Where Have All the Bad Guys Gone?
Audiences used to be able to count on vile, seething, snarling villains when they went to action movies or thrillers. But the standards of villainy have dropped so dramatically these days that most nemeses look like they could barely take on Calista Flockhart.
At the beginning of last year's Gone in Sixty Seconds, personable recidivist Nicolas Cage, once the Mario Andretti of car thieves, finds out that his brother (Giovanni Ribisi) is the world's least competent car thief. According to gimpy veteran car booster Will Patton, Ribisi has recently abrogated the two most exalted tenets of the municipal car-heist profession. First, his iconoclastic driving habits, which violate every statute of the California State Penal Code, have led the entire Los Angeles Police Department to the hideout where his gang customarily conceals its automotive booty. This has resulted in the confiscation of all standing inventory. Second, the loss of these ill-gotten automotive gains has ticked off Ribisi's principal benefactor, The Carpenter, a Brit gangster and junkyard magnate who doubles as an upscale furniture designer. The Carpenter is now forcing Cage to steal 50 high-end vehicles for some South American lowlifes and has given him four days to do it. These lowlifes will not accept 43, 46, or even 49 vehicles, for such are the irksome ways of idiosyncratic South American lowlifes. The Carpenter warns Cage that if he cannot produce the 50 vehicles within the stated time frame, Ribisi will be crushed alive in a trash compactor. In short, The Carpenter is not a man be fucked with. "He's bad, he's real bad," Patton tells Cage. "This guy, he scares the shit out of even me."
Well, he doesn't scare me. And he didn't scare my 14-year-old son. And he didn't even scare my 17-year-old daughter, who is a bit of a scaredy-cat. Gone in Sixty Seconds is as fine a motion picture about grand auto theft as has ever graced the silver screen, but it is hamstrung by one major failing: the villain is not sufficiently villainous. When we finally get to meet the purportedly terrifying Carpenter about 15 minutes into the film, he comes across as being seedy, oily, toothsome and generally rough around the edges, but scary? I don't think so.
If Gone in Sixty Seconds were the only recent film to be undermined by an unconvincing, unintimidating villain, there would be no cause for alarm. But The Carpenter, who was played by the beaked actor Christopher Eccleston, is not alone. Though no one is yet saying it out loud, Hollywood is currently suffering from a serious shortage of villains. When Dougray Scott, the villain in Mission: Impossible 2, did his shakedown speech demanding stock options in exchange for a promise not to destroy the world, it was one of the least terrifying moments in the history of on-screen extortion. The bespectacled villain in The 6th Day looked like a fugitive from an E*trade commercial. Charlie's Angels shortchanged the audience with Crispin Glover, one of Hollywood's quirkiest actors, as the feared henchman. X-Men served up a wrinkly, feeble antagonist. The Bone Collector had a geek. Greg Kinnear, King of the Sweater Vests, didn't begin to cut it as a murderer in The Gift. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Matt Damon played the giggliest, nerdiest, least disturbing psychopath since Dr. Evil, the bald villain from Austin Powers. Frankly, not one of these guys was even as terrifying as Will Patton in The Postman, the least frightening movie about nuclear disaster ever made. (Let's face it: a nuclear holocaust that can't even take out Kevin Costner isn't much of a nuclear holocaust.) And experts now agree that one reason Vertical Limit was not as big a hit as it could have been was that K2 was simply not scary enough to get the job done. In retrospect, it is apparent that the producers should have used Mount Everest. All of which proves the truth of the adage "Don't send a rock to a crag's job."
In all the major films released last year, only two actors were actually able to cut the mustard as villains. Jason Isaacs did an absolutely magnificent job as the sadistic grenadier in The Patriot. By looking sickeningly smug after he personally murdered two of Mel Gibson's sons, plus his daughter-in-law, and set a church on fire with the entire civilian population of the town trapped inside, Isaacs propelled himself into that pantheon of legendary celluloid scumbags inhabited by Jack Palance, Jack Elam, Michael Madsen and several other lions of loathsomeness.
The other actor who delivered the goods as a villain last year is Joaquin Phoenix, perfectly cast as the reptilian second-century Roman emperor Commodus in Gladiator. Less intimidating than revolting, less menacing than odious, Phoenix adroitly captured the androgynous depravity of the Roman Empire at one of its lowest moments. If all the other villains in last year's movies had only been half as disgusting as Phoenix, it would have been a very good year indeed. Alas, they were not.
Movie critics often lament the disappearance of the ingenue, complaining that we have no Audrey Hepburn today, that in her place we have an endless parade of Julia Ormonds and Gretchen Mols, pallid entities who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more. Yet the truth is, ingenues have disappeared from the screen because they have disappeared from real life. When Audrey Hepburn died, Audrey Hepburnism had already been dead for a quarter-century, replaced by Goldie Hawnism and its evil stepchild, Meg Ryanism. The closest thing we have to an Audrey Hepburn today is Winona Ryder. And frankly, one Winona Ryder is quite enough. Besides, today the real money is to be made playing sluts.
The disappearance of the classic villain is far more alarming. The world as we know it is still evenly divided between good and evil people, and recognizing this, Hollywood has always attempted to depict the epic struggle for the human soul as a normal part of everyday life. But it has also understood that for the triumph of Good to resonate, Evil must be a worthy adversary, a countervailing force to the hero. Ben-Hur must have his Messala, Macduff his Macbeth, Eliot Ness his Al Capone, Russell Crowe his Joaquin Phoenix. Otherwise it's like the Yankees ganging up on the Astros.
Over the years, Hollywood has worked hard to replace aging, retired or dead actors who specialize in playing villains. When Jack Palance, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam started to get a bit long in the tooth, the Industry stepped in quickly with Rod Steiger, Telly Savalas, and a host of other first-rate lowlifes. More recently, in what can accurately be described as a golden age of evil, the ranks of the industriously vile have been swelled by Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, John Malkovich, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth and Gary Busey, all of whom rank among the most repellent swine in the history of motion pictures. But as we enter the new millennium, the next generation of first-rate lowlifes has yet to present itself. Indeed, it is a measure of the Industry's desperation to develop new scumbunnies that it has recently been forced to turn to pretty boys like Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, Greg Kinnear and Matt Damon as pinch hitters. Reeves was singularly unpersuasive as a serial killer who strangles his victims with piano wire; The Watcher would have been more credible had his weapon of choice been a sawed-off surfboard. Depp's obdurate boyishness worked against him as a villain in The Astronaut's Wife; he didn't look physically menacing enough to pin Charlize Theron in two out of three falls, much less take over the world. Flip, sassy Bacon was absurd as a rock 'n' roll scientist in Hollow Man. Greg Kinnear was his usual namby-pamby self in The Gift. These bizarre casting decisions make one wonder to whom Hollywood will turn next in its frantic search for a villain. Hugh Grant? Chris O'Donnell?
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