Heroic lead characters have been an essential part of Hollywood’s evolution over the years. From Atticus Finch to Aragorn to Superman, audiences love a noble hero who always fights for truth and justice, and always does the right thing. But as easy as such characters are to love, watching them be good and noble 24/7 can quickly become monotonous.
Enter the anti-hero. He’s the guy who will do the right thing, but not always for the right reasons. As their name suggests, anti-heroes have far more shades of grey than traditional heroes, and are much more interesting to watch on the big screen because you’re never quite sure if their actions are borne out of a desire to do the right thing or to gain a personal advantage, or both. Let us take a look at the best anti-hero movies Hollywood has to offer.
Superheroes are often saddled with the burden of being unblinkingly noble at all times. Because a Superman or Spider-Man who gives in to their anger or other negative emotions even a little bit can be quite a terrifying notion for the general public. In the ’90s, comic books began to experiment with anti-heroes, and the most popular result of that experiment finally got a fitting solo movie in 2016.
Deadpool is the story of Wade Wilson, a former mercenary who one day gains superpowers and a hyper-awareness that he is a fictional character. Thus Wade transforms into Deadpool, an unstable vigilante who brutally murders anyone who gets in his way, and has no qualms about being judge, jury, and executioner for the kind of criminals that the courts won’t prosecute.
11 The Bourne Identity
On a fishing boat in the middle of the sea, a crew of fishermen rescue a lone body drifting in the waters. The unconscious man is brought on board and helped to recover his health. That is when the mysterious man reveals he has no memory of his past life, but is armed with knowledge and deadly fight skills that can only belong to the kind of person who does dangerous things for a living.
Thus begins a hair-raising adventure when the man embarks on a quest to find his true identity, even if the answer might horrify him. The Bourne Identity was a landmark film for the 2000s, which was single-handedly responsible for bringing a gritty realism to action choreography in movies as diverse as superhero franchises to the James Bond series.
10 Kill Bill Vol. 1
Quentin Tarantino is one of the best action movie directors Hollywood has to offer, despite him being best known for his dialogs and character work rather than the fisticuffs that so often take place in his films. Kill Bill is the closest thing Tarantino has ever made to a typical blockbuster action movie, and it remains as distinctly stamped with his filmmaking style as any of the auteur’s other works.
Beatrix Kiddo is a former member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, and as such is mixed up with all kinds of wrong people. One of those people is Bill, the man Beatrix loved, who tried to kill her on their wedding day. Having survived the attack, Beatrix thirsts for vengeance. But to get to Bill first she must make her way through an army of assassins belonging to their tribe while spilling truckloads of blood in some of the most wildly inventive action sequences ever seen in Hollywood.
Mark Millar is a legendary comic book artist who made his name off the backs of various anti-heroes and villain protagonists that he created for his comics. A number of Millar’s comics have been adapted for the big screen to great success. Case in point, 2008’s Wanted starring Angelina Jolie at the peak of her action star career, and a young James McAvoy in a role that would put him on the Hollywood map.
Wesley Gibson is a nondescript office worker dealing with an unfaithful girlfriend, frequent headaches, and a general unhappiness with life. Wesley’s world changes when he is caught up in a shootout between two assassins. Things get even messier when Wesley is informed about a secret society of assassins that his father was a part of, that Wesley would also need to join and learn from if he hopes to kill the man who killed his dad, and who is now gunning for his life.
Liam Neeson has had one of the strangest career trajectories in Hollywood, in that he started out as a dramatic, critically acclaimed actor before becoming an action star in his fifties. The movie that caused the change was 2008’s Taken, a small-budget action thriller that Neeson did not have much hope from, but which managed to become a sleeper hit based on strong word of mouth and a small but passionate fan base.
Bryan Mills is a retired CIA operative who just wants to live a quiet life. But peace is not an option when Bryan’s daughter Kim gets kidnapped while on vacation in Paris. Desperate to get his daughter back, Bryan embarks on a bloody vendetta across Europe, torturing or killing anyone who gets in his way as Bryan finds himself facing off against the might of an international criminal empire.
7 John Wick
Few action movies have been as quickly influential and popular as the John Wick series of films. Created by Chad Stahelski, one of Hollywood’s leading action directors since the ’90s, the world of John Wick is known less for its complex themes or storylines than for its dazzling action sequences with no quick cuts or other editing tricks that so much of commercial cinema has fallen prey to.
Keanu Reeves shines in the lead role as the titular John, a man living a quiet life with his pet dog while grieving the loss of his beloved wife. A chance encounter with some spoiled brats belonging to a powerful crime syndicate leads to John’s dog getting killed. This forces John out of retirement and on a quest for vengeance, as he is revealed to be the “Baba Yaga,” a legendary killer in a secret world of assassins.
6 Mad Max: Fury Road
There’s no time to be a hero in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. That is why all the lead characters of George Miller’s Mad Max series of films are different shades of anti-heroes. In Mad Max: Fury Road, viewers were reunited after a long time with Max Rockatansky, a peacekeeping officer with a reputation for brutality, who gets captured by a local warlord who wants to drain him for his blood.
Max manages to find an escape when he teams up with Furiosa, one of the warlord’s combat generals who has decided to turn her back on her old life and smuggle away her boss’s captive brides in the process. What follows is the single most thrilling chase sequence ever seen in a Hollywood movie, extended over the film’s entire run time in an action filmmaking feat that is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.
5 The Transporter
People say westerns are no longer getting made. There may be no more cowboys on horses armed with six-shooters, but the spirit of the western lives on in movies like The Transporter. Frank Martin is a former Special Forces operative. He is a meticulous, no-nonsense guy who likes to keep to himself and avoid trouble as much as possible.
But trouble comes calling due to the fact that Frank works as a delivery agent for various criminals. Frank’s list of strict rules for delivery keep him removed from the criminal world for the most part. But after a package delivery goes wrong and his employer puts out a hit on him, Frank has no choice but to go all “Lone Ranger” on their butts and take down the entire crime ring by himself.
4 The Punisher
Deadpool might be the most popular comics anti-hero, but he is far from the most ruthless or brutal. That honor belongs to Frank Castle aka The Punisher, the poster child for the comic book hero who is perpetually one step away from becoming a full-on villain. Castle was a man of the law and a former US Marine, until his family was murdered by the mob.
This turns Frank into the Punisher, a brutal vigilante who will stop at nothing to kill criminals anywhere he finds them. There have been several attempts to bring Frank Castle to the big screen over the years. The pick of the bunch is 2004’s The Punisher, featuring Thomas Jane in the lead role as Frank Castle, and John Travolta essaying the role of the main villain, notorious crimelord Howard Saint.
3 The Boondock Saints
The ’90s was the time when a number of films were made that would bomb at the box-office but go on to be regarded as cult classics. One such movie was 1999’s The Boondock Saints, whose violent imagery was considered too much for general audiences at the time. The movie follows twin brothers Connor and Murphy MacManus, who decide to take it upon themselves to rid their home city of Boston of all crime.
While the MacManus brothers cut a brutal path through Boston on their quest, they are pursued by FBI agent Paul Smecker. But the way forward is not clear for Smecker, since he is torn over his official duty to persecute the twins, and his personal belief that what they are doing is necessary for dealing with crime and corruption in an effective manner.
2 V for Vendetta
Alan Moore is another comic book writer who rose to fame for daring to show superheroes as flawed and troubled characters rather than shining paragons of virtue. V for Vendetta is one of Moore’s best known comics, which was adapted for the big screen in 2006. In the future, Britain is ruled by an authoritarian regime that hides its brutality using propaganda and unlawful imprisonment.
In the absence of hope, an unknown vigilante wearing a Guy Fawkes mask emerges who simply calls himself V. Armed with deadly fighting skills and a daring plan to expose the corrupt regime, V embarks on a mission of destruction where he is aided by Evey Hammond, a former member of the ruling regime who now wishes to bring about its demise. Fast-paced, stylish, and filled with memorable quotes, V for Vendetta feels much more like a grounded sci-fi dystopian movie than a superhero comic book offering.
1 Escape from New York
It might be hard to imagine now, but Kurt Russell, who plays jolly old Santa Claus with such aplomb, was once best known for playing the most popular anti-hero Hollywood had ever seen. In 1981, legendary Hollywood filmmaker John Carpenter introduced the world to Escape from New York. Set in a dystopian future, the movie explores a world where the entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison.
Snake Plissken is a former soldier-turned-thief-turned-prisoner, who bargains for his freedom in return for infiltrating Manhattan to rescue the President of the country before armed insurgents get to him. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game between Snake and the film’s villains as he enters the lawless island and embarks on a desperate rescue mission before time runs out for the President and Snake himself.