Villains come in all shapes and sizes, from the hulking and formidable, like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, to the more lithe and cunning, like the maniacal Scorpio in Dirty Harry. The most memorable villains almost always have one thing in common, though: whether they’re blessed with brains, brawn or both, they’re intimidating and powerful in some way. They’re a worthy foil for the hero (or heroine) of the piece.
So what happens when a villain comes across as, well, just plain nice? Sure, they may have the henchmen, the money, the gadgets and the guns. But some villains seem just too easy-going and friendly to be properly intimidating. This isn’t to say the performances are bad; in some cases, they’re scene-stealingly brilliant. All the same, there are some villains who we can’t help thinking have just made a few poor life choices.
With this in mind, here’s our pick of nine affable movie villains…
John Lithgow in Cliffhanger
In the cop thriller Ricochet, John Lithgow played a quietly sociopathic villain vaguely in the Hannibal Lecter mode – one memorable scene that sticks in our minds is one where Lithgow’s criminal threatens to have sex with Denzel Washington’s dog. In Cliffhanger, meanwhile, Lithgow’s ex-military intelligence bad guy Eric Qualen is more like a hapless father trying to keep his kids under control during a family outing.
Saddled with a strange posh accent, Lithgow plays the leader of a bunch of thieves who, following a mid-air heist gone disastrously awry, wind up in the Rocky Mountains with Sylvester Stallone’s plucky mountain climber Gabe Walker snapping at his heels. By the time Qualen wails, “God damn you Walker!” in sheer frustration at having his plans thwarted again and again, it’s hard not to feel at least a bit sorry for him.
Affability factor: Off the chart. Had Qualen not turned to a life of crime, it’s easy to imagine him as the manager of a small-town bank, or maybe the proprietor of a quaint bun shop.
Nigel Hawthorne in Demolition Man
Distinguished thespian Nigel Hawthorne famously agreed to make this Stallone sci-fi vehicle because he thought it would help him land the lead role in The Madness Of King George. Armed with that knowledge, it’s perhaps easy to see why he doesn’t exactly put every sinew of his being into playing Doctor Raymond Cocteau, the upper-crust eye at the centre of Demolition Man’s storm. In fact, if you didn’t know that Cocteau was a tyrant who’d deliberately thawed out convicted criminal and all-round psychopath Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) in order to take over the future city of San Angeles, you’d probably assume his greatest crime was installing a duck pond at taxpayers’ expense or something like that.
Affability factor: With his taste for flowing robes and other outré fashions, Cocteau is more a flamboyant mischief-maker than wild-eyed psychopath. He’s the kind of guy we’d invite to a birthday party or works do just to see what antics he’d get up to after a bottle of Jacob’s Creek or two.
Christopher Eccleston in Gone In 60 Seconds
Yes, before his tenure in the TARDIS, Christopher Eccleston starred alongside Nicolas Cage in the rev-happy car theft action romp, Gone In 60 Seconds. A memorable villain needs a good quirk, obviously, and Eccleston’s Raymond Calitri gets perhaps the most baffling one of the past 20 years: he’s into carpentry.
Now, there’s no reason why a man into woodwork can’t be scary – have you ever seen Harrison Ford in a bad mood? – but Eccleston’s tendency to talk about dovetail joints and the smooth finishes of a pine coffee table are more distracting than intimidating. Also, Calitri’s the boss of an international car smuggling ring and he has time to make beautifully polished coffee tables? Where does he find the time?
Affability factor: The misunderstood artisan of 2000s action cinema, Raymond Calitri could have been successfully rehabilitated had YouTube been around 15 years ago. Imagine if he’d had his own video channel like this:
Joss Ackland in Lethal Weapon 2
There was a period in the late ’80s or early ’90s where British actor Joss Ackland lent his soothing voice to an advert selling beef pies, which makes his turn in Lethal Weapon 2 even less terrifying than it might have been. Ackland plays the South African consul Arjen Rudd, a villain seemingly untouchable by the police because of the “diplomatic immunity!” he crows about all the time.
Needless to say, all the legal hurdles in the world don’t stop renegade cop Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) from tracking him down. Rudd is, in the words of Steven Spielberg, one of those “champagne villains” – a suave type who leaves the shootings and beatings to his more athletic henchmen. We have an enduring affection for Ackland’s performance in Lethal Weapon 2, but all the same, Rudd still seems as likely to hand out Werther’s Original than death sentences.
Affability factor: He’s a hardened criminal who probably enjoys watching Countryfile and Songs Of Praise of a Sunday evening.
Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies
James Bond took on the media in Tomorrow Never Dies, in which Jonathan Pryce’s TV and media baron Elliot Carver plans to trigger a war between the UK and China in the hopes of extending his business into the latter’s territory. The parallels between Carver and certain real-world media moguls scarcely need pointing out (we won’t mention them by name in case their lawyers show up at our house), and Pryce clearly has a whale of a time playing the besuited, cheerfully evil villain, pacing around in his lair with his Steve Jobs-like black suit on, orchestrating his multimedia mischief via a giant screen. Our favorite exchange:
Carver: Mr Jones, are we ready to release our new software?
Jones: Yes, sir. As requested, it’s full of bugs, which means people will be forced to upgrade for years.
Affability factor: High. Let’s face it, Carver is probably less cold-hearted and ruthless than the characters on which he’s based.
Paul Freeman – Raiders Of The Lost Ark
Perhaps the ultimate in well-educated, erudite villains, Rene Belloq is the steely-eyed shadow to Indiana Jones’ raffish hero. Precisely-tailored where Indy’s scruffy and stony-hearted where our hero’s secretly romantic, Belloq has committed perhaps the ultimate act of movie cowardice: thrown his lot in with the Nazis in his thirst for power.
Belloq isn’t the scariest villain in movie history – he leaves the kinkiness to Toht and the violence to his other henchmen – but Paul Freeman’s performance remains magnificent. Lest we forget, his character also gets some of the most cutting lines of any villain outside a Bond movie: “How odd that it should end this way for us after so many stimulating encounters!”
Affability factor: Moderate. When his head exploded at the end of Raiders, we suspect he left behind a magnificent wine cellar and collection of vintage cheeses.
Tom Wilkinson in Rush Hour
What better adversary for a martial arts legend than, well, a disgruntled antiques collector? When you boil the plot of Rush Hour down to its bare bones, that’s what you get: the fury of Jackie Chan’s superhuman feet and fists against Tom Wilkinson’s quietly-spoken crime boss, who looks far too well tailored to get into a fight. The final reel where Wilkinson attempts to hit Chan with a briefcase full of money looks less like a late-hour grudge match and more like a man desperate to get to the post office before the last post.
Affability factor: About as intimidating as the Man from Del Monte.
Robert Vaughn – Superman 3
Supervillain schemes in Superman movies are almost always hare-brained, from Lex Luthor’s attempts to sink California to boost house prices onwards. We seem to recall that corporate boss Ross Webster’s criminal machinations have something to do with destroying coffee – but then all the motivations get lost in a stew of loosely connected scenes, from Richard Pryor skiing off the roof of a building to Annie Ross turning into a silver-haired cyborg. Through all of it, Vaughn just sort of looks stiffly bemused, like a museum exhibit. With his precise side-parting and white safari suit, he’s a far cry from Gene Hackman’s boastful. scheming Lex Luthor.
Affability factor: Think Tom Jones in Vegas. Relaxed, twinkly, and as smooth as expensive brandy.
Jack Palance – Tango & Cash (1989)
To misquote Christoph Waltz in the James Bond outing Spectre, Jack Palance is the author of all Sly Stallone and Kurt Russell’s pain in this playfully bizarre buddy-cop epic. Palance plays Yves Perret, possibly the most avuncular crime boss in cinema history, who fits up Sly and Kurt’s odd-couple cops for crimes they didn’t commit.
A boxer, footballer and soldier before he turned to acting, Palance’s formidable screen presence seems to mellow quite a bit in Tango & Cash, and there’s an overriding feeling that he isn’t taking his role entirely seriously here – even in the scene where he holds Terri Hatcher at gunpoint, you can still see a little twinkle in his eye.
Affability factor: Pretty high. We can easily see ourselves having a nice cup of tea with Yves Perret if we caught him in a good mood, though his habit of picking up and sniffing his pet mice – in full view of his henchmen, no less – would probably leave us feeling a bit unnerved.