Trying to define exactly what a “meta” moment is caused a near-apocalyptic argument in the Empire office. Eventually we came to this conclusion: passing in-jokes and obscure prop gags didn’t cut it: to be truly “meta” the reference has to draw the character out of the film he was appearing in, and also require knowledge of previous work from that actor. Phew, that was technical. It all came up because of a beautiful moment in the charming indie comedy Cedar Rapids, where a cast of The Wire ends up impersonating another cast of The Wire. So in honour of that movie-stealing piece of happenstance, here are 12 other priceless meta-moments from through cinema`s history. And if you have any other favourites, then please do let us know in the comment box below.
Playing off: HBO crime drama series The Wire (2002-2008).
Stars involved: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Quote: “I’m straight up gangster, and I always keep one in the chamber.”
As any Guardian-reading telly snob will happily tell you, The Wire is “The Greatest TV Show Ever”, which makes it compulsory viewing for anyone who appreciates good drama, donchaknow. Anyway, just in case you haven’t watched it all yet, in The Wire there’s a character called Clayton 'Clay' Davis, a corrupt State Senator played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., best known for saying the word “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit” every other scene.
There’s also another character called Omar, a morally ambiguous stick-up man who spends most of his working day robbing people and being pretty goddamn scary.
We mention this because in Cedar Rapids, there’s a scene where Isiah Whitlock Jr. does an impersonation of Omar to intimidate the men beating up his friend, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms). It works, and afterwards he tells the group: “I do a pretty convincing Omar from the HBO programme, The Wire.” That, ladies and gentlemen, was meta. If he’d dropped in a “Shiiiiiiiiiit” we might have passed out in the cinema, to be honest.
Playing off: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Stars involved: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Austin O'Brien.
Quote: “He’s fantastic – it’s his best performance ever.”
Last Action Hero is, of course, a huge barrage of lampshaded action-movie clichés extended into an hour and a half feature film. Where else would Arnold Schwarzenegger play an action hero played by Arnold Schwarzenegger who later meets the real Arnold Schwarzenegger? That’s about as meta as it gets, really.
So picking just one moment of mega-meta is a tough ask, but we’ve gone for the reveal that, in Slater's world (Arnold’s character’s world, that is), Sly Stallone played the T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day – and, presumably, the original too. Rushing to a video store, desperate to prove to Slater that in the real world Arnie played a cyborg, annoying kid Danny (O’Brien) discovers a cardboard poster of Sly playing The Terminator. Slater’s reaction? “He’s fantastic – it’s his best performance ever.” Better than Rocky? Better than you? Oh Arnold, you old wag.
For more Stallone / Schwarzenegger meta-moments, see also The Expendables, Tango And Cash, Twins (Arnold’s biceps are much bigger, to be fair), Demolition Man’s "Schwarzenegger Presidential Library" and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies saying "I married Rambo!"
Playing off: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar being a famous basketball player in real life.
Stars involved: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rossie Harris, Peter Graves.
Quote: “Wait a minute. I know you. You're Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers.”
Let’s be honest, we have a very limited knowledge of basketball here in the Empire office. We know it involves jumping, tall men and bouncing balls, but that’s about it. The few basketball players we do know include Michael Jordan (a.k.a. him off Space Jam) and, of course, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, our favouritest basketball player of all time.
Sure, he might look like an airplane pilot – in a movie called Airplane! – but actually he’s a basketball player pretending to be an airplane pilot, something we only learn when pipsqueak Joey (Rossie Harris) calls him out on it, insulting him and forcing him to break character: “LISTEN KID! I've been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I'm out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.” BOOM!
Playing off: Julia Roberts’ character Tess looking like Julia Roberts.
Stars involved: Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Bruce Willis.
Quote: “I’m Bruce Willis.”
Arnie playing an action hero played by Arnie meeting ‘the real Arnie’ might be the meta-est meta moment ever, but Julia Roberts playing a character who has to pretend to be (a pregnant) Julia Roberts gives it a good run for its money. Especially as Matt Damon and Don Cheadle are also in the picture, and then Bruce Willis drops in to say hello…
In fact, over the course of things, Matt Damon has to pretend to be Julia's PR man to maintain everyone’s cover, managing to remind Bruce Willis he doesn’t have an Oscar in the process. “That little statue on the mantle starts smirking at you after a while, you know what I’m saying?” Bruce: “Not really, no.” Why is this so brilliant? Because Matt Damon has an Oscar of his own. In real life. It makes your head hurt, just thinking about it.
The icing on the cake is Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner) bursting into the room to help get the pseudo-pregnant “Julia” off the phone and out of the hotel by pretending to be her doctor: “Do you have any idea how vulnerable a foetus' brain is to the electromagnetic field created by your cell phone? You might as well point a gun at her stomach!” Bruce Willis’ response? “I’m Bruce Willis.” Fair enough.
Playing off: Charlie Sheen appearing in Wall Street with his dad, Martin Sheen, who was in Apocalypse Now.
Stars involved: Charlie Sheen, Martin Sheen.
Quote: “I loved you in Wall Street!”
This one really is a headscratcher. First of all, Charlie Sheen is playing Topper Harley, who in this movie is essentially an action movie pastiche of Rambo. He’s on a boat sailing down a river, giving a voiceover on the horrors of war when his voiceover is cut in by Martin Sheen’s voice, delivering another voiceover in the style of his Apocalypse Now character Benjamin L. Willard.
Looking up, Topper Harley sees his voiceover competitor heading in the opposite direction on another boat. They both stand up, point, and shout, “I loved you in Wall Street!”, their boats chugging past each other at the very same moment.
They’re seemingly unaware that: a) they’re actually father and son b) they both appear in Wall Street as father and son c) if one of them recognises the other, they should have also recognised “themselves” in Wall Street d) the fact they’re both in a movie right now. And so, further proof that if you analyse comedy, it’s suddenly not as funny. Sorry about that.
Playing off: The fact they’re in a really bad movie. Kind of. Sorta.
Stars involved: Val Kilmer, Lucy Gutteridge.
Quote: “I know. It all sounds like some bad movie.”
In Top Secret! Val Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, a pop singer from the good ol’ US of A. We repeat: Nick Rivers, not Elvis Presley, Little Richard or one of The Beach Boys. Just in case you were wondering. Rivers goes to East Germany to perform at a cultural festival, only to wind up getting involved with the French Resistance (yes, we know that makes no sense) in a story that can only be described as… surreal, and in this case, a little bit meta. Here’s him talking to resistance fighter Hillary Flammond:
Nick: “Listen to me Hillary. I'm not the first guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground.”
Hillary: “I know. It all sounds like the plot of some bad movie.” [Long pause. Both look at camera]
Playing off: The Lethal Weapon series.
Stars involved: Danny Glover, Mel Gibson
Maverick is a movie about the Wild West, about poker, about Jodie Foster in a big blue dress. It’s also very much about Mel Gibson, playing as he does the charismatic lead Bret Maverick – a consummate gambler, but a nice guy too.
At one point Maverick goes to see his bank manager friend, Eugene. After he’s lent some money, a bank robber suddenly arrives and demands all the cash in the joint – you know, the way bank robbers do.
But Maverick seems to recognise the criminal, pulling down the neckerchief covering his face. Mel Gibson, playing Maverick, stares at Danny Glover, who plays the bank robber. The theme to Lethal Weapon can be heard in the distance. “Nah…” they say, both shaking their heads. Irresistibly pulled together again, they look back to each other once more. “Nah…”
Later, Danny even says – you guessed it – "I'm too old for this shit." But if we listed every time Danny said that, well, that would be a whole other feature.
Playing off: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Stars involved: Rene Russo, Jason Alexander, Robert De Niro.
Quote: ““Are you talking to me?”
In the live-action adaptation of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, De Niro plays pseudo-Nazi evil person, Fearless Leader. At one point, his two inept spies, Natasha Fatale (Renne Russo) and Boris Badenov (Jason Alexander), as is often the case, fail to catch Rocky and Bullwinkle.
De Niro then says these words: “Have you liquidated Moose and Squirrel? Did you use the CDI? Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me? Then who else are you talking to? Are you talking to me? Well, I am the only one here, so you must be talking to me. And you are lying! Now catch Moose and Squirrel. And next time use the CDI on them.”
If you listen closely, you can hear De Niro’s credibility quietly dying. And the Meet The Parents trilogy approaching just around the corner, naturally.
Playing off: Star Wars, American Pie, Good Will Hunting, and much, much more.
Stars involved: All of them, really: Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Shannon Elizabeth, Will Ferrell, Mark Hamill.
Quote: “Not again!”
There are just so many meta-moments in this movie it’s nigh-on impossible to mention them all. For starters, there’s Jay and Silent Bob appearing as extras in the thankfully fictional Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season, featuring such incredible lines as “Applesauce, bitch!”, uttered after Matt Damon blasts someone in the chest with a shotgun, and “Think about the paycheque”, whispered by Damon as Affleck turns to shoot a scene, as well as Gus Van Sant’s line, delivered as he’s counting money in the director’s chair: “Jesus Ben, I said I’m busy!”
Then, of course, there’s the scene of scenes, where Mark Hamill plays Bluntman and Chronic’s nemesis, Cock Knocker, and fights the pair of them in a lightsaber duel. Needless to say, Silent Bob has The Force, Jay has a double-ended lightsaber, Cock Knocker has his giant hand sliced off, then says, straight to camera, “Not again!”
Also, just to make things even more meta, Hammill uses his Joker voice. You know, because he voices the Joker in the Batman cartoons (and, more recently, Arkham Asylum), which no doubt made so many geeks have so many nerdgasms it should probably be have been forbidden by the government.
Playing off: The whole of the horror genre.
Stars involved: All of them, really: David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox
Roger L. Jackson…
Quote: "The first one was good, the rest sucked."
Much like Last Action Hero and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, there are just too many specific moments to list here… it’s Scream, you know? Everything is about horror movies. Everything. Those are the rules, you see.
But bearing in mind that every man and his dog will have a different favourite meta-moment from all four Scream movies, we’re going for the double-edged sword that is Drew Barrymore’s line in the first movie: "The first one was good, the rest sucked."
In the film, she’s talking about the Nightmare on Elm Street series – which works as a meta-moment as Wes of course directed both Scream and Nightmare On Elm Street, hating the sequels, despite, you know, writing and directing one of them – and now works on another level in hindsight, as many think exactly the same way about the Scream series. That’s an unintentional, future-predicting self-burn, we reckon.
Playing off: Cary Grant’s real name, Ralph Bellamy.
Stars involved: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy.
Quote: "Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat."
There are two crackers in this much-loved classic screwball comedy, and it’s pretty tough to pick between the two of them. The first plays on just how much Ralph Bellamy’s character, Bruce Baldwin – played by Ralph Bellamy, we might remind you – looks like, you know, Ralph Bellamy. As Cary Grant’s Walter Burns says, “He looks like that fellow in the movies, what’s his name, Ralph Bellamy!”
Then there’s the allusion to Cary Grant’s real name, uttered by Cary Grant’s character himself, which goes something like this: "Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." Touché, Mr. Leach, touché.
Playing off: Arnold Schwarzenegger retiring from acting to become Governor Of California.
Stars involved: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Quote: "Have fun."
As you might have gathered from our Twitter feed, Fast And The Furious 5 review, and large collection of wrestling tattoos, many of the Empire office are proud of be fans of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
So when we watched Welcome To The Jungle and saw this beautiful moment between the ultimate action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his natural successor, The Rock, we were very, very happy.
It’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, sure – Arnie walks past Dwayne and says “Have fun” – but it does feature Arnie metaphorically passing the torch of action hero awesomeness to Mr. Johnson, and that’s what counts. Herr Schwarzenegger would go onto govern California, The Rock would sign a contract with Disney and make a series of kids’ movies (until he redeemed himself with the aforementioned Fast Five). Okay, it could have worked out better, but it’s a good meta moment, damn it!
Playing off: Stan Lee’s own in-joke, Stan Lee’s previous cameos, Stan Lee being awesome.
Stars involved: Stan Lee, Michasha Armstrong.
Quote: "I should be on that list.”
Another noodle-scrambler for you here, what with Stan Lee playing, um, a man called Stan Lee, who happens to be trying to get into Reed Richards and Susan Storm’s wedding. Claiming that his name is on the list, the security man responds with “Nice try”, seeming to acknowledge the fame of a Stan Lee, but refusing to believe that this man here is the actual Stan Lee. Perhaps he’s confused because he looks like a lot like a postman he knows called Willie Lumpkin.
Anyway, it works on yet another level because in the original comics, two men who looked a lot like Fantastic Four creators Jack Kirby (who has since sadly passed away) and Stan Lee also try to get into the same wedding, and are also turned away. Clever, right? Okay, fine, be that way…