If you’re an action movie buff from the 90s, you already know what I’m talking about. If not, you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m talking about. Allow me to elaborate.
WARNING: NOT SAFE FOR WORK LANGUAGE IN THE LINKS AND QUOTES AHEAD.
I love movies. I love them a whole lot more than I probably should, but really that’s far beyond the scope of this post. As a GM, I love movies because they do a fantastic job of doing what many RPG campaigns–my own included, for the record– fail to do. Movies distill the heart of a scene into minute, distinguishable pieces that show he audience rather than tell them what is going on.
Also for the record, one of the few things I didn’t like about 4E was the (in my opinion) over-simplification of the alignment system. One of the things I LOVED was the divorce of game mechanics from the alignments, but I really don’t think they needed to cut the alignments down from the traditional 9. I’m all for killing sacred cows that need to be killed (auto-hit Magic Missile, I’m looking at YOU!!), but that one was not in need of execution as far as I can tell.
So all that being said, I realized a long time ago that John Travolta has, unbeknownst to us, performed in three separate movies that embody to me, the definition of the three Evil alignments in legacy D&D. In Swordfish he is the perfect Lawful Evil villain (with possible arguments for Lawful Neutral), in Broken Arrow Travolta plays a Neutral Evil baddie, and in Face/Off he (and Nicolas Cage) play a truly maniacal Chaotic Evil villain.
Please don’t take me as saying these are excellent, Oscar-worthy, must-go-see-right-now movies. They aren’t. They’re what I refer to as “popcorn flicks”– movies that are fun to watch, usually only once, and then you forget about them. If it wasn’t for Travolta playing a villain in all three in such different ways they’d have all fallen off my radar years ago.
d20SRD.org says this about Lawful Evil (which equates most easily to the Evil alignment from 4th Edition):
Lawful Evil, “Dominator”
A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.
This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.
Some lawful evil people and creatures commit themselves to evil with a zeal like that of a crusader committed to good. Beyond being willing to hurt others for their own ends, they take pleasure in spreading evil as an end unto itself. They may also see doing evil as part of a duty to an evil deity or master.
Lawful evil is sometimes called “diabolical,” because devils are the epitome of lawful evil.
Lawful evil is the most dangerous alignment because it represents methodical, intentional, and frequently successful evil.
I love that last sentence. “methodical, intentional, and frequently successful evil.” I will admit as well that the vast majority of BBEGs in my campaigns tend to be of the Lawful Evil bent. In Swordfish, Travolta plays a villain who exemplifies that description to a T. Gabriel (Travolta’s character) is a smooth, collected, calculating machinator with plans within plans. Here are a couple quotes from Gabriel:
Now what if in Dog Day, Sonny REALLY wanted to get away with it? What if – now here’s the tricky part – what if he started killing hostages right away? No mercy, no quarter. “Meet our demands or the pretty blonde in the bellbottoms gets it the back of the head.” Bam, splat! What, still no bus? Come on! How many innocent victims splattered across a window would it take to have the city reverse its policy on hostage situations? And this is 1976; there’s no CNN, there’s no CNBC, there’s no internet! Now fast forward to today, present time, same situation. How quickly would the modern media make a frenzy over this? In a matter of hours, it’d be biggest story from Boston to Budapest! Ten hostages die, twenty, thirty; bam bam, right after another, all caught in high-def, computer-enhanced, color corrected. You can practically taste the brain matter. All for what? A bus, a plane? A couple of million dollars that’s federally insured? I don’t think so. Just a thought.
And that’s in the first three minutes of the movie! This guy has a PLAN and he’s not afraid of anything. He’s a fanatic, but not in the crazy-eyed kinda way. He’s a fanatic in the “every-escape-route-planned kinda way. He even finds a dude who looks like him so he can fake his own death believably. That takes forethought and planning, my friends. Another quote, this time an exchange between Gabriel and the erstwhile protagonist:
Stanley: War? Who are we at war with?
Gabriel: Anyone who impinges on America’s freedom. Terrorist states, Stanley. Someone must bring their war to them. They bomb a church, we bomb ten. They hijack a plane, we take out an airport. They execute American tourists, we tactically nuke an entire city. Our job is to make terrorism so horrific that it becomes unthinkable to attack Americans.
Oh yeah. Cunning, planning, and an utter lack of morality outside his own sphere and/or code of conduct. Lawful Evil, check.
Next up is Neutral Evil, and the movie is Broken Arrow. Pretty much any movie in which the bad guy personally offs one of his “allies” for failing in a task, I tag as Neutral Evil. It’s the ultimate “me” alignment, willing to do anything for self aggrandizement. According the the d20 SRD:
Neutral Evil, “Malefactor”
A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with. She is out for herself, pure and simple. She sheds no tears for those she kills, whether for profit, sport, or convenience. She has no love of order and holds no illusion that following laws, traditions, or codes would make her any better or more noble. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.
Some neutral evil villains hold up evil as an ideal, committing evil for its own sake. Most often, such villains are devoted to evil deities or secret societies.
Neutral evil is the most dangerous alignment because it represents pure evil without honor and without variation.
In this role (for which he won both Best Fight Scene and Best Villain in the MTV Movie Awards, for what it might be worth), Travolta plays Major Vic Deakins, a Stealth Bomber pilot who decides to hijack a nuclear warhead for the classic Neutral Evil motivation: money. Whereas his villain in Swordfish is (so he says) a counter-terrorist sponsored by our own government, in Broken Arrow the villain is completely and totally out for himself and his bank account. Completely and totally selfish without regard for anything or anyone but himself. Perfectly Neutral Evil.
Another interesting thing to note is that while the villain in Swordfish was prone to the Villain Monologue (possibly due his more orderly behavior patterns), MAJ Deakins is the king of the one liner:
Vic Deakins: Alright, you’re bleeding, aren’t ya? Well, that’s good. Let’s see if we can get any more out of you.
Vic Deakins: Everybody dies, Kelly. I’m as good a reason as any.
Vic Deakins: C’mon buddy, pick up the ‘phone.
Riley Hale: “Buddy,” huh? Son of a bitch, you tried to kill me. The friendship is over.
Vic Deakins: Well that doesn’t mean I don’t like you. Hell, I’m impressed.
And now on to the true sociopath of the alignments, Chaotic Evil. In the movie Face/Off, the villain Travolta plays along with Nicolas Cage is named Castor Troy– an awesome super-villain name if ever there was one. And the fact that the villain has a geeky genius brother (named Pollux, of course) only makes him that much cooler. Again according to d20SRD:
Chaotic Evil, “Destroyer”
A chaotic evil character does whatever his greed, hatred, and lust for destruction drive him to do. He is hot-tempered, vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable. If he is simply out for whatever he can get, he is ruthless and brutal. If he is committed to the spread of evil and chaos, he is even worse. Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized. Typically, chaotic evil people can be made to work together only by force, and their leader lasts only as long as he can thwart attempts to topple or assassinate him.
Chaotic evil is sometimes called “demonic” because demons are the epitome of chaotic evil.
Chaotic evil is the most dangerous alignment because it represents the destruction not only of beauty and life but also of the order on which beauty and life depend.
If you’ve seen the movie you know that Castor Troy, no matter which face he’s wearing at the time, is just batshit crazy evil. He is sadistic and malevolent, causing pain and suffering to his enemies for the sheer fun of it. He deliberately tortures the protagonist when their faces are switched, rubbing in the fact that the villain is free and the hero is locked up wearing the villain’s face!
This guy is EEEEEEEVIL, and he really enjoys being that way. He deliberately spreads chaos and destruction wherever he goes and kills with abandon and flourish, at one point blowing the head off of an FBI agent with her boss and coworkers watching and then dropping her off a taxi-ing plane onto the tarmac and running her over with the wheels of the plane. More memorable quotes from Castor Troy:
[Troy and Archer see each other for the first time with each other’s faces]
Castor Troy: Wooowhee. You good lookin’
Castor Troy: It’s like looking in a mirror, only, not.
Sean Archer: Castor? But, you were, in, in…
Castor Troy: In a coma? Nothing like having your face cut off to disturb your sleep. Read the newspaper lately?
[shows him the newspaper with Dr. Walsh’s picture]
Sean Archer: You…
Castor Troy: Yes, I did. It beats paying the bill doesn’t it? You know, a face lift costs about 5 grand.
[shows Archer his wedding ring]
Castor Troy: See anything you like?
[the scene goes to Castor and his gang killing Dr. Walsh and Tito by burning them]
Castor Troy: Yes. I have personally torched all the evidence that proves that you are you. So, wow. Looks like you’re going to be in here for
[looks at his watch]
Castor Troy: [In a na-na style] The next hundred years. I have got to go. I got a government job to abuse.
[in Archer’s ear]
Castor Troy: I got a lonely wife to fuck. Whoops did I just say that? Oh, oh I really missed that face!
And then there’s my personal favorite “Hey guess what? I’m crazy AND evil!” exchange between John Archer (the hero) and Castor Troy (the villain) in the beginning when they’re both still wearing their own faces:
Castor Troy: [Both have each other at gun point] Wow. We have something in common. We both know our guns.
Sean Archer: But what we don’t have. Is that I don’t care if I live, you do.
Castor Troy: Hey, that hurts Sean. You know, why don’t you join me anyway it’s more fun that way you can blow some shit up, it’s more fun.
Sean Archer: Shut the fuck up!
Castor Troy: You watch your fuckin’ mouth! Maybe I should tell you this. I’m about to unleash the biblical plague hell-A deserves.
Sean Archer: [Not believing what Troy is saying] Bullshit.
Castor Troy: Oh, no? Oh, you think I’m bluffing, oh yeah. Maybe I’m right. Besides, what are you gonna do with me locked up? You’ll drive your wife and kid crazy. Oh by the way, how is your daughter, Janie? Well she is, you know…
[Making barking noises and pulls the trigger on the gun and realizes that he is out of bullets, and falls to his knees]
Castor Troy: I’m scared, Sean. Well, I think you better pull the trigger Sean, because I really don;t give a fuck.
Castor Troy: Ready, ready for the big ride, baby!”
Finally, it’s interesting to see who the three versions of Travolta’s villains surround them with, as it is a reflection of their alignments as well. In Swordfish, Gabriel is surrounded by mooks and thugs who are suited and well-kept, and a super-hot (Halle Berry) counterintelligence agent who h may or may not actually know is trying to double-cross him and manipulate to his own ends. Everything about this guy speaks of plans and plots and keeping three steps ahead of anybody who might be trying to bring him down. In the end, it’s Gabriel’s own inability to see in the short term that brings him down: the hacker he brought in to finish his plan ends up growing a spine and double-crossing the guy he thought was solidly on his side.
In Broken Arrow, MAJ Deakins is surrounded by mercenaries, obviously all ex-military of one nationality or another. I believe he even refers to Howie Long’s character (his lieutenant) by his rank at one point. Paramilitary mercenaries are really the epitome of selfish as many would-be dictators and villains know. The only thing they care are about is what? Money. And Deakins is the same way. Me first, and to hell with anybody who happens to get in my way or reduce my share. I imagine most villain pirates would be this way as well.
Castor Troy… well, good ole’ Castor is shown as surrounding himself with drug dealers, hardened criminals doing life in a prison that doesn’t exist… the worst of the worst. Thugs and rapists and murderers who live for nothing more than doing their level best to destroy the structures of society, spread pain and chaos… and all because it’s a good time.
I have a challenge for you GMs out there. Go to Netflix, watch these three movies, in order, back to back. The glory of movies distilling scenes down to moments is that hey make such things a I am talking about here as to understand and obvious in a way that I hadn’t realized till I watched them all back to back. It’s a learning experience and an eduction in the differences between villains– but it does it by *example*, not just in theory.
And so, I leave you with one parting thought…