A few days ago I was prompted to write a post about what I think makes a good villain. Today I continue that
**Warning: contains spoilers for Die Hard and Speed. Do not scroll past young Bruce Willis if you want to remain unspoiled…**
The other two great smart villains I can think of from action movies are Howard Payne in Speed and his villain-progenitor Hans Gruber from Die Hard (because, let’s face it, Speed is Die Hard on a bus). In both films, the heroes are just your average working stiff cops. Jack Traven and John McClane aren’t billed as particularly smart; they are average joes, not Super Special Cops. And they have the added disadvantage that both Hans and Payne know the “cop playbook.” These villains have done their homework and they know every move law enforcement will make before they make it.
Which means the cop heroes have to think outside the box, they have to try to outmaneuver these evil geniuses–which makes for really good story. (I have to say I think Speed cheats the ending a little when Howard Payne climbs on top of the train to wrestle the younger, stronger, TALLER Jack into submission. That was a character violation for Payne.)
And sometimes even when the hero thinks they’ve won it turns out that the plan is deeper than they thought. It’s a trap. The villain has out-thought them and now the hero is in even deeper shit that before. In Speed the cops track down Payne to his house and fall into a booby trap. The ending of Speed has another great reversal where the cops attempt to trap Payne again and he outsmarts them again.
One of the greatest scenes in Die Hard (which was a late addition, btw, added simply because the producers discovered that Alan Rickman could do a credible American accent) is when John and Hans come face to face.
This whole sequence is a great moment because it’s basically chess between the two men. John catches Hans on the roof. Hans pretends to be a hostage. John passes Hans a gun. Hans shoots but the gun isn’t loaded. But then Hans shoots the glass because he noticed John was barefoot. The whole scene is move/counter move between the two of them and both of them are smart. Both of them are competent.
Also, they don’t just stick to one move, one plan. Both of them adapt. My writing teacher called this “punch/counter-punch.” Basically, don’t have either one of them make a plan and stick to it through the whole story. Both villain and hero have to adapt and change; they react to each other and that drives the story.
When you do things like this–make your villains smart, force your villains and heroes to react and adapt to each other–you end up with great, lasting classics like Die Hard, which is now one of the foundational texts that people point to as great screenwriting.