“Guess it’s not a good day to be a bad guy, huh?” asks Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) in 1994’s The Crow, shortly before tossing lackey Skank through a window and down into an unsuspecting mosh pit below. And Eric was right – insofar as the action movie boom of the 80s and 90s went, it was rarely a good day to be a villain.
For every nameless enemy soldier blasted out of a Central American jungle hut with a cheery “Knock, knock,” to more creatively-dispatched Big Bads, Mini Bads and anonymous henchpeople, action cinema needed people our ‘heroes’ could mow down in increasingly insane numbers to advance the plot, all while maintaining their All-American, catchphrase-driven box office appeal.
Born To Be Bad aims to showcase the people behind some of the genre’s more recognisable villains, from ensembles like Hans Gruber’s international terrorists of Die Hard to acting heavyweights like David Warner and Julian Glover, through a laid-back, conversational series of interviews that provide some insight into their more iconic roles alongside irreverent looks at the personalities of the actors themselves. Its primary field of focus is the classic ‘action’ genre, the testosterone-heavy franchises that made stars of the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, which has an added air of comfort for older cinemagoers lamenting the PG-friendly watering down of modern action cinema.
British writer Timon Singh grew up on a cinematic diet that will be instantly familiar to other Brits of late-Generation X. Throughout Born To Be Bad there are nostalgic references to treasured VHS full of films ‘acquired’ from terrestrial broadcasts, complete with often hilarious attempts at dubbing out violence and bad language (“Yippe-kye-ay, kemosabe” indeed). This creates an atmosphere of kinship with the author that will be shared across a large percentage of the book’s target audience, as does the respectful, playful tone of the interviews themselves. We’re just sitting down and having a nice chat with some cool guys, not sweating over an autograph table as we shakily introduce ourselves to our heroes.
Following an impressively-scored foreword from screenwriter/director Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard, The Running Man, Commando), the book breaks down into grouped chapters of interviews – the ‘heavies’ of 80s action, a quick diversion to speak to Ursa and Non (Superman II), the aforementioned Die Hard terrorist posse, some of the genre’s more notable ‘outsiders’ and a final group of ‘final boss’ villains that boasts some of the book’s biggest names.
While some of the names will be unfamiliar, the faces that go with them and the more iconic characters they played will immediately connect with you – Bill Duke’s softly-spoken roles in Predator and Commando sit alongside martial arts notables such as Bob Wall (Enter the Dragon) and Benny Urquidez (Road House), and each has plenty of stories to tell.
Through a series of informal, anecdotal chats, you’ll learn how Sven-Ole Thorsen’s friendship with Schwarzenegger led to a series of high-profile roles, the history behind Vernon Well’s eccentric star turn as Commando‘s big bad Bennett, and how Paul McCrane went from a toady in RoboCop to the long-running antagonist of ER. It feels very much like listening in on a string of chilled Skype chats with a slew of incredibly interesting people – there’s often similarities in the stories, such as how a lot of the bigger guys used their reputation in bodybuilding or martial arts to walk straight into custom-made roles, the typecasting that followed across the next decade or so and that Steven Seagal is apparently kind of a dick.
Schwarzenegger’s name pops up a lot, and the pictures that get built up around the heavy-hitters in the business through the various interviewees stories are just as insightful – Arnie comes across as a guy whose respect is hard-won but unshakeable once attained, that looks out for his friends and also has a strong practical joke skillset.
It’s equally fascinating to learn more about the second careers of the guys who withdrew from full-time acting – Bill Duke’s work as a writer, producer and activist for black cinema is inspiring stuff, David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors) boasts a highly self-educated passion for the art of cinema, and Ronny Cox went from Paul Verhoeven’s evil capitalist CEO of choice (RoboCop, Total Recall) to a touring folk singer who plays all over the world.
From some interviewees there’s a sense of how different decisions at key moments would have made big differences, but Hollywood has long been an industry built on luck and chance just as much as skill and connections. Hearing the literally ‘connected’ strongman of Superman II, Jack O’Halloran, talk about his family’s Mafia ties and the influence it brought to his career is one example, as is Billy Drago (The Untouchables) and the whistle-stop tour of Chicago’s mob hangouts he received during his portrayal of legendary hitman Frank Nitti.
It’s in the closing chapters that Timon gets to speak to stage and screen legends like Steven Berkoff and David Warner, but his casual interview style keeps the discussions from ever feeling too reverential or fawning – he does his best to ask fresh questions, keeping his own interactions light and leaving the subjects plenty of room to talk. Some of these guys are well into their seventies but their love for the art is as strong as ever, and I could have happily read even more from these fascinating characters as we scratch the surface of their motivations, backstories and passions.
Ultimately the only thing the book is lacking is a final summation of what’s been covered – each set of interviews opens with a short introduction and the book would have benefitted from a closing statement, especially one emphasising how many readers, myself included, will be seeing old familiar films with a fresh perspective now we’ve learned more about what went into making them. And I need to watch out for that fly Paul Freeman’s Belloq allegedly eats during Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A great read, one that rockets past thanks to its light tone and restrained use of photography, and a great sense of peeling back the layers of what went into making critically-lauded and fan favourite cult classics alike so enduringly popular – it’s all about the bad guys.
Born To Be Bad is now available on Amazon.