For some reason many in the media seem an urge at the end of the year to compile lists usually related to things that have occurred in the preceding year. I suppose it is a very easy way to fill up newspaper and webspace without really having to put much effort into composing something. 'The Guardian' which along with the BBC news website, is my media source of choice was not immune to this tendency. However, rather than the 'Five Things We've Learned About Fashion' (despite it being penned by the very sexy Jess Cartner-Morley) or 'Five Things We've Learned About Television/Art/Food/Science' and definitely skirting Grace Dent's 'Five Things We've Learned About Celebrity' I was ironically drawn to the more eclectic almost surreal 'Famous List Words': lists produced by a range of 'celebrities' including former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling and teleivsion presenter Lorraine Kelly to the puppet character Sooty. The items listed included Scottish anthems, top people called Jones and favourite past shapes (with spaghetti, penne and fusili rounding out the top three). The one that attracted my attention most and I felt was worthy of comment was '8 Movie Characters You Wouldn't Want To Fuck With' as selected by current pop star Jordan Stephens (born 1992) of Rizzle Kicks, a hip hop group from Brighton, southern England.
Of the movies listed I have only seen six but hope that I know enough of the work of the actors featured to comment on the list as a whole and I may come back to this posting if I see the remaining two movies. I replicate the list here for reference with some additional information for ease of subsequent discussion:
1) Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills in 'Taken' (2008) - Literally slaps up most of Paris in 96 hours.
2) Brad Pitt as Mickey O'Neil in 'Snatch' (2000) - One-hit wonder.
3) Gary Oldman as Stansfield in 'Leon' (1994) - No one plays gun-toting villains like Gary Oldman
4) Vincent Cassel as Jacques in 'Mesrine' (2 parts; 2008) - He holds up a judge at gunpoint. Enough said.
5) Keanu Reeves as Neo in 'The Matrix' (1999; but presumably too in the sequels both 2003 in which the character becomes stronger) - Can literally do ANYTHING.
6) Denzel Washington as Eli in 'The Book of Eli' (2010) - Can batter people while wearing a backpack.
7) Samuel L. Jackson as Jules in 'Pulp Fiction' (1994) - Just wants to be the shepherd.
8) Sir Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in 'Sexy Beast' (2000) - Doesn't take no for an answer.
This is the kind of list you would expect men in their thirties sitting slumped in front of the television, perhaps portrayed by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the movie version. It is notable that all the characters are male and what is interesting is that what seems to have got them into the list is not simply that they can be physically violent but also that they have an attitude. The nature of each is very different, but you could argue that all are self-righteous, and in a couple of cases righteous too. I suppose that is something that is very scary about such an opponent that they have blind faith in what they are doing and believe that to challenge that is utterly unacceptable even if, on an objective moral judgement their own behaviour would be condemned. This is particularly the case with Stansfield and Logan, both of whom are evil men and yet it is their indignation that anyone would challenge their world view that gives them real nastiness. Jules is a little like this but his indignation really stems less from his world view which in the course of the movie seems to be moving towards some kind of Christian religious revelation but rather irritations to his day-to-day life; he is most angered not by immoral behaviour but by people disturbing his coffee drinking. That mundanity of violence is another aspect of evil and shows a complex character who seems to feel that he is moving towards good whilst at the same time behaving in an evil way without thought.
Eli and Neo are different, both being at least prophets if no messiahs. I have not seen 'The Book of Eli' but it is about a blind traveller carrying a braille copy of the Bible across the USA thirty years after a nuclear apocalypse. In many ways it panders to the US view that much of the population of North America could survive a nuclear war and in some ways the world would be a better place if American society could start from scratch, in this way the premise is very similar to 'The Postman' (novel 1985; movie 1997). Having Washington play a blind character also references martial arts movies with blind action heroes. In parts of the movie Eli seems able to dodge bullets as if protected. Thus his violence fighting against Carnegie played by Gary Oldman, is righteous as he is seemingly on a mission from God. Washington's action characters tend to be rather stoic almost relaxed in many of his movies such as 'Devil in the Blue Dress' (1995), 'Fallen' (1998), 'The Siege' (1998), 'Man on Fire' (2004) and especially 'Deja Vu' (2004). Keanu Reeves struggles as an actor and whilst Washington can show a wider range of emotions Reeves is a one-note actor. 'The Matrix' is engaging due to its premise, but Reeves is so emotionless that he might as well have played a construct of the computer system. Yes, Neo can do everything, but in many ways that is what makes him unappealing. There are times when we feel Neo is in jeopardy, not through Reeves's portrayal but because it is explained to us, yet ultimately we know he has the power to overcome everything and an invulnerable hero is no hero at all. Even Stansfield and Logan have a vulnerability if their plans do no go right. They suffer the double hit of things not working out and them becoming apoplectic that other people have derailed what they felt was the thing that had to be done.
Gary Oldman seems to be coming down to two settings. One is a quirky almost pleasantly, camply sinister bad guy as he has portrayed not only in 'Leon' but also almost taking off that role in 'The Fifth Element' (1997) and producing something similar in 'Airforce One' (1997), 'Lost in Space' (1998) and more recently voicing Lord Shen in 'Kung Fu Panda 2' (2011) and funnily I always see him in mind's eye rather than Tim Roth, playing Archibald Cunningham in 'Rob Roy' (1995) - perhaps since they were in 'Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead' (1990) together. The other is a warmer, usually bearded character, notably in the Harry Potter series (movies feauring Oldman 2004-11) and perhaps 'Red Riding Hood' (2011) though I have yet to see that. To some degree he seems to have lost the range of his early work notably 'Sid and Nancy' (1986) and 'Prick Up Your Ears' (1987) which may explain his movie hiatus 2001-4. I find Oldman's warmer characters far more credible than his evil ones which he tends to ham up. This was no doubt intentional in 'The Fifth Element' which was a light-hearted movie, but I feel weakens his portrayal in 'Leon'. His best bad character is probably the title role in 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992). The elements of the mundanity and self-righteousness that makes the others listed here often so sharp is lost in Oldman's ostentatious portrayals.
Brad Pitt plays against type in 'Snatch' which is a gritty movie. It has elements of humour but having lived in East London, I also felt it managed to catch the everyday harshness and easy criminality of the area. Pitt plays an Irishman rather than an American (something he also did in 'The Devil's Own' (1997)) whose dialogue is deliberately inaccessible. He is a traveller who also bareknuckle boxes, an illegal sport in the UK. The part draws on the muscular build Pitt gained for 'Fight Club' (1999) through boxing and other martial arts. O'Neil is a violent man for his living but that fits the context in which he lives. Ultimately what he does is for his family especially when their caravans are torched by gangsters. Thus, while not showing the indignation of Stansfield or Logan, O'Neill still adheres to a rule, one which I think would be more broadly accepted in UK society and probably even more so in the USA or looking out for your family and taking revenge on anyone who harmed them. I think people like his character because people underestimate O'Neil and yet he bides his time until he can have the situation to his greatest advantage. The character in 'Snatch' that I despise is Brick Top portrayed by Alan Ford, who like Logan and Stansfield creates his own selfish rules and viciously punishes anyone who steps over the line of his self-imposed laws. These people believe they are in the 'right' because they have created their own 'moral' universe simply based on their base desires.
I think the reason why Mills is at the top of the list is for much the same reason that O'Neill is favoured. Mills is a retired CIA operative (as with war veterans, the USA seems to be full of such men) who goes after the slavers who snatch his daughter while on holiday in France. He is the manifestation of millions of fathers sitting in the audience imagining what they would do if their own daughter was taken. Mills shows a lot of paranoia in the early part of the movie, which actually turns out to be well placed. 'Taken' taps right into the fear that parents especially in the UK and USA have about even letting their 18 year old children out of their sight and into the dangerous place called 'Europe' (most British people do not see the UK as part of Europe). Mills has both to fight authority in the typical way of many cop and spy movies as well as beating up and shooting the bad guys who turn out to be the 'acceptable' racial stereotyped enemy of the past two decades: Arabs. Mills does appear vulnerable and he appears human too; he seems motivated by the best of intentions, which for the average cinema goer is defence of family well above religious or other moral motives. It seems no surprise that Neeson is starring in 'Taken 2' (2012) set in Istanbul and featuring Mills and his wife taken prisoner by the father of the man he killed in the first movie.
Finally I turn to Jacques Mesrine. Unlike the other characters the two movies featuring Cassell are biographies of a renowned French gangster from the 1960s and 1970s who carried out the acts featured in the movies for real even if these have been dramatised. I have not seen these movies by Cassell is an accomplished actor. His bady guys can be rather camp like Oldman's, for example in 'Dobermann' (1997) [Tcheky Karyo as Inspecteur Sauver Cristini is actually more terrifying in that movie], 'Brotherhood of the Wolf' (2000), 'Ocean's Twelve' (2004) and 'Ocean's Thirteen' (2006) and I hope has been able to channel more of the edginess which was apparent in 'La Haine' (1995).
Even though Stephens is only 20, he has produced an interesting list that certainly provoked thoughts for me. I think what it shows is that a 'hard nut' character in movies is not necessarily the most violent character, there has to be something more. Perhaps it is the righteouness of the character that makes them appear unstoppable that adds that edge to what they do and means that you would not want to cross their paths as you would know that they would never let up. In some cases, notably Mills and O'Neil this gives heart to the audience. In reality we know that if our child is snatched there is very little that we can do and the authorities have very little more power, so being shown even a fictional case of someone getting something back, some revenge at least for their family heartens us as viewers and it also allows us to watch the violence without feeling uneased by it.