Why the Russians Are Still the Greatest Movie Villains of All Time
They’re beating teenage prostitutes right under Denzel Washington's nose. They're strong-arming Bradley Cooper for mind-altering drugs. They're hijacking the president's plane. They're killing Keanu Reeves' dog. They're blowing up suburban homes with goddamn bazookas, because the very existence of wholesome American children enrages them.
Who are they? They are the Russians, Hollywood's eternal enemy.
Movies have many preferred punching bags, but for decades, Mother Russia has been at the top of the list. Need to communicate evil in five seconds? Have an intimidating guy with a cigarette step out of the shadows and say, "Da." Your work is done.
This may seem ludicrous, considering the Cold War has been over for 24 years, but the numbers don’t lie. Since 2010 alone, Russian bad guys have appeared in such action flicks as John Wick, The Equalizer, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, The November Man, A Good Day to Die Hard, Jack Reacher, Limitless, Salt, The Drop, and The Tourist. Hell, even The Muppets piled on with Tina Fey's gulag guard in Muppets Most Wanted. And this month we have two more: the Casey Affleck vehicle Triple 9, featuring the Russian mob, and Zoolander 2, featuring what appears to be a Russian Kristen Wiig.
So what's going on here? Have screenwriters just refused to reinvent villains since Rocky IV out of sheer laziness? It's a little more complicated than that, and it's also been going on for much longer than Sylvester Stallone has been writing screenplays.
The grand tradition of Russian thugs on screen didn't really start until the Cold War, but there were some swipes at the Soviets in '30s and '40s comedies. "You could make fun of Communists because it was considered such a political aberration to begin with," says Bernard F. Dick, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and author of the forthcoming book The Screen Is Red. "What Hollywood was doing was exposing the frivolity of what used to be called 'the parlor pink.' These were people, generally women, from well-to-do families who would go to rallies and marches and protest meetings and then would go home in time for cocktail hour." He points to rom-coms like Red Salute, Public Deb No. 1, and Ninotchka, which all feature left-leaning or avowed Soviet ladies learning the error of their ways from hunky capitalists. (Seriously, one of the dudes is nicknamed "Uncle Sam.")
Things got a little complicated during World War II, when we buddied up with Russia to fight the Nazis. The studios had to hit pause on the usual Communist bashing, resulting in problematic movies like Song of Russia. That 1944 film -- which, by the way, is tagged as "drama/propaganda" when you Google it -- tried so hard to convince US audiences that the Russians were cool now that it kinda implied collective farms were exotic carnivals, not sites of mass starvation. It was later condemned in the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings by your libertarian cousin’s favorite author, Ayn Rand.
One year after Song of Russia hit theaters, World War II ended, and moviemakers weren’t sure what to do with the Ruskies. The answer came the following spring, when Winston Churchill showed up at Westminster College and dropped his infamous "Iron Curtain" speech on a bunch of unsuspecting Missouri coeds. It was time to jam the system with Soviet spies, and Hollywood delivered handsomely with titles like My Son John, The Woman on Pier 13 (originally, I Married a Communist), and even Iron Curtain. Just like Tyrese in a vintage Dodge Challenger, the trend was so fast and furious that even kids’ shows were mocking it by the late '50s.
"Hilariously, the first Russian bad guy that I was ever aware of was Boris Badenov [from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show]," says Leslie Dixon, a screenwriter whose credits include Limitless, which features a nasty Russian loan shark. "And that was very witty and very funny because they were making fun of that paranoia."
But nuanced moose cartoons aside, the whole Russian villain fascination was just hitting its stride. The '60s saw the debut of the Bond franchise, which basically wrote the Soviet mastermind playbook. Bond's first nemesis, Dr. No, might've been a German-Chinese orphan, but the Russians entered rotation with the second installment, From Russia with Love, which featured an Austin Powers wet dream in Rosa Klebb.
Things would get murky in the '70s as the Cold War momentarily, uh, cooled, but really, movies were just winding up for the berserk main event in the '80s.
Looking at the 1980s film slate, you wouldn't be insane to assume Hollywood resurrected Joseph McCarthy, loaded him up with speed, and asked him to write all the movies. The paranoid fantasies just get bigger and sillier as you move from Red Dawn to Rocky IV to Rambo: First Blood Part II. But if you ask scholars, it's an ex-actor who shoulders much of the blame. "You have this time in the '70s, where there's even a grudging discussion of detente," says Bryn Upton, a professor at McDaniel College and author of Hollywood and the End of the Cold War. "When Reagan gets elected, of course, it spins 180 degrees in the other direction. Reagan amps up Cold War rhetoric, and does it in a way that is a little cartoonish and I think that winds up being reflected in our films. I mean, the original Red Dawn is just outlandish in its audacity."
James Bruner didn’t write Red Dawn, but he did write another Soviet invasion action movie from around the same time, Invasion U.S.A. This one has Chuck Norris fighting off Soviet baddies Rostov and Nikko, who are hellbent on overtaking the seat of all-American power: Southern Florida. "I wouldn’t even call them Russians, I call them Soviets," says Bruner of his characters. "At the time, the Soviet Union was causing trouble all over the world. They were just the bad guys that people understood."
But what happens when the bad guys that people understand stop being bad? The USSR officially dissolved in 1991, leaving filmmakers with a dilemma: do we ditch our default antagonists for something more relevant, or keep on writing Russian guys with big furry hats and even bigger guns?
You can probably guess which option they went with. While the Slavic killers didn't stop, they did evolve. "In the 1990s, you start to see a shift towards the lone-wolf characters," says Upton. "It's less about monolithic, Soviet-style Communism." What it’s more about, he explains, is individuals who still have that '80s-era madness, but little to no ties to the Russian government. Think Russian prisoners, pimps, gangsters, and other scuzzy sundries. "The economic break-up of the Soviet Union created a massive and more sophisticated criminal underclass that previously had not had the wherewithal to party," Dixon says. "There just became a broader spectrum of Russian criminals."
These 2.0 Russian thugs that developed in the '90s still persist to this day, as Dixon and Richard Wenk, the writer of The Equalizer, can attest. Wenk originally had Denzel Washington fighting rogue US government guys in his script, but both he and his star ultimately decided a Russian syndicate was the better, even "fresher" call. "I think they're just very mysterious, right?" Wenk says."It’s an Eastern Bloc country, so it still has that aura of secrecy and police state and skilled killers that work for the government. If you just look at the news, the people who have disappeared in Russia or been poisoned in London, you go, 'You guys are pretty wild.'"
But this all still doesn't answer the question: why? While cases like that London poisoning persist, there’s still a distinctly retro, slightly irrelevant feel to these characters. When I started writing this article, I had a theory that they continue because Russians are the only nationality you can villainize with total impunity from the political-correctness crowd. And that seems to check out -- neither Bruner, Wenk, and Dixon could recall any criticism they got for writing those Russian bad guys. I can't confidently say if other screenwriters feel the same way, but not for lack of trying. For whatever reason, the other 20-plus interview requests I sent were declined or ignored. Maybe the KGB got to them?
There are other reasons for this enduring type, though. The simplest one is that bad guys with accents sell. "I’m sure people in the Russian community have complained about it, but not enough where it's actually affected Hollywood, as far as I can tell," Bruner says. "The people financing movies are not afraid of getting any kind of cultural blowback." (In fact, these films make millions even in Moscow.) Another is that a recent Russian figure who's often compared to a Bond villain has risen to power. "Oh [Vladimir Putin] for sure," Wenk says. "I think he's a very compelling individual and he's sort of a man in black in our world."
Still, Putin has only been in power for a fraction of this Russian hit parade, so there’s another option to consider: inertia. "It's difficult to break away," Upton says. "Hollywood sometimes can be deeply innovative but -- and I know this comes out right now, in the controversy over the Oscar nominations and their being all-white for the second time in a row -- Hollywood will hold to conventions in a lot of ways because that’s what makes money. And when it's all said and done, the business of Hollywood is getting people to buy into whatever the central premise of any film is. The quicker you can get people to buy in, the more likely they are to fall into the world that the film creates."
"So it’s still easy shorthand, and I think that's one of the reasons why it lingers. You hear that accent and you immediately think of Ivan Drago or Boris Badenov and every bad-guy Russian from the movies that you grew up with."
Dixon puts it more bluntly: "There’s no particular reason for it when you think about it. There are just so many vile strata of people all across the globe. But I think old habits die hard with American writers."
Money, laziness, and lack of accountability are all great incentives. But it could just be that this is something that continues to resonate with audiences, against all odds.
"To a degree, I think there's a nostalgia for it," Upton says. "There was a seeming simplicity to the good-guy, bad-guy, East vs. West dichotomy that I think some people really miss. I think there's been an attempt to frame the War on Terror as a new Cold War when realistically that isn't what it is. It's not a perfect analogy. But I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon."
That would certainly explain why that 2012 Red Dawn remake got green-lit, but as that movie learned the hard way, you can’t just drop North Koreans in as a placeholder. For now and the foreseeable future, it's still Russians or bust.
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Kristin Hunt is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and thinks cartoon Rasputin was the scariest Russian villain of all time. Follow her to the underworld at @kristin_hunt .