Michael: My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Kay: What was that? Michael: Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.
Sometimes a bad guy wants something done, something none of his own men are up to the task of doing for some reason (too well-known, too incompetent, whatever), and he's not about to risk his own hide to do it. So what's a bad guy to do? Get in touch with a good guy and make him an Offer He Can't Refuse.
There are a number of reasons this would work:
Something dearly important to the Hero is held at stake:
Either way, it's clear That Wasn't a Request. It usually turns out that by taking up the offer, the hero has been advancing some form of Evil Plan orchestrated by the Big Bad, and there's at least a fifty-fifty chance that the bad guy will double-cross the hero at some point along the way, usually in a You Have Outlived Your Usefulness moment. This often leads to the hero launching an all-guns-blazing assault on the bad guy, either to get revenge on him, rescue the loved one, or both. This "offer" is also not likely to work so well on Sociopathic Heroes or The Unfettered, who rarely care about any collateral damage incurred while exterminating their foes.
The trope name comes from the movie The Godfather where the titular mafia boss was always making people offers (such as letting one of his favorites star in a movie or signing a business over to him) with dire consequences attached if they were refused (like, say, a bullet in the head, getting put in the hospital, or having the head of the person's prize horse being delivered to his bed). note The line was borrowed by Mario Puzo from the earlier novel Le Père Goriot (1835), by Honoré de Balzac, when Vautrin tells Eugène that he is "making him an offer that he cannot refuse". Namely, that he [Vautrin] will make Eugène rich, profiting off the death of a man who he has never met. This concept, in turn, was Balzac's bringing-to-life of a theoretical concept by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of "Rousseau's Chinaman" (the root of disinterested evil).
Compare Enemy Mine, in which the bad guy accompanies the hero, and Appeal to Force, where one party's having more power to inflict violence on another decides one's bargaining position rather than questions of justice and logic. The Face of the villain's team is likely the one who'll be appointed to make the formal offer.
In real life, particularly in Hispanic countries, this is known as "Plata o Plomo?", literally "Silver or Lead?" i.e. your choice is between taking a bribe or taking a bullet between the eyes.
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Anime and Manga
Bleach: Inoue Orihime was forced to work for the Big Bad after he held her friends hostage, without them even knowing about it.
Essentially the basis of Alucard's role as a Sociopathic Hero in Hellsing. Although the audience isn't given all the details, it's revealed in a crucial flashback that much of the story of Dracula really did happen, right up until Van Helsing had Dracula defeated and at his mercy. From here, it seems the heroes made Dracula an offer he couldn't refuse, and so the Hellsing organization's ultimate weapon was born.
This is essentially how the contracts are made in Mai-HiME. Set up a situation where the HiME-to be faces a lethal threat from an Orphan, then offer her the power to fight it along with a vaguely defined price to be paid in future. None of them refuse.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, Dr Marcoh was forced into cooperating with a plan to destroy the whole country because the homunculi promised to wipe out his whole village if he didn't.
Edward, in episode 29, is forced to remain a state alchemist, even after he announces his resignation, due to the homunculi threatening to harm Winry if he didn't. This is used in a similar fashion against Mustang, who has the well-being of his whole team (Hawkeye most of all) resting on his willingness to comply, although he never threatens resignation. (They both find their own ways around it.)
Due to above, Ed was forced to cooperate with Kimblee's attempts to hunt down Scar and Marcoh, using Winry as a leverage point. Kimblee even offered Ed a philosopher's stone in exchange for committing mass murder on the Briggs frontier, though Kimblee was unaware at the time that Ed and Al had already vowed to never use a philosopher' stone due to its grisly nature. This actually leads to Edward escaping his contract; Winry is able to fake her own kidnapping and get away to safety, and a few episodes/chapters later, Ed (unintentionally) fakes his own death, letting both disappear off the map for a couple months.
Averted during Part 4 of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, when Highway Star orders Rohan to call Josuke in order to lure him into the Stand's trap, otherwise it'll suck him empty of his nutrients, he replies:
I refuse. What I like to do the most is saying NO to people who consider themselves extremely good.
Implied by Kaiba's goons when Yugi's grandpa asks what would happen if he should refuse Kaiba's offer to duel.
Pegasus does it twice; once by stealing Grandpa's soul, forcing Yugi to enter the Duelist Kingdom tournament, and again by stealing Mokuba's soul in order to get to Kaiba.
In Battle City, Marik takes control of Tea and Joey so he can force Yugi into a duel for the Millennium Puzzle and his Slifer the Sky Dragon Card. Before that, he, via Bandit Keith, stole the puzzle and chained it to a duel arena, where Yugi could get it back if he won.
The Big Five. Once, right after the Duelist Kingdom arc and again in the Noah arc.
This is fairly common in Puella Magi Madoka Magica— something bad happens and Kyubey offers them a wish at the cost of becoming a Magical Girl. Although the circumstances there typically aren't deliberately arranged. Kyubey simply takes advantage of an opportunity when it is presented. Unlike when he deliberately manipulated Kyoko into trying to save Sayaka so that she would die and Homura would face Walpurgisnacht alone, forcing Madoka to make a contact.
In the Ouran anime, Eclaire gives one to Tamaki: "If you accept to marry me, I will gladly give you the chance to reunite with your Missing Mom"
Matoba from Natsume Yuujinchou threatens Natsume to expose his ability to his foster parents unless he complies to help him find an enemy exorcist. Attempts this again except with him joining his clan but is interrupted by a disturbance outside.
An inverted heroic example occurs in Outbreak Company. In episode 12, Japan attempts to kill Shinichi after he attempts to stop their attempts at cultural warfare with Eldant. Both of their attempts fail, and after the second one Petralka threatens to cut off all diplomatic ties if the Japanese government attempted to kill him again, or hindered his work at introducing otaku culture to them. It seems to work, as Matoba later says that what Shinichi is doing may benefit them more in the long run, and for now at least, allows him to continue working without threatening his safety.
In the first season of Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, Rex Godwin's goal was to identify the suspected Signers using the Fortune Cup. However, after one likely suspect - Yusei - proved his incredible distrust in Godwin's generosity by turning down an offer of parole from prison, he realized convincing him would be hard. After several prisoners were pardoned due to abuse by the corrupt warden, Yusei stole his D-Wheel from the impound lot - as Godwin expected, and Godwin ordered his friends in Satellite kidnapped, later having his henchman Jeagar telling Yusei that their safety would depend on his participation in the Fortune Cup. (Godwin was later convinced to release them early by his star and Yusei's rival Jack Atlas - who the winner of the tournament would duel in an exhibition match - who was getting very suspicious of Rex's motives, and wanted to duel Yusei without any coercion being involved.)
In Invincible, Thragg the Viltrumite Regent — one of the most powerful beings in the universe and definitely the strongest Viltrumite — offers a cease-fire arrangement with Mark and Omni-man. Thragg and the other Viltrumites will settle down on Earth and breed with humans to produce more human-Viltrumite hybrids like Mark to repopulate the Viltrumite empire over thousands of years. In return, the Viltrumites will hold off on the whole "kill everyone on Earth" thing. Thragg makes it clear to Mark that there is no way he could stop Thragg from destroying the Earth if he refuses this deal. Mark accepts.
Lucy makes a non-lethal - but very unsubtle version of this towards Linus in a Peanuts comic strip while both are watching television:
Lucy: Why don't you be a good little brother and go make me a jelly bread sandwich? If you don't I'm going to leap on you and pound you right through the floor! So why don't you make me that jelly bread sandwich? Huh? Please, dear brother?
(Linus gets up to get it)
Linus: When someone asks you that nicely, how can you refuse?
In "Death's Dark Angel" a corrupt sheriff threatens the Van Helsings with trumped-up charges in order to get them to follow him to Wade's place.
In "The Resurrection of Papa Voudou" the villains tell Conrad that Adam can be saved... if he helps them evoke the powers of Chaos.
In "... And be a Bride of Chaos" Conrad presses a stake against the gut of a local guide about to chicken out.
In An Entry With A Bang!, the Buron Cavalry joined Vorax's expedition to "Motherload" partly because Vorax had promised harm to their dependents if they refused.
In the Firefly fic Forward, Womack forces Mal and his crew into one of these; either they sabotage a former business partner's organ smuggling operation, or Womack will frame and then have them arrested for smuggling instead.
In the Harry Potter fic My Immortal, Voldemort threatens to kill Draco if Ebony does not kill Harry "Vampire" Potter.
In Aeon Entelechy Evangelion Gendo tells Shinji that by refusing to pilot the EVA he also drops the protection provided by the Ashcroft Foundation from the Intelligence services, especially their R&D staff who wish to cut him open to see what exactly makes him a viable EVA-pilot.
Death Note Equestria: Mer coerced the Apples into being the Third Kira by threatening to kill Rainbow Dash. And then, just to prove she's serious, she killed Granny Smith.
In Voldemort Goes Back To School when Snape catches "Evan" raiding his potion stores, "Evan" forces him to let him go without punishment or telling anyone else or a flashing neon sign reading 'Dumbledore Took My Virginity And I Liked It!' will appear on the back of Snape's trousers.
In A Taste Of The Good Life, Ebony Glimmer secured her divorce from her abusive husband by threatening to slit his throat if he didn't sign the papers.
This trope is subverted by Commando, in which the villains attempt to coerce John Matrix into assassinating someone by holding his daughter ransom... And Schwarzenegger's character just ignores the mission and kills them all to rescue her.
The Godfather is the trope namer. When Woltz fails to accept such an offer, his prize horse's head is severed and is placed in bed with him. Don Vito's preferred approach had three stages: First, make a fair or even generous offer. Second (when the first offer is refused): lower your initial offer, or even offer nothing. If the person doesn't take the hint, then: Third, threaten the person with violence, possibly harming something that matters to him to make the point. (It's implied in the novel that he has a different approach for someone with "real balls", someone who would be willing to lose everything over a matter of honor.)
The initial offer is often just "You'll have my friendship, and I'll owe you a favor." If you know Don Vito, you know that that's worth a lot more than haggling for a specific price.
Indiana Jones has been forced by Communists and Nazis to find a number of artifacts (and circumvent the dangerous traps before them), typically with the life of someone else on the line.
In Mission Impossible III, Ethan Hunt is forced to recover the "Rabbit's Foot", a biological weapon which he just seized from a black market deal and return it to its owner, Owen Davian. If he refuses to recover it, or doesn't get it to Davian in time, then his wife, Julia, will be killed.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Lando Calrissian is forced to betray his friends in exchange for the safety of Cloud City. Unfortunately, the offer was given by Darth Vader, so naturally Lando gets double-crossed—Vader alters the deal, and warns "pray I don't alter it further".
The gang gets back together in Oceans 13 to avenge Reuben, after Al Pacino screws him out of his half of his casino by offering one of these.
The first thing the gang does is offer him a chance to pay Reuben back what he owes him or else, making it also an example. He refuses and further infuriates them by insulting Reuben. They make him regret refusing their offer.
In Sin City, Marv and John Hartigan are both made to plead guilty for the villains' crimes, using threats against loved ones.
Saving his younger brother from Calitri is the only reason Memphis Raines comes out of carjacking retirement in Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000).
In From Russia with Love, Rosa Klebb gives Tatiana two options: Either participate in a plot to sexually entrap James Bond, or get shot.
The film 30 Minutes or Less is about two idiots who want to rob a bank getting a very unlucky pizza delivery boy to do it for them, by strapping a bomb to his chest (effectively giving him a time limit as well).
In the second Bad Boys movie, big bad Tapia convinces his business associate to sign over his business to him by having his bodyguard brought back to him chopped up in pieces in a drumcan, with the implied threat that he can either sign the paper or be next.
In Escape from New York, the government injects something into Snake Pliskin's neck and tell him he can either go in and rescue the President in a set amount of time, or else have his carotid arteries exploded.
At the beginning of The Dresden Files novel Dead Beat, Black Court vampire Mavra strong-arms Harry Dresden into finding a book of black magic for her, by threatening his friend Karrin Murphy. He takes the job, but at the end of the book makes a point of listing off all of the unsavory alternatives at his disposal which he could have made use of if he were less moral, and informing her that if she ever tries something like this again, he will chuck his principles out the window and use every last one of those alternatives to come after her.
Mavra has not appeared since. In addition, it wasn't an empty threat: in the book Changes, a different vampire did something similar, and Harry did indeed go to great lengths and compromise his principles to fix it.
In the Dale Brown novel Warrior Class, Big Bad Pavel Kazakov plans to ask Balkan nations to let him build an oil pipeline through their territory or get bombed by his stealth aircraft. He pulls this on a Russian Army Captain later, advising the man's silence lest his girlfriend and child come to harm.
Early in the Belisarius Series, we see the wife of the titular general fleeing assassins through the streets of Constantinople and ducking into a small eatery. She confronts the owners and slams a heavy purse on the table (her husband is quite wealthy) offering it insistently as rent for the shop, then pulls out a dagger (she grew up on the streets of Alexandria) and tells them "or take the knife, in your fucking guts!"
In The Guardians, this is a tactic demons commonly take to entice humans into a Deal with the Devil. They'll take a vulnerable loved one hostage or hire another human to kill them if they refuse.
A favoured tactic of the Daemon in recruiting its human agents. As just one example, it springs a prisoner from jail by cleaning his record, then warns him when he starts getting cold feet that it can easily put him back as a child molester.
In the Simon Scarrow novel The Eagle's Prophecy (one book in a series) the Imperial Secretary, Narcissus, gives the centurions Macro and Cato a job retrieving three ancient prophecy scrolls from pirates, not even bothering to phrase it as an offer, saying, "I won't insult your intelligence by offering you the job. You will do it, or you will die." Narcissus says that he doesn't need a reason to have them killed, but in the previous book, Cato's cohort was sentenced to decimation (1/10 of the men, picked randomly, are killed; Cato was one of the ones selected to be killed), but the men that were chosen escaped, and Macro was implicated in the death of his cohort's commander.
In the first Jack Blank book, Jazen Knight implies that the reason Jonas Smart exerts so much economic control over Machina's businesses is because he gives veiled threats that anyone who refuses would be accused of being a conspirator to the enemy Rüstov and subsequently treated as such.
In one Callahans Cross Time Saloon story, narrator Jake Stonebender recalls the time a well-dressed fellow (he refuses to say more, 'lest certain ethnicities be offended) tried to make Callahan an 'offer he can't refuse''...so Callahan didn't bother refusing. And apparently the gentleman's arms recovered in time.
In the sequel to Those That Wake, Arielle Kliest makes such an offer to Mal: Get the Old Man what he wants, or else.
Live Action Television
Burn Notice: Carla pulls this with Michael, he also manipulates some of the villains into doing this to his cover ID at the time.
This happens pretty much all the time in the series. Michael is often given this when he is to help the bad guy, or does this himself when he gets the bad guy to do what he wants.
LOST: Ben gets Jack to do his spinal surgery by also kidnapping Kate and Sawyer (Kate to control Jack, and Sawyer to control Kate, apparently.)
Prison Break: The plot of the entire third season has the villainous Company kidnapping Michael Scofield's girlfriend and Lincoln Burrows' son, and threatening to kill them unless the brothers break an inmate out of a Panamanian prison.
Inverted in the Doctor Who episode "Journey's End", where two groups of heroes attempt to keep the Daleks from carrying out their plan by threatening the destruction of Earth and the Crucible respectively.
In the ninth season of Spooks, Lucas North is blackmailed by a man who threatens to reveal that he isn't really Lucas North — he stole another man's identity to escape justice after being involved in an embassy bombing.
In Power Rangers Lost Galaxy, a group of villains are auctioning off the Pink Ranger's quasar saber. Astronema (actually, Karone) interrupts by making a Whammy Bid, which she immediately raises to "all of you get to live".
Crisis centers around these. The villains kidnap a bus full of children, then force their wealthy and powerful parents to perform dangerous and illegal missions in order to get their kids back.
Many asked themselves why Viole from Tower of God worked for FUG, and many believed it was because he identified with their ideology of revolution. However, it turns out that the rings Yu Hansung gave to Baam's old team were tracking devices so that FUG could blackmail Baam/Viole into working for FUG by threatening his friends lives.
"Stop Talking About Comic Books Or I'll Kill You", by Ookla The Mok.
The Jon and Vangelis song/salute to the golden age of movies, "Friends of Mr. Cairo" has a mock scene from The Maltese Falcon that has the Peter Lorre imitator ask Sam Spade, "You going to make us an offer we can't refuse?" It actually works.
Religion and Mythology
In The Bible, Judges 14, when some Philistines find that they are unable to answer a riddle Samson has asked them, they threaten his wife in order to get the answer.
One criticism of Christianity, as voiced by Christopher Hitchens, says that the offer of redemption (through accepting Christ's sacrifice on your behalf) amounts to this, since if refused, the person goes to hell.
In Warhammer 40K, this is standard operating procedure for the Tau: "Join us or die". They still have the moral high ground, however, since every other major faction leaves off the "join us" part.
This trope happens every time an Inquisitor makes a "request". Unless you are very highly placed or connected death is the best thing that's going to happen if you refuse.
Vladimir Lem from the first Max Payne makes Max one of these offers. Being a cop, Max isn't really inclined to deal with mob guys to start with, but since Max is on the run from the law for a crime he didn't commit and waging a one-man war on Punchinello's syndicate, Max accepts his offer to go after Boris Dime, a former Vladimir lieutenant who has joined Punchinello, in exchange for enough guns to go after Punchinello.
Technically, Max is under absolutely no obligation to accept Lem's deal: there's no implicit or explicit mention of a penalty for refusing. The reason Max goes along with the deal is three-fold: to get his hands on powerful weaponry, to piss off Punchinello, and to gain a potential ally.
Vlad lives up to the trope in the second game, using the good will he earned in the first game to advance his plans for a while longer before revealing himself as the true Big Bad.
The G-Man makes one of these to Gordon Freeman at the end of the original Half-Life. Canon establishes that Gordon accepted the offer to work for him - refusing the G-Man results in Freeman being dumped into a horde of hostile alien monsters without a single weapon, which would make the odds of Half-Life 2 ever happening pretty much nil.
Most of the plot in the video game Kane and Lynch. The main protagonist, Kane, is tracked down by his old mercenary partners and is forced to recover their lost fortune. In order to motivate Kane, the mercenaries take his wife and daughter hostage.
One of the bosses in the battle with Thracia strong-arms General Hannibal into fighting Celice's army by taking his adoptive son Corple hostage.
And earlier, Ayra's nephew is used to coerce her to fight Sigurd's army.
This is the eventually-revealed backstory of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The Big Bad's representative invades Hyrule and slaughters anybody who gets in his way en route to Princess Zelda. When he finally reaches her, he gives her an ultimatum she can't possibly fight — surrender the kingdom or watch your people be massacred. She's already seen that her people can't stand up to the power he's brought with him, and drops her rapier in a gesture of submission.
Mr. Wong from John Woo's Stranglehold makes Tequila one of these offers as well. This time, the offer is to rescue his daughter Billie and her daughter Teko from the Golden Kane and the Zakarovs. Given Tequila's relationship with Billie and the fact that Teko is his daughter as well, this is an offer Tequila can't afford to pass up. Unfortunately, Wong proves to be a ruthless son of a bitch and has Billie murdered the minute the Zakarovs are history, both to prevent her from testifying against him and out of pure spite against Tequila, who he absolutely despises, setting off Tequila's Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
Midway through the first Baldur's Gate, you're given the option of joining the titular city's thieves guild. If you decide not to (whether because you're a good guy or just not interested), the guildmaster makes it perfectly clear that he runs on a "join or die" policy. Cue boss fight.
In Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Leonardo da Vinci's Real Life cooperation with the Borgia, given his good leanings and the villainy of the Borgia, is explained away as his being forced to work for them.
On contrary to what some say, in BlazBlue, Litchi's turn to NOL was based on something she can't refuse rather than utter selfishness. Terumi threatens to harm Arakune before he has a chance to be cured, and went so far to have Relius detain him. While Litchi doesn't know that directly, Terumi makes implication about that scenario and what would happen to him if Litchi doesn't cooperate: He either kills him for being a 'nuisance' monster, or he'll wither and die because nobody else cared except her, and no one was willing to help Litchi. To make things worse, her life is on the line as well, not getting the cure in NOL means she will succumb to her corruption and die, leaving everyone else she loved in despair. Not to mention, throughout the offering, Terumi constantly pressed on Litchi's kind hearted nature and desire to help everyone she knows (and only she hasn't given up on Arakune) and exploited nearly everyone else's ignorance of her plight or dismissing her as 'A crazy woman trying to cure her blob-boyfriend who is already a lost cause and better off dead'. Yes, there's a lot more in line than mere obsession here.
In Pokémon Apokélypse, Giovanni threatens Ash's loved ones in order to make him throw a fight.
In G.I. Joe: Renegades Cobra Commander calmly makes his weapons supplier, James McCullen, a counter-offer while the arms-dealer is being slowly swallowed by a giant cobra.
Played with in Jackie Chan Adventures where Chan is injected with a serum that will turn him to stone unless he exchanges the Talismans held in Section 13 for the antidote. While Chan is willing to suffer the consequences, Jade is not so thrilled about his decision.
In Teen Titans, Slade once threatened to kill Starfire, Cyborg, Beast Boy and Raven if Robin didn't become his apprentice.
In Batman: The Animated Series, Two-Face's whole origin started with something like this, and it was a case where the offer was not only refused, but the man making the offer would very much regret it. Mobster Rupert Thorne got ahold of Harvey Dent's records, which detailed his anger management issues which at times made him seem like a different person. (Often called "Big Bad Harv" by doctors.) Thorne threatened to expose them to the public unless he got a few "favors" from the DA's office. Dent's response however wasn't what he expected:
Dent(raspy voice): One problem... Your talkin' to the wrong Harv...
After that, a violent fight broke out, and despite Batman's attempts to stop it, Dent was caught in an explosion that marred half of his face, causing his Split Personality to be given life as Two-Face, and his Start of Darkness completed. His first criminal acts as the villain were, naturally, aimed at Thorne.