Action cinema isn’t always the best place to seek stellar characterization, but it’s produced some of the silver screen’s most beloved icons. These big names aren’t always the heroes who take up arms and fight to defend the innocent from danger. Sometimes danger wins the limelight.
While most lists of fan-favorite villains give way half their places to the MCU, there are plenty of other worthwhile performances in nasty roles that deserve recognition. There are countless different villains in action cinema and countless unique ways to play them. When the villain is the movie’s most compelling force, it’s worth dissecting what makes them so powerful.
Madeline “Ma-Ma” Madrigal – Dred
In the writing phase of this beloved 2012 adaptation of the long-running comic, writer Alex Garland crafted an original villain, rather than the many options out there. The character he came up with was presented as an obese, heavily made-up elderly woman. Those plans changed when the great Lena Headey joined the project. Best known for playing Cersei Lannister, Dred sees Headey in both a similar and opposite role. Ma-Ma is a former prostitute whose life of abuse leads her to pursue violent gang rule.
Through clever planning and ruthless cruelty, Ma-Ma quickly becomes the dictator of the Peach Trees housing project and the main supplier of illicit drugs. Ma-Ma is extremely cruel, intimidating and startlingly cold. Headey steps into the role effortlessly and elevates the text with his undeniable charisma. From the height of the class to the depths of the underworld, Headey is a perfect villain.
Constable Kruger- Elysium
The explosive debut of Neil Blomkamp in 2009 District 9 immediately made him one of the most sought after sci-fi directors in the industry. When fans learned he would be reuniting with star Sharlto Copley, they couldn’t have expected the role they would see him in. Like his first film, Elysium is a futuristic political polemic that uses the violence of science fiction to explore issues from the headlines.
Although generally less well received than District 9, Elysium is a great action epic with a hard edge of social commentary. While the main villain is initially corrupt secretary Jessica Delacourt, brilliantly played by Jodie Foster, Kruger is the man in the field and the power behind the desk. Kruger is an unstable mercenary hired by Delacourt to slaughter anyone who dares to immigrate to Elysium. He’s a weirdly horny figure, his obvious craziness portrayed somewhere between Travis Bickle and Kano from mortal combat. Kruger is as intimidating as he is fun to watch, and that’s a tough line to toe.
STEM – Upgrade
Leigh Whannell’s 2018 sci-fi action horror film plays a fun ride with its villain. Half of the characters in the cast come across as malicious or dangerous. Mechanic Gray Trace is assaulted by a gang of criminals, leaving his girlfriend dead and his body paralyzed from the neck down. A sneaky Silicon Valley tech billionaire seems to take pity on Gray and offers him a neural implant called STEM that gives him back all of his abilities and more.
Gray seeks revenge, tracking down the men who left him for dead and eliminating them with his newfound powers. As the story unfolds, the STEM implant seems to take more control over Grey’s body. Gray searches for the creator of the chip, assuming he is to blame. The film’s final moments reveal that the real villain is STEM itself, a rogue AI looking for a body to expand its influence. This cyberpunk story portrays a possible nightmarish future in style.
Enraged dog – The Raid: Redemption
Gareth Evans’ modern martial arts epic remains one of the most powerful action movies in recent memory. The simple story of a group of cops storming a drug dealer’s skyscraper in Jakarta features some of the best fight scenes ever. The drug dealer in question is Tama, but the film’s most dynamic enemy is the sadistic Mad Dog.
If Tama is Jakarta’s Lord Sidious, Mad Dog is his Darth Vader. Mad Dog is a very simple character, a force of nature with superhuman combat abilities and a singular will to fight. Mad Dog’s power lies in its portrayal, Yayan Ruhian, a martial artist so skilled and dynamic on screen that he appeared as a different character in the sequel. Mad Dog is a beast, and fans will have to wait and see how the stray American remake might handle it.
Koba- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Originally one of the many apes who joined Caesar in his escape and attack on humanity, Koba becomes the main antagonist of the second film in the modern trilogy. Koba is a deadly and unpredictable monkey who seeks violent confrontation and revenge. Koba was mistreated by his captors, leading to a sympathetic desire for war.
Despite his violent tendencies and desire to kill others, Koba is one of the franchise’s most moving figures. Toby Kebbell provides the voice and facial capture of the villainous primate, and his performance sometimes eclipses even the great Andy Serkis. Koba is a masterfully written villain with fully realized motivation, even with limited dialogue.
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