Let’s make one thing clear: no one is better than Hans Gruber. The one, the only true movie villain who back in 1988 graced the big screen movie that was the most inspirational and still quoted today classic that was Die Hard. He has however had plenty of other stealthy, over-the-top and rather crafty villains since who deserve at least some accolades for trying to measure up to the memorable villain who Alan Rickman was always remembered for.
Alan has played other amazing evildoers (who you secretly sorta want to win even though they won’t) as well. Who can forget Elliott Marston in Quigley Down Under or his version of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? But a part of Hans basically shows in those latter two roles which ultimately makes him the superior one.
So you ask who are the worthy non-Rickman portrayed roles? Well let me rank the 10 worthy Gruber type villains to this day right here!
10. Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff in Blade)
Dorff may not have played many notable characters since but this villain won an MTV movie award for a reason. He’s that well characterized by writer David S. Goyer and more over-the-top than any of the Lost Boys’ characters. Adding to that, he and Gruber are both key to their signature franchise’s respective one-man-army characters (i.e. McClane, Blade) not only having to go thru waves of their nearly impenetrable henchmen but also having one-on-one fights with the protagonists that well-earned. Frost, while an insane smooth criminal and just as cool an evil laugher as Gruber, also makes for an incredible comic book villain and is a perfect example of how to write the perfectly straightforward action movie wickedness.
9. Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro in Heat)
We have some other awesome baddie portrayers like Michael Wincott, John Lithgow and Gary Busey playing criminal masterminds but they could honestly play those roles in their sleep. And half their movies sucked so there’s that.
We also have hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) in the other Michael Mann flick, Collateral, but that character becomes a little underdeveloped due to the movie gettin a little formulaic near the end despite how awesome it otherwise is. We have other psycho criminals like Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs) and the One-Armed Man in the ‘93 version of The Fugitive but those seem less Gruber inspired.
De Niro already has other baddies on his non-stop list of credits and I’m sure creator Mann was mainly just using leftovers from Miami Vice and his love of Hong King cinema and real-life capers to form this character. The heist itself is different but the purpose is the same: to utilize his military trained cronies, pull off the perfect score and all while meeting his match: an overworked, failed family man, L.A. detective.
Instead of John McClane, Neil faces off with Vincent Hanna. But like those Hans and John, Neil and Vincent get to see each other face-to-face before their final confrontation. And like Hans, you secretly want Neil to win. Big time! Especially since he has quite a catchy everyday-man persona with ruthless antics and a perfect getaway plan already lined up.
8. Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis in The X-Files franchise)
I had to have at least one shady recurring villain on a hit TV series on here. I thought of Q on the Star Trek series but he’s more of a mischief maker with some grey ethics and comedic relief. We have Morden on Babylon 5 but he’s also serves as a small source of humor and he doesn’t come off as badass once you realize he’s not the main one pulling all the strings.
So I thought longer and harder about other often mentioned villains who had no shame costing millions of people their lives for their own pleasure. And Davis much like Rickman owes his career to this character as he too is often recognized for this creation wether it’s in public or on another scifi show you see him guest star on. Cigarette Man might not have an army of mercs or be doing it for self-profit but he does do the countless devious things for many self-gaining methods. Adding to that, he too loves to taunt the heroes and take matters into his own hands from time to time.
So while the execution a d the show itself might be different, the Smoking Man deserves to be on this list due to also sharing many if the same mind-blowing, twisted methods that Gruber loves to pull off. In many ways, Cig Man is Gruber 2.0 as there are countless shows that stole from the X-Files box of influence. It’s like this evil bastard opened up Pandora’s Box or something.
7. Agent Smith (The Matrix Trilogy)
As epic a sci-fi-fantasy antagonist as Magneto/Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellan in the X-Men franchise) was, his character started taking a backseat as that series went on in favor of less relevant villains.
I love other sci-fi villains like Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man) and the T-1000 (Robert Patrick in Terminator 2) but while those movies have Die Hard-type action, the antagonists themselves are their own deal. Sure, there’s plenty of other villains named “Smith” but if you ask anyone about a movie character with that alias, it’s near impossible to not mention this iconic dude.
Even if you find this cyberpunk series overhyped and not worth a damn, it’s hard to not find some amusement in this villain’s scenery chewing. Hell, he doesn’t just chew it, he embraces it. Joel Silver has always had awesome action movie villains (including Die Hard!) in his many productions and this is easily the best franchise baddie his company has unleashed to date due to his natural quirkiness and cool fights with the heroes.
Hell, the villain not only fights and chases many of the heroes but also other Agents who disagree with his methods. And I mean he takes on everyone by his lonesome self. And when that gets old, he clones an army of himself instead of getting new goons to rally to his cause. Jango Fett in Star Wars never lived to see his deadly clone army and Ba’al on Stargate SG-1 was just a campy dude. Smith is the one true Gruber-esque, thinking man who all antagonists want to aspire to be like.
6. Sean Miller (Sean Bean in Patriot Games)
There have been plenty of other notable villain actors like Gabriel Byrne, Michael Ironside, Vincent D’Onofrio, Brian Cox, Christopher Lee, Robert Knepper, Rutger Hauer, Christopher Walken and even Jonathan Pryce. But those guys have, for the most part, made bad guy acting duties their own trademark (some even predating Hans Gruber). Sean Bean while arguably not on the same pedestal as Rickman still has the closest traits and subtleties that we love in our British and Eurotrash baddies.
You probably are thinking why isn’t Bean’s other iconic character, the traitor 006 from GoldenEye, on here? Well, because that character also owes much to this earlier creation. As awesome as Bean is in later bad guy movie roles like Don’t Say a Word, The Island and even The Hitcher remake, he will forever owe his career to thus signature role.
Much like Gruber, Miller comes from a war-ridden background and is an internationally wanted criminal. And he too comes across the most unlikely opponent only to make matters more personal by striking out at the hero’s family while embracing his inner psycho. If you must see any of Sean’s movie villains, make it be this well-defined one.
5. Luis Cali (Andrew Divoff in Toy Soldiers)
I really would love to put Bennett (Vernon Wells in Commando) on this list but he was a pre-Hans Gruber antagonist. And there’s loads of other cool baddies but they’re either their own thing or only reminding me how they’re a cool bad guy in an otherwise flawed action flick.
Divoff has played plenty of other awesome villains in low-rent action flicks but The Stranger is more notable for its wild west setting and the Wishmaster films are mainly horror-dark comedies. He was amazing as the biker gang leader, Richard Ganz, in Another 48 Hrs. but that role was far more similar to Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon) and Divoff’s baddie in A Low Down Dirty Shame is just one of several whacky characters in that Blaxploitation spoof.
Enter Luis Cali, a role so deadly that Divoff’s own father even find this to be his son’s best role to date. That’s because he was the only one who could pull off such uncompromising measures and much like the goons in Die Hard 2, Luis also wants to free someone he loves using his South American militia force. And like Gruber, he keeps every promise he makes while setting up his various bomb traps, playing games with the authorities and relying on his competent henchmen to make a name for himself as the best of the best terrorists in the world.
Divoff is an award-worthy actor despite what you might say about his cheesy movie resume but his character here could easily wipe the floor with Gruber’s corpse given the near unstoppable executions he is seen carrying out.
4. Soran (Malcolm McDowell in Star Trek: Generations)
I am a shameless Trekkie and given that long-running franchise’s many themes, humor, epic battles and long-lasting impressions, they were bound to come up with some memorable villains soon or later. They had Khan of course but he was before Hans Gruber and the Benedict Cumberbatch version was an inferior version with that actor even doing his best impression of Rickman!
While the series had plenty of Die Hard in space-type elements in later episodes and movies, they were more busy featuring Picard doing his best John McClane imitation than they were featuring Gruber-like psychos.
The closest you do get is with Soran in the seventh film installment. He wants to use various technology just to accomplish his mysterious goal. Feel free to call this one a stretch but the ice-cold calculated UK villain here I’d totally don’t mind awarding the Gruber label to, especially when Soran gets to show his true colors during the final fight with not one, but two space captains.
The film itself is imperfect but is overall an inoffensive entry in the long-lasting franchise and much like the Die Hard series, you remember this one because of the villain’s diabolical plan being so morbidly fascinating yet insane.
3. Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper in Speed)
I thought of the similar Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) in Die Hard With a Vengeance at first. Then I grew a brain and realized that Simon sorta lacks one in the second half of that movie after executing an ingenious plan. Not to mention how that movie was blatantly inspired by this movie’s villain!
As demented as Cyrus “The Virus” (John Malkovich in Con Air), as sinister as “Mr. Smith” (Christopher Walken in Nick of Time) and as calculated as The Caller (Kiefer Sutherland in Phone Booth) all respectively were, they were better known for their limited screen-time or the shock value contained in their movies. And they all too kept reminding me of this earlier Hopper movie villain once again.
The late great Hopper had since capitalized on this bad guy in later productions but it again only reminded me how epic and extraordinary Mr. Payne himself was. Heck, I know that villain’s awesome when I can say his surname without making a play-on of the word “pain.” Anyway, this role not only was a perfect comeback for the actor’s unpredictable career but is the smooth type of psycho and like Gruber, he gets plenty of quotes, dark humor and death traps awaiting the many innocents. And like Gruber, calling him just another “terrorist” is insulting by even his nature as he just wants to unleash havoc just to earn a few easy batches of stolen cash. A beyond awesome madman to be “blown away by” on-screen!
2. Charles Rane (Bruce Payne in Passenger 57)
As much as I prefer Die Hard type movie villains like Kang (Rick Yune in Olympus Has Fallen), Yoshida (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in Showdown in Little Tokyo), Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege), Moncrief (Gary Busey in Drop Zone), Ivan (Gary Oldman in Air Force One) and Deakins (John Travolta in Broken Arrow). I could talk all day about the villains I find fascinating on Prison Break, 24 and the James Bond franchises but those villains barely cut the mustard when you really try to pin down exactly why they’re truly evil other than plot convenience.
However, like many members and followers on this site, I too will fess up to being a victim of ‘90s movie nostalgia. Sometimes even being blinded by it. So I tried thinking of someone who was lesser known but somewhat underrated. Then I thought harder about actors like Divoff and Hopper who almost always play villains in B-action movies. Then I thought randomly of how evil the various Highlander movie villains, only to be reminded of how so many of those sequels sucked big time.
Than I remembered that Bruce Payne was batshit amazing in Part 4: Endgame and my whole riddle was solved. Payne was amazing in plenty of other low-rent B/Z-grade action flicks. And before he dropped down to that level, he stole the show as Charles by unleashing his “Rane of terror.”
Much like Wesley Snipes brought an extra level of wit and mixed martial arts fighting to this film, Payne delivers here by not only going through similar motions as Rickman’s Gruber but also the same type of serial killer techniques as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector(!). And that lovely mixture justifies this placement of him here alone.
1. Det. Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington in Training Day)
We had some other amazing authority figures playing God and abusing the law to suit their own agenda. We had NSA-sponsoring politician Tom Reynolds (Jon Voight) in Enemy of the State. Powers Boothe was born to play Joshua Foss in Sudden Death. And Secret Service Agent turned traitor Gibbs (Xander Berkeley) was so wicked in Air Force One. I’m still to this day haunted by what Vic Mackey will or won’t do on TV’s The Shield.
Speaking of Vic, there have been plenty of other crooked cops played by actors who you’ve never seen in such roles prior. So then I thought of ones who did at least one career defining role that won them an Oscar. Then I thought of villains who literally stole not only the show but rendered all the other actors/characters in it useless. Then I thought of crime movies that utilized a twisted heist scheme.
If you thought of Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker in The Dark Knight, boy howdy were you close but no. Nope, I still will to this day go with Denzel’s nearly untouchable Alonzo in this 2001 action-crime thriller. Some might argue that it’s not Denzel’s best role or that they find this film overrated.
And they’re welcome to that opinion but this character is beyond quotable and had a pretty well figured out masterplan for what it’s worth. And like Gruber, you have to admire his justification of all his wrongdoings. Hell, he has an epic final death not only like Gruber but even Scarface himself!
And for him to be imposing all of these various identities (loving familyman, good cop, bad cop, gang leader, mentor, etc.) while keeping his true intentions discreet until the last 20 minutes is an admirable feat. So admirable that I wish he and Gruber could’ve lived to form their own bankrobbing posse together. Oh well, a movie lover can dream now can’t he?
I hope you had fun reading this bullshit and that you have a nice day, cowboy!