An early showdown from Troy perhaps best illustrates the power of vulnerability. The young prince of Troy, Paris, a playboy, has run off with Helen, the wife of Greek King Menelaus. Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, bring a massive army to the shores of Troy to get her back. Hoping to stop the fighting, Paris summons up what little courage he has to challenge the much stronger Menelaus to a duel, thinking that if he wins, the Greeks will withdraw their forces.
Paris, played by a reedy Orlando Bloom, is no match for Menelaus, played by the bearish Brendan Gleeson. We see some of the action through Paris’s helmet as Menelaus pounds away at his shield, and we feel like Paris does, small and breakable. Paris puts up a poor fight; he is slow, clumsy, weak and afraid, and he is quickly defeated. A single sword slash across his thigh cripples him and carries more weight than a dozen slow-motion blows in a lesser contest.
And what tops it off? Instead of dying with honor—this duel was his idea, after all, and even his father, King Priam, urges his son to fight (and die)—he crawls back to his brother, Hector, as the whole city watches. We are simultaneously ashamed by his cowardice and sympathetic with his naked desire to live. Hector saves him by slaying Menelaus, but it’s an unsatisfying victory.
Obviously, then, a good showdown continues to propel the story forward. The principals don’t simply stop and beat each other up for five minutes. Character is exposed, revealed, tested, transformed. If there are any ideas the film has been cultivating, they should come to fruition here.
But there are other qualities that need to be in play. Some great showdowns would be impossible without special effects, but most suffer because of them. Why? For one, when heroes and villains dash around too much, it’s hard to follow the action. Two, as scenes become too elastic and insubstantial—and rapid-fire editing exacerbates this—so do the characters. We wind up with nothing or no one to hold onto.
Good showdowns tend to constrict themselves to a single or handful of distinct locations. Think of the courtyard duel in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon between Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien and Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu. It moves, yes, and people fly about, but the clean camera work and quietly propulsive score bring the conflict down to earth. Or recall the claustrophobic setting for Batman’s beat down at the hands of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. This fight successfully borrows bits from Empire: Part of the fight takes place on a long and narrow gantry, and sound effects create a moody atmosphere. There’s nowhere to run, and gradually Batman is ground down.
Even a weak film like The Hunted benefits from two terrific face offs between Benicio del Toro’s Special Forces commando, who has snapped and is killing hunters, and the man who trained him, played by Tommy Lee Jones. They duel twice (here’s the first) and the tight choreography gives the scenes a powerful sense of coiled energy, as if these two guys had been put inside a very small box. (Also, it doesn’t hurt that del Toro’s eyes convey tremendous vulnerability even in the midst of the brutal knife play. He’s seeking both to best his mentor and reach out in anguish for a father figure to save him.)
Fantasy and sci-fi movies can convey enough reality to make us buy in through tangible staging. Would you rather watch this overblown fight between Khan and Spock on top of a moving hovercraft in a towering cityscape, at the close of the baffling mash up Star Trek Into Darkness—or the comparatively static, but tactile and infinitely more satisfying showdown between Khan and Kirk in Wrath of Khan? You like the grandiose and splendidly digital showdown in Avatar, between a villain in a power suit, and a blue digital Na’vi riding some exotic digital animal? I’ll take Ripley’s real-world exosuit as she faces down the alien queen in Aliens. (Thirty years later and even James Cameron can’t make an exosuit that feels as believable as this one.)
5. The Iconic
Lastly, the best showdowns do not overextend themselves. This is in part a question of length. Neo and Agent Smith duel across an entire city over six minutes in The Matrix Revolutions, and at some point you start checking your watch. The same can be said of Superman and General Zod’s fight in Man of Steel, (here, here, and here). Allowed to go too long, a showdown, no matter how good, wears out its welcome.
But length is not really the issue, at least in showdowns when the fighting is less frenetic. What we want is a scene that somehow pares a confrontation down to something visually essential. Most showdowns are at best visually indistinct and suffer for it. Think of the smoky blues and oranges of the carbon freeze chamber in Empire, and of that magnificent ten-second shot of Vader and Luke on the gantry. Now think of the Emperor’s drab grey throne room in Return of the Jedi, where Vader and Luke duel a second time. It’s a far more mundane location and weakens the scene. The recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier ends with a good showdown between the two titular characters. It checks most of the boxes, but it falls short of being really good because it’s a little too busy, a little too generic, right at the moment when it needs to be streamlined and iconic.
The greatest of all movie showdowns is probably the exquisitely composed duel between Charles Bronson’s unnamed hero and Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed killer Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone takes his time, giving us long close ups of Bronson’s granitic face, static shots of the two men facing each other, like old trees trunks, stripped of branches and leaves. Ennio Morricone’s mesmerizing score suffuses the screen. It’s an unapologetically long buildup (again anticipation flirts with going too far), interspersed with the tragic flashback that reveals Bronson’s motivation. But the duel itself concludes in a moment, and despite the stately pace, our overall impression is one of crisp, perfectly controlled timing. It’s both a knowing pastiche of great western duels and something more—the physical manifestation of the end of the west. In a real sense both men are facing the same fate, obsolescence, and so both lose.
It’s magnificent filmmaking. And it demonstrates the fundamental contradiction of the showdown. Less is more, but more is more, too. Showdowns allow us to imagine ourselves as bigger, stronger, faster. Better. And yet a good showdown is essentialized to the struggles of vulnerable, fallible, fragile beings, too. They remind us of our smallness, and force us to confront our fears, our inadequacy, to reckon with who we are at that very moment we try to be more.
So showdown greatness comes not from making the stage bigger. It comes from making the stage denser, by plowing more feeling, more theme, more craft, more emotion, more soul, into a smaller, simpler frame. That’s the challenge of the form. When a movie pulls it off, it’s an event.