I was reading Nathan Rabin’s Better Late than Never article about finally sitting down to watch the first season of The Wire. He mentions how the character of Omar is a nearly mythical-level bad-ass. That made me think of an AVQ&A question I’d love to see: Who is your all-time favorite bad-ass from television or film? Personally, Omar is great, but I might have to go with Michael Caine’s performance in Get Carter. —Jacob
There are so many excellent bad-asses in TV and film—Omar is a recent favorite, and so is Sayid on Lost. (I just watched all of season five last weekend, and was impressed anew with how great he looks in assassin mode.) Like much of the rest of the world, I have a soft spot for fictional cold-blooded killers with a lot of slick style. So what does it say about me that I immediately bypassed all those slicksters in favor of a cartoony one with terrible style, no taste for blood, and a soft streak a mile wide? I can’t help it, though—when I think of bad-assery, I think of Mr. T. as B.A. Baracus in The A-Team. To this day, there’s something gloriously, ridiculously self-aware about his pretense of being the toughest, scariest guy on the planet—this milk-drinking, plane-fearing, mom-respecting dude covered with gaudy gold, and speaking mostly in catchphrases and irritated grunts. He came from an earlier, gentler time in bad-assery, and I still love him for it.
I’m gonna leave Omar for somebody else, and turn to the masterful HBO series Deadwood for inspiration, mostly because I just finished re-watching it last night. You’re thinking “Al Swearengen!” And sure, he’s the obvious choice, right? He engineers the whole damn town, and he’s cold-blooded enough to do plenty of his murdering with his own hands. And then there’s Seth Bullock, the hot-headed sheriff who believes in justice, but isn’t averse to smashing in the faces of those who look at him (or Alma Garrett) sideways. I also admire the sharp tongue and never-back-down attitude of Charlie Utter, a character who never, ever shows fear throughout the series. But of all of these, I’m going to give the bad-assery title to Swearengen’s right-hand man, Dan Dority. Sure, he’s a loyal lapdog, but he’s so incredibly no-nonsense about his brutal work—and he seems to like it. Dority even gets a moment of reflection after a brutal one-on-one with Captain Turner (spoiler alert!)—whose eye he pulls from its socket before he starts delivering death blows with a piece of wood. But just when you think Dority might want to retire from the killing game, he returns at full strength to Al’s side.
Also, in case nobody else says it: Vic Motherfucking Mackey.
“The sun ain’t rose on the day I pay heed to what you say.” That’s Calamity Jane, lashing out at Charlie Utter, in just one of many lines that make her my vote for Deadwood’s best bad-ass. I still remember that line, from episode two, as the one that made me sit upright at the start and think “Hmmmm, there’s something in this show I think I should pay attention to.”
My personal favorite category of bad-ass is the “everyman who loses it,” and there is no bigger bad-ass in this category than Michael Douglas in Falling Down. His philosophy is simple: “If everybody will just stay out of my way, nobody will get hurt.” And yet that’s the problem with the world today—no one will just stay out of your way. And so Douglas becomes a take-no-shit crusader toting a duffel bag of guns on an antisocial urban warpath. What makes him such a bad-ass is his commonsense contempt for irrationality and injustice from wherever on the political spectrum it may come: He’s as tough on dishonest beggars and violent criminals as he is on wealthy old men and deceptive corporations. (Ralph Nader is a great consumer advocate and all, but he’d never shoot up a fast-food joint because of false advertising.) If Douglas was just a little less psychotic and trigger-happy, he’d make a great centrist candidate. Along with his guns and missile launchers, he’s also got some great bad-ass quips in his arsenal, from taunts to dying gangsters after a failed drive-by (“You missed”) to dying golfers. (“And now you’re going to die wearing that stupid little hat. How does that feel?”) What makes Douglas’ bad-assness complete is his unwavering belief in the correctness of his principles; captured at the end of his rampage across Los Angeles, he asks, “I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?”
It isn’t often that one of these AVQ&As has a definitive, indisputable correct answer, but this one does: It’s Batman. Seriously, folks: Batman, the bad-ass of all bad-asses. James Bond’s gadgets, Bruce Lee’s body, and Bill Gates’ money, all dedicated to finding evildoers and smashing their fucking faces in. The guy who has dedicated his entire life to making you pay for what some other guy did to his parents. A guy who is going to get you, no matter what: kill his friends, threaten his family, break his back—it’s all just going to make him more determined to pay you back. Batman is so bad-ass that he is able to convince the entire world that he is a fearsome, shadowy figure of nocturnal vengeance, even though he parades around in what is inarguably a ridiculous costume. Unfortunately, though, as obviously and clearly right as this answer is, I can’t use it here, because the question specified television or film, and for some reason, the Dark Knight has never been as menacing, unstoppable, and straight-up terrifying in his movie and TV appearances as he is in comics. So instead, I’ll stay in the DC universe, but flip to the other side: General Zod in Superman II. Played with supremely cool menace by Terence Stamp (who does an equally fine job of bad-assery in The Limey as a very different kind of killer), he answers one of the most terrifying questions in fiction: What if Superman didn’t care about human beings? When Zod and his cronies arrive on Earth, the only thing that stops them from slaughtering every living person on the planet is that they quickly grow bored of it. Even locked into a PG rating, the villain exudes a murderous quality you can feel in your bones. When he sneers his famous “Kneel before Zod!” line, you can still feel the hope drain out of you. (And yeah, I know, he loses in the end. Batman would have done the job quicker.)
Not to get all “girls rule, boys drool” on y’all, but, uh, hello? Lady bad-asses anyone? Being a big, strong, manly man is all well and good, but let’s see how stoic all these dudes are when they have to deal with cramps on top of all that ass-kicking. My first inclination was to give it to Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, but she got a little wishy-washy after Leoben got in her head, and much of her bad-assery seems to stem from how well she can “play with the boys,” chomping on cigars and starting fights and whatnot. But the ultimate female bad-ass doesn’t need to keep up with the boys; the boys can only hope to keep up with her. I’m talking, of course, about The Bride, a.k.a. Beatrix Kiddo, the deadliest woman in the world, as seen in the Kill Bill movies She’s driven by an obsessive desire for revenge, yes, but she pursues that desire with steadfast purpose, style, and grace. Setting aside her body count, which would put everyone else on this list to shame, her cool rationality and single-minded determination are what makes her so deadly. Hell, she actually intimidated her own big toe out of atrophy. Even when she’s as physically weak as a newborn, she’s still the scariest bitch on the block.
Deadwood’s Calamity Jane has already been mentioned, and my favorite screen bad-ass is also a Jane. But this one’s from Firefly, and he’s a dude. Jayne Cobb is about the roughest, toughest space-mercenary imaginable, but the genius of Joss Whedon turns him into a goofy, gun-worshipping, misogynist parody of the Han Solo archetype—while keeping the character utterly loveable. He has a folk song written about him (the infamous “The Man Called Jayne”—shades of “A Boy Named Sue”—from the Firefly episode “Jaynestown,” in which his selfish exploits inadvertently render him the second coming of Robin Hood). Plus, no matter how macho Jayne is, he’s never afraid to wear an ugly hat his mom knitted him. And if I had to pick a runner-up: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s street-fighting, alien-toppling George Nada from They Live. Somebody get the man some bubblegum already.
I thought about this for a while, and even though there are plenty of fictional bad-asses who would make great answers, I keep coming back to Bear Grylls from Man Vs. Wild. The guy climbed Mt. Everest at age 23! He drank his own piss, ate bugs out of shit, and gave himself an enema! He was in a deodorant commercial! And sure, he travels through caves and jungles with a camera crew in tow (unlike Survivorman) and has been criticized for dramatizing some situations, but he’s always game to do the most outrageous things possible with a huge smile. It takes a real bad-ass to float along using a sheep’s discarded carcass, donate some of the proceeds of his show to charity, then write a children’s book about extreme survival scenarios to train a next generation of bad-asses.
I was going to avoid being pretentious and/or poncey with my answer, but since everyone has taken most of my potential answers (i.e. the entire cast of Deadwood) and “every Cormac McCarthy character ever” seems a bit unfair, I’m going to go even more literary on this and pick Captain Ahab. Now, mind, he may not be a traditional choice for this sort of thing, but I think the thing that makes a bad-ass is persistence, and Ahab has that in spades. He also clearly has the awe and respect of everyone on board his ship, the terrifying visage that makes many a bad-ass, and one great nemesis. No one really reads Herman Melville and thinks, “Yeah. That’s some awesome bad-assery right there,” particularly since more is suggested about Ahab than we actually see him do. But at his core, the guy’s like a great pulp hero and/or madman, and that quality is what makes Moby-Dick still thrilling to read, even if you don’t give two shits about harpoons.
When I think cinematic bad-assery, the first name that springs to mind is Daniel Day-Lewis. Throughout whatever-the-fuck that last decade was named, Day-Lewis towered over his peers and costars like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, first as the bloodthirsty Bill The Butcher in Gangs Of New York, then as a man who gains the world and loses his soul in There Will Be Blood. Pity the poor actors who had to act opposite Day-Lewis. In Gangs Of New York, his Godzilla-sized bad-assery made Leonardo DiCaprio look like a Catholic schoolgirl by comparison. Day-Lewis similarly ran roughshod over co-star/arch-nemesis Paul Dano as an evil oilman. Day-Lewis’ snarling tough was such a volcanic force of nature that he could probably create booming oil wells just by punching the ground. To quote another great bad-ass of the decade, King Kong had nothing on him.
At the risk of being obvious, of treading well-worn AVQ&A territory, and—most importantly—to keep myself from blurting out “CHUCK BASS IN SEASON ONE OF GOSSIP GIRL!”: Darth Vader. And not Anakin Skywalker, the whiny, troubled Jedi who doesn’t like how sand is coarse, rough, irritating, and gets all over the place, but the hulking vision of intimidation whom that nerd became after Obi-Wan Kenobi pushed him into a lava pit. Vader wouldn’t be so wishy-washy as to say he “doesn’t like” sand—he’d say he hates the stuff, then use that emotion to tap into the energy that binds the universe together to turn all the sand on Tatooine into glass, just because he could. He lacks Han Solo’s rogueish panache, and he can’t be the cool, silent loner-type like Boba Fett, but he won’t hesitate to Force-crush the windpipe of anyone who forgets that it’s either Vader’s way, or the space-highway. (The space-highway is not an attractive option, because it is a cold, airless void.) To reach another wildly obvious conclusion: As terrifying as the sounds of his respirator are, and as cool as it is that James Earl Jones’ basso profundo can make science-fiction mumbo-jumbo sound like Shakespeare (can you imagine Hayden Christensen lending any gravity to a line like “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force”?), the key to Vader’s bad-assness is his mask. Those unblinking eyes, the permanently affixed grimace—it’s enough to make a sweet Halloween costume, even if the rest of the costume is a black sweatshirt-sweatpants combo, a homemade cape, and a chest-piece made from a cardboard box and pieces of construction paper. (Not that I have any experience with such a costume…)
Sorry, colleagues. Sorry, friends. You’re all wrong. The biggest and baddest of the asses is Clarence Boddicker, the crime boss of Old Detroit in Robocop. He spouts oddly aesthetic non sequiturs while intimidating (or fragging) police and rival criminals alike. “Guns, guns, guns!” he enthuses when all the henchmen are cocking their weapons. “The Tigers are playin’ tooo-night, and I never miss a game!” He’s tough on the street, and he’s even tougher in the boardroom. I mean, can you really call somebody bad-ass if they’re not making deals with the military-industrial complex? But it’s the touch of crazy that makes Boddicker the ultimate bad-ass, and that’s all Kurtwood Smith. Somehow his oddball improvisatory moves—like dipping two fingers in a cocaine manufacturer’s fancy glass of wine and sniffing them—are all the more awesome from the perspective of the twenty-first century, where we know Smith as a comedy dad on That 70’s Show and Worst Week.
You call yourself a salesman, you son of a bitch? I ask that as prelude to my response: As a lanky, sensitive adolescent, I lived through so many bad-asses vicariously, which continues even now that I’m less lanky and sensitive. When it comes to straight-up, eat-a-bag-of-dicks bad-assery, my favorite is Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. Sure, it forever skewed my conception of the sales world as a soul-sucking hell of backstabbing alpha-males, but goddamn, Baldwin just kills it. He’s in the film for less than 10 minutes, but it’s unforgettable. Speaking to a group of underperforming sales reps, he goes beyond emasculating them to full-on evisceration via a barrage of endlessly quotable zingers:
“The leads are weak? The fuckin’ leads are weak? YOU’RE weak!”
“FUCK YOU, that’s my name! You know why, mister? Because you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight. I drove an $80,000 BMW. That’s my name.”
“Because only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line that is dotted. You hear me, you fuckin’ faggots?”
“You know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate.”
Like Genevieve, I also wanted to pay homage to a lady bad-ass, so that’s why I’m going to go with Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth. Like plenty of stereotypical bad-asses, she knows how to make people do what she wants, has a mean streak, and enjoys a nice stiff drink. But what makes her special is how unapologetic she is—about her casual insults to her children, her xenophobia, her desire to one-up the other bitches in town. Plus, of course, when shit needs taking care of (a math teacher getting bumped off, hijacking a cruise ship), she takes care of it—and looks fabulous doing it.
It’s easy to be a bad-ass when you’re a millionaire playboy with an infinite stock of bat-shaped weapons at your disposal, or you look like Alec Baldwin circa 1992, but what about when you’re Joe Pesci in Goodfellas or Casino? One of my favorite entries from 2006’s Found: Volume II is someone’s list of self-confidence-building exercises, including this gem: “Study your heroes. Watch Joe Pesci, how he speaks, how he carries himself.” Provided he wasn’t referring to Joe Pesci in The Super or something, I know exactly what that poor, tired-of-being-meek soul meant. After all, Pesci isn’t a particularly intimidating guy—he’s short, he’s not in very good shape, and before he lost his hair, he was a prime candidate for Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians. Yet none of the supposed bad-asses on this list would want to challenge him, because he absolutely, positively, does not give a shit about living or dying. Self-confidence bordering on self-destructive nihilism is, to me, essential to being a bad-ass. In Goodfellas, Tommy DeVito is beaten unconscious by cops, and the second he wakes up, he insults them again. (“Bing, what are you doing here? I thought I told you to go fuck your mother!”) He stomps a made guy to death for embarrassing him in front of his friends, then stops off on the way to burying him for a little baked ziti at his mom’s house. He even murders little Michael Imperioli for daring to stand up for himself. Point is, you don’t mouth off to Tommy DeVito, unless you want to end up in a hole. And what, you think it’s the first hole he’s dug? As for Casino, we could talk about Nicky Santoro’s overwhelming indifference toward jail, how he’ll squash your head like a fucking grapefruit in a vise just to get a name, or even the little things, like the time he and his crew got loaded and shot up a cop’s house. But really, I only need call your attention to the infamous “pen scene.” (“Is that a little fuckin’ girl? What happened to the fuckin’ tough guy who told my friend to stick it up his fuckin’ ass?”) And since both Tommy and Nicky end up getting capped by former allies, it just goes to show that everyone’s afraid of Joe Pesci—even his friends. What’s more bad-ass than that?
Bad-asses are people smart enough to play a situation to the hilt, and capable of handling themselves in case that plays goes sour. So I have to go with the great Toshirô Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Yojimbo isn’t my favorite Kurosawa, and it’s probably not my favorite Mifune performance, but it’s still a wickedly fun movie, and Mifune is unbeatable in it. He plays a ronin who comes to a small town ruled by two rival gangs. After getting the lay of the land, and realizing there’s no law and order to be found anywhere, and both gangs are ruled by selfish, foolish families, Mifune decides to play both sides against the middle, first proving his skill with the sword, then offering his services to each side, getting them to pay up front, but never really committing to either for very long. The story comes out of a Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest, (which is terrific, by the way) but the tone is pure Kurosawa, a bitter dark comedy about the stupidity of greed and the hollowness of grasping ambition. And Mifune rules it. He has this incredibly physical presence onscreen—just watch the way he’ll scratch himself from time to time, not like he’s got fleas or anything, but as if he’s trying to make himself look harmless and slightly foolish, right up until he cuts you down the middle. In the climax, he pits his sword against a man with a revolver, and it’s one of my favorite showdowns in movies, because it should feel like some kind of stupid movie lie, or else it should’ve had some kind of cheat. But there’s no cheat, and no lie. You completely believe that, if he needed to, Mifune could take out an armed man with sheer wit and force of will. I think I’m going to go watch that again now.
There is no bad-ass more bad-ass than Lee Marvin in Point Blank, John Boorman’s adaptation of The Hunter, the first Donald Westlake novel (written under the name Richard Stark) to feature the beyond-hardboiled character of Parker. He’s called Walker here, but Marvin captures the essence of the character Westlake’s readers met on the page. He’s remorselessly focused on one single goal. Specifically, that’s revenge against the two people who betrayed him and left him for dead: his former partner and his wife. Boorman dips into the deep end of acid-fried ‘60s San Francisco and employs no end of cutting-edge editing strategies. But Marvin, constantly moving while looking unmoved, remains the granite center of the piece. He’ll get what he wants. People will get hurt. That’s all there is to it.