Continuing with my current obsession with a film’s opening moments, here are nine opening scenes that stand out in my mind. It can be a pre-credit sequence, the first scene after the opening titles, or maybe even a scene that occurs during the credits. But whatever it is, it’s something that immediately draws you into the film and sets the tone for what you’re about to see.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Like a James Bond prologue, our introduction to Indiana Jones is the finale of a previous adventure. A dude in a fedora leads a group of men through a South American jungle. One henchman pulls a gun, cocks it. Suddenly there is the thunderous crack of a bullwhip and the gun falls harmlessly into the water. The dude in the fedora emerges from the shadows, and thus Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones character is revealed. Indy braves more henchman betrayal, deadly spike traps, tarantulas and a giant rolling boulder — only to have the object of his quest, a golden idol, taken from him by rival archeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman). And get this — the idol doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie.
Badassitude Level: Show a little backbone, will ya?
Pulp Fiction (1994). A seemingly innocuous diner conversation between “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) suddenly escalates into an impromptu armed robbery. Honey Bunny screams “Any of you fucking pricks move and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you!” Freeze-frame. Cue Dick Dale and his Deltones’ “Misirlou”.
Badassitude Level: The one that says “Bad Motherfucker” on it.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). We begin with a beautiful shot of the landscape, in glorious widescreen. Suddenly a man’s face fills the frame in total close-up. He slowly walks down the main street of a seemingly deserted town, meeting two other men in front of a saloon. All three of them walk inside. We hear gunshots and then Eli Wallach’s Tuco character crashes through the window. There is a freeze frame and the words “the ugly” are etched into the screen, accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s “ah-ee-ah-ee-ahhh” stinger. Off we go.
Badassitude Level: Just a dirty son of a …
Goodfellas (1990). Opening with a scene that actually occurs later on in the timeline of the story, a car drives at night in upstate New York. Inside the car is Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) — though we don’t know that yet. The three men hear a strange noise coming from the car and pull over to investigate. Before opening the trunk, Tommy pulls out a butcher knife — and suddenly we know this is no ordinary moment of car trouble. Inside the trunk is the battered body of Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), still alive and pleading for his life. They “take care of” the problem and we freeze on Henry who says in voice-over “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Badassitude Level: C’mon, fuckos, let’s go for a ride!
Star Wars (1977). “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” Then the title Star Wars — none of that “Episode IV: A New Hope” bullshit — accompanied by John Williams’s opening theme being heard for the very first time. “It is a period of civil war,” begins the opening crawl, the likes of which many of us had never seen before, except in reruns of the 1930s Flash Gordon serial starring Buster Crabbe. After the crawl we tilt down to a planet, then from behind us an enormous spaceship whooshes by, followed by another, holy-living-fuck-that’s-really-huge spaceship in hot pursuit. The sound rattled the theater, even the ones with crappy sound systems.
Badassitude Level: The truth is, Greedo never even got off a shot.
Goldfinger (1964). James Bond films have had some pretty bad-ass opening, but the one that stands out to me is Goldfinger. Bond (Sean Connery, of course) emerges from the water in a wetsuit, infiltrates some facility (who really gives a shit where or why), sets some plastic explosives and strips off his wetsuit to reveal a white tux beneath so he can hang out in some fancy local bar to wait for the explosion. Seconds later, Bond is already back in his hotel room kissing a naked woman in his bathtub who naturally is working for the enemy — revealed to be a traitor when a would-be assassin tries to sneak up on Bond but he happens to catch the killer’s reflection in the woman’s eye. Bond spins around, uses the woman as a human shield and dispatches the assassin by electrocuting him in the bathtub. “Shocking … positively shocking,” says Bond as he leaves the room. Cue Shirley Bassey.
Badassitude Level: James Bond Back in Action!
Halloween II (1981). I know you might be scratching your head over this selection, but stay with me for a second. How many sequels had you ever seen before that began at the exact same moment the previous film ended? Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) empties his gun into killer Michael Myers, the body falls to the ground, but when Loomis looks down the body is gone. That’s where the previous film had ended, but now Loomis runs outside and screams to the next-door neighbor “Call the police! Tell the sheriff I shot him!” The neighbor asks, “Is this some kind of joke? I’ve been trick-or-treated to death tonight.” Loomis replies, coldly, “You don’t know what death is.” Cue the familiar John Carpenter theme.
Badassitude Level: If only the rest of the film had lived up to that opening.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Perhaps the greatest telling of background information in movie history, the Rings prologue manages to convey all of the required information to the average moviegoer, while at the same time making all the Tolkien fans wet themselves. Aside from being an incredible visual enactment of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, the audience is not assaulted right away with a bunch of names to remember. Instead of saying “Isildur, son of Elendil, picked up Narsil” the narration goes “Isildur, son of the king, picked up his fathers sword” — because at that moment nothing else is as important as Isildur’s story. The uninitiated aren’t confused, and the hard-core Tolkien fans know all the names anyway.
Badassitude Level: If you want him, come and claim him!
The Dark Knight (2008). As we slowly move in on a city skyscraper, one of the windows explodes and thus begins a glorious six-minute bank heist sequence. Not just any bank heist, but one orchestrated by the Joker. And not just any Joker either, this is Heath Ledger’s Joker — think Hannibal Lecter, only crazy. As the heist continues it becomes clear that the men — all dressed in clown masks — have been instructed to kill one another once their specialty is no longer required. The last man standing is none other than the Joker himself, who reveals himself while saying “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stranger.”
Badassitude Level: How about a magic trick?