In most movies, the roles of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ are quite clear. Only recently have filmmakers capitalized on the reality that context and perspective determine who plays which role. And, in my experience, the less clear those determinations are, the more interesting the movie tends to be.
The 80s was not a decade when this brand of filmic sophistication pervaded the big screen. In fact, some of the movies I saw from that era wrongly assigned ‘bad guy’ roles to characters, and often without objection from the audience. In retrospect, those mischaracterizations have been interesting enough to warrant its own Thursday’s Top Three. The following ‘bad’ dudes served as antagonistic devices without consideration for their characters own realities. And the case I make for each of them may compel you to think about how easy it was to get behind ‘good guys’ in situations where added character dimension might have changed the viewing context entirely.
Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka)
Seen in “The Karate Kid” (1984); John G. Avildsen, dir.
People remember Johnny as the star pupil of the Cobra Kai Dojo. He was the ringleader of the bunch who made Daniel Larusso’s life a living hell. And he was the last guy to get his comeuppance via the indefensible crane kick.
But what people don’t remember is that Johnny had plans. He had a bright outlook on his senior year of high school. When offered a beer by one of his buddies, he refused, saying that he had one year to “make it all work.” Alas, his admirable determination got immediately sidetracked for one reason: a girl.
In the beach scene, where Daniel and Johnny first meet, there was a preexisting conflict between Johnny and his ex-girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue). It seems as if she’d broken up with him, and Johnny came to the party to try and reconcile. Sure, his method for getting Ali to talk to him was immature, but no one can deny that Daniel was completely out of line for getting involved. After Johnny promptly beats Daniel down, the only person who went to his aid (out of guilt) was Ali. That no one else uttered a word of disapproval to Johnny had nothing to do with fear; rather, everyone knew that the new kid from Jersey got what was coming to him.
So Johnny’s senior year of high school starts with his ex-girlfriend getting chummy with some nosey punk from New Jersey. Take the adolescent frustration that comes with such a situation and add to it the guidance of a Vietnam veteran-turned-karate instructor and, of course, what Johnny becomes is a dumb kid hell bent on sating this frustration by making someone else feel as helpless as he does (with a little help from his friends). Even someone who doesn’t condone violence can understand that Johnny’s position as ‘bad guy’ came less from a fundamentally evil place, and more from a misguided one that any guy can imagine themselves falling into. And if you can’t…well…you’ve never been in love.
A little postscript:
In “The Karate Kid, Part II,” director John G. Avildsen quickly showed the audience how young and misguided the Cobra Kai students were when Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) has to save them (the same kids he beat up all by himself) from the unjust wrath of their teacher, John Kreese (Martin Kove).
As for the source of the original conflict, Ali, the audience also learns that she’s run off to college and left Daniel for another guy, lending consistency to her dealings with men that Avildsen had not been interested in focusing on previously.
In order to make Daniel more sympathetic, Avildsen made his audience see what he wanted them to see. If the audience had seen the premise from all sides, Daniel San would not be a hero at all (and he definitely wouldn’t have appeared in two sequels). Context is everything.
Mick McAllister (Mark Arnold)
Seen in “Teen Wolf” (1985); Rod Daniel, dir.
Who doesn’t love Michael J. Fox? That is the question that the makers of “Teen Wolf” decided on telling the story of Scott Howard, a mediocre teen whose life changes when he discovers that he is a werewolf. So, of course, any character in the slightest opposition to Michael J. Fox would be considered a ‘bad guy.’
Enter Mick McAllister, the boyfriend of Pamela Wells, Scott’s dream girl. Once Scott becomes popular (because being a werewolf makes you really good at basketball), Pamela realizes that Scott exists and Mick considers Scott a threat. Mick proceeds to spend the rest of the movie calling Scott a ‘freak,’ as well as other crafty verbal digs that call out Scott’s wolf-ness. But everyone knows that you can’t antagonize Michael J. Fox and have a reasonable case for it. Sorry, Mick, you’re the designated jerk every time when McFly is in town.
But consider the following:
1) Pamela went on a bowling date with Pamela, and that was what really set Mick off. How would you react if your girlfriend went on a date with another guy?
2) SCOTT HOWARD IS A WEREWOLF!!! How is this okay?! Considering how Scott’s friend, Styles, exploited him by cashing in on the werewolf image all over town, it’s highly unlikely that the local news wouldn’t get a hold of this and turn it into a media bonanza across state lines. And even if Scott Howard didn’t get put into the national spotlight, the idyllic little town where the movie is set didn’t even have black people; how am I supposed to expect these people to be so eagerly accepting of a wolf-person? (Black people like chicken, but at least we cook ‘em first!) I know, I know, suspension of disbelief and all that…but seriously! He’s a WEREWOLF, and Mick is one of only three people in the town who think something is wrong with this? I’m with you, Mick, because something like that at least deserves a “Whoa whoa whoa—what’s going on here?”
I would suppose that Teen Wolf’s prowess on the basketball court was enough for the town to think there was nothing wrong with his…ability. But since the games had an attendance of less then ten B.W. (before the wolf), it’s apparent that the people of this burg were never true high school basketball fans anyway. So the “anything to win” argument to justify Teen Wolf’s instant popularity is flimsy at best. Mick got screwed here.
Vic (Kevin Bacon)
Seen in “White Water Summer” (1987); Jeff Bleckner, dir.
So four teenage boys, one of whom is a squirrely nerd (Sean Astin), embark on an outdoor retreat led by Vic, their expert wilderness guide. The trip is challenging, but the boys quickly reap the rewards of pushing themselves…all except for Alan the nerd. The tension between the determined Vic and the headstrong, but wimpy, Alan eventually leads to the entire group resisting Vic’s leadership. Kevin Bacon’s portrayal as unapologetic and focused on the transformation of these young men loses favor to the whimpering of a rich kid who doesn’t want to clean a bucket full of fish.
Obviously, I’ve already telegraphed my spin on Vic’s mischaracterization as ‘bad guy.’ The real ‘bad guys’ in the movie are Alan and his parents. Consider this: Alan lives with Mom and Dad in an apartment along Central Park in New York City. “Privileged” would be the appropriate term for their reality. When Vic visits their home to promote his wilderness program, it’s clear that Alan has no interest in the program. What’s worse is that Mom and Dad see Vic’s trip as an opportunity to pay someone else to teach their son how to come out of his shell because nothing they’ve done during his life has guided him to be anything more than a loner who listens to baseball in his room. Alan’s unwillingness to take the trip puts Vic in an awkward position where he has to not only teach, but also go above and beyond to motivate. Given the rough conditions of the outdoors, not mastering both skill sets (a tall order) should be forgiven. Instead, Vic is painted as the monster while Alan emerges as a hero who doesn’t have to show gratitude for anything Vic taught him. Maybe when Alan gets back to the city, he can pay someone to apologize to Vic for being such a brat.
“White Water Summer” is narrated by an older and wiser version of Alan, in scenes where he’s speaking to the camera in a verdant setting, a lot like the wilderness where he spent the trip with Vic. One would think that the payoff of this retrospective would be Alan reflecting on the beauty can find in the wilderness once learn what it takes to survive there. And one would be wrong! In the final scene of the movie, where new Alan concludes the story, the camera pans out to reveal that he’s told this entire story…in Central Park! “Ha-ha. Just kidding, everyone! I didn’t learn enough to appreciate nature enough to go back there!” But apparently, spending a few days in the woods gives you a more daring fashion sense and the comfort to break the fourth wall. And Alan had to do is convince his audience that Vic was bad at his job. This summer, you can find Vic and me standing atop a mountain wagging a wicked fist at all the snot-nosed city kids of the world.