Annoying Movie Trope #82: How Long Has That Villain Been Standing There?

I watched one of the usually good English-language adaptations of Wallander (The Swedish detective show) the other night, which ended with a painfully predictable stand off as the hero bursts into a room and finds the villain holding a gun to someone’s head.

Which raises the usual question: How the hell long was that guy standing there with the gun to the hostage’s head to ensure that the hero would come in while he was in that threatening pose? By the storyline it seems to have been at least an hour. Doesn’t he get tired or hungry or have his attention wander?

Another example: In Max Payne, which I watched on an airplane because I had nothing else to do, and was so bad that I was tempted to walk out of the theater, Mark Wahlberg is striding through a snowy cityscape. Suspecting some trouble up ahead, he darts down a back alley, goes around a few dark corners and waits. And then Milan Kunis tells him to freeze because she has a gun to his head.

Does she live in that back alley? Isn’t she cold, staying there day after day? Why is her make-up still perfect when she lives out of doors in winter? How did she know that our hero would ever even walk by? Are other back alleys filled with withered corpses of villains who passed away after waiting for years for different heroes to dart down their alley and then conveniently turn their backs?

But the worst ever example is the Michael Caine stinker The Black Windmill. It opens with two little boys playing with a toy airplane near their school. They wander across a field and come to an abandoned government airstrip. They decide to sneak in. They go into a hangar. And there they encounter a group of bad guys who have long planned to kidnap one of the boys. They are wearing soldiers’ uniforms to fool the other boy they somehow knew would be with the victim so that he would tell the authorities that soldiers did it.

I imagine the villains sitting there year after year, tired, alone and bored.

Lower level bad guy: Do you think the boys might come here today? — it’s been 5 years now and…
Boss bad guy: Shut up! Be a professional.
Lower level bad guy: Why don’t we actually, like, go to them instead of just waiting here in this abandoned building at an abandoned airstrip miles from where they are?
Boss bad guy: It just isn’t done. You’ll understand when you’re older.
Lower level bad guy: What if we went to the kid’s actual house and just got him. Same day service, no muss no fuss. You know, he will be old enough for college in a few years and could move away…
Boss bad guy: You just don’t get it, do you?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “Annoying Movie Trope #82: How Long Has That Villain Been Standing There?”

  1. Ah, plot holes. Best to fasten your suspenders of disbelief when you start hitting them. 🙂

    This reminds me of how in the Star Wars movies you can replace most uses of “the Force” with “the plot” or “the script” and it will make just as much (if not more) sense.


    “The plot is strong with this one.”
    “The script is what gives a Jedi his power.”
    “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the plot.”

      1. It’s one of the reasons why some plots that work great as novels or movies make for terrible roleplaying adventures.

  2. Some enterprising techy/film buff out there out to make a list of tropes, then catalog films accordingly. A metacritic-style score could then be applied.

    Another is the gun being cocked at the last second for maximum effect – shouldn’t this have been done earlier?!!!

    1. Well, there’s this very useful site, which Johann Koehler linked to the other day in his review of Sexy Beast.

      *TV Tropes* is pretty well organized for a wiki, but it’s still sometimes hard to find the trope one is looking for. I feel certain that Keith’s trope must be in there somewhere, but I can’t find it.

      Perhaps in Keith’s examples the villain is engaging in evil gloating

  3. The same tiresome cliche also shows up in (badly written/run) role playing games. I remember seeing a cartoon years ago which featured a woman bound to a sacrificial alter, with a priest looming above her holding a dagger in both hands, ready to strike. The caption was “I wish the lawfuls would get here – my arms are tired!”.

  4. The English-language Wallander team seems to think that Wallander is an action hero. They have Kenneth Branagh running around shooting and getting shot at all the time. He’s always entering apartments and barns and parking garages first, gun drawn. He’s supposed to be an aging detective – don’t they have uniforms for that sort of stuff?

    1. I watched the first series, which started as a moody atmospheric character-driven procedural – which can be great television – and rapidly turned into a Race Against Time! To Save The World! By Shooting People!

      This quite turned me off (the absurd grandiosity of the situation as much as the shift to Dumb Action). And yet, the show is popular with people who aren’t dummies. Should I give it another try?

      1. Probably not — not all non-dummies need to like the same things. One shot is enough for most TV series, Wallander included (ftr, I shared your response to the show).

      2. @Warren Terra: My experience with the English version of Wallander was only on trans-Atlantic flights, and I saw maybe three selected episodes that way and they were all good. But when I lately went back and watched several of the ones I had missed, I was disappointed (Too many contrived dramatic conclusions, often based on Wallander driving away from a bunch of police who are yelling at him to get back-up, and then presumably have coffee rather than, um, just driving along with him to the climactic confrontation). This makes me think (unlike with movies!) perhaps when they select individual TV episodes for airplane viewers they give you the cream of the crop.

        However, on a very positive note, although I admire Branagh tremendously, I have never liked any of his performances in modern roles (versus Shakespeare, where he is terrific). Wallander is the only time he seems at home in a modern setting, and that’s praiseworthy.

        1. I usually cut a fair bit more slack to plot discontinuities and peculiarities when the entire premise of the film depends on stylisation, caricature, or extra-ordinariness. While you correctly note that “Max Payne” is utter rubbish, the device you bemoan doesn’t strike me as particularly noisome. That film was inspired by an equally preposterous video game, and is similar in delivery to most film adaptations of comic books that we see these days.

          The world that comic books create is replete with characters knowing a little bit more about the future actions of fellow inhabitants than common sense really permits. So, I usually approach the problem highlighted in the post as thinking that the villain anticipates when the protagonist is about to turn up and positions himself accordingly, rather than waiting there for years on end. In the comic book world, where characters ‘know’ how other actors will act, this is possible (e.g., in “Sin City”, this happens all the time, and it’s fine). In films steeped in Realism, however, this isn’t really possible (e.g., it was pretty out of place in “La Garda”, and became funny precisely because it was such odd behaviour).

  5. I take it you are an admirer of the Sherlock Holmes literature and cinema, both the Conan Doyle originals and close derivatives as well as those that roam further afield. Tight and careful plotting is hard to come by anywhere in that genre, but I share your admiration, right down to Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. The point being that a combination of both excellent plot and characters is great, but at a minimum you need one or the other.

  6. The last episode of *Mad Men* does a great job of making fun of one of the tropes you mentioned. Roger wakes up in bed with his (sort of) girlfriend who works at the first class lounge at the airport. She looks immaculate (though unclothed under the sheets). When he asks her about her plans, she says she has to leave for her job soon, but then says (to paraphrase), “that’s why I’ve already put on my face.” Nice!

  7. Having grown up watching Saturday afternoon cowboy movies where the guns never needed reloading, the horses ran forever without getting tired and the hero never died no matter how many bullet holes were in him, suspending belief in the reality of television is almost second nature. In those early days the need to suspend belief got a double dose of reinforcement with the 15 episode movie serial, e.g., Don Winslow of the Navy, where unreal cliffhangers (captures and escapes) were de rigueur and no one objected otherwise we’d never get to see Episode 7.

    I’ve always treated serialized TV programs like Wallander as if I were sitting in that Saturday afternoon theater wishing I had a bag of popcorn. For me, these TV programs, like their movie forebears, have a reliably predictable quality about them that is reassuring and comforting. As long as the acting is decent, the time watching them passes easily regardless of the potential challenges posed by inevitable incongruity because I know with confidence that all will work out in the end.

    1. “…, the horses ran forever without getting tired…”

      In Walker, Texas Ranger, Walker had a pickup truck that could get from Fort Worth to anyplace in Texas or anyplace in Texas to Forth Worth in thirty minutes or less.

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