A warning to more sensitive readers – As you no doubt can tell, this article contains mildly explicit language. Fortunately, it never gets more explicit than the a-word.
The release of the action sequel RED 2 has had me reflecting quite a bit on one of the more fun movie tropes: the Unlikely Bad-Ass.
I know, I know… “Unlikely Bad-Ass.” I should dispense with the hyper-critical, film school jargon, right? Allow me to explain what I mean.
The otherwise unexceptional 2010 comic book adaptation RED features a particularly fun performance from Dame Helen Mirren, known mostly for her more high-brow work in The Queen and Gosford Park. Mirren plays Victoria, a retired secret agent longing for her old life. The Oscar-winning British actress brings a disposition of charm and class to the whole movie, right up until the point where she begins mowing down nameless antagonists with machine guns and artillery rifles. Unexpected, right? Bad-Ass, right?
RED plays with the viewer’s expectations of Mirren’s character in a few ways, not least of which offering a twist on the sexagenarian performer’s prestigious career (incidentally, we should have expected Mirren’s willingness to play bad-ass; she co-starred in Caligula, after all). But the film also plays with the notion of what a female, older character is expected to provide in movies of RED’s ilk (not much) and completely subverts expectations in a surprising, gratifying manner.
For these purposes, the Unlikely Bad-Ass pops up in all kinds of movies, for all kinds of reasons. Some are Bad-Ass because they end up kicking some literal ass at unexpected moments. Some are moral or intellectual bad-asses, people who reveal themselves as agents of ass-kickery simply because, well, they are awesome people. My rules of defining a “UBA” are fairly broad; basically, they just need somehow to subvert my original expectations of the character in a way that makes me admire them more than I ever originally planned to.
So in honor of RED 2, which by all accounts will feature oodles more of Dame Mirren kicking ass, I would love to offer a send-up to some of my favorite movie bad-asses whose bad-assery, for reasons similar to Agent Victoria, might not have have been readily apparent.
Oh, and just a Warning, since I get into plot details for many of my entries, don’t be surprised by the occasional spoiler or two (especially for #9 and #3).
Let’s start the count at #14…
14 Unlikely Movie Bad-Asses
When most folks ruminate over the greatest bad-asses of Star Wars, they tend automatically to favor the likes of Boba Fett, Darth Maul, or even Han Solo (the one who shot first). While those are all towering, larger-than-life BAMF’s of the highest order, I have only this to say: “Size matters not.” Throughout the entire series (and yes, I am counting the prequels), the 900-year-old Jedi Master never loses his ability to surprise, whether he is testing the mettle and patience of his impetuous new Padawan Luke Skywalker, or unleashing a heavy-duty can of Force on the nearest Sith Lord.
Bad-Ass Moment: Difficult to choose, this one is. While I’m tempted to pick that “Size Matters Not” moment from Empire Strikes Back, that may be subject to further breakdown in an upcoming Master Moments Feature. So let’s go with Revenge of the Sith‘s funniest moment, when with the slightest gesture, Yoda uses the Force to knock out Emperor Palpatine’s two lone guardians.
Sure, anybody who saw her in James Cameron’s sequel is likely to take Ripley’s Oscar-nominated bad-assery as a given. Hell, the first time I saw Aliens, her “Get away from her, you bitch!” moment inspired literal fist-pumps from me. You have to look to Ridley Scott’s first installment, however, to appreciate just how stealthily Ripley becomes the object of our identification and our adoration. At first, she’s just one of the team. A mere two hours transforms her into a witty, resourceful survivor. Without the Ripley of Alien, the Ripley of Aliens would be just another bland action hero.
Bad-Ass Moment: Her final confrontation in the escape pod with that Xenomorph, and not because she does so half-naked. She uses every tool at her disposal to dispatch the alien, showing that bad-assery is best achieved not through brute force, but sheer inventiveness.
T.E. Lawrence is a bit of an anomaly when you consider other great movie heroes who’ve led legions into battle. He’s not exactly an Aragorn or a King Leonidas, is he? No, the great “Lawrence of Arabia” is a bit of a dandy, unabashed in his flamboyance, and perhaps more keenly aware than most (though this is my observation) of the homoeroticism inherent to witnessing hundreds of sweaty, angry men wrestling with each other over a piece of seaside property. Still, Lawrence outshines most of those other heroic movie legionnaires, undaunted(yet ultimately encumbered) by his own strategic brilliance and towering hubris. His talent and exhibitionism make him one of cinema’s most complicated heroes, and he didn’t exactly need William Wallace’s unimpeachable machismo to earn that reputation, did he?
Bad-Ass Moment: After braving the Nefud Desert once to reach Aqaba, Lawrence braves it once again to rescue a member of his party who has gone lost. He succeeds gloriously, of course, and he wins the respect of his adversary Sherif Ali in the process.
Milos Forman’s 1975 Oscar winner about life in a mental institution remains one of the great films ever made about anti-authoritarianism. And while we see most of the film through the eyes of R.P. McMurphy, Will Sampson’s (initially) taciturn Chief reveals himself as the story’s beating heart. His commitment to his and McMurphy’s freedom becomes absolute, and his deeds culminate in one of the most victoriously bittersweet endings in movie history.
Bad-Ass Moment: After spending half the movie convincing us he is deaf and dumb, Chief Bromden reveals just how tightly he has Nurse Ratched’s whole operation wrapped around his finger, and he does to with a mere three words: “Mmmmm…. Juicy Fruit.”
The very title Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is inspired by poet Yu Xin’s suggestion that “behind the rock in the dark probably hides a tiger, and the coiling giant root resembles a crouching dragon.” In other words, great talent is often hidden from view. It is the long-hidden skills of the wealthy young aristocrat Xiao Long that are revealed in Ang Lee’s Wuxia masterpiece, thereby defying society’s expectations of a young girl of her time and place. The un-closeting of Xiao Long’s talent yields tragic results, yes, but there’s no denying the girl’s unbridled joy in (briefly) becoming the warrior she always wanted to be.
Bad-Ass Moment: Having just run away from her own wedding, Xiao Long disguises herself as a male traveler. She ruffles more than a few feathers in a small-town tavern, and a small altercation quickly snowballs into a gigantic bar-fight pitting the young girl against dozens of fearsome warriors. Can you guess who wins?
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”
Bryan Singer exploits the deceptive meekness of Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint to create (SPOILER, of course) one of the most memorable movie red herrings of the past two decades. Spacey’s performance-within-a-performance sells that meekness, tricking the viewer into buying his farcical story about a deceptively innocuous and even pitiable the character. Then the truth of Keyser Soze comes out, and we realize we’ve been played for fools.
Bad-Ass Moment: Kint’s final limp down the sidewalk, which at once reveals everything, and reveals nothing.
Have you seen the 1969 adaptation of the Charles Portis novel? It’s pretty mediocre, isn’t it? All it really amounts to is a transparent star vehicle intended to win John Wayne his overdue Oscar. The Coen Brothers’ 2010 update is an improvement in every respect, particularly in how it moves the story’s focus back to the 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, who’s also a major improvement over Kim Darby). With this revenge tale seen through her eyes, the old West becomes a much scarier, more intimidating place for a child to be. Yet Mattie’s willingness to brave that intimidating West with aplomb (and with a little help from Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf) reveals who the story’s true hero is.
Let’s also not forget that killer vocabulary of hers; it was Mattie taught me how to use the word “braggadocio.”
Bad-Ass Moment: Determined not to be left behind by the drunkard Rooster Cogburn and the slightly pervvy LaBoeuf, Mattie successfully traverses a river on horseback to follow them, to her companions’ considerable frustration. It’s at this point we suspect the young girl might be the one sporting the Truest of Grit.
Telling the story of Alvin Straight, the man who in real-life traveled 240 miles atop his John Deere in order to make peace with the ailing brother he’s not seen in decades, David Lynch gives us the most indubitable bad-ass of his entire oeuvre, even more than Frank Booth or Sailor Ripley. Alvin Straight, giving Richard Farnsworth his final and most memorable role, proves that you can be bad-ass simply through humbleness, contrition, determination and enduring love. Oh, and steely-enough buns to stay seated upon a tractor for six weeks.
Bad-Ass Moment: Gee, beside the fact that the man drove his tractor 240 miles over six weeks to break bread with his estranged brother, I can’t really say.
I’ve said before that few other active American filmmakers are able to write empowered women in violent roles better than Quentin Tarantino, the man who gave us Jackie Brown, The Bride and Shoshanna Dreyfuss. His contribution to the Grindhouse double-feature is no different in how he gives women the chance to subvert the tropes of a male-dominated genre, and to make them feel fresh again. If you can get past the long-winded dialogue toward the beginning of the movie (it’s really not as bad as you think it is), seeing the women of Death Proof evolve from goof-offs to victims to vanquishers is positively thrilling. It’s also strangely empowering.
Bad-Ass Moment: Once Zoe and the gang finally turn the tables on Kurt Russell’s predatory Stuntman Mike, tracking him down to punish him for what must surely have been the lousiest joy-ride in history. Russell was sold as this movie’s principle bad-ass, but there is nothing more satisfying than seeing him quiver in absolute fear of the righteous vengeance these wronged women are capable of.
Whenever I try to distill Peter Jackson’s 12-hour adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to a single, overarching theme – a mistake, admittedly – I always end with the word “friendship.” Essentially, the curator of all things evil in the realm of Middle Earth is defeated not through the destruction of ring, but through the endurance of friendship and the uniting bond of fellowship. Sam is simply the best friend you could ever ask for, whether you’re evading the pursuit of Ringwraiths, traversing endless marshes or are in need of a last drop of water in the desolate crevasses of Mordor. Not only will Sam accompany you to the end of all things, he will even carry you there if need be.
Bad-Ass Moment: Frodo finally gets captured by the great spider Shelob, sure to die. And then Sam, cast away earlier by Frodo, intervenes. Armed with the Elvish blade Sting, the light of Earendil and a triumphant Howard Shore fanfare, he beats the gruesome monster into submission.
The lone entry on this list representing a real-life bad-ass, Violence Interrupter Ameena Matthews must be the most characteristic force for change alive today. Steve James’ deeply powerful documentary The Interrupters depicts her as a fearless advocate for nonviolence in her Chicago community, informing her message with her own family’s tragically violent history. She is willing to throw herself in the way of bodily harm, all for the sake of peace. I sincerely doubt I could ever do what she does.
Bad-Ass Moment: Whenever Ameena speaks. There is a palpable, force-of-nature quality to her voice, one that speaks with urgency and utmost clarity. When she speaks, people listen. And when people do not listen, she refuses to disengage.
Kikuchiyo spends most of Seven Samurai as the Black Sheep, the one quickest to anger, the most prone to slapstick and pratfalls. He also enters as the film’s most irritatingly strident member. Yet his persistence in shaping his own destiny as a great Samurai, despite his low-class roots, drives him to heights few of his colleagues could ever anticipate. As performed by the great actor Toshiro Mifune, Kikuchiyo’s ambition feels genuine, and it feels deeply earned. He becomes the hero he yearns to be.
Bad-Ass Moment: Making good on his ambitions to be a great Samurai, Kikuchiyo dies a warrior’s death rescuing villagers from as many bandits as possible. His death is the most tragic, the most heroic, precisely because – as comic relief – it is the least expected.
An acid-tongued, embittered, drag-performing post-op transsexual woman sashaying across the Australian deserts to go put on a show? Is there any other way to describe Bernadette than to call her “bad-ass?” Each time I see Priscilla, my heart always goes out to the aging, grieving performer. But at the same time, I always admire her fearless queerness, which always seems more wizened, more world-weary than the naivete of her younger, drag-donning colleagues. It is one of Terrence Stamp’s most under-appreciated performances.
Bad-Ass Moment: Entering a rural bar for a drink, fully donned in drag, the passengers aboard the Priscilla are met, predictably, with considerable hostility. A female bartender screams back that her bar does not serve their kind. After a painfully long moment, Bernadette bravely shoots back: “Now listen here, you mullet. Why don’t you just light your tampon, and blow your box apart? Because it’s the only bang you’re ever gonna get, sweetheart!”
The reaction from the rest of the bar is about as perfect as can be imagined.
Margie is the smartest person in the room. In any room. That’s an easy detail to forget when she’s having an unexpected bout of pregnancy nausea or getting Arby’s all over her shirt. To many, she likely comes off as a rube, which is surely why many (incorrectly) accuse the Coen Brothers of mocking her character. But that folksy Midwestern charm, while never disingenuous, is disarming. Fargo is filled with other characters who move faster, talk more authoritatively, and shoot guns at people more wantonly. But not one of them can outmatch Margie in terms of wit, humor, compassion, aim and all-around police work. Like the most iconic bad-asses, she’s the lone individual who knows how to get things done. Unlike those same bad-asses, she delivers the goods with unbridled sweetness and sincerity.
She is the one truly, unequivocally good force in a comedy that is about as black as they come. Even more than being a good person, she is also a damn good police officer. Margie wins in the end, and the impending arrival of a little baby Gunderson ends Fargo on a surprisingly hopeful note.
Bad-Ass Moment: Marge solves the mystery surrounding the murders up in Brainerd, and finds the body of Jean Lundergaard. She picks off Peter Stormare from a far distance, catching him in the act of pushing his accomplice in the woodchipper. Yet her reaction is not one of accomplishment, not of pride, but of modesty and a sense of duty. Her final speech to her surviving kidnapping/murder suspect, driving down the highway in her patrol car, is the most beautiful thing the Coen Brothers have ever written: