There are some deaths in movies that stay with you forever, and not just because of how grizzly they are or how ridiculous the special effects are, but how unexpected they are. Nobody expects the hero to die, but sometimes it is this exact course of action that can take a good film into the realm of greatness.
Lethal Weapon 2 could have been one of these films. Shane Black, who wrote the original Lethal Weapon and wrote the first draft of the screenplay for the second film, killed off Mel Gibson’s character of Martin Riggs at the end of the film. The studio quickly freaked out and brought in another writer to ensure Riggs survives by the skin of his teeth, in true hero style.
Apart from the fact that the Riggs character (and the film series itself) became more like a sitcom than an action franchise, it also showed that studios don’t want their cash cows – sorry, “heroes” – to buy the farm unless they see it as a logical conclusion. Never mind that the creator of the series felt that Martin Riggs needed to die to find peace with himself.
There are plenty of heart-breaking deaths in action movies. Kyle Reese’s death in The Terminator is necessary for Sarah Connor to evolve from ordinary woman to battle-hardened heroine who will give birth to the saviour of mankind. It doesn’t stop it from being tragic though. Everybody loves Reese for being a great soldier, but like many great soldiers, they fall in the line of duty to serve the bigger picture.
The difference between a necessary death and a shock death are few and far between. But here are a few classic examples where the death is greeted with a collective “Whoa!” from the audience. SPOILER WARNING!!!
James Brolin in Westworld (1973)
Michael Crichton’s “adult amusement park goes haywire” concept was first seen here but repeated in dino-classic Jurassic Park 20 years later. But in Westworld, those technological fears are front and centre. Yul Brynner’s terrifying turn as a robot gunslinger that malfunctions along with the rest of the park and goes on a killing spree is one for the ages, and results in a shock kill for the ages.
For the most part, we follow James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as they arrive at the park and live out their Wild West fantasies – from drinking in salons and checking out the local brothel – before having a share of gunfights. It’s all fun and games until Brolin – the more handsome and charismatic of the two and therefore the man most likely to be the hero – decides to take on Brynner in the street. However, Brynner is now a killing machine out of control, and he brutally takes out Brolin with three shots, leaving the weaker Benjamin to man up over the remainder of the movie and escape the kill zone of Westworld. It’s a truly shocking moment that still surprises with repeat viewings.
William Peterson in To Live and Die in LA (1985)
William Friedkin’s crime classic follows William Peterson’s US Secret Service agent as he tries to take down counterfeiter Willem Dafoe by any means possible. It’s a classic blurring-of-the-lines turn from Peterson, never far from breaking the law himself and always one step away from saving the day or ending up dead. This reckless behaviour gets the job done but puts his and his partner’s lives in danger as they steer closer to the edge.
Regardless of how reckless and dangerous Peterson’s character gets, he is front-and-centre throughout, so expect him to be the last man standing as the credits roll. But in a great final act, Peterson’s luck finally runs out and he is gunned down at close range, leaving his meek partner to see out the case, which he does by inhabiting the traits and skills of his former partner. It’s a huge risk, and the studio execs made Friedkin shoot an alternative ending where Peterson’s character lives. But preferring his bleaker ending, Friedkin went for broke, and created an ending that is as shocking as it is brave, and makes the film stay in the memory far longer than it would have if Friedkin had folded under studio pressure.
Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond The Pines (2012)
Ryan Gosling in the hottest man on the planet right now, and his star continues to rise in the film world, especially after his Steve McQueen-esque turn in 2011’s Drive. In The Place Beyond The Pines, Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt-rider who starts robbing banks in order to support the child he didn’t knew he had.
What is expected to be a true anti-hero story becomes a completely different film after Gosling is shot and killed following a motorcycle chase after a bank robbery goes wrong. You have to check your watch to see if the film has been on long enough to end with this moment, before realising that Gosling’s section of the film is just the opening of the wider story. It’s a really brave moment, and the film has received both acclaim and criticism for the story left-turn. Either way, it’s a huge shock when Gosling’s dead eyes are looking up at you just as you’re starting to root for him.
Kevin Spacey in LA Confidential (1997)
With a main cast trio of Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, LA Confidential is a superb cop film set in the City of Angels during the 1950’s. At the time however, Crowe and Pearce were new on the scene, and Spacey was brought in as the “recognisable face” designed to carry the film and ensure that bums were put on seats at the box office. It certainly works, and it made Spacey’s sudden demise in the second act all the more shocking when the film was released.
Spacey’s character of Jack Vincennes – a narcotics cop revelling in the celebrity that his role as advisor to top TV cop show Badge of Honour – is a white suit wearing charmer who everybody loves and respects. The three cops – along with Crowe’s brutally direct cop and Pearce’s square and ambitious cop – investigate a series of murders in completely different ways before the dramatic showdown at the climax of the film. However, Spacey’s Vincennes misses out on the action having been gunned down by his corrupt boss. You’ll never see it coming… Unless you’ve read this first, of course.