Tuesday, December 28, 2010

5 One-Off Lines That Make Movies Better

One of the things that can drag even a good movie down is bad dialogue, especially among secondary characters.  No amount of set design, plot intricacies, or stunning leading performances can escape untarnished from a terrible delivery of one line that is clearly just filler.  That stuff lingers with the viewer (or at least with me).  Sure, sometimes you can get around the problem by eliminating dialogue altogether, but most films have a need for more than one character who is not a mute volleyball.
However, occasionally you get one-off lines of dialogue that, while not directly affecting the overall story arc, are nevertheless priceless bits of movie magic.  Often they end up being the quotes you throw around with your friends.  Sometimes they’re just a nice pick-me-up or change of tone.  And sometimes they cross into the sublime and actually elevate the movie to something it might not have been. 

Following are five examples of this phenomenon that I think best describe it.  I wanted to embed audio or video clips of each line, but due to licensing agreements, apparent Blogger deficiencies, and my own technical incompetence, I can't.  If you've seen the movies referenced then you may recognize the lines.  If you haven't seen them in a while, try watching again and keep your ears open.
1.  “Eat it, Harvey!”  (Richard Thornberg, Die Hard)
Journalism in action, ca 1988.
This, to me, is the quintessential example of what I’m referring to.  On the surface, this line has nothing, nothing to do with John McClain, the Nakatomi Towers, the terrorists, or anything related to the plot in any way.  And yet when slimy reporter Richard Thornberg hurls this outburst at the L.A. news anchor, in the middle of his passionate request to take a mobile unit to the site of what he suspects is the news story of the year, it is a window into their relationship.  These men hate each other, that much is obvious from the lines exchanged, but there’s more right there under the surface.  See how Harvey invites the insult with a passive-aggressive jibing of an apparently under-achieving colleague.  Check the look on Thornberg’s face as he delivers the line, the simple “I am just so tired of your shit” look.  And this tiny moment hints at a back story for him that shines a light on why he would stoop to the levels he eventually reaches in the film’s last act.  He should be sitting in that anchor’s chair, and he can get it with a big enough scoop.  And he doesn’t care how many journalism ethics codes he has to violate to get one.
2.  “My name is Ranger John Johnson, but everyone here calls me Vicki.”  (Ranger John Johnson, So I Married an Axe Murderer)

"Now here's something the other tour guides won't tell you..."
Okay, this movie isn’t the greatest thing put to film.  It’s probably not even the greatest thing Mike Myers has put to film (that would probably be Austin Powers if you’re talking about funny, or the Shrek franchise if you’re talking about money).  But other than Myers’ Scottish cartoon character of a father, the character I love the most is Phil Hartman’s Alcatraz tour guide.  His menacing tone and heavy glower assure the tour group, and the viewer, that he absolutely will not tolerate any crap from any of us, his flinty eyes reflecting the hundreds of nightstick beatings he’s surely handed out.  Then he requests that we call him “Vicki.”  It takes a scene that would be a lazy bit of exposition, and a “hey, the movie is set in San Francisco so we should shoot lots of well-known landmarks” bit of drudgery, and immediately makes it a gleeful walk through the world’s most famous prison.  This way to the cafeteria!
3.  “Most things in here don’t react too well to bullets.”  (Captain Marko Ramius, The Hunt for Red October)
Also:  "Shuck it, Trebek!"
If this little gem were uttered by any person other than Sean Connery, it would sound hackneyed and vapid.  “No shit nuclear missiles don’t like being shot at!” would be my instant reaction, and probably yours.  Connery being who he is, though, it totally works.  Whether it’s the deadpan, world-weary delivery, or the simple fact that the last word is pronounced “boolletsh,” the line somehow makes the subsequent scene that much more tense and high-stakes.  I was actually tempted to go with Alec Baldwin’s repetition of the line later in the scene (in a near-perfect Connery impression, no less!) but decided that the original is really what elevates the scene. 
Honorable Mention:  “Would you mind not firing…at the thermo…nuclear…weapons.” (John Travolta, Broken Arrow)
Terrible movie, but fantastic villain.  I still whistle his theme song from time to time when I want to annoy my wife.
4.  “That about sums it up for me.”  (Ralph, Groundhog Day)

This is seriously the best picture the internet has to offer to illustrate this scene.  Seriously, Internet?  After all we've been through together?
Is there a more quotable film than Groundhog Day?  Hell, you get multiple chances to hear half the greatest lines, and they’re delivered by some of the greatest comic character actors ever.  This one is literally a toss-off:  sitting at the bowling alley bar with Ralph and Gus (who wishes he’d stayed in the Navy), Phil has finally determined that he’s stuck in some sort of loop, and that maybe he can’t ever get out.  So he muses that maybe nothing you’ll ever do matters, and Ralph’s reply, delivered with the resignation of career small-towner, perfectly captures the tone of the situation Phil has found himself in.  There really is no escaping Punxsutawney in winter, so why not get drunk at the bowling alley?
5.  “Hey, that’s good advice!”  (Jimmy Dugan, A League of Their Own)

Dugan, pictured here avoiding the clap.
Tom Hanks brought the character of washed-up major leaguer Dugan to life.  The lines everyone remembers about no crying in baseball and girls not being ballplayers are justifiably awesome, but they don’t qualify for this list because they are a metaphor for the key theme of the film:  the acceptance of women’s ability to compete in a heretofore men’s-only club.  This line, accompanying his autographed admonition to beware of venereal disease, is not only the last big laugh of the movie.  It also short-circuits the tempting clich√© of making Dugan’s character now a progressive feminist or something.  He’s still the crass, foul-mouthed bastard he was at the beginning of the film…he just now accepts that girls aren’t just what you sleep with after the game.  But if you do so, it is still good advice.  No arguing with common sense.

2 comments:

  1. Groundhog Day...one of my favorites. Gotta say tho Anchorman is the movie my brothers and I quote the most.

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  2. ooh Groundhog Day is so good I like it.One of my favorites Thanks Mobile

    ReplyDelete