The Greatest Movie Villains Of The 1990s Ranked
By Dan Auty on
Everyone loves a hero, but let's face it, the reason many movies are our favorites are because of the villains. Without a great bad guy for the heroes to go up against, a film can seem undramatic and uninteresting, and while some big stars are reluctant to be overshadowed by a villainous performance, the smart ones know that their roles are enhanced by a worthy adversary. The rise of the superhero movie and the return of Star Wars continues to prove this--complex, fascinating characters such as Thanos, Killmonger, and Kylo Ren are every bit as interesting as the more traditional heroes they face.
The 1990s was a decade of big action movies, glossy thrillers, and huge star-studded comedies. Some of the most acclaimed actors in cinema, TV, and theater realised that there was great money to be made by going bad--especially if you were British--and many of the biggest films were defined by their villains. It often wasn't a decade for subtlety, and it did seem at times as if some of the biggest Hollywood stars were attempting to outdo each other in terms of how over-the-top their performances could get.
But equally, there were some truly remarkable performances, and some of the most iconic movie villains of all time were seen on screen in this decade. This was an era where playing a psychopathic cannibal genius or an deranged ankle-smashing fan could win you an Academy Award, and portraying a truly evil real-life character could kickstart your career. So here's a look at the greatest movie villains of the 1990s, ranked in order of how iconic, insane, and memorably evil they were.
25. Tom Ripley – The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Played by Matt Damon
Ripley is the charming, devious sociopath at the centre of five novels by Patricia Highsmith. He's been portrayed several times on screen, but never quite as disturbingly as by Matt Damon in the huge underrated The Talented Mr. Ripley. Damon's inherent charisma and likability is key to making Ripley so effective, as he works his way through privileged society using charm, guile, and cold-blooded murder.
24. Castor Troy – Face-Off (1997)
Played by Nicolas Cage
Who doesn't love Nicolas Cage when he goes full crazy? In John Woo's wild action classic, he plays homicidal psycho Castor Troy, who is on a mission to destroy the life of cop Sean Archer (John Travolta). This involves literally switching faces with his nemesis, allowing him to infiltrate Archer's family and treat us to the glorious sight of John Travolta playing Cage in full crazy villain mode.
23. Mr. Benedict – Last Action Hero (1993)
Played by Charles Dance
The self-referential action comedy The Last Action Hero was a big flop on release, but it's actually aged pretty well. These days Charles Dance is best known for playing Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, but his role as Mr. Benedict is huge fun. Benedict starts the movie as the villain of the action epic Jack Slater IV, before a kid named Danny is transported inside the film and Benedict becomes an actual threat. Dance has a blast playing with the clichés of the Hollywood action villain, and his ever-changing glass eye is a great touch.
22. Ivan Korshunov – Air Force One (1997)
Played by Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman made something of a name for himself playing villains in the 1990s. There was True Romance's Drexyl and The Fifth Element's Zorg, but best of all was Ivan Korshunov, the Russian terrorist who hijacks Air Force One and holds the President hostage. Of course, the President is played by Harrison Ford so we're never in any doubt who's going to win, but along the way Oldman has delicious fun as the crazed Korshunov, a merciless killer who will murder innocent men, women, and children in his pursuit of his ideals. Oldman brings out the complexities of the character, a man who knows what he does is morally wrong but believes it's his duty to do so.
21. Darth Maul – Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Played by Ray Park
While many fans were disappointed by the first of George Lucas's Star Wars prequels, most were in agreement that Darth Maul was a fantastic new villain. He looked amazing, he had a double-ended lightsaber, and his few scenes in the movie were some of the best in the whole series, in particular the final duel with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn. And although it would've been great to see even more of him in the movie, it's just how sparingly he is used that makes him so effective.
20. Bodhi – Point Break (1991)
Played by Patrick Swayze
Bodhi is, on paper, clearly a villain--he's the leader of a gang of bank robbers with over 50 major crimes to their names. But there are few bad guys as likeable as this charming, adrenaline-chasing criminal, who just wants to shake off the shackles of modern society and make enough money to fund his thrill-seeking lifestyle. It's hard to think of an actor who could've pulled off this role as well as Patrick Swayze, who makes us root for Bodhi throughout, while still showing that he is prepared to commit acts of violence if needed to get the job done. No wonder Keanu Reeves' undercover cop Johnny Utah is as reluctant as we are to stop Bodhi from doing what he does best.
19. Harry and Marv – Home Alone (1990) , Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)
Played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern
With the possible exception of Dr. Evil, this pair of bungling curlers are easily the most incompetent villains on this list. Constantly outwitted by young Kevin in the first Home Alone movie, they endure more pain and abuse than most victims in a horror movie, and return for even more in the sequel. Joe Pesci plays Harry, hilariously riffing on his villainous persona from movies such as Goodfellas, while Daniel Stern is his hapless sidekick Marv.
18. Dr. Evil – Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)
Played by Mike Myers
Has there ever been an evil villain more evil than Dr. Evil? His very name would suggest not. The power-crazed bad guy in the Austin Powers movies hatches some of the most evil plans ever devised, including destroying the world with such terrible devices as the Alan Parsons Project, attaching lasers to sharks, making every volcano in the world explode at once, and holding the world to ransom for as much as a million dollars.
17. Vincenzo Coccotti – True Romance (1993)
Played by Christopher Walken
Christopher Walken only appears in True Romance for a single scene, but it's the best of the entire film. Coccotti is a mob boss who is on the trail of Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), who has stolen a huge bag of cocaine from him. He tracks him as far as his father Clifford (Dennis Hopper), and gives a chilling, horribly racist speech before executing him. Walken's performance, Quentin Tarantino's dialogue, and Tony Scott's direction combine to make Coccotti's few onscreen minutes truly unforgettable.
16. Cyrus the Virus – Con-Air
Played by John Malkovich
Con-Air delivered an entire plane full of villains, who are being transported across the country. But it's Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom who is the movie's stand-out, an insane master criminal and the the mastermind behind the plan to seize control of the plane. John Malkovich excels at bringing a combination of menace and intelligence to his role. While the movie is utterly ridiculous, with many of the other characters portrayed as cartoonish bad guys, Malkovich makes the role work by playing it absolutely straight.
15. Mrs. Mott – The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992)
Played by Rebecca De Mornay
Vengeful nanny Peyton Flanders--aka Mrs. Mott--will stop at nothing to extract her revenge on Claire Bartel, who she believes caused the death of her husband and unborn child. Chillingly played by Rebecca De Mornay, what makes Mott so scary is the way that her evil plan unfolds right under the noses of her intended victims. She wins over Clare’s kids and tries to seduce her husband, before eventually resorting to good old-fashioned attempted murder.
14. Max Cady – Cape Fear (1991)
Played by Robert De Niro
Max Cady was already one of the best movie villains long before De Niro took on the role in 1991. The original 1963 Cape Fear featured an unforgettable performance from another acting powerhouse named Robert (in the case, Mitchum), but thankfully De Niro was able to give the character his own terrifying spin in Martin Scorsese's remake. Cady is a violent criminal who leaves prison and starts tormenting the family of his former attorney, who buried evidence to ensure he was convicted. De Niro brings everything to table to ensure that no one was thinking of Mitchum was watching Scorsese's update. The actor is known for giving everything to his role and Cape Fear was no exception; his workout regime reportedly took his body fat down to 4%, and he paid $20,000 to have his teeth ground down to make him seem more menacing. That's commitment to villainy.
13. Nino Brown - New Jack City (1991)
Played by Wesley Snipes
Nino Brown is one of those villains who is so damn cool that it's easy to forget he's a ruthless drug dealer whose business causes untold misery for the neighbourhood around him. Wesley Snipes's powerful charisma elevates what could have been a fairly standard gangster yarn, making Nino a fascinating, complex character who turns the street to his advantage and constantly outsmarts both the cops and his competitors.
(Honourable mention: Snipes also gave a wildly entertaining bad guy performance as Simon Phoenix, the psychotic villain in the Stallone 1994 sci-fi favorite Demolition Man.)
12. Howard Payne – Speed (1994)
Played by Dennis Hopper
Dennis Hopper gave one of the memorable villainous performances of the 1980s in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and while Speed's Howard Payne isn't quite as terrifying, he was still a great bad guy. Payne is a calm, controlled, yet deeply disturbed man, seemingly without any remorse and guilt as he holds the city to ransom via his outlandish bomb threats. He's also got one of the decade's great catchphrases: "Pop quiz, hotshot!"
11. Hedra Carlson – Single White Female (1992)
Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh
Stalkers and obsessed fans have long made for some the most unnerving villains in movies, but Single White Female's Hedra Carlson took it to a new level. Obsessed with her new flatmate Allie (Bridget Fonda), Hedra starts dressing like her and begins to infiltrate her life in a variety of disturbing ways. Jennifer Jason Leigh is perfectly cast as the dark side to the more wholesome Allie, and if you ever wanted to see someone get murdered by a stiletto in the eye, this is the movie for you.
10. Amon Goeth - Schindler's List (1993)
Played by Ralph Fiennes
There are plenty of "fun" villains on this list, but in terms of truly despicable characters that existed in real life, there are few more terrifying than Amon Goeth. The commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in Steven Spielberg's harrowing masterpiece is brought chillingly to life by Ralph Fiennes, who understands that the character needed to be much more than just an evil villain to make him truly effective. What we get is a multi-layered portrayal of a man driven by his duty to an evil regime, but who is complex and conflicted, particularly in his relationship with his Jewish maid.
9. Scar – The Lion King (1994)
Voiced by Jeremy Irons
Disney's animated films have featured some of the most memorable villains in cinema--think Shere Khan, Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, and Queen Grimhilde. The LionKing's Scar is up there with the best. Jeremy Irons is perfectly cast as this sneering, scheming big cat, who will stop at nothing to rule Pride Rock--including planning to kill his own brother and nephew.
8. Catherine Tramell – Basic Instinct (1992)
Played by Sharon Stone
Basic Instinct made Sharon Stone a star, and her character, murderous femme fatale Catherine Tramell, is one of the screen's all-time great villains. A best-selling novelist whose violent books suspiciously mirror a series of real-life crimes, Tramell uses her seductive powers to manipulate the useless men around her. Ice-pick, sir?
7. T-1000 – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Played by Robert Patrick
Arnold Schwarzenegger's terrifying portrayal of the titular cyborg killing machine in James Cameron's 1984 classic The Terminator created a dilemma--how do you make an even scarier adversary for the sequel? Wisely, Cameron didn't try to make an even bigger Terminator for Terminator 2. As played by Robert Patrick, The T-1000 was tall but slim and looked like he wouldn't be much of a match for Arnold, now playing a 'good' Terminator. But T-1000's shapeshifting liquid metal tech, combined with his speed and unrelenting pursuit of John and Sarah Connor, made for a truly worthy adversary.
6. John Doe - Se7en (1995)
Played by Kevin Spacey
While many villains grab our attention by being loud and over-the-top, the serial killer at the heart of David Fincher's classic Se7en goes the other way. John Doe is calm, collected, and quietly spoken, and he approaches his terrible crimes with what he believes is absolute logic and commitment to a moral code. In a movie filled with graphic and disturbing imagery, the scenes near the end, as he is driven out into the desert so he can complete his masterplan, are the scariest of the whole film.
5. Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin – Batman Returns (1992)
Played by Danny De Vito
While the villain that many fans would most associate with Tim Burton's Batman movies is probably Jack Nicholson's Joker in 1989's Batman, the follow-up delivered an even greater antagonist. In the hands of Danny De Vito, Penguin became a ranting, obese, terrifying maniac, who plans to kidnap the newborn babies of Gotham and drown them in the sewer. Batman Returns remains the darkest and strangest Batman movie to date, and Penguin is its perfect villain.
4. Annie Wilkes – Misery (1990)
Played by: Kathy Bates
Like many of the characters on this list, Annie Wilkes could easily have been a cartoonish madwoman were it not for the brilliance of the performance behind it. Annie Wilkes is the crazed villain of this classic Stephen King adaptation, who keeps her favourite author Paul Sheldon prisoner in her house while demanding he rewrite his latest novel for her. Bates rightly won an Oscar for her performance, which effortlessly moves from calm and rational to fearsome and unforgettably scary.
3. Agent Smith – The Matrix (1999)
Played by Hugo Weaving
Perhaps the coolest bad guy on this list, Hugo Weaving took a character that on paper could've been a bit boring and made him one of the most iconic villains of all time. With his calm demeanour, smooth voice, and amazing martial arts powers, Smith is a dark, relentless entity who will stop at nothing to maintain the Matrix.
2. Sheriff of Nottingham – Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991)
Played by Alan Rickman
It's still amazing to think that Alan Rickman was a relatively unknown stage actor when he took his first movie role in 1988 and delivered one of the all-time great movie villains--Die Hard's Hans Gruber. Three years later, he did the same for the next decade. In the hugely successful, star-studded retelling of the Robin Hood legend, Rickman absolutely steals the show as the smooth, sarcastic, combustible Sheriff of Nottingham. While Gruber was a tightly controlled performance, Rickman lets rip with this one, making sure that he is bigger, louder, and more awesomely villainous than anyone who has played the Sheriff before or after.
1. Hannibal Lecter – Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Played by Anthony Hopkins
Anthony Hopkins wasn't the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter on-screen. But as good as Brian Cox's performance in 1986's Manhunter was, it was Hopkins that defined the role. Lecter remains imprisoned for much of the movie, but while it's Buffalo Bill who carries out the movie's most graphic crimes, it's Hannibal the Cannibal who emerges as the movie's most terrifying villain. Hopkins is so calm and composed that it's a shock when we finally see him as the monster that we have been told about, stabbing and biting his way out of prison in one the most gruesomely ingenious escapes you'll ever see.