The James Clayton Column: Good to be bad, better to be chaotic evil

In this week’s column, James celebrates the weirdest, baddest screen villains of recent years, including the unhinged murderer from Brit thriller, Blitz…

Vile villains

Warning: this article contains mild spoilers for Blitz, if you’ve not yet seen the film.

When you enter any Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, you’re asked to choose a moral alignment. After you’ve decided your race (such as dwarf, human or half-elf) and your type (Ranger, Paladin, Cleric, etc.), you’ve got to consider your ethical standpoint and your entire moral credo.

Having thought about it for a few seconds (I just want to get to the bit where I can pick the colour of my character’s cloak and play the actual game), I guess I come into the one of the ‘good’ or ‘neutral’ types, depending on the day and my mood. It’s hard to place yourself in one of nine vague categories, but I’ll join the ‘chaotic good’ group just for the sake of moving on (to the point where I select my cloak colour).

When it comes to films, however, I’m beholden to a completely different moral compass. I’m magnetically drawn to ‘chaotic evil’ and end up rooting for the bad guys, hoping that the insanely evil get maximum enjoyment and entertainment before the credits roll.

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I find evil characters more interesting and compelling. It’s probably all down to the fact that these screen figures offer escapism into a place liberated from guilt, responsibility and the repression of dark desires. You can find vicarious pleasure and get sadistic kicks by watching movie baddies in spite of your real life law abidance and all-round loveliness.

They also offer a shot of schadenfreude when they start sticking it to irksome, irritating good guys, like when Count Dooku (legend of villainy, Christopher Lee) electrocutes and dismembers Anakin Skywalker in Attack Of The Clones.

The quest to get inside the mind of an amoral individual, who has no sense of compassion, empathy or remorse, also adds to the character’s appeal. Exploring protagonists whose attitudes, outlooks and lifestyles are vastly divergent from my own are always going to be more interesting. I want to know what makes completely dissimilar people tick, what drives them to do evil, and get a grip on their complexities.

The notion of ‘good’ is easier to understand for most humans, because most humans are decent folk who’re more likely to hug a stranger than hack their ears off. The exceptional characters that are harder to comprehend and who don’t conform to the humane ‘norm’ are, therefore, more of an intriguing proposition in fiction.

This fascination with film villains means that, when I had to choose between alternate covers of a movie magazine recently, the one with the good ‘heroes’ got left on the shelf. No contest.  I’d rather have Magneto and his evil mutants over Professor X and chums. I’ve got an affinity for the monstrous nasties of pop culture, because most often they’re more exciting and interesting.

It was, thus, really frustrating to sit through Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides recently and find epic wickedness in woefully short supply. It’s something that’s even harder to fathom when the main antagonist is Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane. It’s a great acting talent taking on a true icon of villainy from the past, and it should be blockbuster gold. Shamefully, he’s just another damp footnote in the Pirates franchise.

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Blackbeard (a.k.a. Captain Edward Teach) has gone down in history as the most notorious buccaneer of the Golden Age of Piracy. The mere mention of his name inspires shivers of dread and conjures up images of a larger-than-life rogue, with fearsome facial hair and lit fuses sparking from beneath a tricorne hat.

In On Stranger Tides, though, he’s just an inconsequential accessory to a plot that doesn’t even really matter. The most nefarious of pirates has nothing to do but stand around, hoist his psychic sword a couple of times, and play third fiddle to the bickering between Cap’n Jack Sparrow and Penélope Cruz. The movie totally botches the opportunity to make something brilliant out of a true historical badass.

As a striking contrast, in Brit crime flick, Blitz, the antagonist steals the whole show and explodes out of the relatively uninteresting material around him. Irish actor, Aidan Gillen, is electrifying as cop killer, Barry Weiss, and blows everyone else off screen, even Jason Statham, who’s pulling his best DCI Gene Hunt impression.

Weiss is a lawless loser who lives in a bedsit. Having been beaten and humiliated by the Detective Sergeant Brant (Statham), he’s bent on revenge and starts picking off police officers. Gillen goes further, though, and makes a cop thriller cliché into a compelling character, easily among the most riveting of recent screen baddies.

He’s mesmeric as he moves around the bleak, bland London landscape, flourishing in material that isn’t really anything special. Gillen’s Weiss is gleefully unhinged, dashing about bare-chested in a pair of day-glo plastic shades and happy to pose in a pair of purple Y-fronts.

He’s calculated and cunning in the fashion of the Zodiac killer, yet, as he cycles around his crime scenes in a hoodie, haranguing the police with phone calls, he comes across as more of an Attack The Block-style ‘yoof’.

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The oddball touches make him more believable as a human (or, rather, inhuman) being and more entertaining to watch. In spite of the silliness, though, he’s terrifyingly sinister. A scene where he smashes someone’s face in with a hammer, pukes on himself and hangs around to watch the victim’s telly and try on their police uniform, before torching the place, sums it all up. He’s insane, outrageous and impossible to take your eyes off.

Tom Hollander’s character, Isaacs, in Hanna, is a similar eccentric evildoer, who blew my mind at the cinema recently. Isaacs is a camp, bleach-haired German, who wears 80s-style tracksuits and likes to stroll around swinging a metal bar while whistling his leitmotif. He’s backed by a couple of skinhead bootboy thugs, but even without them, he stands up as an alarming violent threat.

Coming on like a bastardised blond cross between Alex de Large from A Clockwork Orange and the child killer played by Peter Lorre in M, I couldn’t help but smile every time Hollander appeared on screen, whistling his theme tune.

He’s my favourite kind of bad guy, creepy, ultraviolent and characterised by a theatrical touch of whimsy and appealing eccentricity. This explains why I regard Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight (the ultimate icon of ‘chaotic evil’) as a personal hero.

We need a bit of chaos and madness in our lives. We need weird villains. And now I need to pick my cloak colour.

James’ previous column can be found here.

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You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.