[Note from Mark: This list is written by my good friend, the novelist Thomas Lakeman.] Just as bad guys need British accents, good guys are defenseless without a plentiful supply of withering put-downs, sardonic observations, and "inside" pop-culture references -- which they invariably spout at precisely the right moment. That's why you'll never see a movie cop say "Yes, sir, it won't happen again" when his precinct captain chews him out, or a tough-but-sexy heroine merely report her lecherous co-worker to human resources instead of making a devastating comment about his toupee. After all, who wants to root for somebody who thinks of his best lines in the elevator? Whenever inspiration fails, these old standbys -- like the heroes themselves, frequently down but never out -- are always ready to answer the call:
- "Well, Toto, we're not in Kansas any more." The hero has just walked off the street into a really freaky situation and is demonstrating his/her cool by misquoting every action hero's favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. The nostalgic reference of Munchkinland contrasts eerily with the serial killer's slimy lair, the strobe-lit warehouse club filled with Johnny Rotten clones, or the nameless government agency's super-futuristic laboratory.
- Jokes about Jimmy Hoffa. An entire generation of moviegoers has come of age since the controversial Teamster boss mysteriously disappeared, and yet seemingly everybody -- at least on screen -- is still making a playful show of trying to find his killers. Heroes spit this one back whenever they're accused of a crime they didn't commit: "Next you'll ask if I know something about Jimmy Hoffa."
- Jokes about Elvis. Although the Elvis-sighting craze only lasted a few months, the jokes-about-Elvis-sightings craze seems doomed to go on forever. This is why they tend to turn up whenever the hero's admittedly implausible story is being discounted by someone in authority -- "Oh, and I suppose you also saw Elvis."
- "And you wonder why I divorced you." Even good guys occasionally need taking down a peg or two, and nobody does it like an ex-spouse -- who, though comfortably remarried, still has a soft spot for her old flame. Just to reassure us that it's all said with love, the diatribe usually ends with a heartfelt "Be careful, you big jerk" and a bittersweet kiss on the cheek.
- "You're the big shot detective -- you figure it out." Yes, he is, and let's not let the audience forget it for a minute. This sure-fire conversation-killer is usually followed by a grand exit -- a slammed door, high heels on cobblestones, and the screech of tires on a wet street -- while we continue to hold on the gumshoe's pensive expression. Spoiler warning: whoever says this line is apt to turn up dead in the very next scene.
- "Tell Laughing Boy to put that gun away"/"Stop waving that thing -- you could hurt somebody." Since the days of Sam Spade, heroes have shown themselves to be remarkably self-possessed at gunpoint. The hero cracks wise to let his captors know that, sure, he'll play along, but don't try any funny stuff. The first example is a personal favorite, mainly because "laughing boy" is not an insult you ever hear in real life, and yet screenwriters seem to love it. Maybe because it was used so often in old Bugs Bunny cartoons...?
- Tough-gal put-downs. Who says women can't be just as crude, surly, and over-the-line as men? A co-worker/boss/rival makes an unwanted sexual advance (or otherwise hints that our heroine is "too pretty" for the rough stuff), and -- you go, girl! -- she zaps him with a zinger about his toupee, his breath, or the probable size of his sexual equipment. It's even funnier if she follows up with a knee to the groin.
- "Go ahead -- make my day." Just as it was customary for Roman legionaries to pay tribute to Mars, god of war, on the eve of battle, so too must modern action heroes at some critical point invoke the spirit of the granddaddy of all smart-ass cops, Dirty Harry Callahan. It sounds especially cute on the lips of a computer-animated talking dog, or a resourceful ten-year-old tyke as he prepares to dump marbles under the feet of a bumbling adult.
- Ironic gruesome death commentary. There are so many variations on this that it almost comprises an entire sub-genre of movie dialogue by itself. Setup: the villain has just died in an incredibly gruesome and yet ironic (in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word) fashion. Instead of saying, "Oh my god, that is so incredibly disgusting" like most of us would, the hero merely cocks an eyebrow and riffs a pun: "Have a nice trip, see you next fall," "Don't lose your head, old man," or the ever-popular "Drop in any time." James Bond movies didn't invent this gag, but since then they've established a near-monopoly on it.