Background Noise: This is the Greatest Ambush Movie Moment Ever
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TODAY’S NOISE: Ambush Movies
So I’m on a plane after a long delay and settle in for an even longer overseas flight. Naturally, before the safety video has even played, I’ve already checked out the in-flight movies available and tentatively put them in a mental order of priority to get me through the journey. First on the admittedly limited list is Patrick Hughes‘ The Hitman’s Bodyguard, a movie I’d already seen (like every movie on the list – consequences of being a movie critic) but figured was good for a second shot. I got through it … and then slept the rest of the way. Anyway, while The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a rather so-so watch (read our review here), it does feature a number of cool car stunts and action set-pieces, including one that is a street ambush that got me thinking about the best ambush in movie history. And it’s not the one you’re thinking of. You’re thinking of Star Wars, right?
TO HISTORY: To be sure, there are no shortage of ambushes in movies, with everything from Ironman (2008) to Warcraft (2016) and tons in-between. Westerns have practically made them a staple, usually with the chasing posse riding right into one. Still, there are others. I’ve always liked the extend ambush scene in Michael Mann‘s The Last of the Mohican‘s where British soldiers (and our hero Hawkeye – played by Daniel Day-Lewis) are escorting the daughter’s of a general through the woods and find themselves under attack by Huron warriors. It’s a savage and highly authentic moment that is as terrifying to watch as it is fascinating for its historical recreation. It’s the movie’s single best action scene and arguably the best moment in the entire film. Mann knows action.
TO WAR: War movies, like The Last of the Mohicans, have plenty of ambushes. Best of them is this terrific moment in Oliver Stone‘s Platoon when naive recruit Chris Taylor’s (Charlie Sheen) squad walks into a firefight in the jungles of Vietnam. That scene is a study in teeth-chattering tension as the soldiers go on patrol in the rain-soaked forests and as they trek through the trees, you just know something horrible is coming, Stone’s direction and the film’s natural setting making it impossible to be remotely calm. When the bullets suddenly strike, it’s jarring and gruesome and all the more harrowing when you consider this was a reality for many forces in that war. When I first saw this movie, it changed everything about how I thought what war movies should be. This scene is one reason why.
AND AGAIN: A year later, in 1987, Stanley Kubrick joined the war movie genre and put a spin on the ambush trope, in his epic anti-war film Full Metal Jacket, another film set in Vietnam. Well, at least half of it is, the opening act taking us inside the hell that is a US Marine boot camp. Either way, at the end of the story, we are in a bombed out city called Huế and a squad of men, including James T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) are scouting the area when yup, they get ambushed, but not in the traditional way. Instead of a swath of heady baddies, a lone sniper in an elevated position strikes and offers them quite a fight, leading to a shocking surprise when the shooter’s identity is finally revealed. This is another terrifying action scene filled with almost unbearable tension and dread, Kubrick, like Stone, aiming for intense authenticity, and scoring big. This is scary stuff.
INTO SPACE: So you’re probably thinking, okay, get to it, the one movie ambush that everyone thinks of, a scene that even spawned one of the most popular internet memes ever. Well, it’s Admiral Ackbar’s immortal moment and cherished line: ‘It’s a Trap’ from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. You know the setup. The Rebel forces have become aware of a second Death Star orbiting the forest moon of Endor and have staged an assault, led by the amphibious Mon Calamari, Ackbar and his awesome googly eyes. However, the insidious Empire are on to them, even letting the Death Star serve as bait, and are waiting then they arrive and begin to devastate the starships. It’s one of the most innovate and celebrated ambushes in all of movies, a crucial turning point in the story and easily one of the most exciting moments in the series. Plus come on, Ackbar. It’s a trap. It’s movie magic. Yet … it’s still not the best ambush ever.
THE BEST EVER: Back to The Hitman’s Bodyguard. And no, this is not it. In this ambush scene, and avoiding spoiling the film, a high value prisoner (Samuel L. Jackson) is being transported by INTERPOL in a three-truck convoy, though he’s quite sure his enemies are out to strike, something his escorts think is highly unlikely. Naturally, all hell breaks loose, he’s right, and in an explosive moment, the vehicles come under intense fire, leaving mayhem and chaos in the streets. It’s a pretty exciting scene, BUT … if you’ve seen Phillip Noyce‘s brilliant Clear and Present Danger (1994), then you’ve not only seen this moment’s major influence (seriously, they draw pretty heavily from it) but also the single best ambush scene in cinema history.
Clear and Present Danger is the third film in the on-again off-again spy series about CIA analyst/agent Jack Ryan, here played by Harrison Ford. It’s the best movie in the franchise, which includes the very good The Hunt for Red October, so that’s saying a lot. A political thriller as well as an action movie, it follows Ryan’s spiral into a subversive covert operation to take down South American drug lords, which has him all tangled up in backstabbing and coverups. He ends up traveling to Colombia, and while there, is a passenger in a small convoy escorting FBI Director Emil Jacobs (Tom Tammi), who has himself come down to poke around. Needless to say, he’s a high-value target and when cartel leaders get wind he’s in town, oh boy, they lead him and the convoy into a clever and deadly trap.
This is a some truly great filmmaking right here, an extremely well-choreographed and directed stunt sequence that is gripping for its tension and violence, but also its astonishing realism. Ford is central to that, a master of grounded authenticity in his heyday, he makes this extended moment absolutely riveting, performing many of his own stunts. While the makers of The Hitman’s Bodyguard are never really sure about tone of their movie, making wide swings from cartoonish action comedy to drama and jarring violence, Clear and Present Danger is rigidly genuine from the start, a film that takes itself seriously and excels because so. The Hitman’s Bodyguard scene is good but falls into a trend in modern cinema where the showcasing becomes more important than the meaning, the action is staged in service to the action rather than to the story, something that ultimately drains the moment of investment and consequence. With Clear and Present Danger, however, it is very much the opposite, a battle for survival that feels true, where every bullet could mean death and every decision potentially the last. It’s raw.
Comparing these very similar moments reveals a great divide in approach, with The Hitman’s Bodyguard looking purely to entertain rather than develop depth. This is a scene that is fitted into a story as a stand alone action piece, a scene that ultimately has no relevance to the plot and is soon lost to much bigger car stunts that follow. Noyce, on the other hand, makes his ambush a moment of sacrifice, an event that has huge repercussions on everything that follows, fundamentally shifting the Ryan character and his motivations. It weighs heavy with the audience as well, and is reason why this ambush is the greatest ever filmed. It’s part of a movie that is hands down already a terrific thriller and deserves more eyes on it. It’s maybe why I’ve written about it so often, like here, here, here, and here. Watch it.
What do you think? What is your favorite movie ambush moment? Let’s us know in the comments below.