The Best Background Characters: Middle-Aged Karate Dude

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

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The Video:

‘Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins’

The Character:

A middle-aged man in a karate outfit

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 3:42)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

In case you haven’t stepped into an arcade, or read video game news since 1992, ‘Mortal Kombat’ has been rightfully called one of the most controversial video game franchises of all time due to its unprecedented violence, blood, and gore, which meant that it would inevitably have cartoon spinoffs marketed to kids (If Rambo and Robocop could do it, why not Mortal Kombat?). Perhaps the most infamous one, ‘Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins’  acts as a prequel to the 1995 movie, ‘Mortal Kombat,’ and is fondly remembered for its so-bad-its-good animation and fight scenes.

However, one moment stands out among the endless loops of recycled animation and atrocious CGI: When our heroes meet the other aspiring contestants for the tournament to determine the fate of the universe, one of them is a middle-aged guy practicing karate moves. He’s only on screen for two seconds, but what makes Karate Dude so memorable is how he’s hilariously outmatched: Mortal Kombat is a series about people, ninjas, gods, and mutants with superhuman strength literally ripping each other apart in the bloodiest ways imaginable. In a fight against any one of them, Karate Dude is like a chihuahua fighting a wood chipper: he’d be dead in seconds (can you imagine him fighting this guy and winning? Didn’t think so).

Yet, that underdog feel is what makes Karate Dude so endearing: He willingly went to this tournament to try and protect Earth despite having an average physique, being older than every other human present by at least two decades, and not having any chance of winning. But, like the best underdogs, he’s still willing to try, and proves that what he lacks in physical power, he more than makes up in courage, and for that he deserves our respect and admiration.

Or, alternatively, he could also not have any idea of what he’s about to face, and dies shrieking like a little girl while facing a ninja who shoots fire from his mouth. That’d be funny, too.

Favorite Moments: Harry Potter, But With Guns

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

Why it’s great

When reading fantasy stories, you’ve probably thought, ‘how would this go if these characters had guns?’ Who hasn’t dreamed of Gimli mowing down Uruk-hai with an M-60, Jon Snow cutting down white walkers with a mini-gun, or, in a more recent version, what if Harry Potter gave up on magic and went after Voldermort and his followers with shotguns, submachine guns, and rocket launchers?

While the debate of, ‘would muggles with guns defeat wizards with magic‘ continues to this day, this video from 2010 shows that, initially, it’d be a pretty one-sided fight. I especially love how Ron is a fish out of water here: having used magic all his life, he now has to suddenly adapt to weapons he has no idea how to use, but adapts pretty quickly. After getting a taste of the awesome power of rockets, I doubt he’ll be going back to wands anytime soon, along with Harry.

Perfect Moments: One Of The Freakiest Endings I’ve Ever Seen

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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Please note that this is the ending to the 2013 film, ‘Enemy,’ and will spoil it if you haven’t seen the film, even though it’s… well, I really can’t talk about this scene without giving anything away.

The Scene:

Why it’s Perfect

Has your heart slowed down? Good.

As an arachnophobe, seeing a room-sized spider made me jump back when I first saw this. Making it so photo-realistic didn’t help, and neither does the fact that this thing screeches. It’s a fear-based screech, yes, but it’s still a giant spider screeching and scrunching up like its about to pounce and staring at you with soulless eyes AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGG.

Okay… Well, giant-freaking spider aside, what I admire about this ending is that it’s a perfect jump scare. There’s no hints, none whatsoever, that Jake Gyllenhaal is about to encounter a room-sized tarantula that used to be his wife. There’s no creepy music, there’s no sudden silence, only a normal scene building up to what you think is going to be a tense conversation between Adam and his wife, and then BOOM BIG FREAKING SPIDER THAT’S ABOUT TO EAT YOU RUN RUN RUN SUPERMAN SAVE ME.

While jump scares don’t age well after you see them, the first time you watch them are some of the most intense and memorable moments of cinema. This spider certainly counts as one of the best.

 

For John

2017 was an exciting year for Terminator fans. Not only was it announced that we would get a new film that would be a direct sequel to ‘Judgement Day,’ but it would feature Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as the T-800, and Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor on-screen for the first time since 1996’s, ‘T2-3D: Battle Across Time’. It was a Terminator fan’s dream come true; yet, as filming began and the first promotional material came out, I realized something.

Where was John Connor?

Like many fans, I was wondering why there were no casting announcements for John. Was he not in the film? Were they trying to keep his role a secret? It wasn’t until July of 2019 that James Cameron announced that Edward Furlong would indeed be returning as John, and I was ecstatic. After almost 30 years, we were finally going to have Arnold, Linda, and Edward on screen together again!

Then the movie came out.

Predictably, fans of the Terminator franchise were outraged at John’s death. We had followed John’s exploits, adventures, and growth in TV shows, books, video games, and comics for almost 30 years, only to see him be senselessly killed off. There was no historic last stand, inspiring final words, or seeing John sacrificing himself to save the human race. Instead, we got to see all the struggles and sacrifices to protect him in T1 and T2 be rendered meaningless. ‘Dark Fate’ was the ultimate slap in the face to John, mocking him and his fans.

But what if it isn’t?

Like most Terminator fans, I was angry at John being killed. I had hoped that we would get to see a grown-up John (played by Mr. Furlong) rising from an ordinary life to take up the mantle as humanity’s savior with his mother and a T-800 one last time. Instead, I left the theater disappointed at what could have been.

Yet, as the months have passed, and I’ve thought about the film, I’ve come to realize that, while John’s death was still a mistake, ‘Dark Fate’ shows that he’s still the most important character in both the film and the series. He’s so important that if he were removed from the movie entirely, the resulting consequences would have led to the extinction of the human race.

Madness? The desperate grasps of a fan trying to make sense of a senseless and tragic event? Perhaps. But we’re told on the C-5 Galaxy in the third act that Dani led humanity to victory over Legion, the malevolent AI (‘we took our world back’). In order for that to take place, two things must happen:

1. Dani has to survive.

2. Dani has to learn how to become a leader.

‘Dark Fate’ spends most of its time fulfilling the first task. Dani initially is protected by augmented super-soldier Grace; yet, while Grace is a powerful warrior, she is unable to stop the REV-9 on her own, and would have been killed with Dani in Mexico without Sarah’s intervention. But even with Sarah, the group still wouldn’t have been able to destroy the REV-9. They need Carl – the T-800 who killed John – to finally defeat the REV-9 for good and ensure Dani’s survival.

Yet, Sarah and Carl wouldn’t have been able to help Dani if it wasn’t for John. If we imagine a future where he had lived, Sarah would not have known of Dani’s existence, and would not have come to her rescue on the bridge in Mexico. Dani and Grace would have been killed, and Legion would have won the second machine war.

Carl, too, would not have been present to protect Dani if John had lived. If, say, Sarah had managed to destroy him, then there would have been no T-800 to take on the REV-9. Carl was the one who ultimately had the necessary strength and endurance to destroy the REV-9, but he never would have done so had he not eventually realized what he had taken from Sarah, and then willingly sacrifice himself in the end.

‘Dark Fate’ ends with Sarah setting out to train Dani in how to become a leader and a warrior. Here, too, John also comes into play. Because of Sarah’s experience hunting terminators before and after John’s death, she is the only person on Earth who can train Dani how to fight and destroy them. Furthermore, Sarah still has all the tactical and leadership training she has from the first two films, which she will presumably pass on to Dani as well. With all three sets of skills given to her, Dani will have all she needs to fight – and ultimately destroy – Legion.

Though the mantra of the Terminator series is, ‘There is no fate but what we make for ourselves,’ it almost seems as if the opposite is true: In the Terminator series, humanity seems destined to fight malevolent AI at some point. It may be Skynet, it may be Legion, but a war is inevitable. Yet, it also seems that there will always be a figure who will rise up and lead humanity to victory. For years, we’ve believed that John was that leader, but ‘Dark Fate’ shows that there can be multiple leaders. When we step back and look at the broad picture, it seems – hard as it is to accept – that John’s death is necessary in the Terminator universe. John, Sarah, and Uncle Bob succeeded in destroying Skynet, and in the process, John had fulfilled his purpose of saving the human race from Skynet. But would he have been able to do the same against Legion? While fans – myself included – would have loved to see a middle-aged John fighting and defeating an enemy neither he nor Sarah know anything about, I doubt he would have been able to pull it off.

To use a war analogy, let’s say John is the greatest Allied commander of World War 1. His knowledge and experience in trench warfare, chemical warfare, and the like are without compare, and he leads the Allied forces to victory. He’s hailed as a hero and the savior of the civilized world. But what if he suddenly had to lead the allies again in World War 2? While many principles of warfare would remain the same, John’s skills would be obsolete against opponents who have much better technology, weapons, and tactics than he went up against decades earlier. And while there’s a chance he can still win the war, having a younger person who learned from the lessons of the first, and is more familiar with the latest technology, has a better chance of victory.

If the story of the Terminator franchise is humanity’s ultimate victory against malevolent AI, then John can be seen as the commander who, having stopped the machine’s first offensive, ensures that his successor can see the war through to its completion. He is the spark that sets humanity’s ultimate victory in motion. Without John, neither Sarah or Carl would have saved Dani. Without him, Dani would have died.

Without John, humanity would have perished… But it didn’t happen.

Whatever you may think about the movie, in my opinion, ‘Dark Fate’ proves that even in death, John is still the savior of humanity.

Or, if you prefer, you can pretend that this is how the movie ended.

Great Quotes About Writing: Taking A Journey

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

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‘great story telling takes you on a journey WITH the character. You feel like you are on that journey with them because you see all the highs and lows. You see them when at their worst and grow with them. When a character is developed in this way, you have an emotional attachment to them and want them to win. Not only that but you remember that journey and want to see it again.

When watching the original Star Wars films now, the Special effects that are 30+ years old dont even bother me in the slightest because you want to be part of that characters journey again.

Making a film look good, with loads of amazing action makes it visually impressive the first time you see it. But a good story gets burned into your brain and you take it with you for ever.’

-Jameznash, commenting on ‘Why Jyn Erso is a better Rey than Rey is.

Regardless of how you may feel about Rey and the Star Wars sequel trilogy, this is a great quote about the importance of following a character in a story and seeing them grow from who they were to who they end up being. While the big choices and decisions they make are important, it’s also the little things that count, if not more so: Seeing them cry in private over how hard their journey may be, what hobbies they have to try and relax when they have a break from their responsibilities, and so on.  In other words, seeing their failures and the quirks that make them feel real, alive, and human.

What We Can Learn From The Jaws Series: A Summary

The year is 1975: ‘Jaws,’ the greatest shark movie ever made is released, a film with a perfect cast, expertly-crafted scares, an unforgettable soundtrack, and one of the most satisfying villain endings ever filmed. The film ushers in the age of the summer blockbuster, and propels Steven Spielberg into a career as one of the best filmmakers of his day.

Fast-forward to 1987. ‘Jaws the Revenge,’ one of the most reviled shark movies ever made, is released, a film starring Michael Caine as a man named after a sandwich, a shark who’s mechanical innards can frequently be seen as it lurches around the Bahamas seeking revenge on the Brody family, and an ending where a toy shark in a swimming pool explodes after being gently touched by a wooden bowsprit. The film ushers in the end of the Jaws franchise, and becomes a laughingstock among fans of cinema.

What on earth happened?

Lighting, as the old saying goes, never hits the same place twice. Although it only had three sequels, the Jaws series is one of the most infamous examples of a franchise that started out perfectly before ending with a dud. Although there are many lessons to be learned from the series on how not to handle sequels, one lesson stands above the rest:

When a story’s conflict has been resolved, it’s time for the story to end.

Perfect film that it is, ‘Jaws’ is not an epic that can be told as a trilogy in the vein of ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Lord of the Rings.’ It’s a small-scale, self-contained story centered around a single community with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It has a conflict (a shark terrorizing a coastal town) with a definitive ending (said shark is blown to pieces) in which Amity is saved, and the story has come to its logical end with no loose threads or ideas that could be explored in a sequel. ‘Jaws’ does not lend itself to further stories of Martin Brody fighting off shark after shark, year after year, and yet we got three more stories that now serve as poster children for unnecessary sequels.

Now, this is not to say that ‘Jaws 2,’ ‘3,’ and ‘The Revenge’ don’t have their merits. As previous installments in this series have shown, each one has moments, scenes, and ideas that are quite good.

But there’s a theme running through all the Jaws movies that I never noticed until re-watching them: coming to terms with trauma. The first film has Quint’s legendary recollection of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, ‘2’ has Martin dealing with the PTSD of going face to face with a shark, and ‘Revenge’ has Ellen dealing with losing both a son and her husband to the sharks. Much like Ellen Ripley in ‘Aliens,’ the original film, ‘2,’ and ‘Revenge’ are at their strongest when they focus on Quint, Martin and Ellen dealing with the trauma they’ve endured from the sharks, helping make them so much more memorable than cookie-cutter protagonists who exist to provide cheap thrills via their inevitable, bloody deaths.

But it’s not just trauma that was an unexpected find when re-watching the movies. I was surprised to find that, out of the three sequels, I actually enjoyed ‘Revenge’ the most. Not because it’s a good film (though it is a satisfying guilty pleasure), but because, out of all three sequels, it’s the one that tries the most to do something new while moving the story forward. ‘2’, while the best of the three, is still largely a copy of the first film, and ‘3’ has nothing in common with the rest of the series (aside from Sean, Michael, and a shark), but ‘Revenge’ doesn’t repeat the ‘shark attacks Amity’ plot. Though its new ideas weren’t that great (dooming it before a single shot was filmed), ‘Revenge’ at least tried to do its own thing and escape the shadow of its predecessor, and for that it deserves recognition.

While all four films offer many character moments, story ideas, and themes that are valuable to learn from, I believe that if we were to condense all those lessons down, these are the three most valuable:

1. When a story’s conflict has been resolved, it’s time for the story to end.

2. Having characters struggle to overcome traumatic events makes them more interesting to watch.

3. When writing a sequel to a self-contained story, try to follow the same spirit as the original, but avoid copying the story and conflict.

Valuable lessons, indeed, but ones that came at a high cost: Although it’s been over 30 years since ‘Revenge’ was released, it seems unlikely that we’ll see another Jaws film anytime soon, if ever. And you know what? Maybe that’s for the best (if nothing else, ‘Revenge’s poor showing prevented the series from eventually heading into outer space). If the Jaws series proves only one thing, it’s that if you really want to honor a story you love, leave it be. Let it stand on its own and not taint it with inferior and unnecessary followups. Let other stories in the same genre tell their tale without the burden of having to live up to a masterpiece.

Oh, and avoid having your sharks roar. That’s just silly.

This Time, It’s Ridiculous: The merits of ‘Jaws: The Revenge’

Of all the bad sequels Hollywood has released over the years, few have reached the level of contempt and scorn as 1987’s ‘Jaws: The Revenge,’ a film so poorly received that Universal hasn’t tried to make another Jaws movie in over thirty years. If you go by its pop-culture reputation alone, you’d think that ‘Revenge’ could be used as a legal means of torture.

Judge: For the crime of blowing up several orphanages and passenger planes, this court finds you guilty.

Terrorist: Haha! Do your worst!

Judge: I sentence you watch ‘Jaws the Revenge’ twenty four hours a day for the rest of your life.

Terrorist: Noooooooooooooooo!

But is ‘Revenge’ really that bad?

Well… kinda.

When compared to the original ‘Jaws,’ ‘Revenge’ is an inferior followup with more than its fair share of problems (it can’t decide if Ellen or Michael is the protagonist, the premise of a shark seeking revenge is silly, the nonsensical ‘shark explodes’ ending, etc.). However, I wouldn’t say that ‘Revenge’ is one of the worst films Hollywood’s ever put out; there are many that are objectively worse, and dozens, if not hundreds of shark films that are far more inept. (linked video has language that’s NSFW)

I think one reason ‘Revenge’ gets knocked about so much is because the premise – of a shark that’s out for revenge – inevitably sounds goofy no matter how you try to sell it. But unlike a Sci-Fi original movie, ‘Revenge’ takes its premise seriously and tries to make it work. There’s no self-aware winks at the audience or inside jokes that say, ‘Yeah, we know this is dumb; just roll with it.’ And while the end result may not have been the blockbuster Universal was hoping for, there are many – myself included – who like ‘Revenge’ as a guilty pleasure: the cast makes their characters likable and enjoyable to watch (did you know that Ms. Kitner – Alex’s mother from the first film – makes a cameo in the Brody’s living room when Michael arrives after Sean’s death?), the tropical scenery is a refreshing change of pace from Amity, the pacing is quick, and the music is surprisingly good, managing to elevate otherwise mediocre material to watchable.

As with the previous ‘Jaws’ sequels, we’re not here to bash on ‘Revenge’ for what it does wrong, but to instead take a look at what it does well. So let’s dive in and show that even the worst-received movies have their merits.

9. Academy Award winner Michael Caine plays a man named after a hoagie sandwich.

‘Nuff said.

8. Sean’s Death is appropriately disturbing

While the scene itself may be unpleasant, Sean’s death scene in the first act is surprisingly effective. Much like poor Chrissie in the first film, Sean’s alone and defenseless against a shark hell-bent on killing him, and worse yet, help is within reach, but no one can hear his calls for help over the sound of Christmas carols. Hearing such comforting music play while he screams and is eventually pulled down to his death is sobering. While the scene may come across as mean-spirited, there’s no denying how unsettling and attention-grabbing it is.

7. This chase scene

Easily the most engaging part of ‘Revenge’ is the underwater chase scene, where Michael has to outrace the shark as it chases him down.

While the technical merits of the scene are dubious (the shark’s inner machinery and gear are clearly visible multiple times), it’s still an engaging scene for three reasons:

      1. Michael is out of his element: He’s a human in SCUBA gear in the ocean trying to outrace a shark that’s faster than him, is stronger, has more stamina, and doesn’t need air.

      2. Michael has to head into the tight confines of a shipwreck to survive, but as any diver will tell you, entering an enclosed space underwater is extraordinarily dangerous, as there can be no quick way to get to safety if something happens. If Michael makes a wrong turn or a single mistake, he could end up trapped and either eaten by the shark or drown when his air inevitably runs out.

      3. He has to take a huge risk to escape to safety. In order to outrace the shark and reach the surface, Michael risks getting the bends by rocketing to the surface so fast, risking an extremely painful death.

6. Both Ellen and Michael recognize their paranoia

These two moments are similar and quite short, but at different points in the film, Ellen recognizes her paranoia about sharks coming after her family, and Michael acknowledges his fear of being attacked whenever he goes into the water after being chased by the shark. They’re small moments, but it’s refreshing to see characters acknowledge their weaknesses and desire to overcome them instead of refusing to talk about them or pretending they’ll go away.

5. Ellen has a good reason to go after the shark at the climax

Perhaps the most frequent problem in horror/thriller sequels is the idea that survivors of one traumatic event willingly go back or get close to what caused them trauma in the first place. In real life, reasonable people do everything they can to stay away from what nearly killed them. ‘Revenge’’s third act begins with Ellen taking Michael and Jake’s boat and sailing out to face the shark by herself after watching her granddaughter nearly be killed by the shark. Thus, Ellen falls back on the two universal desires that everyone can relate to:

      1. The desire for revenge.

      2. The desire to protect our loved ones.

Thus, ‘Revenge’ finds a credible reason for Ellen to go out and face the shark instead of, say, getting the hell out of the Bahamas and moving to the deserts of Arizona. Much like Ellen Ripley in ‘Aliens’, both head out to face their demons to protect those they love, something that anyone can understand and get behind.

4. Jake is comic relief done right

Unlike most comic relief characters found in horror and thriller films, Jake is a rare example of such a character done right (in my opinion, at least. Your mileage may vary). Yes, he’s essentially a walking Jamaican cliché, but while he cracks jokes and plays up his accent, Jake is still an intelligent guy who immediately stops joking around when things get serious and is willing to risk himself to save others. Jake’s a great example of a comic relief character you can easily see yourself hanging around with for a drink at a nice restaurant. Could you say the same for Wesley Crusher or Jar Jar Binks?

3. The film puts a greater emphasis on characters

Although it doesn’t entirely succeed, ‘Revenge’ makes an effort to focus on its characters instead of focusing on non-stop shark action. The latter would have been more satisfying to the audience, but I appreciate that the movie takes the time to show Ellen starting a new relationship with Hoagie, or Michael and Jake arguing about finances. This makes the characters feel more like people than inevitable shark snacks, and ‘Revenge’ deserves credit for trying to give more depth to its characters instead of going for shallow thrills.

2. The film doesn’t try to copy the previous entries:

There comes a point in any franchise when the main conflict inevitably reaches its logical end. For franchises that elect to keep going in the hopes of raking in more money, it will inevitably start to copy moments from earlier movies to try and sustain the viewer’s interest. Surprisingly, ‘Revenge’ doesn’t fall into this trap. It’s story of a widow trying to emotionally heal from the loss of her husband and son while protecting her surviving family is quite different from the previous films. Furthermore, callbacks are used sparingly, with the biggest example being Michael’s daughter copying his movements as Sean did with Brody many years before. It’s a sweet little moment, and the film smartly doesn’t draw it out any longer than it should.

Regardless of how much its bashed, ‘Revenge’ has to be commended for trying to do new things with its story and not just copying what worked in the past.

1. The film makes its main character an older widow

It’s one of the most common cliches in sequels: Your main actor or actress doesn’t want to come back for the sequel to a hit movie? Make their kids the protagonist! But ‘Revenge’ tries something different: while both Sean and Michael Brody make appearances, Ellen – Brody’s now-widowed wife – takes center stage. How many movies can you recall where the main character in a horror/thriller sequel is a middle-aged widow instead of a young, hot 20something? Ellen’s not the physically strongest character, and she struggles to deal with grief, but seeing her working to overcome those problems is more engaging than seeing someone with chiseled abs and a beefy beach body who hasn’t been exposed to the traumas and challenges that come with a long life.

While I would have liked if Ellen took a more active role in taking on the shark (Michael has more direct interaction with it), I’m grateful that ‘Revenge’ took a chance on having an unconventional character be the lead. In a way, it was ahead of its time; 2018’s ‘Halloween’ and 2019’s ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ proved that older women can take the lead role in films just as easily as their male counterparts, and Ellen Brody could be seen as one of the first to take up the mantle.

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While ‘Revenge’ is undeniably flawed, and perhaps the least in the Jaws series, it still has its merits: It does try something new with the story, it takes a refreshing chance in giving the lead role to an older character, and has generally likable characters all around. While it is a subpar film, I personally don’t think it belongs on lists of the worst films of all time. It has its flaws, and it has the unenviable position of being the third unnecessary sequel to one of the best films in history, but it at least tries to create something unique instead of copying what came before, and for that, it should be commended.

Tune in next time, where we’ll take a look at the ‘Jaws’ franchise as a whole, and see what lessons all four films can impart to writers.