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?