In the new crime biopic Public Enemies, Johnny Depp stars as John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber who became Public Enemy #1 in 1930s in the United States in the beginning years of the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI. During the Great Depression, the real-life Dillinger was a two-time escaped convict who not only pulled two dozen bank heists across the MidWest, but murdered several police officers and led a dangerous gang of unsavory characters.
But in the film, we see a different side to this criminal underworld figure, one of a graceful, charismatic man. Depp’s character is someone you can actually believe was able to woo his beautiful young girlfriend into total devotion and get a gang of ruthless thugs to give him respect as their leader.
It’s the combination of Dillinger’s supervillain-like abilities and Depp’s charming portrayal of this machine gun-toting crime lord that makes this on-screen character so alluring. But this role of the bad guy with likable charm isn’t a new one, though, there’s been plenty in cinematic history. Here’s a look at 10 Charismatic Bad Guys in Film.
Keyser SÃ¶zefrom The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects brought us so much as a movie. It exposed Bryan Singer to the mainstream, collated a lot of stars in a great ensemble cast (including one of Stephen Baldwin’s few good performances)… but most of all it brought us Keyser SÃ¶ze.
SÃ¶ze’s involvement in the criminals’ dealings is never actually confirmed at any point in the movie — everything we hear or see about him is pure conjecture. And this is what makes the character such a great bad guy. Verbal Kint describes him perfectly in the following sentence:
“Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for SÃ¶ze. You never knew. That was his power.”
What makes SÃ¶ze such a formidable and charismatic bad guy? It’s the fact that he can get to anyone, anywhere, and no one can prove that he’s even involved. He’s the perfect elusive villain, seemingly omnipotent and completely untouchable.
— Keyser SÃ¶ze
Anton Chigurhfrom No Country For Old Men
In the Academy Award-winning film adaptation of famed writer Cormac McCarthy’s 1980’s-set drama, Woody Harrelson’s character of Carson Wells compares Anton Chigurh (masterfully played by Javier Bardem), a hitman, to the bubonic plague. This comparison of one absolutely unrelenting force to another is probably one of the most chilling in cinematic history, and forever made the pageboy haircut a horrifying thing.
Throughout the entire movie, we see Anton move from person to person killing anyone who gets in the way of his objective, being completely emotionless as he does so. He is truly a terrifying figure, yet there’s something compelling about him. He’s a bad guy that draws you in and makes you want to know more about him.
— T. Walters
Agent Smithfrom the Matrix trilogy
In the epic sci-fi trilogy that is the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix series, there is one villain that is unrelenting, uncompromising, and absolutely fucking scary. That villain is Hugo Weaving‘s Agent Smith character. Methodical and emotionless like the computer program that he is, he stops at nothing to complete his mission of eliminating “The One” and all of those whose minds have been freed. He cannot be stopped or only slowed down. Yet, he’s so well-dressed and impeccably groomed, not to mention well-spoken; just listen to how he enunciates,”Mr. Anderson.” Of all the bad guys in the Matrix films, he’s the one with charisma and charm. If only he’d embrace his good quality, instead of being so damn ruthless and relentless.
— T. Walters
JD from Heathers
There are few prerequisites to being a charismatic bad guy: Are you mysterious bordering on creepy? Got a maniacal, piercing stare with an equally sinister smile? Got a plan to take over the world/kill tons of people? Chicks drawn to you no matter how badly you treat them? If you answered in the affirmative to all these questions, buddy, you’re a bad guy. Jason Dean (Christian Slater) passed this test with flying colours. You can call him J.D. – adds a little mystery and a whole heap of cool. How very. He only had to give Veronica (Winona Ryder) a look in the school cafeteria and she went loopy for him and he was not afraid to pull a real gun on two meat-heads immediately after. He enjoyed killing people and even had the cheek to get a kick out of making it look like a suicide. Until he decided he wanted to blow up the entire school with everyone inside it, that is. Despite all of his bad points, J.D. was an incredibly kind and gentle person who probably enjoyed flower arranging. Ich LÃ¼ge.
Jareth, The Goblin Kingfrom Labyrinth
When it comes to purely charismatic bad guys, I’m not sure you can top Jareth, The Goblin King from Labyrinth. Played by David Bowie, Jareth is the King of a massive labyrinth and what he lacks in pure evil, he makes up for in personality, horribly questionable clothing choices, and a knack for catchy song and dance!
The Goblin King isn’t a violent person who attacks or directly tries to inflict damage; he is a sneaky sort, who manipulates with words and a sort of magical influence to ensure that things happen as he wishes them to. In certain occasions, if someone is doing a little better than he expects them to do in his labyrinth, he will simply command his army of goblins to unleash one of their destructive contraptions upon you.
Many might mistake the man for someone incapable of evil, but looking past those painfully skin-tight pants and fluffy hair would be your last mistake. Before you know it, you would be taking a bath in the infamous Bog of Eternal Stench, never to loved or spoken to ever again.
With the seamless transition of a weightless crystal ball from one side to the other, The Goblin King definitely grabs a spot among the best.
Now dance, magic, dance.
— The Movie God
Magnetofrom the X-Men trilogy
As a young Jewish boy, Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, was held in a Nazi concentration camp, where his mutant ability to control metal with his mind began to manifested itself. Afterward, he began to fight for the rights of mutants everywhere, for fear that they would be exterminated like his religious brethren were in the 1940s, but eventually his zealousness for believing that super-powered mutants were superior to humans caused a riff between him and his telepathic friend Charles Xavier.
Magneto is responsible for the death of many innocent (and not so innocent) lives, which makes him a really bad guy, yet he’s so much like his friend Xavier, whom everyone loves, that it’s hard to really see him a villain. He’s intelligent, charming, and persuasive as he’s been able to corral a massive following of mutants willing to do his bidding. Even though he’s dangerous as can be, when he breaks out of his specially-designed plastic and glass prison in X-2, you can’t help but cheer for this badass that just cannot be held down. Seeing him and Xavier as young men in the third X-Men film only reinforced that Magneto is really a swell guy underneath all that anger. It’s no wonder why Xavier just wants his old pal back.
— T. Walters
Bill from Kill Bill 1 & 2
Ah, Bill. One of the last, and likely best roles in the career of the late David Carradine is a role that demands your attention.
In Kill Bill 1 & 2 as the head of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, Bill led his group of lethal warriors into a chapel to massacre one of their own and nine others who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is the ultimate example of just how evil Bill is — a man who stops at nothing to get things done, and someone who you do not want to double-cross.
What makes Bill different from other baddies, though, is how he is behind the curtain. He’s not large or intimidating, and when you listen to him talk and interact with those he cares about, you can almost find yourself actually liking this heartless killer. In particular: to see this man who has ended the lives of countless people as a father to his young daughter, you see this side that we as viewers don’t think about with villains of his stature.
Add a wonderful Superman comic book analogy to top it all off, and we have here one of the most charismatic and intriguing bad guys of all time.
— The Movie God
Darth Vader – from the original Star Wars trilogy
The power of technological terrorist weaponry is insignificant to the power of the dark side of the Force that Darth Vader wields. With the ability to kill with the wave of a hand and a conscience that’s clear enough to torture young princesses and encourage the destruction of entire worlds, Vader is not one to be messed with. Oh no, fear him you should. But while the Imperial March that typically accompanies Vader’s entrance in the Star Wars films is meant to scare and intimidate us, over time, the Dark Lord of the Sith’s presence has truly become a welcomed one. Yeah, he might not be able to do something as simple as retrieve some measly stolen data tapes from a bunch of ill-equipped insurrectionists, but he’s still a powerful villain, one you definitely don’t want to make a deal with. You really should hate him, but you can’t help but love this helmeted, asthmatic man/machine hybrid who, let’s face it, became everybody’s favorite baby daddy the minute he revealed to Luke Skywalker “I am your father.” When Vader tells Luke they should get rid of the Emperor so that they could “rule the galaxy as father and son,” there was a little part of us that really wished they would have. Just remember not to make Sith Daddy angry or you might lose a hand.
— Empress Eve
The Jokerfrom The Dark Knight
When it comes to charismatic bad guys, The Joker from The Dark Knight takes the whole cake. Yes, the clown prince of darkness is a sociopath of the highest order but he is so damn entertaining to watch. Played by actor Heath Ledger, this version of the popular Batman villain definitely embodies the essence of The Joker’s playful yet deadly personality but with a sinister twist only comic book fans have seen. Underneath the playfulness, there’s a mean streak that will rear its ugly head at any moment. No scene in the film better encapsulates Joker’s mean streak than the interrogation scene where Batman and Joker meet face to face for the first time. Joker has taken both Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes hostage and attached explosives to them and Batman is trying to beat the location out of him. As Bat’s fists fly, all Joker does is laugh until finally he gives up two addresses, each on opposite ends of the city. Batman races to Dawes’ location only to find Dent in her place, surprising the Dark Knight and the audience. Joker had pulled a fast one, leading Batman to the wrong location. Ledger’s Joker is mesmerizing to watch and that’s no joke.
— Jack Bauerstein83
Khan Noonien Singh from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Khan. He is smarter than you and stronger than you. He can charm practically anybody into endangering their careers and livelihoods for his benefit. You can not kill him but you are welcome to try. Unfortunately most of the time you will fail because nothing short of being within arm’s length of a device capable of creating a planet when it detonates will kill him. Exile him and you will just make him angry. Kill someone he loves, or at least be someone he blames for the death of someone he loves, and you can count on Khan coming for you with everything he has in his mind and his body.
Star Trek II producer Harve Bennett found that adversary in Khan, whose one-shot appearance in the original series episode “Space Seed” left a greater impact in most fans’ consciousness than any Klingon or Tribble. Obviously the only actor who could play this soon-to-be iconic master of the universe with the towering white mane and the mighty chest would be the one who originated the role, the one and only Ricardo Montalban. Montalban gave a revelatory performance that raised the bar for every future Trek movie and villain. After losing his beloved wife a vengeance-driven rage consumes Khan, and when that rage fuses with the character’s superior intellect and physical strength it turns the man into a weapon deadlier than any phaser. The respect Khan commands and earns from his crew is equal to that of Captain (now Admiral) James T. Kirk and his crew: each crew trusts in their commander and believes in his mission enough to follow him to the ends of the universe in order to complete the objective. The old Klingon proverb says that revenge is a dish best served cold. If Khan does the serving, best be ready for seconds.
No Jules from Pulp Fiction?
Comment by David Spira — July 1, 2009 @ 10:23 pm
as much as people hate on tom cruise, he was a great bad guy in collateral
Comment by mos — July 2, 2009 @ 3:30 am
Comment by Jamie — July 2, 2009 @ 12:10 pm
Oh c’mon! BILL THE BUTCHER from Gangs of New York!!! The dude was oozing with charisma.
Comment by Riki — July 2, 2009 @ 12:10 pm
Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), from Silence in the Lambs?
Stansfield (Gary Oldman), from Leon?
Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), from Speed?
Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), from Die Hard?
Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), from The Wicker Man?
Comment by XD — July 2, 2009 @ 1:29 pm
Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Tie In The West.
Or Denzel Washington in Training Day.
All the choices in the comments section are beyond valid.
Comment by Jerry — July 2, 2009 @ 2:51 pm
We should have did a top 20. All the suggestions in the comments section sound really good. I would also have recommended Daniel Plainview from THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
Comment by BAADASSSSS! — July 2, 2009 @ 4:20 pm
ZOMG… what about Zorg from Fifth Element!?!?
Comment by Clint Jones — July 2, 2009 @ 6:36 pm
gotta agree with Riki one, Bill the Butcher should definitely have been on this list.
Comment by Dax — July 2, 2009 @ 7:22 pm
Trust me, we had a ton of names as possibilities. All of these suggestions are great, especially Bill the Butcher – quite upset I did not think of that one.
But alas, that is why it’s not a “10 BEST” list, just a simple “10 of…” list. If we deemed these the very top 10, we would be beat up, lunch money stolen.
Couple more great ones are:
– Tony Montana, Scarface
– Vizzini, The Princess Bride (So pissed I didn’t think of this one until after!)
Damn you Hollywood, and your abundance of charismatic meanies.
Comment by The Movie God — July 2, 2009 @ 11:40 pm
Rutger Hauer (blade runner) and Christopher Walken (the king of new york), these 2 are the best, in my opinion.
Comment by louki — July 3, 2009 @ 9:58 pm
Some of these you list are anything but charismatic! (Great characters but NOT Charismatic.)
Lets define what Charismatic is first since that seems to be lost.
Def of Charismatic: 1. Of, relating to, or characterized by charisma.
Def of Charisma: a. A rare personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm.
b. Personal magnetism or charm.
Keyser Soze: He is one of the GREAT BAD GUY characters of all time. However, it’s questionable as to what we see of the real Soze’s character in the movie since who we see is “Verbal” and not the real Soze. What we do see of “Verbal” though is a shy, quiet, weak, non-confident, follower. None of these characteristics are symbols of Charisma, in fact they are quite the opposite. You could make an argument that he must be charismatic to have gained so much power but the examples of his actions seem to be more along the lines of him gaining his power thruogh sheer force and determination. But no signs of Charisma.
Anton Chigurh: Again, no signs of charisma at all. He’s very quiet, rough, brazen, rude, mean, a loaner, and any other characteristic that is not symbolized by Charisma. Unlike other movie hitmen who have charmed their way in to places with their charisma, this character is universally unliked by all who meet him and survive. (I did love this movie and thought the character one of the best movie bad guys in the last 10 years!)
Agent Smith: You say yourself “Methodical and emotionless like the computer program that he is,” If that in and of itself is not a couter argument to his being charismatic, then what is? While a great villian he was anything but charismatic. The character was intended to be non-charismatic. It’s the classic, stiff as a board, stern government agent archtype role.
JD: been to long since I’ve seen this to comment one way or the other.
Jareth: I’ll give you this one. He even charmed the girl who is fighting against him.
MAgneto: You get this one too. One of the signs of a Charismatic person is their ability to get people to follow them and show unending devotion. Magneto oozes charisma to get people to follow him in evil activities much the way Hitler and Mussolini were very charismatic.
Bill: I didn’t see his charisma in the movie (in the few scenes he appeared). He’s often quiet and soft spoken. He’s not very articulate or outgoing. I think he’s more followed by his assasins due to their respect of him. Although he’s highly respected, that doesn’t mean he’s charismatic.
Darth Vader: (I’m a huge SW fan and I’m treating this as the Darth Vader seen in the original trilogy.) Darth vader is again, anything but charismatic. He is FEARED. People followe him because they’re affraid not to. Not because he makes them believe in him through his character and his personality.
Joker: Definitly CHARISMATIC! Right on. One of the best performances in a villian role of all time.
Khan: I’ll give you this one too.
Just because a character is great, doesn’t make them charismatic. Think more about characters that seem likeable and friendly. Ones that people meet and seem to think very well of.
I agree with the Bill the Butcher and Denzell in Training Day. Even though the Hero knew they were the bad guy, they still find themselves drawn to them.
Charismatic Bad guy: Dr. Lector in Silence of the Lambs.
Comment by Raiderhawk — September 8, 2009 @ 10:25 am
I’m not sure you know what ‘charismatic’ means…
Anton, Agent Smith and Darth Vader are far from charismatic.
Comment by Brendan — December 21, 2009 @ 1:28 am
One of may favourites -Â Aaron McComb from Timecop
Zorg from fifth element; Gary Oldman is real good as a bad guy (Leon)
All batman baddies – Â The Penguin Man, Riddler, Two Face,Â Joker (Nicholson’s)
The Street PreacherÂ from Johnny Mnemonic
Comment by Mike Vasiljevs — June 5, 2011 @ 5:34 pm
dont think is is really a ‘bad guy’! but yes, he is! i would even say Vincent Vega is even more charismatic.
Comment by Mike Vasiljevs — June 5, 2011 @ 5:39 pm