But these are the exception far more than the rule. What is the problem here?
Below, I’ve tried to sketch out some thoughts on what a showdown should contain. I doubt the points that follow constitute a comprehensive list—and a good showdown may only lean on a few of these—but really good showdowns appear to display many or all of the traits. I define a showdown as a direct and major confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, physical and psychological, that meaningfully impacts the characters or the story. It’s an imprecise definition, but the point is to say that there are many awesome set pieces, shootouts, fights, and chases—other staples of these kinds of movies—that are not really showdowns as I’m considering them.
It’s true that plenty of good showdowns feature in otherwise mediocre movies. And plenty of good movies feature weak ones. But a great blockbuster? I think it needs a great showdown.
Moviegoers rarely watch big-budget films in a two-hour sitting anymore. Instead we ingest bits and pieces for a year or two: behind-the-scenes footage, gossip, speculations, trailers, until the movie we’ve built in our heads is almost always better than the one we finally see.
Nevertheless, anticipation built within a film can be effective. A showdown is made sweeter by talking up the villain and delaying his entrance, or by allowing hero and villain to engage in a preliminary showdown that ends in a draw, and most especially by slowing down the moments before the final confrontation begins. Showdowns are highly ritualized, and good ones will allow that nice long pause, that full breath in and out, to let audiences savor what is about to happen.
No one pushes the idea of anticipation to its limits quite like Quentin Tarantino. His characters talk and talk and talk. They insinuate and surmise, bluff and counterbluff, threaten and defend, and then they talk a little bit more, and the pressure is building all the while, until a violent reckoning at last arrives.
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.