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 .