Even if I didn’t love Godzilla (still cinema’s oldest ongoing franchise!), sheer statistics are not on King Kong’s side in the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong. Put simply: Kong inconveniences one block of New York City. Godzilla is a thermonuclear death god whose tantrums regularly lay waste to armies. Obviously, it’s a movie, we’re talking about kaiju here, and anything the screenwriters say goes. But this is, on its face, a pretty mismatched match-up, based on the storied histories of our two belligerents.
We know, of course, that they’re going to just team up (and hopefully kiss). But it would have been funny to see the curb-stomp fight play out, just because absurd disparity in weight class can occasionally make for a great spectacle. In that spirit, here are some other movies featuring similarly unbelievably one-sided contests.
1. The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)
Every biopic has some embellishment somewhere, but there are few whose lives that need it as little as Billie Holiday, the Black American songstress who found herself at the center of real government persecution even as she was defining mid-century jazz. The events of the film hew fairly close to real life much of the time, meaning it’s as hard-edged as Holiday’s own story: Raped at 10 years old, caught in abusive relationships for much of her life, and battling a heroin addiction, she also found herself on J. Edgar Hoover’s shit list. Hoover’s FBI wasn’t content with grinding the African-American community under its heel through the War on Drugs—it is well-documented history that it had an axe to grind with jazz music as well.
Lee Daniels’ 2021 Hulu film casts Andra Day as Holiday and Trevante Rhodes as the Black FBI agent tasked with destroying her career (a real person, though the extent of any possible relationship between the two, as the film depicts, is hard to verify). As happened in real life, the film follows Holiday as she’s hounded by the feds and even sent to prison for a year at one point. All this because a small cadre of petty white G-men couldn’t handle Black people just singing some songs. Despite their efforts, Billie Holiday’s name is immortal, and her song “Strange Fruit” became a Grammy Hall of Fame inductee in 1978 and Time magazine’s song of the century in 1999. Hoover’s contributions to American culture, meanwhile, are a great deal less celebrated.
Clear winner: Billie Holiday
2. The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006)
Our friend Hoover shows up again in this 2006 doc focused on the government’s obsessive surveillance of John Lennon after he played a concert in support of a man jailed for selling a couple joints to an undercover cop. His association with and support of leftist causes was apparently so worrisome to Hoover, Nixon and Strom Thurmond that they at one point tried to have him deported for the unforgivable crime of having a dubious drug conviction on his record from the UK.
If you can stomach occasionally having G. Gordon Liddy and Geraldo Rivera pop up as talking heads, the documentary is a close look at Lennon’s legal troubles and a revealing glimpse into just how fixated on him Nixon and Hoover were. It’s also a lens into the tensions of the Vietnam War era in America. The counterculture of the mid-20th century can’t be said to have triumphed when you look at the United States of today, but Lennon, his music and his message remain touchstones for “peaceniks” generations later despite the very public attempts to tarnish him.
Clear Winner: John Lennon
3. Ford v. Ferrari (2019)
The relationship between myself and the Ford Motor Company can only be described by one time in the winter of 2008 (it was actually my 25th birthday) when the ’99 Ford Taurus I’d just put new rubber on and been maintaining scrupulously decided to blow its head gasket in the middle of -20 degree Fahrenheit weather in the middle of the night on I-55 about an hour from Chicago. But sure, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and entertain the clearly-not-at-all-made-up-by-Ford story of when Ford’s big loud car stole the 24 Hours of Le Mans trophy from Ferrari’s big loud car.
The movie follows Ford engineer and former racer Carrol Shelby (Matt Damon) as he and Christian Bale’s Ken Miles team up to engineer and test a new Ford racer that can compete with Ferrari, which was riding high on a six-year uninterrupted victory streak at Le Mans at the time. Whether you believe the dubious history behind it or not, the movie is a delightful testosterone- and petroleum-fest, with Bale getting behind the wheel of the Ford GT40 and tearing up the track. (The real-life Miles died in 1966 while testing another experimental Ford that flipped over, much like the Ford Explorer I once saw completely on its roof with tires pointed to the sky, on a street with a speed limit of 30 mph as a cop with an utterly baffled expression on his face directed traffic.)
(Inexplicably the) Clear Winner: Ford (Sure.)
4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
I haven’t ever had to engage in mortal combat with any evil ex-boyfriends of any of my long-term partners, but my 20s ended with me single and living rent-free in apartment with gay roommates who were tolerant of my intransigence, so in that regard Scott Pilgrim vs. the World came off as pretty authentic to me. We meet Scott (Michael Cera) in the midst of a mourning period following a long, messy, mutually unpleasant relationship as he engages in an unhealthy rebound with a minor, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). It’s pretty clear that’s not going anywhere, so it’s no surprise to us when Scott immediately dumps her for Ramona (Mary Elizabeath Winstead). Trouble is, she’s got seven evil exes who all have videogame and anime powers and are intent on killing anybody she has the audacity to date.
Scott Pilgrim is about a lot of things: The directionlessness of one’s 20s, the messiness of relationships and the harm lovers can do to one another when they aren’t with themselves or each other, and how our heroic narratives about ourselves aren’t as clear cut as we’d like to believe. What’s clear from the beginning of the movie (and the comic on which it’s based by Bryan Lee O’Malley) is that Scott is just a regular guy trying to come to grips with all of this. Accordingly, he is absurdly outmatched by every opponent he comes up against, pushing through only after initial defeats or with a little help from his friends. None of us are ready for life’s curveballs, but we’ve got to keep trying.
Clear Winner: The World.
5. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Larry Flynt found himself at the center of a legal whirlwind starting in the ’70s as moral crusaders took aim at his pornographic publications. After years of court battles and arrests over everything from simply selling magazines to wearing an American flag as a diaper, he was vindicated in 1987 when the U.S. Supreme Court found in his favor: At issue was whether he could be sued for depicting Jerry Falwell committing incest with his mother.
This 1996 hagiography definitely sands down some of Flynt’s rough edges (you only get one guess as to what word he called Sandra Day O’Connor), but it would be hard not to buy into Flynt’s arguments even if he weren’t in it for self aggrandizement much of the time. What the First Amendment does and does not protect is a matter of constant debate, but it should not protect guys like Falwell from getting their feelings hurt.
Harrelson plays Flynt as the gleeful bullshit merchant he always fancied himself, but one scene in particular reads as completely in earnest even though it’s also totally self-serving. Flynt is the keynote speaker for a convention being held in support of the free press. (Flynt created the astroturf organization with his own money.) Harrelson gets up and argues passionately that the images in pornography are not obscene, and that the moralizing people yelling at you about them are the same who want you to go commit atrocities overseas for the military. Which, he argues as pics of boobies are interspersed with images of slavery, the Holocaust, and nuclear annihilation in rapid-fire succession behind him, is the real obscenity?
Falwell and the scolders had sanctimony on their side, but Flynt had the First Amendment.
Clear Winner: Larry Flynt
6. Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)
Vampires are immortal, with the ability to change form, tank hits that would kill a normal human being, enthrall victims and increase the ranks of their servants through a vile blood-born curse. Cowboys can shoot a gun six times before they need to spend about a minute and a half reloading. Despite the resolutely B-movie-level effects on display in 1966’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, John Carradine’s eponymous vampire lord (who never is actually called Dracula) manages to come off as at least moderately threatening. A young William Bonney (Chuck Courtney) and the other frontier folk are certainly no match for Carradine’s wide-eyed stare (with a red lamp shining on his face, so you know he’s using his vampire hypnotism, in case it was in doubt).
Dracula terrorizes the locals, drains a couple young women, and even impersonates the uncle of Billy the Kid’s best girl so that he can insinuate himself into the household and manipulate her into becoming his bountiful winepress for a while. It’s worth noting here that this film’s Billy the Kid is not at all played like the violent (and none too handsome, just saying) desperado history tells us the real man was. In this version, he’s retired from the rough life, living under the Bonney alias, and doesn’t look like he’s ever shot anybody. It’s no surprise whatsoever that Dracula completely outfoxes him right up until the end. After his bullets fail to do a thing to the vampire, Billy the Kid deduces that the solution is to throw his gun and bean Dracula in the head … AND IT WORKS, stunning the vampire lord long enough for Billy to stake him. Ridiculous.
(Should’ve been the) Clear Winner: Dracula
7. Everly (2014)
There are plenty of movies about one person, or a small group of them, stuck inside a building (or a plane, or a boat, or a train, or whatever) who are up against a small army of faceless goons with a dumpster-load of bullets. Since Die Hard, few of them have convincingly portrayed heroes as overwhelmed as Salma Hayek’s eponymous woman, who finds her apartment overrun by every kind of hitman and assassin on the night she’s trying to get a gym bag full of stolen blood money to her mother.
Everly is not a trained killer or mob enforcer (though apparently her father taught her about guns). Despite this, she visits John Wick-level ruin on scores of baddies who are coming at her with everything from machine guns and grenades to high heels and katanas. The symphony of squibs that follows should not be going her way at all, but she keeps coming out on top, just barely.
Clear Winner (but how?): Everly
8. Joe vs. the Volcano (1990)
Joe (Tom Hanks) is a working stiff who, day in and day out, shuffles into a factory from German Expressionist hell that mass produces every unpleasant product imaginable. Trapped in a utility closet office under putrid fluorescent lights, mere feet from a middle manager who barks the same belligerent phrases endlessly and cyclically over the phone, he can’t catch a break for even a minute. We learn that he was once a firefighter before the trauma of the job wore him down, but now he’s fearful of literally everything.
When a doctor gives him a prognosis of doom within six months, Joe is approached by an eccentric rich man who will give him a luxurious end-of-life for one small favor: He’s got to sacrifice himself to a volcano that a tribe of Pacific Islanders believe will destroy their island if it isn’t appeased. (The less said about the movie’s portrayal of the tribe the better.)
Joe’s actual enemy is not the volcano, of course. As the opening song (“Sixteen Tons”) telegraphs pretty clearly, it’s capitalism and modern life, which have made him into a drone who is all too happy to simply throw away the life he has left, even if that only amounts to six months. (It doesn’t, as Joe belatedly discovers.) Joe vs. the Volcano was produced by the Indiana Jones crew of Spielberg, Kennedy and Marshall, and contains hints here and there of Lang and Méliès. It’s a peculiar movie that I have no idea how to easily classify, except to say that the ending is unexpected even though the volcano does indeed get the last word.
Clear Winner: The Volcano
Kenneth Lowe just wants the truth now.You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.