What is an anti-hero? Well, it seems almost everyone has an opposing opinion drifting from reluctant hero to complex villain, however neither of those are accurate. Though an anti-hero’s character might be reluctant to become involved heroically, they’re more importantly not so reluctant when it comes to achieving their goal by any means necessary. Where-in a conventional hero does no wrong, an anti-hero typically makes the audience question their allegiance to the character on-screen. An anti-heroes character is flawed, yet they still strive to rise up out of their imperfections to attempt a heroic fate.
It’s been easy for audiences to cheer Jackie Chan through every one of his films since he almost never plays anything but a conventional hero. Yet, take a typical Jackie Chan character and add a troublesome relationship with a questionably moral female and voilà. Jackie not only becomes more interesting on-screen, starts to show signs of imperfections, thus creating an anti-hero. A typical Jackie Chan audience might struggle to accept him if he associates himself with a woman of questionable morals, as he himself then becomes morally questionable. Chan actually did do this in the film Rob-B-Hood where he played a petty cat-burglar that kidnaps a baby for Triads only to have a change of heart refusing to hand it over. Jackie still played it safe however not wanting to turn too much of his audience off clearly.
As for an anti-hero in my book, they must possess something a little darker inside themselves than just a simple flaw such as being a cat-burglar. Indeed a cat-burglar is a criminal, it just seems like a lazy screenwriter’s trick to give an imperfection. I feel there must be something in the character that makes me feel their plight. I am a human being myself that knows his imperfections and am easily able to identify with the flawed heroic type more than I am the cookie-cutter hero, hence my reasoning for writing this article. I’ve decided to leave out characters based on comic books as I see that as an article all on its own.
Roger Malcolm’s Top Ten Anti-Heroes in Film (in no particular order beside chronological)
Walter Chalmers: Frank, we must all compromise.
Frank Bullitt: Bullshit.
McQueen could have his own list of anti-hero roles and perhaps certain ones even demonstrate the elements of an anti-hero better such as his role in Hell is for Heroes (1962) as Reese. Though there is something about Frank Bullitt and his laid back attitude that screams anti-hero. Steve McQueen was hesitant to play a cop and why wouldn’t he be. He always preferred to steer clear of authority roles. Yet, he found something in Frank Bullitt that made him not only accept but fight to make it the best picture possible. He personally requested the studio hire Peter Yates to direct after having viewed Yate’s first film Robbery (1967). And what a wise choice it was as they created the most iconic car chase in film history.
What makes Frank Bullitt an anti-hero? First off, he won’t play ball with the crooked politician (well that’s redundant) Walter Chalmers (played by Robert Vaughn), which places him in quite the precarious position. Does it make an anti-hero? No, not exactly, but what it causes him to do, does. Knowing a certain case will be closed and that he’ll be removed after the main witness dies. He conjures up his anti-authority persona keeping his focus on catching the perpetrators by convincing a doctor to misplace a dead body and medical file. Eventually he takes full responsibility for his actions but not before using the time to go a bit vigilante, while his superiors run around baffled. He races through San Francisco streets putting civilians in danger, causes the criminals to fire a shotgun on a public highway and even lifts a newspaper without paying just for good measure. At the end, after drawing his weapon for the first time in the film and making a kill, he returns home trying to separate himself from his deeds. Staring in the mirror we’re left knowing he’s a man with a conscience.
Landon: [Reflecting on Stewart’s death and Taylor’s reaction to it] You don’t seem very cut up about it.
George Taylor: It’s a little late for a wake. She’s been dead nearly a year.
Colonel George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) is an American astronaut and the leader of a space expedition. He finds himself in an upside-down world where apes have evolved and use humans as slaves, sport and scientific experiments. The humans have devolved to being mute, living in the forest and scavenging fields for food. Taylor is captured and placed on trial in ape court where he has no rights under ape law. He attempts to defend himself, only to be silenced with a gag over his mouth. When any man takes a stand and fights for his rights, he doesn’t only represent himself but all men’s rights. This is what makes the film so poignant, as Taylor represents all human beings and his own personal individuality.
What makes Taylor an anti-hero? In the opening of the film Taylor leaves a recorded log and asks the questions “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox… still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbors children starving?” Later Taylor mocks his fellow astronaut Landon (played by Robert Gunner) for being “prepared to die” sarcastically saying “Chalk up another victory for the human spirit.” Taylor then berates him by defining his All-American image and his greed for immortality. Landon gets defensive and calls Taylor a no-seeker, a negative, informs us Taylor thought life on Earth was meaningless and that he despised people. So what motivates Taylor? He’s not prepared to die for one but he’s a seeker too, like Landon. Only his dreams aren’t the same, he believes somewhere in the Universe there has to be something better than man, has to be.
El Jefe: Please, drink with me. I am a very happy man.
Bennie: Nah, I’ve got nothing to celebrate.
Bennie (played by Warren Oates) is an U.S. Army veteran that’s become a piano player down in Mexico. Oates based his performance off director Sam Peckinpah, even utilizing a pair of Peckinpah’s sunglasses throughout the film. Roger Ebert, in his second review of the film, compares Bennie as a representation of Peckinpah writing “Some days on the set there must not have been a dime’s worth of difference between Peckinpah and Bennie.” Indeed Peckinpah paralleled themes of his life into his films. Perhaps none so more demonstrate this than Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where a character’s ambitions are orchestrated and destroyed by the greed of an unknown powerful man simply called El Jefe. It’s El Jefe who has offered up the reward feeding Bennie’s greed, much like the studios which consistently sacrificed Peckinpah’s visions for their greed of the almighty dollar (not worth what it use to be) while Peckinpah was the one enduring each tragedy as the studios destroyed his passionate visions. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is the only film Peckinpah had final cut on, a true tragedy within cinema.
What makes Bennie an anti-hero? Bennie becomes motivated by the lure of money to locate a man by the name of Alfredo Garcia. Garcia just happens to have had relations with a prostitute named Elita (played by Isela Vega) whom Bennie also knows personally. Together, Bennie and Elita set out to find Alfredo. Only, once their momentum gets started, the tragedies start to add up weighing upon Bennie’s conscience. Bennie eventually finds himself worse off than when we found him as he becomes unraveled along with his world around him. Bennie might have started out obsessed by the thought of riches, however, he changes his stance and decides to find whoever it is responsible for his recent path of self-destruction. Fueled by his love for Elita, he transforms into a professional with a job to do. One in which he plans to see through to the end and does. Bennie might be considered a loser by society but to that he says “Nobody loses all the time.”
Travis Bickle: Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is someone who stood up.
Travis Bickle (played by Robert DeNiro) is a U.S. Marine veteran that’s become a taxi driver due to his inability to sleep at night. In his free time he frequents x-rated features, that is until he discovers a particular woman named Betsy (played by Cybill Sheperd) that eventually becomes the sole focus of his attention. He attempts to court her by taking her out for coffee and pie. Betsy seems to lead him on more than she intends which creates an awkwardness in mood while revealing subtleties in Bickle’s hidden nature. Betsy seems to slightly offend him by comparing him to the Kris Kristofferson song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” by quoting a passage saying “he’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.” He gets defensive saying “I’m no pusher. I never have pushed.”
What makes Travis Bickle an anti-hero? Though he lives around what he perceives as a city of filth and scum, Bickle is able to separate himself from what he views as “All the animals… whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal.” Yet, when Travis takes Betsy out to an x-rated film she becomes upset with him saying “Taking me to a place like this is about as exciting as saying to me ‘Let’s fuck’.” Travis reacts as if it were an innocent action from his point of view leaving him seemingly misunderstood and more alone than before. It’s here when Travis starts to blur the lines between heroism and insanity. He gets to know a 12 1/2 year old prostitute, buys a load of firearms, begins a physical training routine and starts to make plans on killing a candidate for President as a sort of revenge for Betsy dumping him. Only his plans are eventually changed as he attempts a heroic fate by eliminating some of the filth he despises.
Luke Skywalker: But they’re gonna kill her!
Han Solo: Better her than me!
Harrison Ford embodies the cool but sleazy Han Solo with ease. Solo’s a cynical mercenary and captain of the Millennium Falcon. George Lucas calls Solo the foil to the idealistic Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill), adding it makes for a good story to have two characters of diverse nature interacting together. When Luke and Han first meet each other, Luke is looking to help rescue Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher), where as Solo has been beaten down by the world and could care less about the Princess selfishly only caring about himself. It certainly defines a line between the two enhancing Solo’s anti-hero persona.
What makes Han Solo an anti-hero? Han shot first, what else. Is there really any need to say more? Sadly most generations have missed out on this as Lucas altered eventual releases to show Gredo firing first and having Solo react almost instantaneously killing him. However, even changing this major detail doesn’t turn the fortune seeking mercenary into a classical hero as he still provides his trademark cynicism to irritate and frustrate Skywalker throughout the film. Han boards the Millennium Falcon taking off after receiving his reward for rescuing the Princess and in one of the best moments in cinema, he returns at the last moment during the climax to help Luke destroy the Death Star. Yeah, he’s a self-serving egomaniac but all that time with Luke must have rubbed off on him some after-all. The Princess must have known all along as she says to Han “I knew there was more to you than money.”
Max: The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It’d take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you’re lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes. Go.
Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson) is the top member of the Main Force Patrol of the Australian Federal Police. Set in a dystopian future where law and order has started to erode due to a major energy crisis, Max demonstrates his exceptional driving ability while hunting down a criminal known as the Night Rider. The Night Rider is killed during the chase resulting in his ruthless motorcycle gang The Acolytes seeking revenge. They set their sites on the MFP burning Max’s closest friend Jim Goose (played by Steve Bisley) while trapped in an upside down vehicle after an attempt to kill him failed when sabotaging his motorcycle.
What makes Max Rockatansky an anti-hero? Max abandons his profession resigning when things get too tough after seeing Goose’s charred body. Max loads his station wagon with his wife and son, setting out to get away from the horror for the time being. Only he isn’t able to escape as he comes across the gang which leads them back onto his trail. They end up killing his wife and child, leaving him alone in the world. With revenge in his sights, Max retrieves his leather uniform and commandeers the last of the V-8 Interceptors from the MFP Headquarters. He then systematically hunts down each and every member of the motorcycle gang leaving a trail of desolation in his midst. Finally he comes across Johnny the Boy (played by Tim Burns), who Max handcuffs to a wrecked car by his ankle and sets up a time-delay fuse to blow up the vehicle. Now “mad”, Max drops a hacksaw and limps off after saying the quote above.
Bob Hauk: We’re still at war, Plissken. We need him alive.
Snake Plissken: I don’t give a fuck about your war… or your president.
Much like Steve McQueen, a whole list could nearly be made of just John Carpenter’s characters alone. As Carpenter embodies the elements of an anti-hero himself, he continually implements them into his films. Kurt Russell was offered the role of Snake Plissken after working with director John Carpenter on the made-for-television movie Elvis (1979). It would be the start of Russell’s 2nd career after having found success as a child actor in Disney films of the 60’s and 70’s. Plissken’s a former member of the special forces having been an U.S. Army Lieutenant before attempting to rob the Federal Reserve (why rob it, he should have tried blowing the motherfucker up).
What makes Snake Plissken an anti-hero? He doesn’t give a fuck about anything or anyone. As one character says to him “It’s the survival of the human race, Plissken. Something you don’t give a shit about.” At one point Plissken comes across a woman being attacked, unlike your typical hero who would be obligated to become involved, Snake just walks off minding his own business. However reluctant he is to help is render inconsequential when he discovers he’s been injected with microscopic capsules that will explode in 24 hours killing him. Only motivated by self-preservation, Plissken sets out to rescue the President of the United States. The President (played by Donald Pleasence) who’s been taken prisoner in New York City on Manhattan Island, which is now a maximum security federal prison surrounded by a great big 50 foot containment wall, carries a cassette tape containing vital information on nuclear fusion to give the United States the advantage to presumably end the current war. Only after all is said and done giving Plissken his pardon, the President discovers to his dread his tape has been switched. The film ends with a tracking shot of Plissken walking alone tearing up the tape. Don’t worry, Snake knows, as he tells a character earlier “I’m an asshole…”
Mathilda: Is life always this hard, or is it just when you’re a kid?
Léon: Always like this.
Léon (played by Jean Reno) is a professional hitman living alone in an apartment complex in New York’s Little Italy. His only rules No Women, No Kids. He can’t read. However, he exhibits a passion for life by his careful treatment of his house plant, consistent workout routine and immaculate care of his weapons. He frequents theaters where he presumably enjoys watching musicals and performs characters like John Wayne while playing a game. He also possesses empathy for the neighboring 12 year old girl. Her name is Mathilda (played by Natalie Portman) and her father messes up in a drug deal getting himself and his whole family murdered while Mathilda is out shopping for groceries. When she comes back Léon lets her in, the relationship builds from there and he agrees to train her to be an assassin too.
What makes Léon an anti-hero? He’s a contract killer and teaches Mathilda to clean and disassemble weapons as well as to be a contract killer herself. Starting with rifle training, they practice with Mathilda shooting paint balls where she hits a jogger. The jogger turns out to be a politician of some sort and gets tackled to the ground by his own security. Léon gives it a break that day. Léon even takes Mathilda on jobs with him where she assists, learning how to shoot with silencers, still using paint balls of course. Though Léon finishes one job while Mathilda adds some morality to his killings when she destroys some of the drugs to prevent them from harming any women or children. Eventually, Mathilda discovers who killed her family and she decides to attempt a hit herself on a federal agent after Léon declines to do it himself. She is caught of course, forcing Léon to rescue her. Throughout the film Mathilda expresses a lot of emotions towards Léon, which he deflects well, often turning to humour to lighten many of the moods. Their mutual love for one another carries the film contrasting with the lead villain (played by Gary Oldman) who presents an ominous presence at all times. Again free Mathilda leads the agents to Léon where they hold her hostage as they attempt a raid on his apartment. In the end, Léon sacrifices himself not only to save Mathilda but to get revenge for her family’s death albiet not before arranging to leave her all his savings in the event of his death.
Doyle Hargraves: What’cha doin’ with that lawn mower blade Karl?
Karl Childers: I aim to kill you with it.
Billy Bob Thornton created one of the most unique characters ever and perhaps one of the most unlikely anti-heroes ever to appear in cinema in Karl Childers. He’s said he came up with the character while looking at himself in the mirror and patterned his speech off the way an old man spoke that he worked around at a nursing home before his acting career. I personally feel the film is a masterpiece strongly supported by Thornton’s performance. It’s as touching as a film can get while building up to a climax of horrendous violence though arguably justifiable.
So what makes Karl Childers an anti-hero? He’s an intellectually disabled man who has been institutionalized for killing his mother and her lover as a 12-year-old child with a kaiser blade. Some folks call it a sling blade, Karl calls it a kaiser blade. However, he’s a grown man now and has been released. He meets a young boy named Frank (played by Lucas Black) and immediately strikes up a friendship. He’s honest with Frank about why he was in the state hospital and discovers Frank has troubles of his own in his mother’s boyfriend Doyle Hargraves. Doyle (played by Dwight Yoakam) is a drunk construction worker who randomly gets violent and puts everyone around him in jeopardy. Karl knowing right from wrong weighs his options and decides the right thing to do would be to kill Doyle so as Frank and his mother can have a happier and better life. Though, before he goes about it he makes personal calls with several of the film’s characters. He arranges for Frank and his mother to stay at her friend Vaughn’s (played by John Ritter) house for the night and tells each one of them something unique before walking off. This leaves them all curious to his behaviour as each one calls out after him “Karl?”
Connor: Destroy all that which is evil.
Murphy: So that which is good may flourish.
The McMannus Brothers are Murphy (played by Norman Reedus) and Conner (played by Sean Patrick Flanery), two Irish-Catholic boys that live in an illegal loft in Boston. They’re good boys from meager beginnings that work in a meat factory. They’re the brainchild of writer and director Troy Duffy. Unknown to them at first, they eventually learn their father is a contract killer who was imprisoned long ago. He had one rule, No Women, No Children (sounds familiar).
What makes The McMannus Brothers anti-heroes? One St. Patrick’s Day while having drinks at their local bar with some friends a group of Russians come in and all hell breaks loose. The Russians get their asses kicked and burned, literally. Partially recovered, the Russians attempt to exact revenge, only the Brothers fight for their lives killing the Russians instead. However, before killing anyone, Conner first dives off a fire escape to save Murphy. The impact knocks Conner out and Murphy takes the opportunity to utilize a toilet lid to bash the Russian skulls in. Yet, they turn themselves into the Police and after revealing their ability to speak a multitude of languages while telling their story to the lead investigator, they are free to go. They choose to spend the night instead in a holding cell to avoid the media frenzy and in the night are both inspired to rid the world of wicked men after having calling’s from presumably God. They kill people that they decide are bad. Which raises the morality question, which is what any good anti-hero does.