Top 10 Wire-Cutting Bomb Moments in Film

by Warren Cantrell on October 28, 2014

in Top 10s

Ah yes: this is as hallowed and cherished a tradition in cinema as anything else out there in the mix. It just doesn’t get much better than a film that takes a few minutes to ratchet up the tension via that classic struggle over which wire to cut so as to defuse a bomb and avert catastrophe. To be fair, it’s a somewhat tired trope that’s been done to death, yet when it is executed well, it’s a slam dunk for that extra pinch of tension screenwriters love to mine for.

In the real world, though, this doesn’t actually happen all that much. Most military or civilian bomb disposal experts will tell you that if there is confirmation that an active device is a threat, the area will be evacuated and the bomb is usually destroyed using a shotgun with special rounds, or another explosive charge. If that bomb is in a sensitive place, and destruction is not an option as a result, the device is usually moved, and only failing that, a technician is sent to try and disarm the thing. Those same bomb experts will tell you that, unlike the movies, wires are very rarely cut in these situations (detonators are usually pulled), and devices pretty much never come with a convenient clock or timer attached to it. Movies aren’t supposed to make sense 100% of the time, however, and even though a clock could function as little more than an aid to a potential defuser, the mad geniuses in movies responsible for crafting these devices keep stick them in there, if for no other reason than to keep audiences coming back for more. Likewise, although the cutting of wires is antiquated and has little basis in reality, the act is exciting, and thus here to stay.

Today’s list was meant to celebrate this classic cinematic trope, for as nonsensical and unrealistic as these scenes are, they’re still a hell of a lot of fun. To make it into consideration, the scene in question had to involve just two things: a bomb, and a tense wire-cutting scene that involved a potential diffusion. Extra points were given to scenes that also threw in an argument over the color of a wire, and whether a person should cut a red or green (or whatever) one. In this author’s humble opinion, these are the best of the best, for the comic absurdity of a group of people sticking their faces into a ticking time bomb, arguing over whether to cut one wire over another, is classic Hollywood schmaltz, and worthy of a little recognition. There are a few films that flirted with today’s theme, yet didn’t quite make the cut due to a lack of wire-cutting. For example, The Hurt Locker had some spectacular bomb diffusing moments, including a padlocked suicide vest, yet since there wasn’t that classic argument over cutting wires, it didn’t make it. Other films and their wire-cutting scenes just barely missed the cut despite hitting all (or most of) the proper marks for today’s ranking, among them The Simpsons Movie, Goldfinger, and Arlington Road. As always, feel free to gripe in the comment section below about any glaring omissions. For now, though…

10. The Rock (1996)  

Although this scene didn’t have a debate about which wire to cut, there was indeed a bomb, a ticking clock, and as an extra kicker: corrosive Sarin gas. Yep, a biological weapon with a plastic explosives chaser, and the only thing that stood in the way of an F.B.I. field office’s total destruction was Special Agent Stanley Goodspeed, PhD (Nicolas Cage), and his squirrely partner, Marvin (Todd Louiso). A bookish lab rat with no field experience, Goodspeed was a crack chemist and reliable in a pinch: as evidenced early on in the picture by his pursuit of a highly-trained SAS captain through the crowded streets of San Francisco, and later, when he infiltrated Alcatraz with a group of Navy SEALS. The Rock introduced Goodspeed in his element, however, and showed just what the guy could do when chemical agents, explosives, and a shortage of time were involved.

Agent Goodspeed was called in to advise and examine a package that had been intercepted on its way to a Bosnian refugee camp. Although he demonstrated an appropriate level of caution when dealing with the package and its contents, Goodspeed’s partner, Marvin, did not. The latter man’s clowning around with a doll activated a bomb that spit out corrosive Sarin gas and initiated a bomb timer that gave the men about a minute to come up with a bright idea. Although the bio-med suits they were wearing protected Goodspeed and Marvin from the gas, the corrosive nature of the stuff ate away at their suits, and threatened to kill them before the plastic explosives got a chance to. Goodspeed was all business throughout the ordeal, however, and despite the manic screams of Marvin and his fellow agents on the other side of the sealed lab’s glass partition, the man kept at his work. With just a few seconds to spare, and with water raining down upon him, Goodspeed cut the right wire and deactivated the device, an action that saved the lives of everyone within a one block radius, if not more (Christ knows what that Sarin gas might have done if the bomb exploded).

9. MacGruber (2010)  

Ugh. Factual proof that Saturday Night Live characters transition poorly to the big screen (as if more was needed), MacGruber snuck in a few laughs, but ultimately failed to buoy its premise out of the shallow one-note pool from whence it sprung. Will Forte played the title character and MacGyver parody, MacGruber, a former Navy SEAL, Green Beret, and Army Ranger with a surplus of confidence, yet a startling lack of intelligence. The film followed his efforts to track down a terrorist, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), who stole an X-5 missile with a nuclear warhead and planned to use it to bomb the U.S. State of the Union address.

Although the film stretched the basic components of its plot and main character to a thin, almost translucent point, as stated earlier, it did have a few funny moments. Chief among them was the bomb diffusing scene near the end, when MacGruber infiltrated Cunth’s hideout, escaped captivity, and cracked open the stolen missile to disarm it. To his horror, the missile was a jumble of wires and circuit boards whose complicated design mystified MacGruber. As he looked at the mess, and tried to figure out what to cut, MacGruber explained that he was more of a two wire guy, and that the complex nature of the device was a bit much for him. It was a funny dose of reality in a movie that flirted openly with the absurd, and it put a fresh spin on an old movie cliché that obviously deserved a little attention (hence today’s list). Now, for something just a little more realistic, we’d have to turn to…

8. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)  

In the third installment of the once-proud Die Hard series, John McClane (Bruce Willis) faced off against Simon (Jeremy Irons), a riddle-loving thief who happened to be the brother of McClane’s original foe, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). In the movie, Simon called up the N.Y.P.D. and threatened a series of bombings if McClane didn’t perform a series of tasks around the city. A retail shop and a subway train were targeted early on, presumably as preludes to the main threat: a massive bomb at a local New York area school. As McClane and his reluctant civilian companion charged around the city, solving riddles and pulling at the seams of Simon’s plot, every cop in New York fanned out to look for the school bomb. With McClane’s help, the police found the device inside Chester A. Arthur Elementary, and sent in their best bomb disposal man, Charlie (Kevin Chamberlin), to tackle the big bastard head-on.

The bomb was hidden inside a big-ass fridge, and Charlie bore the weight of his own potential demise along with a couple hundred innocent children on his shoulders. Charlie was a cool customer, however, and almost seemed to thrive on the moment. Earlier in the film, he giggled with excitement as he handled and played with highly explosive substances, something that set the guy up as a man who thoroughly enjoyed his work. The device he squared off against in the school was massive, however, and the chalk he used to keep his hands dry was a testament to the tense environment he found himself in. Charlie clipped a few wires to seemingly no effect, which left him with just one option as the bomb’s timer clicked past the one minute mark. “No guts, no glory,” he said to himself as he cut the last wire, an act that resulted in the expulsion of pancake syrup from the supposed bomb. Yep, the bomb, just like Simon’s charade with McClane, was just a decoy to pull off a heist at the Federal Reserve Depository in New York. Still, it was a tense moment that involved an alleged bomb and some tense-as-fuck wire cutting (even if the bomb was fake). For that, Die Hard 3 and Charlie got a nod.

7. The Shadow (1994)  

If you don’t remember this scene, don’t feel too bad: most of the people who saw this turd have tried very hard to forget everything about it. Alec Baldwin played the title character in The Shadow; in the film he transformed from Lamont Cranston into “The Shadow” after a number of years in the Far East following World War I, where he evolved from a greedy warlord to a turbo-charged agent of good. After he received training to cloud the minds of others, and manipulate their perceptions of him, he returned to New York to take on the villainous Shiwan Khan (John Lone), who trained under the same master as The Shadow, yet held on to his atavistic qualities. Khan had developed a rudimentary nuclear bomb with the help of a scientist, Dr. Reinhardt Lane (Ian McKellen), whose daughter coincidentally was chummy with Cranston.

The tense bomb scene came near the end of the film, when Dr. Reinhardt and his daughter tried frantically to access and disarm a cylindrical bomb. This was no easy task, and the round bomb had a tendency to roll when cut loose, which is precisely what happened when they tried to defuse the thing. The bomb, about the size of a small desk, finally got into the hands of Dr. Reinhardt, who had to remember which wire to cut so as to deactivate the thing. With only a handful of seconds remaining, he cut the green wire, not realizing that he had intended to cut the other (red) one. The thing of it was, even though he built the thing, Dr. Reinhardt was colorblind, thus his memory of which wire to cut was flawed to begin with! It was a funny scene, and a unique take on the largely tired movie cliché. It also involved Ian McKellen, which is worth something all by itself: so there you have it.

6. Fight Club (1999)  

A van full of 400 gallons of nitroglycerine in a deserted parking garage was only the second-most distressing thing on the narrator’s mind at the end of Fight Club, which says a whole hell of a lot about director David Fincher’s insta-classic. Throughout the film, Mr. Narrator, a.k.a. Jack (Edward Norton), grappled with the commoditization of his generation while experiencing an existential crisis in the midst of a complete psychological breakdown. It was a lot to deal with, and was a big reason why Jack’s alternate personality took over for the guy a lot of the time to help him navigate the emotional, physical, and legal quagmires he was getting himself into. This second personality inside of Jack called himself Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and up until the movie’s third act, Jack (and the audience) thought that Tyler was a separate, autonomous individual. He wasn’t, though. Tyler was the person Jack wanted to be, the man Jack yearned to grow into in spite of his social anxiety, spiritual abandonment, and professional castration.

Tyler did things Jack couldn’t, like approach women with confidence, stand up to his boss, or rally the disaffected middle-aged men of his community into a revolutionary force for change. It was this last bit that saw the aforementioned van full of explosives planted in the basement of a financial institution, and it formed the basis for the conundrum Jack faced at the end of the movie, when he was trying to dismantle Tyler’s best laid plans. As he stared down at the electronic timer and detonation panel attached to the nitro, Jack argued with Tyler (himself) that he had every confidence in his ability to disarm the bomb via the pulling of the correct wire, as Tyler had built the thing, and Tyler and Jack were one. This was about pulling wires, not cutting them, yet it still seemed entirely fitting considering today’s list, as Jack had a heated argument with Tyler over which wire to pull, and whether he had mentally back-tracked on his knowledge of bomb diffusing just to fool himself. A great scene in a fantastic film, it fell just short of a bomb plot and disarmament even more grandiose than Tyler Durden’s plan to cripple the world’s economy…

5. Juggernaut (1974)  

An entertaining yarn that seemed to have been pulled out of the discarded James Bond script pile, Juggernaut boasted an exciting story, crisp direction, and stellar cast. On this last point, there can be no argument, either, as Juggernaut had Anthony Hopkins, Omar Sharif, Richard Harris, Ian Holm, and David Hemmings in prominent roles. In the film, a luxury ocean liner halfway between Europe and America was found to be rigged with seven hidden bombs that were timed to detonate if a terrorist’s demands were not met. One of the devices went off just to prove that the bad guy was serious: a development that led to the British government airlifting a Royal bomb disposal squad onto the ship while it was still at sea. Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris) led the Crown’s demo crew, and took the lead in diffusing the devices with the stated understanding that his team would follow his lead technique-wise, and that if he failed, at the very least his team would know what went wrong and could alter their approach accordingly.

This was a tense game, as Fallon went to each bomb with the knowledge that the wire he was cutting could be his last, and that the ship, its passengers, and his team were all relying on his instructions and the results of his actions. Everyone involved had the good luck of having Fallon on the case, however, for he was wildly proficient at his work, and a clever cookie to boot. At the end of the picture, when Fallon was forced to decide between two different colored wires, he had the actual master-bomber on the phone, giving him instructions on how to defuse the thing. Fallon sensed that something was off, however, and did the opposite of what he was told, an audacious but ultimately correct move that saved his life. Forty years old, now, and just as tense to watch as the day it came out, Juggernaut was a fantastic movie, and far better than this next one despite the latter’s bomb opulence…

4. Blown Away (1994)  

This whole movie was more or less built around the wire-cutting cliché as it concerned bombs, for the title (Blown Away), the main characters (a bomb disposal cop and an I.R.A. explosives expert), and every action set piece played up the familiar beats of this action trope. The first big moment for the film’s protagonist, Jimmy Dove (Jeff Bridges), saw him in the computer lab of a university, where he had just a couple of minutes to disarm a bomb connected to a PC, its keyboard, and the hostage that was typing to keep the thing from exploding. Employing the classic fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants bomb disposal archetype, Jimmy asked the hostage if she enjoyed red wine, or white, presumably so he could make a decision about which wire to cut. Jimmy was going back and forth between the device’s two colored wires, and shockingly, his training left him with no other alternative than to ask his hostage what to do.

Luck was in Jimmy’s corner that day, and the correct wire was snipped, yet the next few weeks offered a bunch of new challenges in the bomb-disposal arena that weren’t so easily solved. Later in the film, Jimmy’s cop protégé got his ass stuck in a headphone bomb, which required the kid and Jimmy to cut two different wires at the exact same time. The grand finale was even worse for Officer Dove, for he had to disarm a bomb in a moving car carrying his wife with the brakes out. In this instance, Jimmy bypassed the whole wire cutting spiel, and just ripped the goddamn bomb in half, which once again, by some miracle, defused the thing. This next cop was also something of a cowboy when it came to his explosives, something that yielded even worse results for the man than what Jimmy Dove endured…

3. Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)  

Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and Riggs (Mel Gibson) are two characters that were practically invented for this kind of scene. Polar opposites in terms of lifestyle and temperament, these two somehow managed to forge an unbreakable bond as partners in the L.A.P.D., and fictional criminals in California have been suffering ever since. At the beginning of Lethal Weapon 3, Murtaugh and Riggs arrived at an office building that had been evacuated due to a bomb sighting in the parking garage. Always itching for some action and excitement, Riggs convinced Murtaugh to head into the garage to assess the situation and possibly save the day. Although Murtaugh protested with stern vehemence, what with his retirement only 8 days away, Riggs insisted, and the pair found themselves examining a no-bullshit, Baghdad-level car bomb. This wasn’t the first time the guys had squared off against a bomb, mind you, for Riggs reminded Murtaugh that they had dealt with a similar situation when a bunch of rotten South Africans planted a bomb on his partner’s toilet.

Murtaugh was not swayed by Riggs’ confidence, and wanted nothing more than to get out of the garage and wait for the bomb squad’s arrival. Yet Riggs couldn’t resist the temptation of mucking about with a car loaded with plastic explosives, and set to work examining wires. Yep, Riggs was going to cut a wire to disarm the thing, it was just a question of whether it was going to be the red wire, or the blue. The argument over which wire was the highlight of the scene, for Riggs was able to wrangle Murtaugh into a discussion over the wisdom of one over the other when his partner really just wanted to get the fuck out of there. One of the highlights of the entire Lethal Weapon series, this scene was also notable for being one of the few wire-cutting bomb scenes in cinema history where the decision made was the wrong one, and led to the destruction of the device and the surrounding area. Naturally, Riggs and Murtaugh got out of the garage before the thing went up, yet it was a nice touch. To do any better than this, we’d have to take a look at an even more intense wire-cutting situation with far higher stakes…

2. Armageddon (1998)  

Oh man, Armageddon had all of the classic components of a wire-cutting bomb scare, and even added a few extra incentives to up the ante. For starters, this wasn’t just any bomb, but a thermonuclear warhead. Second, there wasn’t much a person could do to get away from the thing if it wasn’t disarmed, for despite the fact that they needed to get like 20 miles away from the device to get clear of its blast radius, the people involved were on a goddamned asteroid in space (something that eliminated most escape scenarios). Perhaps worst of all, the bomb was engaged by the military from Mission Control on Earth, which didn’t give the astronauts in space any option to turn the thing off (clipping wires was the only way to shut the thing down). A struggle ensued between the military stooge on the asteroid and Harry (Bruce Willis), the man who led the drilling team tasked with saving the world.

After Harry convinced the stooge that he could drill to the appropriate depth so that the nuke could do its job properly (split the asteroid they were on in half, and save humanity from annihilation), the stooge and his helper cracked the bomb open and got to work diffusing the god awful thing. The guys didn’t have a lot of time, however, and with less than a minute at their disposal, and the fate of all mankind in their hands, tough decisions needed to be made. The toughest call came about over a question concerning whether to sever a red or blue wire: making this 50-50 gamble the most important one in recorded history. Luckily for the asteroid astronauts, NASA, and the human race, the military stooge made the correct cut, and extinction was postponed a bit. Again, the stakes for a bomb-related wire cutting were never higher than what was seen in Armageddon, yet through all permutations of this classic Hollywood trope, no filmmaker has tackled this cliché with more creativity and originality than what was seen in our #1 film…

1. The Abyss (1989)  

Leave it to James Cameron to inject a little creativity and new life into a tired and worn-out movie cliché. The director’s alien-skewed take on a military last-stand put Aliens over the top, just as the dramatization of one of the most famous maritime disasters in history worked magnificently as the foundation of a fairly straightforward and cheesy romance story in Titanic. At the bottom of the world, at the limits of human capacity to endure the ocean’s most savage depths, a bunch of blue collar workers and Navy SEALS tried to disarm a nuclear warhead. This was no small task, even in the best conditions, yet the film’s hero, Bud (Ed Harris), also had to contend with the fact that he had to disarm the thing outside his underwater station, in a diving suit running on liquid oxygen, with only a few dim lights to assist him. Oh, and since the bomb would have destroyed not just him and his crew, but also humanity’s chances at establishing friendly relations with an alien superpower, the stakes were pretty goddamned high.

Once he’d cracked it open and gotten inside the thing, Bud was forced to decide between cutting two identical looking wires: one of them black and white, the other yellow and blue. The poor bastard was only able to see because of his yellow glow-stick, however, which made all the wires look identical due to the artificial illumination. The scene was brilliant not just because of the accumulated tension of the film up to that point, but also because Cameron had a straightforward movie moment on his hands and took something as simple as the color scale and made it an active agent in the drama. Wire-cutting scenes existed in bomb flicks before this one, and many times after, yet it is hard to argue against the novel creativity of this scene, and what it did with the components at its disposal. Ultimately, Bud cut the correct wire and saved the day, something that allowed for the establishment of new relations with an intelligent, powerful, yet sentient alien species. Good on ya, Bud.

 

 

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Skot October 28, 2014 at 2:54 pm

At least twice I saw “diffuse” a bomb. Spellcheck won’t catch it, since it is a word. However, what you want is “defuse.”

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2 Austin November 17, 2014 at 11:50 am

Good, I clicked on the link for this list, and I immediately thought that this list would be garbage if it didn’t have the scene from The Abyss. Great list.

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3 Mike May 12, 2015 at 4:22 pm

Re “Juggernaut,” if I remember correctly– I read the book when I was 13, and even then this stuck in my mind as a total plot flaw — Richard Harris’s character, after internal debate about whether he can trust what he’s being told by the bomber, cuts the “wrong” wire WITHOUT TELLING THE REST OF HIS TEAM WHICH WIRE HE’S CUTTING. Had the wrong wire _really_ been the wrong wire and the bomb had detonated, the EOD techs working on the remaining (four? five?) bombs would have been completely in the dark as to which of the two wires they should cut on _their_ bombs. Oops! How did the author miss this?

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4 Paul March 31, 2017 at 9:35 pm

Mike, who is to say the bomber wired all the IEDs Improvised Explosive Devices the same? As a former Army EOD Tech trained at Red Stone AL & Indianhead MD in 1974. I left the field before robots and bomb suits. Nevertheless, the tech on site would report his action. However, hand entry is the LAST case when no other option is available. I never had a remote RSP render safe procedure fail. So… Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the Hole! Go back and get a beer.

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