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Here's something that I see over and over again in movies. It seems very illogical and forced to me, and I am wondering if it is a known cliche with a name?

Basically, it's where two people have leverage against each other. However, the one who "wins" is the one who uses their leverage after the other person has used theirs. But this victory is illogical, since the other person still has their leverage, so nothing has changed.

The most typical example is the "drop your gun" example:

Person A points a gun at person B. Person C (who is a friend of person B) points a gun at person A, telling them to put down their gun. Person A is forced to put down their gun.

This is illogical, since the leverage person C has against person A is matched by the leverage person A has against person B (and also person C, since person C cares about person B). Person A is giving up their leverage by putting down their gun. This is an illogical action, and yet, you see it all the time in movies.

The fact that this is illogical is made even more apparent by the fact that if we change the order, then person A comes out on top, even though we are in the exact same situation:

Person C points a gun at person A. However, person A smugly reveals that a friend of person A (say: person D) has a gun pointed at person C's dear friend person B. Person C is then forced to drop their weapon.

Again, this is the exact same situation as the one described above, and yet, now A wins, because they were the last to use their leverage.

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    I don't find that first situation you described as particularly illogical. If Person A shoots Person B, Person B knows that Person C will shoot. So he wouldn't risk it. And everyone knows this. Basically Person C cares more for his own life and everyone knows it so he wouldn't risk taking a shot. This means Person B and C have more leverage. – Kodos Johnson Jun 18 '18 at 18:59
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    haha. great question. these situations are so overused and absurd, and nearly always resolved in a frustratingly unrealistic manner. (It's become more of a shorthand to create tension.) Quentin Tarantino is well known for using this technique, colloquially referred to as the "Mexican Standoff", but they usually end in blood. (Most famously in Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers.) Likewise, in John Woo's early films, which heavily influenced QT, these standoffs are almost always a prelude to massive amount of gunfire. – DukeZhou Jun 18 '18 at 20:06
  • Whether or not it's illogical, it should be a trope because it's used often enough. And as someone below pointed out, it's not always a Mexican Standoff, as that would only exist where everyone has 2 guns pointed at 2 people in the group, with everyone covered twice. They are usually resolved because one character has a perceived sense of good or value of life, so that character willingly gives up their leverage to ensure someone else will live. – Johnny Bones Jun 19 '18 at 15:30
  • The Mexican Standoff is NOT the answer to this question. Simply because the definition of the Mexican Standoff is not what OP is aking for. A Mexican standoff is a confrontation between two or amongst three or more parties in which no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_standoff Mexican Standoff is a game of rock, paper, scissors between 3 players, anyone can beat anyone. – Plexus Jun 20 '18 at 20:21
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In the second scenario, before the second gun is revealed, there is an imbalance in leverage. The second gun "evens the playing field". After this it becomes either a matter of gambling with your own/your friend's life, or relinquishing your leverage.

There is no logical reason why one party must relinquish; they could choose to fire their gun, but the risk to their interests is much higher now and their leverage is therefore not as powerful. This is often called a Mexican Standoff.

  • I always thought the term was cinematic, arising from the Treasure of Sierra Madre, but there is an unreliable claim to usage going back the the Mexican-American War. – DukeZhou Jun 18 '18 at 20:24
  • Downvoting because this answer only addresses the second scenario, not both. – MichaelK Jun 19 '18 at 15:22
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Where is the illogical part?

The first case is a — not quite — Mexican Standoff. The thing that makes it a "not quite" is because there is one unthreatened person in your scenario.

The second case is one of Mutual Assured Destruction (by proxy), which is a sort of Mexican Standoff, but where — assuming a few Spherical Cow-conditions — the outcome is not subject to randomness nor depending on who shoots first.

Let us review that first situation again, using our good old friends Alice, Bob, Carol:

  • Alice points a gun at Bob. Bob is in danger, Alice is not.
  • Carol points a gun at Alice. Bob is in danger. Alice is in danger. Carol is not.

So Alice realises that if she shoots Bob, Carol will shoot Alice. In this scenario, Alice loses.

Alice also realises that Carol may just shoot Alice at any time to save Bob. Alice loses.

Now Alice knows that she can only lose by keeping up the threat on Bob. So Alice puts down the gun. Sure, Alice may still lose, by getting shot by Carol, but at least one incentive for shooting Alice — that of protecting Bob — has been removed.

Also: the order of events do not matter. What matters is the imbalance that there is one person that will not die from shooting first.

In the second case there is no imbalance. The two parties end up with an equal situation, where each party has a member of the other party under threat.

If the arrows below denote guns, and Strong and Emphasis denote allegiances...

Case 1:

First there is...

Alice -> Bob

...which then becomes...

Carol -> Alice -> Bob

Case 2:

First there is...

Carol -> Alice

...which then becomes...

Carol -> Alice

Dave -> Bob

In fact... in the first case, if you apply Game theory to the scenarions, I have a very good hunch that you will find that there is a Nash equilibrium here that is to the definite advantage of the person that does not have a gun pointed at them, and to the disadvantage of the person in the middle.

So not only is it logical for Alice to put down the gun, you can even show it with economic theory that it is in her best interest to do so.

In the second case however, there is not an equilibrium (since there is symmetry), and it becomes a game of nerves. There is no logical reason that Carol must give up her gun. So in the end it all comes down to author/screenwriter say-so who — if any — surrenders. If Carol surrenders it is because the author needs that to happen to drive the story forward. So the author simply stipulates that Carol's nerves gave out before Dave's.

  • I haven't seen too many situations (although I know they exist) where David takes a hostage to prevent Carol from shooting. But more often it's linear; so Bob aims at David who aims at Carol who is aiming at Alice. – MivaScott Jun 25 '18 at 18:39
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You're conflating different situations.


Sometimes, your logic is correct.

There are scenes where B keeps up their gun, exactly like you would expect them to.

A simple example here is when the hero (A) grabs the villain (B). The henchmen (C) all take aim at the hero, but they do not shoot because they don't want to hit the villain. The hero is safe as long as he keeps his gun on the villain.

This can also be achieved without A grabbing B, as long as it's reasonable that shooting the hero will still risk A's finger pulling the trigger and killing B.

Sometimes, your logic is incorrect.

There are several reason why A might be inclined to lower their gun:

  • A realizes that they can be killed by C either way; and they didn't really want to kill B anyway. They lower their gun because there's no point in threatening B anymore.
  • Either C doesn't care about B's survival, or A thinks that C doesn't care about B's survival.
  • De-escalating a situation that is liable to turn into a bloodbath, if that's not what A wants.

Effectively, A only keeps his gun up if that actually prevents C from shooting A; or when A wants to kill B even if B then dies too. In all other cases, threatening to kill B is no longer beneficial and therefore the gun can be lowered.

Keep in mind that keeping your gun raised with an outstretched arm, without moving it, takes a toll on your muscles. Unless it's a life or death situation, people will generally want to put their arm down if possible.

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