Watch ScarJo kick ass in the first five minutes of Ghost in the Shell

There will be a lot of Ghost in the Shell coming up this week on the site. Beginning on Monday, we’ll be reviewing the various animated incarnations of the universe, taking us through to next weekend, when we’ll be covering its entire world on Saturday, and then the new movie with Scarlet Johansson will be reviewed on Sunday. Hey, that’s the biggest action-heroine film since, certainly, the end of the Hunger Games franchise, and it’s a creation which has been hugely influential on SF since the manga version first came out in 1989. It’s amazing how accurate its prediction of the future, where everyone and everything is connected and interfaced, has proven – considering that at the time of its original release, the Internet was in its absolute infancy.

Anyway, the studio had released the opening five minutes, which depict the Major’s first action, after terrorists attack a business meeting. It answers some questions which you were perhaps asking after watching the trailer, such as her character’s oddly nipple-less appearance. Turns out she’s not naked, but wearing a skinsuit that provides optical camo, allowing her effectively to vanish. But my main takeaway is how goddamn gorgeous the whole thing looks. I know that’s what you’d expect – for all the flaws of Snow White and the Huntsman, from the same director, it was beautiful to look at. Still, even by those standards, this is a neon-drenched, all-you-can-eat buffet of visual stunnery. It certainly looks like every penny of the budget is up on the screen – combine this with a live-action rendition of one of the iconic action heroine of  Japanese animation, and that’s good enough for me.

So, I’m looking forward to seeing it on the largest screen possible, while stuffing my face with popcorn. And in the immortal words of D-Generation X, if you’re not down with that, we got two words for ya…

Charlize Theron Kills in ‘Atomic Blonde’ trailer

Charlize Theron has been an interesting character and action-heroine contender since 2004’s Aeon Flux. She also impressed as Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman and The Huntsman: Winter’s War, before blowing the roof off the place in Mad Max: Fury Road. She’s also heavily featured alongside action icons Jason Staham and Dwayne Johnson in the upcoming Fate of the Furious, in which she plays a villainess with a fondness for remote-controlled cars. But as the trailer for her latest film (below) shows, she might only be getting started.

Atomic Blonde is set at the end of the eighties, in the dying days of the Eastern Bloc, and she plays Lorraine Broughton, a British spy sent to Berlin to break open a Communist spy ring. They have already killed a colleague, and are apparently involved in the insertion of double agents into the West. It’s up to Lorraine and station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to dismantle the threat.

What particularly made me sit up and take notice about this project, was that it’s directed by David Leitch, who was co-director of the excellent John Wick. Going by the trailer, this appears to bring much the same hard-hitting approach to its action: check out in particular, the opening stairwell brawl,  apparently filmed in one shot, which represents a glorious and very welcome reaction to the hyper-cut hell which was too much of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. Bonus points for incorporating both a cover version of “Blue Monday” and the original of “Killer Queen” into the trailer.

It’s based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, The Coldest City, and also stars John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones. The film gets its world premiere at SXSW this weekend, so we should start to hear reviews etc. before long. The rest of us, however, will have to wait for a while, because Atomic Blonde will not be exploding into cinemas in the rest of America, until July 28.

Think I’m going to be circling that date in the calendar… Anyway, here’s the trailer to tide you over until then!

Lucha Underground: Hitokiri vs Pentagon Dark

If like us, you’re lucky enough to get Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, consider yourself fortunate, since its mix of action, horror, SF and the other genres we love is right up our alley. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is Lucha Underground, a pro wrestling show that crams more into one hour (less commercials) than WWE manage in a bloated three hours of RAW. For the purposes of this site, it’s particularly notable for its roster of women wrestlers that (again, unlike WWE) are treated little or no different from the men; Mexican luchadora Sexy Star recently had a brief reign as the federation’s top champion, something no woman has ever managed under Vince McMahon. But the last show in November blew them all away.

Some storyline background is necessary. Last year, one of LU‘s top villains, Pentagon Dark, attacked and, using his signature move, broke the arm of Black Lotus, in her role as bodyguard to the federation’s owner, Dario Cueto. Since then, Lotus has been looking for revenge, and found her opportunity a month or so back during the show’s Aztec Warfare episode. Her intervention, along with three other women wrestlers known as the Black Lotus Triad, potentially cost Pentagon Dark his shot at the title. Now it was Pentagon’s turn to seek revenge on Lotus, and Cueto set up a a gauntlet match in which he would get his change to fight her – but only if he could first defeat, one by one, the three other members of the Triad.

All three, using the names of Doku (which translates roughly as “poison”, Yurei (“ghost”) and Hitokiri (“assassin”) are played by top fighters from Japanese women’s wrestling: Kairi Hojo, Mayu Iwatani and Io Shirai, respectively. I’ve largely been out of touch with puroresu of late; used to be a huge fan, but I hadn’t even heard of the Stardom promotion from which this trio come. That’s going to change going forward, for all three made a strong impression – even if Doku and Yurei lost the first two matches to Pentagon. They both had their arms broken in much the same way as Lotus, albeit only after having their own moments. [Doku, in particular, took such a pounding, I wondered if she had a side-job as a stuntwoman]

But what it did was set the table nicely. For one of the problems of inter-gender matches like this, is the inevitable difference in size and strength between the opponents. By Pentagon having had to go through two tough matches to reach Hitokiri, taking no small amount of damage on the way, it helped level the playing-field. The other main issue is a frequent sense that it’s “wrong” to hit a woman: while true on an everyday level, of course, this is pro wrestling, and such rules shouldn’t apply. They didn’t here, and there was never any sense of Pentagon holding back. He didn’t need to, since Shirai’s reputation is as one of, if not, the best woman wrestler in the world, and she absolutely lived up to that. Anyone who thinks wrestling is “fake”, should watch the bout below. Staged, yes, in the sense the outcome is predetermined, and the action is done in such a way as to look devastating, while not being lethal.

Yet, there’s much here that can only be described as jaw-dropping, even for someone like me, who has been watching wrestling for close to 20 years. For instance, there’s Pentagon basically skipping Hitokiri through rows of chairs like a pebble across a lake. Or the drop-kick as she tries a handspring off the ropes. Hitokiri gave as good as she received too, right from the get-go with a hellacious moonsault off the top rope onto the outside, and her dive off the second floor of the building onto Pentagon. Again, moves like that helped balance the scales, with quickness, agility and a reckless disregard for personal safety countering a larger and stronger opponent. The net result was the finest man vs. woman wrestling bout I’ve ever seen, and arguably one of the greatest such fights across any genre.

[Spoilers follow] After the bout, with her top minion having taken care of Pentagon, Black Lotus came out and took her vengeance, breaking his arm, as he had done to her last year. Worse was to follow, as Azteca Jr – another previous victim of Pentagon’s limb-snapping – seized his chance, coming to the ring and breaking the other arm too. We’ll have to wait and see what happens; I’d love to see the Triad stay on long-term in LU, even if the commingling of Japanese and Chinese elements is a little “Yellow Peril”-esque. But I’ve also read Shirai has been signed by WWE, so her time here may be limited. Still, we’ll always have this match, which even less biased observers have said, “might be the greatest debut in Lucha Underground history.”

Ghost in the Shell trailer released

slice-ghostintheshellI was beginning to wonder. With the March 2017 date fast catching up, all we’d seen had been a couple of teaser clips, and I was bracing myself for an announcement that the release had been pushed back. But here we are, with the first official trailer for the film. I must confess, at this point I am largely unable to comment on how this relates to the other versions of the story, in manga and anime, since it has been a very long time [nearer 20 years than 15] since I read and saw those, and a lot of the universe has taken place since then. I will be catching up over the next few months, and you can expect a blast of retro-GitS coverage here in the second half of March.

But, on its own terms, this looks every bit as visually stunning as you’d expect from the director of Snow White and the Huntsman, a film which, if certainly flawed, was one of the best-looking movies of the past few years. I think those aspects are probably going to hit it out of the park. But in terms of story-line, it does feel more than somewhat generic, more like a female version of Robocop than anything else. We’ve all seen the “Who am I, really?” thing before, to the extent that it’s bordering on cliché. The previous versions have been renowned for being deep, though that can often be a problematic direction for a feature film to take. For instance, I caught a bit of The Matrix Reloaded the other day, in particular the scene with the Architect burbling nonsense like, “Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the matrix.” Just give us more of ScarJo in slow-mo, please.

Speaking of which… The casting of Ms. Johansson. I’m just going to copy/paste an online comment, “I’m so sick of Hollywood casting white women in roles that were meant for cyborgs. #OscarsSoOrganic.” Yes, this is sarcasm, in case it’s not 110% clear. But I’m looking forward to seeing both Pilou Asbæk and Takeshi Kitano; the former has been a house choice from his time in Danish political series Borgen, and the latter is an icon of Japanese yakuza films for more than two decades. They’re going to bring it, I’m fairly certain. There’s still time for this to go in either direction – I seem to recall Aeon Flux having a fairly kick-ass opening trailer – and I’m sure the GitS purists will find plenty to complain about. But as someone whose expectations are currently unaffected by previous versions, this looks almost certain to be a trip to the cinema.

There’s a lot riding on it. While Hollywood has had enormous success in mining North American comics for movies, going outside has yet to lead to major international success. Between Ghost and Valerian, 2017 will be a major test of their commercial viability, and beyond that, the $200 million (!) production of Battle Angel is already heading towards a July 2018 release. Success will inevitably lead to more; failure will not only hurt the future prospects of other manga adaptations, it could undo a lot of the action heroine positive buzz provided by the success of The Hunger Games.

New Wonder Woman trailer and posters released

[Click to enlarge posters, in new window]

A second trailer has come out for Wonder Woman, in advance of the film’s release in America on June 9, 2017. And, I must admit, I’m quite stoked by something which looks not dissimilar to Agent Carter in terms of period feel (obviously a little earlier), but with the mayhem ramped up to 11. This one does reveal a bit more than the first trailer, and it’s clear what brings Diana Prince out of her reclusive existence on the island of Themyscira – an assault by German forces renders Amazon neutrality no longer feasible. As she says, in voice-over, “The closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within,” and despite opening with a present-day scene, it seems likely the bulk of this will take place in and around World War I. It’s an interesting choice, not one mined for superhero activity. But the Great War’s brutality offers perhaps the starkest contrast to the peaceful lives of the Amazons, and it’s also a time when women were fighting for equality.

There is a bunch of particularly cool stuff, but I got particular chills as the shot of Diana riding over the top and into trench warfare on her horse. Good to see they’re retained both her bullet-deflecting bracelets and the lasso of truth. No sign yet of her invisible plane, though given the era, presumably it would have to be an invisible biplane. Chris Pine looks largely useless as the obvious romantic interest, and let’s hope he’s relegated to the sideline position he deserves. I certainly don’t want any more of the “She’s my secretary” malarkey mentioned here – we certainly got enough of that in the first season of Agent Carter! Still no word on how the main villain will be, but the Internet’s general consensus is that Danny Huston’s German officer is likely to be Ares, the god of war. However, there is a glimpse of another potential nemesis, in the disfigured woman who appears to be responsible for the poison gas. All told, it mostly looks very slick and highly effective.

However, I’m forced to be cautious, as I am getting something of an Aeon Flux vibe from this production – and we all know how that went. Flux‘s director, Karyn Kusama, was employed on the strength of a small scale “feminist” film, Girlfight, but fell ferociously short at the task of putting together a $60+ million SF spectacle (although it’s not perhaps as bad as often claimed). WW is being helmed by Patty Jenkins, also a director without any real experience of big-budget, cinematic spectacle. Her last feature was back in 2003, the one she’s best known for, Monster – and which coincidentally starred the future Aeon, Charlize Theron. It probably doesn’t help that the DC movies so far have been critical failures, particularly when compared to their Marvel counterparts.

Additionally, there was an anonymous tirade – albeit from an anonymous ex-Warner Bros employee – which said of Wonder Woman, “People inside are already confirming it’s another mess.” Murphy roundly rejected such criticism, but the problems with the DC universe are undeniable. The trailer looks good – but if you can’t find two minutes of good in your feature for a trailer, then you really have a problem (I’m looking at you, Ghostbusters). Mind you, Suicide Squad had a totally bad-ass trailer as well and the end result was “Meh, save for Harley Quinn.” Still, we’ll see. There’s a lot riding on it, not just for DC, but the future of large budget action-heroines in general. While a WW failure won’t stop Captain Marvel from appearing in 2019, it could certainly have a chilling effect on other superheroines’ chances of reaching the screen.

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story

khanBorn three years before the Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg, Khan was perhaps the most unlikely of secret agents. Her father was an Indian of noble birth, descended on his maternal side from Tipu Sultan, and a noted Sufi mystic; her mother, a cousin of Mary Baker Eddy’s from New Mexico. The family also lived in London, before settling in Paris until the invasion of France in 1940, when Khan returned to the United Kingdom. Keen to help free her country from the Nazis, she joined the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force as a wireless operator. However, her additional talents as a native French speaker, brought Khan to the attentions of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), tasked with organizing resistance groups in France.

After being trained in undercover work, she was sent to France in June 1943, and began work in Paris, transmitting agent reports back to London. It was a ferociously dangerous job, with the average lifespan of radio operators only a few weeks. A sweep by occupying forces gathered up almost all her colleagues, leaving Khan the only operator still at large. She was the most wanted British secret agent in Paris, with her description widely circulated; wireless detection teams meant she was constantly on the move and could only transmit for 20 minutes at a time. According to a post-war commendation, “She refused to abandon what had become the most important and dangerous post in France and did excellent work.”

It eventually took betrayal from within the organization before she was captured after three and a half months in October 1943. Even then, she managed to escape custody, only to be recaptured once again. Another unsuccessful attempt followed. The Germans were taking no further chances, and shipped her from France to Germany, where she was imprisoned in solitary confinement, with her hands and feet shackled. After more than nine months she was transferred to Dachau concentration camp, along with three other female British SOE agents. On September 13, 1944, all four were executed. Khan was 30 years old. Her final utterance was: “Liberte”. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the second-highest British decoration – one of only four women to receive it – and also given the Croix de Guerre by the French government.

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story
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khanScreened on PBS in 2014, this uses a combination of interviews, with scholars and Khan’s descendants,  as well as dramatic re-creations, to tell her life-story, touching on most of the aspects mentioned above. It also delves into her psychology, suggesting that the tenets of strong Sufi philosophy instilled during her upbringing were both a source of Khan’s strength and, potentially, her biggest weakness. She was, according to the film, almost incapable of telling a lie, which could be a literally lethal flaw for a secret agent in wartime. In his memoirs, cryptographer Leo Marks (played here by Isenberg) gives some blackly amusing anecdotes to illustrate this. But the film concentrates on how he used the trait to strengthen her encryption skills, another area of concern from her training.

Unfortunately, rather unimpressive are the interviews with her nephew, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan who delivers slabs of philosophical mumbo-jumbo that makes little sense and is even less interesting. I’d rather have seen more of the re-enactments of Khan’s time in occupied Paris, which manage to do a fairly good job of capturing the sense of danger and perpetual tension for an agent in those times. Srinivasan, as Khan, doesn’t appear to have anything of an acting resume in the IMDb, yet is successful in depicting Khan’s idealism, which ultimately led to her death. Curiously though, the film appears almost to soft-pedal the treatment received at the hands of the Nazis after her capture. Still, there’s no denying the impact of the final sequence, which cuts from the execution, shot almost in stark black-and-white, to Khan reading from the book of stories she had written, to two young children.

Though running little more than 50 minutes, it does highlight the cinematic potential in the story: the modern resonance of a Muslim woman taking up arms and participating in a Western war is particularly undeniable. There was word, back in 2012 [around the time a memorial statue of Khan was unveiled in London], that such a project was in the pipeline. Producers Tabrez Noorani and Zafar Hai announced they had bought the rights to Shrabani Basu’s book, Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. You’d think a Hollywood-Bollywood partnership would be all over the story. Yet since then? Little or nothing. Maybe some day, Khan will finally receive the global recognition she likely deserves.

Dir: Robert H. Gardner
Star: Helen Mirren (narrator), Grace Srinivasan, Joe Isenberg, Mike Sullivan

Below, you should see another documentary on the same topic, Princess Spy. This formed part of BBC’s Timewatch series in 2006, and if perhaps a little dry, is also a good overview of a heroine who isn’t as well known as she should be.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter trailer released

resevilDoesn’t time fly? The last entry in the Resident Evil franchise, Retribution, was released in September 2012, so it’ll be a gap of almost four and a half years by the time The Final Chapter is finally released in January. It shouldn’t have been that long: filming was scheduled to begin in August 2014, but Milla Jovovich’s pregnancy caused shooting to be postponed Director Paul W.S. Anderson is also Milla’s husband, so he can’t exactly complain! Their second child was successfully born in April 2015, and filming eventually commended in September that year.

The production was not without problems, most notably a horrific accident involving stunt double Olivia Jackson. A motorcycle she was riding collided with a camera rig: per Wikipedia, this resulted in “cerebral trauma, a crushed face, a severed artery in her neck, a paralyzed arm, several broken ribs, a shattered scapula, a broken clavicle, torn fingers with a thumb that needed to be amputated, and five nerves torn out of her spinal cord.” I’ve read elsewhere Jackson’s face was actually “degloved,” which is as awful as it sounds. An even more serious accident followed, with crew member Ricardo Cornelius being crushed to death by a vehicle on set.

On a happier note, a number of characters return from Retribution, including Alice, Claire Redfield (Aly Larter), Albert Wesker (Shaun Roberts) and Dr. Alexander Isaacs (Iain Glen). It takes up proceedings immediately after the end of Retribution, and sees Alice return to where it all began, in Raccoon City. There, she has to take on once more the Umbrella Corporation, which is preparing its final push against the last survivors of humanity. [I must confess, I had forgotten they had any kind of motive, beyond setting up set-pieces in which Alice can kick ass and look cool doing it. I think I may need to watch Retribution again, between now and January]. Though it appears Alice has lost her superhuman abilities, which is going to make things… different as far as her zombie-slaying is concerned. What the hell is she supposed to use, man, harsh language?

Fortunately, the trailer makes clear that sarcasm is going to remain a minor weapon in Alice’s arsenal. Accompanied by the rocking sounds of Guns ‘n’ Roses, we see Alice riding her motorcycle back to Raccoon City, and indeed, returning to her literal roots.  You definitely get the sense of things having come full-circle, not least with the return to the laser-protected corridor, which provided one of the first “F___ me! Rewind that!” moments of the series. I hope the defense system has retained the sense of dramatic escalation shown there. So, generally, I’m looking forward to this, and hopefully it will provide a suitable exclamation point for a franchise which will have run for close to 15 years.

Of course, putting The Final Chapter in your title is no guarantee of anything. Just ask Friday the 13th, which continued for nineteen years and seven further movies after their “Final Chapter” in 1984, then was rebooted entirely in 2009. If the box-office returns are good, I would not be in the slightest surprised if Sony/Constantin Films keep squeezing the cash-cow. While the returns have been moderate in North America – the biggest being 2010’s Afterlife at $60.1 million – they have done increasingly well overseas. Over 82% of Retribution‘s income came from there, and the series as a whole has grossed over $915 million. Not bad for a total production cost of $250 million.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter opens in North America on January 27.

Wonder Woman trailer released

wonderwomanposterDC has always seemed to be stuck in second-place when it comes to their movies, trapped behind the behemoth which is Marvel and their “Cinematic Universe”. The underwhelming performance, both critical and commercial, of Batman vs. Superman seemed to solidify that. Combining perhaps the two biggest names in comic-book history should have led to equally spectacular results, but after the expected enormous opening, the film had no legs at all, pulling in more that debut weekend than it did over the entire rest of its theatrical run. They’ll be hoping for better with Suicide Squad which comes out in a couple of weeks, and have already set their tent-pole release for summer next year.  The much-anticipated Wonder Woman film, starring Gail Gadot, comes out on June 2nd, and the first trailer was released over the weekend at San Diego ComicCon.

It’s interesting that they have beaten Marvel to the action heroine punch. While Marvel have created TV Series such as Agent Carter and Jessica Jones, there’s still no firm word of any, say, Black Widow movie. Their only scheduled heroine is Captain Marvel, and that’s not due until March 2019; also announced at ComicCon this weekend, in what could be seen as a spoiling tactic, she will be played by Oscar-winner Brie Larsen. This delay leaves the floor open for DC, who will be seeking to wash away memories of the disaster which was Catwoman. Arguably, that 2004 film sunk the comic-book action heroine movie, single-handed, for more than a decade. [Truth be told, it’s not that bad. It ain’t good, certainly – but it’s no Batman & Robin] The stage was already set, with Wonder Woman making a supporting appearance in B.vs.S. And it’s this which brought me the first surprise about the trailer, because unlike that, it appears that Wonder Woman will be a period piece, set during the First World War. I guess being created by Zeus gives a lady certain advantages in the “aging gracefully” department.

While I don’t know the comics [Pretty much all I know of WW is Lynda Carter. Sue me] , this appears to be a deviation from them, which had her showing up in the Second World War. However, it would certainly explain why she more or less bailed on the human race for the next century, having experienced close to the worst that mankind could offer – with the emphasis firmly on “man” there. There’s some speculation we’ll find out Ares, the god of war, and WW’s nemesis, is behind everything, which would make sense. Given WW’s literally near-divine level talents, it would take some of equivalent power to pose much of a threat. Perhaps who she’s going to see with her Very Large Sword? However, in terms of sheer trailer-iness, I would say this comes close to hitting it out of the park. It lays out the basics of the story without giving too much away, showcases the look, provides some really cool moments of action, and leaves me wanting to head straight to the cinema and begin queuing up.

Of course, we’ve all seen movies that have had great trailers, yet the finished product has failed to deliver [the last Bond film comes immediately to mind]. There does seem to be a little too much Captain Kirk/Chris Pine in this. I hope they don’t bog things down with romantic subplot, for that would be insufferable. If he’s much more than the heroic sacrifice, whose death triggers WW into action, I’m not going to be happy. So I’m going to restrain myself from proclaiming this as the best action heroine movie of 2017 quite yet. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s what I’m saying on June 2 next year, when the film is released.

Kung Fu Darling

As an expat Brit, I’m always pleased to see my former home coming up with action heroines. It hasn’t been a strength: any list of mainstream entries tends to run out soon after Diana Rigg, Kate Beckinsale and Rhona Mitra. However, there is some hope. Cecily Fay made an impact in Warrioress, and one of the supporting actresses there was Zara Phythian, who stars in the video that follows.

Cranking things back, Phythian first entered the public eye in 2009, when she set a world record for “Most items kicked off peoples’ heads in one minute”. [Yeah, I didn’t know that was a thing either. 43, since you ask] Zara was also the leading lady in 2011’s The Hike, but has clearly taken things up a notch since. She’s someone you’re going to be hearing more of, too, since she has a role in the upcoming Marvel movie, Doctor Strange, due out in October. There, she’ll be playing Zealot, alongside Mads Mikkelsen. She also won Woman of the Year this past April, as part of the British Martial Arts Awards.

This short, Kung Fu Darling, was written and directed by Benedict Sanderson, and has fight choreography by Joey Ansah. It’s a small slice of fast-paced fun, shot in the East End of London, in which a woman has her handbag snatched, while enjoying a coffee with friends. The culprit doesn’t realize he has bitten off more than he can chew with his unfortunate choice of target. And neither do the pals who come to his aid…

Jessie Graff: From Chick Fight to American Ninja Warrior

“Being strong doesn’t make you manly or unfeminine. It just means you can do more things.” — Jessie Graff

At the risk of touting our own hipster cred, we’ve been fans of Ninja Warrior for long before it hit the mainstream on NBC – we first wrote about it here, and the women who competed on the show, back in 2007, when it was screening on the late, lamented cable channel G4. Since then, America has gone from having tryout for the Japanese original, to its own, entirely independent version of the show – on which both men and women compete, with no mercy to the latter. Success has, understandably, been hard to come by. One of the few to have completed the course is Jessie Graff – even after the qualifying course was toughened up for this season, she still was able to make it through, as you can see below:

But Graff is not just a game-show competitor. She’s a stuntwoman, whose credits include everything from The Walking Dead to X-Men: First Class. She’s also a black-belt in taekwondo, and held the women’s pole-vault record during her time at the University of Nebraska, before moving to Hollywood – initially seeking to follow a career in acting, before her physical abilities led her into the stunt world. She first appeared in 2013, as part of the show’s fifth season, wearing a chicken costume, for reasons we’ll get to. Despite not appearing to take the course as seriously as many of the male competitors, she qualified for the regional finals at her first attempt.

A bad knee injury sidelined her for 2014, perhaps preventing her from becoming among the first woman to complete a qualifying course – that prize went to  Kacy Catanzaro. But it allowed Graff to focus on improving her grip strength, a necessity for a number of the obstacles, and in season 7 last year, she became the only female competitor that series to qualify for the national finals in her own right. This season, as the above video shows, she’s seeking to go even further. Now, we sit on the couch, with our Doritos, and cheer on all the women, from Catanzaro through Michelle Warnky and Meagan Martin. But Graff’s sense of fun – most obvious in her choice of attire – is what had particularly endeared her to us.

If you need further evidence of that, I present you the video below, in which she and fellow stunt-woman Tree O’Toole recreate the “chicken fight” sequence from animated series Family Guy, as a live-action fisticuffs extravaganza. Bonus credit: cameo appearance (at around the 2:20 mark) by veteran stunt-woman Jeannie Epper, who mentored Zoë Bell. Watch it, and Graff wearing a chicken dress on her American Ninja Warrior debut later that year, will make a great deal more sense!