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Fall 2023 – Week 12 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I’m happy to report that I’ve mostly shaken off the illness of last week, which indeed proved to be an unwanted but altogether mild bout of Covid. I have emerged from sickness with arms swinging, having barreled through a variety of games, films, and shows as I try to cram as many last-minute additions as possible into the year’s variable attractions. With both One Piece Odyssey and Scott Pilgrim Takes Off concluded, my house is now indulging in what has become an unexpected Projekt Red tradition: playing through one of their games while simultaneously munching on the relevant TV adaptation. Considering what a good time we had both watching and playing through The Witcher at once, we’re now both watching and playing through Cyberpunk, and having a very reasonable time of it. I’ll have more to say on those projects soon, but for now, let’s run down a fresh selection of films, shows, and what have you in the Week in Review!

First up this week were a pair of action movies that were each blessed with an absolute clarity of purpose, both playing loving homage to their own action movie lineage. The first was Sisu, a film that sets onetime Finnish war hero and current gold prospector Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) against a cruel and desperate platoon of nazis. When the nazis realize Korpi is lugging a fortune in gold on his back, they turn their caravan around and proceed to hunt him across the wastes, through a minefield, over a river, and ultimately into the sky.

Sisu’s story is told in geography and combat, divided into a sequence of chapters that each contain one preposterous action setpiece. Korpi is essentially the child of John Wick and Rambo, and with an extended caravan of nazis trailing him, you can guess how that turns out. Sparse dialogue and unobtrusive cinematography keep the focus on the film’s physical, tangible conflicts: Korpi versus tank, Korpi versus plane, nazis versus mines, etcetera. These faceoffs play out with clarity and flair; in less accomplished or inventive hands the film would feel slight or derivative, but Sisu instead proceeds with absolute confidence, persistently finding new innovations within its brutal setpieces.

Compared to your bloated action-thriller, action-adventure, or action-what-have-you, I found much to admire in Sisu’s clarity of purpose. The film is hard and brutal and propulsive, grindhouse-ready yet blessed with a certain dignity by Tommila’s placid, fatigued performance. I quite appreciate that our current era is so receptive to action films that aren’t embarrassed to simply be action films; it feels like we’re escaping a moment where the action of action movies was actually an afterthought, and emerging into a frequently internationally-driven period of again venerating beauty of choreography and singularity of intent.

Our next viewing was a similarly simplified action feature, though with a very different ancestry. The Fist of the Condor stars Marko Zaror as “The Warrior,” a man who seeks only the secrets of martial arts perfection. Told by his master of a school whose greatest students have learned to defy gravity, he travels to Chile in pursuit of this talent. However, while his abilities blossom under the tutelage of his strict new teacher, his nefarious brother lurks in the shadows, studying and planning for the day he will reign triumphant.

How about that premise, huh? Yes, Fist of the Condor is essentially a Chilean Shaw Brothers movie, harkening back to the iconic tropes and larger-than-life characters of classic martial arts cinema. The film’s minimalist narrative leaves plenty of time for white-knuckle battles between the impressive Zaror and his various opponents, alongside cryptic lessons from his new master. Obtuse training regimens, savage betrayals, dignified pledges of revenge – all the standouts of the Shaw Bros are lovingly realized here, and though Zaror might lack the charisma of a Gordon Liu, he makes up for it through the brutal, beautiful physicality of his martial arts abilities. If Sisu and Condor are among the year’s standouts, action cinema is in a very healthy place.

My attempt to catch up on all the past year’s essential anime next led us to Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, Science Saru’s unlikely adaptation of the Canadian classic. The original Scott Pilgrim comic was hugely important to me as a teenager, articulating the anxious ennui of young adulthood in a way that spoke directly to my self-absorbed, nerdy-ass self. Its scouring of Scott’s self-inflicted problems and urging to look beyond yourself felt much like a proper coda for a teen raised on Evangelion; where Eva assures its viewers that we must seek human connection in spite of the suffering inherent in making ourselves vulnerable, Scott Pilgrim makes a fine case for engaging with society more generally, and coming to understand how our actions impact the world around us.

Scott Pilgrim articulated its thoughts so pointedly, and fit its medium so snugly, that an adaptation frankly never seemed necessary. Fortunately, the producers of Takes Off seem to agree, as the show is less a retread of the original than something like the Monogatari Second Season of Scott Pilgrim, expanding beyond Scott’s insular perspective to explore all the fascinating people he was too self-absorbed to understand. Ramona herself is the protagonist this time, with characters like Knives, Young Neil, and the League of Evil Exes all benefitting from this reorientation of perspective. Reframed as something like a murder mystery investigation, Takes Off savors the inventive margins of O’Malley’s world, while presenting plenty of fun ideas of its own.

Scott Pilgrim the original was already plenty self-aware, but Takes Off takes the series’ self-critique in alternately insightful and playful new directions, with the in-show film and stage production “Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life” offering ample room for thematic reflection and deadpan commentary. And just as the original was so brimming with love for manga and videogames, so is Takes Off enamored with film and animation, frequently digressing into flourishes like “Ramona battles across a series of ongoing film scenes.” The show’s energetic, creative direction and thoughtful engagement with the anxious task of finding yourself called to mind Gainax’s peak years; if Pilgrim is anything to go by, Science Saru might be turning into the studio I’d always hoped Trigger would become.

If there’s anything to critique, it’s that the show’s preposterous cast of movie stars clearly aren’t voice actors, and thus the dub ranges in quality depending on any given actor’s affinity for dubbing. This can also result in some moments of belabored comedic timing, with the pacing of jokes sometimes feeling a little staggered, or the character expressions not quite matching their actors’ tones. But that aside, Takes Off accomplishes the remarkable task of finding new life in the Scott Pilgrim universe, and reminding me of why this story meant so much to me in the first place.

Alongside the films and shows, I also spent the last few weeks playing through One Piece Odyssey, the recent full-scale One Piece RPG. The game sees the Straw Hats washing up on the shores of Waford, a legendary island housing a mysterious superweapon. With their powers swiftly stolen by the ability of island resident Lim, the crew are forced to regather their abilities by wandering through memories, reliving iconic One Piece arcs in order to regain their strength.

The greatest thing about One Piece Odyssey is undoubtedly hanging out with the Straw Hats themselves. The game is brimming with tiny sidequests that are essentially just bite-sized filler episodes, and the crew is constantly jabbering about this or that as you conduct your adventures. One Piece’s main cast are perhaps the most charming in all of shonen, so for any big One Piece fans, there’s an obvious pleasure in hanging out with them for a variety of supplementary adventures, listening to them shoot the shit as you collect walrus tusks or memory beads or whatever.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all that Odyssey has going for it. The game’s own story is barely there, and mostly just an excuse to string together revisits of Alabasta, Water Seven, and Dressrosa. But whether you’re a new fan or up to date, Odyssey’s articulation of these classics is bound to disappoint; they’re essentially just conveyed through still screen summaries, with the player’s own participation limited to “wander across this hallway/desert field/ruin to activate the next fight/cutscene.” All of the actual interesting stuff happens in exposition; the gameplay itself is limited to walking from point A to point B and getting in field battles.

So how about those battles, then? Well, while I appreciated the game’s inclusion of so many classic Straw Hat maneuvers, it rarely felt like my own tactical contributions were required. The game relies on a simplistic rocks-paper-scissors form of type advantage that always makes it obvious precisely what character and attack you should be using. Once you’ve found a comfortable area attack for each of the Power, Speed, and Technique types, you can basically use those moves to defeat every single enemy in the game. I’d complain that the game’s combat is scaled such that each fight is trivially easy, but really, the player’s ability to strategize and make smart decisions is so limited that it sort of has to be trivially easy, as there simply aren’t meaningful ways to gain advantages through smart choices.

So yeah, you’re basically just pushing forward through a variety of fetch quests, engaging in battles that resolve themselves, and hanging out with the Straw Hats all the while. I was disappointed, but frankly, I dropped Dragon Quest XI for the exact same reasons: endless time-disrespecting wandering, trivially easy combat. Here at least I was hanging out with characters I already liked, which was enough to sustain me through the end credits, but nowhere near enough to earn Odyssey a recommendation.

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