Teachers, mentors, trainers, instructors, surrogate parents: they all merge together in the movies. It's a time-honored tradition to examine the teacher-student relationship, starting long before Robert Donat won an Oscar as a beloved teacher in Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939. It's a tradition that's served as the main plot device for hundreds of movies, and it's revived again in The Karate Kid, which opened wide this weekend, with Jackie Chan teaching Jaden Smith.
Chan, as an apparently broken-down maintenance man living a solitary existence, serves in several roles. He teaches young Smith the physical aspects of martial arts, but also provides a cultural context, showing him the splendors of scenic China and the spiritual origins behind kung fu. For the fatherless boy, Chan also becomes a surrogate father, and discovers that the young man has a thing or two he can teach him. None of the real learning takes places in a classroom. Still, Chan initially earns respect from the boy because he can kick ass, as he demonstrates in dealing with a group of bullies. That inspired this list, which consider teachers who may be wise, but can also administer discipline in a fear-inspiring way.
1. Pai Mei in Kill Bill: Vol. 2
The Bride (Uma Thurman) is Caucasian, American, and a woman, a trifecta of hate for the distinguished Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), but she is determined to learn the secrets of the martial arts that only Pai Mei knows. Pai Mai is a coiled snake, ready to strike before his victim even knows he has been attacked, and is, perhaps, the deadliest teacher in the history of cinema. He imposes harsh lessons upon his young student, but she endures. The lessons will save her life.
2. Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables
Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) needs a teacher. His by-the-book techniques are not working in Prohibition Era Chicago, and he's quickly become a laughingstock. Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) knows what's what and who's who, but he holds back until he's convinced that Ness will fully embrace the "Chicago way." Figuratively, Jimmy kicks Ness in the butt, and the lessons begin in earnest.
3. Yoda in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
The ancient Jedi, voiced by Frank Oz, is certainly an unconventional instructor, speaking in confounding riddles and training with unusual methods. For all the talk and demonstrations of strength, though, we had to wait until Attack of the Clones to see Yoda in action, wielding a lightsaber and flying through the air in combat. This is one teacher who could take care of an entire school with one hand tied behind his back.
4. John Milton in The Devil's Advocate
John Milton's classroom is the courtroom, the board room and the conference room as he schools Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) in the ways of the world. Kevin, a hotshot Florida lawyer who's never lost a case, is lured to Manhattan by the prospect of working for the most powerful law firm in the world. And Milton (Al Pacino) has an answer for every question raised by Kevin, who falls under the spell of his seductive teacher. As Kevin discovers, however, Milton is not to be trifled with.
5. Charles Xavier in X-Men
Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is a gentle persuader. He speaks in low, reassuring tones, maintaining eye contact with his students from his wheelchair as he cajoles and counsels them. He has great wisdom, but is happy to share it with those he teaches, having faith that they will use the knowledge to good effect. When push comes to shove, however, Professor Xavier is not hesitant to use his power to discipline the unruly.
6. Andy Norris in Class of 1984
Mark Lester's 1982 flick inspired a host of rip-offs that never caught the spirit of fear and anxiety that hums throughout the picture. Mild Andy Norris (Perry King) arrives at an inner-city high school with ideals intact, only to be slowly reduced to a violent animal by the actions of his students, most notably the evil Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten). Andy doesn't really want to kick their asses, but it becomes a matter of survival.
7. Joe Clark in Lean on Me
Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) brooks no nonsense, and it's thrilling to watch him clean up a New Jersey high school that has fallen on hard educational times. He has no regard for age or seniority; it's the nonsense that he can't stand, whether it's a teacher failing to do his job or a student who refuses to learn. He storms around the school, breathing fire and brimstone, and by golly he makes a difference. He's my teacher of the year.