In the film Goodfellas, Jimmy Conway was described as being “The kind of guy that rooted for the bad guys in the movies”.
I sometimes fall into that category as well. The typical “Good vs. Evil” showdown is something that is introduced to us from a very young age in cartoons, books, TV shows, in fact just about anything that has a story to it. But it can get a little predictable. That’s why I’m not so much into the whole superhero thing, because you know that at the end of the movie he’s gonna vanquish the bad guy and save the day. The special effects might be nice, but we’ve seen it all before. If you’ve seen one superhero movie, you’ve seen them all.
That’s why it’s refreshing when a villain comes along who is done really well, so well in fact that you begin to wonder if just this once, they might actually have the last laugh.
Villains tend to fall into two main groups. Firstly, there are the guys that you just love to hate. They may not be the most dark or sinister antagonists, but usually they are the ones whose cunning, conniving behaviour makes their inevitable demise that much more pleasing to see. And the second kind are the ones who are just pure evil, hell-bent on destroying every aspect of civilisation.
If a baddie falls into just one of these categories and is really well portrayed, they have the power to make an awful film watchable – particularly in a story where the main good guy is a bit of a wuss. However, if you can create a character who encompasses both of these traits, then you’ve got yourself a pretty mean villain.
So just like James Conway, I started to root for the bad guys (and girls) in the movies. And these are my top 10 favourites…
10: Max Zorin (A View To A Kill)
So we kick off with a Bond villain. While many of you may have opted for Blofeld or Goldfinger, I felt that Christopher Walken’s portrayal of Bond’s emotionless nemesis from A View To A Kill stood out somewhat for me. As an ex-KGB agent who was born as the result of a Nazi genetic experiment, you can’t get more evil than that. Grace Jones stars as his sidekick Mayday who is just as cold and calculating as Zorin and almost qualifies as a villain herself, that is, until she ultimately switches her allegiance (ending her own life in the process) after he betrays her. Zorin is totally ruthless, as we see in many scenes, particularly at the end where he goes into his own mine with a machinegun and proceeds to personally massacre his own workers with the words “Gentlemen, your services will no longer be required” before opening fire. What an asshole.
9: Commodus (Gladiator)
I spoke earlier about guys in films that you just love to hate, and this guy is the king (or Emperor) of that. Whilst he’s not in the slightest bit intimidating, he’s as cunning as any villain you’ll encounter on screen. Far from a tough guy, he’s actually depicted as a coward in many scenes, right from his first appearance at the first battle of the film when he conveniently arrives just as all the fighting has finished, and takes credit for General Maximus’ victory. He then becomes jealous when he learns that he will not be Emperor of Rome, and in revenge kills his elderly and defenseless father and orders the death of Maximus and his family. We then see him enter into an incestuous relationship with his sister, create a rift in the Senate by using underhand political tactics and give the chained-up Maximus a fatal wound prior to their duel in the Coliseum, which he conceals from the thousands of spectators who believe it to be a fair fight. Joaquin Phoenix does a great job of making us really dislike Commodus.
8: Hans Gruber (Die Hard)
“Shoot The Glass!!”
Alan Rickman plays a fantastic villain in West German thief and rebel group leader Hans Gruber, although he has the unfortunate bad luck of taking over the wrong building in downtown L.A. as John McClane just happens to be in town. After taking the members of staff hostage during their Christmas party, he kills the head of Nakatomi Corporation and then returns to the hostages with the news:
“I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way, so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life”.
When his seemingly watertight plans start to become unravelled by McClane, Gruber goes to any length to get them back on track including holding McClane’s wife Holly at gunpoint and shooting another employee in the head. Gruber’s brother Simon was introduced later on in the series (played by Jeremy Irons – what’s with the English guys playing Germans??) Simon is a more than adequate villain, but for me Gruber just edges him out somewhat.
7: Castor Troy (Face/Off)
Nicholas Cage is at his very best as freelance terrorist and ego-maniac Castor Troy. Pursued by FBI agent Sean Archer, he is captured after revealing that he has planted a bomb which will destroy the entire city, however he is knocked unconscious and goes into a coma before he can be interrogated. Naturally, the only way to find out the location of the bomb is for the pair to swap faces so that Archer can masquerade as Castor Troy and infiltrate his group, however everything goes wrong when Castor awakens from his coma and executes the medical team responsible for the switch by burning them alive. Prior to the film’s events, he has already killed Archer’s son although it was later revealed this was an accident, he was aiming for Archer. Yet he shows no signs of guilt, constantly taunting and mocking his adversary while disguised as him.
Who would have thought that a character from a musical would make it onto this list?? The poignant thing about Oliver Reed’s portrayal of Victorian criminal mastermind Bill Sykes is that it’s so believeable. His sinister and daunting nature, his raging temper and wife-beating antics, and even the harsh manner in which he forces the young Oliver (Mark Lester) to accompany him on a burglary and then forcefully drags him through the streets of London’s East End as he tries to make his escape, really cement his place at the top of the list of Victorian London’s most hated scoundrels. And the scene where he kills his wife Nancy terrified me as a youngster. Even his dog Bullseye hated him.
5: Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest)
While the film’s ‘protagonist’, the cocky and influential R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) wasn’t exactly an upstanding member of the community having feigned mental illness in order to escape a harder sentence at the work farm for committing statutory rape, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is ten times worse. Her superiors turn a blind eye to any complaints raised against her as she keeps her ward in impeccable order. Yet behind the scenes, she is the sadistic battle-axe of a woman who takes pleasure in controlling every aspect of her patients’ lives under the guise of therapy and generally just goes about the place being a complete bitch to everybody, particularly McMurphy who is the biggest thorn in her regime’s side. Another classic example of a character you just love to hate.
4: Clarence Boddicker (Robocop)
Kurtwood Smith’s outing as Clarence Boddicker, the leader of Detroit City’s most infamous drug syndicate is chilling to say the very least. Completely unremorseful throughout, even sending one of his own comrades to his death in a vain attempt to stop the pursuit of the law enforcement officers. Later on it is revealed that Boddicker is in fact corrupt, on the payroll of the city’s chief of police. Killing is just a game for him, and he even enjoys taunting his victims as we see at the start when he brutally murders policeman Alex Murphy.
3: Jame Gumb a.k.a. Buffalo Bill (The Silence Of The Lambs)
Interestingly enough, here is a rare example of a bad guy who is not even the most terrifying character in the story, being somewhat overshadowed by the extremely creepy Dr. Hannibal Lector, who in fact isn’t really a villain at all as far as the plot goes. Because of this, Buffalo Bill is sometimes overlookedas one of the craziest movie villains of all time – a serial killer with gender issues who preys upon overweight women with the eventual goal of making himself a coat out of their flesh. He keeps his victims imprisoned at the bottom of a pit in his basement before killing them, and dances around semi-naked in front of the mirror with his dick tucked between his legs. This is one sick puppy.
2: John Doe (Se7en)
John Doe in many ways was basically a prelude to the Jigsaw Killer, aside from the fact that his victims were rarely given the chance of survival. A twisted biblical maniac who carries out carefully planned symbolic killings based on the seven deadly sins, we see him overfeed a gluttonous slob to the point where his stomach bursts, demand a pound of flesh from a greedy and corrupt lawyer, and cut off a vain woman’s nose to spite her face (in ascene which would have fit into any of the Saw films). He manages to elude capture by detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) until he eventually turns himself in but not before convincing the two detectives to accompany him to a deserted location where he has the severed head of Mills’ pregnant wife delivered to him by courier. Truly evil.
1: Max Cady (Cape Fear)
So, we started with one Max and ended with another. Robert De Niro is truly horrifying as Max Cady, a convict who has just been released from prison and goes about exacting revenge on his former lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) who could have gotten him a reduced sentence by terrorising him and his family. His hatred grows as the film progresses, from petty annoyances to seducing Sam’s teenage daughter and killing the family dog. Another villain with a fondness for the bible, he frequently quotes passages and scriptures and during his time in prison has adorned his body with religious tattoos (not to mention building an almost super-human strength and extremely high threshold for pain). He then rapes and batters a female colleague of Sam’s, murders his housekeeper and a family friend, a police officer who Sam had hired to keep guard at the household. When Bowden and his family are eventually forced to flee to escape him, he hitches a ride underneath their car and takes the family hostage aboard their houseboat. De Niro steals the show as Cady, who is both a mastermind and a complete and utter psychopath from beginning to end, and for that I feel he has earned top spot on this list.
Please feel free to comment if you feel I have overlooked anybody, and I hope you enjoyed reading!!