During the 1980s Mike Tyson was an important part of my adolescence.
Not that we used to spar or anything, but I used to love running downstairs on a Sunday morning to catch ITV’s delayed transmission of the previous night’s big title fight in which he’d undoubtedly battered the shit out of some poor fucker unlucky enough to have briefly shared the ring.
Tyson had the scariest uppercut I’ve ever seen, a lightning-fast weapon so fierce I’d close my eyes and take a breath even when he missed. This guy was nothing more than a human T-Rex in a pair of black shorts. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he ripped the head off a beleaguered opponent and slaked his thirst by drinking from the spurting stump. There was a vicious mystique about him, an aura of invincible aggression that for a little while made him the most compelling heavyweight boxer in history.
All these years later my teenage fascination with the so-called Baddest Man on the Planet occasionally makes me wonder why I still like watching a man pulverize another man. Is there some sort of vicarious shit going on here? Do I secretly long to be Tyson? Or at least be able to wield such an awesome physical threat?
But what I do know is Iron Mike’s formidable exertions fostered a deep love of onscreen hard bastards that quickly spilled over into the movies and endures to this day. Bruce Lee, Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Bronson, Stallone… Yes, please.
I still can’t believe Tyson lost to Buster Douglas, though.
Jack O’Connell in Starred Up (2013)
Wanna see the teenage equivalent of sweaty dynamite?
Then catch this brutal drama in which Eric (O’Connell) is such a violent handful he gets sent from a young offenders’ institution to a full-on adult prison.
He’s not a big lad, but in shape and has the striking speed of a rattler on roids. He clearly sees life inside as one long boxing match, although it’s doubtful he’s even heard of the Queensbury Rules. For when push comes to shove this guy will literally bite your bollocks.
Starred Up prides itself on profane realism and to a large part succeeds. During the degrading ‘check-in’, Eric doesn’t speak or give the slightest intimidating stare. He obeys orders without question, but as soon as he’s alone in his new cell he starts making a shank from a burnt toothbrush.
It doesn’t take long to realize he’s unmanageable with his punch-first mentality. He’s a primeval force, simply indifferent to what shape the opposition takes. Screw or fellow inmate, you’ll get nutted. Superior numbers? He doesn’t care. Batons and shields? Big deal. Handcuffs won’t neutralize him. Getting the first blow in makes no difference. Even if you try to be nice, you’re likely to end up face down at his feet covered in blood.
O’Connell is thoroughly convincing as the psychotic young scrote, his less than rosy real-life upbringing obviously helping the realism. His full-blooded performance (just watch the way he matches Eastern Promises’ infamous naked Turkish Baths fight) is helped by a writer who knows his shit, the supremely economical dialogue and a director that prefers showing to telling. Indeed, at times it’s a masterfully lean flick so it’s a shame it takes a late slide into melodrama. Nevertheless, you won’t see a much better depiction of a prison hard man.
Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984)
It’s probably fair to say Arnie’s iconic role in this dark, lean piece of sci-fi makes him the ultimate hard bastard.
After hurtling back through time he nocturnally arrives amid a localized lightning storm crouched next to a garbage truck.
Slowly rising to his feet with eyes scanning left and right, we can only admire his power-packed, V-shaped upper body. What’s more he’s got a grim, vaguely dead expression that screams no mercy, and as he gazes upon the sprawl of nighttime LA, you know this guy fucking well means business.
It has to be one of the all-time best movie entrances.
Shortly afterward three punks get some firsthand experience that this particular cybernetic organism doesn’t go in for explanations, let alone gasbagging. “Your clothes,” he says. “Give them to me now.” In the blink of an eye, he’s lifted one knife-wielding dude off his feet and ripped something glistening out of his midriff.
Schwarzenegger’s icy performance benefits from consistent writing and minimal dialogue. He never asks for anything, whether he’s pulling a payphone out of a stranger’s hand, shooting dead a gun shop owner, crushing a nightclub bouncer’s hand or smashing a cop’s head into the frame of his own police car.
Terse is not the word.
Then there’s the brilliant ‘I’ll be back’ muttered to an oblivious desk sergeant, a darkly funny precursor to his awesome cop shop rampage in which he strides through the ruined, fire-hit station in his dark shades and black leather jacket with a high-powered weapon in each hand slaughtering whoever stands in his way. He’s not just a hard bastard here, he’s fucking cool.
Thank God Sarah Connor was the one landed with the poodle hair and shoulder pads.
Temuera Morrison in Once Were Warriors (1994)
Jake the Muss (Morrison) is a handsome, charismatic brute, at home in the roughest New Zealand pub with his mad dog stare, black vest and barbed wire tattoos inked around his bulging biceps.
He takes immense pride in his physicality, his alcohol-fuelled bursts of head-splitting violence routinely winning pub-wide admiration. However, he’s far too immersed in macho bullshit to have the slightest appreciation he’s careening toward self-destruction.
So while his sycophantic cronies may view him as a man’s man, it’s at home with his wife Beth (Rena Owen) and five kids where we truly grasp his masculine failure. Having just lost his job for repeatedly skiving, he tries to gloss over the fuck-up by bringing back some tasty seafood. He explains he got ‘laid off’ and that he’ll only be seventeen bucks a week worse off on the dole, but Beth is far too smart to be taken in by this major blow to the family.
“You’ve gotta spoil everything, don’t you?” he hisses, giving the tiniest of pauses before erupting into a bellow inches from her face. “FUCK YOU!”
It’s here we begin to understand it’s not just other men who get to feel the weight of his fists. He will pound anyone threatening, even if it’s his nearest and dearest. This is a man happy to blame others, always a heartbeat away from the most appalling aggression.
Any sensible woman would run a mile. The problem Beth has, apart from the binding tie of an eighteen-year marriage and a handful of young kids, is that she still loves him. The sexual attraction remains undimmed, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Just look at the way they tenderly sing a duet. When the guy’s in the right mood, when his demonic outbursts have been tucked away for an hour or two, it’s clear there’s no other man in the world for her.
In a wider context Warriors presents a dismal picture of a disintegrating Maori culture. Whereas beforehand the Maoris were proud warriors with an honorable way of life, this flick rams home the message that far too many have sunk into a cesspit of wife-beating, alcoholism, criminal gang life, child sex abuse, and near-constant contact with the cops and the courts.
Morrison is excellent throughout, rampaging through a convincing urban world in which he stupidly clings to his fearsome pub identity while remaining blind to the fact his missus is the true warrior.
Or as the Kiwis say, he’s choice, bro, choice.
Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000)
In Rocky IV after the Italian Stallion has not only absorbed his towering opponent’s best punches but appears to be getting stronger, a bewildered Drago can only sit in his corner and mutter: “He’s not human, he’s like a piece of iron.”
Well, Maximus Decimus Meridius (Crowe) is so insanely tough for the vast majority of this sword ‘n’ sandal epic it doesn’t seem possible he’s made from flesh and blood either.
There’s no life-threatening situation he can’t handle or get out of through a mixture of courage, guile, immense self-control and an unflinching willingness to pierce his fellow humans. This fearless bruiser is at home in pitched battles with severed head-hurling barbarian hordes. He can outwit and kill would-be executioners. You’d think simultaneously taking on five gladiators might prove a teensy bit troublesome, but they all end up dead in less than two minutes. He inspires other men to die for him. The mob giddily chants his name. Even when treacherously stabbed in the side he will beat your ass. For fuck’s sake he can survive tiger attack.
His legendary toughness has even turned him into a headache for one of the most powerful men in the world, Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). “What am I going to do with you?” he whispers after Maximus has publicly defied him by refusing to kill a previously unbeaten opponent in the Colosseum. “You simply won’t die.”
This is a dick-swinging role of a lifetime for Crowe, an all-action, fantastically manly performance that probably resulted in all the other Best Actor nominees staying at home and cowering behind their sofas on Oscar night. Gladiator provides Crowe with a string of great scenes, such as the one where he marshals a bunch of gladiators into an impromptu mini army so they can withstand (and overcome) circling attacks by arrow-firing, chariot-riding Roman soldiers.
In fact, he’s so fucking hard here that even death can’t kill him.
Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner (1982)
Probably the leader.
A goddamned one-man slaughterhouse.
All right, I added that last bit to a police chief’s summary of Roy Batty’s (Hauer) talents, but given he’s already killed at least a dozen during his off-world escape to Earth with three other replicants, I think it’s fair.
The bleached-blonde Batty in his black leather trench coat oozes magnetism as he strides around a gloomy, rain-drenched LA. He’s not the sort of hard bastard to rant and rave, though, and prefers a polite demeanor. Indeed, most of the time there’s a smile playing with his lips. He’ll even kiss you right before he grabs hold of your head and crushes it with his bare hands.
Yes, this is one of the ‘questionable things’ Batty does in his futile bid to extend his paltry four-year lifespan. Others include shoving his head through a brick wall and absorbing a vicious facial blow from a metal pipe before eagerly exclaiming “That’s the spirit!” He’s so bloody tough he will save your life and then die in front of you just to teach you a thing or two about the value of life.
Hauer is brilliant as the lethal prodigal son, effortlessly upstaging Harrison Ford in much the same way he did to Sly Stallone a year earlier during the half-decent terrorist thriller, Nighthawks. Killing the lovely, harmless J.F. Sebastian was awfully mean, though, even if done off screen.
Ray Winstone in Scum (1979)
Starred Up is a decent flick, but Scum trumps it.
Well, it has a better supporting cast, terrific dialogue (“I’m the daddy now!”), and scorching scenes of violence that brand themselves onto your brain.
It’s simply a visceral, harrowing piece of cinema.
And, with all due respect to the excellent Jack O’Connell, he can’t quite reach the heights of a dynamic young Ray Winstone tearing up the screen.
Good grief, he’s superb here.
“So this is the daddy?” an unimpressed screw says on Carlin’s (Winstone) arrival after he’s been transferred from another youth detention center for smacking a guard. “The hard case. Don’t look much to me.”
Famous last words, fellah.
Saying that, this is still a tough place to navigate and when Razors from The Long Good Friday is on the staff, you know you’re up against it.
At first, Carlin’s nothing more than a sullen inmate determined to keep his nose clean, but that’s a tough call when you’re stuck in a place riddled with racist, sexual and physical abuse.
But you can only push a ‘a dirty little backstreet villain’ so far and before long the simmering Carlin has beaten the living shit out of the wing’s incumbent daddy and whacked one of his cronies over the head with a snooker ball-filled sock.
Once he’s back to denting faces, Carlin’s whole demeanor changes. There’s a swagger to his walk and he looks at people differently, obviously weighing them up. Just watch the bloody marvelous close-up moment when a screw has finished laying down the law before telling him to go on his way. Carlin does nothing of the sort, remaining rooted to the spot eyeballing him back as the screw’s confidence visibly drains.
All that’s left is for Carlin to slip on a black donkey jacket, tool up and go looking for the daddies of the other wings…
Scum is one of the great prison movies.
Harold Sakata in Goldfinger (1964)
I was about ten when I first saw this Bond classic on TV and can still recall hunting around afterward for a golf ball and proudly telling my parents I was about to crush it in one hand. Turned out I couldn’t. Then (when I got mum and dad to turn their backs) I tried with two hands, ending up with an annoyingly unaltered sphere, a pair of painful indentations and a somewhat patronizing mother who ruffled my hair and told me tea would be ready in ten minutes. It was around that time I started to suspect the movies might be embellishing stuff.
In time, I forgave Oddjob for being such a dishonest inspiration for failed demonstrations of childhood strength. In fact, these days he might just be my favorite Bond villain.
We first meet the mute, smartly dressed manservant in a golf course car park, the sight of his squat, bulky frame causing Connery to halt in his tracks. It’s great how Oddjob does so little here, preferring to let his actions talk for themselves. After all, you don’t need to blabber on much when you can decapitate a stone statue with your steel-rimmed bowler hat.
Apart from helping his boss cheat at golf, Oddjob also racks up a few kills, not hesitating whether he needs to dispose of a woman, a mobster or a colleague. A change of clothes might be beyond him, but the climactic fight inside a vault at Fort Knox is among the franchise’s best, especially when Bond hurls a gold bar at him, only for it to bounce off his meaty chest. Oddjob remains a great hard bastard with arguably the most memorable hat in cinematic history, a quip-free killer that definitely leaves you wanting more.