In the winter of 208 AD, China was not the unified kingdom that we know today. The northern warlord Cao Cao had united the north of China and hoped to expand his control throughout the south. Unfortunately for Cao Cao, southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan stymied these plans. Western readers may recognize this story from John Woo’s epic cinematic rendering, RED CLIFF.
It could be argued that these warlords were some of the first badasses. The weapons of warfare have certainly improved since then, but the badass remains the same. Now they’re celebrated in movies and come in all shapes, sizes and sexes.
So what does it mean to be a badass? Is there a badass formula?
According to the Urban Dictionary, a badass is defined as, “The epitome of the American male. He radiates confidence in everything he does, whether it’s ordering a drink, buying a set of wheels, or dealing with women. He’s slow to anger, but brutally efficient when fighting back.”
However, this definition seems pretty antiquated. Tell Uma Thurman’s Bride in KILL BILL that she’s not a badass. So let’s define a badass as anyone who radiates confidence, whether it’s ordering a drink, buying a set of wheels, or dealing with baddies. They’re brutally efficient when fighting back and don’t suffer fools lightly.
Armed with that definition, let’s take a brief tour through badass film history.
The history of the badass in film really should be divided into two categories: before and THE MATRIX and after.
Pre-MATRIX, one of the first Asian films to gain international acclaim features on of the all-time badasses – Bruce Lee. 1972’s FIST OF FURY stars Lee as Chen Zhen, a young man who returns home to discover that his master, Huo Yuanjia, has passed away. The film develops as Zhen enacts justice against his master’s killers and defends his former school’s honor.
Many films featuring a badass focus on honorable motives for violence such as revenge, justice, adventure, survival, and the rescue of a loved one. These motives are not only seen in Hong Kong cinema, but also echoed in American westerns. Clint Eastwood has perhaps exemplified the sheer drive of these motives as William Munny in 1992’s UNFORGIVEN .
As Munny chillingly enters a saloon after his friend’s murder and his true identity as an infamous outlaw is revealed, he says, “That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.” Needless to say, Munny scared the hell out of that saloon with only one, badass line.
Post-MATRIX films over the last 15 years have tended to rely more heavily on stylized action sequences depicted through CGI and excessive bloodshed. So badasses can now do more, be tougher and take down bigger bad guys.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is perhaps one of the strongest demonstrations of the evolution of kung fu films, which have always been a home to badass heroes. Unlike Bruce Lee, whose badass qualities radiated from his physical capacities, the characters in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON rely on badass fighting skills that feel almost ethereally effortless: Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu and Chow Yun-fat’s Li Mu Bai defy gravity as they fight in a bamboo forest.
This use of CGI has also seen an increase in the violence and bloodshed levels. In Western cinema stylized violence has taken the place of steely stares and badass one-liners, like in 300 or KILL BILL.
But the pendulum is swinging back and more realism is being pumped into upcoming action movies. Take the upcoming reboot of POINT BREAK, produced by DMG and Alcon, stars Luke Bracey and Edgar Ramirez suit up for extreme action and real stunt work upping the badass quotient for the film to 11.
Entertainment has always been about fantasy fulfilment and as long as the badass possesses all of the traits we secretly wish we had, they will remain a fixture of modern movies.
QUICK PICK: 7 Movie Badasses (in no way a comprehensive list…)
- Bruce Willis – DIE HARD’s John McLane is the ultimate badass to most Gen Xers. A lone cop with no shoes, in the wrong place at the wrong time takes on a gang of heavily armed bad guys…it doesn’t get more badass that this.
- Zoe Saldana – STAR TREK & GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY show off Saldana’s badassery equally well, as does just about every movie she’s in.
- Mel Gibson – From Mad Max to William Wallace, Gibson has played some real badass dudes. Check out LETHAL WEAPON, ROAD WARRIOR and PAYBACK if you need a refresher.
- Liam Neeson – He’s been a Jedi Master and Batman’s mentor, but nothing proves Neeson’s badass credentials like TAKEN. No matter how so-so the sequels were, Neeson ripping, stabbing and bashing his way through the underworld of European sex trafficking is Badass with a capital ‘B’.
- Sigourney Weaver – As Ripley in the ALIENS movies, Weaver is the queen mother of all badass female characters; and tougher than most guys. She’s inspired countless imitations, but no one epitomizes tough like Ripley – “Get away from her, you bitch!” indeed.
- Uma Thurman – In KILL BILL Vol. 1 & 2, Thurman earns her maximum badass points, but that’s not the only time Uma shows off her stuff. Remember, she spars with John Travolta, wins the Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance contest, then ODs, takes a needle to the heart and lives to tell bad jokes afterwards in PULP FICTION…now that’s badass!
- Jason Statham – If there’s a badass part out there, Statham has played it or something similar. From THE EXPENDABLES movies to THE TRANSPORTER, Statham has kicked ass and wooed women across the world.