This article looks at bad guys who were memorable even though they answered to someone else.
Last time, I looked at heroic sidekicks from movies. Now, I’m going to take a look at 5 movie sidekicks that were anything but heroic.
Granted, the James Bond series was already on its third movie (Goldfinger) when audiences were introduced to Oddjob (Harold Sakata). It’s also true that the previous two Bond pictures, Dr. No and From Russia with Love, had characters such as Anthony Dawson’s Professor Dent and Robert Shaw’s Grant who were subordinates of the main baddies. But Sakata’s Oddjob basically set in stone how the evil henchman should be not just for the Bond series, but for action thrillers in general.
Oddjob is not only very strong (gold bars bounce off him like rubber), doesn’t speak much (we only hear grunts whenever he opens his mouth), and he’s unquestionably loyal to his boss (such as when he kills one of Goldfinger’s men for attempting the defuse the A-bomb, even though Oddjob himself is trapped with the ticking time bomb). Of course, I can’t forget to mention Oddjob’s classic hat which slices through marble statues like butter, and which Bond himself ends up using to his advantage during their climatic fight inside Fort Knox. Pretty much every Bond film since Goldfinger has had a villainous character that shares at least one of these traits with Oddjob. Sakata, who was a celebrated wrestler before being cast to fight 007, would parody his Oddjob image in commercials and TV specials.
2. Fiona Volpe
Interestingly enough Thunderball, the follow-up Bond film to Goldfinger, also gave us a memorable, much-imitated villainous sidekick. No, this woman wasn’t the first Bond bedded despite working for the bad guys. She also wasn’t even the first great female Bond villain (that honor went to Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love). But Fiona Volpe, played by Luciana Paluzzi, was certainly the most memorable. Fiona makes no secret about her desire to not only sleep with Bond but basically make him submit to her will. In addition, Fiona has only one scene with Thunderball‘s main baddie Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi). The rest of the time we see her, she’s basically calling her own shots, which adds to her character’s appeal. Like Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye thirty years later, Fiona uses her sexuality as a weapon. She’s first seen aiding in the murder of the pilot who is her lover as part of SPECTRE’s plot to hijack a NATO jet carrying two atomic bombs.
The character was (sort of) redone almost 20 years later in the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again, as Barbara Carrera’s Fatima Blush. Like Fiona, Fatima was entertaining, and as many have stated, was really the only reason Never Say Never Again isn’t a total waste of time.
3. Darth VaderStar Wars villains. The character’s impact became so great that as the years went by, even George Lucas would state that the Star Wars saga was always meant to be about Darth Vader and his fall from grace. This is despite the fact that Vader’s revelation of his family link to Luke Skywalker didn’t even enter the narrative until Lucas was working on the second draft of the Empire Strikes Back script.
But the impact of the character himself was immediate. From his first scene in the original Star Wars, with his great strength, ominous breathing, and (the finishing touch) the great voice of James Earl Jones, it was clear from the start that this was a villain for the ages.
While Vader’s master, the Emperor, isn’t seen in the original film, Vader does seem to stand on equal footing (of sorts) with Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing). This makes the audience curious as to who is actually the main bad guy. At one point, Tarkin orders Vader to release his hold on an insubordinate officer, even though Vader could easily do something similar to him if he wanted to.
Both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi would add further layers to Vader as he attempts to bring Luke to his side, even if it means destroying the Emperor in the process. This leads to what is for me a hell of a death scene for the character at the climax of Jedi. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who thinks of villains in science fiction movies can’t help but think of Vader.
Perhaps one reason Ricardo Montalban’s Khan is regarded as the greatest of all the Star Trek villains is how his character changes from his first appearance, in the first season original Trek episode “Space Seed”, to his return in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
The episode certainly painted Khan as a tyrant who was ready to conquer a new world with his followers upon his awakening. But when Kirk defeats him and informs Khan of the plan to exile him to Ceti Alpha V, Khan ends up looking at this exile as a chance to build the empire he’s always dreamed of. The last looks he and Kirk exchange in the episode are ones of respect.
Hence, when we learn in Wrath of Khan that Khan’s plans for his own empire were basically shot to hell when Ceti Alpha V’s orbit shifted, causing never-ending sandstorms and the loss of his wife and some of his followers, we can understand (if not agree with) the obsessive anger which has now replaced the great control Khan possessed in “Space Seed”.
As anyone who’s seen the film knows, Khan quotes several passages from Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. Serving as Starbuck to Khan’s Ahab is Joachim, played by Judson Scott (some press releases for Wrath of Khan actually state the character is Khan’s son, although the film itself gives no hint of that). Joachim is certainly loyal to Khan and is the first to commend him regarding the escape from their exile. But like Starbuck, he’s not above questioning Khan’s directives. He respectfully states that, as they are now free, they can simply settle on a new world rather than expend considerable time and effort into tracking down Kirk. When Kirk manages to fire back on Khan during their first encounter, Joachim is able to convince his leader that, because of the damage to their ship, the wisest course of action is to momentarily withdraw. Even after Khan obtains the powerful Genesis device, he’s still willing to take their commandeered ship, the U.S.S. Reliant, into a nebula that could cause damage to the ship, so he can get his revenge on Kirk. Khan even violently tosses Joachim aside when the latter strongly objects to this plan.
Despite this, the character still has Khan’s respect. This is proven when Joachim is killed toward the end of the movie and Khan tenderly holds him, quietly vowing to avenge him. The dynamic between these two characters is one of many reasons Wrath of Khan is still regarded as the best Trek movie.
One reason I disliked the Star Wars prequels was because of how they wasted Sir Christopher Lee by having him play second banana to the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), only to have his character be pointlessly dispatched in the first 15 minutes of Revenge of the Sith. I always thought it would’ve been better if Lee had played the Emperor’s master, and the films could have shown how the Emperor himself managed to overthrow him.
But the prequels (basically) ran in theaters simultaneously with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These films have Lee playing a bad guy sidekick but in a much better way. As the evil wizard Saruman, Lee has great scenes building his great armies, addressing his followers, and even knocking around the heroic wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen). We learn that Saruman and Gandalf were once friends, but the re-emergence of the Ring of Power and the return of the evil Sauron tempted Saurman into using his powers for conquest.
Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time Lee had a nice role as an evil sidekick. In The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers, Lee played Comte de Rochefort, the merciless right hand of Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston). These films gave Lee great sword fighting sequences with the musketeers (played by Oliver Reed, Michael York, Frank Finlay, and Richard Chamberlain).
Other bad guy sidekicks that are worth mentioning include Lin Tang, the merciless daughter of Fu Manchu. She was initially played in the 1930s by Mryna Loy, opposite Boris Karloff’s Fu Manchu. But my favorite version of the character is the one played by Tsai Chin, who played the role in five movies in the 1960s, all opposite Lee’s Fu Manchu. The films themselves may not be classics (I believe one of them was even broadcast on Mystery Science Theater 3000), but Lee and Chin are clearly having fun with their roles. These films also came out at the same time Chin was making a memorable impression as the first Asian Bond girl in You Only Live Twice.
Another memorable bad guy sidekick is Karl, the right hand man to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), played in the classic film Die Hard by the late, great Alexander Godunov. Karl ends up with a reason to want Bruce Willis’s John McClane dead when our hero dispatches Karl’s brother early in the film. The fight scene between Karl and McClane is one of many reasons that film is great, and the villainy both Godunov and Rickman bring to their characters is something the Die Hard sequels certainly could have used.