Opinion: Top 5 Movie Showdowns
Cinema can offer up many great moments on the big screen. Whether it’s an intense car-chase or an explosive shoot-out, the one sequence which grabs the most attention, and has the most impact upon a gripped audience, is the ‘showdown’ between two rival characters. This doesn’t necessarily have to be between the good-guy and the bad-guy or the cop and the robber. It can simply involve a character at the bedside of a loved-one or a troubled individual facing their demons in front of a mirror. This sequence can also offer up some of the best moments ever filmed and can provide an actor with the platform to demonstrate their acting prowess.
Throughout the years there have been the obvious iconic showdowns such as the cemetery gunfight in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), the ‘‘I am your father’’ confrontation in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and in Raging Bull (1980) when De Niro’s Jake LaMotta realises his misfortune and despair when alone in his prison cell. Most scenes like these involve a tense build-up throughout the movie, whether it’s one character pursuing another, or a troubled individual having a revelation. The wide scope of these particular scenes is what makes them so special and engaging and can often elevate a good movie into a great one. There are of course many great showdown scenes to choose from but here are a select few…
First up is the short but sweet showdown between Indiana Jones and the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Eagerly pursued by Nazi-paid henchmen in the sweltering heat, Indiana Jones is confronted by an enormous, turbaned assassin brandishing a huge scimitar sword. As the on looking crowd gathers around, the assassin demonstrates exceptional swordplay in Jones’ direction. After a moment of awe and disbelief Indiana remembers his gun in his pocket. He calmly pulls it out and shoots his enemy dead and hurries on – much to the jubilation of the crowd.
What makes this scene so special is that it’s the perfect representation of the difference and struggle between the Western and the Arab worlds. Although it’s a very pragmatic and satirical scene, it can easily be taken as a worried nod toward the global implications of western politics. It clearly pits eastern culture, grace and elegance against a western (in this case American) stance of ‘‘shoot first, ask questions later.’’ Where as the enjoyable Team America: World Police (2004) carried this off for an entire movie, Spielberg manages to create the same on screen impact in a matter of twenty-odd seconds. It’s just pure joy.
Next up is the heated courtroom exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992). This is the case when such a scene transforms an average movie into a good one. With its A-list cast that also included the likes of Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon and Keifer Sutherland, one can be forgiven for overlooking the storyline of corruption and abuse within the US Marine Corps. It is only when we arrive in the courtroom that the story and the film itself reaches the heights it should.
As two Marines face court martial for murdering a ‘substandard’ recruit, Cruise’s cocky Navy lawyer comes face-to-face with Nicholson’s daunting Colonel. It seems that this is a straightforward ‘David and Goliath’ contest as the seemingly routine cross-questioning takes place but due to the pressure and tension which arises, the latter finally admits to ordering a ‘Code Red’ which went wrong, resulting in his arrest. The now iconic ‘‘You can’t handle the truth’’ outburst from Nicholson is one of cinema’s greatest lines and is followed by his full-blooded speech about honour, code and loyalty, which not many actors could have pulled off. Although he had limited screen time, Nicholson completely steals the film and gave Tom Cruise a lesson in acting much like Dustin Hoffman did a few years earlier in Rain Man (1988).
Moving on to Michael Mann’s excellent Heat (1995) and perhaps the most hyped up ‘showdown’ ever filmed. Billed as the movie which offered the first ever onscreen match-up between two acting greats, Heat certainly delivered on this front and offered up so much more besides. It’s a classic ‘cops and robbers’ caper as Pacino’s clichéd policeman tracks down De Niro’s disciplined thief. It is, however, not until halfway through the film that we get to sample what all cinema lovers have been yearning for: Pacino vs. De Niro.
Luckily for us, Heat was in the hands of director Michael Mann and he knew exactly how to go about this. In order for this scene to work the audience first needed to be emotionally connected with the characters on offer and right from the off we are completely gripped. This certainly helped with the overlong gun battle and it clearly helped here too. The scene itself is relatively simple. Tailing De Niro’s car, Pacino pulls him over and asks to go for a coffee. In the restaurant they sit across from one another and discuss life and its meaning. Inevitably they discover they are not all that dissimilar. In short, it is a remarkable scene, one which we can’t take our eyes off. It could have been a disaster much like their later 2008 onscreen pairing in Righteous Kill, but such is the scene’s simplicity it remains the centrepiece of a superb film which delivers and delights on every level possible.
Now for the moving therapy session at the end of Good Will Hunting (1997) which sees Matt Damon’s troubled genius finally accept his emotional problems to psychologist Robin Williams. With just the four simple words of ‘‘It’s not your fault’’ Will’s defensive barrier is finally broken.
Again, it’s a scene of simplicity which captures exceptional acting from both sides and also provides the film with a hugely upbeat ending. As his therapy sessions are coming to an end, Will seems to be on the right track. With this chapter in his life seemingly drawing to a close he asks Sean if he’s had any personal ‘experience’ of child abuse to which he reluctantly admits he has. With both Will and Sean at their most vulnerable, what follows is an honest and touching debate where Sean applies those four words over and over again. Although directed at Will, these words are also reaching out to Sean himself as he too accepts he was a victim in the past. It’s an incredibly moving scene which is brilliantly written, deserving of all the accolades it received.
And finally on to American Gangster (2007) and the climatic scene between Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. After years of eagerly pursuing Washington’s gangster criminal, Crowe’s rough-around-the-edges detective finally gets his man. After his arrest, the two discuss the up and coming trial. Crowe declares he’s got enough evidence to put Washington away for life so offers him a deal to testify against the corrupt police offices in return for a shorter sentence. With no other options, Washington decides to cooperate and the pair eventually bring down hundreds of officers within NYPD.
In terms of setup and execution, this scene is similar to that of De Niro and Pacino’s in Heat. But whereas Heat’s scene only enhanced character development, Crowe and Washington’s face-off had weight behind it – providing the plot with extra mileage. Washington’s criminal seems confident he’s got nothing to fear but Crowe manages to chip away and expose an angry and victimised individual. Again, it’s a brilliant scene, one which the film has been teasing us with throughout. A classic good guy vs. bad guy played out by two giants of screen acting. I believe it’s better than Heat’s showdown yet because it’s still deemed a recent film, it never seems to get the recognition it clearly deserves.