The goal is to establish both the virtue and toughness of the main male character. The setting is almost always a bar because we want everyone to know he’s a bit of a rebel. Then, just have him beat up the most irredeemable douchebag on the planet. Easy peasy. Usually said douchebag is sexually harassing a woman (always an attractive woman because who gives a shit about the ugly ones, right?), bullying a smaller person, or threatening an innocent. Also, the hero will either easily dispatch the douche, impress the girl, or both.
Here’s an example from Man of Steel:
I’ve been in my fair share of bars and I’ve never seen a person be this big of an asshole without getting thrown out. Try this at a random bar and you’ll find a mob of people coming to the waitress’s defense. Hell, you’ll even get into trouble for smelling her hair when she’s not looking (trust me).
Another one from Leap Year:
Of course, this entire movie and not just this scene reeks of “series of adventures allow misunderstood guy to win over the princess who would otherwise have no reason to be interested in him.” (More on that later.) I guess women like those kind of movies? I like it because it takes place in Ireland and has cool scenery. Otherwise, it kind of sucks.
Anyway, these scenes don’t always need to be set in a bar. How about this one from The Expendables?*
But they do work better in a bar right? The Fighter:
Hey Amy, you seem great at getting yourself into trouble when you hang around in bars. Try fighting your own battles a little bit, please. Thanks.
Armchair psychologist time: Besides just being a cliche, the other reason these type of scenes are pathetic is that they are little more than fantasy fulfillment by loser movie-makers who could never get the girl or beat up the bully. It’s some kind of bizarre save-the-damsel-in-distress daydream in which the “hero” (who’s really just a stand-in for the screenwriter) can finally show the object of his affections what he’s made of.
Case in point from Good Will Hunting. Sometimes an actual fight isn’t even necessary. In fact, this one might be even more of the geek’s daydream than before because now he defeats the bully with brains! Of course, if you listen to what Matt Damon says after he outwits the douche, he could totally beat him up if he wanted to.
Even if we dispense with my piss-poor understanding of psychology, these type of scenes are still hacky. The vast majority of people have an innate sense of justice and want to see villains stopped by a good, strong person. (Mostly the hero is male because of our instinct to look to our fathers for protection. Sorry, that was more psychology.) But while the struggle between good and evil is what makes many of these movies compelling, let’s get some real villains in there, huh? Not some cornball replacement that’s only there to establish character traits — traits that could be established with skilled writing.
Well, in closing, allow me to slightly contradict myself from earlier: At some level, most tough-guy scenes could be categorized as “fantasy fulfillment.” But the good ones are clever, fun, and don’t make me roll my eyes. We learn about the character and/or the environment, but there’s no campy villains and damsels conjured out of the screenwriter’s repressed teenage loneliness. Here are a few:
A Bronx Tale (these villains are a little campy, I guess, but so is the whole movie):
Knockaround Guys (get him, Vin!):
* By the way, I like Jason Statham as much as the next knuckle-dragger, but did you see the way he tosses the basketball to himself at 1:29? Dude is not an athlete.