The first time I watched The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington, it took me much longer than the 132 minute runtime to get through it. The reason was that I kept rewatching the bit where Denzel’s character, Robert McCall, effortlessly takes down a room full of Russian Mafiosi in just 28 seconds, leaving a trail of broken, bloodied bodies in his wake.
It’s an extremely violent scene, which is most enjoyable in a detached, filmic sense; sprawled on the sofa, supping gin, my mouth contorting into a wry smile as a Mafioso gets a corkscrew punched up through his submental triangle, gurgling on his own blood, his eyes wide. But it’s the fact that those violent criminals, profiting from human misery, finally got their comeuppance that did it for me. Vigilante justice had been served, albeit in a grotesquely violent fashion.
People getting their comeuppance in film and television is my jam. When the brilliant Joss Ackland arrogantly invokes “diplomatic immunity” in Lethal Weapon 2, your heart momentarily sinks with the suggestion that his vile character, Arjen Rudd, might slip the net thanks solely to his ambassadorial status. Which is why it’s deeply satisfying to watch Danny Glover’s Sergeant Murtagh revoking said immunity by putting a bullet in Rudd’s head.
In RoboCop (easily one of the best sci-fi films of the 1980s) there are satisfying comeuppances all over the place, thanks largely to the insanely high villain count. Aside from the main antagonists – ruthless corporate executive Dick Jones and psychotic gang leader Clarence Boddicker – there’s a superb cast of supporting characters, ranging from the deeply unpleasant to the utterly deranged, who are all on trajectories towards some delightfully sticky ends.
When RoboCop plunges his spring-loaded data spike into Clarence Boddicker’s neck, severing his jugular vein, the retribution is swift and satisfying (and gratifyingly gory). Similarly, when Jones gets fired from OCP and blown away in the same board meeting, it’s damn-near impossible not to cheer every three-shot burst from RoboCop’s iconic Auto 9 sidearm, as Jones smashes through the high-rise office window, transforms into an unfathomably long armed claymation figure, and plummets towards the Detroit sidewalk below.
Of course, these are all grisly comeuppances. But there are plenty of films that provide hugely gratifying non-fatal ends for the main antagonists, where we get to imagine these awful shits pressing license plates in high-security correctional facilities for the rest of their miserable lives.
In A Few Good Men, we relish the moment that Colonel Nathan R. Jessup – the formidable, cigar-chomping Guantanamo base commander – is flanked by military police officers, read his rights, and marched from the courtroom; his distinguished military career and arrogant sense of impunity in tatters.
There’s also a nice little scene in A Time to Kill, where we take great delight in seeing the privately racist, KKK-affiliated Deputy Sheriff Hastings arrested with all the other Klan members. “Hastings, you belong over there with them,” says Sheriff Walls, as he forcefully shoves him towards his white-hooded brethren. Ha! You didn’t see that coming, did you? Dickhead!
One of my favourite films, Witness, ends with the corrupt (and heavily perspiring) Schaeffer desperately wielding a shotgun in front of a gathered crowd of unarmed, but equally sweaty, Amish townsfolk. “It’s over, enough! ENOUGH!” barks John Book, played by the utterly superb Harrison Ford. Schaeffer, defeated, disarmed, dishevelled and almost bewildered at how his police career could end in such ignominy, can do nothing but lower himself onto his knees.
We get the best of both worlds in The Shawshank Redemption. After watching Andy Dufresne serve time under the cruel wardenship of God-fearing Samuel Norton and his violent, sadistic Captain of the Prison Guard, Byron Hadley, the pay-off is watching Norton’s increasing desperation when he realises the game is up.
After Hadley is marched off in handcuffs through a swarm of police officers, Norton hurriedly loads his revolver – bullets spilling over a newspaper exposé of the corruption and murder at Shawshank – which he then aims at the door, where police are trying to gain entry. But the best bit in this scene is the look of realisation that suddenly washes over Norton’s face; the stark epiphany that a shootout with police is utterly futile and his crimes indefensible. (The Lord can’t save you now!) His whole demeanour then shifts from resistance to resignation, as he turns the gun on himself and blows his brain through his office window.
But the best takedown of them all has to be the arrest of President Charles Logan in the series five finale of 24. While making a speech at a memorial service for assassinated former President David Palmer (in which he’s implicated), word quickly spreads through the earpieces of Logan’s Secret Service agents about his complicity in a vast criminal conspiracy. The ripple of activity on the perimeter of the gathering – agents with their index fingers pressed to their ears, shooting glances at the podium as they’re ordered to detain the Commander-in-Chief – visibly knocks Logan off his stride, which is just delicious to watch. When his speech ends, he’s quietly detained and escorted to his limousine. The scene ends with Logan’s thousand yard stare as he’s driven away, disgraced.
After the last four years of Donald Trump (and the nightmare we’re currently enduring under the premiership of Boris Johnson) this scene is a fantasy drug injected straight into your eyeballs. A world where high-ranking officials – presidents, even – are exposed, arrested, and generally held to account for wrongdoing, misconduct in public office, corruption, and criminal acts. Unlike our present reality, these fictional worlds still have consequences. Film and television is now the only place I can get my fix of bad people getting their comeuppance – because it no longer happens in real life.
I can only fantasise about some of the fucking awful people I would love to see getting their comeuppance – even under the most unlikely of circumstances. Let’s imagine Michael Gove ending up like Vilos Cohaagen in [the original] Total Recall, suffering rapid decompression after being ejected onto the Martian surface. His little bugler’s cheeks swelling like big, veiny bollocks, and his eyeballs launching from his eye sockets on stalks, like fresh spring shoots pushing through the earth, forcefully displacing the lenses of his glasses. It’s when I hear Gove repeatedly saying “let me be clear” in news interviews (when he’s being infuriatingly unclear… and usually lying about something) that I drift off and think about something like this. But if we’re honest with ourselves, it would be a perfectly fitting end for one of the key architects of Brexit.
This is obviously a stupid (and deadly) example, but I genuinely do despair that real life takedowns are rare to non-existent these days. Occasionally the news serves up tantalising stories that lure you into believing that some fuck-awful people are finally going to get their just deserts, but it always comes to nothing. Like when Nigel Farage was named by the FBI as a “person of interest” during the investigation into alleged collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. In the film version of that news story, Farage and a rogues’ gallery of wrong’uns would have been arrested. Taken down. Ruined. (Just the thought of seeing Arron Banks bang to rights and thrown in prison actually arouses me slightly.) But typically, it all just went away.
So I guess it’s written in the stars that Donald Trump will survive his second impeachment trial and return to haunt American politics and the wider world in 2024 (or, God help us, one of his idiot offspring). Meanwhile, Boris Johnson will continue killing us with his bungled pandemic response, which will probably see him win the next election in a landslide and ultimately end up with a statue next to Captain Sir Tom Moore. Because life no longer imitates art. There are no consequences anymore. No one gets their comeuppance. And no one’s coming to save us.
I hate that.