Gunfight at the Exotic Locale Examination of a storytelling device By Mike Malloy. What does the utterly uninspired screenwriter use as the climax for his action film script? Why, a shootout, of course...
What does the utterly uninspired screenwriter use as the climax for his action film script? Why, a shootout, of course.
And what does the moderately uninspired screenwriter feeling only slightly more inspired than the utterly uninspired screenwriter use as the climax for his action film script? Oh, he’s going to give us a shootout too, but he’ll go as far as to set that shootout in an unusual location.
Understand, if a screenwriter or director wants to transform his cop-out shootout finale into a slam-bang doozy of an ending, then a warehouse, a dark alley, or "down by the docks" just won’t cut it. These are clichéd, shopworn settings for criminal happenings. What’s needed is an unlikely location. An exotic locale. And it’s better yet if the setting’s environmental components can interact interestingly with the guns-a-blazin’ shootout participants.
Take for instance the passable (if needless) sequel Death Wish IV:The Crackdown (1987). At film’s end, the Charles Bronson vigilante hero faces off with the baddies at a crowded roller skating rink. It is here that the climactic shootout occurs and to reasonably good effect. Ol’ Charlie and the villains are dodging through the crowd of panicky skaters, spilling onto the rink surface, and shooting amidst exploding arcade games. All the while, the proceedings are illuminated by the rink’s colored disco lights.
Mind you, the roller rink doesn’t have any connection with the rest of the story. These climactic shootout locales rarely do. The characters generally just make an abrupt left turn into left field and, voilà, they’ve arrived at the setting for the final firefight.
You’ll see this type of setting for climactic shoot-’em-ups time and again. In Ms. 45 (1981), it’s a strobe-lit Halloween dance party, peopled with wildly costumed bystanders and victims. In The Presidio (1988), it’s a storage facility full of exploding water bottles. In Paycheck (2003), it’s a bio-dome laboratory where robotic arms yank guns away from shooters and the protagonists use simulated weather to their advantage. In House of Bamboo (1955), it’s a rooftop children’s carnival in Japan. In Bird on a Wire (1990), it’s a jungle-beast exhibit at the zoo.
With representative films like Death Wish IV, The Presidio and Bird on a Wire, it should be apparent that this type of gunfight is primarily a cheap storytelling crutch for forgettable and/or forgotten action pictures. But the device has even been employed by the occasional cinematic masterwork, including:
The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
Here’s proof positive that the "Gunfight at the Exotic Locale" ending isn’t indigenous to low-budget action garbage; this acknowledged film noir classic makes excellent use of it, setting its final shootout in a hall of mirrors at an empty amusement park. Naturally, the shooters mistakenly aim for reflections and break a lot of mirrored glass before gunning each other down. This ending was later reworked for the finale of the 1973 Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, with the mirrored shootout being replaced by a mirrored chopsocky-out. After Lady from Shanghai, one of Welles’s next projects was 1949’s The Third Man, which features a climactic gunfight in a Vienna sewer.
Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) and Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973)
An unusual setting worked so well for the climactic shootout in trend-setting police drama Dirty Harry that a similar ending was used in the fine sequel, Magnum Force. In the first movie, Clint Eastwood’s loose-cannon cop meets up with the film’s homicidal lunatic at an industrial rock quarry site, where they exchange shots while riding up conveyor belts and ducking behind clouds of rock dust. In the sequel, Harry doesn’t square off with the bad guys until he is, almost inexplicably, aboard an abandoned naval warship. Many shots are fired as everyone runs and hides in the ship’s lower levels. (And the following Dirty Harry film, 1976’s The Enforcer, climaxes with a shootout in Alcatraz, but the prison location figures into the story all along, so it doesn’t play as the typically random "Gunfight at the Exotic Locale" conclusion.)
The Dion Brothers (Jack Starrett, 1974)
Any cinephile will tell you that the best ending of this type comes at the close of The Dion Brothers (aka The Gravy Train). The two brothers of the title (Stacy Keach, Frederic Forrest) finally catch up to their double-crossing partner in a condemned building just as it’s being demolished by a wrecking crane! The two sides shoot it out in this multi-level tenement, dodging the wrecking ball as it smashes through the walls and ceiling. At one point, the villains are in the room just below the Dion brothers, and when the ball smashes through the connecting floor, the gunplay continues through the gaping hole. And before all the shootin’ is done, one of the gunmen has been fatally walloped by the wrecking ball.
Looker (Michael Crichton, 1981)
The "Gunfight at the Exotic Locale" ending doesn’t appear too often in science fiction. After all, a space cruiser or a "strange, new world" isn’t that exotic in the context of sci-fi. But writer-director Crichton managed to come up with a real corker for the ending of his near-future sci-fi thriller Looker. At film’s close, James Coburn and Albert Finney are shooting it out on a futuristic TV-commercial soundstage, ducking for cover behind kitchen and bedroom sets. But there’s a twist. As the shots are exchanged on the soundstage, automated cameras are also filming live commercials with unseen virtual-reality actors. So the TV viewing audience witnesses an armed man walking through a bug spray commercial, bullets shattering a windshield during a car advertisement, and a bloody corpse falling to the ground during a toothpaste spot. Clever stuff.
Of course, variations exist on the "Gunfight at the Exotic Locale" ending. Sometimes the shootout is replaced by a chase. Memorable is 1979’s Hardcore, with George C. Scott pursuing a smut kingpin as they both crash through the paper walls of a porno dungeon. And sometimes the exotically set shootout is not during the film’s climax, but elsewhere in the movie. Halfway through Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose (1983), a shootout occurs in a hangar full of parade floats whose escaping gas leave the gunmen with squeaky-pitched voices.
At any rate, I suppose it’s an interesting commentary on filmgoers’ desensitization to violence that it is even deemed necessary to punch up a cinematic shootout with an exotic setting. It’s ironic to speak about shootings coming off as too mundane and being in need of vivification. I mean, a shootout is an armed, often bloody conflict during which people are easily wounded and/or killed. Er, how much more exciting do we need that to be?
Back to Issue 17