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The best of the big screen’s bad guys

By PETER HARTLAUB
San Francisco Chronicle
At first look, there isn’t much missing from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Harrison Ford, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are all on board, and Karen Allen makes a welcome return. Sure we’ll miss Indy’s dad (Sean Connery) and Sallah and Marcus Brody (John Rhys-Davies and the late Denholm Elliott), but their absence is easy enough to understand. How many friends from 1989 are you still in touch with?
If there’s one element that’s going to be hard to replace, it’s the Nazis. Has there ever been a better group of bad guys in modern cinema? Not only are they prone to unwarranted violence, dress in cruel-looking uniforms and are bent on world domination ó but they’re also very real.
Think about just about any great film series, and the hero usually comes to mind. But even more than a solid good guy, action-movie franchises rely on a great villain. Luke Skywalker would be just a whiny kid without Darth Vader. And does anyone even remember the cast members of the “Terminator” movies who didn’t play machines?
Below are our picks for the five best groups of bad guys in recent movie history. For the sake of argument, we’ve eliminated any aliens, undead beings such as zombies and giant flaming eyeballs from the roster, although manmade cybernetic organisms are included. (We’ll just have to deal with the angry “Star Wars” fans who argue that technically everyone in those movies is an alien.)
5. The villain: Skynet
The movies: “Terminator,” “Terminator II: Judgment Day”
Why they were a good bad guy: The computer-based military defense system that nearly wiped out the human race in the “Terminator” movies probably wouldn’t have made the list if it weren’t for that scene in “Terminator II: Judgment Day” where the Robert Patrick cybernetic organism turns his hand into a long needle and spears Edward Furlong’s foster mom in the eye. That was completely unnecessary.
Mitigating factors: The Terminators could be programmed to protect; both the original Terminator and the T-X had really good fashion sense.
Bonus evil points: The Terminator used the phone book to systematically kill every Sarah Connor in Los Angeles, when it only needed to execute one; Skynet also could disguise its robots as a really hot chick, which should have been against the rules.
4. The villain: Russians
Movies include: “Red Dawn,” “Rocky IV,” “Rambo III”
Why they were a good bad guy: Why did we hate the Russians so much? You can make all the arguments you want about communism and arms buildups and Olympics victories, but it all came down to real estate. When you looked at a world map, the U.S.S.R. was huge. Geographically, the Cold War is the only time we’ve had an enemy that made us look like an underdog. Russians also had menacing movie accents. A French guy saying “If he dies, he dies” just isn’t as intimidating as when it comes from Ivan Drago’s mouth.
Mitigating factors: Since about 1993, they’ve been considered good guys. Even when they were blowing up our high schools with rocket-propelled grenades, the Russians always did love their children, too; as it turns out, our baseball players are worse steroid abusers than the commies ever were.
Bonus evil points: They like to line up Americans and shoot them while they sing “America the Beautiful”; they always wear scary fur hats, even indoors or in pleasant weather.
3. The villain: The Los Angeles Police Department
The movies: “L.A. Confidential,” “Training Day,” “Crash”
Why they were a good bad guy: In movies that involve the LAPD, even the good cops are a little bit corrupt. When they’re not planting a gun on a guy they just shot, or pulling over Laurence Fishburne for no good reason, the police are usually trying to kill each other. Movies based on James Ellroy novels haven’t cast the LAPD in a great light, and the Rampart scandal seemed to spawn a new genre of bad Los Angeles cop movies.
Mitigating factors: I lived in Hollywood for four years in the 1990s, and all the police officers I met were pretty nice; that cop in “Die Hard” was a pretty cool guy.
Bonus evil points: They still haven’t solved the Biggie Smalls killing.
2. The villain: The Empire
The movies: “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back”
Why they were a good bad guy: They wore really scary helmets and had all the biggest spaceships and the baddest weapons. Pretty much every offense in the Empire was punishable by death. And they had scary names like Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin.
Mitigating factors: They killed a lot of Ewoks, which was pretty cool. You had to like the way that upper management in the Empire was held accountable for its blunders. And from a strictly infrastructure point of view, the Empire did keep the streets clean and the trains running on time. How many potholes did you see in “Return of the Jedi”?
Bonus evil points: For blowing up an inhabited planet to test out their Death Star. That’s the equivalent of the United States doing atomic testing in Kauai.
1. The villain: Nazis
Movies include: “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”
Why they were a good bad guy: When “Raiders” came out in 1981, the Nazis were still a household word, but enough time had passed since World War II to allow comic elements to seep in. (“Hogan’s Heroes” also broke the ice a bit.) As bad guys, they’re also free of politically correct culture shifts. Twenty-five years from now, people may wonder why so many Arabs were bad guys in early-21st-century films and video games, but the Nazis will never make a comeback. Nazis are the perfect movie villain.
Mitigating factors: Hitler was nice enough to give Indy an autograph.
Bonus evil points: Responsible for the most notorious genocide in recent history. Never seem interested in putting artifacts in museums.
Honorable mention: al Qaeda; the Mafia; the New York Police Department; rich white blond teen-agers; S.P.E.C.T.R.E.; the Vatican.

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