Whether it’s a big name on the poster, or simply a demise you didn’t see coming, every now and then, a blockbuster movie can still pull the rug… SPOILER OVERLOAD INSIDE…
Be warned: once you scroll down, the spoilers start coming thick and fast…
Steven SeagalExecutive Decision
Steven Seagal is a big action hero. He got second billing in Executive Decision behind Kurt Russell. You would have expected him, on that basis, to make it to the second act of the film. And yet he didn’t. To this day, it’s my favourite Steven Seagal film.
Seagal, according to John Leguizamo’s book, wasn’t a happy bunny about his character meeting his maker so early in, either. From where I was sat, though, it was a bona fide surprise that led to a far more interesting film. Really: if you didn’t know in advance, would you have seen him falling to his doom?
Once that happened, it opened up the possibility that any character is vulnerable, and while the back end of Executive Decision turned out to be quite routine, it’s still a fine action flick. And one with the courage to bump off one of its two star names in the first act, without some big noble farewall scene.
Macaulay CulkinMy Girl
It’s not very well done when the moment happens, but this was the first big Macaulay Culkin vehicle after he’d struck gold in the Home Alone franchise. In a scene that you’re not supposed to laugh at but do, though, he’s stung to death by a group of bees. It’s a good job Nicolas Cage from The Wicker Man remake wasn’t walking by at the time. He’d have some words to say about it.
Nonetheless, it’s still a moment that the film’s audience wasn’t expecting, especially given the number of sobbing children reported to be sitting through a chance to see their idol of the time on the big screen. When Macaulay’s glasses fall to the floor, it’s a genuine shock, after all. Can you imagine Zac Efron dying half way through 17 Again or High School Musical 4? It’s just not supposed to happen.
Still, we’re sure that all of those aforementioned kids were happy watching Dan Aykroyd, instead. That’s who they stumped up their cash to watch really.
It was apparently written into his deal for Armageddon that Bruce Willis would be allowed to die valiantly saving the world at the end of the film Armageddon. And truthfully, had it not been a movie star in the role, I’d have seen the ending coming a country mile away, and suspect most of the popcorn munchers around me would too.
And yet here, in the major blockbuster he was headlining, it was Brucie who saved the world, taking his life in the process. That’s firmly going against the blockbuster template, and while there was clearly never going to be any call for him in an Armageddon 2, the golden rule of big action movies is the star doesn’t die. But here, he does.
What’s more, he left the planet Earth with the talents of Ben Affleck instead. We will forever be grateful, sir. You truly did the planet a service.
Sigourney WeaverAlien 3
This one was spoiled for me in a magazine at the time, but I still didn’t believe they’d go through with it. And yet, with the franchise still surely not complete, Ripley sacrificed herself in a T2-a-like scene (albeit filmed at roughly the same time as Arnie’s juggernaut), by refusing to surrender herself and her baby alien to the shadowy company. Cue a big pot of red hot liquid, and cue the end of Ripley.
The surprise was that you wouldn’t believe that Fox would kill off the star of one of its biggest and most successful franchises. Could you imagine John McClane going at the end of Die Hard With A Vengeance? And there was a reason that Stallone did an about turn on his plan to bump off Rocky Balboa at the end of the fifth film.
That said, in the end, Fox got round the fact that Ripley was dead by, er, resurrecting her. That kind of undid the shock moment at the end of Alien 3 a little in the process…
Sylvester Stallone’s big action movie comeback, and the first of two entries for Renny Harlin movies on this list. This time, he didn’t kill a movie star, but he did let action hero Stallone – back in the genre, remember, and trying to be all heroic – drop someone to their doom within the first ten minutes of the movie.
If you genuinely didn’t know it was coming, it’s fair to say that was quite a shock. Stallone was Rambo. Stallone was Rocky. Stallone was a big hero who simply didn’t let people die. And while there were plenty at the time clamouring to spoil the film’s opening, to have his character laid out to be quiet so fallible very early on, in what you expected to be a run-of-the-mill beefcake movie in the mountains, certainly raised eyebrows.
They don’t come much better than this, and even though we’re focusing on more recent blockbusters here, many filmmakers surely have Jaws in mind when they try and spring their surprises.
Mid-conversation with Brodie, out comes the shark from seemingly nowhere and snaps Robert Shaw’s Quint clean away. For drop down shock value, it was unparalleled at the time, not least because to that point, Quint had been one of the film’s major characters. It was also brilliantly filmed, and remains one of the most iconic moments of a flat-out terrific movie.
From that moment on, everyone was in peril, which is the ultimate pay-off for a genuinely good shock bumping off. And it’s testament to the strength of the moment that it’s a scene still enthusiastically discussed over three decades later.
Samuel L JacksonDeep Blue Sea
Naturally, this one had to follow Jaws…
If you cast Samuel L Jackson in a film, you simply don’t want to kill him until the end of it. It’s, surely, a golden rule. Yet for the first time in his career, director Renny Harlin pulled a stunt that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud of, and Jackson quickly, suddenly, and brutally became shark food.
We then sat there, after a shark has – yes! – come out of nowhere and consumed him, expecting him to pop up any minute, before realising that yes indeed, Harlin had just fed his leading man to the sharks. And it’s the moment from the film we still talk about over a decade later. The reportedly planned direct to video Deep Blue Sea 2 will simply have nothing to match it…
HoochTurner & Hooch
The dog buys it. And as all concerned seem to admit to this day, that wiped at least $10m off the film’s takings as a result. Considering the film was billed as a genial comedy about a man and his hound, the minimum audience expectation is that the pooch will make it to the end of the film. We’re hardly talking Fatal Attraction here, after all.
Jim Belushi in K9 had the right idea. He managed to save his dog, while somehow nice guy Tom Hanks managed to get his killed. You suspect that if all concerned had their time again, the ending of Turner & Hooch might just be that little bit different…
Maggie GyllenhaalThe Dark Knight
The death of Rachel Dawes half way through The Dark Knight has proven to be an audience splitter, yet at the screening of the film I attended, it elicited an audible gasp. If you didn’t know in advance, you’d surely be sat there convinced that she was going to survive. After all, surely it was Harvey Dent that was going to be caught mid-explosion, and thus bring on the genesis of Two Face?
Given that Gary Oldman’s Gordon had already died and come back in the film by this point, it was clear that director Christopher Nolan wouldn’t pull the same trick twice, and by killing the character you expected to survive a quick and brutal death, he achieved the rare feat of genuinely pulling the rug from underneath your feet in the middle of a blockbuster that had been heavily exposed online and in print. For all the trailers, the preview clips, the acres of words written in previews, I for one simply never saw it coming.
Leonard NimoyStar Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
A genuinely moving ending to the film that was, until recently, the finest in the Trek canon. The finale, where Spock sacrifices himself for the greater good, was genuinely a shot out of nowhere, and all the more impactful for it. Sadly, in the modern day world, we’d have had this sort of thing spoilt for us a good year in advance (just remember the death of Shatner in Star Trek: Generations). But pre-Internet, Spock’s demise was a bolt out of the blue, especially given the fact that the character had been around for the best part of a couple of decades by this point.
Trek would try and repeat this twice more on the big screen. Generations and Kirk doesn’t really count, because we suspect virtually everyone knew what they were getting when they bought a ticket. But, to be fair, Brent Spiner’s Data being destroyed in Star Trek: Nemesis was a surprise. Sadly, the courage of the producer’s convictions didn’t even last to the end credits of the film in that case, before another version of the same character was wheeled out. Sigh.Honourable mentions:L.A. Confidential, Message In A Bottle and The Untouchables, but none are really blockbuster-y enough…
Patrick Stewart in X-Men: The Last Stand (wind past the end credits, though, and it screws up the moment)
Coming soon: the 10 most obviously signposted deaths in blockbuster movies