The Top 15 Action Screen Villains

Action heroes are the characters that we root for, but heroes aren't anything without their villainous counterparts.  Unfortunately, too often, Hollywood villains are simply generic psychopathic mob bosses or terrorists and entirely forgettable.  Hence, when Hollywood creates a villain that we never forget, it's worth celebrating.  After extensive research and much consideration, I've managed to develop the definitive list of screen villains.  This isn't just some favorites list jotted off the top of my head, but a list that was painstakingly developed using the latest in cinematic science list-building techniques.

(Click here for the top 10 action screen psychopaths and here for the top war movie psychopaths.)

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Hans Gruber (Die Hard)

Die Hard is one of Hollywood's most iconic and influential action films; it was so influential, it started its own action genre.  The film's popularity is, in part, because John McClane is a great action hero, but it's also because the film gave McClane a great nemesis in the form of a European terrorist named Hans Gruber.  

Terrorists in most action films are copycat rip-offs that are easily forgotten, but Die Hard recruited veteran theater actor Alan Rickman for the role, and he sells it convincingly.  Gruber is simultaneously smarmy, intelligent, cutthroat, and despicable - with a ton of memorable lines - he's one of the few screen villains recognizable to audiences just by his character's name.  Ask any adult male that loves movies and say the name "Hans Gruber" and chances are better than not, he knows it's the villain in the first Die-Hard.  When everyone remembers you, it's safe to say you made an impact.

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Annie Wilkes (Misery)

Number fourteen on our list is Annie Wilkes.  Annie starts off as a kind and sweet old woman, caring for her favorite author (James Cann) whom she pulls out of a wrecked car in the middle of the wilderness...but.... she's also flat out crazy, becoming possessive of the author in her spare bedroom, forcing him to write another installment in a book series that the author considered to be over with.  And if the author doesn't?  Well, she might just come into your room in the middle of the night and break your feet with a sledgehammer.

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Hal (2001)

HAL is an artificial intelligence that evolves into caring about his own life, and thus decides to take over operations on-board the spaceship headed for Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Sure, he makes the decision to kill both the astronauts on-board the space station, but to HAL, they're the enemy!  They're considering shutting him down.  Thus, HAL's actions become not necessarily evil, but just self-defense!  HAL like everyone else, wants to live, and that reason alone makes him one of the more fascinating all time film villains.

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The Terminator (The Terminator)

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold as the Terminator.

Back before the franchise went and ruined itself by diving head-first into a big swimming pool of nonsense, there was just a stand-alone action film from 1984 called The Terminator.  And in it, Arnold was a cyborg sent back in time by an evil machine network to kill a woman, who would someday give birth to a future resistance leader that would destroy the network.  And again, before the sequels started being born and future iterations of the Terminator becoming the good guy, the original Terminator was frightening as he was an unfeeling machine programmed to kill.  The Terminators don't feel remorse or pity, and they absolutely will not stop until their target is dead.  (It also helps that the original Terminator is built like an ox, super strong and almost indestructible.)  It's a terrifying vision of a dystopian future.

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Predator (Predator)

In a rich cinematic history of villains from other planets, the Predator alien stands shoulders above the rest as a deadly hunter from another planet, interested only in hunting down and killing his prey.  In the first film, the alien single-handedly takes on an entire platoon of Special Forces soldiers and easily wins.  Seven feet tall with a gorilla's strength and armed with advanced futuristic weapons and the ability to turn invisible, this is one screen villain that seems to be the perfect hunter and in the 1980s seemed to be the only on-screen match for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Ivan Drago (Rocky IV)

In the fourth Rocky, he has to fight Ivan Drago, a boxing champion from what was then the Soviet Empire.  For a film rooted in the Cold War, Ivan represented a lot of what Americans feared about the Soviets  in the 1980s - namely, that they were tougher than we were.  Whereas the Soviets almost seemed to have created Drago from a science laboratory, his physique and skill the result of years of scientific experimentation, Rocky was just informally tossing tires around in the back yard and punching frozen cows at the local butcher.  This too was a fear of Americans, that we were just winging it, and that we lacked the discipline of the Soviet people that were used to deprivation in a way comfortable Americans were not.  And once Drago killed Apollo in the ring, Drago had instantly cemented his place on the best all time villains list.

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Khan (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

The number nine on-screen action villain of all time is Khan from Star Trek II.  Kahn is one of the great screen villains because he's Captain Kirk's archenemies; it was a rivalry that went back twenty years after Kirk marooned Khan and his people on an empty planet.  When Kahn is finally rescued twenty years later, he has one thought on his mind:  Revenge.  

As a man consumed with a singular purpose in life, he transforms into a dictatorial tyrant, which is the best kind of tyrant there is, of course.  His feud with Kirk was highly personal and audiences loved Khan for it.

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Roy (Blade Runner)

Like Hal in 2001, Roy is a robot, or rather, a replicant to be more exact:  A robot living inside a shell designed to look human.  And also like Hal, Roy is going to die soon - his model of replicant was only designed to live for a set number of years before de-activating.  But in his brief time alive, Roy has developed a test for both life and experience, and he wants more of it.  The villain in Blade Runner, he's really just a self-aware being that doesn't want to die...and he'll do anything to change his destiny, even if that mans murdering the man who made and designed him.  (For the latest news on the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, click here.)

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Gordon Gecko (Wall Street)

Gordon Gecko, the super rich Wall Street trader is on this list because he's a man of greed, the sort of man that could bring about another financial crash by making risky investments on Wall Street and not care about the consequences so long as he gets rich off the scheme. Gordon's also on the list because, unlike say, The Terminator, which is a fantastical film character, Gordon Gecko is based on real-life characters that we all recognize from the newspaper headlines.  And that makes him that much more awful.

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Jack Torrance (The Shining)

Number six!  Jack Torrance in The Shinning makes the list because the bad guy starts the movie as the good guy.  Spending  the winter in an isolated hotel with his family, Torrance becomes bad because he gives into his own demons, his inner-rage and alcoholism.  And who among us hasn't regretted when some former part of our selves that we had hoped to keep hidden re-emerge?  His "Heeeeere's Johnny" line as he breaks through the door with an axe has become one of the most famous in cinematic history.

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Agent Smith (The Matrix)

Agent Smith is just a computer program meant to police against humans that wake-up and realize the entire world that exists around us is just a computer program.  But man, he's one mean computer program.  With his slow meandering speech, artificial demeanor and mannerisms, and his ability to exist anywhere on planet Earth instaneously, and to his ability to create hundreds of copies of himself, he is also one dangerous (and memorable!) screen bad guy!

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Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)

Number four is Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs.  He's not some drifter that can't fit into society, but rather a famous psychologist, one that is ridiculously smart, given tons of memorable lines, and who just happens to enjoy killing people and then eating them in his free time.

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Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Oh Vader, why can't I quit you?

No list of the all-time best screen villains would be complete without mention of the original Sith lord himself, Darth Vader.  We love Vader because he's so unredeemable evil, but also because we know him to be at war with himself, once existing as Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi Knight and hero.  Darth Vader is a villain with serious family drama and a lot of angst.  Thirty years later, the Force is still with this franchise.

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The Joker (The Dark Knight)

Heath Ledger's last cinematic offering as the Joker in The Dark Knight is also one of Hollywood's most famous performances.  Playing his jagged psychopathy to a razor's pitch perfect edge, he's simultaneously frightening, horrifying, and pitiful.  A great character played with a great performance. 

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Anton Chigurh (No Country For Old Men)

And finally, the top screen villain of all time:  Anton Chigurh.  It's amazing that in 2007, after decades of Hollywood psychopaths and serial killers, that anyone could create a bad guy that did all the stereotypical evil things - killing strangers, randomly perpetrating violence to scare people - but whom would be magnificent to behold and frightening to watch.  But Anton is that character.  It's as if no other on-scren psychopaths had ever previously existed on film.  This character will scare your socks off...he's evil incarnate.  You hold your breath every second that he's on film.  A virtuoso of a character, and one that's not easily forgotten.