Villains have always been and will always be some of the most fascinating and memorable characters in the world of genre film. Here we will take a look at the greatest villains of cinema from the 1990’s.
The criteria for this article is the same as in my previous articles Cinema’s Greatest Villains: The 1970’s and Cinema’s Greatest Villains: The 1980’s: the villains must be from live-action films-no animated features-and must pose some type of direct of indirect lethal threat. The villains can either be individuals or small groups that act as one unit.
The villains must be human or human in appearance. Also, individuals that are the central protagonists/antiheroes of their respective films were excluded.
Brad Dourif as The Gemini Killer in The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990): Veteran actor Dourif is intense and unforgettable as an executed murderer inhabiting someone else’s body in screenwriter/director Blatty’s supernatural sequel that serves as a direct follow-up to William’s Friedkin’s landmark 1973 Exorcist far more effectively than John Boorman’s horrendous Exorcist II (1977).
If you ever wondered which actors wouldn’t be blown off the screen in interrogation scenes with cinematic powerhouse George C. Scott, you can find at least one answer in this film.
J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane in Miller’s Crossing (The Coen Brothers, 1990): If you were a crime boss in the Prohibition era looking for a smart and deadly right hand man, you would have to look no further than J.E. Freeman’s Eddie Dane.
One of Freeman’s many great moments in the film is the sequence wherein his character is ambushed by two gunmen in an apartment and emerges the sole survivor.
This is the finest big screen acting of Freeman’s career to date and one that was worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Ed Harris as Frankie Flannery in State of Grace (Phil Joanou, 1990): Harris and his trademark intensity are operating at full power in this undercover cop/organized crime film that may lack the labyrinthine William Monahan screenplay of Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Hong Kong film remake The Departed but is the superior film due to its higher level of acting.
For an excellent example, there’s simply no comparison between Harris’ powerful and highly focused performance as a crime boss in State of Grace with the miscast Jack Nicholson’s cartoonish, unfocused acting as a crime boss in The Departed.
Nick Nolte as Captain Michael Brennan in Q&A (Sidney Lumet, 1990): Too few critics and film lovers identify Nolte’s work in director Lumet’s crime drama Q&A as his finest acting. This is unfortunate as his portrayal of a highly dangerous veteran police officer is incredible, giving us not only one of the great cinematic villains of the 1990’s but of all time.
Lance Henriksen as Chains Cooper in Stone Cold (Craig R. Baxley, 1991): Stone Cold may be best known as the film that failed to transform former football star Brian Bosworth into a theatrical action movie star but the film is undeniably entertaining and features a superb performance by veteran actor Henriksen as the leader of a deadly biker gang infiltrated by Bosworth’s undercover cop character.
Stone Cold makes a perfect double feature with Rowdy Herrington’s 1989 Road House and Chains Cooper is one of Lance Henriksen’s greatest villainous performances.
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991): Hopkins received a Best Actor Oscar for one of cinema’s all-time great supporting performances as a highly cultured cannibalistic killer in director Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel.
Regardless of the many achievements in Hopkins long acting career, he will always be best known for creating one of cinema’s greatest villains.
Ted Levine as Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991): Overshadowed by Anthony Hopkins’ legendary portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, Ted Levine’s performance as a skin-seeking murderer on a bizarre and lethal path to transformation is certainly worthy of a high degree of critical attention.
Levine has stated in interviews that he was offered many psychopath roles in Hollywood films after The Silence of the Lambs but he intentionally turned them down to avoid typecasting, hence Levine’s impressive and steady string of credits since 1991 that usually finds him in police officer and authority figure roles.
Robert Patrick as The T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991): A high-tech take on Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger character from Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original 1984 Terminator, Patrick shines by combining his screen presence and physical skills in the role that catapulted his career to a new level.
The T-1000 was clearly influenced by the shape-shifting android villain Mr. Gordons from Warren Murphy & Richard Sapir’s legendary 1970’s men’s adventure book series The Destroyer, although this fact is rarely discussed.
Patrick Swayze as Bodhi in Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991): The perfectly cast Swayze turns in his career-best acting in one of the two roles he was absolutely born to play (the other being Dalton in Rowdy Herrington’s Road House).
Swayze’s impressive and highly memorable performance as a philosophical bank robbing surfer goes a long way toward making Point Break the eminently re-watchable piece of entertainment it remains today.
Tommy Lee Jones as William Stranix in Under Siege (Andrew Davis, 1992): Unfortunately fated to go down in a lopsided climactic fight with Steven Seagal’s character as all villains in Seagal’s filmography do, Jones makes the most of his role as a twisted CIA operative including a great scene where Jones shows the character’s stress and fatigue caused by his terrorist mission.
Philip Kwok as Mad Dog in Hard-Boiled (John Woo, 1992): The intense Kwok began his acting career in the 1970’s heyday of the kung-fu film but turns in his career-best performance as a key villain in director Woo’s Hong Kong cop/action film classic.
Performance highlights include a great battle with Tony Leung’s undercover cop character in the film’s protracted hospital climax that features a classic moment when Kwok’s samurai-like Mad Dog criticizes Leung’s character for his lack of ethics and loyalty.
In addition to being an actor, Kwok is also a noted fight choreographer and stunt coordinator.
Wes Studi as Magua in Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992): Studi turns in the best acting of his career to date as a deadly Huron warrior out for revenge in screenwriter/director Mann’s superb adaptation of the James Fenimore Cooper novel.
With tremendous screen presence and very little dialogue, Studi creates a great villainous character in a performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination.
Simon Yam as Judge in Full Contact (Ringo Lam, 1992): The mid-1980’s-early 1990’s golden age of Hong Kong genre cinema yielded some truly great films and some outstanding villains.
One of these is Simon Yam’s Judge in Full Contact, a film that pits Chow Yun Fat’s character against a deadly group of criminals headed by Yam’s character. Director Lam’s finest film, Full Contact is a Hong Kong crime film classic that was not a big box office hit in its native country.
Perhaps best known to Hong Kong film fans for his supporting role in John Woo’s A Bullet in the Head (1990), his lead role in the Category III serial killer horror film Dr. Lamb (Billy Tang & Danny Lee, 1992) and his later roles in the crime films of director Johnnie To, Simon Yam’s work in Full Contact remains one of the veteran actor’s most accomplished performances.
Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo in Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993): Biehn makes the best of relatively little screen time in one of his best performances as the lethal multi-lingual gunslinger on a collision course with Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. One of Biehn’s great scenes in the film is his verbal square-off with Kilmer’s Holliday during their first meeting.
Fans of Biehn’s performances in this highly entertaining Western and James Cameron’s Terminator, Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989) continue to hope for a return to form from the still very active actor.
Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993): Fiennes turns in his career-best performance to date as an SS officer tasked with building a new concentration camp in Poland.
Justifiably nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, Fiennes’ character, as is well known to admirers of the film, was based on the real-life SS officer of the same name.
Lance Henriksen as Emil Fouchon & Arnold Vosloo as Pik Van Cleef in Hard Target (John Woo, 1993): In his first American film, director Woo teamed veteran actor Henriksen with the physically imposing Vosloo who would later become famous for his role as Imhotep in director Stephen Sommers’ 1999 and 2001 Mummy films.
The duo displays excellent chemistry as a pair of deadly individuals that arrange human hunts for their wealthy clients. While it would have ultimately been more interesting to see this superb pair of villains outside a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, Henriksen and Vosloo are more than enough reason to seek out Hard Target.
John Malkovich as Mitch Leary in In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, 1993): Malkovich rightfully earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his superb and intense portrayal of a would-be presidential assassin who locks horns with Clint Eastwood’s Secret Service agent character in one of the best suspense thrillers of the 1990’s.
Gary Oldman as Drexl Spivey in True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993): In one of the greatest examples of making the most of very limited screen time in cinema history, Oldman turns in an incredible performance as a vicious pimp who goes head-to-head with Christian Slater’s character early in the film.
Short but unforgettable, this is one of the revered actor’s best screen performances.
Robert DeNiro as Neil McCauley & Kevin Gage as Waingro, Val Kilmer as Chris Sheherlis, Tom Sizemore as Michael Cheritto and Danny Trejo as Trejo in Heat (Michael Mann, 1995): Al Pacino’s police detective character has his sights set on this crew of thieves that operates like a miniature military unit in screenwriter/director Mann’s 1990’s crime film classic which was a remake of Mann’s own 1989 television film L.A. Takedown.
DeNiro turns in one of his career-best performances as the crew’s leader who is a more refined version of the James Caan character in Mann’s 1981 classic Thief. Adding another layer of interest is a great subplot that’s created early in the film as Kevin Gage’s character goes rogue and seeks revenge on DeNiro’s character and his partners.
Takeshi Kitano as Ichiro Kyoya & Kazuya Kimura as Kazuma Shibata in Gonin (Takashi Ishii, 1995): Kitano-the actor/director best known for starring in his own films-and Shibata play hitmen that not only strike fear into their targets but also the hardened Yakuza gang members who hired them in screenwriter/director Ishii’s bleak crime film masterpiece.
These professional killers are presented as lovers with an unusual power dynamic, making the characters all the more compelling. For an interesting perspective, contrast the fascinating portrayal of these characters with the comparatively cartoonish Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd-the homosexual assassins played by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971).
Kevin Spacey as John Doe in Seven (David Fincher, 1995): For those who don’t think a character augmenting a story told to police with names he’s reading off a bulletin board is nearly as clever as the makers of The Usual Suspects want you to think it is, the best villain played by Kevin Spacey in the 1990’s is John Doe in David Fincher’s classic Seven.
Spacey shines as a murderer driven by a twisted morality with performance highlights including his unexpected appearance at the police station and a great verbal face-off with Brad Pitt’s detective character late in the film as John Doe is being driven to his mysterious destination outside the city.
Christopher Walken as Gabriel in Prophecy (Gregory Widen, 1995): The legendary actor’s performance as the rebellious Gabriel is the real reason to this very uneven film about an angelic civil war being fought on Earth. Walken reprised his role in a couple of sequels but this performance is the one to see.
Screenwriter/director Widen had previously written the screenplay for Highlander (Russell Mulcahy, 1986), another series-spawning supernatural film that fails to do justice to its great premise.
Michael Wincott as Michael Korda in Metro (Thomas Carter, 1997): Wincott plays a vicious bank robber who deserves to be in a better film in director Carter’s crime picture that’s hobbled by a too-conventional screenplay and the inappropriate insertion of humor, ostensibly to please lead actor Eddie Murphy’s fan base.
Script and tonal issues aside, this is one of the underrated Wincott’s best screen performances and it deserves to be sought out.
Robert Carlyle as Colqhoun in Ravenous (Antonia Bird, 1999): Caryle plays a superhuman cannibal in one of his best screen performances that takes place in a picture that’s partially undone by tonal problems, resulting in an interesting and ambitious but only fitfully successful film.
The cave sequence wherein Carlyle’s true character and intentions are revealed to the small army unit he’s with is one of the most harrowing scenes of horror cinema’s last 20 years…..until Caryle’s character utters the word “run” and the suspense and tension are obliterated by one of the worst uses of music in film history.
The film attempts to get back on track right after this absurd break but never fully recovers from this tonal body blow. Ravenous might not work as a whole but Carlyle’s villainous performance is truly outstanding.
Eihi Shiina as Asami Yamazaki in Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999): It’s said that the Japanese cinema audience tends to be most frightened or disturbed by things that initially don’t appear to be dangerous or deadly. A great example of this is the ubiquitous presence of long-haired ghost girls in Japanese horror cinema.
Another prime example of this cultural trend is Eihi Shiina’s seemingly meek, demure character in Audition who turns out be something decidedly more lethal.
While Takashi Miike’s all too frequent self-indulgence robs the film of its true potential-is the final horrific sequence really happening or is it just a drug-induced hallucination?-Eihi Shiina’s best known performance shines.
Other notable screen villains of the 1990’s:
Despite not making the cut for the main list for various reasons, these are all performances and characters worth seeking out.
Pat Hingle as Bobo Justus in The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990)
Robert DeNiro as Max Cady in Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991)
Alice Krige as Mary Brady in Sleepwalkers (Mick Garris, 1992)
Christopher Neame as James Franklin in Street Knight (Albert Magnoli, 1993)
Lena Olin as Mona Demarkov in Romeo Is Bleeding (Peter Medak, 1993)
Christopher Walken as Vincenzo Coccotti in True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993)
Tim Roth as Cunningham in Rob Roy (Michael Caton-Jones, 1995)
Alec Baldwin as The Teacher in The Juror (Brian Gibson, 1996)
Gary Sinise as Detective Jimmy Shaker in Ransom (Ron Howard, 1996)
James Cromwell as Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)
Nicky Katt as Stacy the Hitman in The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999)
Harry Lennix as Aaron in Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)
Most overrated villains of the 1990’s:
These are screen villains with substantial critical and/or audience followings that ultimately pale in comparison to the truly great villain characters of the 1990’s.
Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)
Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)
Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)
Edward Norton as Aaron in Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit, 1996)
Any villain associated with the Scream film series (Wes Craven, 1996-2011)
Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith in The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999)