The movies show nightclubs as places of vigilante justice, tax evasion scandals, and political resistance—just like real life.
In our Dancing vs. The State series, THUMP explores nightlife’s complicated relationship to law enforcement, past and present.
Anyone who goes out knows that dancing can feel revolutionary. As music, alcohol, other substances, and an urge for self expression swirl in the wee hours of the club night, there’s an ecstatic collective spirit that can feel something like a protest at its best. It’s a controlled chaos that feels liberating—a space where groups of people can assert their own freedom, which is especially true for those who traditionally aren’t afforded such by society. As such the cinema has taken advantage of the socially ubiquitous space of the nightclub as a convenient location for important set pieces that also happen to look pretty—think only of The Social Network, Boogie Nights, and 24 Hour Party People.
But as we’ve already seen over the course of this week, the government often gets in the way of such moments of collective bliss—either through willful malfeasance or bureaucratic red tape. Often those conflicts are anticlimactic, dealt with in hearings with licensing authorities, or committee zoning meetings, but sometimes—as happened last year at Amnesia Ibiza—police show up, shut the club down, and seize millions of euros in cash in conjunction with an investigation of money laundering.
Both due to this real life high drama and the way that clubs have culturally become portentous symbols for populism and collectivity, a number of films have also set climactic conflicts in these locales—bathing police officers in blinding neon and setting loose clubgoers in controlled chaos. Whenever the cinema pits dancers against the state, the resulting standoffs are surprisingly literal, but that can be what makes them so cathartic. A movie scene offering a sort of closure that a drawn out court case never could. To celebrate this dark cinematic tradition, we’ve pulled together a few of our favorite scenes that set chaotic battles with the law inside club spaces—from IRS raids in The Last Days of Disco to John Wick‘s insistence on making his own rules.
Michael Mann’s slick neo-noir stars a silver-haired Tom Cruise as Vincent, a ruthless hitman who forces a reluctant, everyman taxi driver named Max (Jamie Foxx), into driving him around all night as he checks names off of his kill list. Mann demonstrates his masterfully moody filmmaking in a memorable cat-and-mouse shootout scene as Vincent tracks down a Korean gangster in a nightclub.
Each person moves through the throbbing club with tense determination on their faces, scanning the amorphous crowds of dancing clubbers to find their target. Yet the contrast between their meticulous stalking and the clubgoers’ relaxed bobbing reveals the inevitable mayhem of underground crime. An inevitable shootout—in which Vincent injures or kills just about everyone—understandably causes a wilder ruckus. Mann uses the whole thing as a sort as a statement of contrast: nightclub crowds offer controlled chaos, but murder requires precision.
2. Point Blank
This 1960s film starring Lee Marvin as a ghostly gangster seeking revenge against a crime buddy who nearly kills him features a fairly simple, nihilistic story. Marvin leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he delves deeper into Los Angeles’s underground crime lair in his hunt for his ex-buddy. You could consider Point Blank like an anti-La La Land—the film offers a dour impression of 1960s California as a vapid and materialistic wasteland. The film also scrutinizes the psychedelic counterculture that’s floating on the surface of society, and one set-piece in particular—a savage grappling and fist fight behind the scenes at a swinging, kaleidoscopic-colored nightclub—is cross-edited with the performance of Stu Gardner, the club’s soul singer, the men’s brutal violence and the singer’s close-up screams bouncing off each other in chaotic fashion. Violence and music, the scene seems to suggest, are both manifestations of a kind of raw power.
3. The Last Days of Disco
The relationships, friendships, and loyalties that criss-cross Whit Stillman’s ode to the end of the disco era create an intriguingly entangled web that results in a satisfying climax in The Last Days of Disco—the arrest of a nightclub owners for tax evasion. The club at the center of the film notoriously bars white-collar male professionals like Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), who works in advertising and wants to impress his clients by taking them to the fanciest joints.
But no dice—every attempt to get in gets him kicked out and eventually banned from the establishment. Jimmy’s social circle remains ambivalent about the disco club—Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) have no trouble getting in, but they are, after all, two attractive young women. Their acquaintance Josh (Matt Keeslar), an assistant district attorney, becomes involved in the case against the club, and Des (Chris Eigeman), a club manager on the verge of losing his job, saves himself by garnering enough evidence of drugs against the snooty club owners. As it turns out, Jimmy’s clients are the IRS, offering the perfect excuse to create a search warrant for the club and dig up some incriminating narcotics stashed away in the opulent club.
4. Miami Vice
The opening ten minutes of another Michael Mann’s film featuring a notable nightclub scene introduces us to a group of undercover detectives led by Sonny (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx). They’re posted at a thriving, pulsating club, but while countless dancers cavort in front of large screens flashing chromatic abstractions, the detectives watch for their target with steely-eyed grimaces, their pupils looking almost beady from the glare of the club’s lights. It’s an intense opening in which the detectives have planned a major sting against a prostitution ring, but soon the operation is halted by more urgent matters.
“His day will come,” mutters Sonny as the criminal disappears behind an elevator. This entire scene is so long that not one, not two, but three songs play diegetically as club music: “Numb/Encore” by Jay Z and Linkin Park, Felix da Housecat’s Heavenly House Mix of “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone, and the We Are Glitter remix of Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine.” This mini-soundtrack offers the perfect introduction to our undercover ensemble and the restraint they must show on the job, as neon lights, gyrating girls, and bass-buzzing beats surround them.
Is there anything more absurd than the image of a steel-grey robot cop inside a colorfully lit club surrounded by fleshy, sweaty humanoids? In Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, the eponymous protagonist enters a nightclub to track down a criminal with knowledge of another character’s whereabouts. When the criminal refuses to comply, Robocop shows him who’s boss.
This nightclub scene is singular for a few scenes. For one, there’s a brief and dark shot of a maniacally thrashing Verhoeven that is almost undetectable. There’s also the beautiful kineticism in this scene, like when Robocop knocks the gun out of the criminal’s hands, which catapults itself into the hand of one of the dancers, who just shrugs and keeps on dancing. None of the clubbers seem remotely terrified or even cognisant of the presence of the hulking robot—who’s presumably not on the dancefloor with the intent to get jiggy with it. Dancing at a nightclub and robotic police, strangely, can work in tandem, the film seems to say.
6. John Wick
In John Wick, there is no law enforcement. Or there is no law, strictly speaking. There are only the rules and codes established by the criminal underworld that determines what is allowed. But this rigorously crafted action film still provides a helpful analogy for what happens when those with power affect the machinations of public spaces. So long as Wick doesn’t bring his “work” onto the establishments deemed too clean for such brutality—like the Continental hotel where he and other assassins typically stay—he’s allowed to carry out his unstoppable revenge.
In the major set piece, John Wick tracks down his major target, Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the brattish brutish son of an important family in the film’s underground-crime network, at the Red Circle nightclub. It is within these darkly lit scintillating spaces that Wick begins his mission of death, taking out dozens of men charged with Iosef’s protection, adroitly leaving and entering each room like a level in a video game. The use of Kaleida’s slinky “Think” in the background adds a further level sophistication and sexiness to a scene that is mostly charged with brutal, bloody violence. Chaos reigns as John Wick disrupts the clubgoers perfect harmony.
Music is the weapon of choice in this memorable night-club scene, between Laszlo, a Czech Resistance fighter and his enemy, the German Major Strasser. The Nazi officials sing a patriotic German song, “Die Wacht am Rhein,” while the rest of the guests look on quietly. But Laszlo won’t stand for it.
He asks the band to sing “La Marseillaise,” the national anthem of France, to express solidarity with the recently invaded country. With an approving nod from bar-owner Rick, the band complies, and soon enough, the rest of the patrons have joined in, drowning out the Nazis. There’s a lot of political tension in this scene, and as a result of Laszlo’s defiance Rick is forced to close down his club. It’s a sign that authority can demonstrate force in myriad ways—sometimes it involves obvious brutality and violence, other times through censorship and oppression.