“Turn in your badge and your gun.”
I was working on the screenplay for the Steven Seagal movie, Above the Law. I forget who first said this—maybe Steve, maybe the director Andy Davis—but someone piped up, “We need a ‘Turn in your badge and gun’ scene.”
I remember thinking, “Oh no, what a terrible cliche! It’s in every cop movie. We can’t be that lame!”
But of course Steve (or Andy) was right. It was not a cliche. It was a critical All is Lost Moment, in fact it was the All is Lost Moment.
Why is this moment so important? Because it calls forth from the story’s hero an Epiphanal Moment, i.e. his or her response to a make-or-break, life-and-death crisis. It reveals the hero’s true character.
It took me a while to grasp this, but when I finally did, I recalled to myself that even classic films and books are not too proud to have this exact moment. In The French Connection, Popeye and Cloudy are pulled off the case. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling gets her credentials yanked. Even in Top Gun: Maverick, there’s an equivalent scene—when Jon Hamm fires Tom Cruise and takes his flying stripes “permanently.”
In the latter two cases (and in Above the Law), the heroes totally blow off their dismissals. They keep going on their own. And this shows us in the audience that they are driven, committed, all-in. They are real heroes. (In The French Connection, it’s an outside event—the bad guys trying to kill Popeye by ambushing him outside his apartment building—that gets our heroes put back on the case.)
What’s happening in a badge-and-gun moment is the hero, who had heretofore been pursuing his or her objective with the full backing of society or the institution in which he or she serves, suddenly gets her papers pulled. She’s now on her own, a totally free agent. Worse, she’s now been forbidden, under severe penalty, to pursue her object. Will she do it anyway? If she’s a hero in the best movie/novel/legend/myth sense, we already know the answer.
When I’m working on a new story now (thanks, Steve and Andy, for teaching me this), I always ask myself, “Do I have the equivalent of a Badge-and-Gun Moment?” And if I don’t, I’d better have a damn good reason for not having it.
An All is Lost Moment (of any kind, not just the badge-and-gun variety) should always ask the hero, “How much do you want what you want?” (Love, redemption, saving the world, etc.) Most of us in real life would answer, “Not enough to risk my life/family/career/soul.” But a hero will always come out at, “I want it so much I’ll do ANYTHING.”
More on this next week.