I’ll tell you a secret,” Robert Mckee – as brilliantly played by Brian Cox – said, “the last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”
That cynical bit of wisdom was offered to Nicolas Cage‘s Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation.. McKee, a real screenplay guru, goes on to explain that you can’t cheat. “Don’t you dare bring in a Deus Ex Machina.”
The climax of Adaptation. then sets about breaking every last one of McKee’s rules. The real-life McKee wrote the book Story, the screenwriter’s Bible you’ll find every communications and film studies major on campus has tucked under their arm. He insisted on signing off on his appearance in Kaufman and Spike Jonze‘s film beforehand. Ever the megalomaniac, he of course insisted on a change. Originally, Chris Cooper‘s character was killed by a legendary swamp monster. McKee found this too over-the-top, and as a result Cooper is killed by an ordinary swamp alligator.
There is some truth to McKee’s teachings – screenplays that work are all-too formulaic. If you understand the mechanics of screenwriting, the endings to even your favourite films become logical conclusions as opposed to rousing finishes. Character A must confront Character B, thereby re-establishing their relationship with Character C and completing their narrative arc. We know all the signs. That lingering shot of the cook in The Hunt For Red October. Kevin Spacey smirking and glaring up at the bottom of Chazz Palminteri‘s coffee cup in The Usual Suspects.
But some climaxes follow McKee’s instructions to the letter. Thrill them in the end. Give them a big finish, leaving them salivating for more.
Here are some of the most elaborately staged climaxes we’ve ever seen. Note that there will be spoilers aplenty, if you care about that sort of thing.
15. Return of the Jedi
Tom Holland’s Rear–Window-with-a-vampire cult classic amps up the tension in the third act incrementally, from jump scare tactics to vampire bat assaults to a beat-the-clock siege on the villain’s resting place. The 2014 remake is no slouch in the end either, re-imagining the ending with multiple vampire slaves attacking instead of just two. Either fits perfectly on this list. Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale/Anton Yelchin) and vampire expert Peter Vincent (Roddy MacDowall/David Tenant) enter the lair fully equipped with everything one would need to exterminate a creature of the night, but are still stymied at every turn by the charming and vicious Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon/Colin Farrell). Both are wildly entertaining, but for sheer audacity the remake takes the lead – with Brewster setting himself on fire and leaping on the vampire to ensure his destruction.
13. North By Northwest
Hitchcock knew how to stage a thrilling climax. The master of suspense was known as such because he fully understood the camera’s relationship with the audience; what to reveal and when. The most obvious example of this is Hitch’s now famous story about two guys talking about baseball. If you don’t know it, two men are in a room talking about baseball for five minutes and a bomb goes off. And there’s this shock over the audience. Some people have had massive coronaries, others screamed, spilt their popcorn and soda. And a moment passes and they’re alright again.
Revisit that same scene, but this time at the start of the scene, let the audience know there’s a bomb under the desk and it’s going to go off in five minutes. Now, you have the audience on the edge of their seat for five minutes shouting to themselves, “Don’t talk about baseball, there’s a bomb that’s going to go off!”
That’s the essence of suspense. And never was it more thrilling than at the climax of North By Northwest, which features a thrilling chase atop Mount Rushmore, with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint being relentlessly pursued by ruthless (and implied homosexual) henchman Martin Landau. Not surprisingly, it ends with the two leads surviving safely, with a cheeky cut away to Grant pulling Saint onto a train compartment bed and – being that Hitchcock was ever so subtle – dissolving into a “The End” credit as the train enters a tunnel.
12. The Last Boy Scout
Shane Black’s screenplay for The Last Boy Scout was the first in history to be sold for over 1 million dollars. For such a price tag, you’d imagine Hollywood wanted every last word transferred on to screen pristinely. However, once Tony Scott took the director’s chair, the last act was cut, a major villain was written out and an elaborate boat chase eliminated.
Black’s trademark crackerjack detective dialogue is still firmly in place, delivered deadpan by a droopy eyed Bruce Willis. Gems like, “I’m trying to break the ice” and “I like ice, leave it the F@!& alone,” flow between Willis and co-star Damon Wayans effortlessly. And the ending, while compromised, still packs a wallop. It’s supremely silly, but where else can you see a villain stabbed, get riddled with bullets from an assault rifle, then fall to his death only to land in spinning helicopter blades?
11. Hot Fuzz
Hot Fuzz is Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg‘s lovingly crafted send up of action cinema, but its plot often has more in common with horror films like The Wicker Man (1973) and Dead and Buried than Point Break. Make no mistake, however, Wright and Pegg love Point Break. Their unbridled adoration for the genre is part of what makes Sergeant Nicolas Angel’s assault on the town of Sandford so satisfying.
After learning that the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance is actually a cult of town elders who brutally murder anyone who stands in the way of their winning Village of the Year award, Angel returns to town on a horse, two shotguns strapped to his back like angel wings. Re-teaming with partner Nick Frost, they seek and arrest any townspeople firing at them.
10. Bad Boys 2
Of the films referenced in Hot Fuzz, Point Break and Bad Boys 2 are the most explicitly noted. Critics often cite Michael Bay‘s work on the Transformers series as the height of cinema excess, but Bad Boys 2 precedes and, frankly, outdoes any rock ’em sock ’em robots.
The question of why we even needed a second Bad Boys film gets answered immediately – because it’s kickass and crazy stupid. Where the first was a minor hit and a relatively simple cops and robbers story, the second launches into the stratosphere of insanity, featuring what is essentially an all out war on current U.S. ally Cuba. Nothing is sacred, as the villainous drug lord Tapia is shot through the head after a bloody tank assault, falls backward and lands on a damn mine. Because that’s just how Michael Bay rolls, with no consideration for land, people or politics. He’s just as shallow as his characters, which is fine if you like explosions.
Paul Thomas Anderson‘s 3-hour drama gives special, lingering consideration to dramatic moments that otherwise would only comprise a scene or two of any other film. It draws out the minutiae of heartbreak, regret and loneliness.
The film culminates in one of the most controversially debated climaxes in recent history, with frogs raining down from the sky. There is scientific pretense for this, as sometimes frogs are swept up in tornadic waterspouts along with fish and other non-flying animals. However, it’s extremely rare and its occurrence in Magnolia is more likely Biblical. The frogs manage to thwart a suicide, murder Jason Robards, break William H. Macy‘s perfect new teeth and cause Phillip Seymour Hoffman to casually observe, “Oh. It’s raining frogs.”
8. Carlito’s Way
When Brian De Palma learned that the climax of Carlito’s Way no longer took place at the World Trade Centre but Grand Central Station, he lamented, “Not another train station.” The director had already made train stations iconic with his Battleship Potemkin-inspired staircase shootout in The Untouchables and would later move onto actual trains with Mission: Impossible.
Of the three, Carlito’s Way is the most elaborate, impressive of the bunch. While The Untouchables strives for intensity through slow motion and the classless, tasteless baby-in-jeopardy scenario, Way finds Al Pacino‘s Cuban drug lord running through tunnels, train cars and stations trying to make his final escape from the life – the vengeful Italian Mafia hot on his trail. His covert escape is almost flawless, and is once helped and then ultimately thwarted by an asthmatic hit man, who stops to take a hit off his inhaler and notices his prey hiding on a descending escalator. The resulting shootout is a blast to see, carefully orchestrated with the precision of every bullet Pacino fires.
He then makes a harrowing run toward the train to Florida – paradise – where his love his waiting, only to be gunned down by a minor character he shunned earlier played by John Leguizamo. When John Leguizamo is your foil, you know you have problems.
7. The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah lived as hard as he worked. Toward the end of his life, after struggling with cocaine and alcohol (he became fond of saying “I can’t direct sober”), his work suffered, teetering on the incoherent. Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, now considered a classic but initially despised upon release, is considered his last true “Peckinpah film.” It features Warren Oates playing a version of the director, filled with remorse and rage.
If ever there was an ending to a Peckinpah film that best summed up the director’s philosophy and “to hell with it” attitude, both The Wild Bunch and Garcia are perfect examples. Bunch, however, is far more memorable. After drinking and partying at a local brothel in Mexico, where they’ve come to rescue one of their own from a ruthless dictator, the ragtag group of misfits, outcasts and thieves make quiet eye contact with one another.
“Okay,” they seem to say silently. “It’s time.” And they march to the madman’s estate, into certain death. But they don’t go quietly. They go taking every last henchman with them, commandeering a gatling gun and pouring lead into bodies, spraying red mist all over the villa. When the guns stop, the only one left is notorious drunkard Edmond O’Brien, who showed up late to the party. He meets up with Robert Ryan, who has been pursuing his old friends for the law ever since a bank robbery went awry, and the two ride off into the unknown together.
If you graduated from the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, it meant that you knew how to shoot movies on the cheap, on a tight schedule and with plenty of nudity and violence thrown in for good measure. That is, as Corman deduced long ago, what sells a picture.
If you can do all those things successfully, Corman would finance your film. Joe Dante learned his craft cutting together trailers for Corman by night and shooting Hollywood Boulevard by day and on weekends. His second Corman production was scripted by playwrite and future filmmaker John Sayles – a cheap, hastily put together Jaws send-up (more accurately, as Dante notes, it was goofing more on Jaws 2). Universal Studios was considering a lawsuit and wanted Steven Spielberg to screen Piranha. Upon seeing it, not only did he love it, he tapped Dante to direct a film he was producing about mischievous creatures known as Gremlins.
Corman’s only request was that Piranha have multiple climaxes. Sayles script offered up three: a water resort community under siege by the genetically mutated fish, a summer camp and, finally, an underwater abandoned toxic waste plant. Dante has fun throwing rubber fish at victims left and right, dying the water red as swimmers scream and panic. He also has fun at the standard beat-the-clock climax, as a one-minute countdown seems to go on for nearly five.
5. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino‘s revisionist faux-historical espionage/World War II thriller is nothing if not everything I just had trouble defining. Like his lesser efforts, it’s a mishmash of interesting scenes. Like his more coherent, brilliant works, all those scenes flow together in a wonderful, satisfying way. It is a thoroughly, almost hysterically entertaining film.
From the quiet intensity of the opening milk scene, to the outlandishness of Eli Roth’s performance as “The Bear Jew” as he exterminates a Nazi in a makeshift gladiator ring, to the elaborate climax where each storyline lights its own fuse and burns down a theatre full of Hitler’s rogues gallery and the Furher himself. In fact, Adolf is seen getting lead poured into his face in a twisted Jewish revenge-fantasy before the bombs go off.
Tarantino caps this madhouse of mayhem with the branding of the worst kind of Nazi – the sadistically impassionate, who sees the war as an opportunity to have a little fun and profit in the end. And he closes with a line from Brad Pitt that may as well have come from Tarantino’s own mouth every time he completes a script: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” Cue Ennio Morricone.
Our second visit to the master of suspense takes us through one of his finest wrong-man themed pictures, with Robert Cummings starring as a factory worker accused of an act of sabotage that kills his colleagues. It’s an excellent bit of pulp filmed during the height of World War II paranoia.
After tracking down the actual culprit – a little creep played by Norman Lloyd – it leads to a rousing finish atop the Statue of Liberty’s torch. France’s gift to the states wasn’t used so emblematically again until Ghostbusters II. After a struggle, Lloyd is found dangling off the top of the statue’s hand. Ever the gentleman, Cumming’s tries to save his life, however the arm of his suit tears.
After seeing the film, screenwriter and part-time collaborator Ben Hecth said to Hitch, “He should have had a better tailor.”
David Mamet‘s lean script combined with John Frankenheimer’s insanely taut pacing makes Ronin one of the most overlooked action films of the 90s. Part of the excitement comes from the retroactive knowledge that the actors were actually in the stunt cars during the spectacular chase scenes as they sped, collided and flipped over. The plot itself is standard Mamet fare – a con within a con within a spy game.
The film climaxes during a ballet recital as the MacGuffin – the device so significant to the plot we shall not speak its name – is being transacted for cash. Robert De Niro intercept the buy, an assassin overlooks the ballerina before taking her out and the entire theatre erupts in chaos. It’s the vagueness of De Niro’s confession that he’s been CIA the whole time – so vague that some audiences didn’t even realize the twist – that is trademark Mamet. And the shootout through the fleeing crowd sees Frankenheimer at his best since The Manchurian Candidate.
2. Let It Be
Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary, which features intimate moments of The Beatles arguing and ultimately collapsing during the recording of their final album, is by no means a great film. It’s a camera at the right place at the right time. It’s also hard to get a hold of, though bootlegs are available. However, it captures an ending with more truth than most documentaries get a chance to witness firsthand. The climactic rooftop performance – the last that saw all four Beatles performing together – has become a pop culture staple. It’s been referenced and spoofed in The Simpsons, in an episode featuring Beatle George Harrison.
The gravity of the performance may be lost on younger viewers – hell, it may have even been lost on The Beatles themselves at the time, but it’s the last recorded footage of history’s most famous band playing one of history’s most famous songs for the last time as a group. If that realization doesn’t shake you to the core, nothing will.
1. Raising Cain
And so we close with, once again, Hitchcock’s most learned follower, Brian De Palma. Hitchcock put together some amazing, unbeatable climaxes, and De Palma did everything in his power to top every last one, despite lesser budgets and lesser actors.
De Palma raised the stakes during his film’s third acts so many times and so elaborately that the entire climax of Femme Fatale plays out like a winking spoof of the kind of happenstance necessary to create the scenarios such scenes involve. Raising Cain is one of the most unapologetically silly, yet somehow still frighteningly intense endings money can buy.
Recently, Scream Factory released Cain on Blu Ray with a recut version of the film meant to replicate what De Palma originally intended before caving to studio demands. This writer, as well as De Palma himself, highly recommends this new cut as opposed to the theatrical. In either, however, the climax remains pristine.
As Lolita Davidovitch’s character confronts the baby-stealing father of her multi-personality husband (stay with me, it gets more complex), her husband appears in drag as his feminine personality and stabs the father with a scalpel. The father, standing on the third floor of a motel balcony, drops the baby in his arms over the railing. The baby begins to fall. The would-be lover (still with me?) of Davidovitch’s character is in the parking lot and begins to run toward the baby, hoping to catch it. But a pickup truck carrying a sundial with a sharp arrow sticking out the back is trying to park properly, so it’s backing up – arrow pointed directly toward the would-be lover’s neck. The baby passes the second story, where a detective tries to grab it but misses. Then, as the evil baby stealing father screams in agony, his revolver goes off, firing a bullet into the sundial, breaking off the arrow that would have impaled the lover as he successfully catches the baby.
Phew. Got all that? Good.