NFB Watches Wrestling #58: Smackdown (21/03/2002)

We continue to fallout from Wrestlemania and the road to Backlash. It’s the 21st of March 2002 (filmed on the 19th) and we’re in the Corel Centre of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada for episode #136 of Smackdown! Your main event tonight: Kevin Nash vs The Rock!

Attitude splash, and straight into a recap of the main programme from Raw, otherwise known as “the Hogan show”. The WWF guys know how to make matches look amazing, even if the repeated shots of Hogan’s Leg Drop to Hall show him hitting the chest, not the head.

“Beautiful People”, pyro and Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler welcome us to Ottawa. They announce the aforementioned main event, but before all of that out comes Kurt Angle. Recap of the tag match on Raw where Edge pinned your Olympic hero clean in the middle of the ring. Angle is here to join the commentary team, and immediately claims Edge never beat him, it was really Kane. Not sure that really makes it any better. Anyway, Kurt is here to watch a Wrestlemania re-match.

Booker T vs Edge

I imagine Angle is going to be taking a lot of my attention. He dismisses having his feet on the ropes to beat Kane at Mania, since winning is all that matters. Says he used to hang with Edge, but he hangs with Booker now because “he’s cool”. Lock-up, Booker with chops in the corner, Takedown from Edge to the top, and hits a flying clothesline for two. Backbreaker, two. Nice comment from Angle when he’s asked where he thinks he’ll end up in the draft: Smackdown, because Vince has the #1 pick. Great heel line.

Clothesline from Edge, two. Booker back with elbows and his own clothesline. Angle, trying to show his street cred, quotes the “Up In Here” song to go with Booker’s offence. Stomps from T in the corner, as Angle talks about visiting Booker’s “crib” . Resthold in the ring, Edge out of it, takes a shoulder on a charge but then hits a flapjack. Inverted Atomic Drop, running lariat, running forearm, modified facebuster, and Edge heads to the top. Kurt intercepts him but kicked off, and Edge hits a double axe-handle to Kurt on the outside. Back in, Booker with a kick to the mid-section, Edge dodges the Scissors Kick, and hits his backslam. Looking for the Edgeacution, Booker out of it, Edge dodges a heel kick but the ref takes it instead. Edge hits a spear, no ref, and Angle in to hit the Angle Slam. Scissors Kick, ref has recovered, and that’s the 1, 2, 3, in four-and-a-half.

Winner: The cool dude.

Verdict: Short, but fun. Edge can bring the offence, and it furthered the new feud. Booker is going to get left behind though.

Booker gives us a Spinarooni before heading off. Backstage, Hulk Hogan has arrived, to another thunderous response. He’s just walking down a hallway! He bumps into Vince McMahon, and the two have a staredown. Think this is their first onscreen interaction between the two since Hogan’s return? Vince says he invented sports-entertainment, and he made Hogan, and the second part is accurate at least. Adds that Hogan turning his back on the nWo isn’t “cool, brother”, but he’s happy to let bygones be bygones. No more lethal poison? Does Hogan want to be his #1 draft choice? Gives Hogan the night off to think about it, but Hogan says he’s going to hang around, to the crowd’s delight. But of an awkward segment.

Elsewhere, the APA play cards, drink beer and smoke cigars. William Regal passes by, and Bradshaw asks him for five dollars. Regal dismisses the request the only way he can do, and brings up the draft. Farrooq and Bradshaw say they were already drafted by NFL teams, and they also like draft beer. Puns! Regal clarifies that he means the draft on Monday, and brings up the possibility of the APA being out of business. Bradshaw comforts himself with the assurance that, no matter what happens, one member of the APA will be on the same show as Regal to kick his ass. After submitting to their insistence that he “use the door”, amazing, Regal runs into DDP. Page wonders why Regal has become the Draft Day doommonger, and figures it might be because he was shown up as a loser at Mania. Regal counters he might be mad because a person he hates holds the Euro Title, and challenges Page to a match tonight “sunshine”. Drink! Page accepts, reasoning that once he beats Regal, Regal will forget all about being humiliated at Mania. Smiles!

Elsewhere elsewhere, Nash and Hall hang out. They play to “bring it” on The Rock. I bet. Three backstage segments in a row, but at least this last one was short. After the break…

Lita & Trish Stratus vs Jazz & Ivory

At least there is a story to this one, though I’d be surprised if this goes over five minutes. Trish and Ivory to start, as Cole takes the time to plug house shows. Side headlock from Ivory, some lock chains, Ivory with a kick, Stratus back with a roll-up for two, then floored with a clothesline. Corner smash, shoulders, but Trish hits a crossbody for two, with Jazz breaking it up. Delay Scoop Slam, and Jazz tagged in. Leg drop, two. We just skipped the opening act of this one, huh? Beatdown on Stratus, Lita cleared off the apron and as she remonstrates with the ref the heels give Stratus a quick double Boston Crab.

Trish dodges a corner splash and gets the hot tag to Lita. Lita clears house with clotheslines, drop-kick to Jazz, rana to Ivory, then hung up on the ropes by Jazz. Trish tags in, and crossbody’s Jazz for two, Ivory breaks it up. Things break down, Lita dumped out, double team on Stratus, but able to hit Jazz with a head kick as Lita pulls Ivory out. Stratusfaction off the ropes and that’s it in just under four-and-a-half.

Winners: Two thirds of the fulltime womens division.

Verdict: Went stright to face-in-peril, but it was fine. Sets up a future title programme for Trish, and that’s as much as you can hope for with womens matches on TV really.

Cole makes a big deal of Stratus pinning the champion, so you know what’s coming.

Backstage, RVD is with Lillian Garcia. She asks where he might end up in the draft, but Van Dam just says “whatever”. Wherever he goes, he’ll still be RVD. That’s it. What was the point of this?

“Tobacco is whacko, if you’re a teen” sponsors a look at Brock Lesner annihilating Spike Dudley on Raw, and that sponsor will never not be hilarious.

Diamond Dallas Page (c) vs William Regal (WWF European Championship)

The bell rings so quick the ref can only hold the belt up one-handed like he’s celebrating. Lock-up, Page sent down with a shoulder block and then Regal’s patented triple pin spot. DDP back with hard whips, and delivers a back body drop, then his discus clothesline. Reverses a hip toss attempt into a swinging neckbreaker. Regal back with strikes to the gut and then a running knee, two. Jumping knees, stomps, Page back with his own strikes, but then Regal counters into a drop two-hold and lays it some vicious forearms to the back of the head. Suplex gets two. Good stuff with these two guys.

Regal delivers his Cutter for two, and that move is still look cool enough looking that it should be a finisher. Too busy playing heel with the crowd, and Page able to rally back with strikes, hard whip to the corner, clothesline, and a sit-down powerbomb for two. Follows up with a DDT for two, but suddenly Christian is here to pull Page out of the pin. Ref distracted by Christian, Regal nails DDP with the brass knucks, and locks on the Regal Stretch. DDP is out and the ref calls it in just under four, curiously without any arm drop spot.

Winner (and new WWF European Champion): Slick Willy. At least he is European.

Verdict: Short, but again fun, good TV match from two old hands. Doesn’t bode well for DDP’s future career prospects though.

Regal walks over holding the belt with a satisfied smirk on his face.

After the break Y2J makes his entrance, flanked by Stephanie McMahon, as Cole runs down the stipulations for Raw’s re-match with Triple H. The crowd mocks Jericho, and he mocks back, saying that he without the Undisputed Title is not going to last. “You people”, drink! He won’t be robbed of his dignity or self-respect, and reminds people of when he beat The Rock and Austin in one night, or when he injured Triple H. Claims HHH is scared to death of him, because he insisted Steph be involved in their match. The stip appears to have changed a bit between shows, because Jericho says Steph is gone from WWF if any of the two are pinned, not just her, though he insists he will not allow “this terrible tragedy” to happen.

Steph on the mike to insist “You need me” as the chanting starts, but she’s cut off by Motorhead as Triple H comes out onto the stage. Y2J says he’s going to finish him off Monday. Triple H retorts by criticising Jericho’s clothes, which causes Cole to give the world’s fakest chuckle. Maybe Jericho is right about SMH, and the WWF can’t have enough “lying, conniving bitches” opines the Game. It’s a Triple H mike segment, so we cut to a video package. This one is a collection of Stephanie’s most humiliating moments, which includes clips of various substances getting dumped on her, Jericho pointing out her boob job, the rash spot (“I’m like a monster!” she says, like she’s Buster Bluth) and getting a Stink Face. Jericho gallantly covers Stephanie’s eyes, probably at Vince’s insistence in case she twigs that she’s a pratfall in human form for him. HHH polls the crowd on whether Stephanie should stick around, and it seems only King wants her to stay. “Hey, hey, hey Goodbye” gets Stephanie in meltdown mood, screeching “Stop singing!”

The Game turns to Jericho, says he earned his respect at Mania, but that doesn’t mean he’s the best. He came up against the unstoppable force, and Monday will be no different. It’s a whole new game, and this game is forever. Is that a pitch for a new catchphrase? Steph decides now is the moment to announce that Monday’s handicap match is now a Triple Threat, which astonishes Jericho. Steph teases the idea of being the Undisputed Champion, and the crowd does not like that, and neither does a slackjawed Jericho. More interested in seeing the match though, I’ll admit.

After a break, Jericho is doorstepped by Lillian Garcia. He sums up the new stipulations for Monday, and suddenly realises that if he pins Stephanie, he’d become the champion. Evil smile, and exit.

Tajiri w/Torrie Wilson vs Test (non-title)

Tajiri is the current Cruiserweight Champion, still in this strange relationship with Wilson. Test has by now transitioned firmly from mid-level face to mid-level heel, and his appearance in this contextless match reminds me about that “Immunity Battle Royal” match he won at the previous Survivor Series, the plot for which they just dropped after a few weeks.

Test with strikes, but floored by a spinning heel kick. Tajiri to the top, but crotched when Test hits the ropes. Strikes, corner clotheslines, two. “Test’s got it all” says Cole, and he fairness he did, the build and look that Vince clearly prefers, what ever happened? Scoop Slam, Sidewalk Slam, but Tajiri able to come back with a clothesline duck into a superkick. Out of a powerslam attempt, Tornado DDT out of the corner, two. Dodges a corner charge and turns it into the Tarantula for a four count. Sunset Flip attempt, Test sits down, Tajiri squirms out, and a hard kick to the back of the head. Crowd popping big for those.

Looking for the Buzzsaw, Test ducks, Tajiri dodges the Big Boot, looking for the handspring elbow but Test catches him and hits a Full Nelson Slam for two, though the ref slapped the match three times pretty clearly. Wilson onto the apron, Test shoves her off hard, walks into another superkick, but only a near fall. Tajiri out of a powerbomb attempt but then runs into the Big Boot, and that’s the 1, 2, 3 in just under four.

Winner: Test, whom Cole says we should be looking at real close for the draft. Really?

Verdict: Nice big/small encounter. Bigger guy always going to go over against the Cruiserweight Champ at this time. Most times. All times.

Backstage, Vince is with the Outsiders. Vince thinks the nWo will make a statement tonight, by castrating the Brahma Bull. He’s also arranged it so that the nWo can only be drafted as a unit, and plans to bring them to Smackdown. It won’t help guys.

Stacker 2 sponsors a Raw highlight, and it’s Linda’s announcement of the draft followed by hopefully the last Vince/Flair brawl. I’m sure Stacker 2 was delighted at their name being put with boardroom announcements and two old men fighting.

The Hurricane vs Mighty Molly

Not one “The Superpowers Explode!” joke for this, a match arising out of the Hardcore Title shenanigans at Mania. King suggests this match is like “Batman vs Robin, or the Green Hornet vs Kato or Wonder Woman vs Aquaman”, and he was doing alright for a bit. Hurricane asks Molly why she brained him with a pan, she says she got caught up looking for a title, offers the hand, but of course it’s an ambush! Helms looking for the chokeslam early, but relents and goes for powder. Molly attacks from behind because she is an evil woman. Chops, whip into the corner, and a multi-handstand corner elbow, nice. Dropkick, but then back body-dropped out and to the floor on a charge. Hurricane to the top, but then relents again.

But here’s Brock Lesnar, through the crowd! Takedown on Cane, F-5, Heyman is here, Molly takes to the ring and gets absolutely annihilated by a Lesnar clothesline. Heyman raises the hand as the crowd boos. Umm, the match is over.

Winner: No contest I presume, nothing is announced.

Verdict: Typical intergender fare for this era, Molly can pull off some decent moves, but more importantly can take them: Lesnar nearly tore her head off with that clothesline, they could have been finishers.

Backstage, Undertaker is here, described as a “red devil”. He asks a random guy where Ric Flair’s office is. Ohhhhhhh.

Cole plugs WWF.com and the Mania attendance record, like either matters. Taker arrives in Flair’s office. Says he had the night off Monday (we noticed) but he’s here now and he needs a favour. He wants to be Flair’s #1 draft pick, which gets a “Whaaaa?” from the crowd. He wants to be drafted by Flair so every day of Flair’s life can be a Wrestlemania moment. What, an over-hyped, disappointing Wrestlemania moment?Like their match last Sunday? Eh? Anyway, Taker leaves Flair to think about and leaves.

Elsewhere, Billy and Chuck prepare for their title defence. They talk about recent hire “Rico” being the toughest there is. Said Rico arrives, says they are pathetic and doesn’t know how they live with themselves…because their headbands and hair are terrible. “The best stylist money can buy”.

Poor Rico. He’d been a big deal in OVW for a few years, winning that promotion’s top title three times and feuding with Nick “Eugene” Dinsmore a lot. He had a lot of talent and notice, but then when he was called-up he was instantly saddled with this comedy gimmick, and that put a time limit on his top tier career for sure. Considering some of the details of his background and life experiences, there was a lot they could have done with him, and “Billy & Chuck’s flamboyantly gay manager/stylist” was not the formula for long-time success. But it is what it is.

The Lugz Boot of the Week next and its…Stacy Kiebler getting powerbombed through a table by Bubba Ray. That’s not a boot!

Billy & Chuck (c) w/Rico vs The Hardy Boyz (Matt & Jeff) (WWF Tag Team Championships)

What have the Hardy’s done exactly to earn this title shot? The same thing the Dudley’s on Monday did apparently. Matt and Chuck to start, Matt shoved hard into the corner, ducks a clothesline roll-up, two. Knocked around a bit, but then able to hit a swinging neckbreaker for two. Billy in, misses a charge and double teamed quick. Whip chain, and Jeff hits an awkward looking crossbody, before getting taken out of it by Chuck. Tilt-A-Whirl sends him down, then Chuck in. Discus forearm, and a Jeff rally cut off by an elbow. Billy in, attempted double team, but Jeff able to hit drop-kicks to both. Hot tag to Matt, cleans house, back body-drop to Chuck, gut shot to Billy, Poetry In Motion to Chuck, but Billy dodges the same. Side Effect to Matt, Jeff looking for the Swanton but shoved off. Matt hits a leg drop instead, but the count interrupted when Rico throws Jeff into the ring on top of Nick Patrick. Matt looking for the Twist Of Fate, Billy pushes off, Rico gets in a shot, Billy hits the Famouser, and that’s it in just over three-and-a-half.

Winners (and still WWF Tag Team Champions): Billy and Chuck…and Rico, essentially.

Verdict: Quick, forgettable tag action, meant to introduce Rico more than anything.

Michael Cole plugs the main event tonight, and the main event on next weeks Raw.

Kevin Nash w/Scott Hall vs The Rock

At least the Outsiders get an entrance this time. Huge reaction for Rock. Think this is pretty much Nash’s first proper match in months? Remember, he supposedly didn’t wrestle at Mania because of an injury. I wonder if he was booked to lose? Ha! Nash would never take not going over lying down, literally.

Staredown. Rock blocks a shot, back with his own, but then floored with a clothesline. Rock sent packing with a few rights, tries to rally back, but Nash’s strikes are too powerful. Snake Eyes, and Rock choked on the middle rope. Hall keeps it going while the ref is distracted, then a hip attack. Crowd just calling for “Hogan” the whole time. Foot choke in the corner, and as Nash distracts Earl, Hall gives Rock a really loud clothesline from the apron. Come on now Hebner, you’re meant to be senior referee!

More shots in the corner, Nash has almost no offence worth watching. Finally Rock comes back, but quickly sent out over the top rope. Looking for another Snake Eyes into the ring post, but Rock counters and pushes Nash into it instead. Once again Hall puts in a beatdown with the ref distracted. Back in, Nash with a big Sidewalk Slam for two. Busting out his second wrestling move of the night was too much for him, so now we get an extended bear hug spot, complete with arm drops. Rock coming back, flying clothesline, DDT, Hall into the ring and Rock lays the smackdown to send him out. Spinebuster to Nash, People’s Elbow, but Hall breaks up the count and the ref calls it in just over seven.

Winner (by DQ): The Rock over Kevin “No Pin” Nash

Verdict: Only worth watching for Rock’s offence, because Nash barely has any.

Hall looking for the Razor’s Edge but back body-dropped out again, I’m guessing he’s incapable of hitting that move right now. An enraged Rock sets up the announce table but gets ambushed by the Outsiders as the crowd just waits for Hogan to show up. Powerbomb sends Rock through the table, but here comes Hogan, sans music for some reason. Nash taken out, Hall and Hogan into the ring, punch sends him down, leg-drop, but then Nash attacks from behind. Hogan back, big boot, Atomic Leg Drop, and suddenly it’s Syxx! I mean X-Pac! He’s got a chair! First time Waltman has been seen in months, having vanished just before 2001’s Survivor Series, despite being a double champ at the time. I wonder if the crowd will be welcoming (they will not).

Hogan takes a clattering before Pac mixes up his factions and gives us a Suck It. Hogan busted open as the X-Pac heat starts in earnest. Hall gives Hogan a ridiculous looking chair shot to the upper back/back of the head, take it easy moron. Nash delivers one more, protected, shot to the head. Pac rips off Hogan’s shirt, the spray paint comes out, and now parts of the crowd are chanting for “Austin”. He ain’t coming folks. “nWo”, and the new group is left standing tall. At least there’s that. You’d think they would be building to something at Backlash with all this, wouldn’t you?

Best Match: I’ll go for Regal/DDP. Even for how short it was, it’s obvious you had two very committed, competent guys in the ring with each other there.

Best Wrestler: Let’s give Tajiri some love! He’s one of the best cruiserweights in terms of hanging with the bigger guys.

Worst Match: The main event, again showcasing how limited Hall and Nash are.

Worst Wrestler: I don’t like giving it to someone in the Worst Match, but Nash simply can’t go right now.

Overall Verdict: Most of it was a decent edition of Smackdown, but the main event and the sense it was mostly about advertising stuff happening on Raw undercut it a fair bit. Still, I’ll always enjoy a show where Hogan is left laying at the end.

To view more entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review – Black Holes: The Edge Of All We Know

Black Holes: The Edge Of All We Know

Trailer

Behold!

Is there any bit of astrophysics as alluring to the layman as the idea of a black hole? It seems to me to be at the fulcrum of what we can understand, and find fascinating, and what we cannot understand, and, well, find fascinating. We can all grasp the idea of a portion of space that sucks in anything that gets too close, a whirlpool in the cosmos, but we can’t grasp what happens after that. For a long, long time, those of us into sci-fi have wondered, and absorbed so much fiction that includes the concept, that in truth our opinions of the phenomenon are probably coloured as much by Star Trek as they are by Stephen Hawking (if not more).

A few years ago, I do recall the media splash that occurred when a group of scientists was able, through the combined use of a number of high powered telescopes and advanced imaging techniques, to form a picture of what a black hole looks like. What we got was a hazy circle of orange, more at the bottom than the top, surrounding an empty space. In some ways it was singularly unimpressive – the kind of thing a concept artist could have done in their sleep – and easy fodder for tabloids looking for cheap clicks before moving on to the next thing from the sky (like the first look at Pluto, or the plants growing on the moon). But in many other ways that image was an enormous achievement. How we got to that point is a story worth telling.

In this documentary, we get to see a look at the project from two very different, but connected, viewpoints. The first is one that many of us are at least partly familiar with: the work of Stephen Hawking and his compatriots, as they looked to make sense out of the senseless, and give us a greater understanding of just what black holes were. The second, and perhaps much less known, was that literally astronomical effort to fix a wave of telescopes at one point in the sky, and then get something legible out of what they were all looking at. Together, these two groups of people are at the forefront of unraveling one of the great mysteries of our nighttime sky.

It’s the man himself, Stephen Hawking, who captures something of what I mean in the production’s very first line: “A black hole is stranger than anything dreamed up by science fiction writers. It’s that kind of thought that will draw the eyes to this, a documentary that I think would usually scare people off with it’s extremely weighty, and, being frank, difficult to understand, subject matter. The Edge Of All We Know does the best that it can I feel, but it also falls into the trap of dumping the audience in the deep end (or perhaps we should say the event horizon) of the titular dark abyss, then suddenly pandering too much to an overly simplistic narrative at other moments.

I don’t really know how else to say it other than to bluntly state that I felt equal parts talked up and talked down to during The Edge Of All We Know. At certain points the people being interviewed, whether they are the astrophysicist colleagues of Hawking, or the large team working with the telescopes, really go in-depth on the science of black holes, in such a manner that a layman like myself would be totally lost within seconds. I can think of no better example then discussions of the so-called “information paradox” of black holes, something that the film seems incapable of getting across to Joe Bloggs like myself who really do not understand the finer points of quantum mechanics or general relativity. Failing to get this across means that we’re less engaged with the topic the longer the film goes on, since it’s hard to care about something that seems totally beyond your keen.

Seeing is believing.

And yet, then The Edge Of All We Know will suddenly flip entirely, and go from that to explaining the nature of black holes as if they were doing so to a child. There’s animations, there’s water-based whirlpool simulations, there’s even a section where people talk about Hawking’s famous spaghetti astronaut, complete with diagrams of said astronaut being essentially squashed into nothing (played, at least in part, for laughs here, though I always found the idea uniquely horrifying). It’s like the film suddenly wants to be the visual form of a science museum for kids. I feel like the people behind The Edge Of All We Know were unclear on what exactly they wanted the film to be: a no holds barred scientific investigation of something only the very best human minds can grasp, and good luck keeping up, or something you could show in a secondary school science class without fear of furrowed brows. Instead we get both, and as is often the case trying to be two very different things at once just doesn’t really work out.

This is a bit of shame, because I generally thought that much of what The Edge Of All We Know showed us was quite interesting, especially from a human perspective. Men like Shep Doeleman, heading the observatory project but surrounded by a litany of creative and capable young minds, takes up a lot of screentime, and while he is clearly at pains to show the whole process as streamlined as possible – a few hiccups with bad weather are really as dramatic as the film likes to get – his perspective on what the IHT is trying to do is still worth seeing. The other half of proceedings perhaps gets a bit bogged down in looks at lots of scientific formalas scribbled on blackboards and whiteboards, but the various academics involved are still capable of giving a different portrait than we might be used to when it comes to the iconic figure of Hawking, shown here actually working and not just making quotable pronouncements. There’s a very obvious passion for the work from all quarters, which I think is very important to get across: we don’t get in-depth biographies of any of these people, but seeing the nerves as different imaging techniques are tried out, or the barely restrained tension as weather interferes with plans, is enough to carry us along.

The Edge Of All We Know is shot in a straight forward style, the product of people who are content with the basics of documentary, and doing their best to meld into the background when they aren’t doing testimonial-style shooting (in some of the smaller rooms, the bunched up nature of filmmaker and subjects is a bit too obvious, and some staged shots stand out in a huge way at other points). The director, Peter Galison, is a member of the EHT himself, so one does have to acknowledge the fact that the film is unlikely to ever take too harsh of a viewpoint on the project, it just isn’t that kind of film (there may be a question to be asked about the worth of the entire thing, in terms of practical benefit to humanity outside of furthering knowledge, which the film chooses not to tackle).

The animations, that sort of serve like act breaks of a kind, are a nice way of dividing things up, less you become too overwhelmed by the science being thrown at, or spoonfed to, you.This is the sort of artistic effort to get the idea across that I can get behind purely on their own merits: one, in particular, that shows a line of people – representative of those undertaking the documentary’s project – walking down an unseen path that mimics the pull of a black hole was especially intriguing. Another uses a grid-system of the universe as we understand it to make clear the enormous distance between Earth and the black hole – the one in M87 – that the EHT group are trying to get an image of (it suffices to say that a single telescope would need to be the size of the planet to get a good look on its own). I could stand to see more scientific films that took this sort of approach, melding the factual with the aesthetics in a manner that pays tribute to the minds that bring us knowledge of the thing, and the way that the thing itself coaxes the imagination. It’s just when it is combined with the fourth-grader style lesson that it starts to grate a bit.

The film is also noteworthy from a musical perspective. Zoe Keating, playing soem original pieces along with some classical, takes plenty of cues from the likes of Hanz Zimmer, whose Interstellar soundtrack was presumably on the playlist, and the end result is a refreshing soundtrack that is unexpectedly memorable (when was the last time that a documentary soundtrack was this good?). It ebbs and flows nicely, and forms a suitable accompaniment to the animations mentioned above.

The Edge Of All We Know is a decent recordation of what was a pretty important event, the moment when our understanding of something difficult to understand moved a pivotal step forward. That blurry image dropped off the news cycles quickly enough, but represents the hard work of a great many people, from the world’s best astrophysicists to computer technicians tasked with making the image a reality. This documentary sometimes struggles with how exactly it wants to relate the science to an audience it at once overestimates and underestimates, but I’ll admit that it is hard to judge it too harshly, given the way that it boils down this massive scientific effort to a very human level. The animations are well-executed and the score is probably worth a listen all of its own. I can’t say that I really know more about black holes after The Edge Of All We Know, but I know more about why they are important. Partly recommended.

To infinity and beyond

(All images are copyright of Giant Pictures).

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NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Two: “Fragged”

Murder is my heritage. Is that the lesson I’m supposed to pass on to our child?

Air Date: 29/07/2005

Director: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan

Writer: Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin

Synopsis: On Kobol, the survivors reach the breaking point when Crashdown proposes an attack on a Cylon missile battery. On Galactica, Tigh struggles with the pressures of command, while Roslin goes through Chamalla withdrawal.

Review

“Fragged” is a bit of a change-up for BSG, choosing to zero in on two plots – maybe three if you want to be technical – having jumped all around the universe for the last two entries. That might reflect the change of writers and director, but also I would say a desire to start tidying things up a little bit as we move forward. The effort is a worthy one: “Fragged” is another top-class edition of BSG, jumping smoothly between the military drama on Kobol, and the more character-driven drama on Galactica.

Kobol takes most of the focus for the first time, and it is a really well executed plot, a perfect 20 minute war drama. There’s a simple set-up of marooned soldiers having to deal with a commander who is going slightly off his rocker, a military objective between them and their rescue and a fateful moment when they have to do-or-die, in more ways than one.

I like how, despite the fact that it is clear Crashdown is heading for a fall, at first things appear to be working at least a bit with the survivors. They bury their comrades, they move on. They realise what the Cylons are doing, and every person does their bit in determining the reality of the station (hilariously signified by Baltar scrambling on an upturned tree trunk). Crashdown even has a not-terrible plan for how to deal with the issue.

In fact, I would go so far as to argue that Crashdown is dead right for most of “Fragged”. Tyrol doesn’t think they should take on the Cylons, and has legitimate reasons for concern – only he and Cally have actually fired weapons in combat, and it was the same day – but the Cylons are going to take out the rescue Raptors if they do nothing. Crashdown pushing for the attack absolutely has elements of losing control, but he’s right when he says its up to them to save their comrades who are going to try and rescue them. Tyrol’s conflict appears to be less with this plan, and more with the pull between two axis: loyalty to the chain of command, and loyalty to the idea of not losing any more people. But, at the end of the day, that dish still has to be taken out.

Of course the episode then gives Tyrol an out, as the opportunity to to target the DRADIS dish, undefended, presents itself, and Crashdown still pushes for the planned attack. This leads to a brilliant, tense crisis point, as Cally finds herself unable to raise her weapon anymore, and a desperate Crashdown holds a gun to her head. A regular old Mexican standoff is the result, and, to our shock, it is Baltar of all people who resolves it. The following battle is more traditionally exciting of course, in a helter-skelter sort of way, but the true drama of “Fragged” is in that brilliantly set-up moment, when we genuinely don’t know who is going to take the fateful step and deal with an unhinged Crashdown. It’s the pay-off for, to this point, three episodes of really effective set-up.

The Kobol drama also has, at its heart, a much more philosophical crisis with Baltar and Head Six. Baltar spends the episode ruminating on existence and non-existence, with Six offering the rather terrifying thought that, as Kobol is a place that God has turned away from, anyone who dies there doesn’t get an afterlife. There’s shades of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in this, they being a sect who believe that certain individuals, like victims of the Great Flood or Armageddon, will find no afterlife if judged to be wicked by God. Heavy stuff, and Baltar is having to go through this exercise while literally fighting for his life.

Six has patience for all of Baltar’s ruminations, to a point, but when he presents the idea that he can’t be a father or guardian, she loses it a bit. Her exhortation for Baltar to “be a man” is very interesting, a sort of naked appeal to masculinity we haven’t really seem from her before. What does being a man mean in this context? Accepting responsibility? Exerting your will on others? Not really it seems. For Six, being a man means being human, and that means killing. It’s a perverse right of passage for Baltar I suppose, but it isn’t clear to me why Six pushes for him to undertake that passage. I suppose this is a very out-of-character moment for Baltar, something approaching heroism, or at least an unlikely decisiveness, and trying to jolt Baltar into being the kind of person might be the point.

Having spent the episode delivering very biblical comments on the origin of murder, along with prophecies of betrayal, Six closes the episode trying to soothe Baltar, and declares, after his tortured ennui on having nothing to teach their child other than death, that “I’ll be your conscience”. So, was this whole thing about exerting a new form of control on Baltar? Making him kill so that his fragile mind will more happily accept Head Six behind the wheel, rather than face the enormity of what he has done? And to dress all this up in a vision of angelic serenity? Or maybe I am being too harsh on Six. Perhaps this was all a test of Baltar’s determination in dire circumstances, one he has passed, and in doing do proven his worthiness as a guardian for “the new generation”. The scenes between the two are intriguing and well-acted, but there is a sign that it’s becoming a bit too obtuse again.

Of course all of that is just half the episode, even if it was good enough that you could conceivably stretch it to its own. The other half is back on the Galactica, where the slow, painful downfall of one Colonel Tigh is being played out in front of us. His portion of affairs is bookended by similar scenes, where he takes a swig out of flash concealed in his boot. The episode ends and begins on such moments of weakness, and leaves us in no doubt as to the limitations of Tigh.

Not that the rest of the episode skimps on such things either. To a certain degree Tigh got away with his limitations in “Scattered” and “Valley Of Darkness” because of an ongoing crisis of life-or-death proportions (and he’s made hard choices before, in the Miniseries, “You Can’t Go Home Again” or “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down”). Now, away from that, the crushing realities of command are beyond him. Within just a few minutes of “Fragged” we see it all start to spiral out of control for him: Adama’s second surgery, political leaders baying for an audience, Roslin in the brig, the people on Kobol who need rescuing, it piles up and up and up. Tigh is incapable of handling it, in either ability or temperament. We can see that in his flare-up with Apollo in the CIC, where he blunders his way into foolish confrontation where he can either back down and look weak, or stick to it and look like a stubborn fool. What’s the better option?

In every challenge Tigh faces in “Fragged”, he fails in some way. He needs to stay off the drink, he fails. He needs to not let his wife get inside his head, he fails. He needs to keep his cool in front of other crew members, he fails. He needs to keep the Quorum of Twelve at least somewhat onside, he fails. He needs to neutralise Roslin as a threat, he fails. He needs to maintain Adama’s belief in “the good stuff”, he fails. And he not only fails at these things, but he blunders along, turning a bad situation into an even worse one. The best example is how Tigh childishly tries to use Roslin’s condition as a visual aid in undermining her, gets one-upped when Roslin gives a cogent response, and then digs an even deeper hole by allowing Roslin the chance to emphatically declare herself to be prophet of holy scripture. Michael Hogan is great here, showcasing a very realistic frailty, borne of self-loathing, insecurity, stress and alcohol.

The situation is so bad that Tigh feels the need to declare martial law (though I question how exactly that is meant to work, see below), something that flies in the face of “the Old Man” and what he believes in. It’s Tigh’s final failure of the episode, and portends a greater disaster to come: if he’s incapable of handling Galactica properly, what hope does he have of handling the Fleet? At the end of the day, Tigh is approaching every problem from a position of either anger, or fear, or a lack of self-confidence. He doesn’t think that he can do the job. He’s right.

For Roslin, Billy and Corporal Venner, “Fragged” is a chance to make opportunity from weakness. At the start of the episode things are bleak: Roslin is literally losing her mind, Billy is in limbo and the civilian government appears to be living in a fantasy land where they think they can order Colonel Tigh to do things (that last one always gets me: excepting Zarek, the Quorum seem to honestly think they are in charge, like the events of “Colonial Day” have really gone to their heads). But all it takes is the simple acquisition of drugs – and the connivance of one Marine – for things to change. Despite being behind bars, Roslin ends the episode more powerful than ever really, with a religious sway she never had before. The scene where she steps back into the role of authority, as much as she can have in a cell anyway, is a powerful one, where she is ably contrasted with Tigh. With Apollo also looking good by comparison, it would seem the resistance is surprisingly well placed to take on Tigh.

“Fragged” is an episode that is also conspicuous by what is not included. For the first time we get no glimpse of Cylon-occupied Caprica, which surprises me as it seems like they have an awful lot to do there over the next couple of episodes. And we also haven’t seen sight nor sound of Boomer since “Scattered”. “Fragged” doesn’t really need any of them of course, but I did find it a bit curious that it is now that the decision to taken to start prioritising plots per episode. There’s still so much going on, and so much to resolve, as we move forward, to try and get our scattered bands of plots back into a single-ish narrative.

Maybe we should tell them to shove their demand up their collective asses, how about that?

Notes

-Mimica-Gezzan is back to direct, after the slightly iffy “You Can’t Go Home Again”: I think “Fragged” is a much better effort overall.

-The title is a reference to the practise of “fragging”, the deliberate killing of an unpopular military superior by their subordinates, usually performed under the cover of combat by a fragmentation grenade. The term is largely synonymous with the Vietnam War.

-Even Crashdown’s prayer over the dead sounds weak, like it’s just a meaningless obligation to him.

-Baltar’s been a little “hundred yard stare” throughout the experience on Kobol, but if there’s one thing that can snap him out of it, it’s an assault on his ego, like when Tyrol calls him “doc”. “A dock is a platform of loading and unloading material, my title is “Doctor”, or “Mr Vice President” if you don’t mind”.

-Billy comes off as real stupid in the opening, trying to waylay Cottle when the Doctor is rushing to see Adama. What did he think was going to happen?

-Cottle’s competence is clear from the get-go, as he instantly realises from what the medics tell him that Adama is still bleeding internally. You really come to love the old codger at this point, because it’s clear that Adama isn’t just a patient to him.

-Is Cottle’s “What am I, psychic?” line a reference to Bones “I’m a Doctor, not a…” McCoy?

-The count is down 12 from “Valley Of Darkness” which, discounting Socinus, means only 11 people were apparently killed in the Cylon boarding action. It seemed like a lot more give the piles of bodies that episode showed.

-“Why aren’t you in the brig?” Tigh asks of Billy, who appears to be free to just wander around Galactica. It’s reflective of the chaos on Galactica and in the Fleet that the President’s right-hand man is deemed unworthy of detention.

-Tigh butts heads with Apollo pretty quick in the CIC, and it couldn’t be more clear that he considers the younger Adama a threat to him. I suppose he did point a gun at Tigh’s head. Regardless, losing it in the CIC like this does not inspire confidence.

-“Demanding/Demands” is a recurring word for this episode, with Tigh dealing with plenty of both. It’s the wrong tack to take with Tigh, who has his own sense of superiority.

-We’re back in Baltar’s lake house for the first time in a while (“Colonial Day” I think?). I was starting to think they didn’t have access to it as a filming location for Season Two. But Baltar remains in his Kobol clothing, so the illusion is not as acute as before.

-Tigh’s sudden burst of anger at Apollo in the Raptor is truly pathetic: if it’s genuine it’s terribly misplaced, and if it’s an attempt to buoy up the troops it misfires.

-Tigh’s efforts at placating the Quorum of Twelve could go better, especially when he refers to “freedom and democracy” as “all that good stuff”. He drinks a glass of water while he does so, and it’s easily seen as a substitute for something else.

-Ellen Tigh seems to live purely to stir pots, and she gets to give a very big pot an almighty stir here. BSG is pursuing this ongoing idea of her trying to push Tigh as a leader of the Fleet, but that isn’t going to go anywhere as I recall.

-I think Laura McDonnell does a good job with “crazy” Roslin, giving us a believable look at someone slipping in and out of being cogent.

-Crashdown, losing his cool big-time, tells Tyrol not to lose his cool. I love Aaron Douglas’ icily delivered response “I don’t believe I’ve lost my cool”. Never has the word “cool” had such a deeply emotional meaning.

-Crashdown’s “Five graphs” is also a real thing, the “five paragraph field order” of the US military, that is meant to help units understand and execute operations in the field. It’s best summed-up as “SMEAC”: Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration, Command. Despite Tyrol’s criticism, it’s not a bad way of making sure everyone is clear on what the situation is and what their individual jobs are.

-Tyrol, momentarily following the guiding star of rank, puts Baltar in his place very directly, in what is a deeply humiliating moment for the VP. But Douglas is so good in this moment that you can still feel the regret that the Chief has about backing Crashdown up.

-Crashdown’s plan isn’t actually that bad, in terms of mis-directing the Centurions so they can have a shot at the target. It just maybe gives the people under his command too much credit.

-A quick look at religious life in the Colonies/Fleet, as Venner outlines that, as a Gemenon, he believes in the literal truth of the scriptures. That’s going to come up again! It’s good to see the Colonies fleshed out as more than just a homogeneous group of people, having last seen such elaboration in “Colonial Day”.

-It’s “softly softly” from Ellen as she starts planting the idea of being in command more permanent with Tigh, aided by alcohol of course. This notion reflects her one-track mind in terms of grabbing power, but makes little sense in the larger situation. Ellen remains a bit of a caricature.

-I liked Cally’s repetition of basic rifle handling instructions ahead of the attack, a mantra drilled in during basic but whose meaning was never more relevant than right now.

-Crashdown literally wears the dogtags of Socinus and Tarn, in a metaphor about as subtle as Carl Frederickson carrying the house he spent with Ellie around.

-I love Dee’s “Drinky drinky” motion to Gaeta when she realises Tigh has had a few, and Gaeta’s exasperated reaction. They’re not shocked, just irritated: this isn’t new behavior.

-The moment of betrayal is marked really well in “Fragged”, with lots of close-ups of desperate looking faces, before Baltar is the one to suddenly pull the trigger. You would have thought it would be Tyrol wouldn’t you?

-Baltar’s killing of Crashdown has an even deeper relevance if we remember Six’s comments on the cosmic dead end that dying on the planet seemingly carries: if true Baltar hasn’t just killed Crashdown, he’s destroyed his soul.

-The finale of the gunfight, with Tyrol’s desperate fire blowing up the Centurions only for it to be revealed to be the work of the Raptor, seems a fairly obvious nod/homage/rip-off/whatever you want to call it to the finale of Saving Private Ryan. And what would you know, Mimica-Gezzan was one of Spielberg’s assistant directors on that film.

-Tigh really lets himself down in the brig, encouraging the Quorum to ask Roslin about her religious prophecies, only to see this blow up in his face. This after basically threatening Zarek too.

-“Thank the Gods” says Venner, and he might as well be including Roslin in their number with the manner that he says it.

-The lie comes all too easily out of Baltar’s mouth, that Crashdown was a hero. Tyrol is more hesitant about supporting it, but does anyway.

-I have to love Nicki Clyne’s look when she hears that lie expressed. She owes Baltar her life, but the idea of how it was saved being covered up disgusts her.

-When will Adama wake up? “Knowing him, when he damn well feels like it”. There’s a hint there that Adama and Cottle have some kind of relationship. And a good line too.

-Tigh declares that the civilian government cannot function and that he must institute martial law. But what’s the difference between that and the preceding state of affairs? There are no courts, no tax offices, no police (as far as we have seen) no economy really, and the Fleet is dependent on the Galactica for nearly everything.

-It’s a foreboding moment when Tigh tells Marines to get the journalists off “my ship”, right before he takes another drink. Just a turn of phrase, or is Ellen getting into her husbands head?

Overall Verdict: In zeroing in on just two main plots, “Fragged” gives us a more concentrated episode of BSG than we have seen in a while, but is all the better for it. The stuff on Kobol is “heart-in-your-mouth” militaria at its finest, and the Galactica-based stuff is an expertly crafted glance at an unfit commander falling to pieces in an elongated crisis. The larger narrative of the schism in the Fleet could so with some advancing though, and that will come in the next episode.

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Ireland’s Wars: Kilmallock

I hope that I may be forgiven for the length of the below entry in this series. This particular subject is one that is close to my heart in many ways, not just as I am a native of Limerick, but because a battlestudy of this clash was the core of my MA thesis when I studied in NUIM.

With Limerick City taken, the pro-Treaty side had achieved an enormous victory, one that, in many ways, heralded the larger successes that followed across Munster. Through the rest of July and into early August, the National Army advanced into Waterford and Tipperary, making a mockery of any pretensions that the “Munster Republic” could be defended in arms in a conventional manner. And they were also advancing into County Limerick, and it was there that the last major battle of the Civil War, and in many respects the last real “battle”, as we understand the term, in Irish history, was fought. Both sides held recognisable lines for the period that they were engaged, and both acted in the form of conventional armies, holding ground or trying to seize it. The arena was a rough triangle of territory not too far from the border with Cork, with the points in the villages and towns of Bruff, Bruree and Kilmallock.

In many ways the area that the fighting would take place in was rather unexceptional, just agrarian land split up by a few villages and towns. Kilmallock was close to the border, with Bruree roughly 7 km’s to the north-west and Bruff around ten to the north-east, both along narrow country roads. Geographically the only thing to really mark the terrain out were a few hills to the north of Kilmallock itself, from which the anti-Treaty side would later attempt to enact a defence. It was there that the IRA choose to make their stand after the retreat from Limerick City. Major roads and railways were nearby, and Kilmallock was a town large enough that it was worth defending, and the symbolic but not unimportant border with Cork just south of it was something the Executives would not want to be forced beyond. Bruff and Bruree provided a screen for Kilmallock, as did republican held areas nearby like Patrickswell and Newcastle West.

In command of those anti-Treaty forces was Liam Deasy, with Sean Moylan as his chief subordinate, with a reported number of around 500 Volunteers in the immediate area of Kilmallock, and twice that just over the Cork border, though this can be considered somewhat speculative: even if such numbers existed, not all of them would have been armed. There was a mixture of local, Cork and Kerry Volunteers, and the usual difficulties in communication and co-ordination would have been evident: on more than one occasion opposing units nearly came to blows, or close to mutiny, if they felt Volunteers from one county were getting preferential treatment over another. Kilmallock and Bruree, and a few other places besides, were held in force, with the largest section in Kilmallock itself, where the IRA headquartered themselves in Ash Hill House. Deasy also had the use of a few improvised armoured cars. This force can probably be considered one of, if not the, largest concentration of republican military power in the course of the Civil War. As in other places, there was a struggle with the local population, who did not like the republican levies or the disruption to their farms and workplaces that the fighting brought. The last thing worth nothing for the IRA was the issue of morale: the retreat from the City undoubtedly damaged republican fighting spirit, and future setbacks would only damage it more.

On the other side were the incoming troops of the provisional government. Eoin O’Duffy was the overall commander, but operational direction would often fall to some of the officers involved in the Limerick City fighting, most notably W.R.E Murphy, a recently recruited British Army veteran whose experience of trench warfare on the Western Front influenced his slow and steady philosophy of advance. The National Army had guns, actual armoured cars and artillery, but for at least the first part of the battle were actually outnumbered by the enemy: Murphy may have had roughly 800 troops to hand to start off with. Worse perhaps, their lack of training and problems with the quality of junior officers meant that many of them were simply not reliable in a pinch. This was one of the reasons for the slow advance, as Murphy preferred to attempt flanking maneuvers rather than head-on assaults, fearful the soldiers would not be compelled to perform the latter: on at least one occasion during the fighting Murphy is recorded as having to threaten to shoot soldiers who would not follow orders.

The early stages of the battle revolved largely around Bruff. The small town was actually held by the provisional government at the outset of the fighting, with a small National Army garrison ensconced in its commandeered RIC barracks. The group were very isolated and a prime target for the IRA, who had picked off similar small garrisons elsewhere in the county in the previous few weeks: Kilmallock itself had fallen a short time before when its pro-Treaty garrison, surrounded in their barracks, surrendered after a two day siege. Senior National Army commanders were frustrated with this local policy of attempting to man too many barracks and attempted to put a stop too it, but this came too late for the Bruff men,

It should be noted that separate accounts and studies of this section of the fighting differ in terms of dates and the exact sequence of events, but I have tried to connect the dots as best I can. On the 20th July, the IRA launched an attack on the village from the direction of Kilmallock. The attack was aided by a number of deserters from the pro-Treaty garrison, who are recorded as joining in with the anti-Treaty fighters while still in uniform. It had been hoped that the village and its barracks could be taken bloodlessly by capturing National Army troops as they went about the countryside on routine patrols, but an attempted ambush failed allowing the same troops – minus the deserters – to flee back to the not inconsiderable barracks, which had been as prepared as possible for a defence.

For the better part of two days the IRA engaged heavily with the beleaguered National Army garrison, with use of rifle grenades and Thompson submachine guns, while other units engaged the National Army in different parts of the countryside to prevent even the slightest chance of reinforcements. The rest of the towns’ larger buildings, like the banks, were occupied in force. But the barracks could not be taken, and by the the end of the 21st the attack was broken off. This coincided with the final retreat from Limerick City, which temporarily put anti-Treaty cohesion in the rest of the county in serious jeopardy. But within a few days the IRA had proved itself capable of re-asserting itself, and the attack was renewed. The National Army should have evacuated the post, given the swell of IRA numbers in the area after the fall of Limerick City, but once again efforts to project power in as many places as possible overruled good strategic sense. On the 23rd, the garrison, running out of ammunition, had enough and surrendered, thus completing anti-Treaty control of the Kilmallock triangle.

However, within a few days a general flood of National Army troops, with armoured cars and machine guns, was starting to arrive in the area, the advance of the force that had taken Limerick City and was now following the retreating enemy. They were in enough numbers that the IRA choose to withdraw from Bruff again, leaving it securely in the hands of the provisional government by at least the 25th July. The fighting for the town was thus largely a waste for the IRA in many ways, when the forces employed could have been used elsewhere. There have been suggestions that Bruff had been attacked with the eventual aim of using it as a jumping off-point for a renewed attack in the direction of Limerick City, but this seems fanciful.

The fighting in Bruff occurred during a confusing couple of days of engagements as the advancing National Army often strayed farther then was wise to do so. On the same day as Bruff’s initial capture, they faced a number of other setbacks in the general area, as patrols and small columns made speculative advances on Kilmallock from multiple directions, or just blundered into the general area and paid for it. One such advance was turned back by a party of IRA travelling in an improvised armoured car coming from the general direction of Bruff, before doing the same to another patrol coming from the general direction of Brure. It is a measure of how confused the situation in the area could be that the pro-Treaty military had been able to get so far, but success was impossible for them.

The IRA took many prisoners, and then recorded one of their biggest achievements of the entire war to that point that same evening. A party of National Army was discovered near Thomastown, between Kilmallock and Charleville. Under the command of a Commandant Cronin, they were disobeying orders in being where they were, as O’Duffy had forbidden such advances until the rest of the county was cleared. A rapid movement of Executives had their forward column pinned down inside a farm house, from which they were forced to surrender before nightfall. The exact number of captured troops is in dispute, but was high for one days worth of fighting maybe as many as 78, and they came with plenty of guns and ammunition.

Worse still was to come when, on the following day (the 24th), a section of the advancing pro-Treaty military came under attack in Ballingarry, beyond Bruree to the north-west. Led by Tom Flood, this unit is often described as elements of the Dublin Guard, but seems more likely to have been general infantry of the National Army that may have included some members of that more elite unit. They group ran into an anti-Treaty position near a bridge outside the town, whereupon they were engaged in a drawn out firefight. Three of them were killed before the rest were able to retreat. The entire affair, in combination with the disasters of the previous day, painted a picture of a haphazard National Army advance that was allowing itself to be defeated in detail. O’Duffy called a temporary halt to offensive operations as he tried to find order in the chaos, and to get reinforcements into the area. He firmly believed that he was facing the very best of the anti-Treaty side and in many ways he was correct. But the pro-Treaty side, through this sloppy movements and uncoordinated advances, were making life easier for the republicans than it had to be. A rough frontline now existed, stretched from just south of Bruff in the east, to north of Bruree in the west, and the two sides exchanged potshots along this front for the next few days.

It was not lost on men like Deasy that the IRA was having its biggest successes when operating as either a mobile force – one of their roving armoured cars, dubbed “The River Lee”, was cursed by pro-Treaty officers as roving machine gun nest – or as a guerrilla one, waiting in ambush to pick off individual units of the enemy. Even at this point, as it seemed that the IRA had the advantage in the fighting, messages were sent to IRA HQ urging a reversion to all-out guerrilla warfare and an abandonment of the conventional stance, but Liam Lynch was not to be dissuaded just yet. The refusal to accept such advice, or to advance against the enemy, effectively stymied republican mentalities in the area, which wasn’t helped when it was learned that many of the prisoners taken in the previous few days had simply been released after being disarmed, with the anti-Treaty side having no ability to house them.

A few days passed as O’Duffy and Murphy built up their forces, decisively swinging the advantage of the conflict in the area to the pro-Treaty side, an advantage that would not be relinquished. The first on the list of targets was Bruree, with Murphy planning a large assault from the north-east with plenty of infantry, armoured cars and artillery. At the same time, a unit of the Dublin Guards under Tom Flood would by-pass the town and attack into from the opposite direction. As part of this operation there would be diversionary attacks up and down the line between the opposing army. An engagement around Ballygibba, between Bruree and Kilmallock, where several National Army soldiers were killed – arguably after they were taken prisoner, though this is not a definitive conclusion – may well have been part of these diversionary operations, though it is sometimes linked to different engagements in the same general battle.

The attack, carried out most likely on the 28th July, proved a complete success. The anti-Treaty defenders held out from the dual assault for roughly five hours, with a position at the towns railway bridge particularly important. But the weight of numbers was too much to deal with, and the IRA had little they could do against the threat of armoured cars like the “Danny Boy” that were employed by their opponents. When the National Army seized the hillocks that surrounded the town – and cleared off a herd of cattle that lay in their path – they had unobstructed access for their artillery. Some sources claim only two shells were fired before the IRA withdrew in the direction of Kilmallock, conscious that Bruree, surrounded on all sides by heights, was untenable once National Army 18-pounders were capable of raining down fire. A small vanguard held the railway bridge for a time, but before the day was out Bruree was captured. The victory put O’Duffy in a fine mood, and he was soon insisting that the fall of Kilmallock was only a short time away, now covered as it was on three sides.

O’Duffy’s confidence was to prove somewhat misplaced. A few isolated engagements took place over the following few days as the IRA expanded their control of the area around Kilmallock and the National Army continued to move forces into the region. The battle for Tipperary Town around this time, and its final capture on the 31st, had an impact on the Kilmallock fighting, with a threat to the republican right flank now becoming clear: it was only 30 km’s or so to the east. But Deasy was not contemplating withdrawal just yet. Instead, he decided to strike back, and attempt to disrupt National Army plans by aiming a counter-attack in the direction of Bruree. The wisdom of such a move was questionable, especially in light of the collapse of the conventional anti-Treaty position all around, but it showed that the IRA in Kilmallock were more committed to fighting it out than many other units of the same ideology around the country.

Deasy’s plan called for a major diversionary strike at Patrickswell, just south of Limerick City, with the intention of cutting off any possibility of reinforcements coming to Bruree from that direction. This would take place before a major assault on Bruree itself, to be carried out by as many Volunteers as possible, with the support of at least two improvised armoured cars and a trench mortar: the closest thing that the IRA had to artillery. The hope was that the pro-Treaty garrison, overconfident of victory and thinking the republicans incapable of such an attack, would be caught off guard and expelled, before they had the chance to enact a defence or get reinforcements to aid them.

The first part of the mission went nearly perfectly, with Patrickswell falling into anti-Treaty hands in the early hours of the 2nd August. A force of men under Henry Meaney, a well-know and popular IRA officer from Limerick, had been able to steal that far north under the dead of night and stunned the few National Army defenders, some of whom may have been drunk. A series of short firefights resulted in one wounded pro-Treaty soldier and the surrender of the town, with 25 members of the National Army going into a temporary captivity. A unit of the Dublin Guard would rapidly force out the IRA from Patrickswell the following day, with Meaney killed in the process, but that night the attack accomplished its objective.

With Partrickswell temporarily secured, Deasy went ahead with his assault on Bruree, which exploded into the town from the west around 6.30 in the morning, though missing one of the armoured cars, The River Lee, which broke down on the way. The pro-Treaty soldiers there were under the command of Tom Flood, based in the Railway Hotel on the east side of the town: they also held the town schoolhouse to the west and the Bruree Lodge to the south. The schoolhouse was the first major point of attack, its front door rammed by the leading armoured car and its defenders subjected to sudden fire from a near point-blank range. After a two-hour firefight, it was captured. At the same time other anti-Treaty fighters advanced further into the town, and began a siege of the Lodge, where most of the mortar fire they were able to direct was aimed: however the defenders were able to keep up a fire consistent enough to prevent the mortar from being placed close enough to do decisive damage. An armoured car drove up close to the Lodge on several occasions, but it and its occupants were beaten back every time.

Flood was also beleaguered in the Hotel – it was a sign of the numbers the IRA employed here that they were able to carry on three separate attacks in this manner – and moved most of his men to an adjacent building that was deemed more secure, doing so successfully under fire. By now the fighting in the town had lasted into the afternoon, and in so doing had largely sealed the fate of the anti-Treaty attack. A relief column, under General Seamus Hogan, now arrived, coming from the direction of Limerick City, having taken the time to by-pass Patrickswell. It included copious amounts of troops but, more importantly, the ARR “The Customs House”, with Hogan himself inside the vehicle. The arrival of this force caused the IRA to retreat back in the direction of Kilmallock, it being pointless to stand and fight in such circumstances. “The Customs House” pursued its IRA counterparts for some time down the Kilmallock road, but broke off the pursuit when its machine gun jammed.

The failure of this attack on Bruree largely determined the final outcome of the battle, though even if the IRA had been able to secure the town it is likely that a final National Army victory would only have been delayed, not prevented. The IRA plan had not been a bad one, but was very reliant on the speedy takeover of the town: when the National Army put up more resistance than was expected, it was only a matter of time before the republicans would be obligated to withdraw. The technological difference between the two armies was also very apparent here, with the single Whippet employed by the National Army making a larger impact than any of the improvised cars used by the IRA. Anti-Treaty morale, hanging by a thread in many instances, was irrevocably damaged, while on the opposite side the provisional government now firmly believed that it was impossible for their opponents to hold Kilmallock for much longer.

Not that it was considered that the effort to take the town would be all that easy. O’Duffy firmly believed that the IRA would fight it out for Kilmallock, and that there were hundreds of Volunteers waiting. The hills to the north of the town would have to be secured before any final advance, and even with their advantages in numbers, guns and morale, the bulk of the National Army troops were still either untested or not especially trustworthy. They struggled to follow operational orders, like Murphy’s instruction to dig trenches at certain points, or to be suitably ready for coordinated forward movements. Deasy made his preparations as best he could, cutting roads, felling trees, placing men on the heights around the town and preparing sniper positions, while the local population, now badly beset from the elongated fighting, huddled in their homes.

The plan of attack, instituted after many delays in the early hours of the 4th August, called for a general advance along the entire length of the frontline. The initial aim would be the clear the many hills that were on the perimeter of Kilmallock – Knocknasouna Hill to the west, Ash Hill to the south-west, Kilmallock Hill to the north, Quarry Hill to the north-east, among others. With these heights taken, and with suitable placing of artillery, a more general advance into the town would then occur from opposite directions. Other IRA outposts in the area, like at Ballygibba, would be assaulted at the same time. Armoured cars would be employed, and more distant artillery would support the initial advances. Murphy was considered in his approach, making little in the way of risky choices, but he did want a pursuit of a routing enemy to be undertaken if they were forced to flee from Kilmallock in disorder: in many ways, the National Army expected that they could crush the entire areas garrison of republicans then and there. This was ambitious however, not least because by most accounts the IRA actually outnumbered the pro-Treaty military at this stage of the fighting, with somewhere in the region of a thousand Volunteers still in or around Kilmallock. But additional reinforcements from Limerick City coming into the area would even the odds somewhat as the attack progressed.

The first serious fighting of the advance occurred at Kilmallock Hill, where artillery rained down on anti-Treaty machine gun posts, but the IRA held their ground for a time. The attackers were forced to break off the more focused attack and then come at the hill from two different directions with armoured car support. This more inventive assault succeeded in taking the objective. Quarry Hill was harder to take, owing to, as the name suggests, the man-made excavations that republicans used for cover, but additional artillery fire eventually forced their retreat. As in other parts of the country, the IRA has no answer for the big guns. Knocknasouna also fell rapidly, taken by Dublin Guardsmen under Tom Flood advancing from Bruree, and the position at Ballybigga, captured after an hour long firefight.

By the mid-afternoon, the heights surrounding Kilmallock had been cleared by the enemy. The men were exhausted by the effort however, and it was determined that an immediate advance into the town should be put off until the following morning. It was a critical delay in many ways, but perhaps not an unwise one: getting an army of the like that the pro-Treaty fielded to attack and seize heights was an impressive feat, but pushing unreliable men too hard was a recipe for disaster. Through the night small groups of anti-Treaty fighters would briefly engage with pro-Treaty positions on the hills, but these were more nuisance attacks than serious operations: the pro-Treaty side had at least learned something from the near setback at Bruree, and prepared for counter-attacks accordingly.

The following morning, the final advance into Kilmallock took place but, against expectations, there was to be no last battle. The National Army entered the town, to a raucous reception by the overjoyed locals if you believe certain accounts, to find that it had been abandoned by the anti-Treaty side. Deasy had ordered a withdrawal, which had been carried out before the start of the attack on the Kilmallock hills, continued through the late evening and night of the 4th August, and the early hours of the 5th. The force that had held the hills was only a portion of Deasy’s overall available men, fighting a rearguard action. With their defeat, and this final advance into the undefended town, the battle was over.

But it had not been, at least not primarily, Murphy’s assault that had proved the knock-out blow. As stated, Deasy and others were hugely concerned at the possibility that their right flank was enormously exposed by the capture of Tipperary Town, and this threat doubled owing to the landing of National Army troops to the west, at Fenit, Co Kerry. As stated before, I will devote a separate entry to the provisional government’s naval landing operations, but it suffices to say for now that the landing of this troops again altered the larger strategic picture, even if Fenit was a 100 km’s or more away from Kilmallock. There was little standing in the way of a National Army advance from that direction, and Deasy would have been rightly fearful of a possible encirclement of the men he had in Kilmallock and nearby Charleville if he didn’t get them moving. Moreover, with the news that the pro-Treaty side had now invaded Kerry, it became impossible for Deasy to hold onto the men he nominally commanded from that county, who headed home in rapid fashion. These may have numbered as many as 300, and their presence in Kilmallock was one of the reasons that the Fenit landing was able to take place as it did.

This is not to state that the National Army troops bearing down on Kilmallock from the north had no part in Deasy’s decision. Kilmallock would have fallen eventually, owing to pro-Treaty weight in numbers, weapons, big guns, armoured cars, etc, and Deasy was no fool, and certainly not the type to enact a doomed last stand. But the factors away from the Kilmallock triangle were a huge part of the final decision. The anti-Treaty retreat was a mixture of controlled and chaotic, as Deasy kept some parts of his overall force together, but other elements broke off and largely went their own way, reflective of the disorganised manner in which the IRA was operating at the time.

It is hard to determine exact casualty rates for the battle, owing to its scattered nature and the fog of propaganda, with newspapers in Limerick City routinely claiming massive IRA fatalities for every engagement. On the other hand, neither side was good at keeping track of their dead or wounded for official purposes. At least seven National Army soldiers were killed in the fighting, and at least eight IRA Volunteers, but there were more than likely more on both sides who could be added to the rolls of the dead, either listed as killed elsewhere or not listed at all. The higher estimates go as far as twenty on each side, with many more wounded.

Though the largest battle of the Civil War, Kilmallock was in many ways a confused, messy affair, with one amateur army facing another that was barely out of its embryonic phase. As such any analysis of the procedure of it, and its outcome, must keep in mind the general haplessness that both sides displayed at different moments. That being said, there are a number of instructive points that can be gleaned from what happened in the south of Limerick at the end of July and the first week of August.

On the pro-Treaty side, they once again showcased the possibilities that came with having a much better and more steady supply of men, even if many of those men were barely trained. Though the anti-Treaty military outnumbered the provisional government at many points in the battle they were never able to do much with that advantage, but they did suffer under the weight of numbers when the roles were reversed. The National Army also made enormous use of their material advantages, most especially in armoured cars, whose intervention was critical at Bruree, and in artillery, that remained an unstoppable force when properly employed. The IRA struggled to make the same kind of impact with their improvised armoured cars, and the best they could do against artillery was to try and use small arms fire to delay its use.

In a higher strategic sense, the Battle of Kilmallock did huge credit to the provisional government. They made a slow, cautious advance, perhaps too slow at times, but their reward was the gradual pushback of the enemy and total victory at the conclusion. Kilmallock was isolated bit-by-bit, and advances made by the pro-Treaty movement outside of Limerick fed into the eventual triumph there. Murphy may have tried to employ World War One-era tactics a bit too literally at times, but the manner in which he and O’Duffy were able to sweep the enemy from Limerick spoke for itself, even if they hit plenty of speed bumps along the way. On the other side it was the same old story for the IRA in the conventional phase of the Civil War: hopelessly immobile in villages and towns they couldn’t hold under sustained assault, unwilling to move to all out guerrilla warfare, racked by bad communications and hamstrung by the insidiousness of parochial rivalries between different units. The IRA in Kilmallock were at their best when they operated as a mobile force engaging in rapid ambushes and strikes of isolated enemy positions, and when they played that role it was often only the employment of game changers like armoured cars and artillery that prevented their victory.

More than anything perhaps though, the provisional government has momentum, morale and esprit de corps on their side. However you want to put it, they were able to set the tone for the engagements and follow through eventually, maintaining a steady forward advance that buoyed the spirits of their own troops and dampened that of the enemy. The Executives were already a beaten army in many respects before the Battle of Kilmallock even started, retreating as they were from Limerick City, and their inability to counter-attack in force only fed into this feeling. It would have been hard to argue at most points of the battle that the IRA was fighting only to delay the pro-Treaty advance, not defeat it outright, and once the rest of the republican line in Munster was breached or outflanked, it was only a matter of time before the will to fight it out in the Kilmallock triangle vanished completely.

In the days after the fall of Kilmallock, the final collapse of the IRA position in Limerick took place. Up to then they had still held a number of towns and villages in the west of the county, but these now changed hands in rapid fashion, most with with little in the way of resistance. The anti-Treay units could only delay the tide now rolling over them, and if things ever got too difficult for the advancing soldiers, armoured cars or artillery could be brought up to dislodge the defenders, with rapid withdrawals or surrenders afterwards. In two instances was their fighting that could be described as more serious: at Adare, on the evening of the 4th, where determined resistance from machine gun positions in the town had to be quelled by an 18-pounder, and at Newcastle West on the 7th, when troops advancing from Rathkeale were forced to drive republicans out in an extended gunfight, with both Whippets and artillery employed before the job was completed. The shelling of the IRA HQ in the town, at Devon Castle, precipitated the final withdrawal. Within a few days, all of West Limerick could have said to be cleared. The conventional war in the county was over.

But it was still not over in the rest of Munster, though the day was not far off. Throughout the war the pro-Treaty side utlised advantages that their anti-Treaty opponents could not replicate. In the next entry, I want to finally take the time to look at the provisional government strategy of utilising another one of these, namely the naval dimension: in the transporting of troops and the landing of them on enemy-held territory, operations that undoubtedly contributed in a significant manner to the rapid collapse of the IRA in this phase of the conflict.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, Limerick, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

NFB Watches Wrestling #57: Raw (18/03/2002)

It’s the night after the biggest show on WWF’s calendar, so you know what that means: Smarkamania baby! Or maybe not this long ago. It’s the 18th March 2002 and we’re in the Molsen Centre of Montreal, Canada for episode #460 of WWF Raw! Your main event tonight: Hulk Hogan and The Rock team up to take on whats left of the nWo!

The big non-kayfabe thing to remember here is that Steve Austin has no-showed the event, later citing burnout/problems with creative as the reason, so I presume there’s been some last-minute changes to the script. I bet he was meant to be involved in the main event somehow. Attitude splash, “Thorn In Your Eye”, fireworks and a hot crowd greet us from Montreal. Then again its always a hot crowd there. JR and the King on commentary, who announce that our new Undisputed Champion Triple H will be here later, as will Linda McMahon who has “a big announcement”. Is it about Stone Cold?

Lillian Garcia introduces Hollywood Hulk Hogan, who is out to the nWo theme and in nWo gear. The crowd going crazy, I will never fully understand it. Hogan milks it in for a bit as the noise just gets louder and louder. “Damn I love you guys”. Hogan says he expected to have the greatest match ever with The Rock, and also expected that Nash and Hall would respect him. He further expected (using that word a lot) to be the only icon in the WWF, and that he would beat Rock to within an inch of his life. He also didn’t expect (come on now) the crowd to stick with him and chant his name, which the Montreal crowd enthusiastically bites on. He thanks the crowd, and thanks The Rock. He came here to embarrass Rock, brings up the awkward fact that a few weeks ago he hit him with a truck, very deliberately brings up the fact that he pinned The Rock in a tag match (gotta get my heat back brother), runs down their Mania match, and says he never expected any of it. “Rocky sucks” chants, jeez. Hogan has one more thing he wants to say: someday Hogan and Rock will square off again. You can bet that was part of the contract too.

Anyway, this brings out the man himself. He milks the crowds reaction for a long time too, and their dueling chants. Keeps getting booed on his “Finally…” but the crowd chants along when he delivers it anyway. I wonder if they are using up this much time to make up for Austin not being there. Rocky adds that “Hulk Hogan has come back to his Hulkamaniacs” and the crowd explodes. Ugh. Rock verbally felates Hogan for a bit, and thanks both Hogan and the crowd for their passion. As for Hogan’s challenge, it would be Rock’s honour to accept. Just 11 months away folks!

Rock next calls Hogan out on his nWo colours, and Hogan responds by tearing the shirt Hogan-style. This brings out the Outsiders of course, to mild boos. Nash mocks Hogan’s “act of defiance”, says Hogan turned on them before they turned on him, and all of this is getting the “what” treatment from fans. Gives out that Hogan didn’t help them with Austin, and says Hogan is poison to the nWo. Nash genuinely emotional about all of this, to his credit, but this opening segment is past the 20 minute mark, so could do with wrapping up.

Rock jumps in to run Nash down for his interruptions, and challenges Nash to inject some lethal poison tonight. Hall on the mike next, and looking a bit worse for wear. Rock and Hogan want some of Hall and Nash tonight? Rock mocks Hall’s slow manner of speaking, which gets the crowd back on his side, and says he’ll inject some boots straight up their candy asses. This leads to Hogan adding “Just bring it”. Nash asks if Hogan is ready to choke again, and The Rock asks “whatchagonnado” when he and Hogan team for the first time? God this felt long, nearly a third of the entire show, but thankfully winds up now. So our main event has an old man who can barely go, a guy in real bad shape who can’t go, an injured guy, and The Rock. Must watch TV.

As an aside, so telling of Hogan’s clout that the night after Triple H won the big one it’s Hogan opening the show, and cutting Nash and Hall loose to boot. The reactions speak for themselves, but looking back Hogan winning the strap within the next month no longer seems as surprising, even if it’s still disgusting.

After a break onto the first match of the evening, and it’s a title match to boot.

Rob Van Dam (c) vs Christian (WWF Intercontinental Championship)

So Christian loses a European Title match the night before, and then gets a shot at a bigger title? And he’s been on a losing streak recently too? Sense, this makes none. Big love for RVD, big hate for Christian. Punches from Christian, into the corner, Van Dam hits an elbow, then a second rope head kick. Shoulders in the corner, Christian gets a foot up, and then hangs RVD on the ropes. Shoulder charge sends the champ into the barricade. Back in, stomps, Van Dam rallying back, hits a spinning heel kick. Roll-through into that corner flip, out of a Reverse DDT attempt and able to get Christian down and hit the Rolling Thunder. No-selling, Christian straight back up to hit that Reverse DDT, but then leaves the ring, grabs the IC belt and walks away like he’s won the thing. DDP comes up behind, shoves Christian back into the ring. Another heel kick, Five Star, 1, 2, 3 in under three.

Winner (and still WWF Intercontinental Champion): Mr Monday Night, off to a good start with his reign I guess.

Verdict: Short, and a bit nonsensical in terms of challenger or the challenger’s behavior. I guess the Christian/DDP programme is going to keep going then? Crowd happy anyway.

We don’t even get to see a tantrum as we go backstage, where Chris Jericho arrives. He attacks a security guard who has the temerity to mock him for losing the previous night. Extended beatdown, and Jericho even spits on the guy, now that’s vicious heel territory. Hmm.

JR and Lawler run down some later events, which is going to include Billy & Chuck defending the Tag Titles against the Dudley Boyz. But first…

Trish Stratus vs Lita

Chapter 47 in the Stratus/Lita rivalry, brought to you by Burger King of all sponsors. Lita out in a cool luminescent top, like a proto-Naomi. No reason for this other than “They were in a match last night”. Shoving, Lita takes Stratus down, back up and punches. Trish with a hard clothesline for two, then a headlock. Lita out of it with a reverse suplex, as JR tells us that Jericho has left the arena. Maybe he was down to face Austin. Wolf whistles as Lita hits a head scissors takedown, looking for the Twist of Fate but Trish out it. Stratus hits a head kick, but Lita pushes off of the Stratusfaction. Lita hits her Moonsault, and that’s it in only a minute-and-a-half.

Winner: Lita, barely working up any kind of sweat.

Verdict: Short enough that it’s hard to have one. Less botches than last night.

Jazz appears to attack Lita in the aftermath for some reason, and when Trish comes to her defence Ivory appears. The heels leave the faces lying, slap hands and stalk off. Think Ivory might have turned up at least partly so commentary could promote the ongoing second season of Tough Enough.

After the break, we get thrown to Linda McMahon’s office at WWF Headquarters. She thanks the wrestlers and the fans for Wrestlemania, and says the board of directors has come up with an “action plan” for the future: a brand extension! Ric Flair is getting Raw, Vince is getting Smackdown, and one week from now a draft will take place of the roster, excepting the Undisputed and Womens Champions, who will jump between both. A lot of corporate speak follows, and the question has to be asked as to how the BOD can do this if McMahon and Flair are the co-owners.

Anyway, this was a pretty big deal at the time, the first time they split the roster up, and probably the biggest organisational change to kayfabe WWF ever. A reaction to how bloated things had become since the Fed subsumed what was left of WCW and ECW with the Flair/McMahon feud as a cover, the concept is interesting, but needs some fine-tuning already: so Triple H and Jazz will run between shows, but one of Raw or Smackdown won’t have any need of a tag division? The framework would get changed up fast enough, and Draft Day next Monday sounds like something you really would want to watch.

Vince is seen stalking backstage, and after the break he heads to the ring. He says to “this unusual French-Canadian crowd” that he will no longer be on Raw, and wants to give a heartfelt goodbye. The fans cheer as Vince insists they’ll miss him, his “oratory”, and “presence” as King asks for Vince to take him with him. The crowd starts chanting Vince out of the building, earning a “Shhhuuut up”. He says Raw is getting the consolation prize of Ric Flair, and he’s no Vince McMahon, lacking the killer instinct, marketing savvy, mind manipulation, and now the “Hey, hey, hey Goodbye” chant is deafening, louder than the reaction Hogan was getting. A reminder that this is the same stadium that the Screwjob happened in, so they have reason to legit hate McMahon. McMahon predicts Flair will be a miserable failure, and out comes the Nature Boy, with a bandage on his head.

The McMahon/Flair feud had gotten pretty tired, four months old at this point, so it made sense to split them up. McMahon runs his counterpart down, mocking his injuries from Mania. He enjoyed every moment of Taker’s beatdown on Flair, and I do love megaheel Vince mocking Flair for having to hold onto the ring rope to stay standing. The crowd goes back to “Hey, hey, hey, Goodbye” as Flair grabs the mike. Says he always feels overwhelmed by Vince’s presence, but if he’ll shut up Flair will say whats on his mind.

Says Raw is Vinny Mac’s baby and Flair pauses to let the “You screwed Bret” chants get some time (“Get over it” says King), before saying Vince used Raw to flaunt his wealth and nepotism. But it was always about the Superstars, not Vince, and Flair promises the Raw brand will soar without McMahon. Crowd singing again as Vince moves to leave, but then grabs the mike back. He offers a coin toss to determine who gets first draft pick, Flair agrees, and Vince wins. Was it a same face coin, ala Two-Face? Vince says starting from next week, he wins and Flair loses.

Vince decks Flair with the mike, and starts mocking him with taunts. But of course Flair up fast enough, beats McMahon down and locks in the Figure 4 for a bit. Woo! Flair heads to the back while Vince licks his wounds. Looking forward to Draft Day! No more McMahon/Flair! Woo!

JR plugs WWF.com, and we go into our next match.

Booker T & Kurt Angle vs Edge & Kane

Someone call Teddy Long, because two single feuds are combining for a tag match. King calls this “the biggest Raw ever”, and a reminder that we’re nearly an hour in and have had two matches of less than five minutes between them. Thunderous “You Suck” chants for Kurt, and the crowd goes comparatively mild for Toronto’s Edge. The heels vacate the ring for Kane’s entrance, but the Big Red Machine drags Booker inside by the hair to start. Hard whip, Booker T gets an elbow, then walks into the Sidewalk Slam. Kane to the top to hit his flying clothesline, but Angle breaks up the count.

Kane distracted by Angle, and eats a superkick. Angle in, to big heat. Kane locks on a choke, but Booker intervenes. Heels double-teaming Kane with a suplex while Edge remonstrates with the ref. Booker looking for his Scissors Kick, but Kane dodges and hits a clothesline. Tag to Edge, he floors the legal Angle, back body-drop, inverted Atomic Drop to Booker, heel kick to Angle, fast and furious stuff. Edge to the top, Angle intercepts but flung off, and Angle eats a missile drop-kick. Booker breaks up the count, Kane throws him out and follows, back in the ring Angle counters Edge into the Ankle Lock, but lets go when Kane comes in.

Kane delivers a Chokeslam, he and Booker exchanging strikes, Kane clotheslined out and Booker follows. Edge looking for the Edgeacution, Angle counters into an Angle Slam but Edge out, and Edge dodges a Booker kick which Angle takes instead. Edge with the spear on Angle, two. Kane drags Booker out again, doing that spot a few times now. Edge looking for the Edgeacution again, countered into a roll-up where Edge ends up on top for two. No let up in this one. Edge dodges a charge and Angle clears Kane off the apron, then hit with the Edgeacution for the 1, 2, 3 in just under four.

Winners: EdgeaKanetion.

Verdict: So fast-paced it was hard to keep up with, even for its short length, all four of these guys can go. Very enjoyable stuff, but honestly could have used more length and a more measured approach.

Commentary says this constituties an opportunity for Edge, I guess in a feud with Angle?

After the break straight into another title match.

Maven (c) vs Al Snow (WWF Hardcore Championship)

Still missing “Tattoo”, this placeholder music sucks. Maven chucks some stuff into the ring as we get our first mention of the next PPV, Backlash, brought to you by Castrol GTX. Al Snow down like a house of fire to take on his Tough Enough protege, and floors him with a clothesline on the outside. Snow beating down Maven, then chucks him hard into the ringsteps. Guys in ringside seats are delighted. Maven reverses another whip to send Snow into the barricade, then hits the Maven Drop-Kick, and I capitalise that because he doesn’t have many other moves. Into the ring, Maven smashes Snow with a trashcan lid, Snow returns the favour a few times, and it does have a nice echo. Suddenly Spike Dudley shows up with Stop sign and, just like last night for some reason, a ref. There’s already one here! He nails Snow but then gets back body-dropped out by Maven.

Suddenly a big hulking blond-haired guy is in the ring, with Paul Heyman screaming in glee at ringside. JR proclaims “It’s Brock Lesnar!” and that of course would mean nothing to most viewers back then, but means a hell of a lot nowadays. Yes, this is the Beast’s on-screen debut, all of 25 years, after spending some time in OVW (hence why JR kayfabe knows who he is, calling him “the hottest free agent” in the business). He spinebusts Snow onto a can, gives Maven an as yet unnamed F-5, no-sells a top-rope double axe handle from Spike, and then crushes the littlest Dudley with one of those bone-crunching clotheslines he used to do. At Heyman’s direction he dead lifts Spike up into a powerbomb position, and then hits three brutal bombs one after the other. The crowd pops for Heyman as he enters the ring to raise Lesnar’s hand, and it is Heyman they are excited to see because the chant is “E-C-Dub”. JR asks “What’s next?” as we go to break. I believe it is meant to be “Who’s next?” Jim.

Oh right, the match. Um, I guess its over?

Winner: No contest I suppose? Maven retains the Hardcore Title.

Verdict: Quick bit of Hardcore action, but this was all about Brock. Very impressive stuff from him, the triple powerbomb spot to Spike made him seem like a super-powerful monster. Nice to see Heyman again, back after a four month absence, and he’s perfect for this role as Lesnar’s manager/agent/advocate/counsel. I’d be dying to see more of this guy back in 2002. How times change.

After a break we get a replay of the Lesnar inspired mayhem as JR and King speculate on Heyman’s involvement. A plug for the main event, and a replay of the Montreal ovation for Hogan. You don’t get crowds that loud anymore, mores the pity, and I don’t just mean in WWE. We get the Greatest Hits of that opening segment, I guess because they have more time to kill: remember, no Austin, and also no Taker or Jericho (minus that brief backstage bit) tonight.

Backstage Matt Hardy and Lita are making out, to King’s delight. They talk gooey as William Regal walks up. After sarcastically complimenting them on their love, Hardy bites back that Regal shouldn’t be mad just because he is getting any. Regal evilly opines on the chances of the Hardy’s being broken up by the draft, or Matt and Lita, leaving them silent and worried looking. “Ta ta”. Evil Regal is amazing in these bits, it’s positively Shakespearean the way he enjoys pouring poison. Plus, this segment gets across how the draft might break teams up which, of course, is exactly what is going to happen.

After break Triple H’s later appearence is plugged, before the next, and last, title match of the night.

Billy & Chuck (c) vs The Dudley Boyz (Bubba Ray & D-Von) w/Stacey Kiebler (WWF Tag Team Championships)

What have the Dudley’s done to earn this shot within the last 24 hours? Chuck and D-Von to start, exchanging strikes, both down off a double clothesline. Bubba Ray and Billy in, and Bubba chucks him around, Sidewalk Slam, back body-drop and an interfering Chuck clotheslined out. Crowd going from “We want tables” to cat-calling Kiebler. Scoop Slam to Billy, Whasssup, but Chuck breaks up the count. Stacey onto the apron to try and distract Billy, nothing doing, he hands D-Von what I think is still called The One And Only, but then Kiebler in to just hit Billy with one of the belts. Nick Patrick seems to wait a second like he can’t heleive she just do that, and calls for the bell in less than a minute-and-a-half just as the Dudley’s hit Billy with a 3-D.

Winners (by DQ) (and still WWF Tag Team Champions): Hard to tell Billy & Chuck apart sometimes, you know that?

Verdict: Not much of a match. Kiebler’s interference made no sense.

Bubba is going for a cover, and is enraged when he realises that Kiebler messed up. Ah, so they’re breaking them up. Kiebler tries to leave, Bubba Ray drags her back by the hair and tells D-Von to obtain some wooden support structures. Table set-up, and Bubba delivers that crushing Avalanche Powerbomb through it. Always a mental looking spot, and yes we get the crazy Bubba stare after. I’m sure he enjoyed doing that, given his noted antipathy to Kiebler backstage. Never a fan of these kinds of intergender spots, but the Dudley/Kiebler connection was doing nothing for either party really. King pipes up here to claim that we should “forget about bombing Afghanistan, we should bomb Dudleyville”. Wow. Replays, and the Dudley’s take their leave.

After the break, time to play the Game. I was wrong about the single Undisputed belt debuting here, Triple H still has both the WWF Title belt and the old WCW belt. Our champ out limping, and perhaps with some wounded pride that he didn’t get to be the first person out after for this show after, you know, winning the strap in the main event the previous night. HHH milks in the reaction, which is nowhere near as loud as it was for Hogan or Rock, for a little bit and gets on the mike. Says he suffered a career threatening injury a year ago, and he doubted he would ever come back or be as good as we was. But he’s now proven he has by winning the big one, to himself, the world and Y2J. He’s the recreation and he is that proficient. Standard stuff so far.

He’s happy and wants to spread the joy around, so he has some footage from Mania to show. Of course, said footage is Steph getting Pedigreed. Triple H smiles, and out comes his wife, in a black neckbrace. “Slut” chants immediately. She announces that Jericho wants a re-match for the Championship, and he wants it next week. HHH is game, but suggests that it should be a handicap match, with Jericho teaming up with “another WWF Superstar”. Stephanie agrees, saying “Who’s dumb now?” only for Hunter to announce that she, of course, will be the partner. Why does he get to decide this? Further, if he wins he wants Stephanie gone from the WWF, because he’s sick of “the bitch”. She says she’s scared of getting into the ring with him, and successfully goads the crowd into another edition of “Hey, hey, hey goodbye”. She was always willing to provoke the crowds. HHH asks if any of the Montreal fans want Steph to stay, and if any want her to leave, and you can guess the responses.

SMH freaks out, and Triple H says if Steph doesn’t agree he’ll hold out for the rematch for the maximum 90 days allowed, when he’ll be recovered and Jericho might be drafted to the wrong show, or something. Steph ends up agreeing to the terms, and says Jericho will leave the Game “a crippled mess”. Triple H suggests Steph get more neckbraces to match her other dresses. The casual spousal violence is not doing this feud any favours really, even if Stephanie has so much heat it’s scary.

After a break and a shot of the Outsiders backstage, time for the main event.

The nWo (Scott Hall & Kevin Nash) vs Hollywood Hulk Hogan & The Rock

The nWo have fallen so far so fast that they get the “already in the ring” treatment here a month after an entire PPV was built around their return. It strikes me that in perfect booking land this would be the main event or a major match at Backlash, where the nWo could get some serious heat by winning, perhaps with the help of some new member (like, say, Shawn Michaels). But I think the bookers know there is only so much more they can get out of Hall and Nash.

Hogan out to some Jimi Hendrix riffs. He and Rock rush the ring, and less than seven minutes left in this show, so whatever happens it will be short. Brawling, Rock clotheslines Nash out, as Hogan floors Hall. Hogan and Hall your legal men, Hall floored off a clothesline, Scoop Slam, and Hogan throws his bandana at Hall. Corner smash and elevated punches, and the crowd is happy to count along. Finishes with a head bite. Rock and Hogan punching Hall back and forth, and a tag to the Brahma Bull. Facebuster, shot to Nash, spinebuster to Hall, and Rock looks for the People’s Elbow, but Nash grabs the leg.

Hall sends Rock down with a clothesline and in comes Nash, who is meant to be injured remember. Able to hit a bit Sidewalk Slam for two, “and The Rock somehow kicks out”. Really? No sign of a bicep problem as Nash lays in shots in the corner, then an elevated foot choke. Hall helps with a clothesline, then comes in again. Beatdown, stiff-looking punches, but Rock eventually rallies back, only to walk into a Fallaway Slam for two. Think that’s the only move he can do. Nash in, seated rope choke while Hogan remonstrates with the ref. Hall in, stomps, Nash in, stomps, looking for Snake Eyes but The Rock out to hit a Rock Bottom OUTTANOWHERE.

That’s the signal for the hot tag that the crowd is dying for, and Hogan hulks up rapidly to send Hall down, looks for Nash but he’s not there, way to blow the hot tag. Nash eventually shows up just to get dumped out by Rock. Big boot to Hall, Atomic Leg Drop, but Nash pulls Hall out at two. They regroup on the outside, but then think better of coming back in, and Tim White counts them out in just over six.

Winners: Hogan/Rock, not exactly Rock ‘N Sock.

Verdict: Alright tag I suppose, with a dumb as hell ending. Who did this help?

The crowd shits all over the finish, rightfully so and Rock looks pissed enough to make me wonder if someone went into business for themselves here. That’s all we’ve got time for, as JR promises this feud is far from over (only one person over here, brother).

Best Match: Hard to call, with only one match going over four minutes. I suppose I’ll give it to the Edge/Kane vs Angle/Booker tag, that was fun and manic, in a good way.

Best Wrestler: You know what? For taking that powerbomb from a guy who hated her, I’ll give it to Stacey Kiebler. You won’t see this every day.

Worst Match: Lita/Trish got 90 seconds when Hogan got a half-hour at the start.

Worst Wrestler: I’ll go for Hall, who looks like a guy who can do one move, with strikes, for a few minutes before he starts nearing a collapsing state.

Overall Verdict: Not a great Raw for actual wrestling, with too many super-short contests in favour of retreading Mania feuds. Raw could do with at least one less “someone in the ring talking for 20 minutes” spots too. But, at least the draft has been set-up. Four and a half weeks to Backlash!

To view more entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Army Of The Dead

Army Of The Dead

Trailer

Just another day in paradise.

Your cup runneth over Snyder fans. Yes, he’s back, only a few months since the Justice League film with his name on it trumped the odds and made it into a deliverable format, for better or ill. In many ways I would say that I was looking forward a lot more to this one though. While ZSJL was undoubtedly a fascinating project just because of how it came to be, it was, when you get right down to it, a regurgitation of something already experienced. A regurgitation that ended up better than the original meal, but a regurgitation nonetheless. Army Of The Dead promised Snyder the chance to be a bit more original, even as he goes back to something approximating his directorial roots, after his debut 2004 feature Dawn Of The Dead that many consider to be his best film.

Army Of The Dead really sets itself up as a unique take on the frankly very tired sub-genre of the zombie film though. The meshing of concepts – a living dead apocalypse with a Vegas heist – is more than enough to get me interested, before you throw in the really interesting looking cast, or the chance to see what Snyder is capable of doing as his own cinematographer (I’m not saying that’s a guaranteed good result, but whatever the result is it should be fascinating). The length was certainly eye-raising, and concerning, but then again this is the era of original home streaming movies, and unlike ZSJL I wasn’t so intent on taking this all in on one sitting. So, has Snyder hit paydirt for me twice in 2021, or are we back to him being very much an acquired taste?

Years after the city was quarantined following the emergence of a zombie threat that turned most of its inhabitants into “shamblers”, the US government prepares to drop a nuke on Las Vegas. Scott (Dave Bautista) a veteran of the initial campaign now reduced to menial work, is approached by casino owner Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) with a chance to make millions by secretly entering the city and cleaning out an abandoned vault filled with unclaimed cash. Assembling a crack team – former special forces friends Maria (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwicke), safe-cracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), influencer/deadshot Guzman (Raul Castilho), helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro), Tanaka’s shady representative Martin (Garret Dillahunt) and people smuggler Lily (Nora Arnezeder) – Scott undertakes the job, but things are complicated by the unexpected presence of his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Parnell), looking for a friend lost inside the city, and a group of intelligent zombies more deadly than anything so far experienced.

Man, that is a long plot summation, but it is reflective of the surprising amount of stuff that is happening in Army Of The Dead, Snyder’s effort to create a true zombie epic. This is a marriage of the zombie film, with all of its conventions – a Patient Zero, infection spread by bites, self-sacrifice, euthanasia, desperate last stands, etc – with a heist film with all of its conventions – the team, the goal, the complications, the greed and the betrayals – but it is, remarkably, also an attempt at character study. The problem is that Snyder just isn’t the director required to marry these three tentpoles, and Army Of The Dead is, as a result, a fascinating but fatally imbalanced piece of entertainment.

As a zombie film, it works without doing much to re-invent the wheel. All of your tropes, as outlined above, are here. Save for the odd bit of uniqueness, like a zombie tiger, Snyder settles in to the kinds of things that have been done before, by Romero et al, right down to some “fast” zombies (28 Days Later says hello) in the form of the “Alphas”, let by a particular intelligent zombie warlord named Zeus (hey, there’s Romero again) in the script. There’s very little about this aspect of Army Of The Dead that actually thrills, because we really have seen it all so often before: the effects and CGI have just gotten better. Zombies as an entertainment tool were tired a few episodes into the woefully over-rated The Walking Dead, and the legions of copycat TV shows and movies that have tried to keep that ball rolling have only dulled their impact more (see my thoughts on The Dead Don’t Die as an example). I can turn off my brain (or put a metaphorical bullet in it) for 150 minutes to deal with this, but Army Of The Dead is not a stand-out in the sub-genre. It might be impossible for anything to ever be again.

As a heist movie, it again works without doing too much to re-invent a wheel that Danny Ocean made a franchise out of a little while back. The usual plot beats of such a sub-genre, are present. Save for the occasional bit of originality, like a certain focus on the vault and German cracker, the director largely concerns himself only with replication, right down to the “assembling the team” montage (only missing a “Son of a bitch, I’m in”) or booby-trapped safe. There isn’t much in Army Of The Dead in this regard that I think draws that much interest, because it’s something we have experienced in the not-too-distant past, even the Vegas setting. The film gets by with some infrequently whipsmart dialogue and the tension of mixing the heist aspects with the zombie menace, but I would not call it a real top tier example of the sub-genre. Heist films might not be as over-saturated as zombie films, but there are enough of them that it is hard to appear different.

Brains?

So if Army Of The Dead is going to pull this combination off, it needs to really nail the third part of the tentpole, and that’s the character study. Now, there are good and bad aspects to this. The good is the variety: we have jaded special forces types, manic civilians not used to this kind of operation, social media influencers making videos about them shooting zombies in the head, morally ambiguous pilots looking to grow a conscience and coyotes battling exploitation of women in refugee camps. Lots of female voices in that mix, lots of minority voices too. One has to appreciate this aspect of Army Of The Dead, its efforts to craft a group of characters who are both interesting in their own right, and ethnically and gender diverse. And in the way that they are treated, as veterans of a war long over, Army Of The Dead reaches out and tries, for a little bit anyway, to be a better adaptation of World War Z then Brad Pitt was able to pull off. Many of the characters are heroes of yesteryear now working menial jobs – Scott flips burgers for example, with his medals long forgotten – thus imbuing things with a sense that we are viewing a commentary on the relentlessness of a military machine that values heroism until it is no longer useful

The bad is that there are so many of them that it’s hard for any of them to make a big impact on you. Even Bautista’s Scott ends up being defined almost entirely by his horrific past (he had to euthanise his wife when she was bitten, with his daughter watching) and little else. Snyder attempts to make up for this by throwing up a lot of sentimental melodrama in the second half of the production, tugging at the heartstrings in a manner that is genuinely unlike the director in my view. But melodrama will only get you so far, and having come from a first hour where there was real excitement in meeting these characters, seeing them interact with each other and watching them go about their deadly mission, we go into an elongated final 90 minutes where it feels like the production team doesn’t really know how to make you properly care about their fates. To give the best example, you can’t suddenly introduce a potential romantic plot-line, and then instantly have one half of that plotline killed in a totally gruesome manner. That causes shock, not genuine emotional engagement with the characters. Army Of The Dead, despite the running time, just can’t stick with anything.

The cast generally does fine. Bautista is slotting in nicely into a tried-and-tested action hero type, and Army Of The Dead does not tax him too much as an actor. Of the others there are a few who stand out: Schweighofer as the safecracker, apparently due a spin-off, is probably the most fun of the characters, especially in scenes with Hardwicke; I love Castilho’s influencer/zombie hunter, probably a little out of his depth but unwilling to admit it to his followers; and Tig Notaro does really well as the out for #1 pilot, with the actor parachuted in digitally – something you won’t notice – as a replacement for the disgraced Chris D’Elia. But there is just too many to keep track of, enough that in some ways you only really notice the mid-steps, like Garret Dillahunt’s cackling special ops villain, or the over-wrought stuff involving Zeus and his Queen.

Visually, Snyder does fine in his first outing as a flat-out cinematographer, taking cues from all over the place: Romero, Ocean’s 11, Escape From New York, even Excalibur. Army Of The Dead looks pretty good: the money shots of CGI hordes are great, an apocalyptic Las Vegas is very well captured in its ruin and the director is able to find the moments of fun and mirth in amid all the misery at least on certain occasions (case in point: the initial outbreak is a result of soldiers chatting distractedly about aliens and a newlyweds performing oral sex whilst driving). An opening prologue is a very effective bit of horror, and is followed by a main title sequence where Snyder takes what he did for Watchmen and adds some brilliant satirical elements, as the insanity of Vegas is overtaken by a zombie threat (and it takes a little while for some to notice).

Some of the set-pieces are really well constructed, like a silent jaunt through a confusing web of corridors filled with hibernating zombies, or mano-a-mano fights with Zeus or his tiger friend. But at the end of day, there is only so much of seeing the undead getting shot in the head that you will be able to tolerate: at nearly 150 minutes, Army Of The Dead is a little hard to get through sometimes, and the last 30 minutes especially, where there is only the odd bit of slow-mo to break up the monotony of headshots, does tend to get a little taxing on the visual front. Like I said, it’s fine visually, but that’s about it. Musically, there are parts of Army Of The Dead that I like – Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe’s cover of “Viva Las Vegas” in the opening is a treat – and parts that I strongly dislike – using The Cranberries’ “Zombie” in the conclusion for no other reason than the title – so that’s sort of par for the course for this director.

Army Of The Dead has pretensions of being an all-out zombie epic, a film that wants to be at the head of the sub-genre. It tries to achieve this through the blend of undead apocalypse with heist, and with an expansive, diverse cast. But the effort only gets so far. With the strange twin faults of being too long and too packed with characters, Army Of The Dead too often turns to cliche and stereotype, when it isn’t lathering on layers of bland sentimentality or blatent efforts at emotional manipulation. Zombie aficionados will find plenty to cheer about here, and I will say that there are many parts of the film that I would highly recommend people check out, not least that amazing title sequence. But, for too much of the rest, Army Of The Dead is a bit of a shambler itself. Not recommended.

Dead tired.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Two: “Valley Of Darkness”

Everyone I know is fighting to get back what they had. And I’m fighting ’cause I don’t know how to do anything else.

Air Date: 22/07/2005

Director: Michael Rymer

Writer: David Weddle and Bradley Thompson

Synopsis: The Galactica is flung into a new crisis when the ship is boarded by a Cylon raiding party, with Apollo the only one standing in the way of disaster. Tyrol faces a gut wrenching moment on Kobol. Helo and Starbuck seek shelter on Caprica.

Review

Moving on from “Scattered”, one of things I like about BSG is the way it manages to dodge the threat of becoming a procedural-type show where every episode is just about a new problem and things get stale. I’ve used the phrase “Crisis of the week” a few times in relation to BSG, so it would be easy for you to settle in to watch an episode and be thinking “Well, what’s going to go wrong this week?” BSG dodges the criticism because the crises, so far, have all managed to be unique enough in their presentation, and in the execution of the solution, to belay it. We’ve gone from various shades of resource shortage, to a political crisis to a scattered Fleet, but now we have another single-episode problem whose singular nature is both captivating and very frightening, summed up by Kelly’s deeply foreboding line early on: “We’ve been boarded”.

I mean, perhaps you have to put a bit of thought into it to see how enormous a problem this is, before we get to any notions of the Cylons taking control of Galactica’s guns. Take away the few Marines and the pilots, and the Galactica is staffed by hundreds, if not thousands, of combat rookies, who haven’t the first clue about fighting Centurions. And that’s before you realise that only a certain type of ammunition would be useful anyway. The Centurions might be few, but there’s very little standing between them and wiping out a huge, if not complete, proportion of Galactica’s crew. And it isn’t like those crew members are easily replaced either. The Galactica is a ship that depends on its pilots and point defence guns to stop this from happening, because they are terribly vulnerable if Cylons get onboard. That’s the reality, and that’s why Kelly looks horrified at the idea.

And “horrified” is the right word, because in “Valley Of Darkness” BSG becomes a horror narrative in many ways, having previously dipped its toes in such sub-genres as criminal investigation, survival, screwball comedy and political drama. It’s another strength of the show that it can transition in and out of these frameworks, and do it well. The first Cylon kill is pure jump-scare: this towering metal demon coming out of the darkness, gutting a pilot, and then setting off in pursuit of others, seemingly invulnerable. Turning the lights off adds to the atmosphere greatly, as does the sounds of distant gunfire and screaming, something the show would pull again in the mutiny of Season Four, making you fear more the absence of an enemy than their presence. From jumpscare to atmospheric to body horror we go, as suddenly Galactica is strewn with the remains of the Centurion rampage, with even the survivors left shell-shocked. Like any good horror story the various inhabitants all see themselves coming together towards the conclusion, and the final confrontation with the Centurions, while a more traditional gunfight, also has significant horror elements, right down to that final terrifying charge and leap at Apollo. “Valley Of Darkness” is a legitimately scary episode, one where the usual stability of Galactica is inverted and characters are placed in legitimate peril.

Strangely enough, for me the key character arc of the episode is not Apollo, or Roslin, but the Billy/Dee relationship. The episode opens with the two having something of a schism: Billy admits he hasn’t been giving the relationship the attention it deserves, Dee is critical of Billy’s role in fermenting mutiny (and, as he may have realised, pumping her for information on Adama in “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down”). Dee actually gets quite vicious here in terms of criticising Billy’s motives, but it fits. Billy thinks there might still be worth in the relationship, but it doesn’t seem likely. It’s a simple set-up, but adds something to the later drama.

Dee is a little bit of a passenger later on, shell-shocked by the Centurions and ushered along by Billy in the final act, mostly a witness to the larger battle. In a way the character point of that battle for Billy is as a means of proving himself to her in some way, as a guy who can be counted on to be capable in a crisis. He does that in terms of getting Dee back from her PTSD state, but not so much when he foolishly fires his gun when he doesn’t have to, drawing the attention of the Cylons. Dee reasserts herself a bit after this, taking the gun off of Billy after previously telling him when to turn the safety on and off.

The episode ends with the two of them reconciled, in a cute medbay scene. Obviously the brush with mortality that Dee has experienced has focused her mind a bit, and perhaps shown her that Billy is worth more consideration. It’s not the best foundation for a relationship, and that will be reflected later in Season Two. But for now getting to see Billy and Dee make it through the action and get this quiet, romantic moment with each other is a nice catharsis.

“Valley Of Darkness” still has time, despite the life-and-death peril on Galactica, to take a tour around the universe, and I feel it is to the credit of the writers that such a tour does not detract from the carnage happening on Galactica. On Caprica we get some very interesting scenes with Helo and Starbuck, that don’t advance the plot hugely but which are some of the most significant for either character thus far. Helo has had his world shattered twice over, and only now is beginning to realise that he may not have been the survival expert or lover that he thought he was, lambasting himself in a short monologue where the fragile remains of his ego creek and totter. Even Starbuck, waving a gun in his face in the previous episode, has to give him a break, perhaps mindful of her own romantic mistakes recently.

For Starbuck, we get a glimpse into her life outside of the military here, and it may not be quite what we expected. She lives in a rats nest of an apartment, one where she felt fine writing libertine poems on the walls alongside curious mandalas. The place feels like the stereotype of an artists commune, with ties to Thrace’s past in the form of the music she plays, a piece by her father, and to the future, in the car that she and Helo discover. Starbuck has her own monologue here, and it’s undoubtedly the verbal highlight of the episode: she outlines how crappy the place they are sitting in is, and her realisation that she had precious little to be excited about on the Colonies. Where everyone around here seems to be mourning their loss from the Cylon attack, she just keeps going because that’s all she can do. She’s a woman without roots or an anchor: backwards is just a bad apartment, a dead fiancee and no family, so all she can do is look forward. The very last words of this season are going to come back to this theme with Kara, and we’ll see it in the middle with Pegasus too: finding purpose where there appears to be none.

Over on Kobol, the plot is still split between the general party and Baltar. The good doctor has a rather unpleasant, although slightly ridiculous, dream of Adama murdering the child he is supposed to be protecting, the second instance in this show of infanticide being used as a plot point. It’s all a bit much, as is the idea that Baltar could be the protector of anything. Even here he demonstrates his lack of care, even for himself, wondering away from the main group where he discovers an ancient site of some kind of slaughter. Head Six is continuing her apparent mission to turn Baltar on the military and maybe the entire human race while she is at it, but things are getting a bit too obtuse in some ways now I feel. There is a sense that this is the key plot of BSG – and I suppose that is going to turn out to be the case, in a few ways – but giving it a single scene per episode isn’t really helping that feeling.

The continuing plight of the other survivors on Kobol provides “Valley Of Darkness” with some of its more emotional drama, in a series of really great scenes that are more of an actors showcase than anything else in the episode. Cally and Tyrol share a highly emotional moment in the aftermath of Tarn’s death that speaks to the incredible pressure they are both under; Crashdown and Tyrol come close to another verbal sparring session over the Lt’s command; and Tyrol is forced to help one of his own men head into the great beyond with less pain than if it were allowed to happen naturally. Kobol, despite the lush greenery, has rapidly become a purgatory of sorts, filled with very real blood, pain and death, as well as visions of a past history that was much the same. And there is no rescue coming just yet.

The ending of the episode sees an uneasy truce of sorts settle between Tigh and Apollo, with Apollo insisting that, as soon as his father awakens, he’ll decide what to do with both of them. It’s a good full stop on the episode, which ends with the people in all of its sub-plots awaiting deliverance or judgement in different measures, stuck in a sort of limbo until the largest question of all, leadership of the Fleet, is resolved one way or another. They have passed through a valley of the shadow of death in this episode, but rescue or redemption is going to have a wait a little while longer.

Marines, let’s get toaster shopping.

Notes

-“Valley Of Darkness” had a bit of a troubled production, with loads of deleted scenes, and arguments over the darker moments. The Cylon boarding party is actually a fill-in thing, meant to help “Scattered”, whose script was too long in its first iterations, be split into two episodes.

-The title is a fairly obvious reference to this translation of Psalm 23: “Though I walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil, for you are with me”. The phrase has a general meaning of a spiritual, emotional or dangerous time in our lives. A more common translation would be “the valley of the shadow of death”, but that’s a bit wordy for an episode title.

-It’s almost a shock to be reminded that Billy and Dee had a relationship in the opening moments here, but not so shocking to see Dee place her loyalty to the ship and its crew over Billy, pointedly criticising his part in fermenting mutiny.

-This episode employs frequent location titles, which seems distracting at first, but given the samey nature of the various places in Galactica that we see is probably a good call.

-Centurions are looking a lot better in Season Two, and we quickly establish one of their few weaknesses: HE rounds. Obviously they have been upgrading a bit.

-If you listen closely during this opening encounter, you can hear Kat’s Luciana Carro exclaim “Jesus!” Whoops.

-With the computer system in bits, the crew are forced to rely on written orders and updates, making the battle with the Centurions seem like an America Civil War engagement.

-We’re down one in the count of the opening title, which I presume is “Flyboy”, the pilot killed by the Centurion. The Galactica seemingly got out of “Scattered” with no dead.

-Interesting that when the proverbial hits the fan, Apollo secures the President first. Even in this crisis his loyalty is to one place.

-Love Apollo’s advice to Billy about guns, upon being told Billy’s only experience is with, essentially, a toy: “Real ones just make a bigger noise”.

-I can’t speak highly enough of the set-up for the Centurion boarding party, which is so simple yet so deadly: use the ship’s back-up systems to vent the crew and then take control of the guns. It’s a huge weakness of the Battlestar’s, perhaps reflective, in this case, of how old Galactica is.

-There’s a deleted scene here that could so with inclusion in my opinion, another flashback where a younger Adama and Tigh discuss a similar situation Adama experienced during the war, where 2000 people were killed. That’s how Tigh knows what the Centurions are doing, but the scene is great not for that, but for Tigh’s traumatised recollection of having to fight Centurions hand-to-hand: “You know that Centurions have a stink? It’s like machine oil. To this day, I get a whiff of grease or oil, I almost lose my lunch.”

-Baltar’s dream seems less like one of his own making and more like some kind of manipulation from on high, to sow distrust between him and the military.

-The music here, “Baltar’s Dream” is a banger from McCreary again, another proto-version of what would become “Storming New Caprica”

-Seriously though, Adama the baby killer is just flat-out ridiculous, an image that I can’t help but laugh whenever I see it, it’s just so overdone.

-We do get a scene on Kobol’s alleged human sacrifice here, that was initially planned for “Scattered”. I’m unsure what to make of it exactly, in terms of Head Six’s explanation: part of it feels like a bit convenient in terms of what she wants Baltar to become. Could it just be another illusion? No one else in the Kobol party sees them after all.

-Jammer, remember him? Last seen in “Litmus” I believe. Is he the senior deckhand in Tyrol’s absence? For Galactica’s sake I hope not.

-Starbuck’s apartment is a mess alright, very much a bohemian artists’s place of residence. A few things catch the eye like the poem (see below) and the painting next to it, of circles within circles. Did the writers always plan for this mandala to be plot pivotal?

The poem reads: “Methodically smoking my cigarette, Every breath I breathe out the day. With every delicious sip, I drink away the night, Stroking my hair to, The beat of his heart, Watching a boy turn into a man”. It’s a wistful piece, nodding to a hedonistic lifestyle and with a reference, perhaps, to Zak Adama at the conclusion.

-The song Starbuck plays isn’t a McCreary creation, it’s a tune called “Metamorphosis One” by pianist Philip Glass, made back in 1988. Eerie piece.

-Kara pulls on that battered old coat like a safety blanket, and Sackoff shows her chops again here, demonstrating perfectly how tired Starbuck must be. You can feel the exhaustion radiating off of her, and it makes you think that she might not have had any proper rest since before “Colonial Day”.

-Roslin knows how best to get through to Dee, and she starts responding when Billy uses her rank. Even in this instance her ties to military life as an identity are apparent.

-Brief, and I think final, mention of Sgt Hadrian, leading a party of Marines against the raiding party. Presumably she was sprung from her confinement at the end of “Litmus” then, and maybe she died here.

-Cally and Tyrol have a moment where, for the first time, we get an inkling of the feelings Cally might have for the Chief, in her fear that he might zone out after Tarn’s death. I think Nicki Clyne may have ad-libbed “mother-frakker” for this scene?

-Tyrol and Crashdown use the “flash” and “thunder” challenge/passwords. It’s a little jarring, because those are terms used by the US military in Europe during the Second World War for those situations, though to be completely accurate Tyrol should say “welcome”, the countersign, after Crashdown says “thunder”.

-Crashdown asks where Tarn is, and Tyrol tosses him the dogtag without a word. It’s a brilliant dismissive action that sums up Tyrol’s opinion of the Lt.

-Tyrol loses it here, and who can blame him? Losing Tarn was bad enough, but now that sacrifice seems especially pointless with Socinus about to breath his last. Tyrol, a man used to things he can fix, is left asking “For what?” in despair.

-They still find the time to showcase some of Crashdown’s weakness in this moment, as he washes his hands of any decision on Socinus’ fate: “He’s your man Chief”.

-Tyrol steps up and euthanises Socinus, giving him the false impression that they have been rescued as he does so. It’s a pretty heartbreaking moment, and gives us a new level of respect for the Chief and what he is capable of.

-Dee isn’t so out of it that she isn’t able to give Billy some very good advice, if he’s storing his gun in the front of his trousers: “Might want to turn the safety on”.

-Rapidly in succession the three Galactica plots – Apollo and his party, Roslin and hers, the CIC – all say “aft damage control” one after the other, and it’s very distracting.

-In a bid to comfort Jammer, Apollo tells him that “sometimes you have to roll a hard six”. It sounds weak coming out of his mouth, as he admits he’s stealing the line from his father. It’s craps lingo by the way: going for a “hard six” is the equivalent of a 9/1 bet, one of the most unlikely in that game, and usually sought as a desperation move by gamblers down on their luck.

-I love that Rymer takes the time to have just a little bit of a silent waiting period before the Centurions show up at aft damage control, to really let the dread sink in and the tension rise.

-The resulting gunfight is a quick and brutal affair, where the Centurions look truly scary and things are given a great chaotic character. The CGI budget really is going fast early on.

-Of course Apollo does get to have his hero moment, coming out of cover to give an almost point blank shot to the head of the last charging Centurion, something that did look really cool.

-Jammer’s “They don’t look so big now” is an understandable bit of euphoria-induced bravado, and is matched nicely with the more seasoned Apollo’s “They look plenty big to me” as he sees to the dead.

-Roslin survives a brush with a few Cylon bullets, something that will only aid in any efforts to have her appear like a divinely protected emissary of the Gods.

-You know, intergalactic universes like BSG so frequently ignore the idea of personal transport, that I still find it odd, re-watching for the fourth or fifth time, the idea of Helo and Starbuck finding a car.

-There’s an awkward moment around the bedside of Adama, where Roslin brings up the fact that she now has to go back to a cell. “Valley Of Darkness” is an episode where that larger crisis is seemingly forgotten, but now we come right back to it.

-“Thank the Gods I didn’t have kids”. After the titular darkness, the episode has the time for one last bit of dark levity, and boy has it earned it.

-One unanswered question coming out of “Valley Of Darkness”: what happens to the Heavy Raider parked in the landing pod? Is it too damaged for the Colonials to use? Did the Centurions destroy it themselves?

Overall Verdict: Though it has a very different tone, “Valley Of Darkness” is a good Part Two to “Scattered”, maintaining the crisis-hit feeling of the Fleet, and advancing, even in small ways, the plots of the various other groups throughout the galaxy. It works as an exploration of the horror genre, has one of Katee Sackhoff’s stand-out acting moments of the show, and certainly leaves you hungry for more.

To read more entries in this series, click here to go the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: The Advance Into Tipperary

The border of the Munster Republic had been breached at either end: at Limerick City in the west, with forces under Eoin Duffy and Michael Brennan expelling the IRA and now moving into the countryside to finish them off, and at Waterford in the east, where troops under John Prout had enjoyed a remarkably easy takeover of the city. Now, thoughts turned to the centre of the line, namely the county of Tipperary. The provisional government already had a foothold in the north of the county, especially around the town of Nenagh, but now the squeeze was going to be put on, with advances from the north and the south. The aim was for nothing less than the capture of all major towns, and for IRA units in them to be put to flight.

This was not going to be an easy thing to accomplish, at least on the surface. The National Army had men, armoured cars and artillery, but they were stretched in Munster, fighting battles in Limerick and Waterford. The IRA had substantial garrisons in places like Golden, Tipperary Town, Cashel, Carrick-On-Suir and Clonmel, with South Tipperary being the heartland of the 2nd Southern Division. The latter was where Liam Lynch had chosen to place his provisional HQ, and many of them looked to be hard nuts to crack, depending on heights, fortifications or river crossings held by the republicans. More than that, there was a fear that the IRA could take the offensive, and threaten pro-Treaty positions in neighbouring Kilkenny.

But the same old weaknesses that were dogging the IRA all over the country were present too: a lack of arms, a lack of commitment from certain units and a dangerous lack of direction from a higher command that seemed incapable of taking any kind of initiative. One officer would later describe the 3rd Brigade, based in the south of the county, as “a republic all of its own”, whose commander, Dinney Lacey, was not on speaking terms with Seamus Robinson, O/C of the division, with neither paying much attention to the orders of Lynch. The local presence of Eamon de Valera, working as an organiser for the IRA, may also have complicated matters. Men like Dan Breen, mentioned last week in the context of his failing effort to impact on the taking of Waterford, operated columns largely of their own volition. Discipline was an issue, and little effort was made to rally the opinion of the local population: “levies”, looting and the seizure of vehicles was accompanied by the burning of co-operative creameries, which would surely have raised unpleasant comparisons with the Black and Tans.

By mid-July, the National Army was as far as the middle of the county, where a garrison had been in place in Thurles for some time, but in so doing they had stretched themselves somewhat. Partially in response to this, a section of the IRA forces in the province decided to launch a strike in the direction of the midlands in an attempt to go on the offensive, and to secure their centre. The objectives of this assault, carried out by anti-Treaty men of the 1st and 2nd Southern Divisions concentrated in the village of Littleton, was the capture of Thurles and the surrounding area, but it was stillborn before it could get started when a third of the attacking force was captured without a shot, allegedly hoodwinked by the sudden arrival of National Army soldiers in the area who were not uniformed. Owing to this sudden loss the anti-Treaty strike force melted away, and the chance to hit back at the provisional government was lost. The pro-Treaty side continued a hopping advance, taking villages and towns as they could, as the situation in the rest of the province continued to disintegrate for the anti-Treaty side.

Two weeks later National Army troops under a Commandant Jerry Ryan were able occupy the small town of Golden, near Cashel. They included among their number elements of the Dublin Guards, and as such should not have been under-estimated. Anti-Treaty Volunteers in Cashel, to the east, decided to take their chance regardless and attempted to organise a three-pronged assault on Golden by multiple columns coming from different directions. It was not a bad plan, but required careful coordination to succeed, which did not come. The three prongs attacked at different times and were repulsed in detail by the National Army defenders, with the opening attack stalled when an improvised armoured car used by the IRA broke down at the outskirts of the village. A number of anti-Treaty soldiers were killed or captured as a result of the botched engagement, which lasted only a short time in the early hours of the 28th July.

Ryan decided to press the advantage he had gained by unexpectedly neutralising so much of the local IRA effectives, and launched an impromptu attack towards Tipperary Town the following day. Around 500 troops attacked the town from two roads, and there followed an extended firefight with anti-Treaty defenders that lasted the better part of two days. The delay was partly due to pro-Treaty officers being unwilling to use available artillery, for fear of civilian casualties. Patrick Dalton, commanding around 100 IRA Volunteers, had thrown up barricades in the street, laid down mines, scouted out firing lines and sandbagged buildings: as a result the attackers were forced to fight a number of small, drawn out engagements, sometimes to the point of hand-to-hand, as they took house after house and squeezed the Executives into the town centre. On he 31st, when Ryan made a move to cut off access to the town from the west, the defenders withdrew into the Glen of Aherlow.

Dalton’s defence, considering the lack of men and impossibility of reinforcements, was actually fairly exemplary, with the ad-hoc fortifications and prepared fields of fire. But it was always more of a delay than anything. With Tipperary Town’s capture the anti-Treaty line in the province was punctured in the centre, with another route into Cork now presented to the provisional government and the right flank of the anti-Treaty side fighting in County Limerick also threatened. More immediately, anti-Treaty positions in the rest of County Tipperary, most especially Cashel, were now made much more isolated and endangered.

With the fall of Waterford on the 21st, the IRA was pushed to the limit defending its territory in Tipperary from attacks north and south. Dan Breen was trying to defend the area between Waterford City and Carrick-On-Suir, where Dinney Lacey had based himself, with about 500 men from Tipperary and Cork. Coming against him were 600 men under Prout, with artillery and armoured cars, and additional reinforcements coming from the direction of Kilkenny. Lacey attempted to organise defensive lines to the south, but was hamstrung by a lack of enthusiasm from many of the men he commanded, the absence of local Volunteers from Waterford, and an increasingly unhappy civilian population, who responded to anti-Treaty destruction of roads and bridges, and the hated levies, by assisting the advancing National Army at every turn.

Prout’s advance, like it had been against Waterford, was cautious and calculated. His men took a string of towns and villages between Waterford and Carrick-On-Suir – Mullinavat, Rochestown, Piltown, Castletown – meeting only limited resistance. Closer to Carrick, which they approached from the east, they met more serious opposition, with anti-Treaty fighters using the barrier of the Suir and the cover of local woods to their advantage and temporarily holding off the provisional government advance with small arms and machine gun fire. But the situation could not hold, especially when Prout brought up his artillery to blast at the farmhouses that were the home of IRA machine gun posts. With the addition of troops coming from the direction of Kilkenny, the anti-Treaty line, such as it was, was quickly swamped and eventually disintegrated, the men retreating west and south. Prout marched into Carrick on the 3rd August to find that the town had been abandoned the previous night, Lacey thinking better of an engagement in its streets. As in many towns, most even, the National Army received a heroes welcome from the locals.

The anti-Treaty position in Tipperary was falling apart everywhere now, and it was really more a case of how much longer the IRA would continue to fight a conventional war than if they could somehow turn the tide. The day after the provisional government took Carrick, Cashel, hopelessly isolated with the fall of Tipperary Town, was also evacuated, leaving Clonmel as the only serious point of conventional resistance in the county, with Lynch now moving his HQ to Fermoy. Prout was tasked with the taking of Clonmel, moving out from Carrick, with a substantial amount of new recruits from the local area (that he was able to arm, but not uniform), on the 8th August. Avoiding the main roads, which had been mined, Prout travelled north through the countryside near Slievenamon. His men engaged in a number of haphazard firefights with the enemy in small towns and villages in the vicinity, that amounted to little more than brief holding actions. Pro-Treaty numbers, and artillery, always won the day eventually. The most serious resistance was at Redmonstown but, on the night of the 9th August, provisional government troops were able to break through and enter Clonmel. Most of what was left of the towns defenders had already evacuated, and after only a brief engagement with a rearguard it was secured. IRA units scattered south and west. With that, the conventional Civil War in Tipperary was over.

It may seem as if I am repeating myself a great deal in my analysis of the conventional Civil War, but it is simply the way that the conflict was panning out. The manner in which the pro-Treaty side was able to clear South Tipperary of anti-Treaty forces spoke to the now firmly established advantages that the National Army had, and the weaknesses that the IRA was forced to deal with. The provisional government had increasingly more men, had the ability to arm them, had more pro-active leadership, had armoured cars, artillery when required, and the support of most of the civilian population. The IRA had badly coordinated units operating independently, too many units who lacked the commitment to engage the National Army with lethal intent, a total absence of clear strategic or operational direction from those at the head of the movement, seemingly no understanding about, or willingness to engage positively with, the civilian population and, in the end, proved far too easy to isolate and then drive from their urban strongholds. There were moments in the South Tipperary fighting when the IRA showcased an ability to stand and fight that, if replicated to a larger degree across the country, could well have resulted in a much more even conflict. But this was not to be.

The Munster Republic was in pieces, with National Army troops bearing down on its interior from all directions. There remained one more decisive major confrontation to be fought. It was a fight that, to some degree would also be the largest battle of the Civil War, and depending on your view, could also be described as the last conventional battle to be fought on Irish soul to the present date. The location was the south of County Limerick, and the focal point would be the town of Kilmallock.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

NFB Watches Wrestling #56: Wrestlemania 18

Starting here, I am starting over.

The first time I got into wrestling, when I was 14, I was passionately into it for a period of just over one year, from around February 2001 to April 2002. The latter part of that coincided with this show, which was the last PPV I watched for a while. There were a few reasons for my flagging interest in the WWF, soon to be WWE, like general fatigue with the product, disliking the sudden emphasis on one Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair and, being honest, increasing difficulties in getting access to bootleg PPV tapes. Hogan winning the strap at Backlash 2002, a show I only experienced through written recaps, was sort of the last straw for me, because I never liked him, and have only gone on to dislike him more as time went on. I came back to wrestling a few years later, but that period post-Wrestlemania 18, is one that I never experienced first hand.

Well, I’m aiming to change that with a new focus for my wrestling series. Beginning with Wrestlemania 18 as a way of re-introducing myself to the era, I plan to offer a recap of every Raw, Smackdown and PPV from then all the way up to Wrestlemania 19, with the vast majority of it being shows I have never seen. I hope having the chance to follow along with evolving storylines properly will give me a chance to change the focus of this series in a way that it makes it more enjoyable to write and to read, but if that turns out to not be the case, then I may forgo it. But until then, well, welcome to the start of Ruthless Aggression.

It’s the 17th March 2002 and we’re in the Skydome of Toronto, Canada, for Wrestlemania 18 (or X8 if you want to be fancy smancy)! Your main event tonight: for some reason it isn’t The Rock vs Hulk Hogan, but instead Chris Jericho, with Stephanie McMahon of all people in his corner, defending his WWF Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship against Triple H! Will there ever again be a Wrestlemania main event where the McMahon family isn’t involved? Not for one more year anyway.

Cold open to the packed Skydome, where Lilian Garcia introduces theme tune providers Saliva. They give us “Superstar”, and they get the lyrics right so they are automatically better than Motorhead anyway. Helps that they have a cool stage to play on. We get some footage of the video packages that will play later behind them, with an emphasis on the Taker/Flair, Jericho/HHH, Hogan/Rock and Austin/Hall feuds, in that order. Even the video package guys can’t get it right. Saliva’s frontman asks us to “Get your ass up off your shoulders” as we get the band’s denouement, and I am not comprehending that. Skydome is appreciative though.

Opening video package. Undertaker puts Wrestlemania on a pedestal with the Superbowl, then Flair says it’s actually bigger than the Superbowl. Way to keep the feud going. The usual highlights of Mania’s past, and I suppose it’s a good thing we’re beyond X7’s “A Celebration of Life” shtick. We play up some of the main feuds, especially Hogan/Rock, and finish on a lingering shot of Rock backstage.

Opening titles which have a sort of a rollercoaster feel, lots of pyro and good ‘ol JR is here with, sigh, Jerry Lawler to welcome us. Toronto came to play tonight, the crowd is nuclear. Onto the first match.

William Regal (c) vs Rob Van Dam (WWF Intercontinental Championship)

Regal opening the show in an IC match for the second year in a row, but this is all about RVD, one of the few new Fed guys who came out of the Invasion storyline with his stock increased. You could set your watch to Regal’s haircut. JR plays up Regal’s “unique style” saying those two words twice in three sentences. RVD teases a springboard crossbody to start, but Regal rolls in as he goes for it so RVD just climbs out, then back in. Very awkward start, what was that about?

Van Dam back on track with a spinning heel kick, successfully not knocking Regal out with it. Big clobbering clothesline, standing moonsault, mounted punches, Van Dam like a house of fire. Regal back with a forearm, looking for his signature brass knucks and he’s looking so long it really is an odd image, Eventually finds them, but they get kicked out of his hands. Regal begs off, gets thrown around, then takes a second rope roundhouse, looks great. RVD looking for the Five Star early, but nobody home. Regal with a running knee for two, then goes for a few more pins, just looking to tire Van Dam out. Ring psychology!

Van Dam back with a crossbody for two, backslide for two, but Regal back with a drop toe-hold and vicious shots to the back of the head, only slightly ruined by the fact that we cut to a replay during. Suplex, two. The pace of this one is amazing so far. Shots in the corner, whip reversed, and RVD hits a back body-drop. Kick to the head, strikes, but Regal hits the Regal Cutter OUTTANOWHERE, and RVD hits the mat hard. Not a finisher anymore, so only two. A well deserved rest-hold follows, even I need a break.

Regal’s been busted open on the lip, so RVD’s swung wild at least once with that foot. Now hits a super-kick, but Regal gets the knees up on Rolling Thunder. Double Underhook Powerbomb gets two, then Regal looks for the Regal Stretch, but countered into an inside cradle for two. Clothesline takes Van Dam down, and Regal waves to the crowd. RVD coming back, drop-kick in the corner, then a corner flip. Looking for another spinning heel kick, but countered into a Full Nelson Suplex, a thing of beauty. Regal really was one of the best ever wasn’t he? Regal retrieves his knucks from the outside, as Lawler says “This guy is one of the greatest, look at him, picking up trash from the outside”. He’s not annoying me yet.

Hebner Jr isn’t having any of that and takes the knucks away, but Regal retrieves another pair while he is distracted, only to get a kick to the face as he had them raised. Five Star Frog Splash, and that will be all in under six-and-a-half.

Winner (and new WWF Intercontinental Champion): ONEOFAKIND

Verdict: Really fun opener, fast and frantic, and I could watch Regal pull off moves all night.

You’d think this meant bigger things for Van Dam, but I’m not so sure.

Backstage, Christian is interviewed by Garcia. He’s been on an epic losing streak that is provoking temper tantrums, one of the best comedy gimmicks of the era, and not even DDP’s smile therapy seems to be helping. The previous Monday DDP helped Christian to a win over Billy Gunn, and Christian rewarded him by hitting an Unprettier. Why Christian, why? He says he doesn’t need DDP anymore, just like he doesn’t need this second rate city anymore. Cheap pop. He’s in touch with his emotions now, and is ready to reclaim his title as “the Champion of Europe”. Yes, that’s what I associate with Christian.

Toronto gets plugged by commentary, and onto the best theme music ever.

Diamond Dallas Page (c) vs Christian (WWF European Championship)

“CHRISTIAAAAAN! CHRISTIAAAAN! At Last! You’re On Your Owwwwwwwwn!” Amazing, always. Christian billed as being from “his new hometown of Tampa Bay, Florida”. Crowd not biting as much as you might expect. Interested in seeing how much more time DDP has with the Fed, given how much of it was wasted the previous year stalking Sara Callaway. Anyway.

Christian attacks before the bell, because of course. Stomps, posing with the belt, and then lets Page come back with forearms. Gutwrench into a gutbuster, and then Cactus Clothesline sends both men out. Christian sent into the barricade a few times, then back in. Mounted punches in the corner, but Christian able to hit a low-blow without the ref’s notice (called a “high blow” by Jerry on account of the position: what is this, Night of Clever King Commentary”?). Deep, throbbing “Ohhhhh” from the crowd, sounds cool. DDP dropped on the turnbuckle, hung on the ropes, then knocked into the barricade off a charge. OK so far.

Smiles for the audience and back in. Foot choke, shots in the corner, but DDP able to come back when Christian takes the time to mock Page’s taunts. Looking to drag Christian balls first into the ringpost, but pulled in himself. Abdominal stretch, two when DDP drops. Choke in the corner, shoulder-block on a charge sends Page down. Christian to the top, intercepted by Page, and DDP hits a sort of modified powerslam off the top, surprisingly high-notice move for this one. Discus clothesline, sit-out powerbomb, and a very near-fall, I think some members of the crowd thought it was it.

Christian out of a reverse suplex attempt, looking for the Unprettier, DDP counters into an attempted Diamond Cutter, but Christian counters that into his own Reverse DDT, but only two, nice sequence. Christian on the verge of a tantrum, but utilises his breathing exercises, very nice. Page with an inside cradle gets two, Christian misses a clothesline, walks into a Diamond Cutter, and that will be all in just over six.

Winner (and still WWF European Champion): It’s him, it’s him.

Verdict: Fairly by-the-numbers. Both men are solid workers, and that’s exactly what this match was.

DDP on the mike, and praises Christian for not losing his temper after losing in front of 67’000 fans and millions watching at home. You gotta love the guy who doesn’t know he’s being an asshole. Christian is horrified, and here comes the tantrum. DDP heads off through the adoring crowd, and if his WWF career was a bust, at least he got that moment.

The Rock is backstage with the Coach. Says his contest with Hogan is “biggest match of all time”, that will determine “the greatest ever”. It’s the third last match tonight folks. He wants Hulkamania in all its glory, but then turns on the Coach. He wants to know if he has said his prayers, and is horrified when Coach says he got busy. The fans in Toronto want to see Coach say his prayers, but of course. At Rock’s behest Coach puts his hands together, gets down on his knees and delivers that iconic line: “What up G?”. The Rock is even more horrified, and gives Coach the literal boot. His attention back on Hogan, Rock gives one of his most impassioned promos ever I think, asking “Whatcha gonna do, when The Rock runs wild on you?” It’s going to be like never before, Hogan is going to see the People’s Elbow come crashing down on his chest and “you will, you will, you will, you will, you will, Good God Almighty you will, smell what The Rock is cooking!” as he tears the shirt. Goosebumps, then and now. One of The Rock’s more pleasant interactions with Coach really, and the man can sell a match like nobody’s business.

Maven (c) vs Goldust (WWF Hardcore Championship)

Rhodes back a few months at this stage, and starts flinging stuff into the ring as he walks down. Out comes Maven, a few months into his career and I think still with “roll-up” as his finisher. The Network has changed his theme music from the awesome Tough Enough theme (“Tatoo” by Mercy Drive) to something more generic and substantially less awesome. I had a lot of time for Maven back then, I thought the idea of this random guy suddenly being a WWF Champ and competing at Wrestlemania was genuinely inspiring, but I have a feeling I might think a tad differently as we go forward here. After the amazing Hardcore Title match at X7 this one has a lot to live up to, but WWF wisely decided to go a different direction, as we’ll see.

It’s a Hardcore match, so Goldust blindsides Maven as he enters the ring and knocks him to the outside. Strikes on the outside, and Maven flung hard into the barricade. Forearm smash from the apron after Maven was set-up. Out comes the cookie sheet for a shot, then back into the ring. Goldust sets up a golden trash can, takedown on Maven, looking for a catapult into the can but Maven awkwardly moves it at the last second. Can thrown at Goldust, he catches it and Maven hits his other patented move, the drop-kick, the impact of which Goldust basically no-sells. Roll-up for two, then Goldust back with a neckbreaker for two. Facebuster, and Goldust grabs, and I had completely forgotten about this, a literal golden shovel, amazing! Maven takes a shot to the throat, then Goldust sets one of the cans up in the corner. Maven whipped hard into it, but only two.

A gold trash can lid is next, but Maven able to use one of his own and there is a dueling shot that sends both men down. Out comes Spike Dudley, with a ref for some reason (there’s already one in the ring!) to get the 1, 2, 3 in just over three.

Winner (and new WWF Hardcore Champion): The littlest Dudley. I don’t know if you can really call him the “winner” but the match ended when he got the pin so…

Verdict: Short and what you would expect from a Hardcore match at this time. The real Hardcore stuff is coming later.

Dudley flees into the crowd as Crash Holly comes out to confront him. Holly pursues, followed by Goldust, and then Maven. The crowd loud for this last part.

Lilian Garcia introduces Drowning Pool to “tell us the story” of the Undisputed Title Match with their song “Tear Away”. Basically they play the song at the top of the ramp while audio-less video highlights of the Triple H/Jericho feud play in the background. Bit of a miserable song it has to be said, doesn’t have a patch on “Sinner”. Think there’s an imbalance between vocal volume and the instruments, “Let me hear you scream” says the lead vocalist, and Toronto couldn’t have less enthusiasm. His last word is “I can’t hear you!” and Toronto just seems to nod in agreement. Weird that they felt the need to do this, but maybe it was part of the deal with Drowning Pool?

Backstage, Spike brawls with Crash next to a big pile of boxes, but can’t get the pin. Suddenly in comes Al Snow on a golf cart, Teddy Long beside him, and they crash into the boxes at speed for an admittedly awesomely stupid spot that had me having flashbacks to “Speed 3”: “Look Ted, a big bunch of boxes in the middle of the road!”. Spike chucks Crash into a loading bay entrance barrier and makes to flee, only for the Hurricane to swoop in on a line, nail Spike with a kick, and get the pin.

New WWF Hardcore Champion: The Hurricane!

Hurricane “flies” away as Snow emerges from the pile of boxes asking “Where’d he go?”. We get an immediate replay of what happened for some reason. I do loves me some ridiculous backstage Hardcore antics.

Kurt Angle vs Kane

This match the very definition of thrown together: both guys are too big to not be on the card, but lack any kind of substantial feud, so they cobbled together a match between the two of them. Kurt on the mike beforehand. He has one thing to say: “If I had won my Olympic gold medal the way this country’s figure skaters won their gold medal, I’d want to shoot myself in the freaking head” (Look up “figure skating scandal 2002” for the needed context). Angle says they whined and complained to win their medals, unlike him, “the big red, white and blue machine”. An eruption of fire interrupts him. I love heel Angle before his matches, he’s so delightfully mean. He’s also physically mean, as he bashes Kane with the ringbell here to start us off.

Angle laying in shots, but eventually Kane comes back with some of his own. Angle dodges a clothesline and hits a German, and now I am reminded that Angle actually made Kane tap out during the Invasion storyline a few months previously to this, which I think is the only time Kane ever submitted. Not brought up tonight though, and you think it would be part of the feud in a “I’m the only person you’re scared of Kane because I made you tap out” kind of way. Kane shrugs off Angle’s attacks and hits a back body-drop. Hard Irish Whip to the corner, then an elevated choke followed by a hard drop. Looking for the Chokeslam, but Angle grabs the ropes. Goes for a charge, but floored with an uppercut. Kane looks so impressive at this time, his offence just pops.

Angle eventually able to get some room and hits an overhead belly-to-belly, then a clothesline, then another. Stomps, a rope choke, and a hard right. Kane rallying back, but cut off with a whip into the corner then a reverse suplex for two. Front headlock gives the two men a breather, Kane eventually out of it, and hits a press slam facebuster. Angle back with rights, then walks into a Sidewalk Slam. Kick to the midsection, looking for a suplex, but Kurt lands on his feet and hits another German, then adds two more, but only gets two to his chagrin. Angle to the top for some reason, and for once it isn’t a moonsault, but a flying clothesline that floors Kane. A “woo” gets an otherwise apathetic crowd going, and Angle heads back to the top to try again, only this time Kane hits a clothesline of his own. Both men down in what has been a bog-standard encounter so far.

Both up at a count of six, dueling strikes, Kane hits a big boot, clothesline, another back body-drop and a corner clothesline. Powerslam off a hard corner whip, but Angle just gets the shoulder up for two. Angle able to hit an elbow, then walks into a big Chokeslam. 1, 2, and Angle gets a hand on the bottom rope. Kane is nonplussed, rakes the thumb across his throat and looks for a Tombstone. Angle out the back, tries to get Kane’s mask off, and this distraction lets him hit the Angle Slam, but only two. The shoulder spandex comes off, and the Ankle Lock gets locked on. In fairness JR does bring up Angle making Kane tap out here. Kane powers out briefly, but Angle just locks it in again. Slowly to the rope, Angle refusing to let go, and Kane able to get to his feet and hit an enziguri, always cool when he did that.

Kane heading up top, but slow because of the hurt ankle, and that delay allows Angle to intercept and hit an avalanche overhead slam, a thing of beauty. Looking for another Angle Slam, that commentary decides to call an Olympic Slam this time, Kane out of it, but Kurt then rolls him up, awkward shuffling as Angle eventually gets his feet on the ropes and that’s the 1, 2, 3 in just under 11.

Winner: Your Olympic hero, onto bigger and better feuds, I hope.

Verdict: It was alright, it had its hot moments. Clunky finish didn’t do it any favours, that’s for sure. Both men are capable of better, and may have pulled out all the stops for a better feud.

Backstage, the Hurricane sneaks around, and hides behind a divider when he hears approaching voices. Said voices appear to be a bunch of random women, and they start taking their clothes off and discussing how big their boobs are, because this is written by the same 13-year-old who wrote the infamous Kiebler/Wilson “my voluptuous breasts” dialogue. Hurricane, holding a broom at a suggestive angle, gets spotted, which leads the Godfather to intervene and send him packing. So these are the Godfather’s ho’s I guess? But he’s not on the card tonight…do they just show up and undress in the arena anyway?

Up next, Taker/Flair, the first match to get a video package. “Big Evil” Undertaker was about to beat up the Rock with a pipe until Flair, co-owner of the company, intervened. Taker wanted a match, Flair said no and Taker took to beating up Flair’s friends and family, in the form of Arn Anderson and David Flair, who at the time was working developmental for the Fed, presumably part of the deal for his father’s return. God bless him, David sold the assault like a pro. That was enough to get his Dad to accept the challenge, some brawling happened, Flair got arrested and that got the Board of Directors involved. Boardroom drama, what every wrestling fan wants to see. This means McMahon is in temporary sole charge of the company, and that matters because Vince makes the match No DQ because, you see, he is evil. Alright build to the feud, but heel Taker was never able to do it for me.

The Undertaker vs Ric Flair (No Disqualification)

Taker out with the bike still, and still using “Rollin” to boot, I’m surprised the Network shelled out for it. JR notes that he’s 9-0 at Wrestlemania, and I think this is the first time that what will become “the Streak” is mentioned? Out comes Flair. I never liked Flair in the Fed at this time as a wrestler, he just wasn’t in the condition, at age 53, to go the degree required of the matches he was put in. Case in point, he rushes the ring like a man on fire here, but he can’t get to his feet quickly so ends up grappling with Undertaker’s legs as the bell rings.

Flair with strikes, and both men head out. Flair flings himself at Taker, and they both go for a ride over the English announce desk, where the Nature Boy lays in plenty of shots. Taker out of it looking dazed, and the two exchange more shots before heading back in. A few more shots and Taker falls out of the ring. Not much to this one so far. The Deadman catches Flair on a splash from the apron, and drives him into the ringpost. Flair’s head driven into the ringsteps, and back in. Briefly jawing with fans at ringside, Taker gets blindsided when he follows, but soon is giving it back plenty. Just punches back-and-forth so far.

Irish Whip into the corner, and Flair tries for his 360 spin onto the apron spot but he just ends up hitting the second turnbuckle. Shocking for this level. You know it’s a botch because they re-do the spot straight away and this time Flair is able to pull it off, only to get booted to the floor. Taker sets him up on a chair and lays in more shots. A replay gives Flair the cover to blade, before Taker lays on a few more punches. “Flair’s not in his prime and you know it” says JR. Oh I know, believe me. We go back in, a kick to the head, corner smashes, strikes and Flair collapses. Taker jaws with the ref, and Flair comes back at him with chops, and the crowd is into it. Taker hits back with a hard corner clothesline, and Flair collapses again. Rather dull so far.

There’s a droplet of blood on a ringside camera as Taker continues the offence. Sets Flair up on top, shots, looking for a superplex, and nails it, and man it looked hard. Flair sells it like crazy, but only two on the cover when Taker pulls Flair up. Beatdown continues, to the outside again, elbows on the apron, leg-drop. More entertaining than this basic offence is JR and King, who argue about whether McMahon holds grudges. “Are you looking for a raise?” “Well, now that you mention it…”. The beatdown continues in the ring now and at some point Taker has also got a cut from somewhere. We got an honest-to-God “Booger Red” from JR, I thought that was just a myth. King wants to know what that means, JR says he’ll tell him tomorrow.

More strikes, Taker heads up top looking for Old School, but gets “jerked off” the top rope. Phrasing! Flair back with chops as King asks if he’s “Booger Red” on account of the crimson. Flair is bleeding copiously, but kicks out of a Sidewalk Slam. Dodges a running boot and Taker crotches himself. More chops, we go outside again, Flair with a rake to the eyes, grabs a lead pipe from the motorcycle, and nails Undertaker with it. A few more to the back and gut, Taker back by driving Flair into the apron, and now we start brawling up the ramp. Flair with a headshot with a ringside sign, a few to the back, and we end up in the ring again. Hard to believe this is the second best Hardcore match tonight.

Some “Woos” and Flair lays in a few chops, Taker grabs the throat but Flair just kicks him in the balls. Takedown, and the Figure 4 locked in. It would mean more if there was any chance Mark Callaway would tap-out to Ric Flair. Taker sits up on a near-fall in the move, and grabs Flair’s throat to escape. Dragging him up, and he hits what they call a chokeslam, but is more of an uranage. King even has to cover, saying “Taker’s leg gave way on that chokeslam” and I’d say it was more he had to lesson the impact for Flair. Cover, but only two. Shots to the head, two. Taker is annoyed, and Little Naitch gets taken out. The Deadman grabs the lead pipe, but intercepted with strikes before he can use it. Suddenly Arn Anderson is in the ring, and hits a spinebuster OUTTANOWHERE.

Taker beats Anderson at ringside, then beats him inside the ring, and locks on that standing Dragon Lock finisher he had for a cup of coffee, only for Flair to give him some chair shots to the back. Before Flair can give him a head shot Taker delivers a big boot. Looking for The Last Ride, Flair battles out, but I think it’s more that Flair can’t get into position, the way he was awkwardly dangling halfway up for a few seconds. That’s pretty sad, and reminds me of Taker not being able to help Roman Reigns reverse a Tombstone a few years ago. Funny how things come round. Taker decides to give Flair a Tombstone instead, and that’s enough in just under 19.

Winner: Booger Red! Booger Red! Booger Red!

Verdict: Too long, too slow, and only one of the men in the match should have been there. Not sure what AA’s involvement really added. Flair’s inability to hang painfully obvious at all parts.

Taker gives Robinson one more shot before departing the ring, before holding up all ten fingers to the crowd. Streak! He rides off as King continues to wonder what a Booger Red is.

Backstage, a bespectacled Booker T is with Michael Cole. Edge has been casting doubts on Booker’s intelligence, but he says he’s a highly intelligent man: “I got glasses don’t I?” He once won an award for his work on Einstein’s “theory of relatives”: “He had two theories!” He’ll kick Edge’s ass, five times, sucka, etc. Booker’s a fun guy in these segments, but perhaps too willing to take the piss out of himself. No other top heels in the company get that treatment, and once you’re a comedy guy in the Fed, you can get stuck that way forever. Anyway.

Booker T vs Edge

This feud apparently emerged when Edge stole a Japanese hair product endorsement deal from T (“They’re fighting over shampoo” is one of the best crowd signs of the night, or ever). There are worse bases for a PPV match, but I admit I had completely forgotten this was even on the card. Edge gets a big reception from the hometown crowd: perhaps its hindsight, but you can see that he’s primed for a proper run at the top, though it won’t come for a while yet. Right now I would say this being his “hometown” is the only reason this match is on the card.

Lock-up, into the ropes, and awkward moment where Teddy Long shuffles between the two guys. Edge down hard off a shoulder block but back with a drop-kick. Modified facebuster/cutter gets two. Whips back-and-forth, Edge caught and hung up on the ropes. Heel kick, two, and Edge clotheslined out. Booker with a strike to the back from the apron, Edge sent back in, T to the top, and his hits a sweet missile drop-kick for two. Good start to this one.

Strikes on Edge in the corner, stomps, but Edge back after Booker gets distracted jawing with Long. Edge on a charge, but walks into a big spinebuster where it was almost a Sunset Flip before Booker pulled the trigger. One of the best spinebusters in wrestling really. Booker to the top but intercepted, Edge clambers up, and hits a rana off the top, but its botched horribly and Booker falls onto Edge after leaving the top too late. Ugh, that was hard to watch.

They move on quick, Edge with a heel kick, clothesline, but Booker back with a knee to the gut, Looking for that Scissors Kick, but Edge counters into that back slam I always found hard to describe. Edge to the top, and hits an awkward spinning heel kick where he just sort of collides with Booker’s chest, gets two. Booker gets two off a corner roll-up, countered into a catapult into another corner, looking for a spear but Booker leapfrogs and Edge ends up in the corner, superkick, and and we get a Wrestlemania-sized Spinarooni. Scissors Kick, Booker slow to get to the cover, and Edge just out of it.

Looking for the Book End, Edge counters out, and now hits the spear, but only two. But who cares, because we get the world famous Edgearooni right after, to wild applause Some kick attempts from both guys, and Edge hits the Edgeacution OUTTANOWHERE, for the win in just over six-and-a-half.

Winner: Edge, who is from Toronto like a guy from Birmingham is from London, just so we’re aware.

Verdict: Had a surprising number of botches, but other than that it was a fine short match. Not really Wrestlemania worthy, but these are two guys I like so I can’t complain much.

Edge celebrates with his “hometown” crowd: six years to main eventing!

The Hurricane is backstage when he gets accosted by Coach, who wants to know if his antics with the ho’s are becoming of a superhero. Hurricane is outraged at such an assertion. Mighty Molly arrives, distracts Hurricane by pointing to the Hurricycle, and then wangs him in the head with a frying pan. Amazing. One three count later…

New WWF Hardcore Champion: Mighty Molly. Whatsupwithdat?

A video package for Austin/Hall follows. Nie recap of crazy Vince taking about the nWo, replete with “A LETHAL DOSE…OF POOIIISON”. One of the all-time McMahon lines. Anyway, the nWo arrived in WWE and beat up Austin, Austin responded by beating up Scott Hall, the nWo hit Austin with a cinderblock and Hall hit him with a Stunner, hence match. The nWo in the WWF, oh boy, this whole idea lost steam so fast, but at this point they are still a big deal I suppose.

Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Scott Hall w/Kevin Nash

Austin gets a huge reception, but of course. He was super unhappy with the company at the time, refusing to job for Hogan as he felt he couldn’t wrestle to the required level (correct), so got stuck with Hall, who wasn’t much better really. Hall had gone six months of so without a match up to a few weeks before this, and its been a few house show contests with Austin and some throwaway TV encounters in that space, so he was still rusty. They tease out Nash joining Hall for some reason, and JR is outraged to see him. Um, why? It’s the nWo of course they are going to be all about that damn numbers game. Don’t expect too much from Hall though, as he’s dealing with a biceps injury here which has limited him big time for the first part of this run (if it was real). Still love that nWo music.

Austin attacks before the bell, and Hall floored quick enough. “What” chants as Austin hits stomps, an elbow and some corner smashes. Hall hasn’t even gotten his waistcoat off yet. Comes back a bit, then walks into the Lou Thesz press. Falling fist, more head smashes as the crowd is all about the “What!”. Hall takes a powder and finally gets the chance to take that coat off. Austin takes the time to attack Nash from behind, then goes after Hall again. Into the ringsteps, back into the ring, and Hall able to hit a shoulder charge to get two. Weak sounding open hand chops in the corner, that the crowd is silent for. As soon as Austin lays in some strikes it’s a thunderous “What!”

Hall takes over again with a hard corner whip, and Austin is shoved out. Hall distracts the ref so Nash can lay in some shots. Back in, corner clotheslines, Fallaway Slam, two. Hall counters a hip toss with a short-arm clothesline, two. He can do the beatdowns well, that’s something. Rope choke, ref distracted again so Nash can put in another cheap shot. Austin counters a whip and hits a spinebuster, but Hall back with hard shots himself. Comes off the ropes, and walks into a sudden Stunner OUTTANOWHERE. Nash pulls out the ref before he can count three, knocks him down, and takes to the ring to beat up Austin. Crowd surprisingly not super loud about it.

Hall grabs a chair, but Austin able to intercept him and hit another Stunner, then one for Nash too. Austin with the cover, but no ref. Jack Doan races down to the ring and gives us history’s greatest entrance slide to count two, before Nash drops an elbow on him. Hall looking for the Razor’s Edge, but back body-dropped to the outside instead. A group of refs are down to remonstrate with Nash, who is thrown out of ringside. Austin brawling with Hall, back in, looking for a third Stunner, Hall pushes out of it and then hits his own. Tim White in, eventually makes the count, but Austin out at two. Hall going for an other, Austin pushes out this time, hits the Stunner, Hall remains on his feet, and Austin hits a fourth, “Texas-sized” Stunner that Hall sells like he’s been launched out of a cannon. That’s enough in just under ten.

Winner: Amazing how the Stunner can turn the ring to elastic like that.

Verdict: Pretty rubbish encounter really. Hall can’t go, especially with a guy like Austin. No wonder Stone Cold was getting so fed up at the time, stuck with feuds like this.

Austin struggles to catch his beers, takes a few swigs and heads to the back pretty quickly. He don’t look too happy. He would no-show Raw the next night, citing exhaustion and problems with creative. We’ll get to it.

Next, a look at WWF Axcess. The usual looks at fans looking around the temporary wrestling museum/convention they set-up, wrestlers talking about how happy this all makes them, blah, blah, blah. It’s no “Terrible Army cadence” video from X7. I like Booker T trying to play the latest Smackdown game and being outraged that he’s not in it. One women is in tears talking to Taker, who looks dumbstruck, in a good way. That nice moment completely ruined of course when we cut to “an exact replica” of Stacy Keibler’s legs and rear end: the woman herself tries to insist this is all great for her, but she isn’t that good at selling. One step forward, five steps back. Let’s go to the next match.

Billy & Chuck (c) vs the Dudley Boyz (Bubba Ray & D-Von) w/Stacey Keibler vs The APA (Bradshaw & Farrooq) vs the Hardy Boyz (Matt & Jeff) (Fatal 4 Way Elimination Match) (WWF Tag Team Championships)

The Dudleys get Saliva performing their theme tune, which is kind of awesome, especially when Bubba headbangs along next to them (taking all of the attention away from Keibler’s dancing: you know that was a deliberate choice of his). Crowd actually gives this a bit more appreciation than the other performances. All down to Bubba. Anyway, this is what is already becoming standard at Wrestlemania, the multi-team tag match where the division is crammed into the ring for spectacle purposes. Thanks TLC! No Lita with the Hardy’s, as she’s getting ready for her match later. You loooook soooooo…good to me. Oh yes please. A year before South Park’s Crab People overtook them, it’s time for the world’s greatest metrosexual send-up, Billy and Chuck! We’ll talk about them more as we get closer to that wedding, but for now it suffices to say it was a good way for two forgotten guys to get the spotlight, even if things got more “gay panic” later.

With eight guys and one manager at ringside, this is going to be hard to call, so bear with me. Bit of schmozz to start, until it works out as Bradshaw and Chuck. This is two legal men at a time, and anyone can tag in, always a delightfully random state of affairs. But why would anyone want to tag in in an elimination match? Bradshaw misses a clothesline, catches Chuck on a crossbody attempt, but taken out with a Billy neckbreaker before he can do anything. Doesn’t slow him down much as he gives out clotheslines and big boots to clear house, then a reverse suplex to Chuck. Tag to Farrooq, shots, but then down hard from a clothesline. Billy in, brief double team stomps, Billy looking for the Famouser but walks into a powerslam, Bradshaw in to take out both of the metrosexuals, DDT to Billy for two. Billy tags in D-Von, the Dudley’s looking for the 3-D on Bradshaw but he kicks D-Von before he can deliver the flapjack part. Billy and Chuck staying in the ring so things are really messy, Bradshaw delivers a thunderous Clothesline From Hell to Chuck but then walks into the 3-D and D-Von gets the pin and eliminates the APA in under three-and-a-half.

The Hardys in, double back body-drop to Bubba, double elbow to D-Von and stereo elbow drops gets two, I guess Jeff and D-Von are the legal men now. Chuck takes a double DDT as the Dudley’s set a table up on the outside. Hardy’s with drop-kicks through the ropes to them, Matt hooking up with D-Von on the outside as Jeff does the same with Bubba on the inside, I guess Bubba is legal? Whisper In The Wind takes Bubba down, the shirt comes off to the crowds delight, now Stacey is on the apron to distract Jeff with her ass. Oh dear. Jeff gives her a slap, a kiss, and she falls to the floor for the ultimate trio of violence, sexual harassment and taking bumps you shouldn’t have to.

Jeff clambering on top of Bubba for some reason, and takes a clothesline from Billy off the top. Bubba hits Billy with the Bubba Bomb to take him out, then chokes Jeff with some towel he had on him, OK. The cameras makes sure we see Keibler rubbing her backside at ringside, yeesh. Bubba works over Jeff with strikes and elbows, back body-drop, two. Resthold, and why should the match need that, just tag out! Jeff rallying back, blind tag to D-Von, and he floors Jeff with a clothesline for two. Big punches in the corner, suplex, two. Bubba in, Billy trying to get in for some reason, why? Jeff set-up upside down in the corner, and takes a ball press for his trouble, until Matt chucks Bubba out of the ring. D-Von takes Matt out to prevent a tag, then in legally himself. Very messy stuff, as you would expect.

Corkscrew elbow, looking for a reverse DDT, but Jeff counters into a sort of knee-based neckbreaker. Hot tag to Matt who floors Bubba a few times, DDT, back body-drop to D-Von, shots to Billy and Chuck, but then hit with a reverse suplex by Bubba. To the top, but nobody home on a senton. Matt to the top for a leg drop, but only two. Bubba hits a Scoop Slam, but D-Von thrown off the top by Billy when he looks for the Whassup and he goes crashing through the table, which we only see from the widest possible angle, but still looks brutal. Matt hits the Twist Of Fate, and Jeff follows with the Swanton for the 1, 2, 3 to eliminate the Dudleys in just under 12.

Chuck in to nail Matt with a superkick, only two. Jeff takes Chuck down and hits that gut heel kick. Billy puts Jeff out, then walks into a Side Effect from Matt. Jeff tagged in, Poetry In Motion to Billy, then the same to Chuck. Matt hits Chuck with the Twist Of Fate, Jeff hits the Swanton, but then Billy in with the Famouser. Cactus Clothesline sends Matt and Billy out, Chuck gets a slow cover but Jeff out at two. As Chuck distracts the ref Billy nails Jeff with a belt shot, and that will be the final fall in just under 14.

Winners (and still WWF Tag Team Champions): They look so good to you.

Verdict: Basically three tag matches in succession, with Chuck & Billy vs the APA, Dudleys vs Hardys, then Hardys vs Billy & Chuck. Frantic back-and-forth action, but it was missing something. Felt like a house show match with a table spot (that was brutal, to reiterate). Ending felt a little blown, like Jeff wasn’t supposed to kick-out of the first pin. At the end of the day three of the teams involved have been stuck in their roles for too long and are begging for some re-invention, though Vince will just go with what he knows and break them up instead.

Billy and Chuck taunt a recovering Dudleys and Keibler with the belts, which doesn’t really match their characters I would have thought, and stomp off.

Backstage, Hall and Nash insist to each other that Austin just got lucky. They say they’ll take out what happened on The Rock, but Hogan appears to tell them he needs to face Rock on his own. He wants Rock to have no excuses “just like when I busted up Rocky Balboa”. That’s Hogan name-dropping a near twenty year movie. Hogan leaves, and Hall and Nash insist to each other they will still be involved.

Elsewhere, Mighty Molly flees with the Hardcore Title, but gets absolutely slammed by a divided door. It’s Christian! “Stand back, there’s a new champion coming through!” A ref appears and Christian gets the pin.

New WWF Hardcore Champion: Christian

JR says “Christian beat a woman” like Christian beat a helpless child. Not that Christian cares, as he runs off.

Time for what should be the main event, and we get a video package. Hogan is back, saying WWF fans drove him out after he made the company what it is, and there will never be anyone bigger than him. The Rock disagrees. He challenges Hogan to “headline” one more Wrestlemania with him, and Hogan agrees. I guess challenging him to go on third last at Wrestlemania doesn’t have the same ring to it. The two have gone back-and-forth with beatdowns over the last few weeks, most notably when the nWo ran a truck into an ambulance the Rock was taking after an assault. To say again, it was meant to be Austin/Hogan, but Austin thought Hogan wasn’t good enough. The Rock was more willing to play ball. Actually not that good of a video promo, given they are hyping this as the biggest match in history. Always going to be an automatic attraction to a match of this type, fully “Icon vs Icon”, but at that time I remember having little interest because Hogan looked incapable of performing to the level required. No one better to get a match out of him than Rock though.

“Hollywood” Hulk Hogan vs The Rock

Hogan 49 at the time and excepting a five minute Curt Hennig bout in the short-lived XWF, a house show against Rikishi and a throwaway match on Raw, this is his first proper match in well over a year. Despite trying to frame him as a heel the Toronto crowd is all over the Hulkamania sentiment, and they start the inevitable turn with Hogan acknowledging the cheers. The Rock cheered heavily too, for now. Crowd the loudest they have been all night, a sustained cacophony, and we take a moment for the two wrestlers to deservedly milk it in.

Circling, lock-up, struggling for a bit, and Rock flung back. The crowd explodes and Hogan poses and gives Rock the “Just Bring It”. Lock-up, side headlock from Hogan, Rock shoves him off but then floored by a shoulder charge. The crowd is eating it all up, and Rock looks perturbed by the very loud “Hogan” chants. Lock-up, Hogan with a knee to the gut, then strikes, whip against the ropes and hits a big clothesline. Another whip, and now Rock hits his flying clothesline, which gets a few boos. Hogan’s turn to look a bit stunned, maybe because his bandana was torn off. Shoving back-and-forth, Rocky with strikes, laying the Smackdown, and I think Hogan was meant to go over the top rope but can’t pull that off, rolling under instead. Whoops.

Ringside brawling for a moment, then back in. Rock with strikes, a clothesline, calling for the Rock Bottom but Hogan elbows out. Rock sent down hard with another elbow, a few falling elbows, a rake to the face. Big “Hogan” chants as he lays in a corner clothesline. Awkward moment where Hogan goes for a boot to the midsection but Rock had already backed off, not so good. Rock comes back hard with a takedown/spear, and the crowd has a very mixed reaction to that. Hogan takes advantage of Rock’s distraction to hit a reverse suplex for two. Abdominal stretch with shots to the gut, transitions into a roll-up for two. Only so much offence Hogan can give in a row before he starts looking less than great.

Chops and back rakes in the corner, shots, elevated punches, and the crowd happy to count along. Crowd proper turning on Rock when he takes some turns with the chops. Hogan hits a chokeslam off a Rock charge, choke on the mat until Mike Chioda breaks it up. Rock blocking shots to lay the Smackdown again, but Hulk dodges a charge and sends the Rock flying over the top rope. Rock sent into the ring steps, onto the barricade, and now Hogan starts setting up the announce desk for something. Rock back with shots, slamming Hogan’s head on the table, grabs a chair, but the ref grabs it before it can be used. Rock, distracted, walks into a clothesline. Back in, crowd fully behind Hogan now, and off another dodge to a Rock charge the referee gets taken out. Shenanigans incoming. A replay shows the Rock clearly changing course to run into Chioda, oops.

Rock able to hit a spinebuster, both men down, and slowly back up. Rock with the takedown, and locks in the Sharpshooter. To my shock then and even more now given Hogan’s reputation, Hogan taps out, but of course no ref. I’ll never understand why they did that. Rock tries to rouse the ref, as the crowd busts out “Rocky sucks”, it’s been a while. Hogan hits a distracted Rock with a low-blow, then nails a Rock Bottom. Ref conscious again, slow count, and Rock out at two. Hogan whips off the belt, the ref is unconscious again, so he’s able to pull the government mule act with Rock. Wraps the belt around his fist, Rock dodges a punch and hits a DDT. Fans not happy.

Rock now grabs the belt and goes to town on Hogan, now that feels good. Hits the Rock Bottom after Hogan takes an age to turn, Hogan out at two, and the hulking up commences. Crowd going apeshit for the finger wagging, and now Hogan lays on his punches, big boot, Atomic Leg Drop, two. Crowd is nuclear. Rock pulled up, another big boot, but now nobody home for another Leg Drop attempt. Stalking Hogan, and hits another Rock Bottom, to boos. Pulls Hogan back up, and hits the Rock Bottom again. Kip up, and the crowd does come alive a bit for Rock to hit the Peoples Elbow. That’s enough in just under sixteen-and-a-half.

Winner: Rocky sucks, Rocky sucks, Rocky sucks.

Verdict: Complicated feelings on this one. The crowd, just in their general energy and the way they turned on the Rock really elevated the whole thing, which otherwise was pretty underwhelming given Hogan’s limitations, the bad tap out spot and the turn to finisher spam at the conclusion. JR acts like this was one of the greatest matches he’s ever seen and I can’t agree with that. It was a hell of a spectacle for sure, but take away the crowd and this is little better than Austin/Hall. Felt longer than it was too.

Rock celebrates, and the two men are left in a staredown. Hogan reaches out a hand, Rock takes it, to cheers. Rare you would see that kind of thing at the time, since face/face was so very infrequent. Rock takes his leave, and suddenly Hall and Nash are here. They remonstrate with Hogan for his buddying up with the Rock, then suddenly attack. On the list of nWo swerves this is pretty far down the list. Rock comes charging back in, and he and Hogan dispatch the now two man nWo pretty quickly. And with that, the nWo experiment in the WWF was fatally undermined: it already looks like another burial/victory lap for Vince McMahon over a former ratings adversary.

Hogan goes to leave, but Rock calls him back to do some posing, to the crowds delight. I’m sure Jericho and Triple H were backstage watching this wondering why in hell it was decided they go on after. Well, at least Jericho was wondering. Hogan and Rock leave together, and there’s a definite moment where Rock quietly checks if Hogan is OK, the man looks completely out of gas. Posing at the top of the ramp, and Hogan raises The Rock’s hand. Rock looks genuinely moved by that.

Meanwhile, in WWF New York, your WWF Superstar in residence for the night is The Big Show. He pals around with some kids, before Finkel gets to announce a new attendance record of 68’237 for the Skydome. Is that the real number or the kayfabe number? Onto the bathroom break (and I say that with sadness).

Jazz (c) vs Lita vs Trish Stratus (Triple Threat) (WWF Women’s Championship)

Think this was pretty much the entire womens division at the time really, bar Molly I guess? Ivory and Jacqueline were still around, but mostly for house show appearances as I recall. Trish gets the hometown cheer as she comes out in Maple Leaf garb. Lita attacks before Stratus gets to the ring. This is presumably going to be quick.

Lita and Jazz brawling, Stratus in, and the two Fed veterans briefly team to beatdown the champ. Jazz back with kicks and slaps, then locks on a half-Boston Crab on Trish before Lita breaks it up. Modified Torture Lock on Lita, then a leg drop gets two. Stratus kicked out of the ring, Lita reverses a mounted position into one of her own, then a slow-ass rana spot sends Jazz down. Whip into the corner, modified Black Hole Slam that looked rather clumsy, two. Jazz no-selling, Lita set-up on the top as guys in the crowd wolf-whistle. Jazz looking for a superplex until Trish takes her down in an Electric Chair position, and Jazz just falls off her in a way that doesn’t look safe for anyone.

Trish with a roll-up for two, then rolls through a Lita crossbody for two. Kick to head from Stratus to Lita, then the Stratusfaction but Jazz breaks up the count. Heading to finishers early. King talking about puppets as Jazz hits a splash on Lita for two, a Fisherman’s Suplex on Trish that Lita breaks up. Stratus back with a reverse DDT, Lita breaks up the pin again. Lita and Trish team up just long enough to floor Jazz, then slug it out with each other. Lita gives a back body-drop where Stratus spins in the air, landing on her front legs first, looked very ugly. Looking for the Twist of Fate, Stratus out of it, and Lita hits it on Jazz instead. Scoop Slam to Trish, Lita appears to get into trouble as she tries to pull her top off, to King’s disappointment, and she heads to the top with it still on, that gets a few boos. The ensuing Moonsault is badly whiffed, but they play it as Trish getting the knees up. Roll-up for two, and this could do with an ending soon.

Trish with chops, one of which is very badly whiffed, Lita coming back but then floored on a shoulder charge. Jazz back up, kicks out of a backslide and sends Trish down with a clothesline before being back body-dropped out of the ring by Lita. Lita shoves Stratus into the corner and out she goes, Jazz back in, Lita to the top, but then given a shot by Trish. Jazz kicks Trish to the floor, follows Lita up and hits an Avalanche Fisherman’s Suplex for the 1, 2, 3 in under six-and-a-half.

Winner (and still WWF Womens Champion): Jazz, the best of a general mess.

Verdict: Sloppy, sometimes dangerously so, and not an ounce of heat in this one. Womens wrestling is heading to a darker place at this time, after getting a brief peek at the sun during the Attitude Era. No one covered themselves in glory here.

Backstage, Christian heads for his cab celebrating with the Hardcore Title, only for Maven to sneak up with a ref and roll him up for the 1, 2, 3.

New WWF Hardcore Champion: Maven

Maven leaps into the cab and drives off, leaving Christian doing his tantrum thing on the pavement. I know the Hardcore Title doesn’t have a great history in the next little while before it is deactivated, but this was all a lot of fun.

Fink intros the main event, which doesn’t get a video package, I guess they were happy enough with the Drowning Pool performance earlier? Shame, because this feud had one my all-time favourite soap opera plots, with Stephanie’s faked pregnancy, Triple H’s freakout at their vow renewal, all the stuff about their dog, it was golden. Of course it did make Jericho a bit of a sideshow to the usual McMahon family drama, but what can you do?

Chris Jericho (c) w/Stephanie McMahon vs Triple H (WWF Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship)

Confession time: I’ve never seen this match. The bootleg tape I had of this show cut out with the womens match, and I’ve never gone back and watched it, so I have certain level of fascination here. Drowning Pool here to play another song for Triple H’s entrance, and it’s as bad as the first performance really, just the lyrics are even more unintelligible (except for repeated “Here comes the Game”. Nothing will ever beat Motorhead’s botch job the previous year. Out comes the man himself, left leg taped up, and would presume along with the rest of the wrestling watching world that going on last was his idea/insistence. Seeing Y2J with Stephanie will always be weird, considering their usual dynamic. Jericho out with the two belts, and I believe this is the last night before they came up with a new single gold belt? This will also be Jericho’s only Mania main event. JR and King spending a lot of time talking about Stephanie, so guess what the story of the match will be?

“Go get him Chris” says Steph as the bell rings. Jericho looking for that leg straight away, and the words “injured leg” haven’t left JR’s mouth when the mikes pick up Stephanie’s screaming “Go for the leg Chris!”. Just so no-one is in any doubt as to what the in-ring story will be I guess. Lock-up, into the corner, and Jericho swiping desperately at the leg. Break, Triple H with a hard clothesline, and again. Hits his high knee, and clutches his leg after. Kind of over-egging it now. Goes after Jericho again, and gets back body-dropped out for his trouble. Jericho to the top, but intercepted and launched off and into the barricade. Into the ring post, and Triple H starts setting up the Spanish announce table for a spot. Crowd is dead by the way.

Jericho back with kicks to the leg and back in. Takedown, more kicks to the leg, but the Game back with a spear takedown and punches. Elbow drop on Y2J’s leg, then a few kicks of his own. Jericho gets some room with a thumb to the eye, but then walks into a knee drop. Triple H locks on a Figure 4, but Steph able to reach in and dig her finger nails into his husband’s eyes as the ref is looking elsewhere. Game lets go of the hold, drags Stephanie onto the apron, then dodges a Jericho charge so Steph takes it instead, and that gets the biggest crowd reaction of this match so far. Tripe H puts Stephanie in the ring, looking for a Pedigree, and Jericho with a missile drop-kick for the save. Whiff of desperation off that spot, like they know they can’t get the crowd going otherwise.

Stephanie kicking Triple H’s leg at ringside while Hebner is distracted, then Jericho back at it. Non-stop targeting of the leg, come on now. Knee smash, then Jericho slaps on a Figure 4 through the ringpost, ala Bret Hart/Austin and if you think that’s going to get the crowd going you are mistaken. Hebner breaks it up, back in, some shockingly mild crowd reaction to “Come on, baby!”. Drop toe-hold, more working over of the leg with elbow drops, jerks, locks and I swear it sounds like the crowd is chanting “Hogan”. Triple H ducks a clothesline and hits a neckbreaker, clothesline, two. Knee smash, awkward counter-throw on a Jericho charge, then a big spinebuster for two. HHH whipped right up and out of the ring, and he can pull that spot off better than Flair anyway.

Jericho setting up the English announce table now, Stephanie distracting Earl for some reason, Jericho and Triple H onto the table, and looking for the Walls. “This is going to do it here if he turns” says King, apparently forgetting there are no falls outside of the ring. Triple H fights out of it, looking for the Pedigree, but then back body-dropped through the Spanish table to a very mild pop. Hebner only starts counting now for some reason. JR suggests the ref should stop the match, and King replys “You can’t stop a classic like this” and wow that is an oversell. Jericho hits a Lionsault, two, and goes for the Walls again, but Triple H fights out of it. Looking for a Pedigree, taken down instead, and now we get the Walls of Jericho. When was the last time anyone tapped out to this? The Game gets to the ropes after surviving a hand drop spot and a pullback, as we see Jericho is bleeding from the mouth.

Jericho is annoyed and grabs a chair. Steph trying to distract, but the Game with a big boot as Jericho goes for a chair shot. DDT on the chair, but Jericho kicks out at the last moment. You’d think that would be the moment for a distraction. Stephanie into the ring to grab the chair, but Hebner pulls it off her. Steph gives him a shove, Triple H has her by the hair, and the crowd comes alive as he nails a Pedigree, and to Stephanie’s credit it’s a full-on one. I wonder if that will come up in the divorce proceedings? As Hebner checks on her Jericho nails a big chair shot that is so loud the ref must have heard it, but it doesn’t matter because of course Triple H kicks out.

Jericho looking for a Pedigree now, but countered into a catapult. Jericho lands on the second rope, second rope nothing, and Triple H hits the Pedigree OUTTANOWHERE for the pin in just over 18-and-a-half.

Winner (and new WWF Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion): “That badass sonofabitch” has JR says. Is this Haitch’s only face title win?

Verdict: Dead crowd, dull in-ring story, only big moments involved Stephanie’s interference, very sudden finish. Very unexceptional given this is meant to be a PPV main event, never mind a Wrestlemania main event.

Triple H celebrates with his belts as JR desperately tries to sell this as a truly epic moment.

Post PPV summation video to “Superstar”, but it’s the live version for some Godforsaken reason.

Best Match: I hate to say it, but the opener, Regal and RVD brought it in a way so many people down the card didn’t.

Best Wrestler: I’ll go for Rock, he carried Hogan to a better than expected match and milked the crowd reaction just right.

Worst Match: A few options, but I will go for Taker/Flair. One sided, a few botches, and Flair simply can’t go.

Worst Wrestler: Scott Hall, but luckily for WWF he won’t be a problem for much longer.

Overall Verdict: Very below average Mania in my opinion. There’s no flat-out classics here at all, with Hogan/Rock a required watch but more for the aura around it and the crowd than what happened in the ring. Main event was a bust, too many humdrum or bad matches in the rest of the card. Given that it comes after X7, this show is actually pretty close to just bad, with only Regal/RVD, Angle/Kane, Edge/Booker and the Hardcore hi-jinks to really save it. Not recommended.

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Review: Nomadland

Nomadland

Trailer

Lots of shots like this actually.

It is a bit strange, perhaps just a by-product of the inevitable bubble that forms when you are in isolation, but I had never heard of this film before it started hoovering up awards. Usually the Oscar-bait is out in my country around January/February, so it tends to rocket up the attention charts at that time, but in the absence of that traditional season it was only after it made all of its gong headlines that I was made aware of Chloe Zhao’s feature. And, truth be told, it isn’t something I would probably have gone hugely out of my way to see in normal circumstances either, seeming to me to be one of those sorts of movies trying a bit too hard to appeal to academy voters, with a strong whiff of misery-porn at the same time.

But Nomadland is one of those films that I happen to have already paid to see, what with Disney’s absorption of Fox Searchlight and my Disney+ account. As such I was inclined to give it a bit more notice than I might otherwise have done, and what I saw was undoubtedly interesting: only a few actual actors, a lot of “As Him/Herself” additions and a premise that cuts to the heart of the realities inherent with late stage capitalism. On the other hand, much like its main character I suppose, Nomadland also looked a little directionless and unsure of what message it wanted to deliver, at least from the promotional materials I saw. Was it every bit the medium-defining entry of the year? Or just another Bohemian Rhapsody, here to get its statuettes before everyone realises the truth?

Fern (Frances McDormand), having lost her livelihood and her home to the Great Recession, becomes a modern-day nomad, living in her van and travelling between short-term jobs throughout the year. Her journey through the American West brings her into contact with a great number of disparate people in a similar situation, supporting each other as best they can, as she considers what she wants her future to be.

I think I do often find myself saying that a film is “interesting”, which can probably be misinterpreted on its own. It’s the kind of thing you say about a project that you didn’t like, but don’t want to slate too much. But it really does fit here. Nomadland is an interesting movie, telling the story of a very unique topic in a very interesting way. It’s the sort of film I would very easily recommend for that reason alone. But it wasn’t a film that I can say I really enjoyed as much as so many others have. I suppose I have fallen into the trap. I didn’t especially like Nomadland, but I don’t want to slate it too much either.

The heart of the issue that I have might just be that this isn’t a piece of dramatised reality, it’s a factual picture. It just so happens that the person we are following around on this documentary journey is fictional. Like a deadly-serious Borat, Frances McDormand’s Fern travels around America, hitting Amazon distribution centres, trailer parks, ghost towns, extremes of weather and extremes of human kindness, and she does it all while meeting real people who are, quite literally, playing themselves. They outline their stories, what drove them to their existence, they talk about their trauma in the past and whatever hopes they have for the future. If Fern had a mike and a camera you’d be taking Best Documentary for Nomadland, not Best Picture (apparently at least some of the people who “star” in the film were unaware McDormand was an actor, which raises all sorts of ethical questions for me).

This inevitably, in my eyes, results in the film having a very odd, and frankly uneasy, feel to it. It’s very hard to marry this kind of faux-documentation with what we can describe as a character study of Fern, at least when the contrast isn’t being used for comedy purposes. I found some of the documentary part of affairs to be very moving, in moments where Fern allows some of the people she meets on the road – remember, people playing themselves – to talk about their lives. There’s a on old woman with a terminal diagnosis re-tracing steps of previous journeys, a man who helps others in the nomad lifestyle because of his grief for a son who took his own life, a youngster who is scared of committing to a woman and a grounded life and is thus considering a different outcome on the open road. Anyone of these moments is effecting enough, and Nomadland is a powerful way for these people to talk about their lives and the manner in which they have come to consciously choose to forgo a life in a house.

But then the dramatisation part of things consistently cuts in, and I felt almost like I was watching an unwelcome voyeur in the form of Fern, looking in on these real people and their real lives and their real pains, while undertaking her own fictional life and fictional problems (of course it’s based on real events, but Fern’s more personal plot is far more “based on a true story” in depiction than the rest of the film’s more literal and real “characters”). She has her own soul-searching to do, now absent a deceased husband, with what was their home now a ghost town when the local mine shut and struggling to get by on the road, between flat tires and bad weather. McDormand is great, her usual understated self, settling in to the part and the easy camaraderie she has with others. She has an ability to portray pain and emotional fatigue that I think only Mads Mikkelsen is able to replicate in the profession. It helps the character that she also has recurring interactions with David Strathairn, the only other actor of consequence in the production, whose Dave constitutes a sort-of quasi-love interest/road not taken for Fern. That plot is depicted in simple, but effective terms, with Dave another traveler on the road with some deep wells behind him we only get to really touch on all too briefly.

It does make America look beautiful.

But, it just doesn’t fit with what the rest of Nomadland is. When, near the end of the film, some of the “cast” sit around a fire and mourn a recently dead comrade, Fern’s involvement feels fundamentally wrong, a Cuckoo in a nest of all-too real anguish and attempting to make that anguish something noble. The dichotomy was just too much for me to handle. I would have liked Nomadland the documentary or Nomadland the drama, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like Nomadland, the docudrama. Like Operation Varsity Blues, it’s a mesh that too often ends up creating something that is worst of both worlds and best of none.

The other thing is that I had trouble grasping just what point the film was trying to make with its main character, especially at the end. It’s a literal year in the life of Fern, as she goes from winter all the way round to another one, beginning in the newly ghosted town of Empire and ending there too. In the interim we get the portrait of a woman who, having put down roots once before and saw them destroyed, seems inherently unable to put down more. Fern returns to Empire in the conclusion of the piece, to wander through its deserted streets, workplaces and her own home. I sense that Zhao is trying to imbue a feeling that you can’t go home again, not after what Fern has been through, but the presentation felt needlessly obtuse, and more in the line of something trying to appear full of depth than actually having it.

The film, for me, is a pretty savage takedown on capitalism and everything that results from it. Much has been made of how Zhao was able to get cameras inside an actual Amazon warehouse without giving that behemoth both barrels – it’s depicted instead as decent seasonal work, with Fern impressed with the money she is able to make there – but the larger scope of the picture is undeniably hostile to the sort of socio-economic state that Amazon is representative of. It’s a world where the old and the nearly-old, their safety nets destroyed by factors far outside of their control, choose to live a precarious existence on the road, with the state that is meant to care for them looking the other way. Zhao may not mention Trump or the 1% directly, but all we need is a glare Fern gives her estate agent brother-in-law to get the subtext.

Other than that, it’s a pretty savage depiction of loss, whether it is the human kind or the home kind, with everyone encountered in the course of Nomadland carrying some kind of loss with them. In some cases they are fleeing from that pain, others – those who embrace the lifestyle out of a desire for independence, to be able to “take care of your own shit” – deal with it better. This fluid lifestyle, where you never say goodbye to the loved or lost, just that you will “see them down the road” has a natural appeal. Nomadland has no shortage of such themes with which to try and play around with, and sometimes it does say some very timely and engaging things, but it never is able to get beyond the above-mentioned issue: shots at the ruined American Dream just don’t land right when the film can’t get clear in what kind of presentation it wants to make those shots. It also undercuts itself pretty decisively with certain aspects of the narrative, namely that both Fern and Dave, the two fictional nomads, have the option to live under a roof if they so choose, Fern with her well-off sister and Dave with his son’s family: this makes the characters look pretty bad next to the real people who lack such access to privilege.

Nomadland does look good. I’m not terribly familiar with Zhao, but she directs a visually engaging production, one that is at pains to capture the fullness of the American interior, in every desert, every snowstorm, every sea vista and in every little scrap of nowhere that becomes home to a horde of camper vans and RV’s. The style of documentary is evident in many dialogue heavy scenes, with only those involving fully fictionalised characters carrying the sort of framing you would expect from something nominally outside of that genre. In a way I suppose this contributes to the feeling of disquiet that I described above, but it’s more dismissable I suppose. Zhao does a good job, in line with McDormand’s performance, of making us see how something like the cramped space of Fern’s vehicle can actually become a home, filled with the sort of accouterments and lived-in feeling that such a term requires, while leaving room for the realities of mobile living. It takes inspiration here and there – the closing frame seems a very deliberate nod to The Searchers for example – but forms a very pleasant cinematography piece. The humans are the small part of the world here: reflecting the experience of isolation brought on us by the pandemic, probably unintentionally (like Sea Fever), Nomadland finds something powerful to say here too.

Like I said at the top, I feel like the best that I can do for Nomadland is to come back to my “interesting” descriptor. The film is undoubtedly that, for its subject matter of nothing else: one suspects that the ranks of modern-day nomads are only likely to increase, and perhaps explode, after this one. McDormand is great, but of course you didn’t really need me to tell you that. But so much else of Nomadland simply did not work for me, the dual effort to be both drama and documentary being the biggest offender. I can understand why so many people have found Nomadland a captivating experience, but it wasn’t able to captivate me. That’s no sin of course, and there’s enough to appreciate in the film that I didn’t feel any resentment towards it. But it is not the be all and end all of 2021. Not recommended.

Oh, they’ve got this all wrong. It’s “No, mad land”.

(All images are copyright of Searchlight Pictures).

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