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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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!