Rescue Arcs are common in fiction, usually involving The Hero, or The Protagonist, charging in to save their captured comrade. Though the hostage can just as easily be a loved one, some snot-nosed kid, or worst of all, The Load. The success of the rescue attempt mainly depends on the setting and type of story we're dealing with.
But this instance is a special case: because the hostage doesn't need saving. In fact, those guys that're on their way are the ones that're gonna need help... just as soon as our "hostage" finishes picking the lock to their holding cell and mops the floor with their guards, who're probably just as stunned as the audience is at that moment.
After all, that's not how television works. Hostages aren't supposed to save themselves; much less the people trying to save them!
In cases like these, the character in question is likely to be a super spy, an Action Girl, a Guile Hero, or similar character type. While villainous examples will include The Dragon, Classy Cat-Burglar, or more likely, the Loveable Rogue, who's dashing, daring, and infuriatingly clever. Whoever they may be, they're perfectly capable of getting themselves out of a bind, given the right opportunity. And they'll usually meet up with their would-be rescuers in time for some witty banter about "what took them so long?", after saving their bacon.
This may result in a Redundant Rescue, since the hostage was never really in danger and may have been Captured on Purpose, as part of a ploy to infiltrate their captor's lair. It's also possible that the captive tricked the villain into letting him go. Regardless how it plays out, the bottom line is: they don't need help (any more), but now the would-be rescuers do.
When implemented, it can be the reason for an Unwanted Rescue. Or, it can lead to complaining about the rescue attempt, now that they have to deal with the unwanted complication of saving their friends, while still trying to get the job done.
This may overlap with Badass in Distress, or Damsel out of Distress. Compare with The Cavalry Arrives Late, if the captive has not only freed themselves, but defeated the villain (and their henchmen) as well. Also compare Now, Let Me Carry You.
- Done tragically in One Piece: Luffy finally manages to rescue Ace in Marineford, and they're running away to Whitebeard's ship. Then Akainu insults WB in front of Ace, which provokes the latter into attacking him. He knocks Ace aside, and goes after Luffy with a magma fist... then Ace Took The Bullet for his brother. Result: Ace dies.
- In Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Captain Gray's unit extracts Dr. Aki Ross from Phantom-infested territory, but when they get back to base, they realize that Gray was infected by a Phantom, so Aki performs an emergency surgery to save him in turn.
- In Albatross: Wings of Death, Fujiko is kidnapped and taken hostage by Prof. Lumbach. Naturally, Lupin and Co. charge to her rescue... except she saves 'em the trouble. Not only does she take over the plane, she saves Lupin while she's at it!
- Tenchi Muyo!: The crux of the first film's plot ("Tenchi in Love") has Tenchi and the girls travel back in time, to the year 1973, to protect Tenchi's mother, Achika, from the interdimensional entity known as K.A.I.N. Except she ends up saving them... by killing KAIN during the film's climax.
- During the Venus arc, Akaya abducted Himegami to coerce Takeru and his friends into a 4-on-4 battle with the Venus Unit to assess the Maken-ki's level of ability. But when it seemed he had fatally shot Takeru, Himegami became so enraged that she freed herself and was prepared to reduce Akaya to ashes.
- And the Okino Island chapters had her friends try to protect her from being captured by Ouken Yamato. But in the end, she succeeded where they couldn't by defeating Ouken herself.
- Near the end of episode 9 (season 2), Takaki gets captured and used as leverage against her new "boyfriend"note , so they could get even with him by making it so he couldn't fight back. But one of their Maken attacks shreds his shirt, revealing it was Azuki. Takaki promptly escapes her binds and unleashes Habaya on them to save her.
- In Ever After, the prince attempts to rescue Danielle after she is sold as a slave. She meets him on the road out of the castle, carrying the sword she used to rescue herself.
- In the 2004 Film of the Book of Around the World in 80 Days, Fog tries to pull Passepartout out of the way of a falling pillar, the latter instead pushes him out of the way when it takes too long.
- Spider-Man 2: Peter dashes into a burning building (without his powers) to save a girl who's trapped inside. After he finds her, he doubles back, but the floor collapses beneath him, leaving him hanging on for dear life. After hoisting the girl up, she returns the favor and pulls him up. The two then escape the building.
- In A New Hope, immediately after Luke and Han Solo free Leia, she has to help them find a way out. Zig-Zagged since Luke (with help from C3P0 and R2D2) then has to rescue them from her rescue.
- Happened again in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke arrived at Cloud City to save his friends from Vader, only for them to escape without his help. In fact, they end up saving him! Basically, the only reason for Luke to be there was for the It Was His Sled reveal.
- In City Lights; a drunk and depressed eccentric millionaire is clumsily attempting to take his own life at the harbor. He has tied one end of a rope to a large stone and put the noose around his neck. The Tramp (Chaplin) comes down the steps and valiantly intervenes to prevent the man's determined suicide, but the loop in the rope falls around his neck and pulls him into the river instead. The Tramp almost drowns and he is the one who must be saved.
- A small-scale example occurs in Transformers: The Movie. Hot Rod proclaims to Arcee that things are dangerous so she'd better stick close to him. Cue her pulling him out of the way of a blaster shot and saying he'd better stick close to her.
- Played with in A Brother's Price. The rescued character does need help, initially, but eventually, rescuee and rescuer work together against the villains.
- This happens in the first book of the Mistborn series, when Vin is captured and Elend tries to rescue her and predictably gets into trouble, lucky for him one of Vin's other friends already broke her out and she got her stuff back and saved his butt.
- In The Light Fantastic, Cohen the Barbarian launches an Unwanted Rescue of an entirely voluntary Virgin Sacrifice, but when he attempts to swing the girl over his shoulder, his back goes out. Much to her own surprise she finds herself having to carry him away from the druids' circle.
- In The Adventures of Superman episode "The Defeat of Superman", Superman gets locked in a room with Kryptonite while trying to rescue Lois and Jimmy. Jimmy neutralizes the radiation by shoving the Kryptonite into a lead pipe and stomping its ends closed.
Jimmy: For once, we had to save him.
- Doctor Who: In "The Name of the Doctor" Clara saves the Doctor by leaping into the Doctor's history to rescue him from the Great Intelligence, which also leaped in to erase the Doctor from history. When she gets lost, the Doctor sends her a plot trinket to keep her sane until he can find her in there and pull her out, rescuing her.
How many times have you saved me, Clara? Just this once, just for the hell of it, let me save you.
- Arrow: In "Blind Spot" Brother Blood actually Officer Daily wearing his mask kidnaps Laurel. Oliver shows up to save her, but Blood gains the upper-hand in their fight. Right as he's about to kill Oliver, Laurel guns him down.
- In the second act of Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna, Miranda is taken away to Purgatory by the turned-evil Peacock Goddess, and Romeo has to climb a pole to reach her, but just as they reunite at the end of the tightrope number, Cali abducts Romeo, and Miranda is the one who has to perform the rescue this time.
- In Mega Man X: In the first Sigma Fortress stage, in the end, Zero (who infiltrated earlier) had been captured by Vile. X has to fight Vile to go pass him, but he can't hurt Vile while he's in his Ride Armor, and after a short while Vile grabs X with his Ride Armor's arm. Zero, seeing X in danger, breaks free of his restrains and then destroys Vile's mech in a Desperation Attack, giving X a fighting chance.
- During the final battle with Kaptain K. Rool in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest, just as it seems that Kaptain K. Rool is about to finish off Diddy and/or Dixie after being knocked out by them a third time, Donkey Kong (whom the two have been trying to rescue) breaks free from his ropes and delivers the final hit to Kaptain K. Rool, punching him out of his helicopter and sending him falling thousands of feet below, into the swamp.
- Zig-Zagged in Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War: when Kei Nagase is shot down in the middle of a snowstorm, a rescue helicopter is sent after her immediately—but promptly crashes due to bad weather. When her squadron and another helicopter finally reach her the following morning, she is revealed to have saved the wounded crew of the first helicopter who tried saving her earlier.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Link is Zelda's appointed knight, which makes him her personal bodyguard. Yet, in the final memory cutscene, Zelda's concern for his well-being caused her long dormant power to awaken and disable an entire field of Guardians. She then has Link taken to the Shrine of Resurrection, while she left the Master Sword in the Great Deku Tree's care, before heading to Hyrule Castle to face Calamity Ganon on her own.
- Spongebob Squarepants. This happened in the episode where the title character first meets Sandy Cheeks. He sees her being attacked by a giant clam and tries to save her, but he winds up getting eaten by the clam instead, prompting Sandy to beat the clam into submission and save him.
- In the Superman: The Animated Series episode "Superman's Pal", Superman flies into Metallo's trap trying to rescue Jimmy and Jimmy winds up having to save him.
- In one episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003), Leo tries to save Splinter when the latter almost falls while climbing a fragile pipe. Leo reaches him and pulls him up, but the pipe is rapidly buckling beneath them, so Splinter pulls a grappling hook out of his robes and uses it to get both of them to safety. He could have saved himself at any time, but he wanted Leo to confront his fear of heights, and to teach him An Aesop about focusing his mind to avoid distractions.
- Played with in the Darkwing Duck episode "Water Way to Go". Darkwing runs after Launchpad when his carrier blows away in a sandstorm, only to be blown away himself and have Launchpad chase after him. Neither saved the other; they were just fortunate enough to turn up near the villain's compound.