unleashed for his best international work. In 2006, he essentially retired from the martial arts epic with strong work in Fearless.

If you are interested in action, especially martial arts action, copy this list and spend some glorious time researching on Youtube.

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Indiana Jones Edition

12:03 AM 0
Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Indiana Jones Edition


The Top Ten Greatest Indiana Jones Scenes

On my way to making a list of the all-time greatest action sequences this summer, I have decided to create several mini-lists as preparation work. I recently posted a list of the all-time best Star Wars action sequences and now I turn my attention to another George Lucas creaiton, the Indiana Jones franchise. Alongside of Star Wars, Indiana Jones rules the late 1970's through to the late 1980's.

For my money, I think 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the best film of the bunch, but I admit its close to a toss-up wit Raiders of the Lost Ark. For this list we are working with the four major Indiana Jones films released from 1981 to 2008. By my count, there were about 15 significant sequences between the four films. Remember that singling out action sequences and comparing them to each other is an inherently unfair and subjective process. You can read my previous Star Wars list for more on why  or iff you'd like to read a bit more about my philosophy on action scenes, you can click here. If not, you can see the list below with some commentary to follow.

15-11

15. “Jungle Tragedy: Jeeps, Monkeys, and Apes” -Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
14. “Emergency Boat Parachuting” -Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
13. “Venice Boat Chase” -Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
12. “Abandoning the Zeppelin & Escape Two Fighters” -Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
11. “Cairo Marketplace Chase” -Raiders of the Lost Ark

Unearthing History: The Visual Echoes of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
10-6

10. “Escaping from Area 51 and a Nuclear Bomb Blast” -Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
9. “Shootout in a Nepal Bar” -Raiders of the Lost Ark
8. “Opening: Raiding a Tomb for an Idol” -Raiders of the Lost Ark
7. “Shanghai Opener: Club Obi-Wan Shootout & Chase” -Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
6. “KGB Chase: Through the University by Motorbike” -Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Raiders of the Lost Ark -- Truck Chase | Indiana jones, Indiana ...
5-1

5. “Escaping the Tannis Dig: Snakes & Planes” -Raiders of the Lost Ark
4. “Mine Cart Madness: Freeing the Minors & Busting Out” -Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
3. “Opening: Young Indiana, a Train, and the Cross of Coronado” -Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
2. “Tanks a Lot: Indiana Goes Over the Edge” -Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
1. “Truck Chase: Getting Back the Ark” -Raiders of the Lost Ark

Although I've grown to enjoy The Last Crusade more as an overall film, there's no denying that the truck chase to get back the ark of the covenant is the most definitive and best action sequence in the entire franchise. This is Indiana Jones at his finest.

The evil doppelganger of this sequence can be seen at the #15 slot from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The jungle chase sequence so many of the pitfalls of bad chase sequences: obvious use of green screen, reliance on coincidence, superhuman stunts that cross the line of our suspension of disbelief, stupid gags we are supposed to enjoy, and an unnecessarily bloated running time.

The truck chase in Raiders however is a focused, practical, and filled with memorable moments and stunts that serve to highlight not just the bravery and adventure of Dr. Jones, but his fallibility and vulnerability as well. There's some visual effects here to make certain things pop, but you always get the feeling that the majority of the sequence was filmed on location, with real vehicles, with real people, doing risky stunts.

Indiana Jones is at his best, like James Bond, in large scale, high production, chase sequences. Jones is a brave fighting archaeologist, but unlike James Bond, his action is grittier, lacking polish, filled with improvisation, and self-deprecating humor. It's no surprise that Jackie Chan was inspired by this franchise - both feature great technical achievements in action, both feature stars doing great stunts, but both understand its the vulnerability and borderline "this might not work" nature that gives action a special comedic/adventurous edge. There's few who do it better than Spielberg's Bond - Indiana Jones.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Star Wars Edition

5:54 PM 0
Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Star Wars Edition

Without a doubt, the Star Wars franchise is one of the most influential and iconic film franchises of all-time. I enjoy the series, but I wouldn't consider myself a fan. I think The Empire Strikes Back is the best film of the bunch and there is a significant drop-off after that. For the purposes of this post though, I thought it would be fun to take my desire to analyze and my love of action sequences and turn them loose upon the franchise that, at least for the time being, isn't going to put out another major entry. What follows below is my own personal ranking of the 54 major action sequences spread across the eleven live action films (I am not counting the animated ones). Before we get going, a couple of things to keep in mind.

Singling out action sequences and comparing them to each other is an inherently unfair and subjective process. It's unfair because many of these sequences only work within the context of the full story or are intercut with other plotlines and don't hold up as well when viewed in a linear fashion. Other sequences, like the lightsaber fights in the original trilogy, aren't really played for their action as much as they are played for drama. Thus, if you see a beloved lightsaber sequence rank low, it doesn't mean the scene wasn't a good scene, it's merely being ranked as an "action" scene. If you'd like to read a bit more about my philosophy on action scenes click here. If not, you can see the list below with some commentary to follow.

54-41

54. “Padme and Anakin Stuck in Conveyer Belt Hell” -E2: AOTC  *Officially the worst!
53. “Kessel Spice Mine Heist” -Solo
52. “Luke vs a Rancor in Jabba's Palace” -E6: ROTJ
51. “Rathtars Attack!” -E7: TFA
50. “Finn & Rose Escape the Supremacy and Phasma” -E8: TLJ
49. “Lightsaber Fight: Obi-Wan vs. Darth Vader” -E4: ANH
48. “Trade Federation Attempt to Assassinate Obi-Wan & Qui-Gon” -E1: TPM
47. “Lightsaber Fight: Palpatine vs. Mace Windu” -E3: ROTS
46. “Finale: Breaking In to Take the Viceroy Out of the Naboo Palace” -E1: TPM
45. “Rescuing Amidala and Escaping Naboo” -E1: TPM
44. “Alliance & Empire Battle on Planet Eadu” -Rogue One
43. “Kylo leads a Fighter Attack on the Resistance Convoy” -E8: TLJ
42. “Finale: Naboo Fighters Take on Federation Fighters and Starship” -E1: TPM
41. “Lando Helps Leia and Chewbacca Escape Cloud City” --E5: TESB

40-31
40. “Finale: The Battle of Exegol” -E9: TROS
39. “Speeder Chase in the Desert” E9: TROS
38. “Finale: Final Fight with Dryden” -Solo
37. “Lightsaber Fight: Ren & Rey Takes Out the Knights & Palpatine” -E9: TROS
36. “Making the Kessel Run to Escape the Empire” -Solo
35. “Opening: Resistance vs. Dreadnought” -E8: TLJ
34. “Finale: Gungan Army vs. Droid Army” -E1: TPM
33. “War on Geonosis: Clones vs. Droids” -E2: AOTC
32. “Opening: Speeder Chase to the Spaceport” -Solo
31. “Shootout and Fight in the Streets of Jeddha” -Rogue One
30-21
30. “Millennium Falcon Chased by the Empire to an Asteroid Field” -E5: TESB
29. “Lightsaber Fight: Kylo vs Rey on the High Seas” -E9:ROS
28. “Finn & Poe Escape from the First Order in a Tie Fighter” -E7: TFA
27. “Lightsaber Fight: Obi-Wan & Anakin vs. Dooku” -E3: ROTS
26. “Chancellor Palpatine vs. Yoda” -E3: ROTS
25. “Rebels and Ewoks Battle to Destroy the Generator” -E6: ROTJ
24. “Finale: The Battle of Crait” -E8: TLJ
23. “Monsters, Droids, and Jedi's Battle in the Geonosis Coliseum” -E2: AOTC
22. “Lightsaber Fight: Skywalker vs. Vader and the Emperor” -E6: ROTJ
21. “Battle of Takodana: Resistance vs. First Order” -E7: TFA

20-11

20. “Obi-Wan and Jango Fett Dogfight in an Asteroid Field” -E2: AOTC
19. “Rescuing Princess Leia & Escaping from the Death Star” -E4: ANH
18. “Utapau Showdown: Kenobi Takes Out Grievous” -E3: ROTS
17. “Obi-Wan and Jango Fett Fight in the Rain on Kamino” -E2: AOTC
16. “Escape from Jakku” -E7: TFA
15. “Lightsaber Fight: Anakin vs. Obi-Wan” -E3: ROTS
14. “Lightsaber Fight: Kylo Ren vs Finn and Rey” -E7: TFA
13. “Battle Over Endor: Rebels Take on the Death Star & the Imperial Fleet” -E6: ROTJ
12. “Lightsaber Fight: Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader” -E5: TESB
11. “Speeder Chase Through the Endor Forest” -E6: ROTJ

10-1

10. “Speeder Chase through Coruscant for an Assassin” -E2: AOTC
9. “Lightsaber Fight: Rey & Ren vs the Supreme Leader's guards” E8: TLJ
8. “Destroying Jabba's Pleasure Cruise & Escaping the Sarlac Pitt” -E6: ROTJ
7. “Lightsaber Fight: Duel of the Fates” -E1: TPM
6. “Coruscant Space Battle: Rescuing the Chancellor” -E3: ROTS
5. “The Battle of Scarif” -Rogue One
4. “The Battle of Hoth” -E5: TESB
3. “Coaxium Train Heist” -Solo
2. “Pod Race on Tatooine” -E1:TPM
1. “Finale: The Death Star Run” -E4: ANH

The only Star Wars action sequence I would give an unqualified "A" grade too is the Death Star run in the 1977 original. It is the most iconic and influential action scene from the entire franchise for good reason. First, it isn't intercut with a bunch of other plotlines. Somewhere along the way, the franchise got into this "we've got to have one group turning a shield/generator/homing device/whatever macguffin" off while another group is in the sky with their aerial battle. This intercutting of sequences really hurt the finales of Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker, and none to greater effect than what it did to Rogue One's Battle of Scarif.

The "Battle of Scarif" had all the making of an all-time action sequence, but we end up going from some of the most dynamic and beautiful aerial dogfighting to a lame quest to retrieve a hard drive (oh know, where is it?...oh no, the retrieval arm doesn't work...oh no, I have to climb to the tower!). Due to the intercutting, all of the big money shots and kinect action in the skies lack a genuine flow and connection that would have kicked the entire sequence up a notch. The Battle of Hoth in Empire benefits from a very linear presentation. Could you imagine if the majority of the AT AT sequence was intercut by several 3-4 minute sequences of Solo trying to scramble codes at a computer?

Thankfully, the entire "take the shields" down sequence in A New Hope is taken care of previous to the final action sequence. Once the sequence begins, it becomes a mini-movie all to itself. Anyone looking to recapture the "spirit" of what makes Star Wars great should re-watch this scene. Everything comes together in this scene - Leia as leader, Luke as the pilot at home who finally learns to listen to the force, and Han the mercenary sticks his neck out for friends. All of this is done without having to craft multiple subplots - but it keeps us locked in for an extended dogfight sequence complete with its own three act structure.

This quality of providing an extended sequence where important character traits come to the forefront is what makes the pod racing sequence stand out as well. Yes, it's a gorgeously produced racing sequence that would be the highlight of any film. In fact, the visual effects are so good, they could be placed in a blockbuster film today and I don't think anyone would blink an eye. However, it's the ability to take the extended time to tell an entire mini-story within the pod racing sequence that bumps it up iconic status. We get to see the reflexes, quick-thinking, and spontaneous nature of Anakin in this scene (and then it's mostly negated in the finale sequence, but that's another story).

So what does Star Wars have to offer that other franchises don't? Having looked over the entirety of action sequences, I think when Star Wars is as its best, it is offering extended action sequences that feature fast pace travel, substantial odds, and characters that get frazzled, overwhelmed, frustrated (often comically), and beaten down, but endure it with hope, gee-whiz wonder, and fellowship. Put all of that in an adventurous and exotic science fiction/fantasy space setting and you have the foundation of what Star Wars offers that others franchises don't. I for one hope those at Disney don't forget it.



*For those who are just interested in the lightsaber fights, I've placed them in their own list below for convenience:
All the Major Lightsaber Fights Ranked

13. “Obi-Wan vs. Darth Vader” -E4:ANH
12. “Palpatine vs. Mace Windu” -E6:ROTS
11. “Ren & Rey Takes Out the Knights & Palpatine” -E9:ROS
10. “Anakin, Obi-Wan, and then Yoda vs. Count Dooku” -E2:AOTC
9. “Kylo vs Rey on the High Seas” -E9:ROS
8. “Obi-Wan & Anakin vs. Dooku” -E3:ROTS
7. “Chancellor Palpatine vs. Yoda” -E3:ROTS
6. “Skywalker vs. Vader and the Emperor” -E6:ROTJ
5. “Anakin vs. Obi-Wan” -E3:ROTS
4. “Kylo Ren vs Finn and Rey” -E7: TFA
3. “Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader” -E5:ESB
2. “Duel of the Fates” -E1: TPM
1. “Rey & Ren vs the Supreme Leader's guards” -E8:TLJ