2017 Villains: Best of the Rest

I saw a lot of movies in 2017, and there were so many quality villains that I had to leave some of them out of my year-end villains roundup, or that post would have been way too long. Here are the remainder of the bad guys of 2017, with a few dishonorable mentions at the end. Beware of spoilers.

The Germans in Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s brilliant World War II film keeps the enemy off the screen for almost the entire movie. The Germans only appear in one scene near the end, and Nolan never shows us their faces. They became almost a horror-movie villain, an unseen presence that lurks offscreen, ready to emerge at the worst possible moment and make life hell for the characters we follow throughout the film. By keeping them offscreen, Nolan makes the enemy forces closing in on the trapped British and French soldiers much more existentially frightening, and gives the film a sense of rapidly-approaching doom that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s masterfully done.

Dr. Vollmer in A Cure for Wellness

Jason Isaacs’ Dr. Vollmer was one of the most twisted villains of the year. I wrote a long post about this thoroughly demented movie a few months ago, so refer to that for more details. But in case you missed it, here’s a quick rundown: Dr. Vollmer is hundreds of years old, he’s so obsessed with keeping his bloodline pure that he married his own sister, he brainwashes people at his so-called wellness center and uses them to make a serum that prolongs his life, and in the climax of the film he sexually assaults his own daughter. If all of that doesn’t make him worthy of a mention on a list like this, then I don’t know what does.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Ghost in American Assassin

The adaptation of the series of novels by the late, great Vince Flynn pulls off a clever turnaround early in the film. After his fiancé is killed by terrorists, protagonist Mitch Rapp is determined to track down the man responsible for her death. He does so, only for the man to be killed by someone else moments later. This subverts the audience’s expectations of the movie as being a straightforward revenge thriller and gives Mitch a different motivation. He still hates terrorists and seeks to make them pay, and also maybe get the payback he was denied for his fiancé’s death. The man who fills that gap is the uninspiringly-named Ghost, a mercenary played by Taylor Kitsch. Ghost is basically what Mitch would be if Mitch ever went rogue, since Ghost was also trained by Mitch’s mentor Stan Hurley. It’s not dissimilar to Batman Begins, in which Bruce Wayne is trained by the League of Shadows and ultimately has to stop their plot to destroy Gotham. It’s a story that’s been done before, but American Assassin still does it pretty well, and Kitsch gives Ghost an air of menace tinged with regret, and you might find yourself feeling just a little bit sorry for him. He’s still evil, though.

Image: Lionsgate

Liam Hennessy in The Foreigner

It could be argued that Pierce Brosnan’s Liam Hennessy isn’t the main villain of The Foreigner, since he’s not the guy who’s directly responsible for the terrorist attack that kills Jackie Chan’s character’s daughter in the beginning of the film. But he’s still heavily involved in a lot of shady activity and is the focal point of much of the film’s conflict. He’s also a jerk who cheats on his wife and later has her assassinated (his wife is cheating on him too, but still). Brosnan does great work in the role, and even though calling him the film’s main villain may be a bit of a stretch, his scummy behavior and lack of morals make him worthy of inclusion on this list, and his comeuppance at the end of the film is deeply satisfying. He doesn’t get killed, but his scumbaggery is exposed to the public so he will have to live with the whole world knowing what an asshole he is.

Image: Universal

Luv and Niander Wallace in Blade Runner 2049

The disarmingly-named Luv is a replicant who relentlessly pursues Ryan Gosling’s character K at the behest of her boss, the uber-creepy industrialist Niander Wallace played by Jared Leto. Wallace is determined to discover the secret to making replicants capable of reproducing, because he can’t meet the demand for replicants as slave labor in off-world colonies. Wallace is the guy whose synthetic crops ended food shortages and his new breed of completely obedient replicants are more in-demand that ever. Some people in the world of Blade Runner 2049 might even call him a humanitarian, but whatever his motives are his methods are highly questionable. He doesn’t hesitate to send the fiercely loyal Luv to track down K and kill whoever gets in her way. The two of them are a frightening duo, and the performances by Leto as Wallace and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv are excellent, and prevent either character from becoming cliched or cartoonish. They’re scary because of how plausible they are.

Image: Warner Bros.

David Percival in Atomic Blonde

James McAvoy’s David Percival was one of the year’s more problematic villains. Problematic both in the sense that his antics cause plenty of trouble for the protagonist, and in the sense that his character is problematic from a storytelling standpoint. It’s way too obvious that he’s untrustworthy, and this takes away a lot of nuance from the story. He’s also a deeply unpleasant character who smokes and swears constantly and is an all-around douchebag. McAvoy is fine in the role, it’s not his fault the character is poorly written. And Percival deserves credit for making Atomic Blonde’s protagonist’s life extremely difficult, and isn’t that what all villains need to be good at?

Image: Universal

The Shocker, Tinkerer and Scorpion in Spider-Man: Homecoming

While the main villain of Spider-Man: Homecoming was Michael Keaton’s Vulture, the movie sneakily included three other villains from Spidey’s colorful Rogues Gallery. There were not one but two versions of The Shocker (the guy with the electric power gauntlets). The Vulture’s tech genius responsible for making most of the group’s high-tech weapons was the Terrible Tinkerer, an obscure villain from early in Spidey’s comic-book career. And finally, there was a fellow by the name of Mac Gargan, the guy Vulture meets on the ferry, who also shows up in the first post-credits scene. He’s recognizable by a scorpion tattoo on his neck. I admire the filmmakers for being able to include all these characters without making the movie feel overstuffed, and I hope we’ll be seeing more of them in the future.

Dishonorable mentions: Transformers and The Snowman

Transformers: The Last Knight and The Snowman were the two worst films of 2017 that I saw. The fifth Transformers movie was so bad that it killed the entire series for me. If there are any more Transformers movies, I’m not going to see them. It made me retroactively hate the previous movies, at least two of which I already hated to begin with. Michael Bay should be ashamed of himself for making such an appalling pile of rancid garbage. I’ve also written at length about the profound crappiness of The Snowman, which is one of the worst book-to-film adaptations ever made. The greatest villains of these two bags of cinematic excrement are the people responsible for making them.


GIRL POWER: Atomic Blonde

When we first meet Lorraine Broughton, she’s submerged in a bathtub full of ice water. As she emerges, she extracts a couple of ice cubes and deposits them in a glass, which she then fills with vodka.

It’s a badass introduction for a woman with ice in her veins. Lorraine is played by Charlize Theron, and she is effortlessly cool. Her coolness is immediately apparent. The movie she stars in is Atomic Blonde, and it doesn’t need to have people talking about how cool Lorraine is, her coolness speaks for itself. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the film.

Image: Focus Features

I have a theory about coolness. I call it, creatively, Colin’s Coolness Theory. I am open to suggestions for better names. The main principle of CCT is that coolness speaks for itself. Everyone knows that some loudmouth going on about how cool he is is not actually cool. If you have to tell people how cool you are, then you are in fact uncool.

Atomic Blonde doesn’t tell the viewer how cool its protagonist is, because it doesn’t have to. But the rest of the movie tries too hard to live up to Lorraine’s coolness, and it can’t quite do it. The movie was directed by David Leitch, a veteran stuntman who co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski. Stahelski went on to direct John Wick Chapter 2, while Leitch decided to make Atomic Blonde his first solo directorial feature. Unfortunately, while John Wick 2 is one of my favorite movies so far this year, Atomic Blonde is a much more mixed bag.

The main problem I have with Leitch’s film is that it is overly stylized. It’s full of neon lights and pounding 80’s music, heavy on the bass, percussion and synthesizer. I don’t have much of an ear for this kind of music, and it all started to sound the same to me. I get that the music is meant to set the mood, but unlike other music-heavy films like Baby Driver or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Leitch’s use of the music in Atomic Blonde doesn’t resonate, it gets repetitive.

Let’s talk about the story. Atomic Blonde is a Cold War spy thriller that takes place in Berlin in the late 80’s, just a few days before the Berlin Wall came down. This setting has made for great spy fiction in the past, but Atomic Blonde’s storytelling is lacking. Lorraine is sent to Berlin to investigate the death of a British agent, who was also in possession of a list revealing the identities of every undercover operative in Berlin. This information could be devastating if the Russians get hold of it, and Lorraine is ordered to find the list, at all costs. There is also a Soviet defector code-named Spyglass, who claims to have memorized the entire list. Lorraine is also ordered to extract him. On top of all this, Lorraine also has to track down the man they suspect of killing the British agent, and find and eliminate a double agent code-named Satchel who has been feeding the Soviets intelligence for years. Lorraine’s got her work cut out for her.

She is put in contact with David Percival, the head of station in Berlin. Percival has been in Berlin for a long time, and has gone native, meaning that his superiors no longer trust him. He seems to enjoy being in Berlin a bit too much. His shiftiness is apparent from the moment we first meet him. Percival is played by James McAvoy, who is a great actor. His character here is poorly written however, and it is obvious that he is Up To No Good. The viewer doesn’t trust him, and neither does Lorraine.

As well she shouldn’t, because Percival is an asshole. I like James McAvoy a lot, but his character here is so unpleasant I hated him immediately. He is an abrasive, sleazy, duplicitous bastard who smokes and swears constantly. You might argue that the viewer is not supposed to like Percival, and you’d be right. But the movie goes too far in depicting him as a corrupt, amoral douchebag. It’s completely obvious that he’s bent, and some of the suspense is taken away by his almost-comically nefarious behavior. The plot gets so convoluted, and piles on betrayal after betrayal, that by the end it’s hard to care about any of it.

The movie’s cast also includes John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Sofia Boutella, who was the best thing about this year’s Mummy movie. Here, she plays a young French intelligence operative named Delphine, and when she meets Lorraine…well, let’s just say that sparks fly. It’s a great cast, but it’s Charlize Theron’s movie, and she owns every frame of it.

Image: Focus Features

For all the movie’s many flaws, Lorraine is one of my favorite new movie characters of the year, and Theron is magnetic. She is a stone-cold badass, and Theron proves herself to be completely convincing as an unstoppable action hero. I’m not forgetting about Mad Max: Fury Road, because she was great in that movie too, but in Atomic Blonde her role is much more physical. The action scenes in Mad Max are largely vehicle-based, whereas in Atomic Blonde it’s all up close and personal.

David Leitch’s storytelling skills could use some work, but his skill as a director of action sequences is considerable. Atomic Blonde has one of the best action sequences of the year, a brutal, close-quarters brawl that probably lasts around ten minutes and is filmed to appear as one continuous camera shot. It begins in a stairwell and goes into and out of several rooms, before going back outside and ending in a car chase. It’s fantastic, and Theron kicks ass. The movie doesn’t hesitate to show Lorraine getting her ass kicked as well. She gives better than she gets (since by the end she’s alive and her opponents are not) but she takes a lot of punishment in the process.

By the end of the epic battle, she’s coughing and gasping and limping, her face is bruised and cut, her eyes are bloodshot and streaks of red highlight her hair. This movie gets rough, and it captures how exhausting it would be to fight like that for an extended period of time. When it’s over, Lorraine can barely walk. The movie also features the most persistent henchman of the year. This freaking guy gets stabbed in the face with a car key and just will not quit. He keeps showing up when you think that, surely, there’s no way he could get up from that.

Image: Focus Features

Atomic Blonde is a deeply flawed film, but it’s one I will watch again in the future. Maybe the plot will make more sense to me on a second go-around, since it was pretty baffling the first time through. Despite the movie’s issues with plot and characters, the action sequences are top-notch and Charlize Theron’s lead performance is terrific. There’s a good movie lurking in here somewhere, and if David Leitch can tone down the stylization and get a better handle on the storytelling, he could be a great director. Atomic Blonde doesn’t live up to all of its promise, but it doesn’t completely squander it either, and I do hope that Theron gets to make more action movies, because she’s great at it.

Coming up next, it’s the long-awaited film adaptation of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s epic sci-fi/fantasy series. It stars two of my favorite actors, Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, so hopefully it’ll be good. Tune in next week to find out.