In this week’s would-be blockbuster Unstoppable, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine play two ballsy railroad employees who decide to take down a runaway train by chasing it in a runaway train of their own. It’s a suicide mission of the sort that Hollywood loves — as evidenced by the long list of iconic suicide missions that have popped up in cinema through the ages. Here’s a list of some of the most memorable.
10. The Spartans, 300
In this Über-stylized Zack Snyder pic, Gerard Butler (playing King Leonidas) brings to life the age-old story of the Battle of Thermopylae. Knowing full well that they could all lose their lives (and indeed most of them did), Leonidas and his men distract the Persians long enough to ensure victory for the Greeks down the road. Butler’s ripped physique, meanwhile, lives on as the stuff of cinematic lore.
9. Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), Independence Day
Goofball Quaid gets a moment of serious deliverance in this Will Smith blockbuster as a poor struggling crop duster who sacrifices himself at the movie’s end to save humanity. When the shooting mechanism jams on the fighter plane he’s flying (with the good guys’ last remaining missile, to boot), he goes kamikaze in a scene that’s both poignant and, naturally, hilarious.
8. The Dirty Dozen, The Dirty Dozen
In the movie that paved the way for countless bad-guys-as-heroes flicks to come, Lee Marvin leads a band of convicted prisoners into harm’s way to off a bunch of German officers in an impossible mission. The motley crew (John Cassavetes and Donald Sutherland among them) mostly gets picked off by snipers in a valiant effort that nonetheless gets many killed, leading Charles Bronson’s Wladislaw to mutter a famous line at the movie’s end: “Boy, oh, boy, oh, boy — killing generals could get to be a habit with me.”
7. Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) and Pfc. Hirschberg (Samm Levine), Inglourious Basterds
If you have to go on a suicide mission, doing so in the name of killing Adolf Hitler has got to be a pretty good motivator. When Hirschberg and Donowitz strap bombs to their ankles and head into the cinema where the Führer is enjoying a premier, they don’t necessarily know they’re headed for certain death, but that becomes clear when the cinema goes up in flames before they’re able to do the deed. What do they do? Embrace their fates, riddling Hitler with machine-gun fire as they wait for their bombs to deploy.
6. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Taxi Driver
Could any actor other than De Niro have portrayed the calm psychosis with which Bickle undertakes a mission that he’s already made clear he assumes will end in death? This flick’s slow buildup to the scene in which Bickle shaves his hair into a mohawk and sets out to assassinate a senator is the stuff of cinematic legend. The movie is a long, excruciating suicide mission from the first to the last frame, despite how the plot plays out.
5. Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise “Sam” Gamgee (Sean Astin), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
When sweet little hobbits Frodo and Sam set out from the Shire with the fate of Middle Earth in their hairy hands, it’s pretty much acknowledged by all that they’re unlikely to succeed — or return. The brave pair nonetheless persevere, and — shocker of all shockers — after three movies’ worth of battles, near deaths, and terror, they manage to take down Mordor and defeat death themselves. An uplifting suicide mission for a change.
4. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Alien 3
It may not have been the best entry in the series, but this trilogy does cap off the action with one of the most memorable self-sacrifices in sci-fi. At movie’s end, Weaver’s Ripley, forced to choose between allowing self-serving doctors to remove the alien that’s been germinating in her chest for observation and doing what’s right for humanity, hurls herself into a flaming inferno just as the thing bursts through her skin, killing them both. If you have to take on a suicide mission, might as well make sure you make a dramatic exit.
3. Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), Armageddon
Whatever you think of this somewhat silly flick — about a group of rugged oil drillers sent to land on and destroy a comet that’s headed for the Earth — there’s no denying it left its mark on the box office when it hit theaters in 1998. And the final scene, in which tough guy Willis takes a big one for the team, is one of the ultimate man-signing-up-for-certain-death tropes at the movies. Naturally, he’s holding an American flag when he blows himself up.
2. B Company, Paths of Glory
Based on the novel of the same title, Stanley Kubrick’s phenomenal 1957 war flick follows a group of French soldiers ordered to undertake a lethal attack against the Germans. The advance undertaken by the hopeless soldiers (led by Kirk Douglas’s Colonel Dax) and the way the soldiers are manipulated by military men with their own agendas remain the most powerful antiwar messages ever captured on film to this day.
1. Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
With all due respect to the poignant, dramatic, or otherwise serious entries on this list, top billing simply has to go to Kong’s deranged riding of a bomb in Stanley Kubrick’s gonzo Cold War satire. Hooting, hollering, and waving his cowboy hat in the air, Kong straddles the bomb and hurtles to the ground in the most memorable moment in a movie brimming with them.