The 1970s is widely regarded to be the greatest decade for American cinema. When Hollywood’s traditions began to bomb at the box office, studios took chances on smaller, more experimental movies exploring darker subjects. Movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and Taxi Driver paved the way for the New Hollywood movement.
New Hollywood also resulted in darker action movies. In Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood’s vigilante cop went after a sadistic serial killer inspired by the Zodiac. In The French Connection, Gene Hackman’s hard-boiled detective broke the law in his narrow-minded pursuit of a heroin smuggler.
10 Street (Hard Times)
Charles Bronson stars in Walter Hill’s debut feature Hard Times as Chaney, a bare-knuckle boxer who’s undefeated until he meets a ruthless fighter who could be his equal. As always, Bronson is authentically tough in the role of Chaney.
Nick Dimitri has the brawn and menace to make an effective villain. The audience doesn’t know what to expect in the brutal climactic fight scene, because Dimitri could convincingly beat Bronson (but, of course, Bronson wins).
9 Han (Enter The Dragon)
In Bruce Lee’s most critically acclaimed martial arts actioner, Enter the Dragon, Lee plays a Shaolin fighter who goes undercover for British Intelligence. He competes in a martial arts tournament on a drug kingpin’s island in order to take down the kingpin.
The crime boss, Han, played by Shih Kien, is a classically hammed-up Bondian villain: he’s a rogue Shaolin monk with an artificial left hand that he occasionally replaces with weapons like claws and blades.
8 Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With The Golden Gun)
Like most of Roger Moore’s James Bond films, The Man with the Golden Gun was met with generally negative reviews from critics. A lot of Moore’s one-liners are cringeworthy and the movie’s goofy action scenes are more focused on slapstick humor than high-octane thrills.
But the titular golden gun-wielding villain – Francisco Scaramanga, played by Christopher Lee – is praised as one of the series’ best-characterized antagonists. Scaramanga is a lot like Bond himself. He’s a similarly cold-blooded assassin, and he only wants to kill 007 to prove that he’s the greatest hitman in the world.
7 Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Smokey And The Bandit)
The titular “Bandit” in the action-packed road trip comedy Smokey and the Bandit is the quintessential Burt Reynolds character. He’s wisecracking, charismatic, and easy to root for. He and his buddy Snowman set out with the simple yet illegal goal of transporting a shipment of beer.
The Bandit’s job is to distract the cops with a cross-country car chase. Jackie Gleason makes a hysterical counterpoint to Reynolds’ renegade as the flustered lawman who constantly has egg on his face.
6 Toecutter (Mad Max)
While the Mad Max sequels defined the franchise as a gonzo vision of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the original indie hit was a grounded dystopian thriller set in a recognizable near-future.
Mel Gibson stars as a roguish cop whose family is targeted by a ruthless biker gang, led by the sinister Toecutter. After these bikers murder Max’s wife and child, the audience gladly gets behind his roaring rampage of revenge in the finale.
5 Scorpio (Dirty Harry)
Don Siegel’s groundbreaking thriller Dirty Harry brought a gritty New Hollywood revisionism to the action genre. Clint Eastwood’s titular vigilante cop – now the star of a popular franchise – was first introduced to audiences through his relentless pursuit of a psychotic killer inspired by the Zodiac.
Andy Robinson gives a truly unsettling turn as the Scorpio killer, especially in the intense finale when he hijacks a school bus full of children at gunpoint.
4 Luther (The Warriors)
Walter Hill’s comic book-infused vision of gang warfare, The Warriors, tells the story of a New York gang that’s targeted by every other gang in the city after they’re wrongfully accused of the murder of a gangland leader.
David Patrick Kelly plays the hateable villain, Luther, the sadistic gangster who’s actually responsible for the murder. He’s the last adversary that the Warriors face on their way back to Coney Island and their arc comes full circle as they team up to take him down.
3 Jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me/Moonraker)
Another Moore-era Bond villain, Jaws is the iconic henchman played by Richard Kiel. Jaws initially worked for Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me and proved to be so popular that he was brought back under the employment of Hugo Drax in Moonraker.
Jaws has a classic Bond villain quirk – metal teeth – and they’re used to fantastic effect in the movies’ action scenes. In the finale of The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond lowers Jaws into a shark-infested tank and he ends up eating a shark, not the other way around. When Bond tries to escape by ski lift, Jaws chews through the cable.
2 Alain Charnier (The French Connection)
William Friedkin’s The French Connection is the ultimate cat-and-mouse thriller, chronicling hard-boiled cop Popeye Doyle’s investigation into French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier in New York City. Gene Hackman’s aggressive performance as Popeye is contrasted with Fernando Rey’s eerie calmness as Charnier.
Like all great villains, Charnier brings out the worst in the hero (or antihero, since Popeye makes a lot of morally gray decisions). As Popeye’s pursuit of Charnier becomes increasingly narrow-minded, he bends more and more laws to bring him to justice, building to a haunting ambiguous ending.
1 Darth Vader (Star Wars)
On any list of the most iconic movie villains of all time, Darth Vader is bound to crack the top three. Inspired by mythology and rooted in archetypes, Vader is the ultimate villain: the supernaturally powerful leader of a monolithic empirical force that rules a galaxy far, far away with an iron fist.
The original 1977 Star Wars movie introduced Vader as the faceless embodiment of pure evil. The sequels would go on to humanize Vader, revealing that there’s a man under the mask and the heroic Luke Skywalker is his estranged son (teasing that Luke could be turned to the dark side – or Vader could be redeemed).
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