The Essential Must-See U.S. Tough Guy Cinema
American cinema in the 1970s through to the early ’90s was populated with the kind of leading characters you don’t see enough of any more – no nonsense, amoral tough guys, often on the wrong side of the law, rugged complexions lines with life, who start off mean and don’t get any nicer by the closing credits.
Director Sam Peckinpah’s brilliantly brutal and bloody Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) features a prime example of this. Bennie, played by Warren Oates, is a down on his luck bartender whose ears prick up when $1million dollars is offered for the titular, potentially suicidal deed – but as Bennie says, ‘nobody loses all the time’. It’s possibly Oates’s finest performance as the tequila-soaked bounty hunter who, the more outgunned he is, the more savage his becomes. It’s also one of Peckinpah’s greatest films, and nicely encapsulates the violent, lawless ethic of the era.
Here are six more celluloid outlaws as rough and tough as Bennie!
Seventies tough guy nonpareil James Caan is Jonathan E, fearless superstar player of Rollerball, a future sport that involves motorbikes, spikes, crash helmets and lots of violence. The problem is, despite ensuring massive ratings for the corporate sponsored TV show that is a global sensation, Jonathan wants out. Jonathan is told to do as he is told. And no-one tells Jonathan E what to do. To give you an example of how times have changed, watch the 2002 remake. On second thoughts, don’t. Avoid it all costs. Watch this one.
The Exterminator (1980)
Robert Ginty is a battle-scarred Vietnam war veteran who returns to New York to find it a crime-infested hellhole. When a gang take out his ‘nam buddy, Ginty turns swears vengeance and sets about cleaning the scum off the streets. He doesn’t bat an eye as he flamethrowers and meat-grinds his foes, but then, he’s been through the horrors of the Vietnam war so really nothing will faze him. And neither will anything stop him, because he turned up to do it all again in The Exterminator 2.
James Caan again, as a cool, cold and calculating in Michael Mann’s Thief, based on The Home Invaders, the memoir of an actual thief who worked in Chicago. Caan takes pride in never hurting anyone during his burglaries, so it comes as a disappointment that he has to take up arms against the mob when they double cross him. Gunfire ensues – Caan remains gloriously level-headed as he drops ‘bad guys’ left and right, a true pro to the end.
Runaway Train (1985)
Jon Voight made a ferocious film comeback as an unstoppable escaped convict in this genuinely thrilling action thriller, co-scripted by actual ex-con Eddie Bunker (Mr Blue from Reservoir Dogs). Voight is Manny, whose bid for freedom backfires when he ends up stuck on driverless locomotive speeding through a blizzard, with no brakes. The funny thing is, Manny acts like he’s been through worse.
52 Pick-Up (1986)
John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s hard-as-nails novel doesn’t pull any punches. Quintessential American movie tough guy Roy Scheider is a businessman who is blackmailed by thugs who have an incriminating videotape of him with his mistress. Rather than go to the cops, or cave, Scheider does what any hard man of the era would do – he goes after the blackmailers himself and metes out his own form of justice. And it’s not pleasant!
King of New York (1990)
Christopher Walken is at his snarling, sinister best as newly-released drug lord Frank White in Abel Ferrara’s gritty gangster epic. White wants to reestablish his authority, and his turf, and to decimate his competitors. He also has a plan to help the New York needy with his ill-gotten gains, but don’t let that fool you. This is a man so feared, he can silence a gang on a subway car with just a quick flash of his gun and a smile. Which is sometimes all it takes. Coming at the tail end of the tough guy era, this seemed to be a last gasp for the outlaw hero, now fighting against the bland and beautiful leading men of the new era. As Frank White says, “It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.”
All the films are available now from Arrow Video. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (18) is out now from Arrow Video on Limited Edition Blu-ray with a brand new 4K restoration.