1. Michael Ironside, Starship Troopers
Film and TV characters should really just have one rule: Don’t proclaim that they only have one rule, then turn it into a run-on sentence full of qualifiers. It undermines the point and makes it laughable. Michael Ironside certainly isn’t going for humor when he lays down the law for his new batch of alien-fighting space-marine recruits in Paul Verhoeven’s over-the-top science-fiction action movie Starship Troopers: He’s trying to be blunt and to the point about his expectations when he snaps, “I only have one rule: Everyone fights. No one quits. If you don’t do your job, I’ll shoot you.” It really wouldn’t have been any less blunt or tough to acknowledge that he actually has three rules, or at least that he can actually count. If nothing else, it might wipe some of the smirks off his charges’ faces.
2. Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
At least on How I Met Your Mother, the “one rule” that isn’t even close to one rule is not only openly acknowledged, it’s played for the giggles it deserves. The sixth-season episode “A Change Of Heart” launches a running gag about how Neil Patrick Harris’ horndog bro Barney Stinson “only has one rule,” except that he says that all the time, and it’s always a different rule, from “Never date a girl with a hook for a hand” to “If you’re gonna get it on in a Porta-Potty, do it early in the day.” The further extension of the gag: Every incidence of his “one rule” comes with the exception “Unless she’s hot.” The “Barney only has one rule” business cropped up in at least one later episode, and it also extended to the character’s online spin-off blog, which posted 40 different incidences of his “one rule.” Unfortunately, some of them don’t work well with the exception: “If someone yells ‘duck,’ then duck, unless she’s hot” sounds like a good way to take a football to the face in the park. “If it’s yellow, flush it down, too, unless she’s hot” is even worse.
3. Nick Reding, Croupier
The terrific, underseen Croupier features Clive Owen at his most coldly predatory, as a casino croupier who discards all emotional connections except his deep-seated attachment to the image he’s built around himself. As a wannabe author, he narrates his life—and the film—as a novel he’s writing, shaping his experiences into a bestseller-to-be even as he’s living them. Like any good story, it has a dynamic arc, and this one starts with Owen as a hapless schnook (identified as such in part by a horrible dye job) begging his book-agent buddy Nick Reding for writing work, and getting a cynical, discomfiting speech in return. Only celebrities and famous faces actually sell books, Reding says, but he’s willing to let Owen churn out a trashy sports novel for him. Then, underlining his overall sleaziness, he brushes Owen out the door with a nonsensical bit of life-coaching: “Let me give you three words of advice, Jack. Don’t give up. Stick with it. Who persists wins, that’s my motto. Write, write, write.” Owen has a different, more profane three-word phrase for Giles, but as with so much in the movie, he keeps it in his head. He also keeps it down to three actual words.
4. Jewel, “Hands”
Jewel’s 1998 hit single “Hands” begins, “If I could tell the world just one thing, it would be that we’re all okay / And not to worry, ’cause worry is wasteful / and useless in times like these.” Technically, that’s just two things, but it could still pass unremarked, except that the rest of the song continues onward with more run-on, barely associated lyrical sequences like, “And I am never broken / Poverty stole your golden shoes / It didn’t steal your laughter / And heartache came to visit me.” Over the course of “Hands,” Jewel piles up enough “and”s that the lyrics read like Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition” sketch, with Michael Palin perpetually increasing the number of “primary weapons” the Inquisition has at its disposal.
5. Robert Duvall, Colors
Sean Penn plays overeager rookie cop to Robert Duvall’s weary, practiced Los Angeles lifer in Dennis Hopper’s gritty-for-its-era Colors. Much of the film features the two men finding a balance between their approaches: Duvall takes such an interest in the individuals among L.A.’s warring gangs that one gang member approaches him personally to make sure a good kid caught up in a bad situation isn’t prosecuted, whereas Penn takes a more thuggish, violent stance. Eventually, Duvall sits Penn down for a talking-to about the futility of treating police work like a crusade instead of a job. “Now, in 19 years,” he says, “I’ve learned one thing. If you try to fight every jerk on the street, you'll be one sad, sorry son of a bitch at the end of every day. And you’ll never last 20 years. And God forbid if you ever get married and take it out on your wife. She will walk. She will fucking leave you. So why make it worse all the time?” Penn, who’s a bit of a mook but apparently can count, wisecracks, “Is that one thing?” Duvall shoots back, “Yeah, one thing. It’s all one thing.” Maybe he has a point.