A Mexican standoff is a confrontation, among two or more parties, in which no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory. Any party initiating aggression might trigger their own demise. At the same time, the parties are unable to extricate themselves from the situation without suffering a loss. As a result, all participants need to maintain the strategic tension, which remains unresolved until some outside event makes it possible to resolve it.
The term Mexican standoff was originally used in the context of using firearms and today still commonly implies a situation in which the parties face some form of threat from the other parties. The Mexican standoff is a recurring trope in cinema, in which several armed characters hold each other at gunpoint.
The expression came into use during the last decade of the 19th century; the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary makes an unattributed claim that the term is of Australian origin. Other sources claim the reference is to the Mexican–American War or post-war Mexican bandits in the 19th century.
Go-!" said he sternly then. "We will call it a stand-off, a Mexican stand-off, you lose your money, but you save your life!— F. Harvey Smith, Sunday Mercury, New York, 1876
In popular use, the term Mexican standoff is sometimes used in reference to confrontations in which neither opponent appears to have a measurable advantage. Historically, commentators have used the term to reference the Soviet Union – United States nuclear confrontation during the Cold War, specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The key element that makes such situations Mexican standoffs is the equality of power exercised among the involved parties. The inability of any particular party to advance its position safely is a condition common among all standoffs; in a "Mexican standoff," however, there is an additional disadvantage: no party has a safe way to withdraw from its position, thus making the standoff effectively permanent.
In financial circles, the Mexican standoff is typically used to denote a situation where one side wants something, a concession of some sort, and is offering nothing of value. When the other side sees no value in agreeing to any changes, they refuse to negotiate. Although both sides may benefit from the change, neither side can agree to adequate compensation for agreeing to the change, and nothing is accomplished.
A Mexican standoff where each party is pointing a gun at another is now considered a movie cliché, stemming from its frequent use as a plot device in cinema. A famous example of the trope is in Sergio Leone's 1966 Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where the eponymous characters, played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach, face each other at gunpoint.
The videogame Red Dead Redemption features a notable example among gamblers in Mexico. One of the participants makes a humorous nod to the trope, realizing the situation and claiming “There must be a name for this” to which the Lee Van Cleef-inspired character Landon Ricketts replies “An impasse, sir. An impasse.”
Director John Woo, considered a major influence on the action genre, is known for his highly chaotic action sequences, Mexican standoffs, and frequent use of slow motion. Director Quentin Tarantino (who has cited Woo as an influence) has featured Mexican standoff scenes in his films like Inglourious Basterds (the tavern scene features multiple Mexican standoffs including meta-discussion); and the climactic scene of Reservoir Dogs, which depicts a standoff among four characters. A Mexican standoff also features prominently in the mission The Wrap Up in Grand Theft Auto V, in which a meeting between protagonist Michael De Santa and the FIB quickly devolves into an all out four-way battle among the FIB, IAA and Merryweather agents.
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