There’s so much to be excited about for the upcoming release No Country for Old Men that it’s hard to identify one aspect of the film that jumps out over the others. So allow me to focus attention on how creepy the movie’s villain, Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), appears in the trailers and commercials. It is even more startling when you consider that Bardem is a veteran actor from Spain who so far has been best known for international films that tackle important issues like gay persecution or the debate about euthanasia. Now he has embodied a character that is being hailed as an entry into the pantheon of great movie villains.
While Bardem’s Chigurh is a first-time entry to this villainous hall of fame, many of the other memorable bad guys we love to hate are played by the same actors over and over again. Some actors just make great villains. What follows are those who I consider to be the best actors to play villains in movies today. (I’m keeping it recent folks, so don’t be angry because I didn’t include Lon Chaney or Robert Mitchum on the list.) If it says something strange about myself that most of these actors comprise my list of favorite actors ever, then so be it.
7. Kevin Spacey (Se7en, The Usual Suspects) … Spacey actually hasn’t played a ton of villains in his career, but two stand out so much that he deserves at least an honorable mention. Nearly everyone cites The Usual Suspects as one of their favorite movies, and Spacey is one of the main reasons why. Even before the ultimate twist at the end, he still comes off like a slimy weasel.
I can’t even think about John Doe, his character in Se7en, without shuddering. (Let’s ignore his roles in Superman Returns and Fred Claus.)
6. Joe Pesci (Goodfellas, Casino, Home Alone) … Pesci’s Oscar-winning character was so good in Goodfellas, that he played essentially the same guy again in Casino. In those movies, Pesci’s characters massacre an unsuspecting busboy, beat a wise-ass to death in a bar and squeeze somebody’s head in a vise. But all the while, you like them anyway. More importantly, I would objectively listen to any argument that his bad guy from Home Alone is the greatest villain in movie history.
5. Christopher Walken (Sleepy Hollow, King of New York, Batman Returns, Suicide Kings) … Walken’s recent transition into the loveable crazy old guy that appears in five movies each year makes it easy to forget that at one time he played some of the weirdest and most ruthless villains around. I recommend revisiting some of his older movies from the late 1980s and early ’90s to get a better sense of what the “real” Christopher Walken can bring to the table — instead of the current fun-for-the-whole-family Walken.
4. Ralph Fiennes (Red Dragon, Schindler’s List, Harry Potter movies) … Ralph Fiennes is the neglected villainous actor. He consistently brings scary performances to the screen, but you never think of him as belonging to this villain legacy. In Red Dragon, his performance is more terrifying than that of co-star Anthony Hopkins as the infamous Hannibal Lecter. Playing “the evil Nazi” can sometimes be cliché, but not when he embodied one in Schindler’s List. Now that he is probably best known as Lord Voldemort, perhaps he’ll get the bad-guy recognition he deserves.
3. John Malkovich (In the Line of Fire, Con Air, Rounders) … Why won’t John Malkovich make major movies anymore? I guess when you play yourself in a movie that has your name in the title, there’s not much left to do. In any case, Malkovich’s bad guys are great because no matter how evil an act they perform, I still root for them to win in the end — even if it means assassinating the president with wooden bullets. Thanks to his portrayal of Teddy KGB in Rounders, he was able to provide us with the greatest Russian accent ever (and by greatest, I mean most ridiculous).
2. Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet, Speed) … These two villains, Frank Booth from Blue Velvet and Howard Payne from Speed, are probably my two favorite villains ever. Part of what makes them great is that Hopper is basically just being himself in playing the roles. He reportedly begged for the part of Frank Booth, claiming, “I am Frank Booth!” Since that character was a misogynistic rapist who drops F-bombs in every sentence and repeatedly inhales from a gas tank, perhaps it would have been better to have kept that fact to himself.
1. Gary Oldman (The Professional, The Fifth Element, Air Force One, The Contender) … Gary Oldman is unquestionably the go-to-guy when you have a villain that needs playing: Psychopathic corrupt policeman. Intergalactic bringer of destruction. Eastern European terrorist. Evil Republican. (Oh, and Dracula.) All of these characters were the best parts of the films they were in. Unfortunately, over the past ten years he has focused more on supporting good guy roles, but maybe the attention being harped on No Country for Old Men will inspire him to be evil again.
(NOTE: The film True Romance features Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper AND Christopher Walken — Hopper and Walken actually have a scene together! Be careful watching that scene, as your DVD player might explode.)