Warren J. Cantrell is so prolific, I’m beginning to think he keeps writing Top 10s so that no one else will get one in edgewise. So here you go: another Top 10 from the man who brought you Top 10 Reasons “Predator 2″ is the Best of the Franchise and Top 10 Movies Ruined by a Female Presence. If anyone else wants to contribute a Top 10 to the site for Top 10 Tuesday, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, here’s more Warren with a long-winded new Top 10:
Nothing hints at a corner-cutting, dignity-swallowing director like the presence of a montage in a picture. In the trade, within high-end critic circles, the insertion of a montage as a way to tie up extraneous plot points or otherwise advance the story is looked upon in much the same way as might a parent wincing at their child who is touting their successful use of the potty whilst holding up shit-smeared hands as proof. I could make a list 50 films deep if some parameters aren’t tossed around this puppy, for truly, some films are too good to leave out, yet don’t exactly encompass the true spirit of the genuine montage. When I say genuine, I mean the director had to really cut some corners, cramming an ass-load of information into a brief two to four minutes–no dialogue, just rockin’ music and quick-cut action. Because the best montages come (quite accidentally) from the films that simply don’t have the money or patience to properly expound on certain aspects of the plot, covering vast periods and events in a desperately abbreviated fashion, this list only recognizes those montages that really went for it, and tried to wrap up more than 6 hours of events in one quick series of shots. For this reason, epic montages like those found in “Jaws,” “The Karate Kid,” “Commando,” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II” don’t make it here. Nor do I note the films that wasted the awesome promise of a good montage on slow-moving, tedious scenes. And while some decent films have had good montages, I simply could not stand putting them before truly manly (is there any other genuine sort?) montages like the ones listed. For this reason, while it was not easy letting them go: “Billy Madison,” “Stripes,” “Major League,” “Volunteers,” “Hoosiers,” and “Indiana Jones” (solid travel montage) are mentioned honorably now, yet omitted.
10. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) – Getting’ strapped.
Back in 1991, most of us had not realized how full of shit Kevin Costner was, and could still plausibly enjoy a montage, however tainted by his presence, so long as the bastard wasn’t calling the shots behind the camera. This montage does well by keeping the action and medieval steel in focus (rather than Costner and his mullet), quick-cutting the shit out of these weapon and fortification-preparation scenes. Indeed, nothing gets a man jazzed up more than watching a bunch of dudes going “A-Team” in the 12th century, harvesting Sherwood’s natural resources to build an armory and a Swiss Family Robinson-appropriate tree fort. As a child, I could scarcely imagine a scenario where one needed more than crudely fashioned swords and arrows to overcome the might of an encroaching British warlord, and to this day, I try to forget that I’ve learned otherwise. The three-plus minutes of defensive preparations played on a basic male understanding of the world: with enough music and shots of molten steel poured into casts, a man will believe in the world and the possibilities afforded to live as a fugitive forest-Prince. This montage’s rousing musical score and wise use of awesome props like stacked swords and bows let the audience forget that they were knee-deep in a fetid Costner-cesspool, something rudely thrust back upon us by concluding the sweet-ass montage with a laughable “special” f/x shot of Robin splitting an arrow in half. If a lack of British citizenship was of no concern when casting the lead, I ask this: why Costner? In “Predator,” Schwarzenegger demonstrated (admirably) that he was not only a leader of men, but also quite adept at making munitions from the bosom of nature. The pieces were all in place, yet somebody at Morgan Creek Productions failed to pull the trigger. It is for this reason that this movie places so low on this list, awesome montage be damned.
9. Teen Wolf (1985) – Wolf’s got skills.
You have to give a nod to a movie that recklessly embraces the absurdity of its plot. Certainly, this doesn’t earn a movie an automatic pass on this merit alone, but when you’re dealing with a fucking werewolf going to high school, playing Varsity basketball whilst drinking and screwing more than any other jock on campus, well, you’re a filmmaker speaking my language. I particularly love the fact that you have a mythic, traditionally bloodthirsty creature of the night walking the halls of a public institution housing minors, and not only is the school okay with it, they hook the beast up with a letterman’s jacket! Sweet-ass threads aside, we get all the goods during this montage, including the impending, unavoidable split between a newly christened werewolf and the fat friend/teammate holding him back. And that’s alright, because in high school, when you’re (inexplicably) the center of the social universe as a result of freakish ancestral abilities that give you the power to both ball and draw in poon, you need to cut loose the ballast, shotgun a beer, and ghost-ride the shit out of some vans. This film’s montage doesn’t get a higher ranking because of the inexplicable lack of clips featuring our wolf-hero fighting crime, terrorism, or even mutant sheep (all appropriate actions for a werewolf superhero). Sure, he is shown to have scored lots of ass, played some serious 5-on-5, and partied the shit out of the local scene, but without some kind of vengeful retribution (fangs and claws ripping into criminal flesh with a snarl of justice) it’s kind of empty.
Pulling off an appropriate and accurate drunk scene isn’t easy. While some actors do indeed have an uncanny ability to act hammered, most come off as clownish attempts that resemble down syndrome more than intoxication. Enter Guy Ritchie and the montage-drunk of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” a scene that deftly combines upbeat dance beats with celebratory drunk antics in a manner that got the jubilation of the scene’s moment spot on. After completing (miraculously) their heist of another heist, our four main characters head back to a bar for a private, all-night drunk. While Ritchie is riding in the car built from the ground-up by Wes Anderson and Tarantino, credit should be given to this scene’s graceful feeling of British style that is now (regrettably) so played out. However, this scene works because the music, performances, camera moves, and action during the shots that meld perfectly with the tone of the scene: giddy relief that our protagonists will not all have to die or otherwise get maimed in the morning. Perhaps the scene works because at our best, our most profoundly drunk, most of us wish we were having as much fun whilst looking as cool as these guys here. Ritchie’s offerings have been problematic to differing degrees since, yet here, and to a smaller extent with “Snatch,” the world watched as a passerby might, surveying with amusement a sidewalk juggler with enough skill to warrant a moment of admiration (though not any spare change).
No, I’m not talking about the bus-riding montage where Jean-Claude Van Damme is lamenting the loss of his bro-partner (which was arguably the gayest few minutes of the 20th century). I’m talking about the fighting montage where the audience gets to watch a litany of toughs smack the shit out of each other for glory, blood, and honor. The soundtrack to this film is so difficult to obtain in its original CD or tape format that genuine copies can go for as much as a C-note (seriously). In light of the savage cut (Stan Bush’s monumental “Fight To Survive”) afforded the background of this montage, it’s hard to argue with such price assessments, as this montage strikes all vital points both in scene content and musical accompaniment. With something like four-dozen fighters to peel through so our hero can get to the demonic Bolo and his Herculean pecs, the film gives us a delightful montage to quickly discard all tertiary characters clogging up the line in front of Van Damme and his showdown with destiny. The audience is treated to a veritable feast of awesome, watching a mixed-martial-arts bloodbath in rhythm to some absolutely tight late-80’s power riffs. It’s pretty rare that a movie can outdo the clips from a montage with the music in the background, yet this film gives us a song so frickin’ sweet, they could have thrown scenes of a kitten sale fading in and out while this tune blared in the background, and it would have kicked ass. I’m not sure what I like more during this montage, the weird-ass African fighter clawing at his opponent like a goddamned Bonobo or Van Damme actually trying to play it straight as a real martial artist with quantifiable skills. The lyrics of the musical powerhouse in the background steal the scene, however, entertaining whilst motivating. For evidence, I present to you,
“My body’s ready/My heart’s on fire/I’m gonna push it over the wire/Perfect timing/Tight as a drum/The final battle’s already won
I’m taking hold of every moment/Given strength by the breath of life/I’m gonna stake my claim/I fight to survive!”
6. The Godfather (1972) – War, murder, mattresses
I almost left this one off, because in actuality, this montage is all exposition and almost no action. For a film as brutally savage as “The Godfather,” it comes off as somewhat disappointing that we don’t get more shots of mob war, fish-wrapping, wire-choking, and orange-peeling. Instead, we watch with restrained amusement as newspapers spin into frame informing us of the media war engaged by the Corleones and their “newspaper” connections. Yet subtle shots intimate the violence blowing wildly through the plot (albeit moving in fast-forward), quick, fading scenes of Clemenza settling in for a night in his “war room” or the newspaper picture of a police detective standing amicably over the corpse of a slain Mafioso. For a film largely derided for its romanticized version of La Cosa Nostra (though not for its overall quality as a picture), this montage draws out a simple facet of mob life brought more blatantly to the surface in the films to follow over the next few decades. By showing the backroom card games away from home, the headlines of murder, the stodgy rooms filled with anonymous hitters and their arsenals, the audience got a realistic sense of a true mafia war, one that witnesses men at war not only with others, but also themselves. The scene demonstrated the fight of the mob soldiers against their own manufactured images of civility and class: that which is afforded to criminals who put on a good show for the public most of the time, yet must invariably return to the gutter to do the filthy work demanded of genuine crime. With a light, cheerful, out-of-tune Italian piano piece, the audience is quickly ushered through the dregs of mafia life, outside the suits and cigarettes, beyond the respect and elegance through a world that the characters unquestioningly traverse, their concern never rising above the breezy tone emanating throughout the montage.
5. Scarface (1983) – Take d’hat fucking world, it’s yours, main! Take it to the limit!
Money. That’s not only a description of this montage, but the image that kicks it off and sweet-Christ, is there a lot of it! After solidifying his position as the go-to man for cocaine imports and distribution in Miami, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) goes to work maximizing his power base in the vacuum left in Frank’s absence. Wisely moving through what looks to be as many as six months of expansion and growth, director Brian De Palma gives the audience not-so-subtle hints regarding the extent of Tony’s ascension. We watch the spread of the protagonist’s influence through multiple business ventures, a chic wedding (that showcases a fucking domesticated tiger), lines of men marching into a bank with duffel bags full of money, and a good-for-nothing junkie wife that is in it for the gravy. The montage has been parodied before, and for good reason, as it is absolutely dripping with cheese (the background track rivals “Bloodsport”’s in sheer awesome-per-square inch), yet isn’t that the point? The film is a salute to the possibilities of life in the United States for any person with balls solid enough to take what is there. In Tony Montana, America found a willing taker, a victim of this country’s lop-sided promise who, while tough as nails and quite willing, did not understand the basic necessity of freedom: restraint. A microcosm of the thematic elements of the film at large, the montage represents both Tony at the peak of his power, yet in the midst of what will ultimately ruin him. It is Tony’s blind embrace of the American dream (and the idea that one must keep reaching for more) that will doom him, for he doesn’t understand (nor will he ever) that balls might be what it takes to get to the top, but that brains are needed to stay there. The song here is “Take It To the Limit,” and for good reason, as the montage demonstrates Tony doing what he does best, mainly chewing through everything and everyone to get higher up the social ladder (the tragic inevitability, of course, is that once to the top, to keep trying to climb will mean a terrible fall).
4. Trainspotting (1996) – Nightclubbing
While decidedly not cool, exciting, or remotely inspirational, this montage gets on the list and at a respectable spot because it comes with the truth. Resolved that he’s not cut out for clean living–that all the fresh air and camaraderie in the world will never be enough to fill the void left by the needle–Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his crew get to work feeding their habit, taking the audience through the junkie training manual page by page. Explaining the finer points of scoring or otherwise stealing, scamming, or beating so they can get the funds to score, we watch Renton fade deeper out of focus and into the abyss while Iggy Pop keeps score in the background. The cut, “Nightclubbing,” matches the lazy yet inevitable lurch of our main characters, the hollow thumping of the bass line laboriously wheezing out each beat like the repressed heart of a fixed junkie about to tie off. With this score, the visuals of all protagonists doing irreparable harm to themselves, and the voice-over dialogue about the means of getting gear, the audience is left with no illusions about the basic necessities of such a lifestyle. We watch car theft, parent theft, prescription theft, old-folks home theft, and Mother Superior getting a load shot straight into his crotch. While earlier scenes relating the pleasantries of bare handedly digging through a recently fouled public toilet or spraying your girlfriend and her family with feces were indicators of the degradation involved with this kind of life, it is the montage that brings the realities, the nuts and bolts, to the fore. This montage makes it abundantly clear that Renton and his friends live for heroin, a need that will dominate every other facet of life until nothing remains but jail, AIDS, an overdose, and a dead baby.
3. 300 (2006) – Victory…with style
It’s pretty hard to beat this montage, as it provides all the glorious excess one has come to expect after something like a century of cinema, and a hundred years of montage fine-tuning. Having already established that our Spartan heroes kill pretty much anything that comes within screaming distance, the industrial music cranks up while we watch as Greek butchery is taken to a visual level hitherto unseen: Asian and Middle Eastern baddies carved up like Easter hams. Wisely removing the film from any troublesome anchors in reality by giving the scenes at the Hot Gates a flashback/campfire re-telling twist, we can watch with delight as Leonidas and his crew perform superhero-level feats of slaughter on beast, man, and monster. It also helps that every Spartan in the montage seems to understand that they are, in fact, knee-deep in a montage, flexing and glaring with perfectly postured intensity. Of all other montages on this list, no other has a higher body count, a fact that propels this particular entry so high into consideration (easily over one hundred onscreen deaths in under five minutes). There’s also a lot of variety here, and that takes a lot of creativity. Sure, you could have something like 240 seconds of short-sword hacking (or if you’re Oliver Stone, 240 minutes) and that would be commendable in montage land, but with this, you get spear kills (a friggin’ rhino among the victims there), sword slices, troop whipping, grenade volleys, and a goddamned mutant-performed decapitation. Executing a perfect fusion of special effects, action, music, and death, director Zack Snyder gets special props for giving the audience a montage worthy of his subject matter, one so gloriously violent and beautiful that even a Spartan would applaud.
2. Army of Darkness (1992) – Who’s with me?!
What montage could possibly bump the relentless savagery and stylized murder of “300,” pushing the glorious massacre of the Persian hordes aside? There are only a handful of men who could pull off such a staggering coup, and Ash (Bruce Campbell) is one of those men. After explaining that all people from the future aren’t swaggering, battle-hardened warriors with 12in. dicks of steel (translation: “loud-mouth braggarts”), our time-traveling hero gets to work fortifying the castle, training his men, and preparing some 20th century mayhem. Like any good montage, this one crams maximum exposition into the three or so minutes afforded to the piece; yet the tone of the film remains forever light, the montage striking a perfect balance of compelling and humorous. Director Sam Raimi has carefully constructed a universe where the audience can faithfully subscribe to the hurried, half-assed explanations afforded to the story. As battle drums and flutes wail optimistically in the background, it is explained through a series of quick shots and deep fades how Ash is able to arm his men with gunpowder, train them with sweet-ass pike moves, rebuild his ride into a battle wagon, and reveal (finally) that he does indeed have spare shotgun ammo in the trunk. Turning these skills on the “Spider-man” franchise in later years, Raimi demonstrated his talents early on with this outstanding work, showing off his uncanny ability to quickly brush aside necessities like plot construction and exposition to give the audience their payoff (which, if done right, will elicit forgiveness for other transgressions). In this case, that payoff is a medieval battle of armored knights against an army of the living dead, commanded by the protagonist’s face-shot Bizarro doppelganger. To even approach this level of awesome, one would have to look at…
1. All “Rocky” (1976-?) training montages – Witness a man doing man’s work!
Really, was there ever any doubt? The first “Rocky” film in 1976 practically invented the modern montage as we know it, and rightly so, as the movie does more to inspire, fire up, or otherwise motivate a man to go out and rip push-ups and sprint up steps than a shot of amphetamine straight into the eyeball. And no, I’m not going to pick one montage over any of the others, because that simply wouldn’t be fair (except in the case of “Rocky V,” which gets no explanation, justification, or cred). To pick, say, the original “Rocky” montage over that which transpires in Mother Russia in “Rocky IV” would probably be the cinematically correct choice, but only if you checked your nuts at the door for the day. Sure, picking scenes of Rock in the meat-packing plant slamming away in the original’s montage would be understandable, yet upon closer inspection, how could you look a person in the eye and say those scenes beat Stallone charging up the side of a goddamned mountain, screaming the name of his opponent for all in the commie country to hear? Even then, you have to give credit for the bromantic “Eye of the Tiger” beach scenes in “Rocky III” which, while pretty gay, didn’t know it at the time, so hence, get a pass. Trying to pick which montage is better is like choosing which of your children you love most. I am content to toss all of them under one umbrella, and resign myself to the fact that Rocky Balboa taught us all that to get ahead in this world, one need only hit the streets (or the forest) and tear ass through whatever park, sidewalk, or junkyard gets in your way. Doing squats with a fucking log over his shoulders, one-armed pull-ups under a geodesic dome, lifting wagons holding friends and family, and yes, climbing a mountain, Rocky Balboa and these montages affirm the brutal fact that plagues every male on this planet: While worthy of life (maybe), you’ll never be as much a man as Stallone. Links to three training montages above; here’s “Rocky II”!