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.

The Foreigner is Jackie Chan’s Version of Taken

Martin Campbell is a director who seems to specialize in revitalizing old warhorses. He did it in 1995 with GoldenEye, which was the first James Bond film since 1989’s License to Kill and was also Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut. Campbell did it again in 1998 with The Mask of Zorro. He revitalized James Bond again in 2006 with Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie (and still my number-one favorite Bond film). Campbell did it yet again in 2010 with Edge of Darkness, Mel Gibson’s first starring role after a long absence (and several well-publicized offscreen meltdowns). In 2011 Campbell made Green Lantern, which…well, the less said about that one the better. But with The Foreigner, Campbell has made a return to form.

Image: STX Entertainment

This time it’s Jackie Chan getting the Martin Campbell Old Warhorse Revitalization Treatment. An alternative name for this phenomenon would be Taken Syndrome, referring to Liam Neeson’s 2008 surprise megahit which proved that people will go see movies starring aging action stars.

The circumstances are a bit different, since before Taken Neeson was not known as an action star. The same cannot be said for Jackie Chan, whose willingness to perform fearless and death-defying stunts in his films has rightly become the Stuff of Legend. The Foreigner also stars Pierce Brosnan in a villainous role. The combination of Campbell, Chan and Brosnan feels just right, and I quite enjoyed The Foreigner.
The film’s plot will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action movie. Chan plays Quan, a restaurant owner living in London whose teenage daughter is killed in a terrorist bombing in the film’s opening. Killing Quan’s daughter will of course turn out to be the worst (and last) mistake the culprits ever make, since like Liam Neeson’s character Bryan Mills in Taken, Quan turns out to have a very particular set of skills, as well as a tragic backstory that both serve as strong motivation to find and punish his daughter’s killers.

It’s a familiar plot (the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Collateral Damage had nearly the exact same setup) but an effective one. Pierce Brosnan plays Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy, a man who, let’s just say, has fingers in many pies. After seeing Hennessy on TV and learning that he is a former IRA member, and since a group calling itself the Authentic IRA claimed responsibility for the attack that killed his daughter, Quan becomes convinced that Hennessy knows more than he is letting on.
Long story short (and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler): Quan is exactly right, and Hennessy is up to his ears in it. I won’t go into more detail than that, but it doesn’t take long before Quan has Hennessy running scared and hiding out in the countryside. This does not deter Quan and he takes up residence in the surrounding woods and wages a guerrilla war against Hennessy, which includes setting Rambo-esque traps in the woods that come in quite handy when Hennessy sends his henchmen into the woods after him.

Image: STX Entertainment

Jackie Chan is great in this movie. He’s 63 years old but is still pretty spry, and the fight scenes are excellent. The trailers for the movie would have you believe that the movie is a non-stop action thrill ride, but the truth is that it’s more of a political/conspiracy thriller with some really great action scenes. The plot gets a bit muddled at times but I was still able to follow it without too much difficulty. In addition to a strong physical performance, Chan also does a great job at nailing the more introspective and emotional aspects of his character. The scenes of him mourning his slain daughter are genuinely affecting.

The movie also knows how to make the most of Chan’s presence, and keeps him offscreen for much of the movie. While Quan wages his guerrilla war against Hennessy, we spend most of that time following Hennessy as he becomes increasingly paranoid, so when Quan makes his move it comes as a surprise to the audience as well as to Hennessy and his men. Even when Chan isn’t onscreen, his character’s presence is strongly felt. It’s very effective filmmaking.

Brosnan is also excellent as the duplicitous Hennessy, and speaks with an Irish accent that feels genuine. I mention this because Irish accents are easy to overdo, but Brosnan and the rest of the actors who play Irishmen speak with Irish accents that sound real, so the film never comes across as campy or exploitative. And yes, I realize that Pierce Brosnan is himself Irish, but I thought it was still a point worth mentioning.

The Foreigner is undeniably similar to other thrillers, but the strength of the performances and strong sense of realism raise it above the level of other campier films. I thought that Martin Campbell’s 2010 movie Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson was ok, but the pacing of that film was sluggish and the plot was hard to follow. The Foreigner is much better in both of these areas and to me feels like a more complete and well-rounded experience. The villains in Edge of Darkness were members of a shady evil corporation, whereas The Foreigner’s villains are shady evil politicians. The movies are similar but The Foreigner ultimately comes out on top. It’s not perfect but I really liked it.

It’s October, which means that I have to write about at least one scary movie. Fortunately for me (I think), there’s one coming out this Friday which looks like it will fit the bill. That movie is The Snowman, a twisted Scandinavian crime thriller starring Michael Fassbender and based on a bestselling novel. The early buzz for the movie has been mostly bad, but I’m going to check it out anyway. I guess I’m still feeling brave after surviving IT. Tune in next week for a review.