I’m expecting to catch a bit of backlash over this week’s review of Black Swan specifically for my attempted skewering of the idea that – now that we know the film is good (great, in fact) – it’s now distasteful to mention that prior to its completion the most buzzed-about aspect of the film was the (onscreen) romantic entanglement of the two female leads.
Obvious questions of self-parody and movie-discussing taste aside, the plain fact of the matter is that the scene in question instantly adds Black Swan to the pantheon of films good, bad and even simply average that often come up in discussion preceded by the words “you gotta see this one part where ______”. That in no way diminishes it as a work of art, it’s simply another aspect to its legacy.
The fact is, the “one legendary scene” is a huge part of film culture. It can be a line of dialogue, an iconic hero-shot, an action sequence, a certain prop or location, a stunt, a creature and, yes, even scenes of a more intimate nature. That One Part has made great films into legends and bad films into cult-classics. Here’s a quick look at some of the most noteworthy (clips provided where possible/appropriate) and in some case the most notorious.
The Movie: The unfortunate beginning of the downswing for the big screen careers of both the late Christopher Reeve and The Man of Steel.
The Moment: Evil Superman.
“Synthetic Kryptonite” turns Superman evil, causing him to commit super-vandalism (he straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa) and – gasp – get drunk in the middle of the day. Eventually his Clark Kent persona breaks off into his own being, and the two sides fight it out in a junkyard. The movie? Terrible. But this scene, preposterous magic-realism, grade-school moralizing and surreal, dreamlike logic and all, is the most accurate live-action rendering of Silver Age superhero happenings ever put to film.
The Movie: Michaelangelo Antonioni’s biggest misfire, a wannabe counter-culture opus about young pseudo-hippies in love that today plays as ham-fisted high camp. Zabriske Point, incidentally, is a geographic location marking the furthest point below sea-level in the continental United States – i.e. it’s America at its lowest point. Get it?
The Moment: Ka-BOOM!
Our heroine fantasizes the “bad” authority-figure’s mansion and various possessions – symbolic of eeeevil capitalist excess – blowing sky-high in a spectacular fireball. Multiple times. In slow-motion. At the time it was one of the biggest pyrotechnic effects ever put to film, and it became the movie’s de-facto selling point once the studio realized how terrible the rest of it was. Shooting pyro in slo-mo was a major technical undertaking then, but the results were so iconic that commercials, films and (especially) music videos have been borrowing from Zabriske ever since. Even today, it’s a pretty spectacular sight.
The Movie: I’ve already said my piece.
The Moment: Together at last.
Sylvester Stallone, playing a mercenary, goes to meet with a prospective client. OMG! It’s Bruce Willis! They both await the arrival of a “rival” mercenary. OMFG! Then-governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger! The Big Three of 80s action stars finally meet onscreen, trade a series of inside jokes about their weight, age and careers … and then it’s over. The audience gets a chuckle, and the movie gets enough footage of The Three for the trailers to sell a vastly more epic-level cast than the film actually has.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
The Movie: Steven Spielberg phones in a sequel, and still does a better job than some filmmakers do when they’re actually trying.
The Moment: T-Rex unleashed.
The lone drawback to the magnificent dinosaur action in the Jurassic Park films is that despite the hook of dinosaurs being resurrected in the modern world, they’re mostly confined to a prehistoric-looking island, and as any dino-loving 10 year-old can tell you, the only real reason to bring dinosaurs back is to see them go Godzilla in the Big City. And as the post-climax fourth act to the sloppy sequel, that’s exactly what we get. It makes no sense, it’s blatant pandering, it obliterates the structure of the film … but after a (17 year) lifetime of waiting I got to see a photo-realistic tyrannosaurus stomp the ever-living crap out of the suburbs, and it was worth the wait.
The Protector (aka Tom Yum Goong)
The Movie: Muy Thai fighting star turned walking self-caricature Tony Jaa elbows his way through what plays out like the most violent Walt Disney story ever, attempting to rescue his stolen pet elephants from a crimelord’s illegal endangered species restaurant. No, really.
The Moment: One-take brawl.
The Protector is one of the silliest martial arts films ever made, which is really saying something, but the fight scenes are nothing short of incredible – and this is the most incredible of all. It’s a jaw-dropping marriage of Jaa’s inhuman physical prowess (it’s almost a given that this scene is the highlight of his career) and the filmmakers’ technical mastery. Jaa fights his way from the bottom floor to the top level of the bad guys’ hideout, taking down wave after wave of henchmen – in one unbroken six minute shot. The camera follows Jaa from the beginning to the end of his rampage without a single cut or edit – it’s just one absolutely massive piece of fight choreography that must be seen to be believed. It’s like watching an entire Final Fight level in live action. The movie? Goofy. Jaa? Not the second coming of Bruce Lee he was billed as. But this? Astonishing.
Zombie (aka Zombi 2)
The Movie: Lucio Fulci’s in-name-only sequel to the re-titled/re-edited Italian version of Dawn of The Dead.
The Moment: Zombie versus shark.
Exactly what it says. A zombie. Underwater. Fighting a (real) shark. Beat that, Walking Dead.
The Movie: Sean Archer (or is it Castor Troy?) hires Wolverine to pull a cyber-heist, Fred Flintstone’s former secretary helps.
The Moment: Storm’s front.
Halle Berry, at the time a superstar entering what looked to be her prime and one of the most beautiful women in film, appears topless for the first time ever on film – supposedly netting a huge paycheck for doing so. The worldwide consensus: Money well spent, too bad about everything else in the movie. Not long after, she would score a history-making Oscar victory, followed by infamy-assuring career suicide in Catwoman.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Movie: One of the most important science fiction films of all time.
The Moment: The ultimate trip.
2001 is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, but at the time studios were terrified that its deeply cerebral plot would perplex and alienate mainstream moviegoers of the time. They were right – early screenings were disasterous. John Q. Public wasn’t ready for Kubrick’s vision, but fortunately for investors, Mr. Public’s substance-“experimenting” kids were. The surreal psychedelic lightshow of the film’s surreal finale was a huge hit with the LSD-enthusiast crowd, whose repeat attendance with the aim of tripping in tandem with said finale is often credited with making the film a profitable hit.
Return of the Dragon
The Movie: Here’s the uncomfortable truth about the handful of movies Bruce Lee made prior to Enter The Dragon and his untimely death: They weren’t very good – mostly formula crime/revenge movies intersped with really good fight scenes and a charismatic leading man. Return is more of the same, but oh, what a fight scene.
The Moment: Bruce versus Chuck.
Having failed to destroy Bruce Lee by sending normal foes against him, the heavies of Return (Way, actually – made in China before Enter the Dragon but retitled as a sequel in the West after) call in the Big Gun: Chuck Norris. What follows is, without a doubt, the single finest one-on-one fight scene of either man’s movie career – if not the entire history of realistic martial arts cinema. If you’ve never seen it, see it.