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Wednesday 13 July 2011

Top Ten Best Movie Villains

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in the film ...Image via Wikipedia
This article was written out of total unashamed (or perhaps even shameless) self-indulgence. It is shamelessly low brow geeky and will probably never find its way into any self-respecting publication. However, when I first started writing paid online reviews this topic cropped up and I just couldn’t resist the urge to put my thoughts down. Villains are fascinating characters in fiction whether it is on the big screen, as the ones below are, or in literature. Without them we don’t get the contrast with the heroes. However, there is something much than that. The villain often speaks the words we dare not speak or presents us the line we dare not tread…

Unfortunately we really haven't seen Megatron at his best yet. Marvel comics, particularly the British penned scripts, presented Megatron as a fearsome warrior whose revolutionary ideas quickly turned him into a megalomaniac leader of a splinter group of transformers known as the Deceptions. This was the back story British Marvel gave the power hungry menace who despite proving himself on many occasions being both cunning and physically dangerous, often found himself fending off enemies in his own ranks - most notably Starscream and Shockwave. It didn't take long for him to turn from megalomaniac into just plain maniac. This was then carried to the extreme in his futuristic incarnation as Galvatron, who was pretty much Megatron on steroids.
The cartoon series and its big screen production, Transformers: The Movie, turned Megatron into more of a pantomime villain. Being '80s kids we tend to look back on these things with rose-tinted glasses and go on about there being more character development in our cartoon than there actually was. Megatron was treacherous, ruthless, cold-hearted and sometimes even cowardly. He varied in the cartoons from being a character that was revered by most of his own cronies as having no weaknesses to being astoundingly inept. However, as reduced as Megatron was he still had his politics with Starscream and he made a pretty damn good "boo hiss" bad guy. Frank Welker provided a gravelly voice for Megatron in the four seasons and feature length animated film, which suited him well and should have been the one Michael Bay chose for the live action film as he did with Peter Cullen as the quintessential Optimus Prime. In Transformers: The Movie Megatron is in the best form we have seen him since his first appearance. The Movie has become a cult favourite, but looking back was obviously designed to promote a whole new range of toys that hit the stores that Christmas. Megatron is Harbro Toys' "instrument of destruction" that ruthlessly ploughs through good guy characters we had all grown to love, consigning them to the bin in order to make way for the new transformers. He even achieves his lifelong objective of controversially killing Optimus Prime - a move that would so upset children in preview screenings that an announcement at the end of the film had to be inserted promising the return of the Autobot leader - before his own broken body is jettisoned into space to be recreated as Galvatron. All this makes Megatron a pretty damn good bad movie villain in my books.

The Joker - Batman and The Dark Knight (Jack Nicholson/Heath Ledger)

From his first incarnation in 1940 Batman's perfect opposite number has been an anarchic and 100% psychotic cold-blooded murderer. Thanks to the very camp 1960s TV series with Caesar Romero taking the role, who wouldn't even commit to shaving his moustache off or having his hands painted white, few people took this clown prince very seriously. It would take Tim Burton's bold attempt to make Batman moody again in 1989 and the brilliant scene-stealing Jack Nicholson to bring the character back to public consciousness as something more than a naughty prankster. Nicholson was Freddy Krueger funny, which fitted the time perfectly. He wisecracked as he killed, which was in line with his comic-book character. And yet he was also threatening, mercilessly dispatching his victims in different ways, including the lethal gas that leaves grotesque grins on the faces of those it kills and disfiguring his girlfriend.
Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger brought nihilistic and anarchic philosophy back to the character, taking their cue once again from Alan Moore's groundbreaking graphic novel "The Killing Joke". Their Joker still has the dark humour, but he is also very manipulative, at least as lethal and is willing to do anything to prove the substance of his own distorted view of the world.

I often enjoy being different in my choices and I like being told I have a different angle on things, but just as I feel Johnny Depp is certainly one of the best actors on screen I also feel that Kevin Spacey has to be up there too. Spacey is brilliant in virtually any role I have seen him play, but he seems to an especially good bad guy. Verbal Kint is an obvious choice for anyone's list of top bad guys, so I will avoid it. However, I cannot skip "John Doe" in "Se7en". Like the Kint character, his planning is flawless and he wins without making a single mistake. It makes him feel very much like the devil, but Doe, unlike Kint, does not compare himself to the Devil. Instead he sees himself as an instrument of God and plausibly argues the case for all his appalling crimes before the film's brilliant twist ending.

Buddy Ackerman - Swimming with Sharks (Kevin Spacey)
Spacey again and this time in one of my favourite films, Swimming with Sharks. Buddy Ackerman is the boss from hell. If you have seen the ar more commercial The Devil Wears Prada, the demanding Miranda Priestly's genesis is in this character. Ackerman runs his personal assistant like a slave, demanding the most ridiculous and near impossible personal requests. This is the price you have to pay in order to carry the kudos of working under him. And this is the point of the film. Telling showbusiness how it is - and not how shows like X Factor, Big Brother and Britain's Got Talent present it - Ackerman lays it on the line to his tortured assistant who is driven to vengeance. As hard as his words are, they are the very uncomfortable words of truth. Then we get to hear what made Ackerman the man he is and why, it seems, he is so successful. Like the best villains, he has hidden depths, and as much as we loathe his attitude and what he represents we cannot help but feel sympathy for him. Few actors other Spacey could carry the role off so well.

Edmund - King Lear (Robert Lindsay)

To be honest, I haven't seen many good onscreen portrayals of this classic Shakespearean Machiavelle. In fact, my favourite was Kenneth Brannagh as part of a 1994 all-star cast radio dramatization of King Lear. Nevertheless, the best actor I have seen pull off the role in something that resembles a feature film was Robert Lindsay in the 1983 TV film adaptation of King Lear. He was at the correct age and could infuse the right amount of energy into this amoral, pragmatic schemer to rival Richard III's titular villain or even the dastardly Iago of Othello.
Edmund is a perfect villain for all the right reasons. He is intelligent, ambitious and self-pitying, and yet not deluded. He knows he is evil and revels in it. Edmund is the renaissance thinker who believes that he is being the most honest to nature - the Marquis De Sade would have been proud. However, like Richard III and Macbeth he shows great courage at the end, and at the point of his death does do some good. Edmund is as full a character as any Shakespeare created and definitely has some of the play's greatest lines and soliloquies.

Hannibal Lecter - Manhunter, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal (Brian Cox & Anthony Hopkins)

Serial killers are nothing like Thomas Harris's embodiment of sophisticated savagery, Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. Lecter kills those who offend him like a professional assassin and then dines on his victims as a type of grotesque critique of their character flaws. However, it is not his career as a killer that so fascinates us in Harris's best books and, indeed, the best films. Rather it is the relationship he has with those who interview him in order to gain information on other serial killers currently at large that brings out the unique villainy and complexity in Lecter. He is a genius psychiatrist who enjoys playing mind games - more than that he likes getting inside people's minds and opening psychological wounds for the hell of it. Towards the end of the brilliant Silence of the Lambs and much of its sequel, Hannibal, Lecter reveals a vulnerable side to his personality, his love for Clarice Starling. Unfortunately this is explored is all rather implausibly explored in the surprisingly inept and cynically commercial Hannibal Rising (both in novel and film form).

Brian Cox is the first man responsible for bringing the character of Hannibal Lecter to life on the big screen (spelt "Lektor" for some inexplicable reason) in Michael Mann's Manhunter (the first adaption of Harris's "Red Dragon" novel). Cox does an under-rated - not mention understated - job on the refined maniac. He is not so much chilling, but eerily matter-of-fact in his approach to the role. Anthony Hopkins, of course, owned the role in the classic The Silence of the Lambs and its subsequent sequel and the second adaption of the prequel.

Darth Vader - The Star Wars Saga (Haydn Christiansen & James Earl Jones)

Darth Vader is a role that is too big for any one actor to lay claim to and that's a big compliment considering the character's genesis is in live action film. So many different things make up what is Darth Vader. Initially it is his presence. Visually Vader is perfect as far as space bad guys go. His face is masked and he wears a cloak and is dressed completely in black like all classic bad guys, making him both mysterious and sinister. His attire directly references the Japanese samurai, a historic symbol of disciplined violence. His mask is a brutal futuristic death's head design reminiscent of Lon Chaney Snr's Phantom of the Opera dressed as Red Death at the masked ball. His exterior is all cold machinery and discipline, but beneath the shell lurks a terrible anger originally only hinted at by his occasional outbursts in the first act of the first film and the eerie red glow behind his eye lenses. And yet there is already another element that makes up Vader. He is the most powerful user of the mystical Force, making him a product of dark magic as well as twisted science. Next we come to the voice famously delivered in bass by the great James Earl Jones.

There is so much to Vader's character. From the first film we learn that he is a fallen Jedi. As the series progresses it is revealed he is the greatest Jedi that has ever lived seduced by the dark side of the Force. All this is played out in the three prequels, where we see him as a (rather annoying) child prodigy, a petulant teenager and then as a haunted young man desperate to avert destiny. Like Macbeth, Vader begins a gifted and noble warrior, Anakin Skywalker, but driven by a passion his potential for greatness is perverted to the ways of evil. However, there is redemption for Vader and this is ultimately at the core of the whole Star Wars saga, the most successful movie series and franchise ever created. Now that makes him a pretty significant villain in my book.

Ratigan - Basil the Great Mouse Detective (Vincent Price)

Disney has produced some truly brilliant villains. Their wicked witches such as the evil queen in Snow White and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty are darkly memorable. The ugly sisters and their scarily malicious mother, Lady Trimain, of Cinderella should not be out of anyone's top 20 villains. Then there is Captain Hook of Peter Pan, Shere Khan of Jungle Book, Scar of the Lion King and most excellent Hector Barbossa played by one of my favourite actors, Geoffrey Rush, in the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films. However, my actual favourite Disney villain is a bit of an odd choice. It goes to Professor Padraic Ratigan the main antagonist of Basil the Great Mouse Detective.

I love Sherlock Holmes and have actually read all the short stories and the four novels, and get as annoyed as any fan of the series when I see stupid departures from the original work. However, as flawed as Basil the Great Mouse Detective is as a film, Ratigan is the perfect villain. I would go as far as saying that his onscreen depiction is perhaps even better than Doyle's own "Napoleon of Crime", Professor James Moriarty. In the film, as opposed to the Basil books, Ratigan is a rat among mice and aggressively aware of this fact. For the majority of the film he is the model criminal mastermind and aspires to be a sophisticated aristocrat. However, in his final confrontation with Basil inside the inner workings of the Big Ben clock, his bestial ferocity is revealed in all its visceral intensity as he proves to be more than a physical match for the hero of the film. Ratigan is voiced by Vincent Price who wasn't much longer for this world, but puts in a superb performance harking back to his great performance as the vengeful ham actor of Theatre of Blood.

Patrick Bateman - American Psycho (Christian Bale)

Patrick Bateman is the '80s. He is everything about its shameless superficiality and greed. Bateman's lines reflect the soullessness of the time, where everything became a commodity even people. He shows how conformity and selfishness combined to produce an army of fashion slaves equally desperate to "fit in" and yet to rise to the top as individuals. The murders, no matter how brutal, almost seem irrelevant to the fascinating character and symbol of Bateman. They are the symptoms of his condition like the global nuclear weapons grandstanding and corporate greed was the symptoms of '80s materialism. Christian Bale proved his ability to take on disturbed and haunted individuals with his role in this film. In many ways his roles in the Machinist and Batman are different sides to weird combination of characteristics that make up Patrick Bateman.

Top Dollar - The Crow (Michael Wincott)

Without a shadow of doubt my favourite movie villain of all time remains Top Dollar in Alex Proyas's The Crow. Michael Wincott deserves far more from Hollywood. Nearly every film he has featured in from 1492 to Alien Resurrection he has stolen the show from the rest of the cast. The film is remembered for many reasons, not least of which was the tragic death of Brandon Lee that happened on set, but some of the best scenes are those featuring Wincott's performance as Top Dollar.

Top Dollar barely gets a few panels in J O'Barr's original graphic novel, but in the film he is elevated to crime boss of Detroit. He has everything I could want in a villain. There is the degree of pathos reflected in the scenes where he reminisces with his lover/half-sister. He is a criminal mastermind who has so carefully orchestrated the violence in the city that he is a virtual mayor, where nothing happens without his "say-so". Like a machiavelle he revels in his own evil genius. Like The Joker, he celebrates violent and chaotic anarchy like a philosopher. Above all else, he also has a dry sense of humour. As Brandon Lee's spectral Erik Draven works his way through the street scum that killed him and raped and his fiancé, he finds an enemy that isn't impressed by supernatural abilities. In Batman, The Joker is his perfect opposite number as he is everything that Batman isn't. In The Crow, Top Dollar is like a more experienced and even more extreme version of Draven's character. Both are interesting ideas, but I think the latter is just that bit more disturbing.

Honourable mentions - Alongside the Disney characters listed I find the following children's film villains to be worth considering: the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. I also have a soft spot for that anarchic imp of mischief, Stripe from Gremlins, Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Col. Jessop from A Few Good Men, Norman Bates from Psycho, the shark from Jaws and Max Shrek, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and even Frank Langella's portrayals of Dracula.

However, on reflection of all the characters I have mentioned and if I had to choose one best bad guy from the movies the accolade would have to go to Michael Wincott's Top Dollar. To make a character so utterly irredeemable, but yet such a great philosopher is a great achievement. It was Brandon Lee's film at the time, but years later who is the character really most quoted?

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