The right kind of scumbag can really make a movie. Elevated beyond their traditional roles in actual society, scumbags take on a greater meaning in movies, representing everything the hero is not. Scumbags in movies deserve our respect, and in this blog I’m gonna talk about some of my favourites.
I guess I should attempt to define ‘scumbag’ before we progess. I use the term to refer to a specific kind of lowlife or bad guy, someone desperate and willing to do awful things to achieve their ends. Usually ugly. Usually dirty. Usually profane. Someone to which any leading man could confidently point a loaded gun and say “Eat this, scumbag!” free from accusations of societal snobbery.
Some scumbags possess some spark of humanity that makes them undismissable. Such is the case with David Patrick Kelly, an actor with whom any discussion of movie scumbaggery must begin. Kelly could be Sean Penn’s uglier brother (who isn’t Chris Penn). He’s one of the first scumbags to really make me stand up and take notice. His first major scumbag appearance is as the inciting villain “Luther” in Walter Hill’s 1979 cult classic The Warriors. Who could forget his immortal cry: “Warriors, come out to plaaaaaaeeeeaaaaaay“.
He’s snively, snakey and a big ol’ jerk in The Warriors. And he clanked glass bottles together twenty five years before P-Money and friends.
Warriors director Walter Hill must’ve been impressed, as he cast Kelly as another integral scumbag in a subsequent film, 48 Hours (1982). And he’s called Luther in this one too! This Luther could easily be the guy from The Warriors a few years later, presuming of course he survived the end of the movie…
But Kelly’s Scumbag de Resistence is the immortal Sully from Commando, who is famously on the receiving end of Arnie’s classic line: “I like you Sully. You’re a funny guy. That’s why I’m going to kill you last“. (N.B. He lied).
Whether he’s taunting Arnie about his kidnapped daughter; doing a drug deal in a mall or simply being awful to Rae Dawn Chong, Kelly set the gold standard for movie scumbags with Sully.
Kelly continues to pop up regularly in character roles, and it always gives me a thrill when I see him. Did anyone else spot him as Louis C.K.’s psychiatrist in Louie?
Arnold Schwarzenegger movies have a knack for attracting the best scumbags, and Commando features another of my favourites: Carlos Cervantes (aka Gary Carlos Cervantes). He manages to convey more scumminess in his tiny role in Commando (as the calm guy holding Alyssa Milano’s handcrafted pink birthday card whom Arnie discovers in his daughter’s bedroom. “Mellow out, man“) than most actors achieve across a whole career.
Cervantes essayed memorable scumbag performances in other films such as Beverly Hills Cop II (as “Mendoza“, classic scumbag name); Scarface; Police Academy IV: City Under Siege and innumerable TV shows. While many actors on this list get type cast as scumbags, Cervantes has performed in a variety of roles over the years. But he’ll always be a scumbag to me.
With his hulking stature; a name like ‘Randall “Tex“ Cobb’; and credits like ‘Big Hairy Con’ (Naked Gun 33 1/3); ‘Gruff Man’ (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) and ‘Slag’ (Blind Fury), it’s no surprise the man pictured below is an icon of American movie scumbagness.
Cobb is probably best known for the role pictured above, mythical bounty hunter Leonard Smalls in the Coen Brothers’ iconic Raising Arizona. In doing research for this article (i.e. Googling his name) I discovered Cobb was also a professional boxer. Seems appropriate.
I was inspired to write this blog after catching a few moments of the justly forgotten Fletch sequel, Fletch Lives, on the MGM channel the other day. The scene I caught saw Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb paired up with another legendary movie scumbag – Dennis Burkley. You might not know the name, but you’ll definitely know the face – he’s basically played every fat biker/redneck/short order cook/junkman/fat bearded dude on screen over the past thirty years; perhaps most memorably in Mask (1985). It took me writing this article to finally seek out his name. We honour you, Dennis Burkley.
We’re pretty numb to celebrity deaths these days, but that didn’t stop me from feeling particularly maudlin one day in August 1999 when I learned that character actor Brion James had succumbed to a heart attack.
A perennial presence in big and low budget movies (most people seem to recognise him from Blade Runner, seen below) James generally played cops, but there was something inherently scummy about him (that sneering, upturned face?) that rendered his characters with a pointed scumminess. See: 48 Hours; Tango & Cash; Another 48 Hours; Red Heat.
While watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s modern masterpiece There Will Be Blood, I almost jumped out of my seat when the superlatively scummy Kevin J. O’Connor turned up as the man claiming to be Daniel Day Lewis’ brother. It thrilled me to no end that an actor I so predominantly associated with scumbag roles could appear in such a prestigious movie.
Like David Patrick Kelly, O’Connor is an actor who has played a variety of roles over the years, but whom I choose associate mostly with his scummiest roles; as seen in films like Colour of Night; The Mummy and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Those last two were both directed by Stephen Sommers, who appears to treasure O’Connor as some sort of lucky charm, and cast him in his best role to date: the perpetually complaining sidekick in 1998’s underrated monster adventure Deep Rising. O’Connor will next be seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated The Master.
There was an attempt to cast familiar looking henchman in the self-reflexive 1993 fiasco Last Action Hero, and the most recognisable face among the bad guys has to be Al Jeong, who is memorably dispatched in the film by an ice cream cone to the back of the head.
Leong, a stuntman and martial artist who often found himself with prominent bad guy roles in action movies has spoken very little onscreen dialogue in his career, but his scumbag credentials speak for themselves.
He played the guy who tortures Mel Gibson at the end of Lethal Weapon; the member of Alan Rickman’s terror squad seen helping himself to a chocolate bar in Die Hard (as seen below); and other random bad dudes in movies like Action Jackson; Rapid Fire and Beverly Hills Cop III. Big ups to you, Al Leong!
Paul McCrane cuts a good line in scum, but I addressed him extensively in my blog about the best movie deaths.
It’s been nice watching scum-faced character actor John Hawkes rise up from the gutter to be a respected leading man in indie films like Me and You and Everyone We Know and the upcoming Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Other actors of notable scumbaggery I’d like to cite here include Peter Greene (Zed in Pulp Fiction); Mark Boone Jr (portly scum in films like Batman Begins and 30 Days of Night) and Nick Chinlund (masterfully scummy in The Chronicles of Riddick and Con Air).
Who are your favourite movie scumbags? Which glaring omissions should I include in The Best Movie Scumbags Part II?