MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #3: Bad Blood by Taylor Swift

written by David Steffen

This is the third in a new series of articles wherein I examine a music video by a well-known artist as a short film, trying to identify the story arcs and the character motivations, and consider the larger implications of things that we get glimpses of in the story. 

This time we are taking a look at Bad Blood by Taylor Swift, featuring Kendrick Lamar, a 2015 blockbuster action film with an all-star cast.

The film begins with an opening shot of a city skyline at night and transitions inside to an office space that appears to be empty until a man wearing a business side and a headband-style mask slams onto the top of the frontmost desk and a security alarm blares and we see a woman (Taylor Swift) attacking another suit by locking her legs around his head and throwing him before calmly applying fresh lipstick while her character name “Catastrophe” displays next to her.

She is not alone in this infiltration as Arsyn (Selena Gomez) enters the scene, disabling yet another suit. Together they make quick work of a whole squad of… enemy agents? My first thought on this scene was they were infiltrating to steal something, but it seems unlikely that security guards in an office building would wear masks as a matter of course, even if they are security guards working for a villain.

Catastrophe lays her hands on a silver briefcase that appears to be of some importance–though it’s not clear where it comes from, flying through the air in the middle of the scene, accidentally thrown by a disabled suit? If it is so important, why does the guy run toward her while carrying it, rather than running away? When Catastrophe lets her guard down Arsyn blows powder in her face from a makeup kit and kicks Catastrophe through a nearby window where she falls a great distance and smashes into a car and Arsyn leaves her for dead. (I wouldn’t want to pay the insurance on that building if they have a high-rise with floor to ceiling windows and don’t have shatter-proof glass).

Catastrophe is badly injured but not dead, and she is mended by the futuristic machines of tech expert Welvin Da Great (Kendrick Lamar) with the assistance of a trio of women (androids?) called The Trinity (Hailee Steinfeld). This high-tech, presumably high budget suite suggests that Catastrophe works for a high-budget spy organization, or mercenary I suppose since they are probably way too noticeable to be proper spies.

About three-fourths of the film from this point is an extended training montage as Catastrophe sharpens her skills in various areas with different specialists within the organization. The cast is too large to list here, but they include Mother Chucker (Carla Delevingne) a nunchuck specialist, Cutthroat (Zendaya) throwing knife specialist, Domino (Jessica Alba) motorcycle specialist, and Destructa X (Ellie Goulding) who carries a missile launcher everywhere she goes, even indoors. Each appearance is little more than a brief cameo as Catastrophe hones her skills with each of them. Lucky Fiori (Lena Dunham) seems to be the leader of the organization–at least, it’s hard to imagine she plays any other role since she is not seen doing anything but smoking a cigar.

The organization is certainly formiddable and presumably has some deep pockets considering the weaponry and facilities, and given that Catastrophe and others appear to routinely damage the architecture and no one seems to care. The fact that Destructa X carries her missile launcher around indoors does raise some questions about the organizations friendly fire record–since they appear to be some kind of mercenary or special forces group, I imagine that everyone there is accustomed to risking their lives, but still one would think they would want to avoid one of their own accidentally wiping out a dozen or more of their own agents with a slip of the finger–I would be much more worried about that than about applying so many resources to stopping Arsyn.

Another significant feature of the organization is that it appears to be women-led and almost entirely woman-staffed–Welvin Da Great appearing to be the sole exception. Some of the wardrobe choices are a little bit perplexing for a merc or special forces group–particularly platform shoes and that sort of thing that can’t be conducive to running though they certainly look nice.

In the final scene, Catastrophe and an entourage of six other agents face off against Arsyn and a matching entourage ringed by a truly apocolayptic ring of explosions that no one seems at all worried about. Arsyn’s entourage all wear full leather face-masks–is this the uniform of a rival organization, or are these moles who are still trying to conceal their identity? Despite the heavy weaponry including missile launchers and bullet-bandoliers, the two groups don’t attack from a distance or attack undercover, but instead walk up to within arm’s reach of each other before Catastrophe and Arsyn and simultaneously attack each other with their bare hands.

This action film has an all-star cast, and certainly plenty of action. Who doesn’t love a good training montage between well-matched and imposing opponents, or a big action star face-off at the end. If you’re looking for just action, there is plenty of that. Considering the short length of the film, the size of the cast leaves little room for character development as the film breathlessly runs from one character to the next. I would be interested in watching spinoff films for any number of these characters (Cutthroat and Domino in particular, because I’ve liked Zendaya’s and Alba’s previous acting work).

The one character that has significant screen-time is our protagonist Catastrophe, and I’m not sure that I ever fully understood her either. She is excellent at what she does and was only defeated in the film by a betrayal by a trusted ally at a distracted moment. It’s understandable that she would want revenge for that betrayal, and to make sure that Arsyn can never do it again. But I would have liked to know more about why the organization thought it a worthwhile use of so many resources–why is it so important for Arsyn to be killed and to risk so many agents to do it. Is it driven primarily by Catastrophe’s vendetta or does the organization have its own purpose apart from that? What was in the briefcase? Who were they stealing the briefcase from, and why weren’t they smart enough to send the briefcase away from the attackers instead of toward them? The film does not answer any of these questions, though Lucky Fiori seems generally unconcerned with anything besides smoking her cigar, so I got the impression that Catastrophe has the free reign to direct this operation at her own directive.

(Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be Run Boy Run by Woodkid)

MOVIE REVIEW: Spies In Disguise

written by David Steffen

Spies in Disguise is a 2019 computer-animated action/comedy film produced by Blue Sky Studios and distributed by 20th Century Fox. The movie follows super-suave celebrity spy (ala James Bond) Lance Sterling (Will Smith), who is on the top of his game, able to infiltrate an enemy’s facility and make it look effortless with a combination of martial arts, gadgets, and catchy one-liners.

But Sterling seems to meet his match facing off against an unknown adversary with a robot hand (Ben Mendelsohn), when he takes the blame for the theft of an expensive drone, and barely escapes agency headquarters when Marcy Koppel (Rashida Jones) of the agency tries to to apprehend him for it. He makes an unlikely friend in a gadget-inventor Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) he got fired from the agency that same day for his flashy but pacifist gadgets. Shortly after, Sterling unknowingly drinks down an experimental chemical formula that turns him into… a pigeon, albeit a pigeon with human intelligence and speech. Being a pigeon makes most of his tactics… less than effective, though it does have a certain appeal in the fact that there is a major manhunt looking for him but they don’t know he’s a pigeon.

I went into this movie with low expectations. It looked like an okay movie to take a kid too, and I thought there was a pretty good chance that I would nap through it. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, I thought it was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed Will Smith in particular–it reminded me in some ways of his character in the original Men In Black, suave when he needs to be, but out of his element, with a sense of humor that helps him get through more difficult times. I liked the interaction between them, Sterling’s confident and gungho but violent means eventually coming to see the benefits to Beckett’s preferred nonviolent engagement. The villain is suitably scary and easy to root against. My particular favorite part of the movie were the comic relief from the secondary pigeon characters.

I would recommend it, especially if you have kids, but even if not.

GAME REVIEW: Elevator Action

written by David Steffen

Elevator Action is a 1983 spy action game by Taito published in arcade format. As each level begins the player character grapples to the top of a 30-story building and must make their way down to the ground floor through the building filled with gun-toting guards while collecting secret documents along the way.

The most novel part of the game, as the name suggests, is the elevators used to move from floor to floor which you and the guards can use to shift up or down floors. You do have an advantage over an individual guard: you also have a gun, and both you and the guards will die from a single bullet, and the guards don’t seem inclined to dodge by jumping and ducking as you can, and you can also kill the guards by jump-kicking.

As far as arcade games of the era go, this one is much easier to get pretty good at than most, so was probably an easy “gateway game” for arcade players. despite the relatively simple controls, you have quite a few options between shooting and dodging and jump-kicking and riding elevators to evade or attack the guards.

I played this for the first time at the Game Changers exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Typical for the era.

Typical for the era.

Lower than most arcade games, much easier entry point.

Not much story (typical of the era and format).

Session Time
Depends how good you are!

Simple, apart from it not being immediately obvious that you have to collect documents behind the red doors, and if you don’t open those doors reaching the ground floor just sends you back up.

Not in the usual way I mean, but if you like this kind of game there’s certainly plenty of fun to be had.

It was a new twist at the time.

I don’t know how long it would take to play all the way through.

This is a fun game and less frustrating than other games of its time. And there have been various recent-ish ports that you might be able to find.

TV REVIEW: Chuck Season 5

written by David Steffen

Chuck was an action spy action/drama/comedy show, starring Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi), who started as a down-on-his-luck geek working at the BuyMore fixing computers, when he ended up with a supercomputer with government secrets downloaded into his brain, as he has been used as an intelligence asset. And later in the series he got an upgrade to the software that also gave him various physical skills like martial arts. Season 5 was only 13 episodes and aired from October 2011 through January 2012.

The end of Season 4 and the beginning of Season 5 return to the shows roots, but with a twist, as Chuck, Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), and Casey (Adam Baldwin) use money they’ve earned to buy the Buy More and continue to use it as a base for their freelance spy organization Carmichael Industries. But, at the end of the last season, a set of programmable sunglasses that was meant to upload a new copy of the Interact computer into Chuck’s brain was instead worn by Morgan (Joshua Gomez), so Morgan now has the knowledge of a government supercomputer and extra physical capabilities of the Intersect, so he is the new focal point of their organization and Chuck is now acting as his handler (like Sarah used to do for him in the early seasons).

This final season of the show was a roller-coaster ride, where they tried new things that they hadn’t done in any of the previous seasons (Morgan as the Intersect being just the first!) and I got the impression while watching that the writers were told to build in multiple big finales throughout these episodes in case they got cancelled earlier than that (and maybe there were more finales written for later that never aired). As a result, on top of the individual episode arcs, and the overall season arc, there were also couple-of-episodes arcs throughout the season, and things that seemed like they had the shape of an overall season arc would very suddenly end.

I was sad to see the show end, and there are things about the final season that I wish had been done differently, but it was good to finally see how they wrapped up the show’s portrayal of the Chuck and Sarah story.

If you’ve watched previous stories, you really should watch it, to see how it all turns out.