Monday Morning Critic 2.14.2011 – Arnold Schwarzenegger has returned! Fedor and Casablanca, too.

Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.

There’s not too often where my love of cinema and my love of MMA get to mesh and that’s what happened on Saturday night during the Strikeforce event. I couldn’t help but see the buildup to the first big fight between Rocky Balboa and Clubber Lang in Rocky 3 as a parallel for the last five years of Fedor Emelianenko’s career as a top tier heavyweight in the realm of mixed martial arts. It was almost uncanny, at least to me.

Since the end of Pride, Fedor has been an enigma. He was undefeated but fought very sporadically, putting together five total fights since he beat Mark Hunt in 2006. Pride would be bought out four months after his last title defense in that organization. He destroyed Tim Sylvia and Matt Lindland, as well as Hong-Man Choi, but something curious began with his final two victories. Andrei Arlovski fought a brilliant fight, using his boxing and head movement to play into his strengths, until he threw a flying knee and opened himself to Fedor’s massive haymaker. Brett Rogers did the same thing until he let his hands down and ate a massive haymaker for his troubles. As a friend of mine remarked while we watched the Rogers fight on CBS, “that’s the best fighter in the world?” I couldn’t disagree with his assessment based on the evidence provided; Considering Frank Shamrock praised Rogers so much it makes you wonder if he wasn’t being paid directly by Rogers as his personal hype man and everyone didn’t know or didn’t care.

And then Fedor fought a pair of Brazilians and ended up being stopped in both.

Now I’m not going to debate Fedor’s place in MMA, as I hate using the phrase “greatest of all time” in any aspect but I will say this: for a significant amount of time he was the best fighter in the world. Bar none. And he’s still one of the best, too, but one thing you have to do to be considered the best is to fight the best and he didn’t. Five fights in almost as many years do not make you the best in the world unless you’re fighting the five best guys in a row, which he didn’t. It’s something Dana White says on a regular basis, to much chagrin, but it’s the absolute truth. To be the best at anything you have to continually beat everyone below you. As Ric Flair would say, “To be the man you have to BEAT the man.” You have to beat all comers to be the champ and you have to beat all the contenders to keep the title. We look at Joe Louis as the best fighter of his time because that’s exactly what he did: fought everyone and anyone and knocked them out.

We all want to remember Fedor as the best of the best from his Pride days and looking at his fights between the end of Pride to Saturday night it looks exactly like the Rocky 3 opening sequence. And this is one of the few times that YouTube doesn’t have what I’m looking for, but the opening scene showcases Rocky knocking out all these guys with what is presumed to be a great title reign juxtaposed against Clubber Lang turning into the best fighter not to get a title shot. Rocky’s left to wonder whether it was all real or not after a while, that his reign was propped up by beating bums when he should’ve probably lost earlier. And Fedor held that mystique up until the exact moment he jumped into Werdum’s guard and got caught.

In retrospect, the one thing people are losing in the aftermath of Fedor’s loss and talk of retirement is that his handlers have done one thing masterfully: prop up his mystique while keeping his own mortality as a fighter hidden. Part of keeping someone as more myth than man is to keep them out of the public eye, i.e. not fighting all the time. It’s how Andre the Giant became insanely popular. He would pop up all over the place, never staying too long, so that the attraction never got old. It was as if Rocky Balboa only appeared momentarily, like he was a faint dream and even a light whisper would cause him to disappear forever. That was the glory that was Fedor, the man from fighters’ nightmares and fans’ dreams.

Then he walked into his own version of Clubber Land and lost.

Once by submission and the other by TKO, too, so it’s not like he lost by decision or by some fluke. He was STOPPED, something no one ever thought would ever happen. Every fighter can lose but no one really thought Fedor would. He seemed to be the Rocky Marciano of his sport, never to lose. While M1 and he discussed about how horrible a UFC contract is, etc, you know what I’ve been thinking since he lost to Bigfoot Silva? That maybe he didn’t go to the UFC because he didn’t want to wind up like the bulk of fighters from Pride that have not dominated in the same manner as they did “back in the day.” He and his management team might have looked at the roster of UFC heavyweights and decided that it wasn’t worth it to risk so much. Once you lose that aura of invincibility, you become just a man. If Ivan Drago is just a man and can bleed when Rocky fought him, that fear from your opponent is no longer an edge. It happened to Mike Tyson. Before the loss to Buster Douglass, guys soiled themselves at the mere thought of fighting him. Then he became a man, then a joke and then finally a punchline.

Outside of a handful of fighters, the old guard of the Pride days hasn’t dominated like it was supposed to. Hell, the one guy who wasn’t the best transformed into the greatest fighter on the planet (Anderson Silva). Maybe M1 and Fedor didn’t want to lose that mystique, preferring to pick and choose his spots instead of being Brock-smashed in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX. By not signing, and choosing where to fight, maybe Fedor and his management were trying to delay the inevitable descent from the top like how Mick protected Rocky from being clobbered by Lang later than sooner. He got a couple years on top and the upper hand in negotiating with everyone for some time, which probably garnered more cash than normal.

Me, I’d like to think at this point Fedor will let his eye heal and then go to an Alaskan cabin to train with some Secret Service guys monitoring his every step. With some ‘roided up American fighter waiting for him on Christmas Day in the nation’s capitol, and the Russian equivalent of a training montage with some power-pop song in the background, I’d like to think that this isn’t the end. Fedor didn’t get the opportunity to at least go out on his shield like every great fighter deserves. Age and time wait for no man, not even Fedor, but losing by a TKO from the doctor isn’t how a career like his ought to end.

Random Thoughts of the Week

Awesomeness arrived this week for those of us who grew up with posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger on our walls:

HE’S BACK. And not just to cameo in other people’s films, either.

I closed the door to my office and kind of did something like this:

There’s something to be said about the greatest action hero of ‘em all as he makes his return to acting. Full disclosure, I still count Arnold amongst my heroes. I followed him as a kid and made my father take us to see his movies like lots of kids did. I own everything he’s ever starred in, organized by year of release, in my DVD collection.

Yeah, I’m that kind of dork.

So seeing Schwarzenegger considering projects is excellent news. He’s probably the last great movie star to come back to Hollywood after outside projects, too, so Arnold’s grand comeback is perhaps the last chance at the mythos of the “movie star” to still seem relevant as a box office concept. So his first big vehicle is going to tell us a lot about where Arnold’s mind is as to his status as a Hollywood icon and box office gorilla. He gave us a glimpse by agreeing to a small part in The Expendables but doing a favor for a friend doesn’t give us any real insight into his post-political future. There are really four paths he could take:

The 1985 Never Ended Track – Arnold could always think he’s still the biggest star on the planet and make some variant of “Arnold takes on a small South American country by himself and wins” variant that typified his career. There are probably several hundred unproduced variants on Commando that he hasn’t used for firewood or toilet paper waiting to get a studio to drop $100 million on. Odds are against this because I think he knows that he’s no longer the biggest action movie star ever. The nature of action films has kind of rebelled against his particular brand in the years since he stopped acting. But sometimes old dogs can’t learn new tricks and it wouldn’t shock me if his next film features an older John Matrix rescuing his now 30 something daughter from terrorists led by a guy in a hideous looking mesh t-shirt.

The Serious Actor track – One of the things that people tend to forget is that before he became an action movie star he dabbled in serious acting. There’s a little film that’s been forgotten called Stay Hungry where he played a variant on himself opposite Jeff Bridges and Sally Fields. And he held his own with them, as well, earning a Golden Globe in the process back when that still kind of meant something. He could decide to try and pull out the one career move that no one will ever see: Arnold doing prestige pictures and showing off some legit acting chops. Will it happen? Maybe … I’d lean towards no, because this is Arnold after all, but who’d have thought Jim Carrey would go from using his films to talk out of his ass to using films to scream “GIVE ME AN OSCAR, PLEASE!” in a short time?

The Eastwood Path – You know what I’d like to see? Arnold behind a camera, directing, as opposed to trying to resume his career as a movie star. Think about it. He’s been in some of the best action films of all time with some first rate directors. So imagine what kind of insight he’d have when it comes to acting and story, et al. He’s always had a great mind for film whenever he discusses his own movies; he has a great mind for what works and what doesn’t when he’s discussing film, so perhaps he could end up wanting to make a film as opposed to merely star in one. It’d be an interesting choice that no one would see coming, but I seriously doubt this.

The Interesting Project Path – Arnold’s wealthy beyond any reasonable projection so he doesn’t need to pick a project based on how many zeroes are after the check. So wouldn’t it be fun to see Arnold work the indie circuit like Ed Norton does, grabbing fun films for an actor but not giving two craps if they ever get a wide release? I could see him doing it, if only to prove something to everyone who doubts he could last without the massive trailer and perks of a big time star.

However he opts to come back it’ll be a sign as to how Schwarzenegger wants to view his legacy as an actor. He might talk about doing the Clint Eastwood path and being picky about his roles but it’s just that: talk. Looking at his political career, he ran as a traditional Republican and shifted far to the left when it suited him. So I consider it just that: talk. Hollywood talks about various things, including wanting new and original concepts for film, but shunts out tons of remakes and sequels (and prequels) every month so you really can’t take anyone seriously when they mention new paths in film.

He might talk about picking a new path but if Commando 2 comes up with a huge paycheck will he say no? That’s the interesting thing that’ll show how serious he is about a second act to his career. If he picks something serious that requires him to act, as opposed to merely resuming his old ways, then I’ll believe him. Until then, I’m waiting on him to pick up a machine gun and tell me that he’ll be back.

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

This Week’s DVD – Casablanca

They really don’t make them like they used to. It is clichéd and usually something someone says out of hand to slight anything modern, mainly holding on to some sort of nostalgia, but there are a rare handful of films that could never be made in modern Hollywood. Casablanca is perhaps the best example of this maxim: they really don’t make masterpieces like this anymore. It’s so iconic, with so many repeatable lines that have found themselves in the American lexicon. It should be required viewing for anyone who calls themselves a fan of cinema.

It’s fairly simple story. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) runs a restaurant/bar in Morocco, under the control of Vichy France and their Nazi Allies. Rick is the guy who everyone knows and can connect you with nearly anything. And then Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his gin joint. They’d had a grand love affair in Paris and she left him at a train station; years later she walks in with her husband, wanted by the Nazis, and all the old feelings come back. They wander into his gin joint, looking for letters of transit to escape to America, and it turns into a bittersweet finale to it all.

You know why this couldn’t be made anymore? Because it doesn’t have the happy ending that films like this are supposed to have. Rick and Ilsa are never meant to be together except for their moment in Paris. This film understands it and the finale, with Rick telling Ilsa that she needs to be with her husband and not him, doesn’t feel as anti-climatic as it should be. This is a tale of doomed romance, of two people who are in love but missed that window of opportunity to be with each other. If it was remade Rick would have go all John Woo style with two pistols and he’d get away with Ilsa on that plane, with Victor ending up being some sort of double agent as he winds up betraying Ilsa in the end for the Nazis.

Strongest recommendation possible.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club

Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son – Brandon T. Jackson joins Martin Lawrence in getting rid of any dignity he has left.

Skip It – The first two made me want to cut my eyes out with a spoon, so don’t expect this to be any different.

I Am Number Four – Aliens are hunting some kid down. He’s going to mess them up.

See It – Michael Bay is producing, so at a minimum you get mindless crap. It looks interesting and has a number of actors as supporting characters (like Timothy Olyphant) that could make this a fun little romp.

Unknown – Some evil organization is trying to convince Liam Neeson he’s crazy. He decides to go and mess them up for fun.

See It – Liam Neeson’s second act as an actor is absolutely badass. First he teaches Obi-Wan Kenobi, then Batman, messes up France for letting people kidnap his daughter and then finishes it up by leading the A-Team. From here everything else is just gravy.

Do you have questions about movies, life, love, or Branigan’s Law? Shoot me an e-mail at Kubryk@Insidepulse.com and you could be featured in the next “Monday Morning Critic.” Include your name and hometown to improve your odds.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @MMCritic_Kubryk.

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