Yeah, to you it’s Thanksgiving; to us it’s Rocky Week. Today, Ryan Coogler’s highly anticipated Rocky spin-off, Creed, hits theaters and to celebrate, we’ve carved out a feast of features. On Monday, Dan Caffrey finished his own Rocky Marathon. On Tuesday, Blake Goble and Sarah Kurchak ranked all the sidekicks that helped make the Italian Stallion a champ. Today, we’re celebrating the art of the montage. Come Thursday, you’re gonna be crappin’ thunder!
A montage, at its most fundamental level, gets us from point A to point B. It’s a technical and tactical move on behalf of the filmmaker, who strings together a series of shots in order to condense space, time, and information. More often than not, however, it’s a lazy tool, especially for sloppy screenwriters who cram in a ton of story without any natural finesse.
Sometimes, though, they’re fucking brilliant.
If done well, a montage can rile up a crowd, it can boost a character, it can shake up the moods. For some, it’s the most memorable part of the film, the golden nugget that they can walk away with and return to mentally from time to time. Actually, that’s a likely argument for every inclusion on this list; after all, why else would we be writing about them?
Well, technically because it’s Rocky Week, and if we’re being honest, like the ol’ Italian Stallion himself, we immediately decided that there’s no better montage than what lies in the 1976 original. The problem is we really wanted to write about other ones, so we flipped through our memories and came up with a definitive 10 that all lead up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Care to run with us? Flip ahead.
10. “We’re Gonna Need a Montage”
Team America: World Police (2004)
Team America: World Police, a movie that probably stood as the funniest film you’d ever seen if you were young enough when it was first released over a decade ago and is still funny but probably not quite as politically incendiary as you might once have assumed, is remembered for a lot of things. Numbers one through five on that list probably land in the general realm of “MPAA-baiting puppet fucking,” but what the marionette-driven satire also managed was the kind of sly commentary on hacky, xenophobic Michael Bay thrillers that would then be run into the ground when Bay became film geekery’s favorite punching bag.
Nowhere is this clearer than during the film’s obligatory self-improvement montage, set to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Montage”. For some, this may have been an introduction to the trope, for others a loving and accurate knockoff of the sports movie montage. It helps that Parker and Stone’s song is basically an amalgam of every other montage song prominently featured on this list and that it’s hard to shake said song being the first thing that comes to mind when watching a bad action movie advance through too much time in just one clean montage.
Best Shot: It’s a quick one, which is part of the joke as much as anything, but Spottswoode chain-smoking through every scene is a great deadpan bit, no more so than at 0:22, when he re-enacts the first karate duel in The Matrix with a square in hand.
09. “We’re Contenders Now!”
Major League (1989)
What separates Major League from its many, many competitors is its unique ability to fuse screwball comedy with a genuine sentimental narrative. You may be nearly pissing your pants from laughter, but you’re also invested enough that your ass is hanging at the edge of your seat by the film’s final minutes. Part of that success stems from David S. Ward’s streamlined direction and one punchy screenplay, but it’s also by and large due to the eclectic cast and James Newton Howard’s magical score.
This idea comes across in the two major montages that spike the film’s breezy 106 minutes. The first is the hilarious training sequence, but the real MVP is the winning streak, which finds the team stripping off a piece of clothing from a cardboard cutout of their irate GM/former Las Vegas showgirl, Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), after every win. Fueled by Howard’s feel-good rhythms, the entire thing is chock-full of visual gags yet also riddled with rewarding character development. You can’t lose.
Best Shot: At 1:58, Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) slides into first and delivers the signature line literally every kid in my PE class would say during kickball or baseball: “The American Express Card, don’t steal home without it.” Those eyebrows!
8. “You’re the Best”
The Karate Kid (1984)
The montage as it’s typically understood at this moment in cultural history has become heavily associated with the sports movie, ironically and otherwise. Situated between those two points is its use in The Karate Kid, the archetype of the “get better at x in a hurry” template so popular in its time. From the moment that Daniel (Ralph Macchio) is told “You’re the best!” immediately segues into the Joe Esposito jam of same name, the montage juxtaposes Daniel’s rising through the ranks of the invitational tournament that will ultimately end in Johnny sweeping the leg, to little avail.
Before that, The Karate Kid offers a surprisingly lengthy summary of the entire tournament up to that point, which seems to only be lacking an enthusiastic commentary booth. Some of the fights are oddly halted, others hotly competitive. And despite Daniel’s seeming terror at the whole prospect, he ultimately proves himself to be the best around. Like ol’ Joe told us, nothing would ever keep him down. Seriously, though. The entirety of “You’re the Best” gets played out before this montage is over. Including the bridge most people don’t remember and just sort of half-syllabically slur through in karaoke renditions.
Best Shot: At 1:17, probably the most authoritative karate maneuver in Daniel’s tournament. I’m not saying the young man didn’t work hard; I’m just saying he also coasted through a lucky bracket.
07.”Revenge by Shopping”
Pretty Woman (1990)
While Julia Roberts’ surprised reaction/giggle is the most famous scene from the movie, this montage is where the story takes a turn in a new direction for her character, Vivian. She’s been living it up in a penthouse suite as a hired prostitute of Edward Lewis, played by Richard Gere. The fantasy of getting everything you want in the confines of a paid luxury suite doesn’t translate to the outside world, as Vivian is harshly reminded of when refused service at an upscale clothing store.
Edward takes her to a store where he guarantees she will be treated fairly … and let the shopping spree begin. Soundtracked by Roy Orbison’s famous song (that happens to share a title with the movie), Vivian buys fancy clothes, fancy hats, and fancy … pizza? Yep, that’s comedy great Larry Miller helping her out at one point (“Who ordered pizza?”). It ends with her going back to the store that rejected her and … why am I telling you this? Watch the clip! A star was born in this sequence!
Best Shot: Vivian goes full Cinderella 38 seconds in. A star was born! I already said that!
06. “Baptism by Fire”
The Godfather (1972)
Everything in the legendary mobster movie leads us to this moment. While attending the baptism of his niece, we witness Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) speak the vows making him a godfather while hits he ordered are placed across town. Cutting between the holy promises and the unholy killings is as brutal as director Francis Ford Coppola can get (save the Fredo scene in the follow-up). The church music that scores the scene becomes more and more eerie as the events unfold, as though the organist knew what was going on around town.
The Godfather doesn’t end after this sequence, but Michael’s deeds forever doom him to his fate: a hero soldier who once told his girlfriend that he was nothing like his father turns out to be just the opposite. Those killed during the montage clear the path for Michael to take his family to greater heights, while damning them to hell in the process. At what price power? And can’t a guy go to a barber, prostitute, or massage parlor without getting killed these days?
Best Shot: Which gun shot to choose from? The one at 3:55 with Moe Greene getting one in the eye is tough to watch. NSFW, OBV.