You’re generally lucky if a movie has one genuinely great villain in it, let alone two. This is probably because creating a villain takes great acting and writing – it’s one thing to create a preening character who stomps around a story and doing unpleasant things, but creating a villain who’s three-dimensional, witty, scary and above all memorable requires considerable skill.
Every so often, a movie comes along which gives us not one, but two classic villains, with the personality of one complementing the other. A familiar dynamic was once laid out by Steven Spielberg: one is the smart, eloquent one, while the other is the tougher, more violent of the pair. It’s a template that we’ve seen time and again in cinema, but it’s only occasionally that both characters leap from the screen.
Note that I’ve left out films that have an ensemble of good villains, which is why Superman II didn’t make the cut despite its trio of great performances. The following, then, is a personal list of action movie favorites…
Goldfinger and Oddjob – Goldfinger (1964)
It’s here, in this classic 1964 Bond outing, that the tradition of villains and their colourful henchmen first began. The jovially wicked Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) has a plan to attack Fort Knox. The physical stuff, meanwhile, is handled by his army of hired goons, most ntoably Oddjob – Goldfinger’s manservant and silent assassin.
Where Goldfinger’s all golf, drinks and decadence, Oddjob (played by weightlifting and wrestling champion Harold Sakata) is pure physicality: he can smash solid wood with his hands and feet, and enjoys throwing men of f balconies. Then, of course, there’s his trademark bowler hat: fitted with a razor-sharp blade in its brim, Oddjob regularly uses it to execute his victims – or, in one iconic scene, vandalise an expensive-looking statue.
If the avuncular Goldfinger and the indescribably tough Oddjob have anything in common at all, it’s their sunny disposition; they may be evil, but they both greet Bond with an easy smile. Ultimately, the villains have to pay for their crimes, and Bond rids the world of Goldfinger and Oddjob in his usual bombastic style. At the same time, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of regret at seeing the back of these amiably wicked characters.
Mr Han and Bolo – Enter The Dragon (1973)
In this huge hit for Bruce Lee – which, sadly, would be his last completed film before his untimely death – director Robert Clouse closely followed the James Bond template. Lead villain Mr Han (Shih Kien) is an international villain who oversees his empire from a decidedly Bond-like island lair, and even has a habit of sitting around with a white cat on his lap.
And just like a Bond villain, Han has an unspeakably tough right hand man: the hulking Bolo (Bolo Yeung). In one disturbing demonstration of power, Han has Bolo dispatch a number of his underlings. Within seconds, about half a dozen skinny-looking young goons have been snapped, crushed and broken in twain by Bolo and his tree-trunk-like arms.
Disappointingly, Bolo’s later thwarted in combat by John Saxon. In an unusual reversal, the tougher of the villainous pairing proves to be Han, who fights Bruce Lee in a psychedelic room encrusted with mirrors. Mind you, Han does have an unfair advantage: where Lee only has his fists and feet, Han has a range of weapons he can attach to the stump where his hand used to be. Nevertheless, you can probably guess who emerges victorious.
Darth Vader and Moff Tarkin/Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine – Star Wars (1977-1983)
The imposing, wheezing Dark Lord of the Sith partners up with two equally great villains in A New Hope and Return Of The Jedi, so I thought it was worth listing them both here. In A New Hope, Darth Vader’s the second in command to Peter Cushing’s ram-rod-straight, steely Grand Moff Tarkin, the commanding officer of the most powerful Battle Station in the galaxy.
When said battle station proves to have a serious flaw in its defences by that film’s end, Tarkin’s never seen again after the resulting explosion, so Vader returns to the side of his old master, the fright-faced Emperor Palpatine. And what a pairing they make – until family ties finally bring Vader to his senses and Palpatine finds himself falling down a reactor shaft.
With Vader, masterfully voiced by James Earl Jones, proving to be such an eerily still, towering presence in the original Star Wars trilogy, it needed a more expressive evil to complement it. Both Peter Cushing and Palpatine actor Ian McDiarmid bring both a thespian’s gravitas and a pantomime sense of fun to their roles – Cushing with his wonderfully pompous, disapproving face, and McDiarmid spitting his lines out like an old man drunk on his own ill-gotten power.
The Lord Humungus and Wez – Mad Max 2 (1981)
Even in a future where everyone seems to have gone stark, staring mad, mask-wearing villain The Humungus and his psychotic second in command Wez (Vernon Wells) are more insane than most. Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) cuts a memorable figure, standing atop his armoured vehicle in his skimpy leather outfit, all bulging muscles, but it’s the wild-eyed, mohawk-wearing Wez who steals all the best scenes – riding around on his motorbike, he’s among the most bewilderingly unhinged henchmen in film history.
For all their cartoonishness, there are odd moments that hint at the humanity Wes and Humungus lost when society collapsed. “I understand your pain,” Humungus says in one scene. “We all lost someone we love…”
Vernon Wells would later provide some brilliantly evil performances in Commando and Innerspace. Nothing quite compared to the sheer out-there wildness of his pairing with Nilsson in Mad Max 2.
Belloq and Toht – Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Steven Spielberg famously vied for the chance to make a James Bond movie in the early part of the 80s, and when that failed to pan out, he made Raiders Of The Lost Ark instead. And like a great Bond film, Raiders has a contrasting selection of villains, most memorable among them the French archaeologist and power-mad traitor Belloq (Paul Freeman), and sadistic Gestapo interrogator Toht (Ronald Lacey).
Bellocq is, as Spielberg once pointed out, the quintessential champagne villain; urbane, clever, well dressed and, we suspect, probably a bit rubbish in a fight. Toht isn’t exactly a buff hard-man himself, but what he lacks in machismo he compensates for with pure creepiness: the moment where he menaces Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) with what looks like a terrifying instrument of torture, only for it to turn out to be a coat hanger, is one of the best in any Indiana Jones film.
Admittedly, Belloq shares far more screen time with another villain, the Nazi Colonel Dietrich (Wolf Kahler), but in my estimation, it’s Belloq and Toht who complement each other the best, and emerge as Raiders’ most wonderfully vivid villains. “You Americans. Always over-dressing for the wrong occasions…”
Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker – RoboCop (1987)
Is there any villain in action movie history as spiteful, violent yet endlessly watchable as Clarence Boddicker? Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) was corporate villain Dick Jones’s eyes and ears on the mean streets of Detroit – a means of controlling the interests of the Omni Corporation without even having to leave his desk. Jones, memorably played by Ronny Cox, is the kind of guy who takes defeat in the boardroom very seriously – witness the scene where he has Boddicker brutally assassinate business rival Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer).
Boddicker, meanwhile, walks away with some of the best lines in one of the most quotable films in history. Together, Jones and Boddicker represent some of the very darkest corners of human nature: greed and ambition on the part of Jones, a gleeful love of murder and torture in Boddicker. Fortunately, RoboCop’s on hand to ensure that both of them receive their due punishment.
Al Capone and Frank Nitti – The Untouchables (1987)
Mob boss Al Capone generally restricts his violence to the dinner table in Brian De Palma’s widescreen adaptation of the old TV show The Untouchables, with Robert De Niro tucking into the role with evident glee. Violence on the mean streets of Chicago generally falls to the weasel-faced Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), who’s such a ruthless and detestable bad guy that he makes Capone seem positively cuddly.
Nitti pays the price for his nastiness, though; where Capone ends up being carted off to prison for tax evasion, Nitti’s brought to justice by Kevin Costner’s Elliott Ness. Nitti’s last seen plummeting from the top of a very tall building, where an old vehicle breaks both his fall every bone in his body. “He’s in the car” indeed.
Hans Gruber and Karl – Die Hard (1988)
Euro-villain Hans Gruber’s the criminal mastermind in Die Hard, with his plot to relieve the Nakatomi Corporation of its millions in bearer bonds. Gruber isn’t afraid to pull a trigger now and again, either – witness his cold-blooded execution of corporate boss Joseph Takagi (“…he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life,” he later quips to a building full of terrified hostages).
But Gruber’s far too fond of expensive suits and precise 80s haircuts to consider doing much dirty work, which largely falls to the rest of his gang. Gruber’s true muscle comes in the form of the blonde, hot-headed Karl (Alexander Godunov). Literally baying for John McClane’s blood following the death of his tiny-footed brother Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), Karl is the ultimate henchman for the 80s – stylish, cunning and ruthless, with the luxuriant hair of a young Michael Bolton.
Cohaagen and Richter – Total Recall (1990)
Also directed by Paul Verhoeven, this gore-splattered reworking of a Philip K Dick story has a remarkably similar dual-villain dynamic to his classic RoboCop. Once again, it’s Ronny Cox behind the expensive desk, this time playing Vilos Cohaagen, the heartless boss of a mining colony on Mars. Running the place like a tin-pot dictator, Cohaagen brings his subjects to heel by controlling the planet’s supply of air.
Meanwhile, Cohaagen’s dirtier jobs are handled by Richter (played by the magnificent Michael Ironside), a villain who has a personal axe to grind with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s memory-impaired Doug Quaid – well, the muscle-bound construction worker has been sleeping with Richter’s wife (Sharon Stone) after all.
With the story flipped on its head, Total Recall could be seen as the story of a really rubbish day at the office for Richter. It begins with Richter endlessly chasing and losing Quaid, witnessing the death of his wife, and then, at the end of it all, plummeting from a lift with both arms severed. Poor old Richter.
Both RoboCop and Total Recall have, of course, been remade in recent years. Neither, it must be said, contains a pair of villains as charismatic or plain mean as their earlier incarnations. Maybe that’s a major reason why the originals are still so watchable, even after all these years.
Strannix and Krill – Under Siege (1992)
Released when Steven Seagal was at the height of his wrist-breaking powers, Under Siege is enlivened by an inspired bit of casting: Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey. It sounds like a ridiculous combination on paper, and Lord only knows who (or how) the ornery Jones was convinced to act alongside the reliably odd-ball Busey. The result, however, is action cinema gold; in theory, Jones’s ex-CIA guy Bill Strannix is the smart one and Busey’s Commander Krill’s the psycho muscle, but in truth, they’re both just bonkers. Witness the scene where the pair appear at a party aboard the USS Missouri, Strannix in biker gear and shades and Krill dressed as a woman. It’s utterly inexplicable.
Jones and Busey, clearly realising they’re in the midst of an action film where Seagal says things like “Get my pies out of the oven”, simply form their own comedy double act.
“You’re a maniac, drowning your own crew,” Jones says. “They never liked me anyway,” Busey retorts. Touché.
Delacourt and Kruger – Elysium (2013)
Neill Blomkamp’s second film is something of a throwback to the great sci-fi action films of Paul Verhoeven, both in terms of its violence and its corporate satire. Even its villains hark back to the RoboCop-Total Recall mould, with Jodie Foster fulfilling the role of coiffured, upper-crust Defence Secretary Delacourt, and the sociopathic Kruger (Sharlto Copley) serving as her dirty-fingernailed number two.
Foster’s performance is an odd one; brittle, emotionless and hampered further by what looks like some decidedly rushed ADR. Was Foster’s dialogue redubbed at the last minute? Or is it a plot point left unexplained in its theatrical edit? Delacourt speaks fluent French at one point. My theory is that her English auto-translated via some sort of Babelfish-like device – which would explain why her English-speaking parts seem so distractingly robotic.
At any rate, the star of the show’s Copley’s crazed assassin. When he isn’t indulging in drunken al fresco meals on the roof of his house, he’s dispatching his prey via a range of elaborate and explosive weapons. As Matt Damon’s everyman hero rushes to find a means of curing his bout of industrial poisoning, Kruger strides through the film like a kid at Christmas, high on Tizer and armed with a Nerf gun. As usual, it’s the villains who enjoy themselves the most.
This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK in February 2015.