Sometimes your worst enemy is yourself.
“Jack vs. Mad Jack”‘s premise is a relatively simply one, Aku uses his magic to create Mad Jack, the physical embodiment of Jack’s hatred and anger, in order to finally conquer the Samurai. And much like most of this season, this episode provides another first for the series, the first long form action spectacle. Arguably the final third of “The Premiere Movie” counted as the first, but considering how much time was spent planning for the battle and the nature of being the final act of one continuous battle, I feel like “Jack vs. Mad Jack” earned that distinction. Truth be told, these episodes are often among my least favorite of the series, and often aren’t too easy to talk about interestingly, thankfully this episode serves as an exception to that.
The first half of the episode is dedicated to Jack having to battle off a slew of different bounty hunters, including Chewbacca. The various designs of the bounty hunters are neat to see, especially Monkar, since many will recognized him from the opening sequence. The fight itself unfortunately doesn’t involve tree-hopping like in the opening credits but it’s still probably the highlight of these battles. There’s not much to say about the fights themselves, they’re all pretty simplistic and most of the highlights past the character designs are simply the brief moments of awesomeness each provide when Jack thwarts them. The strongest instance of this is actually the first one, when Jack finds himself surrounded at his table by bounty hunters looking to make two quick googolplex’s. We’re see two back-to-back instances of three split frames, one of the bounty hunters and Jack, both sides preparing to attack before we witness a flurry of slashes culminating in a huge blow. Then we just see the “peaceful aftermath”, with the damage to the bounty hunters only taking effect when Jack finally drinks his water. This isn’t an original concept, there’s countless instances of a swordsman strikes only taking effect after the face, almost always when they return the sword to their sheath. That delayed effect displays the impressive speed of the individual, while also looking cool but I prefer this version. Not only is a different take on the material but so rarely are these moments structured so well. From using the water’s drip as a signal to start to the ending, every action in the process is highlighted, making for a far more engaging moment. It even provides some structure to the episode, as the technique is repeated once more near the conclusion, with far more strikes, leading to a far more large-scale result.
However, it’s actually the small breather moments in-between the action that I find the most compelling here. Most of these involve a close-up on Jack’s face, emphasizing his growing frustrations at the constant barrage of enemies. Throughout this half, you can see the gradual progression of frustration throughout his expressions, starting off with the more typical hardened expression. Later his anger is shown through him furrowing his brows even further alongside the zoom in to Jack’s eyes, highlighting the importance of Jack’s anger. Finally, reducing him to out-right verbalizing his anger through a war-cry of sorts. Rather than just witnessing a series of battles, the true takeaway is the emotional state of Jack, which helps gives the second half the weight it needed.
The second half focusing on Mad Jack is great as well, mostly for the visual techniques rather than the actual battle choreography. The latter is fine, displaying their equal prowess through repeated actions. First it’s Jack managing to dodge the attacks swung at him, later it’s Mad Jack blocking Jack’s attempts. Replicating the shots for each action communicates the similarities in abilities between the two, and it gives the action more flavor than a standard equal blade for blade matching. Much how Jack’s growing aggravation served as my favorite part of the first half, the growing similarities between the two are the most compelling aspect here. With the surrounding flames, we get really cool silhouetted shots with slight light illuminating off both, that also make it difficult to register who is who. Later this extends not to just these far away shots but close-ups as both’s gi loses their distinguishing colors. It’s still easy to identify them here though, as Jack lacks those eye-shadows that Mad Jack sports but aside from that there similarities are everywhere, down to even that tears in the gi being located like a mirror image on Mad Jack. Before Jack himself figures out the resolution, they had it painted for the audience to notice in advance.
I really like how Jack’s revelation is presented too. Him discovering the answer through catching his reflection on his sword is pretty cool, not only because his sword is what he’s using to vent his anger but because it’s a pretty interesting turn-around on how the show has previously utilized the sword’s reflection. Previously in “The Premiere Movie”, the reflection of the sword was use to portray Jack’s target, the victims that will fall to the blade. This remains true here, not only is Jack seeing himself as Mad Jack, he’s seeing himself as the enemy. The visualization of the tranquil waterfall within the burning tree is also a fantastic symbol of Jack’s current state of mind. As per usual, I kind wish Jack didn’t outright state how he won as I figure the visuals more than conveyed it properly but that remains nothing more than a nitpick at this point. The fact that they wait until the end to reveal it feels like a fail-safe, they gave their audience all the time to figure it out, and they added a direct explanation just in case anyone doesn’t get it. It’s a formula that works well for a series like this, especially one in its demographic.
Before I wrap up this review, I want to briefly praise Phil Lamarr’s performance here. He’s always been a consistent performer but Samurai Jack doesn’t often give him a lot of range to express, this episode being probably the biggest exception, of the original run at least, seeing as he also has to voice Mad Jack. Mad Jack’s voice is a lot more gruff than Jack’s, there’s a lot more of an edge to it, almost sounds as if he’s emulating Mako’s boom as Aku. Echoing Aku’s vocal power in that manner is a pretty clever way of tying the voice to the alignment. Overall, this isn’t my favorite episode of Samurai Jack, and I’m not sure it’ll even make my top five of the season, but it’s still a very well crafted piece, and perhaps the most compelling of the action heavy episodes. If nothing else, Jack’s declaration to Aku that his tricks are starting to annoy him is a pretty comical ending line considering the rest of the episode, as well as a demonstration of Jack’s regained composure.