The right kind of scumbag can really lift a movie. Elevated beyond their traditional roles in actual society, scumbags take on a greater meaning in movies, representing everything the hero is not. Scumbags in movies deserve our respect.
I use the term ‘scumbag’ to refer to a specific kind of lowlife or bad guy, someone desperate and willing to do awful things to achieve their ends. Usually ugly. Usually dirty. Usually profane. Rarely the man in charge. Or in possession of any real power whatsoever.
Someone to whom any leading man could confidently point a loaded gun and say “Eat this, scumbag!” while remaining free from accusations of snobbery.
Some scumbags possess some spark of humanity that makes them undismissable. Such is the case with David Patrick Kelly, an actor with whom any discussion of movie scumbaggery must begin. Kelly could be Sean Penn’s uglier brother (who isn’t Chris Penn). He portrayed one of the first scumbags to really make me stand up and take notice. His first major scumbag role is as the inciting villain ‘Luther’ in Walter Hill’s 1979 cult classic The Warriors. He’s snively, snakey and a big ol’ jerk, and cemented in movie history movie history thanks to his immortal cry: “Warriors, come out to plaaaaaaeeeeaaaaaay”.
Director Walter Hill must’ve been impressed, as he cast Kelly as another integral scumbag in a subsequent film, 48 Hours (1982). And he’s called Luther in this one too! This Luther could easily be Luther from The Warriors a few years later, provided he didn't suffer the fate strongly hinted by the end of The Warriors.
It all built up to Kelly’s Scumbag de Resistence: the legendarily slimy ‘Sully’ from Commando, who is famously on the receiving end of Arnie’s classic line: “I like you Sully. You’re a funny guy. That’s why I’m going to kill you last“. (N.B. He lied).
Whether he’s taunting Arnie about his kidnapped daughter; doing a drug deal in a mall or simply being awful to Rae Dawn Chong, Kelly set the gold standard for movie scumbags with Sully.
Kelly continues to pop up regularly in character roles, and it always gives me a thrill when I see him. I couldn’t believe my eyes when he showed up as Louis C.K.’s psychiatrist in Louie.
Arnold Schwarzenegger movies have a knack for attracting the best scumbags, and Commando features another of my favorites: Carlos Cervantes (aka Gary Carlos Cervantes). He manages to convey more scumminess in his tiny role in Commando (as the calm guy holding Alyssa Milano’s handcrafted pink birthday card when Arnie busts into his daughter’s bedroom. “Mellow out, man”) than most actors achieve across a whole career.
Cervantes essayed memorable scumbag performances in other films such as Beverly Hills Cop II (as ‘Mendoza’, classic scumbag name); Scarface; Police Academy IV: City Under Siege and innumerable TV shows. While many actors on this list get type cast as scumbags, Cervantes has performed in a variety of roles over the years. But he’ll always be a scumbag to me.
With his hulking stature; a name like ‘Randall “Tex” Cobb’; and credits like ‘Big Hairy Con’ (Naked Gun 33⅓); ‘Gruff Man’ (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) and ‘Slag’ (Blind Fury), it’s no surprise the man pictured below is an icon of American movie scumbagness.
Cobb is probably best known for the role pictured above, that of mythical bounty hunter Leonard Smalls from the Coen Brothers’ iconic Raising Arizona. In doing research for this article (i.e. Googling his name) I discovered Cobb was also a professional boxer. Seems appropriate.
Cobb turns up in the justly forgotten Fletch sequel, Fletch Lives, paired up with another legendary movie scumbag — Dennis Burkley. You might not know the name, but you’ll definitely know the face — he pretty much played every fat biker/redneck/short order cook/roadie/burly bearded dude on screen over the past thirty years; perhaps most memorably in Mask (1985). Burkley died in 2013. He will always be remembered for single-handedly inspiring the ‘Bear’ sub-culture.
Also no longer with us is character actor Brion James, who died in 1999. A perennial presence in big and low budget movies (most people seem to recognise him from Blade Runner, seen below) James generally played cops, but there was something inherently scummy about him (that sneering, upturned face?) that rendered his characters with a pointed scumminess. See: 48 Hours,Tango & Cash, Another 48 Hours and Red Heat.
While watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s modern masterpiece There Will Be Blood, I almost jumped out of my seat when the superlatively scummy Kevin J. O’Connor turned up as the man claiming to be Daniel Day Lewis’ brother. It thrilled me to no end that an actor I so predominantly associated with scumbag roles could appear in such a prestigious movie.
Like David Patrick Kelly, O’Connor is an actor who has played a variety of roles over the years, but whom I choose associate mostly with his scummiest roles; as seen in films like Color of Night; The Mummy and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Those last two were both directed by Stephen Sommers, who appears to treasure O’Connor as some sort of lucky charm, and cast him in his best role to date: the perpetually complaining sidekick in 1998’s underrated monster adventure Deep Rising. He works mainly in TV these days, but also showed up in Anderson’s The Master.
There was an attempt to cast familiar looking henchman in the self-reflexive 1993 fiasco Last Action Hero, and the most recognisable face among the bad guys has to be Al Leong, who is memorably dispatched in the film by an ice cream cone to the back of the head.
Leong, a stuntman and martial artist who often found himself with prominent bad guy roles in action movies has spoken very little onscreen dialogue in his career, but his scumbag credentials speak for themselves.
He played the guy who tortures Mel Gibson at the end of Lethal Weapon, the henchman from Alan Rickman’s terror squad who is seen helping himself to a chocolate bar in Die Hard (see below); and other random bad dudes in movies like Action Jackson; Rapid Fire and Beverly Hills Cop III. Big ups to you, Al Leong!
Paul McCrane also cuts a good line in scum, most memorably as the doomed Emil in Robocop, who meets an appropriately scummy end when he is doused in toxic waste.
It’s been nice watching scum-faced character actor John Hawkes rise up from the cinematic gutter to be a respected leading man in indie films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sessions. His scummy qualities were very well-suited to his role as Kenny Powers’ brother in Eastbound & Down.
Other actors of notable scumbaggery I’d like to cite here include Peter Greene (Zed in Pulp Fiction); Mark Boone Jr (portly scum in films like Batman Begins and 30 Days of Night) and Nick Chinlund (masterfully scummy in The Chronicles of Riddick and Con Air).