In the 1989 film Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker asks rhetorically of his caped nemesis, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” A better question might be, where do maniacal movie bad guys like the Joker find flunkies willing to follow their every whim, knowing that flubbing an order or just looking at their boss the wrong way could cost them their lives? Wherever they come from, the cinema landscape is all the more colorful for their selfless–and occasionally fatal–loyalty. In last week’s opening salute to movie henchmen/henchwomen, we covered the 1930s to 1975, so let’s continue with the era that saw the rise of the summer action/sci-fi blockbuster and, consequently, some great employment opportunities for would-be underlings…
Jeremy Bulloch, James Earl Jones, Ray Park, Dave Prowse and company, the Star Wars saga – When it comes to the six Star Wars films, the line between lead villain and henchman can get a little blurred. When I first saw the original Star Wars in 1977, it sure looked as though Darth Vader was the flunky to Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, but I guess that wasn’t the case. Bounty hunter Boba Fett from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was a free agent and no man or alien’s lackey, so Darth Maul, Park’s Sith Lord assassin in The Phantom Menace, probably comes closest to fitting the definition. My favorite hired help from the movies, though, would have to be Paul Brooke as Malakili, the Rancor’s keeper in Jedi who is brought to tears when his cherished “pet” is crushed under a dungeon door by Luke Skywalker. As Roger Ebert said in his review of the scene, “Everybody loves somebody.”
Ned Beatty, Superman – “Why is the most diabolical leader of our time surrounding himself with total nincompoops?, criminal genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) asks in a rhetorical reference to his dim-witted right-hand man, Beatty’s Otis. Sure, Otis is not someone you want to push your library ladder, hand you your post-swim bathrobe, or do any other number of simple tasks, but he’s certainly a devoted dim-wit. And all he wants in return is “a little bitty place” of his own–Otisburg–on Hackman’s post-apocalyptic Pacific coast. Was that really too much to ask for, Mr. Luthor?
Max Phipps and Vernon Wells, The Road Warrior – Perhaps the finest example of opposite ends of the henchman spectrum was seen in this high-octane 1981 Australian action classic. Yes, Wells’ Mohawk-topped, crossbow-shooting Wez was an unforgettable bad guy whose punk-meets-NFL-accessories look set the tone for subsequent films and more than a few pro wrestling ensembles, but it’s the unheralded Phipps, as the aptly-named Toadie, who truly went above and beyond the call of duty when his attempt to retrieve Feral Kid Emil Minty’s razor-sharp boomerang cost him a handful (sorry) of digits.
Steven Bauer, Scarface – Emigrating to Florida with fellow Cuban exile Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in the 1980 Mariel boat lift, Manolo “Manny” Ribera (Bauer) manages to get them released from a refugee camp and joins Montana on his cocaine-fueled rise to the top of Miami’s underworld. Unfortunately–and just like his counterpart played by George Raft in the 1932 Scarface that this 1983 revamping was based on–Manny’s attraction to Tony’s sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), whom Tony is more than just a little overprotective of, proves to ultimately be his undoing.
Sting, Dune – David Lynch’s trippy 1984 film version of the first book in Frank Herbert’s landmark science-fiction series boasted some rather over-the-top performances from its cast, but top honors in that department must go to rock singer Sting, playing the Baron Harkonnen’s sadistic nephew, Feyd. Whether he’s posing in what look like art deco leather briefs or taunting enemy Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) in their knifefight to the death, the former Police member’s manic turn at least offered a bit of energy to Lynch’s soporific space saga.
David Patrick Kelly, Commando – “You’re a funny man, Sully. I like you. That’s why I’m going to kill you last.” So says former Special Forces agent John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to Kelly’s ex-Army mercenary, one of the men who have kidnapped Matrix’s daughter (Alyssa Milano) in order to get him to help restore their client, a deposed Latin American ruler (Dan Hedaya), to power. Vernon Wells (see above) is great as the head baddie, a former comrade of Arnold’s, but it’s Kelly–who had his own band of flunkies as the leader of the Rogues gang in The Warriors–whose sleazy performance is the key here. So, does Schwarzenegger kill him last? I’m not telling.
Al Leong, Big Trouble in Little China, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, et al – No chronicle of moviedom’s baddest henchmen would be complete without a special shout-out to the oeuvre of Asian-American stuntman/actor Leong, whose sinister presence, fighting prowess, and distinctive Fu Manchu moustache graced many an action film of the past 25 years. You’ve seen him as one of the Wing Kong hatchet men in Big Trouble in Little China; as Endo, who gets to torture Riggs (Mel Gibson) with some electric paddles and a bucket of water in the original Lethal Weapon; as sweet-toothed, trigger-happy terrorist Uli in the first Die Hard; and even in a comedic turn as a time-tossed Genghis Kahn in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. And that’s without mentioning performances in Death Warrant, Rapid Fire, Last Action Hero, Escape from L.A., and loads of TV shows. Here’s to you, Al.
Christopher Guest, The Princess Bride – Sorry, but since their allegiances turn midway through the film, Andre the Giant and Mandy Patinkin’s characters don’t cut it here. The notice for top accomplice instead goes to Christopher Guest as Count Rugen, the 11-fingered swordsman, torture expert, and all-around villain who is the target of Patinkin’s 20-year quest for vengeance over Guest’s murder of his father.
Billy Drago, The Untouchables – The real Frank Nitti, enforcer for Al Capone in Prohibition-era Chicago, certainly didn’t look or sound like Drago in Brian De Palma’s 1987 revamping of the 1950’s TV crime drama (truth be told, neither did the small screen’s Bruce Gordon), but Drago’s cocky killer made for a memorable opponent for Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness. Oh, and the actual Nitti didn’t have the “car problems” Drago faced in this film; he shot himself along an Illinois rail line in 1943.
Tracey Walter, Batman – Of all the henchmen on this list, it was perhaps veteran character actor Walter’s Bob the Goon, from Tim Burton’s 1989 re-imagining of the Darknight Detective, who got the rawest of raw deals. Poor Bob stuck faithfully by his pal Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) before and after the acid bath that turned Napier into the Joker, laughed at all of his jokes, took photos of Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) for him, and even handed his white-skinned boss the gun that killed him. At least Walter got his own Bob the Goon action figure–complete with “power kick!” action–out of it.
Michael Ironside, Total Recall – He’s the bad guy you sometimes find yourself rooting for and the good guy you’re not sure you trust. He’s Canadian-born actor Michael Ironside, and in a career where he’s often played nasty, if not downright reprehensible, villains, his finest moment may have been this 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi thriller as Richter, the ruthless right-hand man of Martian colony boss Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). The high-strung Michael has to put up with a slew of insults from boss Cox as well as the knowledge that girlfriend Sharon Stone is being paid to sleep with memory-clouded target Arnold, so it’s little wonder that he always seems on the verge of apoplexy. And to top it all off, he ends up losing both arms and falling to his death in a final showdown with Schwarzenegger (making this one of several films in which Ironside finds himself minus a limb or two). Maybe Bob the Goon’s lot wasn’t so bad, after all.
Gary Busey, Under Siege – What is it that allows Gary Busey to so effectively play characters who seem ever so slightly…unhinged? Well, it’s not for me to say, but he used it to good second-banana effect as the albino assassin Mr. Joshua in 1987’s Lethal Weapon, and in this 1992 actioner that is arguably Steven Seagal’s best film, Busey outdoes himself as the traitorous Commander Krill, executive officer on the battleship USS Missouri, who hijacks the nuclear missile-packed vessel in conjunction with ex-CIA operative William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones). Busey and Jones as bad guys adds up to scenery-chomping on a grand scale that nicely balances the stoic performance of Seagal as the Navy SEAL-turned-cook hero.
Pete Postlethwaite, The Usual Suspects – Having a good gunman at your side is helpful if you’re a ruthless criminal mastermind. But, if you’re a ruthless criminal mastermind like Keyzer Koze and also happen to be a crack shot, it’s even more helpful to have an expert attorney like Postlethwaite’s coolly menacing Mr Kobayashi at your beck and call…even if it turns out that Kobayashi may not be his real name. It’s also not bad that he’s more than happy to pick you up from the police station after a long session of questioning.
Robert Wagner, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery – Amid all of the James Bond underling parodies in the Austin Powers films, who was the one employee that Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) could count on? No, not Mini-Me. It was his “cycloptic colleague” and second-in-command, Number Two (Wagner), who was able during the not-so-good doctor’s three-decade absence to divert their illegal enterprises into such money-making ventures as the cable conglomerate Virtucon, a steel mill in Cleveland, shipping in Texas, oil refineries in Seattle, and “a factory in Chicago that makes miniature models of factories.”
Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast – As adept with flattery and coercion as he is with fisticuffs, Kinglsey’s Don Logan, the hair-trigger-tempered “recruiter” for London crime boss Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), is one of the screen’s most memorable sociopaths. Flying to Spain to convince ex-safe-cracker Ray Winstone to join in the proverbial “one last heist,” Kingsley’s increasingly violent insistence on getting a “Yes!” from Winstone leads to an unexpectedly fatal showdown.
Brad Dourif and Christopher Lee, The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – No, Gollum doesn’t count; Gollum does whatever Gollum needs to do to be reunited with his “Precious.” On the other hand, Lee’s good wizard-turned-Sauron follower Saurman the White and Dourif’s odious royal advisor Grima Wormtoungue are classic henchmen, and both actors make the most of their roles in Peter Jackson’s film version of the Tolkien fantasy epic. Sadly, both characters had their roles in the third movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, cut from the theatrical release. Good thing you bought the extended DVD and/or Blu-ray editions, huh?
Chiaki Kuriyama and Gordon Liu, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 – Much like the world of Star Wars, it’s kind of hard to say which criminals in the Quentin Tarantino universe are to be considered henchmen and which are simply independent players. The crooks assembled by Lawrence Tierney in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction hit men Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, and flight attendant-turned-smuggler Pam Grier in Jackie Brown may all see themselves as the latter, but in the first Kill Bill movie, it’s clear than Yakuza leader O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) has some pretty loyal underlings working for her…at least 89 of them, in fact. What a shame not one of them thought to carry a gun instead of a sword. Nevertheless, special attention must be paid to martial arts icon Gordon Liu as bald, black-masked Johnny Mo, top man of O-Ren’s Crazy 88 gang, and Kuriyama as her bodyguard with the deadly “meteor hammer” weapon, psychotic schoolgirl Gogo Yubari.
Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Felton, Ian Hart, Jason Issacs and Timothy Spall, the Harry Potter films – Say what you will about the evil Lord Voldemort, he certainly has a nose (sorry again) for drawing faithful minions to his side. While most of his Death Eaters, at least on the screen, are forgettable, we must pay backhanded tributes here to Hart as the timorous Professor Quirrell of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Spall’s obsequious Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; Carter’s sadistic, insane–and strangely sexy–Bellatrix Lestrange of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; and the father-son menace of Lucius (Isaacs) and Draco (Felton) Malfoy from nearly every Potter movie. It won’t be until next year when we’ll learn if the dark wizard’s plans succeed (okay, those of us who read the books already know), but if you judge a villain by his henchmen, it looks like he’s got a pretty good shot.