February 27, 2003

Viewer Discrestion Advised

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Bad guys are cool. They get all the good dialogue. They get to be played by better actors. They get to do all the cool stuff the hero is too heroic to do. And then they die some horrible, stupid, plot-demanded death. But before they do, they often manage to steal the movie right from under the hero’s self-righteous nose. Take a look below to see how it’s done.

Die Hard

Bruce Willis basically spends three increasingly dumb movies saving the world from a bunch of British guys playing Germans. The first (both villain and movie) is by far the best, however, and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is actually more of a protagonist than Willis’s McClane. He has no illusions about who or what he is, and he just really wants that money. How ’80s. Hans is smart, courtly, funny, and vicious. He doesn’t rant and rave like other criminal master minds, he just coldly, efficiently, goes about his business. Magnificent.

Robin Hood

Rickman’s series of remarkably cool baddies continues in this 1988 laugh riot. Kevin Costner’s murky, awful accent might be the funniest thing in this murky, awful movie, but Rickman is actually trying to be amusing. His Nottingham is so far over the top he might as well be in another film, but Rickman takes lines like “no more merciful beheadings, and call of Christmas,” and makes them into a thing of camp beauty. He was so good that the studio demanded his part be cut after test audiences started rooting for him over Costner.

Taxi Driver

Scorsese’s main character (Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle) is hardly a hero himself, but nevertheless perceives Sport (Harvey Keitel) as “scum.” He’s undoubtedly right. Keitel’s sleazy, violent pimp only appears in three scenes but creates a palpable sense of moral degradation and veniality in two of them. In the third, he complicates the entire movie with one glorious, nearly wordless performance. Travis’s all consuming obsession is saving one of Sport’s hookers, Iris (Jodie Foster). In this scene, Sport dances Iris around the kitchen, stroking her hair, whispering to her. As the camera circles them, you can see the cruel, long nail on his pinky used for coke sniffing. Keitel is monstrous and charming and seductive. You can see why Iris might be happy with him, which prevents the audience from identifying too closely with Travis.

Silence of the Lambs

Before Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) was a punchline on SNL or an easy cultural shorthand for a baddie, he was terrifying. Hopkins is only in 20 minutes of this film, but his presence hangs over all of it. He makes Lecter intelligent, calm, and evil. From the very first time we see him, we know he’s something entirely new. He stands in his cell, absolutely still, not even seeing the bars. He smiles. “Good morning, Clarice.” Good manners have never been so frightening.

Archived article by Erica Stein