Top 10 Good Guys Playing The Bad Guy

What happens when actors who’ve made careers out of playing good guys turn to the dark side: when protagonist becomes antagonist, hero becomes villain? This top 10 finds out…

Arnold Schwarzenegger made a name for himself as the towering hero, a saviour for man, woman and child against all foe (from terrorists to robots and aliens). When his face appears on screen we recognise the character, his ideals and his role in the narrative, without having to know the film itself. The names might be different – Dutch, Harry Tasker, Jack Slater – but it’s the action-hero we’ve come to know and love. It’s what made “Arnie” famous and he has pursued “good guy” roles for most of his career because of it.

While others haven’t enjoyed the same sort of success as the former professional bodybuilder and Governor of California, they have similarly stuck to playing protagonists we root for. Think Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose action-man style is cut from the same cloth as Arnie, or Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, who have all portrayed heroes in different forms on multiple occasions. In other words – they’re always the good guy!

…or are they?

Sometimes actors will have a thirst for trying something new, something different. That might mean moving into another genre, doing a period piece, or simply playing against type. But sometimes it might just mean going bad!

In this top 10 list I take a look at some of my favourite villains brought to the screen by actors generally recognised for portraying good guys…

***SPOILER WARNING: Top 10 Good Guys Playing the Bad Guy features plot spoilers for Robert Zemeckis’ film What Lies Beneath.***

10. Kurt Russell in Death Proof (2007)

Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

Kurt Russell remains largely underrated as an actor thanks in part to his pursuit of less mainstream material and independent cinema. His name is more recognisable as a cult film star, appearing in numerous work from director John Carpenter including The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China. He’s played the action hero alongside Stallone in Tango and Cash, was Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, and appeared in Stargate as a well-meaning military commander.

But one of his best roles is in Tarantino’s Death Proof as villainous nutcase Stuntman Mike. The man who played nice-guy salesman Rudy Russo in Robert Zemeckis’ amusing comedy Used Cars, now turns bad as a sadistic professional driver who coaxes several women to their deaths by driving his modified 1971 Chevy Nova head-on into their car. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino gleefully sees the villain get his comeuppance when revenge is sought by another group Stuntman Mike later targets.

9. Tom Cruise in Collateral (2004)

collateral_films-about-taxi-drivers, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

The man who says he’ll be your wing-man any time, the man you could rely on even in the face of Jack Nicholson getting bent out of shape and shouting “You can’t handle the truth”, and the man who’ll accept any save-the-world mission regardless of its “impossibility”, did eventually turn bad. Yes, Tom Cruise, that pretty boy from Risky Business, Cocktail and All The Right Moves, jumps into Jamie Foxx’s taxi and reveals himself to be a contract killer. Foxx’s night shift is far from a cruise, turning into a bloodbath as the murderous pro carries out hit after hit alongside his unwilling accomplice.

8. Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl (1989)

Working-Girl-sigourney-weaver, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

Poor Sigourney Weaver. She takes a measly wage to oversee the transportation of mineral ore from deep space back to planet earth and ends up having to break every health and safety measure in the book to survive. When she finally returns to her home planet, not only do her employers not believe her story about an alien creature killing the crew, they blame her for the loss of their spaceship.

Dazed, confused and out of pocket, she agrees to take the only good job on offer – to return to the planet from which the alien came and bid it another “hello”. Weaver’s performances in the Alien films, particularly in parts one through three are incredible, proving that women had the capacity to be action heroes. Her tale is tragic but her unbreakable courage in the face of absolute terror is a fitting tribute to the human spirit. Weaver’s skill as an actress has seen her portray varying types of characters, often with equal shades of light and dark, but she’s particularly good as the office villain in 1989’s Working Girl.

In the film she plays managerial bitch Katherine Parker who’ll step all over anyone to get to the top. It’s Melanie Griffith who’s in the way here, the corporate up-and-comer has some new ideas that Katherine is more than willing to steal for her own good.

7. Roy Scheider in Klute (1971)

roy-scheider-klute_top10films, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

He looked that thing in the face and said: “Smile you son of the bitch!” Yes, Martin Brody (the “Chief”), the man who hated the sea yet lived on a tiny island and went to battle with a monstrous shark, could turn bad. Indeed, actor Roy Scheider turned very bad in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, playing the pimp husband of Jane Fonda’s prostitute.

6. Bruce Willis in The Jackal (1997)

bruce-willis_the-jackal, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

Foreign villains, especially those with the name Gruber, should really watch out when they arrive in the United States looking to blast their way to wealth and fortune. That’s because Bruce Willis’ vest-wearing, sharp-tongued city cop is always in the way, his unstoppable pursuit of victory, destruction and the next cigarette preventing any would-be terrorist from achieving their goals.

Willis has been the good-guy is many movies, often playing a dishevelled, just-got-out-of-bed cop or military man in films such as Hostage, 16 Blocks, Striking Distance, Hart’s War and The Siege, but he rarely takes to the dark side. In Michael Caton-Jones’ revamp of 1973’s The Day of the Jackal, Bruce Willis is the cold-hearted professional killer known only as “Jackal”. There’s one particularly vicious sequence involving a high-powered gun and Jack Black’s body (the level of brutality, and your reaction to it, is relative to your appreciation of Black’s brand of comedy!).

5. Liam Neeson in Batman Begins (2005)

Liam-neeson_bbatman-begins, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

Liam Neeson has re-established himself as an action-movie hero in recent years following his portrayal of a Jedi Knight in George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Since then we’ve seen him kick butt in the Taken franchise, The Grey, Unknown and The A-Team to complement nice-guy roles in such films as The Chronicles of Narnia and Battleship. But in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant re-imagination of DC Comics’ Batman, Neeson turns up as the eponymous hero’s chief antagonist. It might be a rare sight to see the actor portray a villain but he’s rarely been better.

4. Robin Williams in One Hour Photo (2002)

One-Hour-Photo-robin-williams, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

The sight of Robin Williams screaming and haphazardly dancing about the kitchen as his prosthetic breasts catch fire in Mrs Doubtfire is not the image he wants you to think about when watching any of his movies from 2002.

This was the year Williams turned to the dark side. He appeared in Danny DeVito’s Death To Smoochy, Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, with each film providing the loud-mouthed, fast-talking comedian much darker, and villainous, characters to work with. It is One Hour Photo that stands out for me. Not only is it the best film of the three, but it features one of Williams’ best performances as the white-haired photo technician Sy Parrish who develops an unhealthy obsession with the family whose pictures he processes.

3. Harrison Ford in What Lies Beneath (2000)

What-Lies-Beneath_harrison-ford, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

There’s no way hero of the hour Indiana Jones could go bad. But wait, didn’t the Kali cult make him a villain in Temple of Doom? Of course, that wasn’t to last too long with Indy getting his whip as well as his charisma back in order to save the day. Harrison Ford has to be one of cinema’s greatest good-guys.

The tree-trunk swinging, death-defying archaeologist with a keen eye for adventure Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones is the hero we can’t ever forget, but a certain Han Solo in the Star Wars films is just as iconic. Then there’s Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, Dr. Richard Walker in Frantic, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, and virtuous President James Marshall in Air Force One. The man simply couldn’t be more “good” if he tried.

That’s why it’s such a masterstroke to include him as the villain in Hitchcockian thriller What Lies Beneath. Robert Zemeckis should be applauded for giving us the ultimate twist and Ford is clearly game as he plays against type.

2. Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil (1978)

boys-from-brazil_gregory-peck, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

Few could have foreseen Gregory Peck going bad but in Franklin J. Schaffner’s entertaining thriller The Boys From Brazil he portrays former Nazi doctor Dr Josef Mengele. The all-star cast sees Laurence Olivier, a determined Nazi hunter, go in search of Mengele after a tip-off from, erm, Steve Guttenberg. Who would have thought the man who portrayed Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, Joe Bradley in Roman Holiday and Robert Thorn in The Omen could be a villain. Typical of Peck, he’s brilliant as usual!

1. Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984)

Terminator, Film, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Top 10 Good Guys playing the Bad Guy

Before we knew Arnold Schwarzenegger as a saviour to all man, he was the bad-guy-from-hell in James Cameron’s frighteningly prescient vision of the future The Terminator. Arnie’s seemingly unstoppable robot is programmed to kill unwitting waitress Sarah Connor. Connor, unbeknownst to her, is the mother of the human race’s future resistance leader John Connor. He is the man who can stop the “machines” from winning the war. In order to protect his own life, he sends one of his best soldiers back in time to protect mum.

Things get complicated when the soldier in question – Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) – falls in love with Linda Hamilton’s Sarah, impregnating her and therefore establishing himself as John’s Dad. It’s a great little device Cameron uses to muddy the waters between past and present, in what remains one of the best science-fiction thrillers ever made. Schwarzenegger’s imposing build and emotionless expression make him a formidable, frightening villain. Thank goodness he’s on our side most of the time!

Written and compiled by Dan Stephens.

Over to you: what are your top “good guys” in “bad guy” roles?

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

Related Posts

  1. Avatar
    ruth Reply

    Great idea for a list! Comedians sometimes make for terrifying villains. Ha..ha.. I see that Gregory Peck made the list, that’s one of his films I haven’t seen yet, but I heard he was um quite memorable in that role.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Definitely memorable Ruth. You might want to leave it alone seen as it’s a big departure for Peck but you know how good he is… so it’s great seeing an actor have so much fun playing the bad guy.

  2. Avatar
    Louise Reply

    Love this list and great choice with Gregory Peck. Just putting my thinking cap on – did James Stewart ever play a bad guy? That really would be out of character. Will have to research.

    • Avatar
      jackdeth72 Reply

      Hi, Louise:

      James Stewart played David, a bad guy/murderer in ‘After The Thin Man’ from 1936.

      One of films a tier up from the “You Gotta Start Somewhere” category.

      Stewart played “angry” very well in “Winchester 73′ and a few other westerns directed by Anthony Mann.

      • Avatar
        Louise Reply

        Thanks – I hadn’t heard of After The Thin man until I started looking at this question.

        Always thought that his anger in Westerns was more good-guy righteous anger.

      • Avatar
        Rodney Reply

        I’d ask a similar question about Patrick Stewart as well – did he ever play an out-and-out bad guy? I kinda lost him amongst all the Captain Picard and Professor X character stuff he’s done.

        • Avatar
          Teri Reply

          Conspiracy Theory.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thanks Louise. I think Jack has answered that one about Jimmy Stewart as he’s definitely known as Mr Nice Guy!

  3. Avatar
    Adam Lumb Reply

    Ooh…nice topic Dan! It’s a shame Laurence Olivier had to ham it up so much in The Boys From Brazil (perhaps he thought he was still the theatre) because Peck’s performance is genuinely chilling. Watched the movie again recently and thought it would be utterly forgettable without Peck.

    I loved Robin Williams’ year in 2002 – three of my favourite movies by him are the three darker ones he released that year (along with – yes, there’s a theme here – Man of the Year and The World’s Greatest Dad).

    …I think we’re all glad Schwarzenegger stuck to playing “good guys” after the incredible Terminator – I mean, who wants to see Batman and Robin ever again..!

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thanks Adam. Death To Smoochy didn’t work for me and I felt Insomnia was a far weaker effort from Nolan (certainly not as good as what we’re used to). So One Hour Photo was the stand out for me.

    • Avatar
      Rodney Reply

      Death To Smoochie – such a weird but great film. A shame not everyone got it.

  4. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    What a fantastic idea for a top ten list. I love every single one of your choices. The number one choice is obvious but still very well done. I was also hoping you’d include Ford in this and of course you did. Nicely done, Dan.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thanks Dan G. I suppose The Terminator is an obvious one and does slightly differ in terms of a bad guy who later turns good as opposed to the majority on this top 10 that start off playing good guy roles. But in terms of quality, there are few movies which beat Cameron’s classic sci-fi!

  5. Avatar
    jackdeth72 Reply

    Great list, Dan:

    Great catch on Roy Scheider in ‘Klute’!

    Jeff Bridges played a very comfortable with his power President in ‘The Contender’.

    Steve Martin played a superb smooth con man in David Mamet’s ‘The Spanish Prisoner’. And really should never have strayed from dramatic roles afterwards.

    And Jeff Goldblum played a very smarmy, spoiled and slimy lawyer and designer drug manufacturer with Laurence Fishburne as an undercover cop gone bad in ‘Deep Cover’.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thank you Jack. I definitely considered Steve Martin’s Spanish Prisoner role for this top 10 but I don’t think Goldblum and Bridges came into my reckoning. I love both actors, especially Goldblum, but both have played a number of bad guys/villains (I suppose Bridges’ villain in Iron Man stands out recently while Glenn Close found his dark side in Jagged Edge; Jeff Goldblum meanwhile will always be best remembered by me as the terrifying monster in The Fly – although Into The Night is my fave Goldblum film).

  6. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    Ronald Reagan in The Killers (Don Siegal, 1964)

    William Holden in The Wild Bunch

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      …but wasn’t Reagan more known for his villains, especially during the 1980s! 😉
      …I’m kidding of course, good call, and William Holden’s a good one too.

    • Avatar
      Rodney Reply

      Didn’t Holden also play against type in Once Upon A Time In The West? He was good as the bad guy in that, too!

      • Avatar
        Kingmose1 Reply

        Holden played a bad guy in The Wild Bunch. Henry Fonda played an evil SOB in Once Upon A Time In The West. That performance should have been number 1 on this list.

  7. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    It’s hard to believe that George W made Reagan look like a saint; W made us all realise how quick witted and sometimes erudite Dutch could be. Meanwhile Bush’s neocons made Reagan’s cabinet look like a league of gentlemen, and they really were a snakepit of nastiness.

    Should add if Holden’s a consideration for The WB, then so should Borgnine be for both it and Emperor of the North

  8. Avatar
    Rory Fish Reply

    I’d say Tom Cruise has produced some of his finest work since he left Nicole Kidman. It has brought out his nasty side! Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia ushered in the end of their relationship with Cruise shouting a lot and talking about his libido (or maybe inferring a lack-of!) while Collateral confirmed it!

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Haha…hey you might be right!

  9. Avatar
    Jess Reply

    Great idea for a list! I have to see this Gregory Peck evil role. How is that possible coming for *the* Atticus Finch?? Robin Williams definitely jumped to mind – he did a great job playing creepy. I also think Steve Carrell for The Way Way Back would fit if it was “good guys playing dicks” but he could make the list if Foxcatcher is as good as it looks.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thanks Jess! Yeah, The Boys From Brazil is worth checking out but it isn’t a great film. The concept is good and it definitely has its moments but it doesn’t really build to a crescendo…

  10. Avatar
    Ted S. Reply

    Good read Dan, I agree on all of these except Bruce Willis in The Jackal. I thought the film was awful, much inferior to the original and Willis as the villain was not believable to me. It’s like he’s playing a dark side of John McClane, ha ha.

    My favorite good actor playing villain is Peter Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West, he’s quite ruthless in that film.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      The Jackal, for me, is passable entertainment but it was definitely a departure for Bruce (if only for the blond hair!).

  11. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    Very cool list……….one to add, that pops in my head right away. (IMO )
    Denzel Washington – Training Day. Love that movie

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thanks Neal. Yeah good one – that was arguably Denzel’s finest performance.

  12. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    ABout the only issue I have with this list is Tom Cruise – to me, he makes a very poor villain because his range at the “bad” end of the character spectrum is so limited. I thought he did well in Collateral, but it was more to do with the script and the fact that he had Jamie Foxx to bounce off that made it work. Cruise lacks the “Creepy” factor when going bad (see Robin Williams for how to do that perfectly, good call on One Hour Photo) and he’s too short to be a presence like Arnie or any of those hulking, silent killers….

    Otherwise, a terrific list, Dan!

  13. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    Errr, it was Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time …. around that time Peter was busy being Easy Rider.

    Another Robin Williams bad guy was in Insomnia, directed by Chis Nolan

  14. Avatar
    sidekickreviews Reply

    Great read Dan! Terminator is an iconic role, it’s hard to picture anyone else in that role and to think he was initially considered for the role of Kyle Reese. Casting Ford in What Lies Beneath worked because it added to the surprise twist.

  15. Avatar
    jjames36 Reply

    I’d have Peck in Boys From Brazil first, I think.

    I really like that you included Williams’ turn in One Hour Photo. That performance is excellent, and the film very good.

  16. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    Thanks Dan.
    Training Day – It certainly was one of his best and quite a stretch! He is so shady in the movie, but must point out it’s mild in comparison to Keitel in Bad Luitenant! Similar characters.

  17. Avatar
    sati Reply

    Great list! I love the inclusion of One Hour Photo and What Lies Beneath, such umderrated movies.

  18. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    Russell is dynamite as Stuntman Mike in Deathproof. His unhinged performance in the film might be one of its best parts. All I can think of is him pouring alcohol onto his gunshot wound and screaming. Bruce Willis is equally amazing as the largely silent but deadly assassin in The Jackal. So creepy, especially when he goes after Jack Black’s character. I think Weaver has done better villains in SPOILER….Paul and Cabin in the Woods. Maybe some of it had to do with their amazing reveal of her toward the end, but I’m much more entertained by her small roles in those films. I agree that Arnie as The Terminator deserves the top slot though. What amazing villain.

  19. Avatar
    Michael Scoates Reply

    I’m late the the party as usual, but I’m going to mention The Departed and *Spoiler alert* Jason Bourne himself, Matt Damon.

  20. Avatar
    David Jones Reply

    Ioan Gruffudd in Liar, and James McAvoy in Atomic Blonde.

Leave a Reply