Villains in Hollywood Movies: Trends and Fads

There have always been villains in the theater arts, going back to the Greek tragedies and other national mythologies.  As a dramatic form, the film medium followed suit.  In Hollywood’s Western pictures, for example, to make it easier for audiences’ identification, the villains often wore black hats and rode dark horses.

Hollywood used to rely on America’s “real” political enemies to characterize movie villains: Russia and Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, White South Africans during Apartheid, and so on. The early James Bond movies (Dr. No, From Russia With Love), and other action and espionage sagas (“The Manchurian Candidate”), in which the villains were Soviet, Chinese, or Cuban Communists, reflecting the Cold War Hollywood’s paranoia about the “Red Scare.”

Hitchcock’s Villains

It was arguably Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, who understood the inherent dramatic value of villains to his thrillers, in the process changing (even revolutionizing) the whole concept of villainy and its visual embodiment.  Not surprisingly, the villains in Hitchcock’s movies are often more interesting than the heroes.  They tend to be handsome, smoothly elegant, sophisticated, and sympathetic—up to a point. 

 Consider Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt,” who specializes in murdering rich widows, or Robert Walker in “Strangers on a Train,” a mama boy who wants to switch roles with Farley Granger’s “good” boy.  Two of Hitchcock’s “best” villains were James Mason’s Vandamm in “North by Northwest,” who looks like the hero Cary Grant, and whose connoisseurship (art collector) and villainy (hiding a microfilm in an object d’art) are equated with one another, and Anthony Perkins in “Psycho,” who bears a suspicious physical resemblance to the thriller’s protagonist John Gavin.

 Characters Needed: Good Villains

It is instructive to examine the villainous characters in the four “Die Hard,” films and their changing nationality, personality, and politics, because they reflect broader trends that prevail in other popular genres

In the first “Die Hard,” Hans Gruber was a classy villain, played by a classy actor, Alan Rickman, a graduate of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Sporting an elegant suit, Hans was a ruthless terrorist, the kind of malicious snake that could even scare Samuel Jackson.

The references made by both villain and hero were to movies.  Hans mocks McClane via radio, “Who are you?  Are you just another American who saw too many movies as a child?”  Hans is not stupid, or out of touch.  McClane not only likes cowboy star Roy Rogers, he even likes to be called Roy.

There was another thug in “Die Hard,” in the shape of Russian Bolshoi Ballet star Alexander Godunov, playing Karl, the brother of McClane’s first victim.  A dancer, Godunov moved gracefully with his long blond hair flowing, but he brought a note of incongruity to the part.

In “Die Hard 2: Die Harder,” McClane stumbles into a bigger terrorist plot to hijack a whole airport.  “Man, I can’t believe this,” he moans. “How can shit like this happen to the same guy twice?”  Director Renny Harlin tried to compensate with speed and volume for the lack of tension in the yarn–the movie zooms along like a roller coaster.

Based on Walter Wager’s novel “58 Minutes,” the tale (scripted by Steven E. de Souza of “Die Hard” and Doug Richardson) begins when Dulles Airport is taken over by a mercenary group at Christmas time.   Led by Col. Stuart (William Sadler), they want to stop the extradition of a Latin American for prosecution on drug charges.  Dulles dispatches its own airport police and the Army a team of commandos, but to no avail.

The mercenaries strike as McClane waits for his wife Holly (again Bonnie Bedelia) to arrive on a plane.  They take over the tower’s communications, tell the controllers to stack the incoming traffic and threaten massive retribution; a British jet is chosen as object lesson. While the airport police chief, tower control and the Army argue over tactics, McClane ignores the officers and takes up with the airport janitor, who knows his way through the underground that connects the terminal and runaways.

Harlin upped the ante on the action, violence–and number of villains.  The bad guys include Franco Nero, as a Latin American dictator and drug trafficker about to face trial, William Sadler as the maniacal leader of a special-forces unit hired to rescue the dictator, and William Atherton as a sleazy TV journalist trapped on a plane with McClane’s wife.

For a whole decade, most of Hollywood’s villains were drug lords, usually from Colombia or other Latin American countries, reflecting the escalating problem of drugs in the U.S.

The third segment of the franchise, “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” brought back John McTiernan as helmer, and switched the action to the Easy Coast.  McClane feels safe at home in the Bronx; it’s the last place he expects to find his foe.  But a genius named Simon (played by Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons) engages McClane and the whole city in a deadly game.

But despite pumped-up volume and over-inflated budget, the third was the least successful of the series.  The picture is marred by improbable chases and a confusing heist. Some of the problems derive from the fact that the original script by Jonathan Hensleigh wasn’t written for the series.

The suave Jeremy Irons played the snide, intelligent terrorist brother of the late Hans Gruber, the character played deliciously in the first film by Alan Rickman.  Simon blows up a department store, then sends McClane down on his luck, nearly alcoholic and on suspension.

In this picture, the broader social context was crucial.  It was hard to watch “Die Hard 3” without the disturbing feelings that prevailed in the wake of the recent Oklahoma City bombing.

In the late 1990, British characters were often the villains—despite the fact that America and England have been allies.  A clipped English accent became an immediate signifier of unimaginable evil.

In Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, a psychopathic British officer murders Gibson’s son, turning a supposedly pacifist farmer into vengeance on behalf of the colonies.  In the Tom Cruise Vehicle, Mission: Impossible 2, a Brit, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) is Ethan Hunt’s nemesis, armed with a virus that could wipe out the world.

These two films came out on the heels of the actioner U-571, which conveniently “airbrushed” the British from their own heroic voyage.  U-571 occurred in May of 1941, long before the U.S. entered WWII.  Yet the film shows American submariners in the Atlantic capturing a code machine from a sunken German U-boat, a mission actually taken on by the British Royal Navy.

The Patriot presents the British as a scummy bunch, killing injured rebels rather than taking them as prisoners of war, lynching others and locking villagers (women and children, mostly) inside a church and setting fire to it.

Many of the blockbusters over the past decade have shown an anti-British slant: Braveheart, Michael Collins, Rob Roy.  And in others, hints of English/British blame, however more subtle, are abound.  The English naval officers steer the Titanic to its doomed fate in “Titanic.”  The nasty characters of “The Lion King” were cast with British actors.

Moreover, the Brits were often left out of eras where their presence was vital, such as Normandy in Saving Pvt. Ryan, wherein the English presence is mentioned briefly, when when a U.S. captain declares that British Field Marshal Montgomery was “overrated.”

Why do Brits have a bad reputation? Because they don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves–as is required in Hollywood film.  Do they fit the villains’ parts because they are not sappy enough for Hollywood?

New Villains: Homegrown American Boys

In “Die Hard 4,” the villain behind the scheme is a handsome American named Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), a disenchanted government security officer who’s helped by a group of internationals, a woman from Asia (Hong Kong star Maggie Q), a man from Europe (French action star Cyril Raffaelli).  Is the choice of baddies a reflection of the zeitgeist or a concession to the fact that Hollywood movies are now making more profit abroad than at home, thus their international flavor.

 In Tony Scott’s briskly moving actioner-sci-fi “Déjà vu,” the hero goes back to the past and also to the future.  Screenwriters Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilli explore the phenomenon of “déjà vu,” one that unexpectedly guides ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), through an investigation into a shattering crime.

Reflecting the zeitgeist in dealing with an act of terrorism that’s set in the post-Katrina New Orleans, the story begins with one of the most exciting scenes to be seen in a Hollywood movie this year, a cataclysmic explosion on a New Orleans Ferry, to which the movie returns in the end.

Called in to recover evidence after a bomb sets off an explosion on the ferry, Carlin is about to discover that what most people believe is only in their heads is actually something more powerful.  As Carlin’s investigation deepens, it probes through the very fabric of space and time, turning the movie into a bizarre love story, which is told in reverse.  Carlin discovers his puzzling connection to a woman whose past holds the key to stopping a catastrophe that could destroy their future.

The film’s most problematic subplot involves Carroll Oerstadt (played by Jim Caviezel), a dark, disturbed character that has developed rather strange notions of what patriotism and sacrifice mean.  Is Déjà vu a leftist nightmare of an extremist right-wing ideology, where there is a fine line between chauvinism and barbarism.

We live in inflammatory times, with a good deal of sensitivity to racial and national stereotypes.  In the post 9/11 climate, Hollywood can use international terrorists and crazy American boys as villains, but I doubt whether we will see an indiscriminate portrait of antagonists of Arabic decent.  Muslim terrorist fanatics will be more tolerated by American viewers than villains who are Egyptian, Jordanian, and even Syrian.