As you enter Nekketsu-hen, the point in the story finally building upon the concepts of humanity and selflessness, where we finally get to the real fight scenes of the movies, it's a little bit hard to shake the feeling that it's constantly, if subtly, off. It's easy to miss the first watch, and if you can brush this feeling aside and enjoy it you'll totally and fully love it anyway. But it feels a bit barebones and skimping on key moments that result in a wobbly progression throughout.
The mark of a good adaptation is being able to change source content or adapt it oddly to fit the medium, but in a way that feels not only natural but easy to immediately love it. Even if it sticks out, you still love it anyway. (See; the constant flash card cut-ins and outs.) In the first movie, there were moments that felt like they were handled in a noticeably different way. But because it fit in with the overall tone of the movie and its relaxed flow, it felt natural to enjoy or even like. This movie does it at points, but even then, because of the weird and uneven flow and story beats, it just feels way off.
Dramaturgy is perhaps the most noticeable example. It's hard to get a clear sense of what his character is, since he's noble and rational even if it's not seen much. You get the sense that there's something critical missing that ties in the themes together (and indeed, there are some stuff missing that some may call critical). After he is defeated, there is no more ruminating about him. He was merely an obstacle.
This wouldn't be a problem if the story was trying to make clear parallels and conflicts for each fight. Koyomi Araragi, a human turned vampire, facing off against a vampire, a half-vampire, and a human, all hunting vampires. The way it is all set up to test Araragi's humanity and his conviction (the Guillotinecutter fight is where all the conflicts get tested in an amazingly-done scene). It falls flat because each time, we miss some context that explains the hunters' goals and motivations. As great as the last battle is, we only get a hint of what Guillotinecutter is capable of, how much of a monster he is. The end result makes it not feel so satisfying, even if the fights are good.
The switch-off to scenes with Tsubasa Hanekawa before each fight doesn't make it any better. In the first ten minutes of the film, Araragi tries to brutally end his friendship with Hanekawa because... he wanted to feel human. With how sudden this sequence happens, everything happens too quickly and it's hard for me to understand the point. Were we supposed to think Araragi is an absolute idiot and asshole? He sort of is both but not to the extent that the scene portrays him as. Luckily, the next two Hanekawa scenes are not as bad in this department, and it feels more natural even for the kind of movie it's in.
This is why I still think this film is really good. There are moments where everything just shines and feels bright and vivid! Hanekawa admiring Araragi shirtless and making excuses to feel his abs. Hanekawa slowly roasting Araragi after finding the adult magazines Shinobu brought back. Hanekawa taking charge and shocking Araragi in the fields in her third scene. Even in the fights there's fantastic moments. Episode's cheesy yet hearty laughter interjecting itself visually during the first half of the fight sells him for me. The baby noises during the moments where Araragi figures out his body parts can regenerate. Guillotinecutter's cold, sadistic laughing when he believes he's already won. It saves what's otherwise an uneven and therefore so-so film.
Special mention to the soundtrack and animation here. The animation gets more adapted to portray fights well, so even in the most gloomy unexciting moments (like Araragi attempting to throw baseballs into Dramaturgy's face, or during sections of Araragi avoiding Episode's cross weapon) it manages to feel fresh. Meanwhile, with the soundtrack, there are climaxes of songs and even brief moments of stuff like intros and bridges, the action or visuals sync up to the music. Even in the calmer scenes with Hanekawa, it manages to hit each mark and strengthen the bond these characters have. It can capture moments better than any monologue can. The absolute best moment musically is when Araragi succumbs to his vampire powers against Guillotinecutter, the Drum and Bass music pounding away as he loses control. The visuals of him tearing up the streets sell it; it's as over-the-top as it needs to be.
This movie really did need to be longer, maybe one to three minutes in each scene setting up context and explaining things the film only alludes to. But for what it is (an underdog fighting to become human again in the most intense ways), it's a very serviceable and fine film. The way the fights get more and more serious as they go on is a perfect lead-up to the final film. So if you watched the first one and you're wondering whether you want to watch a bunch of fight scenes, my answer will always be the same: yes. Don't skip out on this, even with its issues.