Top 10 Movie “Winks” & “In-Jokes”

We take a look at ten great movie in-jokes, when movies reference movies; a self-aware conceit that pays homage to – or “winks” at – cinematic works, characters, iconic stories and sequences, and pop culture.

What is a wink or movie in-joke? In this context, we’re mainly referring to when a film references another film, sometimes subtly, sometimes more obviously. Movie in-jokes are often an amusing reference that only a few will recognize or understand based on their knowledge of a previous film or character or story. In a way it’s a reward to those who are loyal fans to a particular film or actor.

As I mentioned in the piece on 20 Years of Scream, Stephen King is famous for the in-joke. He often drops lines or even paragraphs in his novels for all of his constant readers to get a chuckle out of. This homage to his own work is called intertextuality and has relevance by virtue of knowing the meaning of the reference through acknowledgement of its origin. For King, it’s his way of winking at his readers.

Subtle movie in-jokes are a real treat for fans

An example would be in one of King’s most recent novels, 11/22/63. The main character goes back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination. The caveat is that the time machine can only go back to the fictional town of Derry in the 1950s. Here, while living and changing history, he meets two of the kids from IT, King’s seminal masterpiece about kids trying to kill a menacing clown who is killing kids in Derry.

If you chose 11/22/63 as your first King novel, the book reads fine as a standalone novel but you wouldn’t pick up on the significance of Bev and Richie. But to King’s constant readers, they know and love these two because they recognize them from a novel written 30 years ago. This is the proverbial wink.

Here are ten great movie in-jokes.

10. Piranha 3D

Richard Dreyfuss brings Matt Hooper from Jaws back to life

Piranha - Richard DreyfussThis one is about as subtle as wearing a black dress at a wedding but if you had never seen Jaws, you wouldn’t understand the opening five minutes of Piranha 3D. Here, Richard Dreyfuss essentially reprises his role as Hooper from the 1975 film. He is dressed with the same blue shirt, the silly hat and he sings “Show Me the Way to Go Home” while mumbling something about a fast fish. It was a perfect way to open Piranha 3D and a great inside joke. It gave a nice little wink to the audience and it let us know what kind of film we were in for.

9. The Expendables

Stallone jokes about Arnie’s real life political ambition

Arnold Schwarzenegger - The ExpendablesThe big selling point of The Expendables was that action legends Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were going to share screen time together. When they do meet up there are all kinds of inside jokes in the scene. The best one, the one that gets the biggest laugh is when Arnold is leaving the church and Bruce turns to Sly and says, “What’s his problem?” referring to Arnold. Sly responds, “He wants to be president.” Pretty much everyone in the world knew that at the time Arnold was governor of California but what they didn’t know is that yes, Arnold did want to be president but because of him being born in Austria, he would never be able to fulfil that goal. So Sly telling Willis that Arnold was in a crusty mood due to his inability to become president was a clever wink to those who understood the American political system. It also got arguably the biggest laugh in the film.

8. Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday

Two iconic screen villains together at last

Jason Goes To HellAfter the low box office return of Jason Takes Manhattan, Paramount Pictures decided they no longer wanted any part of the once lucrative Friday the 13th franchise. New Line had been wanting to do a Jason vs Freddy movie for a very long time and so they bought the rights from Paramount. Their first order of business was to somehow get Jason and Freddy on-screen together but this proved to be much more difficult than they had foreseen. It would take them another decade before the two icons would appear on-screen together. However, in the supposed final Friday the 13th film, when Jason finally is killed and does indeed go to hell, we see his mask sitting in the sand. Suddenly Freddy’s glove pops out of the sand beneath the mask and pulls it down with him. We hear his maniacal laugh and as fans, we know that this is the beginning of them finally getting a film made with the two horror icons. It’s a terrific way to end an abysmal movie.

7. E.T.

E.T. could be a Jedi Knight

E.T. / Yoda ConnectionIn Spielberg’s 1982 classic, E.T is an extra terrestrial who is three million light years from home. Star Wars was a story that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. And yet there is a theory and evidence to support the notion that E.T. could be a Jedi, perhaps a descendant of Yoda’s race. There is a lot of overlap in E.T and in the Star Wars universe. Perhaps this is just two friends paying homage to each other (Spielberg and Lucas) but it can also be a wink and nudge to the fans of both of these films. In E.T. during Halloween, he sees the child dressed as Yoda and tries to contact who he perceives as Yoda. He can also levitate objects and he can make bikes fly. All of these are traits of a Jedi. In The Phantom Menace, at the pod race, the E.T. species can be seen in the crowd. These winks aren’t so subtle but they are fun nonetheless.

6. Girl On A Train

Friends homage

"The Girl On The Train" Is An Intriguing Suburban Thriller Despite The Spectre Of "Gone Girl" Looming Over ItThis is one of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of winks and it meshes two mediums together….the silver screen and the big screen. This one requires a bit of knowledge of the hit TV show Friends. There’s a scene that takes place on one of the trains where Rachel, played by Emily Blunt, encounters an old friend named Martha played by Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe on Friends. Originally the name of Kudrow’s character was Monica. When they were filming in Grand Central Station, the director shouted over the loud speaker that they were going to “roll on Monica and Rachel”. The crowd then sees Lisa Kudrow appear and people lost their minds, thinking it was a Friends reunion. This promptly caused them to change Kudrow’s name to Martha instead of Monica. But to give a little fan service to all the Friends lovers, when Martha and Rachel meet up on the train and see each for the time in a very long time, Martha, as played by Kudrow, shouts out very exuberantly, “Rachel!! I haven’t seen you in like a million years!”

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5. Tarantino’s Shared Universe

Family ties

Top 10 Movie Monologues - Pulp Fiction - Top 10 FilmsQuentin Tarantino has gone on record as saying that all of his films share the same universe in one way or another. By doing this, it gives him an opportunity to leave subtle clues or “winks” to his audience. Like Stephen King, there is a lot of mention of characters from other movies. Two of the most interesting ones are Vick Vega, AKA Mr. Blond, the ear slicing psychopath from Reservoir Dogs, is the brother of Vincent Vega, the dancing hit-man from Pulp Fiction. These two are played by Michael Madsen and John Travolta, who could certainly pass for brothers. And then there is the connection between Inglorious Basterds and True Romance. In Inglorious Basterds, Eli Roth plays “The Jew Bear” and his real name is Donny Donowitz. He is the father of the Hollywood producer who wants to buy the bag of cocaine from Alabama and Clarence in True Romance. The brilliance of Tarantino’s winks is that you recognize the names but you don’t know the connection. This makes you want to read up on the film, listen to the DVD commentary and do whatever you can to find out how these characters are connected.

4. Maverick

The Lethal Weapon connection

Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Comedy, Buddy, Cop, 1980s,This is the 1994 western directed by Richard Donner and starring Mel Gibson. During a back robbery, Maverick (Gibson) seems to think he might recognize the thief. He boldly pulls down the scarf that covers his face to reveal……DANNY GLOVER. They stare at each other like they know one another. The Lethal Weapon theme even plays before Glover races off and upon leaving the bank he utters, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” I’m not sure who hasn’t seen Lethal Weapon but if you hadn’t that scene would be very confusing. If you are one of the million who have seen it, you were laughing uncontrollably.

3. The Goonies

Gremlins in The Goondocks

The Goonies - ChunkLawrence, AKA Chunk, is stuck in the basement of the Fratelli’s hideout while Mikey and Mouth and the rest of his gang are searching for One Eyed Willy’s lost treasure. In the basement he meets Sloth, the deformed brother of the Fratelli boys. Chunk calls the sheriff to tell him of his predicament. The problem with this is that Chunk is known as a storyteller and a prankster. When he speaks to the sheriff and tells him about Sloth and the hideout and so on, the sheriff doesn’t believe him. “Is that you Lawrence? Just like the last prank where all those creatures multiplied when you throw water on them?” Gremlins and Goonies are both Amblin productions so it was a clever little nod to the 1984 film that Kennedy, Marshall and Spielberg produced.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Is Nick Fury really Jules Winnfield?

Nick Fury Grave / Pulp Fiction ReferenceIn Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Nick Fury, as played by Samuel L. Jackson, has to fake his own death to protect SHIELD and Steve Rogers. Inscribed on his gravestone is “The Path of the Righteous Man…” Ezekial 25:17. I won’t lie to you when I say that in a nearly full theater, I was the only one to laugh at that joke. Ezekial 25:17 is of course the Biblical passage that Jules Winnfield would recite to his victims just before shooting them point blank. This is a very quick wink, a subtle nod to those fans of Jackson and his work in Pulp Fiction, which was his most famous role, before he became Nick Fury.

1. Coming To America

The Duke brothers are back!

The Duke Brothers in Coming To AmericaThis is perhaps the greatest wink in the history of winks. And it got a big laugh from a very Eddie Murphy savvy audience. In Trading Places (1983), the Duke Brothers, Randolph and Mortimer, try to ruin Dan Aykroyd and Murphy’s lives. But Eddie and Dan outsmart them, causing them to lose their fortune. Five years later, Murphy made Coming To America in which he plays an lovable, affable, charitable prince of considerable wealth who comes to New York looking for a bride. While walking along the Hudson River with his potential bride, he encounters two homeless men camped out. He hands one of them a large envelope of money, probably around $100,000. He then continues walking. When the homeless man counts the money he incredulously turns to his friend and says, “Randolph, Randolph. We’re BACK!!” It turns out that the two characters are Randolph and Mortimer from Trading Places. These are the two rich men who lost everything and are now homeless bums living by the waterfront. If you hadn’t seen Trading Places, you really would have no idea what was happening. But for those of us who had, it was one of the biggest laughs of the film and the best wink in film history.

Written & Compiled by Dan Grant

Your turn? Name your fave movie winks…

Read more from Dan Grant:
Top 10 Films About The Oppressed Taking Their Revenge
Top 10 Embarrassingly Cringeworthy Moments In Film
Top 10 Supporting Actors Who Always Bring Something Special To A Movie

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About the Author
Dan Grant is an author and horror film fan from Canada. His first novel Terrified and Defenseless is now available for e-download from Amazon. Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72.

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  1. Avatar
    ryan green Reply

    I loved that bit at the beginning of Piranha with Richard Dreyfuss but it was the only good bit of the movie.

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      Dan Grant Reply

      I agree the rest of Piranha isnt quite as good as the beginning. But kudos to Dreyfuss for doing it.

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    CineGirl Reply

    I love that scene in Coming To America, it’s very funny and a nice little wink to audiences who love Trading Places.

    Didn’t notice that gravestone from Captain America – nice find!

    • Avatar
      Dan Grant Reply

      The tombstone scene is one of the best middleweights in the film in my opinion. As I said in the write-up I really was the only person laughing in the theater and I guess most people who will watching Captain America hadnt seen Pulp Fiction. That’s the only explanation as anyone who has seen Pulp Fiction really does know the Ezekiel verse that Samuel L Jackson movie recites.

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    Dan Reply

    Yeah, I’m another fan of that moment in Coming To America.

    Elsewhere, Hitchcock’s cameos are definitely a little wink to his audience which I like. It’s always fun trying to spot him.

    • Avatar
      Dan Grant Reply

      Hitchcock cameos are definitely fun. I think that could be a really good top ten topic.

  4. Avatar
    Callum Reply

    Great top 10. There’s a famous one in I Am Legend when the producer who had seen his Batman v Superman project fall through put a fake poster for the film on a billboard which you see in a blink and you’ll miss it moment. Wasn’t there a Pulp Fiction in-joke in Die Hard 3 too?

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      Rory Reply

      There’s a couple of things about Die Hard with a Vengeance that links it to Pulp Fiction, not least Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson on-screen together having appeared, but not together, in Tarantino’s film.

      And, according to IMDB:

      “When McClane says “Cheer up. Things could be worse. I was working on a nice fat suspension. Smokin’ cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.” In the film Pulp Fiction (1994), which stars both Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, the song “Flowers On the Wall” where this quote is from is playing on the radio in Willis’ characters car just before he runs it into Marsellus Wallace outside his apartment.” – SOURCE:

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        Dan Grant Reply

        Terrific pick up with Die Hard 3. Never caught that wink.

    • Avatar
      Dan Grant Reply

      Nice one. I dont recall that scene. Ill have to find it now.

      • Avatar
        Callum Reply

        Blink and you miss it. Can’t remember where it appears exactly but Google it for the scene in question.

  5. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Thanks guys.

    And as usual, terrific job on the article, Dan.

  6. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    I will reply to each of your posts individually later on today.

  7. Avatar
    Rory Reply

    Whenever I think of these sorts of movie in-jokes I think of Maverick and that moment when Mel Gibson and Danny Glover come face to face. Very funny scene in a very good film.

    • Avatar
      Dan Grant Reply

      Donner Gibson and Glover must of had a lot of fun filming that day. Glover repeating his “im getting too old for this shit” line was priceless

  8. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    Interesting list – one of its strengths is the fact the subject can be quite deceptive. Sure, it’s easy to rattle off film in- jokes, but it’s much harder to do so when homages and parodies are taken out of the equation (with a classic one in the latter category, for example, being Bruce Willis as John McClain living in Martin Rigg’s LA beach caravan in Loaded Weapon 1).

    Thinking about it all, I could only come up with a few:

    (1) In the opening credits of Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), the titular character (Kim Novak) walks past a cinema showing The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich’s previous film.

    (2) In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), a painting by Andrei Rublev can be seen hanging on one of the walls of the space station. Tarkovsky’s second film (made in 1966) was about Andrei Rublev; furthermore, the director plays a snippet of the choral music (by Vyacheslav Ovhinnikov) which originally appears during the closing colour montage of the 1966 movie.

    (3) Two of the leads in George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead (Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger) have cameos in the Zack Snyder 2004 remake. Also, Tom Savini – who did the gory effects for the first one and plays a biker in the movie – also has a cameo in the remake. All three of these cameos in the 2004 version are seen on TV.

    (4) The nude female swimmer eaten by the shark at the start of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is given a nod in the director’s 1979 WW II turkey 1941, when another blond nude female swimmer comes across another beast from the deep just off the Californian coast – this time a Japanese submarine. The moment is accompanied by John William’s now famous Jaws theme.

    (5) In Gore Verbinski’s animated Rango (2011), a chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp gets thrown from vehicle to vehicle as they hurtle down a highway running through the Mojave Desert. At one point he gets struck on the windscreen of Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo – the two protagonists in Hunter Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – as they travel in their convertible (known as the Red Shark). Depp, of course, played Duke in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film version of the novel.

    (6) Michael Caine – in the 2007 version of Sleuth he plays the opposite character he was in the 1972 original (which was played by Laurence Olivier); meanwhile, in the 2000 remake of Get Carter, he’s one of the bad guys, whereas in the original he was the “avenging angel”.

    • Avatar
      Dan Grant Reply

      Amazing post Mark. Im going to go back and watch a few of these now.

  9. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    Also, while this isn’t an in-joke per se, I always thought Oliver Stone was being a bit ironic with his casting of Tom Berenger as a recruiting officer in Born on the Fourth of July given he was such a mean bastard in Platoon.

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    Roger That Reply

    Fun list.

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    ChinaBounder Reply

    I think there may be another nod in the film Inglorious Basterds. We see one scene where Brad Pitt is drilling his men. In it, he’s wearing bright yellow gloves. Isn’t that a wink to Fight Club, where we see Pitt come out of the room where he’s been screwing Marla, and he’s wearing bright yellow gloves?

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    Fu Reply

    A subtle one but an in-joke nonetheless… James Cameron is a big fan of Guns and Roses and their song You Could Be Mine was released to tie-in to the T2 release. As a little thank you “note”, the scene where Arnie first helps John he takes a gun out of a box filled with roses.

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