When it comes to exuding evil out of every pore, either you have a knack for it or you don't. Some actors are just good at being bad, to the point that they seem miscast when playing a hero. For the life of me, I cannot fathom what Gary Oldman is supposed to be doing in the new Batman series, playing a kind-hearted desk cop who pops up every now and then to tell Batman he's doing a heck of a job. If Oldman's character doesn't turn into a bedbug-crazy villain by the end of The Dark Knight, I'm cashing in my chips. John Travolta is a good example of an actor who can swing both ways -- he played a perfectly good villain in two John Woo films, but doesn't carry any of that over to his comedies or dramas. He has the knack, and can turn it on and off.
Of the younger generation, Tim Olyphant is an up-and-coming actor to watch for his villain-chops. He tested them out as a memorably slimy porn-guy in The Girl Next Door and as the shiftless drug-dealer in Go. He'll next be testing his mettle as a traditional kingpin villain in Live Free Or Die Hard, or as the rest of the world knows it, 4.0. Today, I'm making a list of actors who fit a particular mold -- the ones that do villainy superbly when they do it, but hardly ever do it. Maybe they don't realize how much eye-gouging, evil-eyeing, venom-spewing potential they have, or maybe they just need new agents who will give them a great horror or action script that requires an awesome antagonist.
The only thing I could think while watching the Pyro character do his thing in X-Men: The Last Stand was "why don't the X-Men track down Charlie McGee, who is probably some 30-year old scarred-up outlaw biker chick/freelance hitwoman, and have her show up and fire-battle this guy into the next life?" There's nothing I'd jump in line to see faster than a hard-edged sequel to Firestarter, with Drew Barrymore's character now completely warped by her childhood experiences, and basically available to flame-broil anyone you please, if the price is right. I didn't exactly dig Barrymore's trailer-park-Lolita Poison Ivy phase, but I maintain that she has some great villainy in her future. There's something in her eyes that screams the polar opposite of the hippy-dippy, bright-eyed 'human sunflower' image she so aggressive pushes on us. We're talking about Drew Barrymore here -- doesn't anymore remember 1985 through, like, 1996? She still has major issues, and she needs a role that will give her a body count.
The creepiest thing about both Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Altman's The Player was Sydney Pollack's portrayal of an uber-debauched wealthy sicko character. In Eyes, he could hardly be bothered with the woman who was dying of an overdose in his bathroom; after all, his guests were waiting on him to return to the party. His character also never came close to divulging everything he knew about how in God's name a quasi-gnostic bacchanal was going on in every room of his mansion. He was the ultimate off-screen villain -- the audience was seeing him on his best behavior. In The Player, Pollack was Dick Mellon (great name), a sleazy Hollywood lawyer who advises his client, suspected of brutal murder: "This is a tough one. Good luck!" and advertises the fact that Jeff Goldblum is a "friend." Pollack should get a few more of these bizarro-creep performances under his belt, while there's still time.
3. Ethan Hawke
I've often said that the first time I saw Before Sunrise, I thought I was being toyed with: I expected that at some point during the night, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke were going to pass by some yellowed wanted poster tacked to a street lamp, with just Hawke's face plastered on it, and the movie's first half would turn out to be a tease for a killer-in-disguise film. No such luck. The more 'romantic' Hawke tries to be, the more dangerous he seems to me. He also clearly has it in him to play a great serial slasher, but hasn't done so yet. Taking Lives was a more or less ridiculous film, illogical and desperate to telegraph its plot twists from the first ten minutes. Still, something about Hawke's scraggly, feral face just says 'don't trust this man,' and he needs a role that will allow him to play into that. He certainly can't play the 'befuddled young man' anymore -- Mystery Date was a long time ago, and he also really shouldn't play any more of the boring hero roles like the one he took on in Training Day. What a waste of talent that one was.
4. Judd Nelson
No, this has nothing to do The Breakfast Club, in which 26-year old Judd played the world's oldest high-school bully. I've watched The Breakfast Club a few times, and each time I found it so boring I could barely get through it. The film that makes me think Judd Nelson's career could be resurrected in high-villainy style is 1989's Relentless, one of my favorite bad-good 80s cop films. Nelson plays Buck Taylor, a bug-eyed killer whose father structured his childhood like a boot camp and turned him into a guy seeking revenge on the entire world. In fact, he made a point of selecting his victims randomly, from the phone book. I haven't followed Nelson's recent career trajectory, down into the bowels of straight-to-DVD films, so it's likely there's a good villainous performance or two in there somewhere. I'll continue to wait patiently for the Return of Judd, and in the meantime, Michael Bay should at least throw the guy a bone and let him play Rodimus Prime in the Transformers movie.
5. Dina Meyer
Among the many bad decisions that went into the making of 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis, one of the worst was creating a sneaky Romulan sexpot character for Dina Meyer to play and then letting it die on the vine. If Dina Meyer is playing a Romulan temptress, I want that to be, like, half the movie at least. In fact, I want to see a whole spin-off film based on that character. Like Judd Nelson, Meyer also walks the DTDVD path -- maybe she and Nelson and Dominique Swain and Steven Seagal have a regular card-game -- but she's more than ready for prime-time. At this point in her career, she should be a regular go-to leading lady for horror and action films, and if she were ever handed the same kind of sexual-murderess character Sharon Stone played in Basic Instinct, I think she would knock it out of the park. Here's hoping she gets the opportunity -- maybe Paul Verhoeven still has her number. And by the way, we can ill afford another Klendathu.
My two favorite Nicole Kidman roles are her psychopathically clueless weatherwoman/social climber in To Die For and her suburban-noir-moll character in 1993's tragically underrated Malice. Just watching Kidman work in Malice -- a film that has a whole serial killer story as a subplot! -- will convince you that this actress has some serious anger issues that just can't be faked. She has a lot of villain-performance tricks up her sleeve, including a good 'yelling voice,' in which she drops into a coughing register that almost seems to be searing her vocal chords. The fact that both of these villain roles came in the years before Kidman could essentially write her own ticket in Hollywood tells us that she's probably not personally interested in finding the great villain parts, but she's still great at it. Her semi-recent role in Birthday Girl occupied a bizarre middle-ground between villainess and love interest, which didn't really work for me; I'm still waiting for her to return to the self-important, preternaturally-angry crackpot characters she does so well.
I've never been one to disparage Matthew McConaughey's acting talents -- he just has a knack for picking bad projects that add nothing to his resume. Whether it's bad action, like Sahara, or bad comedy, like that Sarah Jessica Parker thing, or bad drama, like A Time to Kill, it's just usually bad films he ends up in. It doesn't mean he can't work with material, and turn it into something interesting. One of my favorite McConaughey roles goes all the way back to the early 90s, during the first batch of Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake/sequel/whatevers, when he played a greasy Leatherface relative called Vilmer, who terrorizes Renee Zellweger and puts a good spin on the whole 'good ol' boy/inbred monster' thing that the Chainsaw series thrives on. I'd like to see McConaughey return to the horror world in full-force, and leave tepid romcoms alone for a while. Like Woody Harrelson, he's best when he's emoting Kentucky-fried, torn-t-shirt malevolence, and could easily play either a great religiously-motivated killer or a smiling woman-killer.