Film viewers have become so accustomed to a specific formula within film structure that it takes a lot to surprise them – especially with a death scene and especially within a specific genre – that most of us can count the beats from a mile away. For example, in a war movie, if some B-character is talking about his wife and kids back home in Texas, chances are the next scene he’s getting taken out in a tragic manner.
Yet over the years, once in a blue moon, filmmakers are able to pull the impossible and actually genuinely surprise us with a character death that effectively pulls out the carpet from beneath the viewer.
Let’s examine those gobsmacking moments. Some of the films featured have varying qualities, but there’s no denying that they pulled off a scene packed with bombastic power. Oh, by the way, there are MAJOR SPOILERS down below, so read with caution.
15. The Cowboys (1972) – John Wayne
For more than two decades running, there couldn’t be a more infallible American movie hero than John Wayne. Understandably, by the early 70s, the actor was over the hill and not highly regarded by the youth (due to his pro-military viewpoints), but that still didn’t make his unexpectedly violent death that takes place in this late effort from him any less shocking.
This lightweight, enjoyable kid’s western movie has Wayne in charge of making men out of a group of rascally youngsters, but things take a seriously dark turn when unhinged villain Bruce Dern attempts a mano-a-mano with the Duke himself.
Whilst the aged hero has his hands full from the whistle, he predictably turns things around with his true grit and lays a beatdown on young Dern from which he can’t humbly walk away, and he doesn’t – Dern pulls a gun on the Duke, and as the old timer takes the high ground and walks away, he gets a handful of bullets and plenty of 70’s red paint splatter for his trouble.
It was a jaw-dropping scenario; firstly, because of the abrupt tonal switch the movie took, but more importantly, you couldn’t just kill off John Wayne, especially in such a downbeat and conniving manner (Dern received many a death threat over the years because of said scene). It was a drastically brave move that Wayne actually fought for, and one that lead to a last iconic hurrah from his long-standing filmography.
14. Burn After Reading (2008) – Brad Pitt
In this Coen brothers’ kettle black ‘comedy of errors’, they proved once again that they live to mess with our expectations with an unorthodox moment featuring one of Hollywood’s most celebrated matinee idols.
A cluster-fudge of a plotline involves a series of ignorant and short-tempered characters intertwining over a blackmailing plot tied into US agency secrets. The most memorable culprit from the rogue’s gallery is the nearly mentally challenged gym toy-boy, Chad (Brad Pitt).
After sneaking into George Clooney’s adulterous US Marshal’s home and stupidly hiding in his closet as the fellow is showering, Clooney casually opens his closet (gun in hand) with Pitt delivering his best meet and greet smile, and a sudden knee-jerk reaction has Clooney blowing a messy hole in the blond idiot’s head. Confusion, pratfalls, and gasping laughter ensue in this genius moment in an otherwise forgettable effort by the directors.
13. Deep Blue Sea (1999) – Samuel L. Jackson
One of the most hilarious instances of a surprise death takes place in Renny Harlin’s beyond goofy ‘sharks-with-brains’ horror opus. Samuel L. Jackson’s veteran adventurer is in the midst of a rousing ‘Independence Day’ lit speech, attempting to turn the tides around within the panicking group of survivors, when a giant CGI shark leaps out and makes a quick brunch out of him.
Harlin is not fondly referred to by film fans as a good director, and with the rare exception – perhaps his underrated “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996) – they would be spot-on.
Still, credit has to be given for this clever moment – Jackson was by far the biggest star in the film and every single moment he’s onscreen builds toward him kicking major shark butt – until this major 180 floors the audience and tells us no one is safe from those ruthless maneaters.
12. Zombieland (2009) – Bill Murray
This is a case where a sucker-punch death is purposefully used for a (literally) killer punchline in Ruben Fleischer’s entertaining late noughties zom-com.
A ragtag team of survivors pull off the ultimate apocalypse wish fulfilment by hitting up Hollywood and barnstorming famous people’s houses. Gruff cowboy Woody Harrelson wants to visit his idol actor Bill Murray’s place of habitat, only for Murray to actually be alive and well, and a whole bunch of fun to hang with (they even get to play act “Ghostbusters” together).
Then a zombie-themed prank gone wrong on nerdy protagonist Jesse Eisenberg has Murray ending up on the wrong end of a shotgun blast. Murray has just enough time to deliver a laid-back death speech with a “Garfield” jab that cements the moment as not just one of the great surprising deaths in film, but also one of the most genius cameos in cinema history.
11. Executive Decision (1996) – Steven Seagal
The 90s were plagued with non-stop “Die Hard” clones – in fact, there wasn’t a year that passed where people weren’t subjugated to a handful of soulless variations on the concept.
Which bring us to this effective twist on that sub-genre. Sure, it wasn’t even the first time they played the concept on a plane – Wesley Snipes enjoyed that honor in the sub-par “Passenger 57” (1992) – yet this tensely sweaty and sharply acted variation had some clever aces up its sleeves, which are no more memorable than in a gobsmacking death played only 20 minutes into the film.
It’s hard to remember, as we’ve watched him waddle through countless lame VOD cheapies, but Steven Seagal used to be a big deal. His star power graced the poster of “Executive Decision”, with the added bonus of teaming him with action star Kurt Russell. Yet things were quickly turned on their heads and against expectations – Russell plays an in-over-his-head pencil pusher that gets thrown into a mission (to take back a hijacked plane) with stern military man Seagal.
As the team stealthily sneaks onboard in mid-air (yeah, it’s bloody impossible), things take a turn for the worse and Seagal’s hero must quickly sacrifice himself for the greater good of the team by getting sucked out into the atmosphere with a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it brutality.
With the big star gone, most of the team wounded, and Russell’s nerd left in charges, they’ve got a decidedly huge handicap going against them in this strong yet forgotten action/thriller.
10. Scream 2 (1997) – Jamie Kennedy
The first “Scream” entry had established itself as a fun, refreshing shake-up of the slasher movie for the Tarantino generation – it was horror movie where the characters knew they were in a horror movie.
A key ingredient of it was Jamie Kennedy’s movie dork Randy – his breakneck delivery and offbeat performance made him the stand-out survivor, and the wealth of exposition he needed to deliver (his character lived and breathed the horror movie rulebook) made viewers assume he was an unkillable part of the franchise… except, he wasn’t.
In the better-than-average sequel, we have Randy standing in the middle of a public park in sunny daylight, delivering a verbal beat-down to the killer on a lumpy late 90’s mobile phone, when suddenly he’s snatched into a van and sliced and diced in a chilling and gory fashion.
It was a ballsy play pulled off by the filmmakers that bitch-slapped the franchise fans and considerably upped the stakes that no protagonist in the series (even the most championed ones) were safe – even in a public place. Disappointedly, two follow-ups and a lame TV show later, this still remains the series biggest surprise move.
9. Pulp Fiction (1994) – John Travolta
The moment Tarantino properly arrived into the mainstream and John Travolta (briefly) became cool again is usually overshadowed by the utterly flooring nature of that main character’s death in this 90s genre-twisting classic.
With its unconventional non-chronological scene structure, where Travolta’s Vincent Vega manages through a series of adventures with hitman partner Samuel L. Jackson and his boss’ moll Uma Thurman, he is suddenly machine-gunned down on the crapper by Bruce Willis’ murder-prone boxer – halfway through the movie (although technically that plotline took place after those other two).
It was a gobsmacking turn of events and an impressively refreshing approach – in Travolta’s plotline he’s the cooler-than-cool hero, but in Willis’ segment, he’s just the nitwit henchmen that was literally caught with his pants down and gets his just desserts.