Werner Herzog: The Best James Bond Villain We Never Had

Werner Herzog's villainous turn in the first Jack Reacher movie is the Bond villain we've been missing...

This article contains spoilers for the first Jack Reacher movie, and for Spectre.

It stars Tom Cruise, driving a muscle car at traffic at the height of his reckless stunts phase. It has a stellar supporting cast of Oscar winners (Robert Duvall), nominees (Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins), and shoulda-been-nominees (David Oyelowo, two years before he gave one of the performances of the century in Selma). It’s written and directed by the Academy Award-winning Christopher McQuarrie, and adapted from a book in a remarkably popular series of them. And yet, despite all that pedigree, action franchise-kickstarter Jack Reacher remains curiously forgettable.

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Reacher, which has sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back out this Friday, is a serviceable actioner, no more no less. Still, if you remember the film at all, you’ll know it at least has an almighty saving grace: its villain, a psychopathic crime boss played with satanic relish by Bavarian auteur Werner Herzog.

A key figure of the New German Cinema, a champion of the arthouse and a documentarian of uniquely fascinating subject matter, Werner Herzog has also from time to time opted to step out in front of the camera. Though few who get their start as directors later prove to be sound actors too, like John Huston and Sydney Pollack before him Herzog has impressed as a performer. Lately there have been hysterical cameos in TV comedies like Parks And Recreation and Rick And Morty, and arguably his eccentric starring roles in his own documentaries and his bizarre-anecdote-fuelled personal appearances are all part of an act, Herzog playing the nihilistic comic persona…Werner Herzog

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Herzog the performer isn’t content just playing the malevolent clown, however. Previously, he’s gone dramatic for Harmony Korine in his films Julien Donkey-Boy and Mister Lonely, while last week – doing the promotional rounds for his new documentary Lo And Behold – Herzog revealed his dream of one day playing a Bond villain. He neglected to mention the fact that he’d already played one – albeit in a franchise that has nothing to do with 007.

Named The Zec, Jack Reacher’s mysterious baddie appears modelled on the unhinged, vaguely place-able Euro-villains the Bond franchise has long specialized in. Superficially, The Zec above all mirrors the Brit superspy’s ultimate nemesis: Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

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Both come complete with creepily functional costumes and similarly crippling disfigurements (a long black coat and fingerless hands for Z, a grey Mao suit and paralysed legs for Blofeld). Each has the imposingly balding head and single useless milky eye. Perhaps the most obvious connection, however, is that The Zec, like Blofeld, speaks with a thick, almost parodically sinister Germanic accent.

And, just like Blofeld, on first sight you know that The Zec is pure, unfiltered evil. You know it even though the character, in his limited screen-time, happens to do very little. In his introduction, The Zec stands and delivers a monologue. In his final scene, a climactic showdown at a quarry, he sits perfectly still inside a construction office as his goons tackle the Cruiser outside. If he doesn’t move, and if he barely speaks, it must be Herzog’s sheer presence that makes this big bad so terrifying.

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Just take a look at the man in action…

It helps that Herzog is intimidating physically. The director has not just an eye for cinema, but a face for it too: cold pinprick eyes squat below an eyebrow-less ridge, while his mouth appears to forever rest, simultaneously, at both scowl and devilish smirk. Villainous looks aren’t everything, though. All those who have ever given great performances have that unknowable thing called ‘screen presence’, and in Jack Reacher, Werner Herzog has it in spades. He vibrates with menace. Whenever we’re in Herzog’s company, there’s the constant suggestion of terrible violence. He seems transplanted in from another film, an R-rated one that’s also altogether far less conventional.

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Jack Reacher is a proudly old-school, PG-13 action movie set firmly in our world, which features a supervillain giving an underling a brutal ultimatum, of either execution or chewing his own fingers off as atonement for fouling up a fiendish plan. The film’s plot revolves around a fairly mundane conspiracy, but the figure behind it has a supernaturally sinister aura. The Zec is spoken of in whispers, is often seen consumed by shadow and is played by Herzog with the air of a dead man walking. This character shouldn’t fit, not in this film, but Herzog is too committed in the part to fail. He makes it work, then proceeds to steal the show. It’s a lesson in the ‘no small parts, only small actors’ philosophy of bringing as much life to a small supporting role as one would a lead.

In just three scenes, we come to learn almost nothing about Herzog’s Zec beyond his admission that he once resided in a Siberian prison camp, but he still feels like the most lived character in the movie. We sense a long, heavy history in him. We come to realise he’s sadistic, superior, a little mad. None of this is on the page – it’s all just Herzog, playing the part as if his soul has been surgically removed. It’s not a scene-stealing turn so much as a turn that threatens to chill the mood of the entire movie. Herzog is a nuclear winter that douses Cruise’s star wattage and in his scenes turns Reacher into what feels almost like a horror film.

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Christopher McQuarrie’s biggest mistake on Jack Reacher was at the close killing off the most intriguing character just as the franchise was getting started, closing the door on the possibility of Werner Herzog ever returning in the future. But perhaps Herzog could ‘resurrect’ his villain elsewhere.

Christoph Waltz, our 21st century Blofeld, recently admitted he was unsure if he would return to the 007 fold to play a character he admitted he hadn’t “nailed”. Should Waltz decide to move on, the Bond producers have a potential replacement ready-made and eager to take the part. Even if that bit of fantasy casting never happens, we’ll still always have Jack Reacher, home to the guy behind Fitzcarraldo giving us the best Blofeld of the Craig Bond era.