Scenes from the malls: 15 films with pivotal moments set in shopping malls
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1. Jackie Brown (1997)
Before making Jackie Brown, a fine reworking of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, Quentin Tarantino played around with chronology in his previous two crime films, extracting the actual heist from the 1992 heist thriller Reservoir Dogs and scrambling the stories that comprise his 1994 triptych Pulp Fiction. With Jackie Brown, Tarantino keeps the timeline straight until the action gets to a sprawling Los Angeles shopping mall, where Pam Grier, an airline stewardess with connections to gunrunner Samuel L. Jackson, orchestrates a complex switcheroo that gets the FBI off her back while allowing her to slip away with $500,000 of Jackson’s money. In the film’s bravura centerpiece, Tarantino repeats the operation from multiple perspectives, as Grier, with the help of bail bondsman Robert Forster, gives Jackson’s flunkies (Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda) the slip. Though Jackie Brown isn’t set primarily at the mall—nor are the other films on this list—there’s an evident affection in the way Tarantino shoots the food court where Grier develops the plan and the clothing store where she walks away with Jackson’s money and a flattering pantsuit. But the biggest emphasis is on space: Just getting across the mall takes an agonizing amount of time, and it doesn’t get any better once the stars get to the parking lot, where all the rows look the same, and it’s easy to lose their car at an inopportune time.
2. Clueless (1995)
For much of Clueless, the mall is Alicia Silverstone’s default retreat, the place she goes to seek solace, find inspiration, and break in her new purple clogs. But it soon becomes ground zero for a major popularity restructuring that turns her world upside-down, when a previously mousy new girl (Brittany Murphy) has a near-death experience courtesy of some random guys she met at Foot Locker. Murphy’s increasingly gripping tale of being playfully dangled over a banister by a couple of Barneys rockets her to the top of the Bronson Alcott High social strata, leaving Silverstone to puzzle despondently over this alternate universe where Murphy is the most popular girl in school, while Silverstone is just a virgin who can’t drive. Their ensuing fight is the catalyst for Silverstone’s realization that she is majorly, totally, butt-crazy in love with her ex-stepbrother (Paul Rudd)—himself no great fan of the mall—which forces her to turn her attention toward a makeover for herself rather than others, for a change.
3. Commando (1985)
In the Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle Commando, baddie Dan Hedaya tries to bully Schwarzenegger into carrying out a murder by holding his daughter hostage. So Schwarzenegger naturally follows suit by bullying random passerby Rae Dawn Chong into helping him stalk Hedaya’s chief flunky (The Warriors’ David Patrick Kelly) through the mall where he’s meeting an underworld contact. Instead, she tattles to the nearest mall cop, setting off an epic four-way battle between Kelly, who’s mostly trying to alert Hedaya by phone, then flee; a dozen suspiciously buff security guards; Kelly’s contact, who brings a gun to a fistfight; and Schwarzenegger, who has to contend with all of them at once. The mall provides a target-rich environment, with plenty of security guards to get caught up in the act, plenty of screaming witnesses to raise the chaos level, and a glass elevator, suitable for a slow, highly visible escape attempt. But it also adds a ridiculous tone to the proceedings, with wall-to-wall steel-drum-and-sax music, plus garish pastel décor everywhere—including a series of weird, brightly colored inflatable mega-balloons that let Schwarzenegger pull a Tarzan act. One of the fun unintentional things about movies shot in real-life locales is how the backgrounds casually reveal details about the look and feel of past eras; according to Commando, in the ’80s, people shopped in places that looked like a giant clown vomited everywhere.
4. The Silent Partner (1978)
Forget Bad Santa. Billy Bob Thornton makes a foul, drunk, belligerent St. Nick, but he has nothing on the steely-eyed malevolence of Christopher Plummer in the nasty little 1978 thriller The Silent Partner. Elliott Gould stars as a teller at a mall bank who gets the drop on Plummer’s plan to pose as Santa Claus and stick ’em up during the Christmas shopping season. Gould has the clever idea to take advantage of the situation by skimming off some money for himself before Santa comes to collect, but in the robbery that opens the film, Plummer notices his take is a little light. The scene ends in a mall mêlée, as Santa blasts away at his pursuers, but the real chill comes from Plummer’s cold assessment of Gould, whom he seems to recognize immediately as the man responsible for mucking up his operation. And as Gould soon learns, this is one Santa you don’t want coming down the chimney.
5. Earthquake (1974)
Like most ’70s disaster films, Earthquake takes its own sweet time getting to the big disaster, setting up the stories of the principal characters to build sympathy for them when they fall, get crushed, drown, or survive. But when “the big one” hits Los Angeles midway through the movie, it’s so huge, some theaters used massive bass speakers to simulate the feel of an earthquake. The city is so devastated that the Hollywood Mall becomes a trauma center and gathering point for displaced Angelinos. Unfortunately, that choice proves to be disastrous, as a massive aftershock buries everyone in the mall when the skyscraper above it collapses. Only a few of the movie’s stars and selected extras survive in a subterranean basement, until Charlton Heston—playing the building’s architect—comes to save them. Unfortunately, he doesn’t make it out, drowning as he tries to save scheming wife Ava Gardner.
6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
If you were a cyborg sent from the future to protect—or kill—a teenager named John Connor (Edward Furlong) in the year 1991, where’s the first place you would look? The mall, of course! And that’s where the Terminator T-1000 (Robert Patrick) goes to look for Connor, so he won’t get a chance to lead the future cyborg resistance. Knowing that this might happen, though, another terminator, a T-101 model played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been sent to protect him. After the T-1000 discovers Connor in the arcade, the chase begins, and the T-101 soon swoops in to defend his charge. The body count in this first confrontation between terminators is low—just a maintenance man who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the battle shows what the T-101 and Connor are up against, as even multiple shotgun blasts only bring down the ultra-advanced T-1000 for a few moments.
7. Weird Science (1985)
In ’80s teen movies like Weird Science, the mall functions as a microcosm of society similar to a primate cage or a prison yard. So naturally, it’s where nerds Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith take their newly restored self-confidence and trendy outfits for a test run after being mentored by Kelly LeBrock’s “perfect woman.” Their triumph is short-lived, as the school bullies played by Robert Rusler and Robert Downey Jr.—unconvinced by the weaklings’ transformation into alpha males—douse them in Icees in front of everybody. But that pivotal scene sets up a more lasting victory, when Rusler and Downey spy LeBrock at the same mall and follow her, only to discover that she’s with the nerds they’ve been humiliating. They’re forced to abase themselves in order to get closer to her, but the scene also plants the seeds of discontent in their own girlfriends, eventually leading them right into Hall and Mitchell-Smith’s arms. It’s a complete upheaval of the teen social order, and it could only take place in the cutthroat proving grounds of the suburban shopping mall.
8. Night Of The Comet (1984)
This self-consciously cheesy B-movie brings together the two central recurring themes of mall scenes in ’80s movies: the mall as hangout for teen girls, and the mall as setting for post-apocalyptic horror. A pair of teenage sisters (Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney) are among the few people left alive in Southern California after the titular comet does the same favor for the human race that it did for the dinosaurs when it last passed within hailing distance of Earth some 65 million years earlier. Depressed over the sudden depletion of the dating pool, the heroines cheer themselves up with a tax-free shopping spree at the local spend-center, scored to the joyous clamor of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” But like so many movie characters who put off their shopping until after doomsday, they’re forced to fight for their lives when they discover they’ve trespassed on the turf of some rotting-zombie stock boys, including punk-movie regulars Dick Rude and Chris Pederson.
9. Smooth Talk (1985)
This small film—directed by Joyce Chopra and based on Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”—serves as the underside of all those ’80s and ’90s films where teenagers used the mall as their social nexus and base of operations, basically ruling a world where younger is always better and shopping is the only activity that matters. Eighteen-year-old Laura Dern plays Connie, who, at 15, is just starting to experience the first stirrings of physical desire, but doesn’t know what to do with boys, or why everything she says or does now upsets her mother. Connie is most confident and happiest—and the movie, which takes a dark turn at the end, is freshest and most enjoyable—when Connie and her girlfriends hang out at the mall, talking obliquely but companionably about what they’re going through, and delighting in their ability to tease and confuse their male peers. It’s a wide-open public laboratory in which they can experiment in relative safety.
10. True Stories (1986)
David Byrne, at the height of his acclaim as an all-around multimedia Renaissance man, directed, co-produced, co-wrote, and starred in this irony-drenched tribute to average America, as exemplified by the fictional town of Virgil, Texas. The people of Virgil, who view themselves as normal, are marking their town’s 150th anniversary with a gala “Celebration Of Specialness,” and they head to the mall to do their shopping and socializing and to visit a club where they can express their individuality by lip-synching to records while dressed in styles inspired by their favorite pop stars. Arriving at the mall, Byrne turns to the camera and shrugs that it’s only natural that most folks would rather patronize “a clean modern place” instead of “some funky old store.” The whole movie is a memento of a period when postmodern “Downtown” artists were falling over each other to show a blank-faced affection for what they took to be the favorite activities and habitats of Middle America. How much of this affection is genuine, and how much of it is condescension? If you could tell, it would spoil everything.
11. The Blues Brothers (1980)
The scene in which Elwood and Jake Blues (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi) lead police on a car chase through a busy mall isn’t exactly pivotal to the movie’s plot, but it’s arguably the key to the movie’s popularity. For three minutes, the Blues Brothers speed and crash through a series of stores while calmly commenting on them. “New Oldsmobiles are in early this year,” says Aykroyd. “This place has everything!” says Belushi, all the while surrounded by breaking glass and panicked shoppers. While it doesn’t really advance the story, it reveals plenty about these weird brothers.
12. Invasion U.S.A. (1985)
One of the ripest anti-Commie screeds of the Reagan era, this Golan-Globus production posits an attempted takeover of the United States by Cuban guerrilla fighters under the command of Soviet supervillain Richard Lynch. After establishing a beachhead in Florida, the Reds set out to assassinate retired CIA agent and future Internet meme Chuck Norris, having recognized he’s the only thing standing between them and a future America in which Baskin-Robbins offers 31 flavors of borscht. With his keen understanding of the foe, the canny Norris knows they will be unable to resist striking at the very heart of America’s consumerist, Santa-loving heart, so he races to the nearest mall, which is packed with holiday shoppers, to engage the enemy.
13. Police Story (1985)
One of the most kick-ass of all Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong action films, and one that contributed greatly to the development of his American cult following, Police Story builds to an awesome fight scene in a mall. Chan and the villains he thrashes do as thorough a job of wrecking the place as any number of zombies or Blues Brothers ever did. (The number of panes of sugar glass that were smashed while filming the sequence earned the picture the nickname “Glass Story.”) At one point, Chan, in a hurry to make it down to the ground floor, grabs a beam decked out in electric lights and slides all the way down. The lights had already generated so much heat that Chan suffered second-degree burns on his hands. Presumably nobody thought to check that out in advance because it was assumed he’d be dead when he hit the floor.
14. Seeking Justice (2012)
The giddily preposterous Nicolas Cage conspiracy thriller Seeking Justice is shameless in just about everything, including its use of New Orleans locations. In a bid for maximum local color, a crucial trade-off between hero Nicolas Cage and the bad guys takes place at the Louisiana Superdome. But the bad guys aren’t taking any chances, so they’ve also kidnapped Cage’s wife (January Jones) and are holding her in an abandoned mall (a setting that screams “Cannon B-movie circa 1987”) conveniently located next door. This leads to a shoot-out in the empty mall and a climactic tussle on a stuck elevator in a location that might not be as recognizable as the Superdome, but is a lot cheaper to rent and easier to control.
15. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
There are several key mall scenes in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling’s classic about high-school life in the freewheeling early ’80s. There’s Jennifer Jason Leigh flirting with the older guy; there’s nerdy Brian Backer getting the courage up to ask Leigh for her phone number; there’s Sean Penn and his stoner buddies trying to get their shit together. But perhaps the most memorable scene is the one in which Robert Romanus—playing Mike Damone—give Backer some hilariously crappy advice about how to act around women, including, “Act like wherever you are, that’s the place to be.” The whole speech is quotable, but his apparent conviction that he could sell that illusion while standing in front of a mall record store almost sells it.