Not all heroes are cut from the same cloth, although film history is filled with paragons of virtue, bold men and women doing all the right things for all the right reasons. They are your Galahads and Supermen, the heroes who perform courageous acts because it is in their DNA.
They are also a little boring.
While I’ll root for the good guys when the situation – or at least the movie – calls for it, the truth is I prefer my heroism with some edge. I like the complicated hero, the character that might be more nihilistic than noble, more self-serving than selfless. I like Han Solo, not Luke Skywalker. I like the anti-hero. Here are a few favorites.
TAXI DRIVER (1976): Travis Bickel lives alone and, deeply damaged by his solitary life, seems unable to make meaningful connections with anyone – particularly women. Ironically, it is this inability to connect, to expand his view beyond his own small life, that eventually casts him in the hero’s role.
THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981): This classic look at a post-apocalyptic world where survival is a constant struggle features one of cinema’s most iconic anti-heroes. “Mad” Max Rockatansky is a product of both his environment – a lawless version of the Australian outback – and the death of his wife and infant son. The result is a cold (but cool) hero who fights for fuel and struggles to connect with those around him on even the most basic level.
DIRTY HARRY (1971): Some might argue that the police force is no place for a character as jaded and explosive as Dirty Harry Callahan. Hollywood obviously disagrees. The classic Clint Eastwood character proved so effective at cleaning up the streets of San Francisco in this violent police procedural that he was called back into duty four more times over the next 17 years.
THE PROFESSIONAL (1994): Leon lives alone. He drinks milk and cares for his houseplant and never, ever engages with those around him. That would get in the way of his profitable career. You see, Leon is a hit man.
What makes this film so interesting is that when Leon becomes involved with a young protege, audiences are asked to question the reality of morality and to embrace a killer as he trains a successor. It’s an interesting study of the nature of real and perceived evil.
THE SEARCHERS (1956): After years of playing the aforementioned paragons, John Wayne did something of an about face in this classic Western. His Ethan Edwards, myopic in his view of settlers and Indians, is tasked with finding his niece, captured during a Comanche raid. It’s a quest that takes years and finds Edwards disconnecting from humanity in subtle but significant ways.
Watching Wayne lose himself in this dark character is as epic as the grand Western vistas this film is famous for.