The Kill Bill films are best thought of as a four-hour greatest hits collection of quippy, bloody showdowns. No fight scene capitalizes upon anticipation as effectively as the final showdown does, when Uma Thurman’s Bride confronts her old lover and boss, Bill (played by a rascally David Carradine), who left her for dead. It’s a conversation. They’re seated. Bill rather unapologetically explains why he tried to kill her. The sense of menace builds. Eventually even these folks will run out of things to say. When the fight finally starts, both Bride and Bill remain seated, and Tarantino stages a short and wittily choreographed fight, which culminates in the Bride deploying her five-point palm exploding heart technique. Then they resume their conversation, now with a new sense of affection—Bill is impressed she has mastered the technique, and it’s clear he appreciates her as his better for the first time—until his heart explodes a moment later and he dies.
But beware: Anticipation can set the stage for a great showdown, yet as Tarantino surely knows, it is always just a step away from overindulgence.
2. The Weight of the Moment
Anticipation helps make the big moment big. But that “moment” must also stand on its own. How?
For one, the opponent must be formidable. The villain should be equal or superior to the hero—no minor minions—and the odds should at least slightly favor him. We can like the villain or fear the villain, but we must respect him: his skill or charisma or ruthlessness, his tragic dimension or his utter lack of human empathy. Villains can believe what they are doing is just, or they can know they are rotten bastards. They can be witty and urbane or cold and silent, but we must find them worthy foils. Moreover, the hero must find them worthy, too. Villains often seek respect from heroes, (“You and I are much alike,” “Surely you can understand the necessity of my plan,” etc.) and I find that when the hero reciprocates even a little, if in action if not words, then the showdown becomes more personal, almost intimate.
Further, the stakes must be right. The fate of the town/country/world by itself is not necessarily the right stakes. Those are abstractions. We must care first about specific people. We care about the heroine. What we are relating to in a showdown is the idea of a character who, in facing a nemesis, is really facing herself and the choices that define her life. The right stakes test the heroine’s character, her soul. (The Bride both wants revenge on Bill, but she still loves him.) The threat is not her death but her failure to live as well as she could have. The characters, somewhere along the way, should understand the stakes.
One of the great showdowns is the meticulous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where astronaut Dave Bowman, in a space pod and without his helmet, tries to gain access to the spaceship Discovery, against the wishes of the computer HAL, who has possibly gone insane and just murdered the crew. HAL knows Bowman had been plotting to deactivate him, so he refuses to let him back on the ship. The scene is great for any number of reasons—the convincing verisimilitude, HAL’s brilliantly dismissive indifference, the audaciousness of Bowman’s plan to blow himself back aboard through an airlock. That audaciousness is the whole point. There’s human pride, naturally, a determination not to be bested by a computer. That’s actually enough, but the way I read it, the stakes are bigger. Heretofore the humans we’ve seen in the movie have been deliberately presented as bland bureaucrats with little personality, charisma or character. The film has left us subtlety starved for drama, conflict, something to happen. And suddenly, Bowman is forced to shake off that blandness, to reclaim humankind’s capacity for daring, original action, the kind that proves the species is worthy to transcend to a higher level.
You might think of a good showdown as simply being about strength. But it’s about weakness, too. Most showdowns show us the hero’s physical vulnerability as he gets his ass kicked—and as he gets to his feet one last time, bruised and bloodied and never say die, we stand and cheer his resilience.
The problem, though, is that superheroes and villains these days can endure too much. Their strength is too long-lasting, as is their ability to take a beating. By the time we see any sign of weakness, we’ve long reached our empathetic limits. Few of us actually know what it’s like to get beaten up, anyway, and tough guys (and now tough gals) too often only seem emboldened by pain.
Pain can work in a showdown if you don’t overdo it, but what suggests vulnerability more convincingly is effort. Sweat counts more than blood. It tells us that the characters are being depleted, that they are pouring all their psychic and physical gifts into the moment but can’t keep doing so forever. This is something we can all relate to, whether trying to gut out that extra mile or rep, or struggling to tread water. Depletion helps undercut the emotional stoicism of the typical badass, and leads to a more interesting place, genuine fallibility.
(It should be noted that nakedness also works, whether it’s astronaut Bowman sans helmet or a literally naked Viggo Mortensen surviving a brutal knife attack in a London bathhouse in Eastern Promises.)
As with 2001, there are many reasons the duel in The Empire Strikes Back is a classic, but an overlooked and crucial contribution is Mark Hamill’s performance. He sweats. He looks at times like he can barely catch his breath. It helps sell the whole thing. Luke begins the duel with a brittle shell of confidence, but as we see his physical exertion, we see that shell shatter. In his effort to match Vader, Luke grows more and more aware of his desperate position. We see it in his face. He is in over his head. Yoda was right; he should have stayed on Dagobah and finished his training. He won’t be able to save his friends or himself. Indeed, he winds up on a gantry that leads nowhere, over a bottomless pit. He’s overwhelmed, and this is before he loses his hand and learns the truth about his father. Within moments he has passed from physical and mental fatigue, through to one severe experience of bodily trauma, then onto to an even greater emotional trauma. The only way he can save himself is to fling himself towards death.
In a good showdown, confronting your vulnerabilities is not a one-time event where you see the stakes, gather your courage, swallow hard, and dive in. It’s a constant unfolding. In The Matrix, Neo’s subway-station showdown with Agent Smith works marvelously because the whole movie has seen Neo gradually gain more power and more belief that he can beat the seemingly unbeatable agents who police the Matrix. And yet as the showdown progresses Neo is forced to summon more resolve—far beyond what he thought he was capable of—just to fight Smith to a draw.