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How to Be a Great Fight Movie Villain

Like Ryan McCarthy in ‘Never Back Down,’ you should be a little deranged, scary handsome (or scary looking), have a pedigree of violence, and need to fight for all the wrong reasons

Summit Entertainment/HBO/Miramax Films/Ringer illustration

There are a lot of things that need to be said in this article (which is about a movie character named Ryan McCarthy who we’re going to talk about in a minute, and also about the parts and pieces that make for a proper villain in a fight movie). But I don’t want the intro to muddle on too long. So, rather than start it with a deliberate and winding anecdote of sorts, let me start instead with a bullet point list containing some details from a movie called Lady Bloodfight that came out in 2016:

  • Lady Bloodfight was inspired by 1988’s Bloodsport.
  • In Lady Bloodfight, a group of women fight in the Kumite.
  • The Kumite is an ancient, no-move-is-too-vicious-or-violent, unsanctioned fight tournament that allows someone to claim they are the world’s greatest warrior.
  • There are three ways to win a match in the Kumite. You can (a) render your opponent unable to continue fighting, (b) force your opponent to verbally quit, or (c) knock your opponent out of the designated fight area.
  • The main fighter in Lady Bloodfight is Jane Jones (a very aggressive white woman from America), but the most interesting one is Svietta.
  • Svietta is a fighter from Russia, but really she’s a fighter from your nightmares.
  • Do you remember Chong Li from Bloodsport? He was the maniacal, murderous bad guy in that movie. Svietta is Lady Bloodfight’s version of him (except she’s a secondary villain, not the main villain, which is a real shame).
  • She is stronger than everyone else, more intimidating than everyone else, more bloodthirsty than everyone else, and more homicidal than everyone else.
  • During the second day of the tournament (Weapons Day, when fighters are allowed to select a weapon to fight with), she fights Cassidy, a likable fighter from Australia.
  • Here’s a screenshot of Svietta and Cassidy squaring off so you can get a sense of how overpowering and terrifying Svietta is:
Screenshots via Summit Entertainment
  • There’s one stretch during the fight when, after Cassidy sneaks in a quick little shot that makes Svietta bleed, Svietta decides she doesn’t want to use a sword anymore and just sets it down. (The way you know you’re about to get the shit beat out of you is if you hit someone in the face and then, as a response, they decide to drop their weapon and fight you using only their hands.) (Also a good way to know is if you ever happen to find yourself in a fight with a person wearing a turtleneck that also bares the midriff.)
  • After setting down her sword, Svietta grabs Cassidy, breaks her arm, elbows her in the spine as she’s bent over in pain, pins her down to the ground, punches her in the face 12 times in a row, elbows her in the face (because I guess the punches weren’t knocking her teeth out fast enough), picks Cassidy up, body slams her down onto the concrete, and then backs away so that Cassidy has enough time to realize that she’s in a fight with a real and true criminal.
  • I don’t want to post a screenshot here of what poor Cassidy’s face looks like when she finally gets to her feet, but I will post the following screenshot, which is the reaction that Cassidy’s bloodied, swollen, obliterated face draws from one of the women watching the fight:
  • And here’s the extra crazy part: the woman whose face is circled—her name is Wai, and she is a literal kung fu master who trains a fighter in Lady Bloodfight. Svietta beat Cassidy’s face into such a disturbing-looking mess that A KUNG FU MASTER TRAINED IN THE ART OF SELF-CONTROL SAW IT AND MADE THE SAME FACE A 14-YEAR-OLD MAKES WHILE WATCHING SKATEBOARD BONE-BREAK VIDEOS ON YOUTUBE.
  • It gets worse for Cassidy, too.
  • After Cassidy has her whole everything destroyed by Svietta, she tries to crawl out of the fighting area toward Jane Jones (her friend) as a way to give up. Svietta watches Cassidy for a second, looks at Jane, growls “You are next” at her (this is an homage to the scene where Chong Li says it to Frank Dux in Bloodsport after killing a man during a match), then picks up the sword she discarded earlier, grabs Cassidy by the ankle right before she’s able to escape and drags her to the center of the ring.
  • She kneels down over Cassidy.
  • She glares one more time at Jane, this time making sure to smile just enough to make everything a billion times worse.
  • Then she grabs Cassidy by the hair.
  • The she picks Cassidy’s head up.
  • Then she slits her throat.

It’s a startling, almost unbelievable moment. There’s real shock and awe there.

Jane and Svietta fight each other in the next round, and Jane wins, but it’s a dud of a fight compared to the Svietta vs. Cassidy match. (There’s a part where Jane punches Svietta really hard in the face, then says, “That’s for Cassidy,” which hardly seems like an equitable retaliation.) No fight for the rest of the movie, in fact, matches the violent electricity of watching Svietta murder Cassidy in combat just because she didn’t have anything better to do at that particular moment. And that sort of psychopathy—that willingness to take things just way, way, way beyond where they need to be taken—is one of the absolutely vital parts of what makes for a proper villain in a fight movie.

Have you ever seen a movie called Never Back Down? It came out in 2008 (and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week). It’s a fun enough film—there are many things that happen in it, but the central plot is about a high school kid who eventually has to fight a high school bully—but I mention it here because the bully in it, the aforementioned Ryan McCarthy, is a truly great fight movie villain.

McCarthy, played perfectly by Cam Gigandet, is this extremely talented, extremely handsome, extremely asshole character. An easy way for you to get a sense of the type of powerhouse he is is to draw a line connecting him to the loathsome Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid, but an even easier way for you to understand is by watching this one scene from Never Back Down, which shows you everything you need to see about McCarthy to know that he’s an A1 fight movie antagonist:

What’s happening here is the movie’s good guy, Jake Tyler, is attending a party at McCarthy’s house. Tyler is new to town. His family moved there after Tyler’s father died while trying to drive home drunk one night, which Tyler feels especially guilty about because he was riding in the passenger seat that night and feels like he should’ve said something and talked his dad into letting him drive instead. As such, Tyler has no small amount of pain in his bones at all times, which, on occasion, becomes a thing where he tries to put pain into other peoples’ bones if they say anything about it, or about anything, really.

Tyler goes to the party in hopes of talking to a girl, but it turns out it was a setup. The girl was sent in to flirt with Tyler and convince him to go because McCarthy, who it turns out is the school’s unstoppable MMA champion, saw a video of Tyler in a fight at his old school (the kid made a remark about Tyler’s dead dad) and wants to challenge him because that’s just the type of guy McCarthy is. He does everything he can do to talk Tyler into fighting him, including but not limited to, (1) pretending to befriend him, (2) appealing to what he assumes is Tyler’s vanity, (3) peer-pressuring him into it by loudly calling him out in front of everyone, (4) genuinely complimenting Tyler on his fighting ability, (5) kissing the girl Tyler likes, (6) genuinely complimenting Tyler’s fighting ability again, and then, finally, unforgivably, unbelievably blaming Tyler for his father’s death.

The great part, though, and what’s really great about McCarthy, is the way he transitions between all the different emotions needed to make each attempt at goading Tyler into fighting feel real. It’s a masterful display, truly. He’s like a locksmith, tinkering away, trying to figure out how to get the person he’s working on to do exactly what he wants him to do. I love him for it and I hate him for it, all at the same time.

There are four big things you need to have in place if you’re going to be one of the top-level fight movie villains. There’s the psychopathy thing I mentioned earlier with Svietta, and so that’s one. There’s also:

+ You have to be either very scary looking (like Svietta, or another good one is Ving Rhames in Undisputed; he plays a heavyweight boxing champion who gets sent to prison for rape and bullies his way into a boxing match with the prison’s underground boxing champion), or you have to be very handsome (Gigandet’s Ryan McCarthy is exactly perfect in this capacity; he’s so incredibly handsome that it makes you feel insecure, which amplifies his intimidation score).

++ Obviously you have to be a skilled fighter, but more than that, you have to be fighting for the wrong reasons. Examples: McCarthy is fighting in Never Back Down because of his noxious relationship with his father (and since we mentioned it earlier, a similar sort of angle can be slid in there for why Johnny was fighting in The Karate Kid, if you just replace “father” with “sensei”). Chong Li was fighting because he liked the feel of death on his knuckles (this is the most common Fighting For The Wrong Reasons categorization). Clubber Lang was fighting in Rocky III because he thought that exerting physical superiority over a person in the boxing ring was the same as exerting superiority over a person in actual life (this is the second most common Fighting For The Wrong Reasons categorization). In the beginning parts of Unleashed, Jet Li was fighting because he’d been trained to think that he was a dog and would go nuts any time his owner took his leash off of him (this is the least common Fighting For The Wrong Reasons categorization). And:

+++ You have to have a proven history of extreme violence and overreactions. And this one is really where all the great villains in fight movies truly leave their fingerprints on the spines and spirits of others in their particular movie universes. More often than not it’s death (my very favorite example is in Kill Bill when someone questions O-Ren Ishii being made the leader of an extremely powerful Japanese crime council by bringing up that she is “a Chinese Jap-American half-breed bitch,” to which she responds by running up to him and cutting his head off with a sword, then explaining to everyone else at the table that if they ever mention her Chinese or American heritage as a negative she will cut their heads off too). It doesn’t always have to be death, though, it just always has to be something devastating (in Kickboxer, the villain Tong Po cripples a man who dares to get in the ring with him; in Lionheart, we see video of Attila, the movie’s boss-level fighter, picking up a guy by his ankles and then violently stretching his legs apart in such a manner that makes it look like he was trying to open the guy like a bag of chips, etc.).

(A quick note: The Proven History angle is one that you can work around, but only if it’s done correctly. For example, take a movie like, say, Warrior. In Warrior, two estranged brothers end up fighting each other in the final round of a big MMA tournament. Prior to the match, though, one of the brothers has to fight a character named Koba. We never truly get to see Koba destroy anyone, but the fight announcers do such a good job of building him up before the fight that it feels truly terrifying to finally see him. A bad example would be the main bad guy from Road House. He’s around for much of the movie, but we don’t get to see him do much of anything so when the final fight happens between him and Patrick Swayze at the end of the movie it feels only about 40 percent as exciting as it should.)

Never Back Down has lots of pieces that make it a good fight movie. You have the thing where the protagonist has some mental hurdle he or she needs to clear before they can truly be a special fighter. You have the dopey friend who’s there to make some jokes and provide some exposition but really he’s there to be used as a prop. You have the thing where there’s a mentor who also has some kind of dark-secret backstory that gets brought up later in the movie as a way for him to bond with his student. You have a fight tournament (fighting in a tournament of sorts always makes everything feel more weighty, more substantial—it’s also an easy way to introduce a reason that a bunch of really good fighters are gathered together). But more than anything, it’s Ryan McCarthy as the villain that makes the movie; it’s McCarthy that gives it its energy; it’s McCarthy that’s the draw.