An exciting victory by the hero–one that is clever, resourceful and maybe most of all, unexpected–is one of my favorite things about a good adventure story. For this post, I’ve been asked to write about some of the best ones.
(Incidentally, this is #47 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
Unfortunately, I don’t have quite as much time as I’d like. Tomorrow is my actual birthday, and thus the due date for finishing this series. And as the birthday approaches, life has been pretty busy. So, I’ve come up with a few answers but I’m afraid I might be missing some good examples.
Interestingly, I can’t think of any major superhero films that have a great example of this, even though you’d think it’s the sort of thing those stories would be perfect for. I mean, superheroes sometimes have great victories, they require determination and perseverance and a refusal to give up…but they are rarely surprising.
Maybe the closest to come to mind is Superman’s red molecule chamber switcheroo in ut Superman II, which was pretty cool at the time but is a bit tame today.
What we’re talking about here is the smartness of the writing and the deftness of the directing, where the hero impresses us with the realization that they are cleverer than we are, but where there answer makes sense. Some of the best examples of this actually come from episodes of Doctor Who written by Steven Moffat: The Eleventh Hour, The Big Bang, Day of the Moon, The Wedding of River Song, The Day of the Doctor, The Witch’s Familiar, Heaven Sent, and Extremis all have examples of this, and most of them are spectacular.
For my part I’ve occasionally attempted something similar, though not entirely successfully. Perhaps my most significant effort can be found in The Hanna Jo Stories Episode Five and also Episode Nine.
Anyway, onto the movies (with Spoilers, of course):
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994 – directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Jaws of Defeat: Norville Barnes, the titular Hudsucker proxy, has been elevated by dishonest businessmen looking to profit off of him, and then systematically torn down until it seems no choice is left before him but to take his own life the way his predecessor did: leaping out of the window of his company building. At the last minute, he changes his mind, but it’s too late: death, as represented by Aloysius, the sallow-faced employee who scrapes the names of dead or disgraced employees off of their office doors, closes the window of the ledge he is standing on and sends him to his doom. Norville plummets to the ground, with no hope of survival, his life a terrible failure….
The Unexpected Victory: Norville suddenly freezes in midair, his fall stopped without explanation. He hangs there, bewildered. It turns out that Moses, the old man who takes care of the big clock in the Hudsucker tower, has frozen the clock with a big wooden mop handle (or was it a broom?) “Strictly speaking, I’m never supposed to do this.”
Then, Norville is visited by the ghost of Waring Hudsucker himself and discovers that the situation with the company is vastly different than he thought. Meanwhile, Moses must actually fight Aloysius in order to keep him alive. In the end, Moses is victorious, and the news that Norville has learned changed everything.
Points Gained: The turnaround is completely surprising, absolutely unguessable. One finds oneself staring at the screen, mouth agape, as the events play out. And yet one must admit that it all makes sense in the context of the film itself.
Points Lost: Norville himself contributes nothing to his own victory (although he does move his own life forward in other ways in the film).
The Forgotten (2004 – directed by Joseph Ruben)
The Jaws of Defeat: The alien who is performing the experiments has won. He strips Telly of every memory she has of her son, Sam, from the moment she first laid eyes upon him. She has no allies and no hope against his power…
The Unexpected Victory: Telly remembers that she had life inside of her. Her memories of her son, her love for him extend back before he was born. The alien is sucked into the sky by his unhappy overlords, and things in the world are righted.
Points Gained: The victory is immensely satisfying, as the alien is despicable and seemed unbeatable. Julian Moore as Telly is great.
Points Lost: Upon reflection, it was a bit stupid of the alien to not realize that of course Telly would remember her baby from before he was born.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982 – directed by Nicholas Meyer)
The Jaws of Defeat: Khan has taken Kirk and the Enterprise by surprise, crippling the ship with his attack from the stolen Federation ship Reliant. Then he demands that all the data related to the deadly Project Genesis be sent to him before he destroys the helpless ship….
The Unexpected Victory: Kirk and Spock are able to use Khan’s ship’s computer code to access the Reliant‘s systems, causing it to drop it’s shields, and making it vulnerable to a devastating counterattack.
Points Gained: The pacing of the scene, and the performances, are excellent. The actual instant where Khan’s crew realizes their shields are dropping is a winner. Given Khan’s relative unfamiliarity with the Federation ship, it’s all plausible.
Points Lost: Upon repeated viewings, it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen, or at least clearer than my 12 year old self realized. And really, the whole thing hinges on the future starships not having very good internet security, but back then we didn’t realize that.
Dark City (1998 – directed by Alex Proyas)
The Jaws of Defeat: John Murdoch is strapped down to a table, a helpless prisoner of the alien Strangers, and about to have his memories erased and his mind implanted with the collective consciousness of the Strangers themselves. Believing that he represents the fruit of all their experiments, it’s a move that will ensure the Strangers ultimate victory. Dr. Schreber has no choice but to comply with the Strangers’ wishes and prepares to inject Murdoch with the concoction the they have insisted upon…
The Unexpected Victory: It turns out Dr. Schreber has a plan, and the injection he gives Murdoch actually remake his memories into a lifetime of training of how to use his own telekinetic powers to fight and defeat the Strangers. John bursts from the table and proceeds to defeat his enemies in awesome combat…
Points Gained: The montage in which we see John’s new memories laid out are a sight to behold. As we realize what is happening, and here Kiefer Sutherland as Schreber say, “Remember, never trust a stranger,” we know we are in for something awesome. From there, the climax in which John fights and defeats the Strangers is absolutely justified, where it would have been impossible to believe a moment before.
Points Lost: Similar to Norville Barnes, John Murdoch himself is not directly responsible for his actual turnaround. But since he does play a mighty part in the battle that follows, this is not a problem. So really, no points lost.
L.A. Confidential (1997 – directed by Curtis Hanson)
The Jaws of Defeat: Sgt. Jack Vincennes has confided his police Captain Dudley Smith about the details of his investigation, only to realize that too late, Dudley is his enemy. Before he can react, Dudley shoots Jack in the heart, and Jack’s life ebbs away….
The Unexpected Victory: The instant before he dies, Jack utters just two words: “Rollo Tomasi.” Dudley is perplexed, but Jack dies and is unable to explain even if he wanted to. Now, Dudley doesn’t know what to do: he has silenced the man closest to discovering his crimes, but Jack’s last words make him nervous. This leads him to asking Detective Exley if he knows anything about an associate of Jack’s that they are trying to follow up: Rollo Tomasi.
What Dudley doesn’t know is that there is no Rollo Tomasi. He is someone that Exley made up, a name and a personality to give to the unknown man who murdered his father. Instantly, Exley knows something is wrong: there is know way Smith should know about this. The only person he told was Jack, and Jack would have had no reason to tell anyone, and certainly not to give the impression that Tomasi was a contact of his.
Exley is now suspicious of Dudley, which leads to the police Captain’s eventual defeat. Thanks largely to Jack’s message, a message basically sent from the dead.
Points Gained: The scene, it’s set up, and it’s eventual payoff are all amazingly directed and performed by Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell and Guy Pearce. It’s nicely ambiguous, since you don’t really know if Jack intended his words to be a message to Exley, or just an comment of recognition of Smith as the guy “who gets away with it” (I interpret it as both). Of course, it’s also bittersweet, since Jack dies immediately after. But as far as pulling a victory out of a defeat, it’s phenomenal.
Points Lost: None. The scene is not really from an “adventure” film, I guess, although there are elements of that. But that doesn’t matter. It’s great stuff.
And that’s it! 47 Movie Blogs, done and dusted. Thanks for being along for the ride. And thanks, Jo, for steering the ship along the way. My birthday hits in 53 minutes, my birth minute about 952 minutes after that (if I remember correctly), so let’s get on with other things, shall we?