Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Nick Windworth in The Man in Grey

DP 2

The shop bell chimed and a young woman entered. Nick guessed she was in her mid twenties; pretty, though less than she might be. Her fair young face was worn with anxiety and her light brown hair was tangled, probably from the number of times she’d run her fingers through it. She looked anxiously around the shop, then approached the counter in an uncertain manner.

“Well?” said Nick in a gruff tone that suggested she was interrupting something important. “Can I help you?”

“I…I’m here to see Mr. Eickstein?”

“He’s busy. What do you want?”

“Uh, I…I think I ought to speak to him personally…”

“I’m his partner,” said Nick. “Anything you can say to him you can say to me.”

She looked him over for a moment, as though trying to gauge his threat level. He was neared forty than thirty, with round shoulders and a slightly drooping face that somehow made him look a lot smaller than he really was. He wore a dirty old suit and tie, while a battered felt hat hung on the peg by the register. To all appearances, Nick very well might have been the junior partner of a low-rent pawnshop.

The woman swallowed and squared her narrow shoulders.

“I’ve come to redeem a necklace,” she said with more conviction that before.

“Oh?”

“My name Linda Hauge.”

“Oh! I see,” he said, nodding as if he’d been expecting her. Nick opened the logbook and ran his thumb down the figures.

“Hauge: one antique necklace for five-hundred twenty-three dollars. Is that right?”

“Yes,” she said.

Nick checked the tags and found the necklace, but he didn’t hand it to her.

“You have the money, I presume?”

Linda Hauge swallowed.

“No,” she said. “At least,” she added hastily. “Not all of it. But you see, I need that necklace for tonight.”

“Well, that’s awkward,” said Nick. “You need the necklace, I need the five-hundred twenty-three dollars.”

“The thing is, my husband doesn’t know I pawned it,” she explained. “It was…we were desperate. Now he has a new job and things are going well, but his parents are coming in tonight, and it’s a family heirloom, so they will want to see me wearing it, and if I don’t…they’ll be so angry with me. They – they were against our marriage in the first place and this…”

She swallowed, blinked a tear out of her eye and reached into her purse.

“I have three hundred and seventy four dollars,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been able to save thus far. I will get you the rest, I swear, but I need to have it back tonight.”

She placed the roll of cash on the table. Nick looked from her to the money, as though thinking about it. He picked up the cash and deliberately counted it. Mrs. Hauge waited with baited breath.

“Forget it,” he said.

“But…”

“I mean, forget the rest,” said Nick, taking the money and pushing the necklace across to her.

“I…what?”

“You take the jewelry, I’ll take the money, and we’ll call it even,” he said. “I’ll mark your account as closed. But only on one condition.”

Mrs. Hauge, who had been looking stunned and eager, now suddenly shied.

“What condition?” she asked.

“That you never come near this shop again,” he said. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “If anyone ever found out that we’d done this for you, our business would be over. Understand? So don’t ever let me catch you anywhere near here again, and don’t you dare mention this to anyone.”

“I won’t!” she said eagerly. “I swear, I never…Oh, thank you, thank you so much!”

“Damn,” he said, handing her the necklace with a wink. “And here I thought I was heartless.”

She took it, and to his surprise suddenly kissed him on the cheek before rushing out of the shop.

Nick “Breezy” Windworth rubbed the spot where she’d kissed him, sighed, shrugged, marked the Linda Hauge account as closed, and then put the roll of money into his pocket.

The truth was, Nick didn’t work in that little shop. He didn’t exactly work at all these days. He got by on his quick wits and quicker fingers: picking pockets, forging checks, running low-level schemes when he thought he could get away with it, that sort of thing. In a word, he was a crook. Today’s excursion to the pawnshop was one of those endeavors, though the arrival of Mrs. Hauge had been an unexpected complication. Still, she’d seemed satisfied with the results and he was quite sure Eickstein never would have let her off the hook that easily, so he decided he’d count it on the positive side in that night’s examination of conscience.

Nick didn’t think of himself as a particularly dishonest man…at least, no more than anyone else. One thing life had taught him thus far was that practically everyone lied, everyone cheated, and everyone was mostly out for what they could get. Nick was just willing to play the game with a straight face. Besides, he wasn’t nearly as bad as some he could name: he was just trying to get by, not out to reach some imaginary summit by turning his fellow creatures into stepping stones.

Right now, though, Nick wasn’t really considering any of this; he just wanted to get out of the shop before another customer arrived, as he didn’t think he could square two such missions of mercy in one day. He came out from behind the counter and head for the door, intending to turn the sign on the door from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ and leave, but a man walked in before he’d quite reached it.

He was not a tall man, nor especially large. He was, in fact, almost wholly unremarkable in appearance. He had sandy brown hair, was about ten years younger than Nick, and to judge from his gray suit might have been anything from a lawyer to an office worker. But what struck Nick most of all, from the moment he laid eyes on him, was the way the man carried himself; that confident, cool, predatory poise that comes to men sure of their own power.

It was something Nick was all too familiar with.

Adjusting at once to the new situation, Nick converted his path to the door into a path to adjust a clock that stood on an antique dresser, then turned to meet his new customer.

“Can I help you?” he said.

The man looked at Nick with pale blue eyes. Those eyes made Nick’s blood run cold, but he met them steadily, opting to appear too dense to recognize their expression.

“Where’s Eikstein?” he asked.

“Sick in bed,” Nick answered. “Name’s Elijah Gould: I’m his partner.”

The man in grey frowned at him.

“I’m here to pick up a package,” he said. “Mr. Mistretta said you’d have one for me.”

Nick raised his eyebrows and whistled.

“Well, if it’s for Mr. Mistretta, then we’d better find it,” he said. Though all his instinct screamed against the move, he turned his back on the man and bustled behind the counter, adopting a somewhat lopping walk as though he weren’t used to much activity.

“Surprised he didn’t mention it to me,” Nick went on. “But then, he’s not got the best memory in the world, you know; he doesn’t write something down, he doesn’t know anything about it.”

Morris Eickstein’s bad memory had been why Nick had decided to attempt this angle in the first place. Well, that and his bad temper and habit of charging customers almost double what he’d paid them for their pawned goods. An unfortunate hand of cards had created something of a set-back in Nick’s plans to finally get out of LA and set up shop somewhere far away; further than San Francisco or San Ignatio. Maybe Houston, or St. Louis, or New Orleans. Anywhere no one would know his name and he could start over.

Nick had calculated the amount of money he would need for the move, and had almost gotten there too…until that cheat Lenny Sorrell had started clearing him out. Fortunately Nick had the sense to know when to get out of a game and hadn’t thrown all his cash away, but it had been enough to set his plans back quite a ways.

That’s when he’d hit on the pawn shop angle: pawn his watch, the only valuable thing he owned, get the money, then a few days later come back and reacquire it, crossing out the account in the process. Nick had a handy little gadget he’d borrowed from a locksmith friend, with which he’d made a copy of the shop key before the owner had even realized it was gone. Eickstein’s on coming flu – a pure stroke of luck – had helped with this, and the rest was just a matter of watching the shop until the day he didn’t come in. Now, thanks to both Mr. Eickstein and Mrs. Hauge, he had all he needed and more, and he just wanted to get out of there and start pulling up his stakes.

Instead, he found himself obliged to fill and order for the scariest gangster in Northern LA and what was apparently his pet psychopath. That was just his luck, but then if he could rely on luck, he probably wouldn’t have become a crook.

“You couldn’t possibly describe what you’re looking for?” Nick asked after a few minutes’ searching behind the counter.

“You don’t need to know that,” said the man in grey.

“Kinda do if I’m gonna give it to you,” said Nick. “Like I say, he didn’t write anything down. Suppose that was the idea, but it leaves us in kind of an awkward position, don’t it?”

The man considered a moment more.

“It’s a gas canister.” He said. “About a foot long. Green. Unmarked. Check the back.”

Nick nodded and went into the back room, searching along the shelves. As he did so, he was thinking. Who was this guy? What did he want with this cylinder, and why all the secrecy? What was Mistretta up to?

He soon found what he was looking for; an unmarked, dark green gas canister, but he kept pretending to search a while longer, concocting a plan.

Finally, deciding he could delay no longer, he picked up the cylinder and returned to the main shop.

There she is,” he said. “It was tucked back behind a box labled ‘cleaning supplies.’ Go figure. So, is there a charge for that, or…”

“More of an exchange,” said the man. “You hand it over and don’t mention this to anyone, and you don’t have anything to worry about. Understand?”

“Perfectly,” said Nick, handing the canister over. “I know how to keep a secret, and who not to get on the bad side of.”

The man in grey said nothing, but took the canister and tucked it inside his suit (which was evidently tailored for such a conveyance).

“Anything else I can get for you?” Nick asked, coming out from around the counter as though to offer one of the items on a distant shelf. “We have some lovely…”

“No,” said the man in grey. “Nothing more.”

Nick looked at him, seemed to hesitate, and then nodded as though resigned.

“All right,” he said. “I hope you’ll come again, though.”

He went and opened the door for the man, standing on the near side of it as though to hold it in place with his body. The man gave him an inscrutable look, then passed out, just brushing against him as he went.

As soon as the man was out of sight, Nick locked the door, changed the sign to ‘closed’ and hastened out the back way. Clutched in his hand was a neatly folded envelope that had come from the man in grey’s pocket. He didn’t know how long it would take for the man in grey to notice his loss, but once he did he’d probably know exactly what happened and Nick meant to be far away beforehand.

About a quarter hour later, having travelled down three streets and four alleyways to end up in a run-down diner just coming off of the breakfast rush, Nick ordered himself a coffee, selected a booth with a good view of the door, and sat down to study his find.

It wasn’t much; a photograph and a strip of paper. The photograph showed a pretty, smiling Asian girl of about fifteen or sixteen, he guessed. She looked like a nice kid. The paper had a few terse words written on it:

St. Andrews. 332. Five-thirty.

Nick sipped his coffee, thinking. St. Andrews was a hospital. ‘332’ was probably a room number, and five-thirty was obviously a time…though there was no date, so that could be five-thirty today or tomorrow or next week, morning or evening…no, more likely today, if this is what the cylinder was for.

As for what would happen at five-thirty in room 332 to this girl, he had known that from the moment the man in grey walked into the shop.

Nick hadn’t always been a small-time crook. Back when he was young – strange to think of that now – he’d been around quite a lot; he’d gone to Vietnam with the first wave and stayed for the duration and a little after, did a lot of things with and without official approval, and met a lot of people. Over the years, he’d gotten to classifying people rather like how a taxonomist classifies animals, and by this time he could pretty well tell the genus and species of a man within a few minutes of meeting him. But people like the man in grey he’d learned to spot almost at once. They were predators, and the rest of the world was prey to them.

Mistretta was like that too. Nick had only met the gangster once or twice, but that was enough for him to know to steer well clear of the man. Mistretta was pretty small time compared to the big crime syndicates – Gallano, for instance – specializing in protection rackets, money laundering, and car thefts. Strictly local crimes, but anything that fell under that category answered to Mistretta.

And apparently he wanted the man in grey to murder this girl. The canister, no doubt, had something to do with that. That probably meant it was happening today.

Nick sighed and checked his watch. Assuming the man in grey stuck to the schedule, that left him about eight hours to work. He’d done more with less.

###

            Nick’s first move was to start the information train rolling. To that end, he headed straight for the place that was the secret of his success: the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A good con-artist required two things; the right attitude and the right information. The former he had for free, but the latter required a reliable source and usually a fair amount of cash. Nick’s primary source for most things was a middle-aged, three-hundred-pound tiger whose parents, showing an appalling lack of foresight, had christened Angel Sue Lewee. Had they been more prescient, they probably would have called her “Cerberus.” Like that creature, she was terrifying and indomitable, but could be appeased with the correct type of gift. In her case, that gift tended to be money.

Nick found her, as usual, terrifying some poor citizen who was taking his written driver’s test.

“You think the yellow line means passing allowed?” she snapped, smearing a great line of red across the paper. “Why not do us all a favor and drive yourself into a tree on your way home? Then at least you won’t take anyone else with you.”

“Angel, my angel!” Nick said as the would-be driver beat a hasty retreat from the gorgon. “You’re looking radiant this morning!”

Angel snorted like an irritable bison.

“Cut the crap; what do you want, Breezy?”

“Information,” said Nick, passing her a roll of bills. “And it’s for a very good cause this time.”

“Bull,” she answered, flipping through to confirm they were all the correct denomination before pocketing them. “Your last good cause was a pyramid scheme.”

“Serious this time,” said Nick. “I need you to look and see if you can find anything at all on this girl, and particularly who her parents are and any known connections to crime or criminal organizations.”

He handed her the photograph. She looked at it, then glared suspiciously at him.

“Isn’t she a little young for you?”

“Yes, but this is business, not romance. Besides, you know you’re the only woman for me, Angel.” Then, adopting a more serious expression, he explained. “I think the girl’s in danger and I want to find out why.”

Angel frowned, evidently surprised to see this side of him.

“You serious, Breezy?”

“Serious as can be,” he answered. “I need it as soon as you can, and if you need more cash just name your price.”

“Wow, you are serious,” she said. “You have a name?”

“No, not yet. What me to let you know if I get one?”

“Don’t bother; I’ll probably have it faster than you.”

“Then you’ll do it?”

She considered with a noise like a bear weighing the pros and cons of raiding a campsite

“Fine, I’ll see what I can dig up. But you better not be lying!”

“That hurts, Angel; it really does.”

She snorted. “What are you gonna do in the meantime?”

“If I knew, I’d tell you,” he sighed, walking off with a wave.

Nick didn’t doubt she’d find out what he needed. If you wanted to know all there was to know about someone, the best source in the world was an unscrupulous civil servant with an intimidating personality. Angel didn’t technically have access to the city records, but that had never stopped her in the past. She wasn’t the kind of woman that people generally said ‘no’ to. She’d come through. In the meantime, he needed to double check that the girl was still alive and make sure she stayed that way until he could figure out why someone wanted her dead. To that end, upon leaving the DMV, he headed straight for the hospital.

It is very, very tricky to pretend to be a doctor. You need to be very precise in the personality you convey, as well as have a pretty good basic knowledge of the subject and an air of authority so that you can delegate anything you don’t know.

Pretending to be an orderly, on the other hand, that’s much easier. All you have to do is put on the right uniform and always be carrying something about with a look of purpose.

In this way, with a bundle of towels taken from a supply rack, Nick made his way to room 332. The tag on the door read “Jenny Chen.” He knocked and entered in proper hospital fashion.

It was her alright. She sat propped up in bed, reading a book, looking distinctly paler and more worn than she had in her photograph (unsurprising, since no one looked their best in hospitals). However, she looked up and smiled at him as he came in.

“Excuse me a minute,” he said. “I just need to change the towels.”

“Thanks,” she said in a slightly croaking voice that suggested throat trouble. “But I think they just did that.”

“Really? Well, can’t hurt to do it again. That’s how things work around here; hasn’t been used, so we might as well clean it.”

She laughed, which brought on a brief fit of coughing.

“How’re you feeling today?” he asked as he replaced the towels.

“Better,” she said. “Doctor Johns says I can go home tomorrow. I just wish this hadn’t happened in the middle of soccer season.”

He smiled. As he thought, a nice kid.

Now the question was how he’d keep her alive long enough to go home. That and why anyone would be trying to murder her in the first place.

He abandoned the unsoiled towels in a likely-looking receptacle and descended to one of the employee exits in the back of the building, still thinking. He wondered whether Angel had found out anything yet, and whether the man in grey had yet discovered his loss and, if so, how he had reacted to it.

The latter question was abruptly and unexpectedly answered when Nick, turning the corner on his way from the hospital, was suddenly struck hard on the back of the head and knew no more.

###

            Consciousness slowly returned, bringing with it a throbbing headache and a vague sense of paralysis. The vagueness became sharp when the process was accelerated by a sharp knock on the head. Nick blinked into the veiled light coming through a plastic-covered window and saw that he was in an empty room that looked like it was destined to one day be an apartment, but hadn’t yet made the grade. He was handcuffed and tied to a metal chair, and a breath mask had been strapped over his nose and mouth. A tube ran from the mask to what he was unpleasantly certain was a heavy-duty shop vac.

Two men shared the room with him. One was the man in grey, who stood by the vacuum, glaring at him with silent malevolence. The other was Tony Mistretta.

“Welcome back, Breezy,” he said.

Mistretta was not a large man, but he conveyed an unmistakable sense of power. He was square and compact, with a hard eye and probably no an ounce of body fat on him.

“So, Breezy,” he said. “I hear you been spying on my boy, Serjy, here.”

He nodded to the man in grey.

“’Spying’ is such an ugly word,” said Nick. “More of an accidental point of interest.”

Serjy flipped a switch on the shop vac. Nick immediately closed his air passages as best he could, but still the wind was sucked from his lungs and he couldn’t draw breath to replace it. His body spasmed painfully against his bounds, but his mind remained oddly clear, speculating in a strange, detached way whether they meant to kill him outright or just to torture him for a bit. Strangely enough, he was more curious than frightened. Death didn’t seem to matter that much…

Then the vacuum was turned off and air, blessed air, returned, along with a body-wide ache and a sick, dry sensation in the mouth. His sense of detachment was suddenly gone; now the important thing was to keep the air coming, because air was good.

Serjy turned on the vacuum again, and the whole terrible ordeal started over, except now the detachment was gone. He wanted air, wanted it badly, desperately.

Again it was turned off, and again he gasped for breath, with that nasty sense of dryness in the mouth.

“What were you doing in that shop?” Mistretta asked. “We checked with Eickstein; you don’t work there. He doesn’t have a partner.”

Nick drew a deep breath.

“I had been minding my own business,” he answered. “Your boy walks in and asks for a gas canister, so I gave it to him. Simple as that.”

“Then you picked his pocket,” Mistretta added.

“I…”

The vacuum was turned on again. This time Nick felt darkness creeping around the edge of his vision before it was turned off and he was allowed to breathe.

“You picked his pocket, going straight for his instructions from me, and I’m supposed to believe you met by coincidence?”

This was not a good development. Mistretta now had an idea in his head about how Nick had become involved: an erroneous idea. He thought that Nick had somehow planned the whole thing from the beginning, possibly to get to him, which would imply Nick was working for or with someone for their own ends.

Now, when a man has the wrong picture of a situation in normal life, it’s usually pretty hard to convince him of the fact, especially if his false view includes a ready made reason you might be lying. When he’s a ruthless criminal in the process of torturing and probably murdering you, on the other hand, it’s all but impossible. That was part of the trouble of torture: it’s so easy to get wrapped up in preconceptions that you don’t profit by anything you actually hear.

“Well,” Nick said, playing along. “Maybe not a complete coincidence…”

Mistretta grinned.

“That’s better. Now, why don’t we start with just how much you already know?”

Cautious devil. Best to try to ascertain what the subject knows before you ask him anything else in case you end up telling him more than he tells you.

“Well,” said Nick. “Quite a bit. I know the kings of England, and can quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical…”

The vacuum was turned on again, but only for a moment.

“I meant what do you know about my operations,” said Mistretta.

Not so much as the ghost of a smile or the trace of recognition. Uncultured thugs.

“We know the obvious,” Nick answered. “You’re Tony Mistretta, you run just about everything there is to run outside the drug trade in this end of town. Lately you’ve taken to hiring Mr. Personality over here to murder innocent little girls, which, I have to say, we think is pretty low.”

Mistretta grinned.

“I’m sure you do. So, who is ‘we’ here?”

“My friends and I,” said Nick. Then, taking a shot in the dark, he added. “Some of us also suspect that you might be in, shall we say, an expansionary phase?”

“Oh, is that what you think?” Mistretta with a grin, spotting the obvious ploy.

“Well, you know what they say, Mr. Mistretta; you’re either growing or your dying. Me, I’m of the other camp: I think you’re dying and that killing Jenny Chen is an act of desperation. I mean, why else take the risk?”

“There is no risk,” said Mistretta hotly. “You think I’m weak? You think I’m falling apart? I’m on my way to the top! In another week, no one’ll be able to touch me, you understand?”

As he had thought, Nick had hit a nerve.

“I guess that proves me wrong, but then why kill the girl? What’d she ever do to you?”

“Not a damn thing,” said Mistretta. “I don’t know her from Adam, and you know what that means? No motive. No motive, no risk. Simple as that.”

He wiped a bead of sweat away from his forehead, then checked his watch.

“Damn, I’ll be late,” he said. “Leave him here, Serjy. We’ll find out the rest when I get back. Meanwhile, stick to the plan.”

Serjy nodded, then turned the vacuum back on for a moment just out of spite.

Nick was thus left alone in the room, exhausted, but more importantly unguarded. For a moment, he contented himself with breathing the sweet, sweet air, refilling his depleted lungs, and making sure that Serjy wasn’t coming back right away. Then he set to work.

One way or another, Nick had developed a few habits over the years. He never entered a room without immediately identifying the exits. He changed his handwriting every time he signed his name or wrote a letter. And he always stashed little hairpins or razorblades inside the cuffs of his shirts for just such an occasion as this. It was far from the first time he’d been captured.

Feeling along the cuff, he found the stashed hairpin and pushed it out through the small gap in the stitching, and with an expert’s hand began working the lock on the cuffs. He’d opened more than his share of locks in his day, and it wasn’t long before the cuffs dropped away. A moment later he’d torn the mask off his face, untied his ankles, and stood up, wincing from the cramps that came from being bound in place for too long. He rubbed his arms and legs vigorously to get the blood flowing again, then checked his watch. Five after five.

Swearing softly to himself, Nick rushed to the door. It was locked, but a few minutes with a couple hairpins fixed that. He burst of the room and into the hall. It was empty, of course; an unfinished apartment building when the workers were on strike was the perfect place for an illegal detention and interrogation. He took the stairs two at a time to the ground floor and emerged onto the street. There wasn’t a lot of traffic around, but there were a few cars parked by the side of the road.

Nick checked the road signs: Ash and Fresno. That was about a mile from the hospital.

Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, Nick went to the first car he found and, not having time for subtlety, elbowed in the driver’s side window to get at the lock. The noise would almost certainly attract attention, but he couldn’t help that: he’d just have to be quick about it.

A moment later he’d hotwired the car into motion and was pulling away from the curb. As he did so, he saw a pedestrian making for a payphone, eying him with horror and disgust. Oh, well; couldn’t worry about that now.

Nick rode the gas all the way to the hospital, running red lights where he dared, but taking a somewhat circuitous route to try to avoid the regular police hangouts. He arrived with ten minutes to spare. That is, assuming Serjy stuck to a strict schedule, which he doubted.

Leaving the car parked out front, Nick rushed inside. He had to slow down on entering; if he got caught by hospital security that would be it.

“Hi,” he said, approaching the front desk. “My name is Reverend Moran, I’m here to see Jenny Chen. Her parents asked me to come by to let her know there’s been an emergency and they won’t be able to pick her up tomorrow.”

“Oh, dear!” said the desk nurse. “I hope everything is alright.”

“That’s in God’s hands now, ma’am,” he said. “But I need to see her right away.”

“Of course,” she said. “Room 332: take the elevator and it’s just to your left.”

“Thanks,” he said, dashing to the elevator and pounding the ‘three button’ and ‘door close’ in quick succession.

The ride up seemed agonizingly long. It hadn’t been this long the last time, had it? He paced anxiously in the small space, cursing the delay.

The doors slid open. He stepped out into the hall; not too many people about. Room 332…and a doctor just opening the door.

Nick usually tried to act with finesse, to think his way through situations and manipulate events to his advantage. No time now. He darted forward and seized the ‘doctor’ by the wrist.

He and Serjy looked at each other, and for an instant those soulless eyes showed shock and disbelief, but they almost immediately resumed their cold, calculating expression.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

“Doctor!” said Nick. “You have to come with me this instant! A man is dying, and you’re the only one I’ve been able to find!”

For a moment, time seemed to stand still as each weighed how far he would push this angle. Then Serjy nodded.

“Very well,” he said. “Take me to him.”

Nick took him by the arm and they moved to the elevator. He could feel the tension in the other man, like a rattlesnake preparing to spring.

They entered the elevator, Nick pressed ‘L’ and the doors slid shut behind them.

The instant they were out of view of the rest of the hospital, they both moved at once. Serjy aimed two quick blows at Nick, one at his face, one at his solar plexus, but Nick was expecting the attack and blocked them both before countering with an uppercut to the chin. Serjy reeled back against the wall, surprised.

“You know how to fight, Breezy.”

Nick shrugged as he hit the ‘emergency stop’ button to ensure they weren’t interrupted.

“Beginner’s luck.”

Serjy reached into his pocket. Nick closed as soon as he saw the move and caught his wrist before he could bring the switchblade to bear and bent his wrist hard to make him drop it. This forced Nick to drop his guard and he took two solid blows to the ribs, which hurt a lot and would hurt even more once the adrenaline wore off. He tried to elbow Serjy in the gut, but he struck something hard that bruised his funny bone.

He’d almost forgotten the cylinder.

Serjy took advantage of his momentary disorientation to wrap his arm around his neck in a brutal chokehold.

“This time, you little prick, I’m gonna squeeze all the wind right out of you!” he snarled.

Nick gagged, unable to speak, but didn’t even try any of the techniques he knew to escape the hold. Instead, while Serjy was focused on choking him, he reached inside the assassin’s lab coat and drew out the cylinder. He was fading fast, but his mind was once more remarkably clear. The cylinder was already hooked up to a breath mask. He took this in one hand and before Serjy realized what was happening, Nick jammed the mask into his face and flicked the valve open all the way.

The sweet-smelling gas was practically shoved down Serjy’s throat. He yelled and released Nick, batting the mask away, but already the damage was done. Nick hastily switched the valve off even as he himself gasped for breath, breathing in the gas. Serjy staggered against the wall of the elevator, his eyes rolling up into his head as he tried to stay awake. Nick, feeling woozy himself, rushed against him and again forced the mask onto his face and opened the valve.

This time, the assassin was too weak to push it away, and within seconds he had stopped moving entirely.

Nick switched off the gas, struggling to maintain consciousness. He’d only gotten a brief whiff himself, but it was enough to nearly knock him out. Apparently the stuff was some kind of concentrated anesthetic. He needed to get out of the elevator fast.

Fumbling, he reversed the emergency stop button, taking them down to the lobby. There weren’t many people around at this time of day: visiting hours were over, so no one immediately noticed him staggering out of the elevator. He didn’t dare use the main exit; instead he went deeper into the first floor, along a hall, and into a back room. With clean air to breathe he was able to steady himself enough not to attract too much attention as he moved purposefully to the employee exit.

 

###

 

By the time the police had arrived to examine the dead man in the elevator, Nick Windworth was back in his own apartment, weighing his options.

Jenny Chen was safe, for now, and with such a spectacular failure on his hands, Mistretta wouldn’t try for her again in a hurry. He was much more likely to come after Nick for messing up his plans, whatever they were. Not to mention that he had now killed a man, his fingerprints would be on the canister, and he’d committed auto theft in broad daylight. Not a lot of positive spins you could put on that.

The smart thing to do now would be to get out of town, to disappear just as he’d planned to before all this had started. He knew perfectly well that once he left Los Angeles he could vanish so thoroughly that no one would ever find him.

That was the best option, and he would need to move fast to make it happen. Yet he hesitated, sitting in his tiny room, smoking a cigarette and looking, to all appearances, as though he hadn’t a care in the world. He still ached from torture and the fight; his head throbbed and his side was sore, but he seemed indifferent to the pain. He was thinking hard.

After a short while he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Angel, my love, tell me you have news,” he said.

“You sure can pick ‘em, Breezy, that’s all I’ll say,” she answered. “Jenny Chen is the daughter of Joseph Chen, who is a lawyer with the District Attorney’s office.”

“A lawyer, huh?”

“Right. And here’s the interesting part: for the last few weeks, Chen’s been trying to put together a big case…”

“Let me guess,” said Nick. “Against Tony Mistretta?”

“No,” she answered. “Against Eugenio Gallano.”

Nick started. All at once, Mistretta’s taunt about having no motive for killing Jenny Chen made perfect sense. He didn’t have a motive, but Gallano did. If Mistretta killed her on Gallano’s behalf, it would have been very hard to link either of them to it, since no one suspected…

“They’re in it together,” he groaned.

“What?”

“Mistretta and Gallano have done a deal,” said Nick. “They’re collaborating on select crimes so that neither one is implicated. Local gangs and organized crime in one neat little package.”

Angel whistled.

“If that’s the case, I want I want nothing to do with it,” she said. “Digging up public records is one thing; tangling with Gallano is something else. You best find someone else to do your dirty work from now on.” Then, after a pause, she added (as though grudgingly), “And watch yourself, Breezy; this is all way outside our league.”

She hung up. Nick put the phone down, thinking.

Even with the money he’d paid Angel, he still had enough to get out of town. He could be out of LA within an hour, and free of all this. It would be so easy.

He’d leave it all behind: Gallano with his drug war tearing up the city, Mistretta sending assassins after innocent kids because their parents were trying to do the right thing, a police force that was half corrupt, half oblivious to just what was going on…

LA was becoming a warzone. War was something Nick had had enough of. It wasn’t his job anymore. The police could handle it. There probably wouldn’t be too many more people killed before they figured out the full extent of what was happening, as they surely would sooner or later. It wasn’t his concern.

Nick stubbed out his cigarette, picked up the receiver, and dialed. The phone rang several times before it was picked up.

“Yes?” said a female voice.

“I need to speak with Detective Crane,” said Nick. “I’ve got some…important information for him.”

“He isn’t available right now,” she said. She had a faint, but very peculiar accent that Nick couldn’t quite place, though it was pleasant to listen to. “Perhaps you can tell me? I’m his partner.”

“Detective Archer!” he said, unable to resist. “Sounds like you’ve had a little work done.”

“No, not Detective Archer!” she snapped. “He is on medical leave; this is Detective Stillwater. Who is this?”

“Nice to make your acquaintance, Detective Stillwater,” said Nick. “Just tell Crane that old Breezy has something he’ll want to hear about the Gallano case.”

An Observation

Human excellence is essentially individual. Ten thousand men of ordinary skill, by pulling their resources, could never have produced Aristotle’s Ethics, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Bougeureau’s Abduction of Psyche. Even in the cases where crowds do great things, there tends to be a single genius guiding their efforts: the American Revolutionaries never would have succeeded without George Washington, and Standard Oil would never have arisen without Rockefeller. Achievements by great masses of men tend to be, in fact, the achievements of one man with a large group as his instrument. Excellence is magnified in collaboration, but never created from collaboration.

On the Oscars

Accelerating its journey to complete irrelevance, the Academy Awards announced that it plans to add a category for ‘Best Popular Film’ (there’s a fairly credible suspicion that this is mostly a way to give an award to Black Panther, which…let’s not get into that).

I’ve long since stopped caring about the Oscars, but I wanted to address this a little.

It seems like everyone has problems with this, though from different directions. According to BBC, some people are complaining that it degrades the Academy Awards into a popularity contest, which is rather funny considering what the Oscars already are, while others complain that it will be a dumping ground for worthy films that people actually watched while allowing the more prestigious Best Picture award to continue going to movies people have already forgotten.

Here’s my problem: splitting ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Popular Film’ creates two separate categories of cinema: the ‘important’ films and the lesser ‘popular’ films (because if you distinguish from Best Picture – a designation that includes all films – and Best Popular Film – which includes a limited subset of that, you are very clearly implying the latter is a separate and lesser category).

One of the major problems with the Oscars is that they have been growing increasingly elitist, self-congratulatory, and hyper-focused on agendas. A look at recent Best Picture nominees shows a heavy leaning towards smaller, unpopular films that push issues from a perspective favored by the political and social climate in Hollywood – race, sexuality, Left-wing politics, and so on. Examples of agenda-driven films (listing only the winners that I personally know obviously and clearly fit one of the categories) from recent years include winners The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Twelve Years a Slave, Spotlight, and The Hurt Locker, as well as nominees Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, Fences, Hidden Figures, Bridge of Spies, Imitation Game, Selma, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Help, The Kids Are All Right, Avatar, Milk, and Frost/Nixon. Again, that is limiting it only to films that of my own knowledge push one of the above listed agendas, limited to Best Picture Nominees of the past ten years. I imagine that a more thorough examination than I’ve made would make the pattern far stronger. This, by the way, is not to say anything about the quality of the films themselves, nor is it to say there are no honorable exceptions, such as 2010 winner The King’s Speech. merely that this is a strong pattern in the Academy’s nominations in recent years.

They have been extremely reluctant to give nods to what are called ‘Popular’ films or films that have the approval of audiences; the fact that the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten following the controversial decision in 2009 to snub both The Dark Knight and Wall-E is only another example of this; it is an attempt at appeasement: to have space to nominate select ‘popular’ films without any chance of actually awarding them the trophy.

This new ‘Popular Film’ category is another attempt at appeasement: the Academy will give out a minor and grudging award to films people actually liked while still being able to reward the films that push the correct agendas. The fact that this seems to be largely a means to reward Black Panther is only another continuation of the trend of agenda first (let’s be honest; Infinity War far and away deserves to win that category above Black Panther. Quite a few films would be more deserving of an award than Black Panther, as a matter of fact: I’d even rank the mediocre Ready Player One as a more worthy recipient, though that’s not really the point here).

This is a trend that has been steadily growing over time. In, say, the 1960s Best Picture nominees tended to be popular films that were well-received at the box office, showed a high level of technical quality, and dealt with large subject matter or at least universal ideas. In 1965, for instance, the nominees included My Fair Lady (the winner), Beckett, Mary Poppins, Dr. Strangelove, and Zorba the Greek. Today I can only imagine maybe Dr. Strangelove being nominated. A few years before in 1963 the nominees were Lawrence of Arabia (winner), Mutiny on the Bounty, The Longest Day, The Music Man, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Quite apart from the fact that these are all technically fantastic films (at least, I know the ones I have seen are such and the others have a reputation of being so), note that one, these are big movies dealing with big subject matter and ideas, whether or not its immediately relevant to the then-political climate (though the nice thing about films like this is that they’re always relevant: My Fair Lady is never going to be out of date as long as men and women are attracted to each other and society has different manners for different classes), and two, that there is a huge variety in the kind of film being nominated, from musicals to family films to war movies to intimate dramas. Zorba the Greek is a very different film from Mary Poppins, which is barely in the same universe as Dr. Strangelove.

The point is, these were, by and large, the popular films of their day, and they will be remembered long after most of the Best Picture nominees of the past decade have been forgotten (which, in many cases, is now. Does anyone remember The Artist, Best Picture Winer of 2012?).

If the Oscars operated as they did back in the day, there would be no need for a ‘Best Popular Film’ because ‘Popular Film’ wouldn’t be considered a lesser category and they wouldn’t be filling up the Best Picture category with nonsense that no one cared about. Avengers: Infinity War would be a shoo-in nominee for Best Picture and a strong candidate to win. That is the kind of movie old Hollywood liked: a huge crowd-pleaser that was technically very strong and which dealt with big or universal ideas.

This whole post turned out longer and more involved than I meant it to. What I mean to say is that this move by the Academy is only the latest in a string of insults against their audience and the idea that they are entertainers rather than instructors. It exacerbates rather than solves the problem of Oscar irrelevance, all the more so because it seems to be done for the sake of continuing the same agenda-based criteria they have been operating under for at least a decade if not more. Certainly if they intend this as a way to tempt viewers back to the show, I doubt this will work. Cutting out the hostile moralizing would be much more to the point.

Star Wars Conclusion

My ranking of the films:

  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. Star Wars
  3. Return of the Jedi
  4. Revenge of the Sith
  5. Rogue One
  6. Attack of the Clones
  7. The Phantom Menace
  8. Solo
  9. The Force Awakens
  10. The Holiday Special
  11. The Last Jedi

So, we’ve at last reached the end of my retread through the entire ‘Star Wars’ film series. It’s been an interesting ride, to say the least. I imagine someone with the time to do a thorough research project (and access to backstage information) might be able to do a full study of how the film industry and society in general has changed in the intervening years through the lens of this series of films.

What strikes me most of all is just how far above every subsequent entry the original films are in every substantive way: story, plot, dialogue, character, theme, you name it. Comparing the original trilogy to the modern trilogy or the prequels is strange. It isn’t just a difference in quality; it’s a difference in competence. It’s a little like watching young Mark Hamill acting opposite Sir Alec Guinness (or, alternatively, Daisy Ridley trying to act opposite the venerable Mark Hamill): one side knows their craft in a way the other simply does not.

I don’t want to make a generalization, but it really does seem like the quality of film and filmmakers has steeply declined even in the thirty-odd years since Return of the Jedi. Even absent George Lucas’s quixotic attempt to write and direct the entire prequel trilogy himself after decades of comparative idleness, we have a huge, multi-billion dollar company like Disney staking a massive investment in these films and the best they can come up with is the uneven Rogue One. The quality of writing and storytelling in these later films is nothing short of an embarrassment, at times offensively so, and now we don’t even have the excuse of George Lucas trying to make it a personal project. This is a branch of the top entertainment media company in the world throwing enormous amounts of money and promotion at a project with The Last Jedi as the result. Meanwhile, some forty years ago, that same ‘branch’ made The Empire Strikes Back.

Something certainly changed in the meantime, whatever it might have been. Somehow we went from Leigh Brackett to Rian Johnson. It’s not just a matter that there is no comparing them as writers; it’s that someone made the choice to hire one and someone else made the choice to hire the other and thought the script he turned in was acceptable, and that this was done under the auspices of the most powerful film and entertainment company in the world.

What that tells me is that no cared about the quality of these films. They assumed that a Star Wars film would make money, so it didn’t matter what they put out there. It seems like ideology, not quality and not entertainment was the chief motivation. The characters have the consistency and depth of wet cardboard, but we can boast that there is not a single white male among the heroes and that they’re headed by a ‘strong woman’. The story is a nightmare of writing mistakes and plot holes, but the important thing is that shows men to be incompetent failures and women noble saviors who step up to tear down the past and fix the mistakes of the male order, while working in a few anti-capitalism messages as subtle as a sledgehammer. That was what mattered to the writers of these new films: politics and diversity. Not entertainment, not character, not ideas, not wonder, not ethics, not myth; just fuel for wannabe hack sociologists (but I repeat myself) to write about.

Basically, the conclusion I reach is that ‘Star Wars’ has suffered the fate of a wealthy country that turns to socialism following the mis-management of an incompetent regime (that would be the prequels): everything that made it successful or beloved is gutted and replaced with the new ideology under the assumption that it will always continue to make money no matter what. Then, as it dissolves into poverty and chaos, its new masters increasingly turn on the people themselves, blaming everyone and everything except their own insane choices until the country is run into the ground and thoroughly destroyed.

‘Star Wars’ is now the Venezuela of film.

Thoughts on ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One
-The Last Jedi
-Solo

I wanted to end this series on a high note, so, despite the fact that it’s explicitly not canon (the opening crawl ends with “None of this is canon; just relax,” a disclaimer I wish all the recent Star Wars films carried), let’s talk about Phineas and Ferb Star Wars.

For those unfamiliar with the show, I’ll give a summary: Phineas and Ferb is a show about two genius step-brothers – cheery, out-going Phineas and taciturn, British Ferb – who, determined not to waste their summer vacation, spend each day doing something fantastic and impossible. They build rollercoasters in their backyard, go into space, become superheroes or pop stars for a day, and so on, in the company of their friends: super-cute girl scout Isabella (who has a not-so-secret crush on the perpetually oblivious Phineas), Bollywood math genius Baljeet, and secretly-cultured bully Buford. Meanwhile, their older sister, Candace, jealously tries to get them into trouble by telling their mom about their antics, except their projects always conveniently disappear at the last second, making Candace look insane. These disappearances are usually caused by side effects from the efforts of the “evil” Dr. Doofenshmirtz to take over the Tri-State Area with an endless series of ‘inators’ (drill-inator, turn-everything-evil-inator, rain-inator, etc.). He’s perpetually foiled by Special Agent Perry the Platypus…who maintains a secret identity as Phineas and Ferb’s beloved pet.

It sounds weird, and it is, but it’s a fantastic show in many, many ways that we don’t have time to get into here. For our purposes, the important thing is that in the show’s fourth and final season they were given the opportunity to do an hour-long crossover special with Star Wars, applying the show’s absurdist-yet-sincere tone to the Star Wars universe.

 I’ve written about this one before, so there will be quite a bit of overlap here, but I wanted to go into more detail about why I think this special is the best piece of Star Wars content to come out of the move to Disney.

Rather than attempting to simply re-create the story of Star Wars with Phineas and Ferb characters (e.g. Phineas as Luke, Ferb as Han, Isabella as Leia, etc.), the special takes a rather more creative and bold approach. It posits that versions of the Phineas and Ferb cast exist in the Star Wars universe and played an unseen, but crucial role during the events of the original film. This allows the original to stand more or less untouched (apart from one or two sight gags, the special doesn’t violate the continuity of the original film at all, which is frankly very impressive in itself) while also letting them tell their own story alongside it.

The plot goes that Perry the Rebelpus was the agent who stole the Death Star plans (from the ‘Empire Administration offices:’ a star destroyer with an office building stuck on top). Meanwhile, Phineas and Ferb are moisture farmers who live next door to Luke Skywalker, but unlike him are perfectly content with their lot on Tatooine, making the most of every day in typical Phineas and Ferb fashion. In fact, they’re too content: the special cleverly foreshadows that the boys’ easy-going satisfaction with their lot in life might not be the best thing for them long-term, and that they ought to leave their comfort zone sooner rather than later.

This is precipitated when they run into R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. Realizing what they have, the boys chase after Luke and the others to try to restore what they lost, taking up with Isabella the smuggler (who is by far the most detached from her canon personality) and repeatedly crossing paths with Candace, an overzealous, underappreciated stormtrooper (who is accompanied by fellow troopers Buford and Baljeet, evidently the dregs of the Imperial military).

Meanwhile, on the “fully operational Death Star,” we meet the evil ‘Darth Enshmirtz,’ the Death Star’s original designer, which, of course, is why it has a self-destruct mechanism (this joke is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One, where it’s revealed that that is the canon explanation for why it was so easy to destroy). In typical Doof fashion, he’s bitter at not being appreciated for his work and so plans to build a new doomsday device to become the top Sith.

So, the first thing to note is that, even though it’s a spoof, the special actually puts in the effort to tell its own story, with its own character arcs, progression of events, and themes. Where The Force Awakens was just an awkward retread of the original, Phineas and Ferb comes up with an original story that works on its own terms…and does so while literally being a retread of the original. Thus, instead of a character discontented with his lot and yearning for something more, this special gives us two characters who are content, but who probably shouldn’t be and end up pushed out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to more important matters.

What’s more (and again, unlike The Force Awakens), this character line continues through to the end of the story and is reflected in the other characters. Phineas and Ferb end the story having given up their peaceful life on Tatooine, but having also found something worth believing in. They’ve expanded their lives beyond the narrow scope that we found them in.

Early on there’s a scene where their parents actually try to get them to go off somewhere and see more of galaxy, expand their horizons. When Phineas shrugs the suggestion off, saying they’ve got everything they need, their father mutters, “Wait until they find out there are no girls on this planet.” This ties into their meeting Isabella, who takes them into space to follow the Millennium Falcon, and has a payoff when she kisses Phineas at the very end. The character thread is established, given a clear ‘tell’ (in the form of girls), and pays off when Phineas, having grown beyond his narrow home world, receives a kiss from Isabella to drive home what he had been missing.

(The kiss is preceded by Isabella double-checking that they’re not related, in a funny reference to Luke and Leia’s relationship, but also motivated by the late-game revelation that Candace is Phineas’s long-lost sister. So, it’s both a nod to the fans and completely motivated in story).

This is the sort of thing The Force Awakens was missing with Rey: she was waiting for her parents, then was told they’re not coming back, then goes off to find Luke and be trained as a Jedi. The final point doesn’t tie into the first one, and none of it ties into the rest of the plot involving the super-Death Star.

Speaking of which, we have Darth Enshmirtz’s new super-weapon, the Sith-Inator, which makes whoever it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force, driving them evil in the process.

Now, it’s largely played for laughs as a typical Doof ‘inator,’ with him giving a catchy musical number about how he’ll “no longer be the lowest of the Darths” and fantasizing about choking Imperial officers and impressing the Emperor. But the idea itself is actually kind of cool, especially once it hits Ferb and he applies a more serious approach to it (we’ll come back to it, but Darth Ferb is one of the special’s most impressive accomplishments. It can’t have been easy to make Ferb actually intimidating, but man do they pull it off).

Having just come off a re-watch of the films, I think a weapon like this actually could work in canon: it would just multiply or add midichlorines to the bloodstream, but such an unnatural process and sudden surge of power would of course heavily incline one to the Dark Side. In any case, despite the absurdist tone of the special, I could see an entire trilogy being built around that kind of weapon: something that could turn an ordinary person into a powerful Force User inclined to the Dark Side. That’s both a lot more creative and a lot more insidious than just another planet buster, and without the logistical problems of just how the heck they made the darn thing. Can you imagine a trilogy where the new Republic suddenly found itself faced with a whole army of near-Vader level Sith?

Basically, in telling a joke for a cartoon special Dan Provenmire and Jeff Marsh (the creators of Phineas and Ferb) came up with a much better plot for a new Star Wars trilogy than all the highly-paid writers that the Disney studio could muster could come up with over the course of several years for their massively-expensive tent-pole film series. Just think about that.

What’s more, the device sets up an extremely tense and emotionally charged confrontation between Phineas and Ferb (all the more so for fans of the show, since this is something we never would have expected to see). The whole set up, with Ferb’s implacable hostility and Phineas’s desperate attempts to reach him even as they duel with lightsabers works very well. And again, they set it up even in the context of the special by showing us just how close the brothers are, which further lets us feel just how wrong and evil the Dark Side is if it can threaten a friendship like that.

(Meanwhile, they also make a very funny joke about how lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical: “Oh, we’re allowing modifications?”).

The fight ends up involving Perry and Candace as well, so now let’s talk about Candace as the stormtrooper. Once again, this goofy cartoon thoroughly embarrasses the multi-million-dollar blockbuster. Candace, like Finn, is a stormtrooper who ends up defecting to the Rebels. However, in her case, it’s an actual character arc: we spend a good deal of time with her, Buford, and Baljeet as stormtroopers, and even though it’s in the midst of a goofy subplot where they’re assigned to get socks for Darth Vader (which leads to some great gags, such as Baljeet saying ‘socks’ to the tune of the Imperial March and a store on Tatooine called ‘Tall, Darth, and Handsome’), we do get to see things from a stormtrooper point of view and get a sense for what working for the Empire was like.

Just the fact that Candace describes Rebels as “cruel, heartless sub-humans who are messing up the galaxy” gives her more depth that Finn ever had (I’m also kind of surprised they got away with the term ‘sub-humans’ in a kids’ show). She has a perspective informed by her training; a reason why she thinks she’s on the right side. She actually believes in the Empire, despite the mistreatment she receives from it.

There’s a very fun song where Candace sings about why she’s proud to serve in the Empire: “Now I’m a bad mama-jama and I rock a mean helmet / if I see a Rebellion then you know I’m gonna quell it / I’m a certified, full-blown, armor-wearing zealot / and it feels so good to know I’m always right!” Again, this gives us a very believable sense of how the rank-and-file Emperor troops view the war, which we never got in the films, even when they actually have a defecting stormtrooper as a main character.

Then, when she turns, it’s not just because she suddenly “makes a choice” for no reason: something happens that blatantly contradicts her beliefs, making her question them for the first time. The scene where she turns is actually quite striking; when she asks Buford and Baljeet, “We’re the good guys, right?” there’s genuine uncertainty in her voice (some nice vocal work by Ashley Tisdale there). And, believably enough, once she starts to question her assumptions, then she starts to realize other things that didn’t fit into her image of the Empire (“Didn’t we just blow up a planet?” “Yes, that is sort of hard to justify, morally”). Again, it’s mostly played for laughs, but it’s still a genuine arc. The characters have clear motivations for what they do that make sense in the context of the story rather than being dictated by the script. Even in the midst of all the absurdist humor, they act like human beings.

Likewise, Isabella goes through much the same story arc as Han Solo, but again, it works. We meet her as a cynical loner who snaps at Phineas that “this isn’t a friendship, it’s a spaceship, so don’t invade mine.” Then, as she sees the loyalty the brothers have for each other, she starts to feel the desire to do likewise.

There’s a scene near the end where she bumps into Han Solo at a bar and they each prod each other into doing the right thing. Goofy as it is to have Han Solo talking smack with a little girl, it kind of works. Certainly I can much easier buy Han having a rivalry with Isabella than I can him abandoning his wife and son and losing the Millennium Falcon. I can almost imagine that it actually did go down like that, with Han trying to distract himself with a drink, but being challenged on abandoning his friends. Dang it, it’s a good scene; for all the absurdity and cartoon logic, it works.

Speaking of humor, it’s classic Phineas and Ferb: very smart, but very silly at the same time. Like when two Rebel technicians discover that R2 doesn’t actually have the plans, their first plan is, “We’ll blame Jar Jar!” Then there’s a bit where two of the Imperial officers are talking and one starts making fun of Vader, then trolls the other by pretending to choke (not only is that funny, but I can actually picture the Imperial officers doing that sort of thing). Another great gag has Darth Enshmirtz gloating about how valuable his timeshare on Alderann has become, while in the background…

Likewise the great Phineas and Ferb dialogue is present in full force: “You see? You paint a big red ‘X’ on the floor, people will stand on it.” “And you thought we were gonna die in space!” “You go see if that kid’s evil yet.” “Not a bad set: one death, one dismemberment. Not bad for a Tuesday.” I want to say there are more quotable lines in this hour-long special than in all the Disney ‘Star Wars’ films put together, with the possible exception of Rogue One.

Yet, as indicated, the show’s trademark sincerity is equally on display, as in the aforementioned battle between Phineas and Ferb, or Phineas’s genuinely shocked reaction when he learns about the Death Star (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

Then, near the end, there’s a moment where the main characters are standing on the Death Star, expecting to die, and they just kind of accept it, with Phineas saying that at least they went out for something they can believe in. Again, genuine human emotion and human reactions, even in the midst of all this absurdity, and a real, coherent plot with actual character arcs.

I also like that, though this is Phineas and Ferb, the writers didn’t try to shoehorn the standard show plot into ‘Star Wars.’ The classic catchphrases – “You guys are so busted!” “Whatchya doin’?” and so on – are present, but in contexts that make sense in the story. They don’t, for instance, have Linda as an Imperial officer that Candace is trying to ‘bust’ the boys to. They have this story to tell, and they tell it, working in references to the show where it makes sense, but not forcing it. Likewise, the Phineas and Ferb characters really do work in their roles: Candace’s misguided zealotry is perfect for a stormtrooper, Doof as a low-level Sith wannabe, Perry as a rebel agent and so on. Again, Isabella is a little jarring just because she’s so different from her usual character, but she works in the role (I especially like how her goggles take the place of her trademark hair bow).

Above all, it’s abundantly clear that the writers loved Star Wars and respected it. Even as they’re using the material for jokes, they still evince a thorough knowledge of the world and appreciation for the story and characters. Luke, Han, and Leia aren’t in it much, but they’re recognizably themselves when they are. When Luke chats with Phineas and Ferb about their modified speeder, it does feel like something Luke might do. And when Phineas says that he and Ferb have ‘Jedi lessons’ with Obi-Wan every Tuesday, it’s a gag, but it also makes sense for Obi-Wan’s character that if there were a couple of Force-sensitive kids nearby he would try to train them. And again, it sets up the duel at the climax (I also like that they made the choice not to have Obi-Wan present outside a silent cameo, apparently recognizing they didn’t have the resources to capture Sir Alec Guinness’s performance).

There are a lot of little jokes showing “the other side” of events in the original film. We see Han’s abortive attempt to bluff the guards over the com-link from the perspective of the officers receiving his message, for instance (“Aw, I was just getting into that conversation!”), and we get to see just what that garbage monster thing was and what it was doing (“That not trash, dummy, that’s a guy!”).

When I first saw this special, I wasn’t expecting to like it that much. I loved Phineas and Ferb, but the idea of crossing over with Star Wars seemed a step too far. But the moment the first notes of the opening song ‘Tatooine’ started playing, with Phineas and Ferb singing about how much they love their home, I knew it was going to work and I enjoyed every minute of it. It works best if you’re already a fan of both Phineas and Ferb and Star Wars, and I don’t know how it would play to someone unfamiliar with the show, but for me it’s easily my favorite ‘Star Wars’ story to come out of the move to Disney.

Thoughts on ‘Solo’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One
-The Last Jedi

Well, the good news is that Solo is immensely better than the abomination that was The Last Jedi. The bad news is, that still leaves it plenty of room be be pretty darn bad.

The film purports to be the origin story of Han Solo, showing where he came from, how he met up with Chewbacca, Lando, and of course how he acquired the Millennium Falcon. It posits that he began his days as a young orphan on the planet Corellia, stealing junk under the command of the sinister Lady Proxima – a centipede-like alien who burns in the sun yet has glass windows in her private chamber – alongside his girlfriend Qi’ra. During their escape attempt, Qi’ra is captured and Han hastily joins up with the Imperial military to avoid the same fate. Three years later he deserts to join a small gang of crooks led by a man named Beckett, hoping to earn enough money to buy a ship and go back to rescue his girlfriend. The job goes south, putting the survivors in hock to a crime lord named Dryden Vos, which forces them to take on an even bigger job that brings in Lando, the Falcon, and the Kessel Run. Oh, and Qi’ra is now working for Vos as his ‘top lieutenant.’

The galactic mob boss has a twenty-something girl whom he’s known for less than three years as his most trusted lieutenant. That’s the kind of film we’re dealing with here (needless to say, how this came about is never explained).

Okay, so there are a lot of problems with this movie.

In the first place, the structure of the film is odd. There’s a part early on where Han is settling in with his new crew preparing for a big job, and it felt as though it ought to have come much later. The characters bond, then half of them get wiped out in the very next seen and we have another set of characters for the rest of the film. The whole thing is kind of disjointed and occasionally confusing, without much of a unifying plot. Han is trying to earn money to buy a ship to go back to Correllia to get his girlfriend: how does that translate to serving with the Imperial infantry for three years? Then he meets up with the girlfriend and she’s working for Vos, so…so much for that motivation, we switch to trying to square debts with the crime boss, which he didn’t really incur since it was the guy he was working for who made the deal, but that leads to pulling another heist, which leads to an encounter with the nascent Rebellion (more on that in a bit), then turning on the mob boss, then…

You see what I mean? It’s less a single coherent plot than a series of small plots awkwardly stitched together and revolving around Han Solo trying to escape with his girlfriend until that motivation just kind of drops. There are too many characters who are set up, then drop out of the film entirely or disappear for long periods of time. Lady Proxima is set up and presented in the form an obviously very expensive puppet, then disappears for good after about thirty seconds of screen time. What was the point of that? Beckett’s crew – including his girlfriend – die a couple scenes after they’re introduced, then after a brief funeral are pretty much forgotten for the rest of the film. Again, what was the point? It adds nothing to his character or his relationship with Solo. In fact, the entire train heist could easily have been cut with minimal re-writes and the film probably would have been better for it.

Lando, surprisingly enough, isn’t in the film very much, and most of the time that he is involved he spends sitting on his ship or hanging out in the background, then he dumps the others like a coward as soon as he gets the chance. Why? Maybe if the film were more streamlined he could have been more involved; we might have gotten the chance to see him and Han become the friends they’re supposed to be instead of it just sort of happening because…actually, I don’t know why. They really have no reason to be friends by the end of the film. Maybe they’re saving that for a sequel.

Though, to be fair, I thought Donald Glover was okay as a younger Lando. He doesn’t have half the charisma of Billy Dee Williams, and he gives some very strange readings, but simply as a performance and outside of the nonsense they have him do (or not do) he was acceptable, for the most part.

The origin of the Millennium Falcon, however, falls completely flat. Turns out it’s just a ship Lando happened to own which was already the fastest ship in the galaxy, already called the Millennium Falcon, and which Han really has no reason to be particularly attached to even by the end of the film.

That’s a recurring problem here: though the movie is supposedly about how Han became Han, there’s very little of actual ‘origin’ to this origin story. That is, the things they provide backstory to are mostly glossed over without any kind of effort or weight to them. Where did he get his blaster? Beckett just tossed it to him before a job. His name? A random Imperial officer typed it into his application sheet. His ship? Well, Lando had it, then Han beat him at cards at the very end. Oh, and nothing about it came from Han’s loving care: it was just always like that.

Nor are Hans’ abilities given any explanation: his fantastic piloting skills, his mechanical skills, his shooting skills, improvisational skills, card playing, none of it is earned: he just has it. He drove a speeder and got kicked out flight school, so now he can automatically fly the Millennium Falcon better than anyone through the space storm that is instant death for everyone else. He shows up to a card game that, as far as we’re told, he’s never played before and almost beats Lando (would have if Lando hadn’t cheated, which…ugh, why? Why are you trying to make Lando out to be a completely unlikable person?).

As for Chewie, the film posits he was a prisoner of the Empire that they fed deserting soldiers to. Only Han spoke Wookie and so convinced him to join him in an escape plan. So, a big, important scene in the film and the life of our hero revolves around Han imitating Chewie’s growls. It is exactly as stupid as it sounds. Oh, and the film makes a point to explain that Chewbacca’s nickname is a nickname because Han didn’t want to say his actual name all the time. Glad they took the time for that rather than, say, giving the Millennium Falcon an origin that amounted to more than ‘it was there.’

(Han and Chewie also get a shower scene together. I’ll just throw that out there, because that’s pretty much what the film does).

There is a brief allusion to Han’s father, and that he worked on building freighters like the Falcon, but it’s passed over in a couple lines. That is a nice idea, and I would have much preferred to hear more about it, maybe have a flashback of Han and his dad, than to have yet more scenes of his girlfriend telling him that she’s a bad guy now.

The Qi’ra character is a problem because we in the audience know Han isn’t going to end up with her, and her presence in the story raises several issues, particularly the aforementioned questions of just how the heck this random street rat rose to become a professional assassin and bodyguard to a major gangster in only three years. That, and she’s not very interesting, doesn’t play much of a role in the plot apart from being Solo’s motivation, and her scenes are very repetitive. Again, she keeps reiterating that Han’s a good guy and she isn’t, and he keeps denying it. They don’t talk about anything that matters, like “how did you get off that planet?” or “What happened to you after we got separated?” Just vague references to being good or bad people.

Also, it’s one heck of a coincidence that, after being separated for three years these two just randomly bump into each other on the other side of the galaxy. And that brings us to another problem: that much like The Force Awakens this film seems to simply spawn in things whenever it needs them. There’s literally a moment where Beckett says they need to talk to the bad guy and his ship just appears. There’s a bit at the end where Han chases after Beckett, who has at least five minutes’ head start, but somehow Han ends up standing calmly right across his path.

Then there’s L3-37.

L3 is clearly an attempt to recapture the positive effect of K2 from Rogue One, but it badly misfires. Someone decided to make her an advocate for ‘droid rights’ with all the hostile self-righteousness of a modern college student (“We are sentient!” “Why? Because you’re my organic overlord?” etc.). She has a fantastic navigational computer for no reason at all, which is the only justification for her existence in this film (and it’s a pretty flimsy one at that: why would a droid even have such a computer? Wouldn’t that sort of thing be loaded onto a ship?). And are they really trying to make out that robots really are sentient beings with rights who suffer injustice by being treated like machines? Is Star Wars really poaching ideas from the Astro-Boy movie?

Whether this was meant to be making fun of SJWs or pandering to them, it doesn’t work at all. L3 is not funny and she’s not charming; she’s just obnoxious to the point that I almost cheered when she finally got shot to pieces.

Oh, and there are jokes suggesting she and Lando are sleeping together. Lando has sexual innuendos with a robot. Who thought that was in any way appropriate for a Star Wars film?

That said, it is unintentionally hilarious to see Lando cradling half her body and crying over this droid as she shuts down, as if he couldn’t just fix her and turn her back on.

Only, he can’t because he uploads her into the Falcon. So, the Millennium Falcon canonically now has the mind of a self-righteous sex toy. Thank you for that, movie.

Also, what is the deal with ‘Marauders’ in this movie? First they’re played as bad guys, and have kind of a cool ‘80s action-flick vibe to them. Then they disappear for an hour and it turns out they were the beginnings of the Rebellion and are led by a fourteen-year-old girl.

Uh…I have questions.

First of all, did Disney forget that the Rebellion got started about the same time as the Empire? We saw it beginning in Episode Three; we don’t need this nonsense about the start of the Rebellion. Also, why is their leader a teenage girl? Was she really the most qualified person available? Are we meant to forget that they’re responsible for the deaths of the monkey guy and Beckett’s girlfriend? Because the characters apparently did, as they don’t feel the need to mention it (again pointing to just how pointless that sequence was). It just feels like a twist for the sake of being a twist.

Speaking of twists, this film has a doozy. Are you ready? It turns out the Space mobster who was introduced murdering a man, has threatened to kill our heroes multiple times, and is heavily implied to physically abuse the female lead…is a bad guy.

No, I ‘m not kidding: they play this up like it’s a major revelation, with dramatic music, a slow lead in, and a ‘shock chord’ on the reveal that the criminal organization the main characters are trying to appease is actually evil. It’s ridiculous.

Though, to be fair, it’s less absurd than the other major twist, which is that the secret head of this criminal organization is none other that Darth Maul. Again, I’m not making that up: he survived being cut in half and dropping down a bottomless pit and some, what, twenty years later just shows up with mechanical legs and his double-lightsaber, which he turns on and then turns back off for no reason. I won’t even attempt to go over that one.

All that and I haven’t even touched on the film’s biggest liability: the lead actor.

I do not know why anyone thought casting Alden Ehrenreich in this role was in any way a good idea. He looks nothing like a young Harrison Ford (his face is too broad, his eyes are shaped different, etc), he sounds nothing like Ford (his voice is much higher), and to top it all off he is not a good actor at all. His very first line (“You should see what they look like!”) is awkwardly delivered, and he doesn’t improve as the film goes on. His inflection is off, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his facial expressions, and his dialogue is almost never convincing. Like, when Beckett punches him in anger at one, point, his “what was that for?” just sounds vaguely confused. Some lines he mumbles, others he over-plays as though he’s in a high school drama performance. It is just a remarkably bad bit of casting, especially for such an iconic role.

(I can only imagine what it must have been like for Ron Howard to direct this guy: (Muttering)“Good God, I was giving better performances than this when I was six.” (aloud) “That’s great, Alden! Let’s try that again…”)

Then there’s the clumsy fan-service, which is much more akin to that in The Force Awakens than Rogue One: we have things like Lando’s Jabba disguise showing up (apparently, he just had it in his closet for a good decade), the monkey guy making random references to ‘minocks’ and the cantina, Chewie losing the same piece in the holo-chess game that he loses in the original film, and so on and so forth. It’s all pretty clumsy and at times patently desperate.

Also, a lot of emphasis is placed on Han’s dice, which were introduced in The Last Jedi, as well as hyperfuel. It’s as if this movie were retroactively trying to make that one a little less moronic. Yeah, that’s not gonna happen, guys; just let it go.

Okay, so let’s call it: this is a bad film. But is there anything to like about it?

Well, what I find I appreciated the most is that Han and Chewie’s relationship is pretty much spot-on. I don’t like the scenario for how they met, but their friendship develops well over the course of the film and they actually have some good back-and-forth. The film at least knows to treat Chewie as an actual character, unlike the sequels.

I kind of appreciate that the film underplays the Empire angle, trying to show a more ground-level perspective, and that we get a bit of a feel for what day-to-day life under the Empire was like (though describing it as a “lawless time” makes no sense whatsoever).

And I will say that at times the film just feels like Star Wars again, with the ships, the fantastic aliens, and the light tone. When they fly through a nebula and run into a giant space monster, it’s awesome. That’s the sort of thing we want from Star Wars. Likewise the idea of the space storm, and some of the imagery inside it is really cool (though they didn’t need to repeat the ‘asteroid field’ theme music).

Some of the humor does work. I like the bit after they escape the space storm where Han and Lando stand looking at the battered Falcon. Han comments on what a great ship it is, while Lando, surveying the damage, answers “I hate you.” I also laughed at the card game scene where Han snaps at an alien with six or seven eyes on stalks to keep all his eyes on his own cards.

Then, near the end, there is one ‘origin’ moment that works: wherein Han indeed shoots first. It isn’t given the set up that it ought to have had, but it was one of the few moments in the film where this felt like Han Solo: where you believed the connection between this character and the one we met in Star Wars.

On the whole, though it is a bad movie, it isn’t a malevolent movie. There were parts that worked and parts that at least entertained. There was some creativity, even if it was swallowed up in stupid choices and desperate fan-service. Except for the weird sexual content (again, why?) it’s pretty harmless, especially compared to the sequels.

But as an origin story for one of the most iconic figures in film? This is an embarrassment.

Thoughts on ‘The Last Jedi’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One

What the heck did I just watch?

‘The Last Jedi’ is not just the worst Star Wars film by a considerable margin, but it’s one of the worst Hollywood films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s amazingly bad: bad to a degree that is hard to believe for such a major film.

How bad is the writing? The first sentence of the title crawl is a plot hole. That shouldn’t even be possible, but they pull it off. The line is “The First Order reigns.” They were a small, localized organization a couple days ago, then they got their superweapon and base of operations blown up after taking out a single star system, and now suddenly they reign supreme? I’m not even talking about the question of where they’re getting all their resources; just how do you go from small and covert to ruling the galaxy over a couple days during which you suffer a massive defeat? That would be like waking up the morning after Gettysburg to the news that the Confederacy now rules the entire East Coast. The world building in Force Awakens was already horrendous, now they’re not even attempting to stick with it; they’re just arbitrarily declaring what the circumstances are whether or not they make sense after the previous film.

Anyway, the set up is that the Resistance – or is it the Rebels? They go back and forth between the two terms as though the writer periodically forgot what the goods were called – is down to a single small fleet and are fleeing the First Order, which has about twenty star destroyers, a giant ‘dreadnaught,’ and ‘The Supremacy:’ a super-massive ship that serves as Supreme Leader Snoke’s base of operations. Yeah, the guy who was seen in shadows in a hologram in the last film? He just appears here. No lead in, no introduction, we just walk into his throne room and he’s there. Believe me, that’s the least of our problems.

The Resistance is fleeing their base from the previous film – yes, just like the opening of Empire Strikes Back – only to find that the Empire has a device that can track ships through hyperspace, meaning they can follow them wherever they go. With the good guys running low on fuel, they engage in a slow-motion chase through space while the heroes try to figure out a way to shut down the tracker so they can escape.

Meanwhile, Rey has gone to ask Luke Skywalker to come back and fight for the Resistance, but Luke wants nothing more than to be left alone to die, having become disillusioned by the Jedi and given up on the galaxy following his failure with Kylo Ren (why didn’t Leia go to talk to Luke? She was supposed to be the one looking for him in the first place and…oh, forget it).

I don’t even know where to begin. I swear I am not exaggerating when I say that every single sequence, almost every scene in this film involves some plot hole, some writing mistake, or something that just doesn’t make sense, and it’s done throughout with a level of incompetence that is staggering to see in a major Hollywood blockbuster. Oh, it’s shot well, in fact there are some very creative camera angles and striking sets, in stark contrast to the dull-looking Force Awakens, but the writing is on a level of a child’s fan fiction, right down to the cloned scenes, lack of consequence, and awkwardly childish words. At one point Luke comments that he came to “the most unfindable place in the galaxy.” How did the word ‘unfindable’ make it into a major movie script? Same for the term ‘Supreme Leader,’ as in “Long live the Supreme Leader!” (actual dialogue). Okay if they didn’t want to reuse ‘Emperor,’ but ‘Supreme Leader’ doesn’t sound like a real position of authority: it sounds like a botched translation after the fashion of “Do not want.”

The chase through space that comprises the majority of the film (and boy does it drag) is itself a plot hole. No, I’m not kidding: the main plot of the movie falls apart on multiple levels. Taken purely as a scenario we have the question of one, why is fuel suddenly an issue when it has never been before? Two, how is it the Resistance fleet and the First Order fleet are moving at the exact same speed so that the good guys can’t escape and the bad guys can’t finish them off? Three, how is it that the First Order can’t come up with a better plan than just follow them and keep shooting for about fifteen straight hours? Again, they have about twenty star destroyers, presumably each one containing dozens of tie fighters: the Resistance has already had their entire fighter squadron knocked out (which is a problem in itself, but we don’t have time), so why aren’t they releasing fighters (the excuse given by the film is that “we can’t cover the fighters from the fleet.” Since when was that an issue)? There are about a dozen ways the First Order could deal with this problem, even assuming the stars aligned properly to create it in the first place. And four, why do they suddenly have a magical tracker that can follow ships through hyperspace? More importantly, why did the writer feel the need to create this patently silly device when we could have just had a tracker onboard the ship, or a mole, or have it be that they’re tapping into the signal from the tracking device that Leia is carrying. Yeah, she’s carrying a tracking device so that Rey can find the fleet again, so why doesn’t anyone even suggest that perhaps that is the problem? They simply guess – correctly – that the First Order has a magic new tracking system.

But on top of that, the Resistance was looking for a new base. We learn later on that the chase has been leading them to a place called Krait, which is a hidden planet with an old Rebel base complete with an impenetrable wall and stored equipment. Why didn’t they just lightspeed there in the first place? That entire scenario, with all its attendant problems, only happens because they didn’t do the logical thing in the very beginning.

Yet it gets worse.

Trying get out of this chase, Poe and Finn (and a new character named Rose, who is a terrible character for reasons we’ll get to) concoct a plan to sneak aboard the Supremacy and shut down the tracker. According to this film, Finn used to mop the room with the tracker in it. Apparently, he was janitor for the whole First Order because he also mopped the super-Death Star (he didn’t feel the need to let any of his friends know about this ultra-dangerous device either. At least he’s consistent). To do that they need to find a certain code breaker on Canto Bite, requiring them to detach from the fleet and go on a long, dangerous side quest.

Why is all this happening? Because the new commander, Vice Admiral Holdo, refuses to tell anyone her plan for saving them all.

Holdo is quickly becoming one of the most loathed characters in Star Wars and for good reason. You see, according to the film, she secretly has a plan to travel to Krait (again, why weren’t they going there in the first place?) and then abandon ship in cloaked transports, hiding on the planet until the First Order passes by. Only, for reasons best known to herself, she not only doesn’t tell anyone, she actively refuses to share this information even when her crew is hours from death, even when her fleet commander is literally begging her to give them some semblance of hope, and even when he finally leads a mutiny against her. She answers every plea for basic information with a snide insult (to the war hero who blew up the super-Death Star and inadvertently saved the fleet by blowing up the dreadnaught in the opening battle and who commands great respect among the crew). That all would have been bad enough, except that, in the end, the film tries to make out that she was the hero all along because she had her plan, and that Poe was in the wrong for not blindly following this hostile idiot into what looked like certain death (and which actually turned out to be certain death for most of the crew, but we’ll get to that).

And this is the entire reason why Poe and Finn come up with this plan that comprises about an hour’s screen time, and which ultimately fails and turns out was unnecessary anyway.

To sum, up, the main plot of the film exists because the Resistance didn’t do the obvious thing to begin with and because Holdo refused to tell anyone her plan for no reason whatsoever. Not to mention that the whole scenario is logistically preposterous and violates several established rules of the franchise.

The Force Awakens was lazy and stupid. This is raving insanity.

To top things off, Holdo’s plan is actually really stupid: it depends on the First Order not looking out the window to see the clearly visible fleet of transports (they’re cloaked, which I guess means they can’t be found on radar, but they’re visible with the naked eye. Then the First Order runs a ‘de-cloaking scan’ when they learn what’s going on, which why weren’t they doing that anyway?). This is another reason not to keep it a secret: Poe might have been able to point out the obvious flaws in the plan (sounds kind of like a certain writer who insisted on doing this whole film himself, come to think of it). On top of that, the film posits that the reason this happens is that the code breaker Finn and Rose hire turns traitor after hearing the plan, but that wouldn’t have happened in the first place if Holdo had just told Poe what was going on when he desperately begged her to.

Then she just sits there watching the ships blow up for about five minutes before doing a kamikaze run into the First Order fleet. Which also violates not only the continuity of the series (if you can use hyperspace as a weapon, why has no one done that before? Why haven’t they made weapons like hyperspace missiles specifically designed for it?) but also makes her look even more of an idiot for letting the rest of the fleet just get destroyed when they could have turned around and shattered the entire pursuing armada.

Are you starting to see what I mean when I say every scene in this film has some writing issue? And that’s just a broad overview of the film’s main plot. I haven’t even mentioned the bit where the bridge is blown up and Leia is thrown into space and then, minutes later, uses the Force to fly back into the ship. It’s one of the stupidest things you’ll ever see and serves absolutely no purpose save to get Leia out of commission for most of the film so that Holdo has to take over (no one ever brings it up again, by the way). This film is a series of idiotic writing choices that exist to set up other idiotic writing choices.

(By the way, Admiral “It’s a trap” Akbar gets killed in that same explosion. They brought back a fan-favorite, gave him one line, and killed him off screen to set up a horrible new character. That right there might encapsulate the mindset of the sequel films).

Ugh, I haven’t even gotten to Luke yet.

Before we dive into that, there’s still Canto Bite: the planet of ultra-rich war profiteers that Finn and Rose go to in order to find a code breaker to get them on the Supremacy etc.

How to describe Canto Bite? If George Lucas grew up on Flash Gordon and adventure serials, Rian Johnson apparently grew up on Communist propaganda cartoons. This is apparently his idea of capitalism: hideous and horrible rich men who beat cute animals, enslave children, and drunkenly gamble all night while secretly funding war. It’s loud, it’s crowded, it’s ugly, and the entire scenario is absurdly childish and heavy-handed.

The idea is that these rich people are profiteering off of the war by selling arms to both sides, and it’s even implied that they keep the war going to maintain their profit. That’s right: The Last Jedi tries to pitch the interwar myth of the evil arms dealers who ‘really’ cause wars. Rose describes these arms dealers as “the worst people in the galaxy,” apparently affording a second place spot to the people who just wiped out about a trillion innocent lives in one shot. Just so that we ‘get’ that they’re bad, the film shows that they use child slave labor and beat cute horse-things for the sake of racing.

This is moronic on any number of levels, and that’s not even considering the sequence of events (all I’ll say is that it involves BB-8 being mistaken for a slot machine and then firing coins like a machine gun. What tone were they aiming for in this film again?). Why are they using slave labor in a world where droids are readily available? It was dubious enough in Phantom Menace, but at least that took place in a lawless backwater full of poverty and run by criminals: this is an ultra-swanky casino planet for the super-rich. How is it even conceivable they wouldn’t be using droids? Also, why are all the slaves we see children?

The reason is that this is an insultingly manipulative and dishonest piece of heavy-handed propaganda. The writer wanted to take a shot against capitalism, so he shoehorned this moronic sequence into the film, making sure that there are children and animals being abused just so that we ‘get’ that these are bad people (because otherwise Finn and Rose recklessly smashing the place might be even more morally dubious than it already is). It’s basically a complete detour from the rest of the film for the sake of a gratuitous ‘message.’ Finn and Rose don’t even find the guy they’re supposed to; they just take up with the random low-life they met in prison who promises he can do the same job, is patently untrustworthy, and ultimately betrays them, which just makes them look like morons and makes the entire sequence feel even more pointless.

As a bonus, the crook then attempts to plant the idea to Finn and the audience that there is no good or bad side: that the same people are supplying the First Order and the Resistance and that it’s all “a machine” for the profit of the few. That’s right: The Last Jedi tries to revive the idiotic inter-war myth that wars are caused by arms dealers looking to get rich. Not only that, but it does so in this one scene and it never comes up again: a gratuitous and nonsensical cheap shot.

What is any of this doing in a Star Wars film?

Even at their worst, the Star Wars films have at least been universal, aiming to be escapist entertainment to be enjoyed by all viewers. Here, in the middle of the film, they’re suddenly attempting to inject real-world politics, and in the most shallow and heavy-handed way.

And to top it off, even if you’re the kind of person who will go for the evil capitalist screed, the sequence is so long, so patently unnecessary, and so childish in its perspective and execution that I can’t imagine anyone enjoying it. It’s just a bloated tumor on an already tedious and poorly structured film (I’m not even attempting to deal with the writing problems in the sequence; it has absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever).

Now let’s finally deal with what they do to Luke Skywalker.

Luke Skywalker in this film is a bitter old recluse who, after failing to successfully train his nephew (more on that in a bit), ran away to a secret island to die alone, intending that the Jedi would die with him. When Rey asks him to come back and save the Resistance (which, need I remind you, includes his sister), he tells her to go away and sneers at her for expecting him to “walk out with a laser sword in front of the whole First Order.” He condemns the Jedi for allowing Vader and Palpatine to rise and scoffs at the idea that they’re necessary to keep the galaxy in balance. When he and Rey come to blows, she beats him handily and leaves him impotent and helpless in the mud.

At one point he milks a disgustingly obese seal-like creature and chugs down its juices. The scene lasts about thirty seconds and could easily have been cut, but the director chose to include it.

This is what the film does to the hero of three of the most popular and beloved films of all time. This is their idea of what such a man would look like thirty years on: a disillusioned, cynical coward who has abandoned all his ideals and only wants to die.

If the rest of the film were perfect, this one factor would still be a reason to despise this movie.

Oh, but it gets worse. The reason for his disillusion, the reason why he failed was that he had a vision of Kylo – his own nephew, remember – turning to the Dark Side and in a moment of weakness was prepared to murder him in cold blood. He was too ashamed to go through with it, but Kylo woke up, saw the lightsaber, and assumed he was trying to murder him, so he left him for dead, slaughtered the other students, burned down the Jedi temple, and went off to join the First Order.

Let’s be blunt here.

Luke Skywalker would never do any of this. Luke Skywalker would never abandon the Jedi, the order that gave him his beloved masters Obi-Wan and Yoda and which he was tasked to restore. Luke Skywalker would never turn his back on the galaxy or the Republic he fought to liberate, let alone his beloved sister, Leia and his best friend Han. And most of all, Luke flipping Skywalker would never in million years consider murdering his own nephew and student in cold blood while he slept just because he saw he might fall to the Dark Side. He is the last character in the world who would do that. He himself nearly fell to the Dark Side. He brought his own father, one of the most evil men in the galaxy, back to the light, and he risked everything to do it. He knows from personal experience how unreliable visions of the future can be.

If he saw a vision of Kylo turning to the Dark Side, he would talk to Kylo about it, he would redouble his training, he would talk to Leia and Han. If Kylo did fall to the Dark Side, Luke wouldn’t rest until he’d either saved him or stopped him. He would have acted like a hero!

Luke Skywalker is one of the great heroic icons of modern culture. He has been an inspiration to millions of people from all over the world in all walks of life. Mark Hamill has told stories of hearing from people who faced terminal illnesses or huge personal crises by finding strength and hope from the example of Luke. And this film, this worthless waste of celluloid written by a complete hack who doesn’t even have the talent to make his characters act like human beings, tries to take that away: to destroy it. All so that he can set up Rey, a character who couldn’t carry a teenager’s fan fiction, as his replacement because he doesn’t have the skill or the wit to write a character who can stand on her own.

That is more than bad writing. That is evil. This is an evil movie.

I went into this subject a while back with a piece on Captain America. I don’t use the term ‘evil’ lightly in this context, but when I see a beloved and inspiring piece of pop culture run into the ground and purposefully desecrated like this, I call it evil because the writer is taking something that inspired people to do and be better than they were and twisting it around to poison or at least destroy it, to try to make them see goodness and courage as mean, pathetic, hypocritical things that exist only to be seen through and torn down. That is what this film does, or tries to do. And that is evil.

To come down a little, I’d also like to point out that, even if I accepted the idea that Luke Skywalker would contemplate murdering his own nephew in cold blood, how does that explain Kylo’s subsequent actions? How does that lead to him murdering innocent people, burning down the temple (that same night), joining the First Order, and finally murdering his own father, who was trying to do nothing but help him? What is his goal? What is he trying to accomplish by all this?

Say what you will of Anakin’s fall, he had clear motives: first that he was desperate to save his wife and unborn child, and second that he wanted there to be order in the Galaxy. His actions may not always have made sense, but his overall character at least was consistent. Here we just have some vague talk of “a darkness” that was in Kylo, then Luke tried to kill him and Kylo immediately goes full-blown psychopath, targeting people who had nothing to do with his betrayal. Why would Luke’s betrayal cause Kylo to turn on his parents, on the Republic, and everything else?

Leave off the fact that we still have no idea who or what Snoke is, how he got in touch with Kylo, how he tempted or seduced him, or any of that. Our entire backstory linking this trilogy to the previous one is a thirty-second flashback to a single incident that doesn’t even make sense on its own ground.

On that subject, the film makes something of a big deal of ‘letting the past die.’ Luke, after being humiliated by Rey, tries to burn the tree containing the sacred Jedi texts. He finds he can’t do it, so the Force ghost of Yoda does it for him with a lightning bolt (yes, the ghosts can summon lightning now. And hit people. At least the film lives its own message of destroying the past, as it certainly destroys any sense of continuity that remained in the series). His justification for this is that the books were boring and Rey doesn’t need anything they contain. Because thousands of years of wisdom, study, and tradition all come down to whether or not it benefits her.

Granted, a later scene shows that Rey took the books with her, but that doesn’t really change the wrongness of this scene.

Meanwhile, Rey goes off to try to turn Kylo back to the good side, because two days after he murdered Han Solo in cold blood and was complicit in the massacre of trillions of lives, and personally tried to kill her she’s suddenly decided she’s almost in love with him because they have a Force connection, both hate Luke, and she saw him shirtless. I wish I were kidding. I really do.

This leads to a blatant copy of the throne room scene from Return of the Jedi stuck two-thirds of the way through the second film in a trilogy. Snoke toys with Rey, then orders Kylo to kill her to “complete his training.” Killing his own father in cold blood wasn’t enough, but killing a girl he has no reason to care about should do the trick.

Then, in a very stupid turn of events, Kylo kills Snoke. Let me reiterate: Snoke, a character who came completely out of nowhere, was given no development, no backstory, and no motivation, yet is supposedly the most powerful being in the universe, is killed off part-way through the second film by a silly bit of wordplay. They just stuck a random ultra-powerful bad guy into the story then killed him off: a classic shaggy dog story.

Kylo and Rey have a tag-team fight that has some very funny choreography if you pay attention (one guard’s weapon actually disappears mid-shot just so that he can’t use it on Rey), then Kylo tells Rey that he doesn’t want either the Resistance or the First Order to win, but “wants it all to end.” Then he just takes Snokes place and we resume. Again, swear I’m not making that up.

God, I don’t even know what else I ought to go over: Captain Phasma is back, despite apparently being killed in the last film. She dies again here without evincing the slightest personality or character. There is some very bad continuity during a fight in the Supremacy’s hanger: as in, seriously embarrassing for a major budget film. Phasma just teleports from one end of the hanger to the other and acquires and loses a gun twice in quick succession just that she can have a melee duel with Finn.

Then there’s a fight down on Krait, which is at least visually interesting, but I don’t even care at this point. They copy the Hoth battle from Empire Strikes Back, down to using walkers and speeders. That means the film opens with the beginning of Empire, basically copies the plot structure (one group tries to evade the Empire without lightspeed, the protagonist trains with an old master), then diverges into the end of Return of the Jedi, then goes back to the beginning of Empire. It’s not only a cheap copy, it’s schizophrenic.

This fight contains a contender for the most moronic part of the film (a rarified title). The Resistance is hiding behind an impenetrable wall with no way out. The First Order brings up a cannon with ‘miniaturized Death Star tech’ to breach it (lucky they just happened to have that). Finn and the others fly out to stop the cannon, Finn prepares to sacrifice himself to save the Resistance. Then, at the last minute, Rose flies in and stops him, allowing the cannon to blow open the base while she delivers perhaps the most asinine bit of dialogue in any ‘Star Wars’ film: “I saved you. That’s how we’re going to win: not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”

Again, she says this while the wall blows up behind her, seemingly dooming the entire Resistance because of her actions. How the heck did this moment make it into the film? How could they possibly have filmed it without realizing how shallow, hypocritical, and self-defeating it was?

Anyway, at the last moment Luke seemingly shows up. He has a moment with Leia (actually kind of a nice one, as Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are able to channel a bit of their actual characters one last time, but there’s no saving the film at this point), then goes out to fight Kylo. Only, after a brief confrontation, he reveals that he was never actually there: Luke’s still on the island, force-projecting himself across the galaxy to distract Kylo. They couldn’t even give him the dignity of one last battle. They couldn’t allow him to be at all heroic in this film even once.

Then he dies. Yeah, he pretends to go into battle rather than actually going there himself, then, after it’s over, he just dies of the strain. They butchered his character then killed him off to prevent any chance of redemption.

All that and there’s so much I haven’t mentioned. I haven’t mentioned the Porgs: cute little bird creatures from the island who show up regularly to provide ‘comic’ relief. I didn’t laugh once at these things: they are so patently a marketing ploy and so obviously pointless that they’re just revolting. To make matters worse, interacting with them has become Chewbacca’s whole purpose. He doesn’t interact with Luke, his old friend of decades, except a single moment where Luke yells at him for no reason.

One thing I haven’t seen anyone else commenting on is that the effect of the ships leaving hyperspace looks weird. In the original films, the ships kept moving when they came out of light speed, so that the effect was them speeding up and slowing down very abruptly. Here they just stop. It looks strange and unnatural.

Another thing that rather surprised me about this movie is just how boring it is. It just drags on and on, with nothing being accomplished, nothing meaningful being said or done, no moments of honest humanity, just plot point, action scene, plot point. There’s no tension because everything is so badly constructed, no interest because the characters are so bland and poorly written.

The Last Jedi is an unmitigated disaster. Not only is it by far the worst Star Wars film – no, I’m not excluding the frickin’ Holiday Special, which at least had Bea Arthur to lend it some sense of humanity, at least attempted a bit of world building, and oh yeah, didn’t seek to destroy an iconic hero – but I could see it ending up on a list of the worst films ever made (understanding that such lists are generally limited to major, well-known releases). The incredibly bad writing, the incompetent continuity, horribly conceived characters, tedious pacing, and active hostility towards its source material and its fans puts it beyond the pale. You could write a whole book on what is wrong with this film: I really just scratched the surface. Yes, there are individual good things, such as some of the visuals and a few individual scenes, but they simply don’t matter in the face of all the other terrible choices that destroy this movie.

In any case, Star Wars has now become one of the very few franchises that include both one of the best films ever made (Empire Strikes Back at the very least) and one of the worst (this abomination). The only other series like that I can think of would be Jaws and possibly Halloween. What an indictment of the state of Uncle Walt’s company that they allowed this to happen.

Yoda says that failure is the best teacher. If so, this film is an academy.

P.S. If you want a thorough dissection of this film (that is longer than the movie itself and infinitely more entertaining), I highly recommend YouTube critic MauLer’s series of videos (here’s the first one). He uses both clear logic and a strong understanding of storytelling to objectively demonstrate why and how this is a terrible film in an exemplary fashion. His conclusion is particularly well phrased and on point.