Surveying the action cinema landscape of today, it appears the fine art of the henchman is all but dead. Some may argue bona fide action heroes and villains may be too, lost amid a sea of superhero blockbusters and gritty thrillers where anyone with a personal trainer and three months of martial arts school can kick ass on screen. And though Sylvester Stallone has tried his best with The Expendables to recussitate a bygone age before muscles and grimaces were replaced with CGI and superpowers, it was something of a damp squib. Adding Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris to the sequel roster smacks more of desperation than anything.
Now, in place of proper henchmen, we have baddies all too ready to get their hands dirty, or those which just hide behind wave upon wave of faceless goons. But a memorable henchman can tip the success of an action film from being just great towards something sublime. So here’s a tribute to those fallen demi-villains, gone but not forgotten. There’s a whole variety listed here, and not necessarily all traditional examples, with few of the rasping sychophant or Igor-a-like variety, and some you could argue transcend their own employers in the arch-nemesis stakes (for instance, arguably The Terminator is SkyNet’s henchman, even if in the film he is the ‘big bad’). But they are nevertheless all actually menacing or entertaining enough to warrant conclusion. The 80’s were clearly a highpoint, but let me know who I have missed, especially any from the last twenty years.
10. The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) – Metropolis
Creepy and menacing as the go-to guy of city leader Fredersen (Alfred Abel), it was only with the recent restored version of Metropolis that the full extent of The Thin Man‘s character became apparent, adding to a whole extra sub-plot involving stakeouts, mistaken identity, and even a bit of fisticuffs, as he trails Fredersen’s son across the city. It’s suddenly an all together more substantial role, and Fritz Rasp leaves a lasting malevolent impression. A deliciously diabolical presence restored to his former glory and a forefather of many a man of hench in years to come.
9. Hakim (Kareem Abdul-Jabar) – Game of Death
Here the impossibly tall basketball player and airplane co-pilot goes up against the legendary Bruce Lee in his (sort of) last screen role before his untimely death, appearing as what can only be described as one of the videogame level bosses. It’s a great fight, Kareem’s huge limbs and giant feet keeping Bruce at bay, but it’s no match for having actual kung-fu skills, so it’s only inevitable who comes out on top. Bonus points though for Kareem’s chilled get-up, like he’s just enjoying a lazy weekend afternoon in a pagoda of doom. The template for many a ‘stunt match-up’ in martial arts cinema since.
8. Bob the Goon (Tracey Walter) – Batman
The Adam West 60’s Batman TV show would always see this week’s villain accompanied by a gang of themed thugs, so it’s only fitting that Tim Burton’s big-screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader should give the Joker (Jack Nicholson) his own band of uniformed goons. As head hoodlum, Bob becomes the Joker’s “Number One Guy“. But this is the criminal underworld baby, and it only takes Batman (Michael Keaton) to swing down in his batplane and steal the Joker’s poison gas balloons for the Joker to snap, shooting and killing Bob (with his own gun) as if he were just squeezing a stress relief toy. Loyalty gets you nowhere amongst supervillains.
7. Mechanic (Pat Roach) – Raiders of the Lost Ark
The mark of a great henchman is one who gets knocked down, and then gets up again, living to fight another day, becoming a constant irritant to the protagonist. And while Pat Roach’s appearance as a burly Nazi mechanic in Raiders of the Lost Ark is limited to just one punch-up, even if it is an absolute belter, that Mr. Roach turns up again in Temple of Doom as a completely different heavy for another bout with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) shows incredible tenacity. Unfortunately, his fight with Indy in Last Crusade was cut, though he still makes a brief appearance as a Gestapo agent on the Zeppelin, making him the only actor other than Ford to appear in every installment of the original trilogy.
6. Mad Dog (Philip Kwok) – Hard Boiled
John Woo’s last and greatest Hong Kong action film, Hard Boiled is best known for its over-the-top shoot-outs, Chow Yun-Fat weilding two pistols and leaping about in slow motion, and a body count in the hundreds – and Mad Dog‘s often right in the thick of it – even with the use of only one eye later on. A man of few words but lots of bullets, he’s a constant thorn in the side of Tequila (Yun-Fat), and later battles with undercover cop Tony Leung in a seemingly endless hospital shoot-out. And what henchman list would be complete without an example of one standing up to their sadistic boss when they go too far? Noble and moral their last-ditch protest may be, but it never ends well, does it?
5. The Three Storms (Peter Kwong, Carter Wong, James Pax) – Big Trouble in Little China
Three for the price of one in the guise of Thunder, Lightning and Rain (Partial Cloud and Drizzle were unavailable). Having a villain as deliciously juicy as David Lo Pan (James Hong) requires a trio as flamboyant as their boss, so with beach parasol-sized wicker hats and a variety of supernatural tricks up their sleeves, they’re responsible for some of the most entertaining tussles and tangles in John Carpenter’s kung-fu ‘classic’. Worth it for the bizarre but brilliant self-inflating suicide scene.
4. Mr Igoe (Vernon Wells) – Innerspace
Vernon Wells had already created two of the most memorable henchman in Mad Max 2‘s Wez and Commando‘s Bennett, but it’s as silent assassin Mr. Igoe in Joe Dante’s sci-fi comedy adventure in which he epitomises the best henchman qualities. With his prosthetic multi-functional detachable hand, he delights in killing as much as popping kids’ balloons. Nothing’s more sinister than taking pleasure in the misfortune of the ickle kiddywinks, right? He also has the best death – never could he have expected he’d meet his maker stewing in Martin Short’s gastric acid.
3. Karl Vreski (Alexander Godunov) – Die Hard
You can have your henchmen with their hero-baiting dialogue or charming malevolence, but with Alan Rickman fulfilling those duties several times over, Die Hard, quite possibly the greatest American action film of all time, delivers the ultimate unstoppable badass in Karl. Plus, when fly in the ointment John McClane (Bruce Willis) ices his brother, it becomes PERSONAL. After a particularly nasty scrap, he’s choked with a series of chains that just happen to be there, leaving him dangling and lifeless…only for him to emerge out of nowhere at the end of the film for one last attempt to kill McClane. I mean, he managed to sneak out the building, pretending he was a hostage, and could have probably gotten away. But no, he had to have one last pop at his sworn enemy. What a trooper!
2. Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) – RoboCop
It was a toss up between him and Total Recall‘s Richter (Michael Ironside), but in the Paul Verhoeven sci-fi action Ronny Cox’s right-hand-man stakes, Clarence has the edge, thanks to some memorable exchanges (“I don’t like cops…” etc.) and his rag-tag gang of surprisingly well-fleshed out ne’er-do-wells. Plus, when henchmen have a history with the hero, it’s usually seeking revenge for killing their family – Clarence goes one better, as this time it’s revenge from beyond the grave! He’s as boo-hiss as the come, but what makes him a great henchman is that he’s oddly likeable too. Scum, but likeable scum.
1. Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw) – From Russia With Love
No film franchise has gifted us as impressive a roster of henchmen as the James Bond series, and while there are more iconic examples (Jaws, Oddjob, Baron Samedi), none of them measure up to Red Grant, a super-strong SPECTRE assassin who is something of a warped mirror version of Bond himself. It’s only in his foolish choice of red wine with fish (the very nerve!) that Bond (Sean Connery) twigs something’s amiss, and what follows is a brutal bust-up in the enclosed space of a carriage on the Orient Express. The basis for many a subsequent Bond heavy, you could almost argue current 007 Daniel Craig is more Grant than Bond, proof that a henchman can be more than an equal to both hero and villain.