Tom Jolliffe looks at 15 great movie openings which hook the audience immediately…
Audiences are a difficult bunch to please sometimes. A film’s goal is to grab the attention of viewers and hold them until the final credits roll. In the age of streaming and a lust for instant gratification, where Tik Tok videos all of 20 seconds occasionally fail to keep attention till the end, it’s essential to open strongly. Some films will opt for intrigue and a slow burn, but there needs to be enough to stop a viewer from potential peering down to their phone. Some films open brilliantly and can’t maintain it. Others might open somewhat meekly but improve as the film goes on (but at the risk of having lost viewers before the going gets good). Here are fifteen of the greatest movie openings…
The film that really blazed a trail for the MCU, was Blade back in 1998. Ahead of its time, stylistically very of its time, but also distinctly flawed, Blade was almost the orchestrator of its own demise. The dark, brooding comic book film from Stephen Norrington had a stoic Wesley Snipes in good form and Stephen Dorff enjoying himself as the villain, Deacon Frost.
The first 45 minutes or so are superb. The opening vampire club sequence in particular is a brilliant way to open, as Traci Lords takes an unsuspecting human (see lamb to slaughter) to an underground rave where he’ll end up a main course. Blood rains from sprinklers and the whole place is filled with the undead…then Snipes arrives as Blade and opens up a hefty can of whoop-ass. It’s a majestic scene only dated by some of the CGI, but it shows the brilliant mix of fierce martial arts and Blade’s arsenal of weaponry that drive the film from then on. That the rest of the film, nay trilogy, couldn’t live up to the opening scene, is not a surprise.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
Christophe Gans announced himself around the world with his mega hit, Brotherhood of the Wolf. It was a genre mash up that was part period epic, part horror, martial arts action film and fantasy. Within the opening 10 minutes he’s set the tone perfectly, as an aging Lord in a France under revolution, recounts the Beast of Gevauden, a creature which killed peasants in the French Countryside, and the Naturalist sent (by order of the King) to investigate.
The first scene is a Jaws-esque sequence where a peasant is stalked and killed by an unseen creature. It’s brutal and effective, before transitioning right into the introduction of Gregoire De Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his trusted Native American aide Mani (Mark Dacascos). They run into bandits dressed as women who are tormenting a farmer and his daughter. At which point we’ve already done period epic, horror and now martial arts are thrown in, as Dacascos shows off his physical prowess whilst rain torrential pours down. Superb.
Michael Mann’s classic crime thriller starts as it means to go on, and that’s with a visceral, hard hitting and terse sequence which is gritty and precise. A well orchestrated hit on a transport vehicle sees Robert De Niro and his band of criminal cohorts strike with ruthless efficiency. It’s quick, brutal and they’re running on a schedule down to the second. It’s violent and authoritative as they disarm and disorientate the guards, but they’ll live… that is until a spanner in the works, Waingro (Kevin Gage), a new recruit with an itchy trigger finger, shoots down a guard. Now it’s a murder charge and consequently in a planned contingency, the other guards are killed.
We now see the dynamic of how De Niro operates and soon after it establishes Waingro as a loose end. Then comes the introduction of Vincent Hanna, the flipside to Neil’s (De Niro) coin. Heat, full of great dialogue, beautiful photography and gripping encounters, never lets up, punctuated by exceptional and exquisitely executed set pieces.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The ultimate action adventure film has to have a great opening sequence right? Well yes. Raiders of the Lost Ark perfectly introduces us to our intrepid archaeologist/adventurer as he retrieves a lost artefact from a boobytrap laden tomb. In the course of the opening, he sets off a collapse, a careering and huge boulder he must outrun, before being double crossed by his local guide afterward.
Indiana Jones then escapes certain death again, chased by a warrior tribe before escaping on his seaplane. It’s a great sequence which sets up a rivalry that will reappear later, Jones’ charisma, and his physical durability. The film then follows straight into a glimpse at his day job as a Professor at a prestigious university.
The Dark Knight
The scene feels like it could have been lifted from Heat. It feels unlike a sequence you’d see in a comic book movie, and there-in sets the tone for Christopher Nolan’s Heat-ode opus, The Dark Knight. A seemingly ordinary group of masked bank robbers performing a well orchestrated heist on a mob run bank, quickly begin to make mention of a mysterious criminal who has overseen the heist. With the promise of a bigger cut they begin offing each other once the money is within their grasp.
When the scene ends we finally get a glimpse of the freakish mastermind behind it all, The Joker. Heath Ledger introduces an iconic villain who is frightening, maniacal and intense, with (of course) a macabre sense of humour. The Dark Knight is a brilliant film no doubt, and arguably the best comic book film going, but the opening is perhaps the best scene in the film. Simple but a great set up.
A dingy and dark Manchester alleyway and a man and woman are in the midst of a seedy and frantic, if passionless. sexual encounter. As the man grows increasingly rough, the woman tries to push him away. Eventually forcefully so. He runs with the threat of violent retribution from her family ringing in his ears. He steals a car and drives it all the way to London.
Right from the off, in this visceral and dark sequence, as Jonny (David Thewlis) escapes an impending beating and/or possible arrest, we feel this is cut from a different cloth as far as Mike Leigh’s kitchen sink oeuvre is concerned. Remaining his darkest film, and his most visually eye catching, the opening sets the tone for a protagonist who is deplorable but endlessly watchable. It’s also driven by the great score by Andrew Dickson.
The opening scene of Casino Royale is brilliant for a number of reasons. It has noir infused black and white visuals and a gritty intensity unlike anything we’d seen in the franchise. It introduced Daniel Craig as a more intense James Bond, delivering a retrieved item after his first confirmed kill. Little does his unsuspecting superior realise, he’s Bond’s next target.
Bond recounts, to his unsuspecting target, the details of his first mission, shown in flashback. A brutal hand to hand bathroom fight where Bond has to get down and dirty to kill his target. The second kill, his employer, is “considerably” less difficult. The sequence is alluring, in as much as it teases how great a whole black and white noir-inspired Bond could be. The film then kicks into the present and immediately into the sensational foot/parkour chase. Craig’s run started with the proverbial bang, but nothing ever lived up to Casino Royale’s brilliance.
Scream quickly announced itself as one of the talking points of cinema in 1996. Wes Craven’s whip-smart and meta horror took a wry eye to the genre, subverted expectations whilst simultaneously mocking an adherence to them.
The biggest wow moment though, came in the opening as one time child star turned wild-child, but ultimately, the marquee name of the picture, is killed off in the films cold opening. No sooner than Drew Barrymore is brutally killed, after playful and tense build up that introduces Ghostface, do audiences realise they’re in for something unpredictable.
Quentin Tarantino knows how to open well. He knows how to craft masterful cinema, even if indulgence occasionally gets the better of him. Like every film in his canon, Inglourious Basterds came with plenty of anticipation. The film opens with a simple but grippingly intense scene as a Nazi squadron, headed by Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz) checks for hidden Jews on a French farm during German occupancy. The farmer is in fact hiding fleeing Jews under his floorboards. Landa interrogates him with an amiable, well mannered facade, asking simple, unobtrusive questions but slowly digging for something he has already felt instinctively, the farmer is lying.
Christophe Waltz, a middle aged actor who’d never really broken outside of his homeland, was catapulted to superstardom with one exceptional scene. Here’s a man who is oddly charming, affable, but creepy and terrifying at the same time. It also marked the single best scene of anything Tarantino had conjured since Pulp Fiction. The film only rarely gets close to those lofty heights from then on, including a stunning sequence with Michael Fassbender, and every reappearance from Waltz.
The Wachowskis’ genre redefining classic proved a wonderful way to see out the 20th Century. It brought an end to a century, and triggered a wave of films in the following which were heavily inspired by the film. We open right in on the action, and from the moment Carrie-Anne Moss floats up in the air to evade bullets, to escaping the world via a phone booth, we know we’re in for something enigmatic.
Everything up until Neo (Keanu Reeves) takes the red pill, is mysterious and intriguing. In truth, the whole thing never quite lives up to that opening 45 minutes, particularly once it gets into the second film and skews wildly in its world building, but still, that rain drenched and enthralling opening, with Neo being drawn deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, is still gripping (flip phones and all).
Once Upon a Time In The West
A trio of gunslinging bandits at a remote train stop await a target. He arrives and we are introduced to a protagonist, who as the film progresses, we discover is seeking revenge. Known only as Harmonica, the opening sequence is exquisitely paced. It’s slow, atmospheric, dripping in heat, layered in dirt and loaded with tension.
When Harmonica comes on the scene we know a gun battle is in the offing, yet such is the aura carried by Charles Bronson, we never feel like he’s on the back foot, even outnumbered three to one. It’s also a great example of Sergio Leone’s gift for impeccable framing and pacing.
A History of Violence
A languid, sweaty and seemingly inactive opening, all set on a long take, lulls us into the setting, a quiet motel. Two ordinary looking men, one well dressed, the other somewhat slovenly, give nothing away about their character, until they enter the shop/reception area of the motel and things take a darker turn. These two men are in fact criminals on a stopover and we see the result of their prior violence, happening before the movie’s opening.
Rather than launching straight in to reveal the pairs propensity for emotionless killing, Cronenberg teasingly drifts to it. Then, shortly after they hit another stopover at the diner of Tom (Viggo Mortensen). Now we know what they can do. They have a maniacal edge and things turn violent very quickly. The real punch comes when the mild mannered Tom, respected throughout the small town, reacts with quick, brutal and life ending violence and then the story really kicks off.
Conan the Barbarian
John Milius’s marauding sword and sorcery epic, Conan the Barbarian has long proven underappreciated. Its artistic merits often overlooked, dismissed as, at best, an enjoyable lug headed barbarian romp. Damned with faint praise, yet there’s philosophy to it. There is depth and there are a number of effective set ups and payoffs. There’s some beautifully written scenes in Conan. Though it’s often associated with Arnold’s mono-syllabic titular hero, many overlook the roster of excellent character actors littered throughout, and brilliantly written dialogue.
The film opens brilliantly, setting up the trigger point for Conan’s life time quest for revenge. We see the young Conan and his father (the late William Smith) discussing Crom and the riddle of steel. The great father son moment is a key point that drives a part of the narrative going forward, with Conan inherently lead by his beliefs and his quests for an answer to the riddle. Milius quickly then continues the opening inciting incident, when Conan’s village is raided by Thulsa Doom and his men. It is destroyed, Conan’s parents killed, with his mother brutally decapitated beside Conan. A sword of steel forged in fire from the hand of Conan’s father is then taken by Doom as a keep sake (of course, it comes back later). This film is a masterpiece and this opening sets the tone.
No Country For Old Men
The opening to No Country For Old Men begins with a narration by Tommy Lee Jones’ beleaguered lawman, coming to the end of a career trying to rationalise the criminals he has encountered. Once in a while he comes across something unexplainable. Then we are introduced to the odd and intense presence of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who has been taken into police custody. He quickly escapes capture, brutally killing an inept deputy who picked him up.
Chigurh then steals a police car, taking a moment of indulgence to pull over an unsuspecting driver. He then kills him with his gas powered bolt gun and right off the bat we know this character has no soul. He kills for the sake of it, or as we later discover, is so indifferent to taking life, that he will occasionally let chance (via the flip of a coin) decide whether someone lives or dies. This is the man who will ultimately hunt Llewellyn Moss who opportunistically takes the proceeds of a drug deal gone bad he stumbles upon, but thereby puts a target on his back.
There’s no messing about in Nicolas Winding Refn’s wonderful homage to 70’s neo-noir and early Michael Mann films. Drenched in neon and laden with synth music, Drive starts in fifth gear. A stunt driver by day and meticulous getaway driver by night (with very strict rules), is waiting for his latest employers to arrive post heist. Once they do he and his car roar into action in a thrilling sequence as he evades with precision driving, lurking and hiding in dark alleys as he tries to lose the tailing police.
Driver (Ryan Gosling) has laser focus as he carries out the escape. He’s driven by planning, reaction and quick thinking. It says a lot about his character but also sets up just how much that cold precise and calculated side will change when he meets and becomes entangled with Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son.
What are your favourite movie openings? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/