So I like rules.
And sexy hats. But that’s a story for another time.
I’ve often been accused of being creative, but I honestly reject that description outright. Creative people are good at imagining things differently than they are, of creating worlds and people and stories and expressing those creations through the medium of their choice.
I am not that guy.
I am not creative; I am observant.
What I’m good at is innovation within set parameters. I will never be the guy to think outside the box, but I can do some neat stuff with the things I find inside that box. So long as I have my boundaries, I’m happy.
This is why it bothers me so much when boundaries are broken or rules are suspended or contradicted, particularly when it comes to storytelling through combat.
The bottom line here, and what I will constantly be returning to throughout the article, is this:
The rules of a fight dictate our perception of the fight.
When the clearly established rules for a fight are frequently, blatantly, and randomly contradicted it muddies the story of the fight; we end up losing the all-important message that grounds any good fight scene.
Here are two more modern examples of rule breaking that succeeded only in unleashing my righteous fury.
#1: Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim tells the story of what has to be the most popular yet least efficient solution to a surprisingly common problem.
Problem: ZOMG MONSTORZ!!!
Solution: ZOMG GIANT ROBOTZ!!!
Wait…no, that’s not right…
No, wrong one again, hang on…
Wait…what? No…just…wait a second; it’s here somewhere…
Whatever. You get the idea.
The Broken Rule: New Powers Syndrome
Pacific Rim, along with innumerable plot holes which I can’t get in to now (and, without exaggeration, some of the worst dialogue I have ever heard…) is guilty of what I call “New Powers Syndrome”; that is, the film clearly establishes what the robots (jaegers) can and can’t do very early on…and then they seem to grow new abilities out of nowhere seemingly on demand.
In this case a brief intro battle establishes the primary jaeger (bearing the vaguely racist name “Gypsy Danger”) and its abilities:
Robo punching and pew pew laser hands. Gotcha. We’re on the same page now, right?
But then they almost immediately break these established limitations. Towards the end of the next fight scene a kaiju (monster) sprouts wings and carries Gypsy Danger far into the upper atmosphere. The primary pilot (whose name I refuse to waste time looking up, so he shall henceforth be known as “Whitey McHandsomeguy”) exclaims “We’re out of weapons!” to which his also vaguely racist Japanese co-pilot (“Asianface”) exclaims “No we’re not!!!” She then pushes a button labeled “Sword”, a button the size of her entire head, incidentally, causing the robot to sprout a sword from its forearm, instantly cutting the monster in half.
In a lens flare worthy of the best of JJ Abrams, no less.
That’s cool and all, but really…why did Whitey, who has been piloting this robot (off and on) for 5+ years at this point, not know about the “huge instant-death sword” button? Moreover, this is the 3rd or 4th monster we’ve seen Gypsy Danger fight…why haven’t they been using the instant-death swords all along?!? Not 5 minutes prior we see this same robot pick up an entire boat to use as a club, but why did he need to do that at all when he was secretly Wolverine all along?!?
Something I’m certain the boat’s captain is also wondering, loudly, from the bridge of his ship.
An even more egregious example can be found in the final battle with the largest monster yet seen in the film. Whilst grappling with the beast deep within the depths of the cosmic rift spanning our two worlds, McHandsomeguy loudly exclaims “I’m gonna burn his ass!!!”, hits a few buttons, and the robot’s chest reactor literally and instantly punches a hole all the way through the most powerful monster yet seen in the film, killing it instantly.
Think Iron Man’s unibeam, but 500 ft tall and stupid.
What the WTF?!?!? Did he just push the “win” button? Since when do they have a “win” button?!? Screw the instant-death swords, why didn’t they just do that every single time? They don’t even make ANY effort to explain what is happening whatsoever. It’s literally “I’m gonna burn his ass!”…WIN. Done.
It’d be like if, at the end of Lord of the Rings, Frodo, after having walked all the way to Mordor, suddenly shouted “I’m gonna burn his ass!” then whipped out a bright pink lightsaber and shattered the One Ring into bits, and then no one ever talked about it again and everyone lived happily ever after.
And then the movie lasted 2 more hours and ended 13 more times.
Finally, at the climax of the film, not one but TWO different Jaegers both pull the “noble sacrifice” shtick. One of them detonates its reactor with the pilots still inside, both wearing a look of grim determination while using their final breath to scream a primal cry of righteous defiance…
While McHandsomeguy and Asianface just set a countdown then eject to safety.
Wait, no one has yet mentioned escape pods at any point in this film for any of the other half dozen jaegers we see being destroyed. There are dozens of times when it escape pods would have been awfully handy (like 5m ago, for example…). Did everyone else…forget? Or did they only install escape pods on ONE jaeger?
Cuz that’s just a dick move, giant robot makers. A dick move.
Idris Elba showing us how many action movies he’s actually managed to live through.
Bottom line: The good guys growing new powers at will bleeds the tension out of every fight.
It stops being about "Oh man...how are they gonna get out of THIS?!?!?", and turns into "Meh. I'm sure they'll just push the MacGyver button or something."
Rules are good. Limitations are interesting. Random unexplained nonsense is not.
#2: Iron Man 3
MAJOR Spoilers Ahead!!!
If Pacific Rim was guilty of “New Power Syndrome”, Iron Man 3 is equally guilty of “Make It Up As We Go Along” syndrome. Whereas the first robot porno established the rules and then changed them at will, Iron Man never even bothers to tell us what the rules are in the first place.
The Broken Rule: We never know for sure what the villains can and can’t do.
But let me back up and start at the beginning.
The big reveal in this film is that Guy Pierce’s character, Killian, is the primary antagonist and is using an experimental procedure called “The Extremis Process” to create super-soldiers to advance his own…somewhat unclear…agenda.
I found this on the internet. It made me laugh.
With me so far? OK, this is where things start getting vague.
All that we are told or shown about the Extremis project recipients is that they seem to be able to regenerate, can generate immense heat from their bodies, and are faster and stronger than your average dude. However even this basic set of abilities is wildly inconsistent from subject to subject.
One of them survives what amounts to a small thermonuclear explosion:
Like a boss!!!
While another is literally killed by an exploding microwave:
Like a…woman? Is supposed to be a comment on feminism or something?
Also, why does she have scars if she can regrow entire limbs?
Later on, a big “Hell Yeah!!!” moment occurs when Tony blows a hole through a recurring villain’s chest and exclaims “Walk away from THAT you son of a bitch!”
The thing is…can he? We’ve seen him come back from worse already several times. This same guy earlier recovered in seconds from losing multiple limbs and was back on his feet after having a hole blasted in his face in a matter of minutes, so why is this injury suddenly and instantly fatal?
Why isn’t this the last thing Tony ever saw before being raped by a volcano?
In the same vein at the end of the film Killian, seemingly the most powerful of the Extremis subjects (for some reason…), survives an iron man suit self-destructing while he’s wearing it, but then, seconds later, is killed by a single errant missile from the same type of suit he has just spent the last 10 minutes dismantling, which only explodes somewhat close to him. Why did that work? Why didn’t the other thing? What?!?
I mean, it’s not like he hit him with a microwave or anything. We all know how dangerous those things are.
This trend of inconsistency continues throughout the film. At one point Killian (and only Killian) displays the ability to breathe fire, misses the guy he’s shooting at, and then never uses it again, even in his protracted 10m long final fight with Tony.
You’d think that might have come in handy at some point.
Sometimes an Extremis subject simply touching an Iron Man suit is enough to completely shut it down:
I need and adult! I NEED AN ADULT!!!
And sometimes not…
This is seconds before the “Hell Yeah” chest blast that somehow kills the guy with molten acne.
Killian and Gwyneth Paltrow are also apparently strong enough to tear the suits apart like paper mache, yet the other subjects have a much, much harder time.
The list goes on.
It’s annoying to the point where literally the only consistent way to measure the relative power level and abilities of the Extremis subjects is to estimate how much they got paid for doing the movie.
Seriously, try it. It totally works.
Paltrow just added a “fire breathing” clause to all of her film contracts.
Bottom line: If the rules are never clearly established, we have no way of understanding what we are seeing.
We stop saying "Hell Yeah!!!" and start saying "Hell...yeah...?"
3: The (Original) Karate Kid
Surprise bonus third entry!!!
Just kidding, don’t read this. It’ll ruin your childhood.
The Broken Rules: How is this thing scored again?!?
Just before Daniel’s first match his girlfriend, Blondey Mc1980’s, tells him, “Anything above your waist is a point; you hit the head, the sternum, kidneys, and ribs.” Not 30 seconds later, however, we get off to a bad start when Daniel’s first opponent gets a point for kicking him…in the arm?
He looks as confused as we are.
Thus begins an absolute torrent of random nonsense. In some matches takedowns count, in some they don’t. In some fights the ref stops the fight in between every point while in others he doesn’t, letting Daniel (and only Daniel) score 2-3 points all at once.
Finally, after a few more minutes of 80’s nostalgia (YOU’RE THE BEST…AROUUUUUUUUND!!!), we come to the final match. Close to the end of the match Johnny, the final boss for the movie, hits Daniel with a solid left straight to the head. The Hitler youth already has 2 points and has previously gotten a point for using that exact technique against a random Filipino guy, so why doesn’t the movie end with Johnny winning and taking Daniel’s girlfriend home to show her his own “secret technique”?
“If can do right, is no defense”
Because the judge yells “that’s a foul!” that’s why…but wait, we were just told (and shown, no less) that head hits are A-OK…? So wait, wait…are you really telling me that a punch to the face, the most basic, go-to technique in the history pain is suddenly illegal, but using “The Crane” to kick someone so hard that they poop their own teeth is somehow totally legit?
Lastly, just before Daniel inexplicably “wins”, Johnny drops a clearly deliberate elbow into Daniel’s injured knee…so why isn’t he immediately disqualified? Johnny’s earlier teammate got axed for doing exactly that, even though, as far as the refs know, the first guy was an accident and this was clearly intentional.
And why was Daniel kicking with that leg anyway?
This movie literally changed my life. It was a driving force in my getting into martial arts, which precipitated my involvement in boxing, stunts, swords, and fight direction, so you can imagine how much this next sentence pains me: when you actually pay attention and look at it through the jaded, cursed eyes of experience, because it plays fast and loose with the rules it itself sets up, this movie stops being about the struggles of an underdog who, through raw determination, finds his inner strength…and starts being about some kid who lucked out with random crap.
Say it with me now:
The rules of the fight dictate our perception of the fight.
I call this one “The Sexbrero”.