Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film List - Crowning Moments of 'Awesome'

Somehow or other (for some reason, my ordinarily elephantine memory refuses to 'pay attention' to the paths of my Web-browsing) I happened upon the TV Tropes website a few weeks back, and was intrigued by their page on Crowning Moments Of Awesome - briefly defined as: "The moment when a fictional character does something for which they will be remembered forever, winning for them the eternal loyalty of fans."
That concept is more fully elaborated on the page, and they point out that for many action heroes almost everything they do would be a crowning moment of awesome for anyone else; so, what counts as a 'crowning moment' for them really has to be something especially awesome.

Here, then, are a few of my favourite character-defining moments.....

William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) in A Knight's Tale
I watched Brian Helgeland's zestful historical romp again just recently, and it's irresistibly good fun. The acme of our young hero's career in the lists is, for me, the tournament where - to indulge his capricious lady love's distaste for macho competitiveness - he accedes to her injunction to try to lose, and simply sits passively on his horse as opponent after opponent charges down mercilessly upon him (eventually, of course, she relents and tells him to start trying to win again; but by that time he's been beaten to a pulp by dozens of lance blows). The climactic showdown with villainous Rufus Sewell, where Ledger goes into the final joust without his armour, is, I feel, just a tad too over-the-top; 'moments of awesomeness' are - sometimes - compromised if they become too exaggerated or unbelievable.

Britt (James Coburn) in The Magnificent Seven
Sometimes, the defining moment of 'awesome' will be encapsulated in a cool line as much as, or more than, in whatever remarkable piece of action prompted it. Particularly if it is a faux self-deprecating cool line. This film is, of course, chock full of awesome moments and awesome lines from the seven awesome heroes (well, five - Harry doesn't get to do much, and Chico is just irritating); if they were making it today, they'd probably call it The Awesome Seven. The pick of this awesome crop, however, is the moment when Coburn's character shoots a fleeing Mexican bandit off his horse - at extreme range, with a pistol. The over-excitable Chico crows, "That was amazing. The greatest shot I've ever seen!" Coburn replies calmly: "The worst! I was aiming for the horse." Perhaps the best faux self-deprecating line ever?

Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell (Tom Cruise) in Top Gun
The aerial combat sequences all rather blend into one, I find, and Mav's trademark "slam on the brakes and he'll fly right by" manoeuvre doesn't really seem like something that Iceman or any of his other rivals couldn't easily pull off. Flying inverted over the Russian MIG is pretty fancy, but.... well, I just never quite bought the idea that Maverick was that much better a flyer than everyone else. The thing that defined his character was what a relentless - and awesomely cool - lady-killer he was. Having the guts to perform the karaoke serenade of The Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' to Kelly McGillis in the bar was pretty damned awesome (it softened her up for later seduction, even if it appeared to be a 'crash and burn' at the time). The culminating moment of cool, though - the moment that, when I first saw this in the cinema, had the women gasping in horror and frustration, and the men gaping in slack-jawed admiration - is when he's finally worn down her resistance and she is ready to fall into his arms (or, as some would more crudely put it, is 'gagging for it')..... and he makes her wait, deciding to go off for a shower first. Awesome.

Hans Grüber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard
Villains can be awesome, too. Alan Rickman, of course, steals every movie he's in; but this was the role that propelled him to stardom on the other side of Atlantic - quite an achievement to create a bad guy even more memorable than the impressively awesome action hero John McClane. He has such suavity, such élan; he dispenses evil so casually, with such world-weary ennui. His crowning moment is when he randomly adds to the list of his ransom demands the release of nine imprisoned members of an obscure Asian terrorist sect, a whimsical piece of misdirection which perplexes his henchmen; he explains, "I read about them in Time magazine."

Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) in Cool Hand Luke
Almost everything that Luke does in this film is thoroughly awesome - from getting himself arrested for decapitating parking meters at the beginning to taunting the bosses with his impersonation of Strother Martin's supercilious Warden at the end. It is, of course, his outrageous bluffing in the poker game that wins him his nickname; but that seems like fairly routine awesomeness (and he only got away with it because most of the other players were profoundly dumb). It's his refusal to accept defeat in his boxing match with George Kennedy's Dragline that first wins him the respect of the other prisoners; that's always been the most inspiring moment of the film for me, but I'm not sure if it quite qualifies as 'awesome' within the TV Tropes conception because, well, he does get the crap knocked out of him. The egg-eating challenge is probably the best remembered scene in the film, but its awesomeness is undercut by its grossness (and its unbelievability: 50 boiled eggs in an hour just isn't humanly possible), and by doubts as to whether he's quite succeeded (it looks as though he's still got a mouthful of egg at the time-up, but he's somehow managed to get rid of it when they prise his jaw open to check a few seconds later). Luke's role is to impress and entertain his fellow convicts, and to inspire them with a renewed sense of their self-worth. The three key moments in achieving this are: energising the road gang into working faster, so that they will have some free time to kick back and relax at the end of the day (a feat which prompts Dragline to exclaim, "Oh Luke, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothin'."); while on the run, mocking up a magazine photo of himself on the town with a couple of glamorous female companions and sending it back to his friends inside; and still grinning contentedly, defiantly, even as he was being taken away to his death ("That Luke smile. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile."). I find it impossible to choose between those three. Who says you can only have one 'crowning moment of awesome'?

John Matrix (Arnold Scharzenegger) in Commando
For me, this is Big Arnie's finest achievement, a deliriously camp action movie that exuberantly sends up the whole genre, yet somehow still works as an action movie. It's hard to pick an ultimate moment of 'awesomeness' from a film littered with them: Arnie discovered at the beginning of the film casually carrying a tree - not just a log, but a whole tree-trunk - under his arm; finding his truck disabled by the bad guys, so setting it rolling down a steep slope and then hopping into it to drive it unpowered down the mountainside, nearly intercepting the fleeing villains' cars as they round each bend in the winding road; tearing a phonebooth off the wall with his bare hands to prevent the baddie inside from phoning in news of his escape; threatening the weasly henchman Sully with the line "I like you, Sully; you're a funny guy. That's why I'm going to kill you last.", and then - when dropping him off a cliff shortly afterwards - following up with "You remember how I said I was going to kill you last? I lied." (and then, returning to his helpmate, the seriously gorgeous Rae Dawn Chong, who asks, "What did you do with Sully?" "I let him go." Awesomely good kiss-off lines!). However, the topping-all-the-other-awesome-moments moment of awesomeness is undoubtedly the celebrated 'toolshed scene' - which follows fairly soon after one of the cinema's great 'tooling up' scenes, where Arnie prepares himself for the climactic battle by strapping and clipping on to his flak jacket a vast array of guns, knives, grenades, rocket-launchers and Claymore mines. Unfortunately, fairly early on in his storming of the chief baddie's villa, he gets nearly blown up by a mortar shell and drops all of this impressive armoury. Taking refuge in a toolshed in the grounds, he then has to fight his way out with whatever comes to hand - garden fork, axe, machete.... rotary saw blades used as lethal frisbees. Hilarious. Wildly over-the-top and unbelievable, yes, but marvellously appropriate to the lightly comic tone of the movie.
[The lovely Ms Chong has her own 'crowning moment of awesome' in this film when she rescues Arnie from the cops by shooting up the paddy-wagon he's in with a hand-held rocket launcher. Arnie, miraculously unscathed by the explosion and ensuing crash, is impressed by her resourcefulness. "Where did you learn to use one of those?" he queries. She replies, "I read the instructions."]

OK, not strictly eligible for a 'film list', but I loved this '90s adult cartoon about the misanthropic super-anti-hero detective, voiced by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander (there's a great clip of one of his trademark rants here). My favourite episode (I can't recall the name of it) was the one where Duckman's fearsome sister-in-law Bernice decided that the city was in a lamentable state of unpreparedness for nuclear attack and organised a civil defence drill where everyone was supposed to take refuge in the sewers for 24 hours. Only the terminally un-public-spirited Duckman had managed to remain unaware of this initiative. Waking one day, late and hungover, to discover the streets deserted, he assumes that he is in some '50s sci-fi movie scenario where the world has abruptly come to an end and he is somehow the only survivor. Soon, however, he meets someone else, a terrified young waif who appears to have been rendered mute by the trauma of whatever has happened. He thinks, "Oh, the poor girl. She's so lonely and frightened. She doesn't understand what's happened. I must try to break it to her gently." He says, "Everybody's dead. Let's loot!"

T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) in Lawrence Of Arabia
Yes, serious films can have their 'moments of awesome' too, and Lawrence was a remarkable character, a real-life hero brilliantly revealed on the screen through Robert Bolt's superb screenplay. His crowning moment in the film is surely when he defies the snobbery and racism of the British ruling class by forcing his way, travel-stained from his epic trek across the desert and wearing native dress, into the snooty Officers' Club in Alexandria and demanding they serve him and his Arab companion a glass of ice-cold lemonade. (And he has a wonderful comeback, when the barman tries to refuse to serve them and reminds him that it is a bar for British officers: "That's all right. We're not particular.") Watch it here.

The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) in Fistful Of Dollars
The Man With No Name idea was an advertising tag; in the films, he does have a name - Joe in this first of the eventual 'Dollars' trilogy, Manco in the second, and Blondie in the third - although these are nicknames that others give him because they've got to call him something rather than how he identifies himself. Like other great action heroes, he spends most of his time being awesome; but I feel his very finest moment - the one that defines him for the rest of the series - comes right at the beginning of the first film, the first time we encounter him: he initiates a fight with a group of bad guys by demanding that they apologise to his mule (and having pre-ordered coffins for them from the town coffin-maker; having miscounted the number of his adversaries, he afterwards walks back past the coffin-maker to offer the laconic apology, "My mistake - four coffins."). You can watch that scene here. The other moment that particularly sticks in my mind from these films is in For A Few Dollars More, when an 'unwelcoming party' of Mexican peasants tries to dissuade him from entering the village where El Indio is holed up; he scares them away with a demonstration of his shooting prowess, knocking apples off a tree (and not just shooting the apples, but shooting through their stalks; at extreme range, while on horseback, and shooting from the hip) - it's very, very cool, but another of those incidents that's so over-the-top it challenges the suspension of disbelief somewhat.

Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) in For A Few Dollars More
Van Cleef for once getting to play a good guy in a Western (albeit a rather enigmatic and sinister good guy - his features were so angular that one critic observed of him that "he was the only actor who could show you a profile when looking at you full on"), manages to be even cooler than Clint Eastwood's principal hero, and the film's most awesome moments are all his: notably the nighttime 'duel' with Eastwood for top dog status where he prevails, and the scene in the saloon where he taunts Klaus Kinski's psychotic hunchback henchman by lighting matches on his stubble. This establishing scene, though, is probably the greatest of all such moments: the Colonel, travelling through New Mexico by train, adapts the railroad's schedule to his own convenience by blithely hauling on the emergency cord (and, miraculously, the train grinds to a halt with the stock car perfectly aligned with the loading ramp, so that he can disembark his horse with ease) - "This train'll stop at Tucumcari." Priceless. I love this scene.


Tony said...

A lot of work goes into a post like this; thank you for giving us such treats.

Froog said...

Why, thank you, Tony.

I fear many of these films or incidents will not be very much to your taste, but I hope you will enjoy some of them. (I'd be particularly intrigued to hear what you make of Duckman.)

I was worried that I might have gone on rather too long with this. At first I thought I was going to struggle to come up with more than five, but once I launched into it, my enthusiasm ran away with me. I'm such a huge fan of Cool Hand Luke that I can invariably want to write a whole blog post about that alone.

The main time-consumingness of this post, though, was not the writing of it but the noodling around on YouTube looking for clips to include. Even as recently as a year or two ago, I think a lot of this stuff wouldn't have been on there; or if it had been, it might have been almost impossible to find because the site's search engine used to be so unreliable. This time I discovered that almost every scene in every film I was considering mentioning was available for viewing (and often in three or four different versions, of varying duration, sound, and picture quality). I think this took about forty-five minutes to write and two hours or more to research.