I’ve always been fascinated with action films. Not only are they loud and fun and often compelling, but they let us probe our deepest fears safely—with the knowledge that everything is going to turn out alright because Bruce Willis is there to save us. After seeing “Die Hard” for the first time this Christmas I got to thinking about action film villains and their nationalities, ethnicities, races and government affiliations. I assumed that in the 80s the majority of the villains in films would be Russian and today the majority would be radical Muslims, but I was wrong.
I tracked ten of the best-loved action stars over the past 30 years: Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson and James Bond (he may not be real, but he’s definitely an action hero). I looked into each of their films (most of which I have not seen) and deciphered the villains’ ethnicities/races/affiliations. (I hope I did this all correctly but in some of the lesser-known films it was hard to tell so let me know if you find errors!) I discarded categories with only one or two entries: deranged wives (“Presumed Innocent”), clones (“Blade Runner”), the IRA (“The Devil’s Own”) and split the rest into ten categories: African-Americans (light green on the graphs below), Nazis/Germans (purple), Russians (light orange), Middle Easterners (red), American military/government/law enforcement (dark blue), the mob/organized crime (brown), South/Central Americans (dark orange), North-East Asians (dark green), non-governmental white guys (light blue), and American companies (yellow). I should also note that I tried to get to the root villain—not just the people causing damage. So in Bond films I didn’t count the henchmen and “The Jackal” went red as the men who hired Bruce Willis were Middle Eastern.
As you can see the overall winner of the villain tally is American military/government/law enforcement. Our own protectors even beat out the Russians in the 80s! We are a country that distrusts government innately and that has translated to film. It’s also just fun when the bad guy is the NSA director or a dirty cop because that adds another level of paranoia and danger from within. The interesting thing is that by 2000, Middle Easterners have fallen off the chart completely (as have Nazis, but what do you expect).
The other interesting thing is that while women are often evil side kicks (like in Bond films) they are almost never the ring leaders. I predict that will change as more and more girls kick the shit out of each other on YouTube.
African-Americans— Rocky III (1982), Witness (1985), Demolition Man (1993), Rocky Balboa (2006), Hollywood Homicide (2003), Unbreakable (2000), Marked for Death (1990), Half Past Dead (2002), New Jack City (1991)
Nazis/Germans — Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (1989), Nighthawks (1981), Victory (1981), Die Hard (1988), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), The Rookie (1990)
North East Asians — Into the Sun (2005), Rising Sun (1993), Die Another Day (2002), U.S. Marshals (1998), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
Russians — Rocky IV (1985), Air Force One (1997), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Red Heat (1988), The Glimmer Man (1996), Born to Raise Hell (2010), A View to Kill (1985), Octopussy (1983), GoldenEye (1995), The World is Not Enough (1999), Firefox (1982)
Middle Easterners — Rambo III (1988), Frantic (1988), The Jackal (1997), The Siege (1998), True Lies (1994), Under Siege 2 (1995), Octopussy (1983)
American military/government/law enforcement — Cliffhanger (1993), Mercury Rising (1998), Red (2010), Live Free or Die Hard (2007), The Running Man (1987), Above the Law (1988), Under Siege (1992), The Siege (1998), Murder at 1600 (1997), The Art of War (2000), U.S. Marshals (1998), Edge of Darkness (2010), Lethal Weapon (1987), Air America (1990), Rambo: First Blood (1982), Lock Up (1989), Cop Land (1997), Witness (1985), Striking Distance (1993), 16 Blocks (2006), Eraser (1996), Hard to Kill (1990), Exit Wounds (2001), Drop Zone (1994), Bird on a Wire (1990), Conspiracy Theory (1997), A Few Good Men (1992), Mission Impossible (1996), Minority Report (2002), Absolute Power (1997)
The mob /organized crime — The Specialist (1994), Cop Land (1997), Avenging Angelo (2002), Shade (2003), Last Man Standing (1996), Lucky Number Slevin (2006), Raw Deal (1986), The Keeper (2009), King of New York (1990), New Jack City (1991), Payback (1999), The Firm (1993), Any Which Way You Can (1980)
South/Central Americans — Assassins (1995), The Expendables (2010), Clear and Present Danger (1994), Commando (1985), Collateral Damage (2002), License to Kill (1989), Quantum of Solace (2006), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), Die Hard 2 (1990)
Non-governmental white guys — D-Tox (2002), Get Carter (2000), Firewall (2006), Color of Night (1994), Fifth Element (1997), Hostage (2005), The Last Boy Scout (1991), Out for Justice (1991), Ransom (1996), Collateral (2004), The Dead Pool (1988), Tightrope (1984), Sudden Impact (1983), Pink Cadillac (1989), In the Line of Fire (1993), A Perfect World (1993), Blood Work (2002), Passenger 57 (1992), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Casino Royale (2006), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Demolition Man (1993)
American Companies — Hudson Hawk (1991), The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2 (1991), Terminator 3 (2003), The 6th Day (2000), On Deadly Ground (1994), Boiling Point (1993), Edge of Darkness (2010), The Firm (1993), Pale Rider (1985)