Guest Post: Musings on Action Movie Villains from the 80s-Today

I love action films, when I was little I watched so many kung-fu and samurai films that I thought I was gonna grow up and be a kung-fu or samurai master. We all had silly dream when we were young right? Then in my teens I started watching shoot-em-up action flicks, a lot of John Woo’s earlier films and of course Arnold’s and Sly’s flicks of the 80s and 90s.

[rtm’s note: I found this fantastic illustration by artist Justin Reed, aptly titled 80s Action Heroes that’s perfect for this post!]

Click on image to view Mr. Reed's other works

You’re probably wondering why I told you that little story of my childhood, well I consider myself to be an action film junkie/expert. I kid you not, I probably have seen most if not all of action films Hollywood has made since the 1980s, some in 1970s too. Name any action films that came out in the last 30 years or so and I probably have seen it. Here are a few titles of action flicks that I guarantee not many people have seen or even heard of: Let’s Get Harry, Blind Fury, Extreme Prejudice, The Dogs of War and Freebie and The Bean. If you have seen some or all of those films, then I welcome you to the action junkie/expert club.

Anyhoo, now that I’ve got my history of action films viewing out of the way, I thought it would be a good idea to write up an analysis of sort about the villains in those films through each decade. I’ll break down the trend of bad guys in films in the 80s, 90s, 2000s and today. So here goes:

1980s – Bad guys were mostly drug dealers

Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon

The buddy cop action flicks were the big trend in Hollywood back in the 80s, and of course the bad guys were mostly drug dealers ran by old dudes with lots of henchmen with machine guns. Look at the villains in films such as Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, Tango & Cash, Red Heat, To Live & Die in L.A., Beverly Hills Cop and Raw Deal. Most of those films were big hits at the time and drug dealers were the main antagonists.

1990s – Domestic terrorists

Nic Cage & John Travolta took turns to play bad boy Castor Troy

The buddy cop action trend was dying down in the early 90s, and with that came the trend shift in action movie villains. The bombing in Oklahoma City and the Unabomber were the big stories of the 90s and so Hollywood decided to use domestic terrorists as their villain in action films. Look at the bad guys in these films: Die Hard 2 & 3, Speed, Cliffhanger, Blown Away, Under Siege, The Rock, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Face/Off and Con Air; the villains were either bombers or domestic terrorists. I recently watched The Rock again for the first time in 10 years and I thought to myself there’s no way the film would have been a big hit like it was in 1996 had it been released in today’s market. The concept was just way too ridiculous for today’s audience to buy into it. Now don’t get me wrong, I think The Rock was quite entertaining and it’s the only decent Michael Bay’s film. I also blame the first Die Hard for this trend, most of the big action films in the 90s were about a group of armed men holding hostages and demands huge ransom and of course our hero/heroes swooped in and killed them all and rescued the hostages. But the main trend was still domestic terrorists.

2000s and today’s villains

Action film villains shifted again in the 2000s with the success of comic book based and fantasy films. The successes of films such as X-Men 1-3, Spiderman 1-3, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Matrix Trilogy, Avatar and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, villains in those films were mostly fantasy characters. After 9/11, spy films were also big hits, The Bourne Trilogy and James Bond films raked in big money at the box office. I think this trend will stay throughout this decade too, since comic book films are still making big money and the new Bourne, Bond and Mission: Impossible films are on their way to the cinemas. Also, Avatar sequels and The Hobbit are also coming later this decade.

[rtm’s note: Ted’s picks for Ten Best Movie Villains from 1980s – Today is now up. Stay tuned for the final post of the Villains Trilogy Series out tomorrow]

Well do you agree with my analysis of villains in films? And do you think we’ll see another trend in few years from Hollywood?

49 thoughts on “Guest Post: Musings on Action Movie Villains from the 80s-Today

    1. Yeah, when I saw that illustration I just had to post it here. Mr. Reed does amazing work.

      Great analysis, Ted, I like The Rock too but it sure is preposterous. But then again so is Face/Off, one of my all time fave action flicks! 😀

      1. Eh, ‘The Rock’ may be crazy but Ed Harris makes it believable. Which is, of course, a testament to his great skill as an actor.

        1. Ted S.

          Totally agree about Ed Harris, he was really into that role and he made it believable. Cage on the other hand, he overacted his role like usual.

  1. Always glad to see the entertaining and eminently quotable Tango & Cash and the ahead of its time and underrated The Long Kiss Goodnight in a post for action films. Thanks, Ted.

    1. Ted S.

      I know Tango & Cash was so cheesy but in a good way. Ha ha. The Long Kiss Goodnight was def underrated, I always believed had film starred someone like Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford, it probably would have been a huge hit. Back in those days, female action heroes were hard to find on the big screen and not a lot of people are willing to go see films with a female as the action hero.

      1. My favorite bit of dialogue from T & C by the inimitable Kurt Russell as Cash:

        “You wanna cut my throat, go ahead. You wanna cut my f*ckin’ head off and use it for a f*ckin’ basketball? You can *bowl* with the motherf*cker for all I care! Just don’t let HIM do it! I don’t wanna get killed by this limey, immigrant JERKOFF! I wanna get killed by an AMERICAN jerkoff!”

  2. Great piece, very true. Interestingly though, it seems that the villains of the last ten years – unlike in the 80s and 90s – are generally harder to lump into one or two categories. Yes they were fantasy characters, but what motivated them tends to vary.

    1. Ted S.

      Thanks Tom, yeah I agree the villains from 2000s to today, they’ll all over the place, from terrorists, CIA assassins to comic book villains.

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  4. Brilliant observation Ted!!

    You are so right obviously, they were all drug dealers or major league thieves in the 80s. Life was so much easier back then, before 9/11.

    I look forward to your top 10!! Bring it on Ted!!


    1. Ted S.

      Thanks Custard, I do miss seeing some good drug dealer villains, Hollywood needs to bring them back to the big screen.

  5. I think a lot of the 90’s film villainy (domestic terrorism) was rooted in Timothy McVeigh, the ATF response at the Koresh compound, the Unabomber… It was a reaction to some very reactionary anti-government beliefs held some awful human beings.

    In short, art imitates life.

    Great article, Ted!

    1. Ted S.

      I know, I was in high school back in the 1990s and it felt like every summer action films featured domestic bad guys. Dennis Hopper in Speed still is the best one of the bunch in my opinion.

    1. Ted S.

      Thanks Novroz, I do like the villains from 2000s and today too, more variety for us movie goers to root against them or cheer for them. Personally I love villains and most actors seems to enjoy playing villains.

  6. Yea, it seems movie villains tend to reflect the era they are created in. The 80’s and the war on drugs, the 90’s and domestic terrorism, the 00’s and … innumerable superhero movies? lol Nice post Ted.

    1. It works for horror movies, too. Think about the squirrely 50’s and 60’s when it was all about aliens and goofy sci-fi outer space creatures right as space travel was dawning. And then for some reason in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there was a detour to Satanism (probably thanks to Charlie Manson and such). So on and so forth. I love that about horror.

    2. Ted S.

      Thanks Castor, yeah I wonder if the trend of current villains in films will ever change since comic book based films are still bringing in big money for studios.

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  8. Great breakdown Ted! Very interesting list.

    I think there is an end or at least time for a break for the comic book hype but it will take some years. All the reebooting of them kind of hints that they will have a hard time to keep their audience in the long run.

      1. dmiles

        I recently gave some thought to this question of comic-book fil burnout. Perhaps I am wrong, but I’ve concluded that this seems like a trend that may slow down but never die. For one, reboots are not uncommon in the comic book world. Changing origins, the nature of powers, relatoinships, etc.; all of these are an enduring feature of the literature. The films will ultimately reflect this because in part sticking to one narrative is too restraining, especially when you are dealing with huge budgets. Second, these films are doing increasingly well overseas. Third, today’s films are drawing on nearly a century of stories and literally thousand of characters. The trend is nearly inexhaustible in terms of substance. Third, the primary reason we are seeing so many successful comic book films is in part because special effects have caught up with the genre. This trend wil only intensify. Fourth, it would take a series of bad films across many studios and directors to pull off a trend-death. That means that the X-Men , Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Fantastic Four, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, etc etc etc will have to proof unprofitable. Honestly, the trend that sems the most strained is the origins story.

        1. Ted S.

          Great analysis dmiles and I think you’re right. The current trend of Villains might slow soon but it will never go away as long as people keep paying money to see those kind of films.

  9. Losers always whine about doing their besssht…
    Nice post Ted. Well done with the imdb love. Hard to look past Busey when it comes to classic psycho villains.

    1. Ted S.

      Thanks Ross and I love that line by Connery. Of course Busey was awesome as the villain in the classic Lethal Weapon.

  10. Jack Deth

    If I remember correctly, the heavy in ‘To Live And Die in L.A.’ was a counterfeiter, not a drug dealer and Willem Defoe absolutely rocked that role. As did Gary Busey in his role as an updated, psychotic, albino ‘Oddjob’ in ‘Leathal Weapon’.

    Ed Harris held ‘The Rock’ together, regardless how ridiculous the plot may have seemed. A trait that he’s originated as an Agency mercenary opposite Nick Nolte in ‘Under Fire’ and has continuously honed since.

    Surprised that the always reliable Anthony Zerbe hasn’t been mentioned as the bent, drug dealing District Attorney again opposite Nolte and Michael Moriarty in ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’. Or Powers Boothe as a connected, possibly undercover drug kingpin opposite Nolte, Michael Ironside ,Clancy Brown and dedicated borderline psycho William Forsythe in ‘Extreme Prejudice’.

    Just my two cents.

    1. Ted S.

      My bad on William Defoe’s character in To Live and Die in L.A., got him mixed up with the drug dealer baddies from that era.

      Yup love Ed Harris in The Rock.

      I’ve never heard of Anthony Zerbe but I’ll do some digging and find out more about him. I thought Powers Boothe was good in Extreme Prejudice too, definitely a very underrated 80s action flick.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  12. Tom

    All this talk of “The Rock” makes me think of one of my favorite action movies from the 90’s which was of course “Con Air” and Cyrus the damn Virus!!!!

    Favorite Line

    “On any other day that might seem strange” -Cameron Poe

  13. PrairieGirl

    Hey Ted, wonderful post! This is not my genre and only know one of the movies you mention: I simply LOVE Beverly Hills Cop.

  14. King

    The trends of Hollywood villains follow the main moral panics of the time.
    In the 80’s it was either drugs (crack and heroin importation) or Anti-Communism.
    In the 90’s it was domestic terrorism (possibly committed by disgruntled former public servants) or Islamophobia.

    I’m trying, like you, to find a common enemy in the 00’s. It seems to be a mix of oligarchs (James Bond movies, Bourne movies, and The Matrix films) and people working from an ideology that differs from the western norm (The Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men, 300)

    1. Ted S.

      Yeah villains from 2000s were so different in each film that you can’t say, ah huh there’s a trend right there. With so many remakes and sequels coming out from Hollywood lately, I don’t know if we’ll see another trend of villains again.

  15. Karl

    L really enjoyed reading this post, it is a great summary of action movie villains from the past few decades, most of which I really liked. I seem to root for the villains in any movie that’s come out in the past 10 years but 80s and 90s movie villains, I couldnt wait to see them get whats coming. I don’t now wheter its just me or if the genre has changed to idolize villains now-a-days. Although I love Gary Busey as a bad guy in some of these older movies he was awesome in Lethal Weapon and Under Siege(and Tommy Lee Jones too). I think that a lot of actors enjoy playing villains now and most play them very well because the want to put a lot of effort into creating a great character and that’s what i think drove the role of villains in action movies then and now. It would be hard for me to choose between the villains of recent times and the villains of previous decades because i enjoy them equally although i prefer some of the newer movies and really enjoy comic book villains like Heath Leger(The Dark Knight) and Like Goss(Blade 2 and, Hellboy 2), but one of my all time favorites is John Travolta in Face/Off, that performance was great, also he was excellent in Pelham 123 also…..

    Anyway thought I’d voice my views on this great article. keep em coming Ted.

  16. Rich W

    The other thing with the last decade to 15 years the villians are a joke, for examples look at the last 5 James Bond films, a couple of the henchman were tough and interesting but the villains themselves were wimps (Sophie Marceau being the exception she was awesome). Some of the actors have played tough characters in other films so it was a bit irritating to see this. The last film was the biggest problem. I enjoyed it but come on the villians were not even close to being villains worthy of James Bond. To me it looked like Daniel Craig was trying not to laugh at times. I do not fault the actors at all, they are doing what they are told and some of them I am a big fan of. ( Jonathan Pryce, Robert Carlyle and Mads Mikkelsen) but the characters themselves are not meanacing so that falls to bad writing. You don’t have to be big and glowering to be meanacing, look at Lotte Leyna in From Russia With Love and Gert Frobe as Goldfinger. They were not intiidating looking at all but would you mess with them Heck No!. Don’t get me wrong there have some marvlous and frightening villains the last few years but it is frustrating when they should be great and memorable and they are not especially when there are good actors playing he roles.

    1. Ted S.

      I agree about the Bond villains, especially the last Bond flick. Hopefully they’ll cast someone who can go toe to toe with James Bond in the new film.

  17. Milk

    I’ve seen Blind Fury a LOT of times, i used to have it on tape when i was like 12 (that would have been 1990). At the time i didn’t know about Zaitochi and how it was more or less a remake of it. Funny fact, Nick Cassavetes, John’s son and now a more or less successful director (The Notebook, John Q, Alpha dog) is a bad guy in this film. One of the two dumb henchmen with the cowboy hat. It’s directed by Philip Noyce too, a rather respected autralian filmmaker. This was to be his hollywood break, well it wasnt in terms of success. But he DID go on to direct those Harrison Ford Jack Ryan films and he’s been doing Salt recently so i guess it worked out fine in the end still. I hated the kid in it so much i was glad when i watched Warlock and he gets killed (off camera sadly) by Julian Sands for his fat! (so he can make some sort of spell or potion with it)

    I’ve also seen Extreme Prejudice because i really like Walter Hill (for all his frequent flaws) but not the other ones you list.

    1. Ted S.

      Welcome to the club Milk. 🙂 Yeah I saw Blind Fury when I was around 12 too and I love the sword fight scene between Hauer and Shô Kosugi, that was awesome. I wish they made the scene longer. I totally forgot that Cassavetes was one of the dumb henchmen chasing Hauer and the kid. I believe Blind Fury was the second film Phillip Noyce made after Dead Calm. Now looks like he’s going back to do another martial arts film, he signed on to direct a remake of Van Damme’s Bloodsport.

      I love Extreme Prejudice, the big shootout at the end was a homage to The Wild Bunch. It’s such a underrated 80s action/western film.

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