Monday, March 20, 2006

King Badass and Clans of Badass Intrigue

Steph and I were walking somewhere when I remarked that the term "badass" didn't seem to get the usage such a profoundly useful term ought to receive.

Although Tim used it very effectively not long ago to describe an interview candidate. "I thought he was badass," said Tim.

It's a great term, even if it's not entirely clear what it means, etymologically. How bad can a bad ass be?

Steph noted that perhaps one reason why we don't seem to get the expected mileage out of "badass" is because the world lacks in badassed-ness. And not only is Steph right about everything (except Star Trek), she's especially right about all things badassed.

So it was with great pleasure that we've been discovering some serious badassed-ness that's been hanging around for years, waiting for us to bring our asses to the bad table.

King Boxer is a lot of badass. There's something like 15 significant characters in this film, and nearly all of them die horrible deaths (most of them at the hands of their lifelong enemies). The story spins and weaves and loops around vengeance and irrational hatred, and just when you think it's wrapped up all its loose ends, yet another amazing, brutal fight breaks out and more characters die.

When the Shaw Brothers' gang were on, they were really on.

The two things that most amazed me about King Boxer were first off, how the director manages to keep this convoluted story so easy to follow. You're never confused about what's happening to who, and any time a character shows up you easily recall their situation and who they probably want to kick the bad ass of. Secondly, the sheer percentage of screen time devoted to fighting more closely approaches 100 than I think any film I've ever seen. And it never feels gratuitous, because in terms of the story, it never is.

Every fight scene in this movie pushes the story forward. Each fight decides a crucial issue or forces some character into a critical decision. If you took one fight scene out, the whole story would collapse.

Why do so many filmakers not do this anymore? It seems so obvious.

I realised as I was watching it that one reason the story was so easy to follow was because all of the myriad characters look completely different from each other, and they all have affectations of costume or appearance that make them easy to recognize. There's the bald guy, the Japanese guy, the guy with the blue shirt, the guy with the goatee, the guy with the hat, it goes on and on. But that means that you don't waste time trying to figure out if this is the guy who offered to sell out his own sifu, or if this is the guy who tried to kidnap the musician, or what. Somebody shows up and you're like, "Right, this guy. He hates that other guy. Guess they're going to fight," and they do and it's badass.

There's a lot of badass guys in this film, too, and they do a lot of badass stuff to each other. Plucking out someone's eyes is always a badass move, says me. And lots of characters' ends surprise you, and just when you think they've forgotten someone, they show up at the last minute to do something totally badass.

Clans of Intrigue is even badderassed than King Boxer, if you ask me. And holy crap does Ti Lung ever got moves. I only ever knew him as the older brother from A Better Tomorrow but here he is swordfighting and kicking butt. He's totally badass. I had no idea.

Until I saw this film, if you ever asked me about the best swordfight ever, I might have chosen the "five guards mistake Jackie for his brother" fight from Young Master. I would no longer. I am forced to say that ALL the swordfights in Clans of Intrigue are the best swordfight ever. These are some seriously badass swordfights. And apparently The Magic Blade is even better. Woot!

So many swordfights feature characters swinging their blades about with great energy, but they're not actually cutting at each other, they're banging their swords in mid-air above their heads. Lame. Not here, no sir. The fight between Chu and the Shadowless Swordsman is one for the ages, but that one is utterly eclipsed by the climactic fight between Chu, the Shadowless Swordsman, Wu Hua, whatsername that caused all the trouble, lesbian kung-fu legend Princess Yin and all the assorted women who've gotten dragged into this thing.

Of course, any film that features a lesbian kung-fu legend named Princess Yin is pretty much guaranteed to get my vote. How much more badass can you get than that?

But that final fight, that's not a fight for the ages, it's a fight for the eons. Holy crap.

It's interesting to note how little technology has affected fight scenes. Camera tricks, more ambitious wire work, special effects, all these have come along, but in the end, a fight scene is only as exciting as A) the people working on it are willing to strive for and B) the story requires. These two films have fight scenes that stand side-by-side with all the greats, even though, at least in King Boxer's case, the scenes are more than thirty years old. But these scenes are no less badass than the baddestassed scenes of more recent vintage.

Only a badass story can deliver truly badass fight scenes. And that's why there are so few -- because even harding than staging and performing them is writing a story that makes them possible.

So I created this cool little teahouse battlemap on a 1"-scale grid. Add figures and you've got a badass fight scene.

But only if you and your players can come up with a badass-enough story to bring everyone to town.