Kid Rock notwithstanding, there have been an extraordinary number of American badasses throughout history. Rosa Parks, at age 42, had the courage to sit wherever the hell she pleased. Amelia Earhart pursued her dream, sexism be damned, and disappeared from the world only to come soaring back a legend. Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., not to be outdone by his president-dad, served in WWI, and then at the age of 57 and using a cane, became the only general to land by sea with the first wave of troops on D-Day (he died of a heart attack a month later). Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists. Ali flew, then stung. Knievel jumped. Armstrong leapt.
The downside to all this, if you’re looking to have some fun discussion, is that these are real people whose real deeds deserve honor and respect. With fictional American badasses, we get to have more fun.
While it’s uncouth to debate whether Ms. Parks or Ms. Earhart would win in a triple-jump challenge, if you apply the same rhetorical competition between Brienne of Tarth and the Bride from Kill Bill you’ve got a real humdinger on your hands. Yes, the rhetorical realm (fistfights, chess games, battle royales, who gets laid more, who could eat more hardboiled eggs, who’d be a better unicyclist) belongs to the fictional badasses. So, we challenged the GP crew: give us the baddest of American badasses, and explain why they’re a badass — and what “badass” even means in this context. Man, woman, hero, villain, human or animal — there were no rules, only wills. Here’s what we ended up with.
Show: Boardwalk Empire
Actor: Michael Pitt
Badass Moment: “It doesn’t make a difference if you’re right or wrong. You just have to make a decision.”
Calling Card: Slicked-back hair, three-piece suit
Travis Smith, Staff Writer: To be a badass is to be able to make decisions. Much of the drama in The Sopranos was offscreen — Paulie twiddling his thumbs while Tony decided on something he knew he couldn’t take back. More recently, Frank Underwood, the plotting president in House of Cards, has stressed to his wife and partner Claire time and time again the importance of moving forward. Ditto the message of Don Draper. A badass cannot dwell. They cannot regret. They can only take what is given to them and make the best of it.
Jimmy Darmody is quiet. He once had a bright future, but the events of one night led him to enlist in the Army the very next morning. He returned from war with a limp and an indifference to death. He started to work for Nucky Thompson as a young upstart, positioned to rise under the boss of Atlantic City. Then he came at the king and he might have missed, but he saw an opening and he took it, which to him is better than wondering whether the decision was the “right one.” Fuck it. He made it. And that’s all it takes to be an American badass.
Tom Stall/Joey Cusack
Film: A History of Violence
Actor: Viggo Mortensen
Badass Moment: At the end, Cusack walks unarmed into the mansion of a crime lord, full of his minions, and kills everyone. He’s like Jason Bourne in real life.
Calling Card: a casual button-up and a Beretta
Tucker Bowe, Staff Writer: Tom Stall, played by the dynamic yet sullen Viggo Mortensen, is an ordinary man in Indiana who runs a small-town diner. One night, when two men try to rob him, Stall jumps over the counter, smashes one guy’s face with a coffee pot, steals his gun, and shoots and kills them both — agile and lethal as a velociraptor.
It turns out that Tom Stall isn’t “Tom Stall” at all, but Joey Cusack, an ex-Irish mobster who fled Philadelphia to start a new life. When the diner incident gets national attention, and Cusack’s past comes back to haunt him, he proves again that he (still) has no problem being a one-man killing machine.
Bottom line: He escapes a dark past, starts a new life from scratch, then defends it with all his being — what’s more American than that? Oh, and he gets the girl in the end.
Show: House of Cards
Actor: Robin Wright
Badass Moment: Claire circumvents the Russian ambassador’s authority by getting an executive order, and relays this to him by summoning him to a meeting in the restroom — as she casually applies her makeup then takes a dump — before dismissing him with a clever powerplay: “Hand me a towel, would you?”
Calling Card: Charm and poise, which she uses to outwit people before they even know she was trying to in the first place
Caitlyn Girardi, Editorial Apprentice: Frank Underwood may be president, but Claire Underwood runs the show. Frank ascends to power through violence and double-crossing; Claire blazes the trail for him with poise and subtlety. She’s not above fighting dirty or betraying the people who drag her down — that’s clear — but she has a sense of raw justice that makes her thrilling to watch, whether she’s exposing her rapist on live television, going toe to toe with the Russian government or calling out the Senate for grandstanding.
Film: No Country for Old Men
Actor: Javier Bardem
Badass Moment: “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”
Calling Card: A steely emotionless stare and a captive bolt gun
John Zientek, Editorial Apprentice: A real badass doesn’t have to run fast or talk much. Case in point: Anton Chirgurh in No Country for Old Men. He is calculated, cold and relentless. Seemingly unstoppable, he kills based on his own moral code and doesn’t let anyone stand in his way.
Chigurh is dead set on retrieving a satchel filled with $2.4 million, and anyone who crosses his path is a potential target. Though he’ll flip a coin and let fate decide whether seemingly innocent people live or die, those who are directly involved in his hunt for the satchel only have one option: death.
Wielding a captive bolt pistol and a semi-automatic Remington 11-87 shotgun (with a silencer), he’s a chillingly unstoppable force. The last thing his victims hear before their demise is his slow, calculated walk and a moment of silence.
Film: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Actor: Bill Murray
Badass Moment: “Tell them that if they don’t get off my boat, right now, there’s going to be a major shit storm.” Cue Iggy and the Stooges.
Calling Card: red beanie, Zissou-series Adidas sneakers, marijuana joint
Jack Seemer, Associate Staff Writer: At the end of an illustrious oceanography career, Steve Zissou, played by Bill Murray (in what is perhaps his greatest role since Caddyshack) has much to be proud of. Loosely based on the real-life Jacques Cousteau, he’s the auteur of many successful documentaries about the world’s oceans, and has become a living legend in that space — the kind reporters write feature stories about.
But he’s not proud. He’s depressed. He hasn’t released a successful film in almost a decade. His wife is estranged, and feels emotionally distant from the aging, pompous, eternally stoned Zissou. To top it all off, his parter, Esteban, was recently killed by a man-eating jaguar shark.
All the stress has Zissou teetering off the deep end, but there’s a comeback story somewhere — interwoven between the pot breaks, the matching speedos, the acoustic guitar soundbites — and it’s fueled by the will to power the film’s whimsical, batshit-crazy protagonist, who has little left to gain and everything to lose, and decides to go for it anyway.
Bob Lee Swagger
Actor: Mark Wahlberg
Badass Moment: Disguised in a ghillie suit on top of a snow-covered mountain, Swagger takes out two enemy snipers before shooting off the arm of the assailant holding his love interest hostage.
Calling Card: Dead aim and homemade silencers
AJ Powell, Associate Staff Writer: What’s more badass than an ex-sniper taking down the people who framed him for murder and anyone else in his way? Bob Lee Swagger is known as a man that can “make a 2,200-yard cold bore shot” at the drop of a hat. Whether he’s shooting soup cans in the middle of Montana, or taking off a man’s hand at 1,000+ yards, Swagger displays an icy cool the entire time — the mark of a real badass.
Films: Die Hard (best), Die Hard 2 (meh), Die Hard With a Vengeance (hell yes), Live Free or Die Hard (please stop), A Good Day to Die Hard (why, John, why?)
Actor: Bruce Willis
Year: 1988, 1990, 1995, 2007, 2013
Badass Moment: McClain embodies the philosophy of filmmaking when he announces himself to Gruber and his henchmen by “showing, not telling”: one dead terrorist perched on an office chair in an elevator with “Now I Have A Machine Gun. Ho-Ho-Ho” written on his sweatsuit.
Calling Card: Male pattern baldness, tactical improvisation and a very dirty undershirt
Nick Caruso, Associate Editor: J McC is more American than anyone on earth. Just a regular guy trying to survive and defend his territory from oppression: Colonial America. Off-duty NYPD cop: American. Set at Christmastime: celebrating consumerism is in our American blood. Trying to patch things up with his ex: we’re friends with England now, so this checks out. Fighting zee Germans: American. Male pattern baldness: I dunno, makes me feel pretty American. Bravado in spades, with endlessly sardonic one-liners: American. Walking on broken glass: okay, Annie Lennox is Scottish, but blood is red and that’s one of our goddamn colors, so this is American. Witty, scrappy sidekick who is also a popular TV dad: a pristine American trope. Destroying most of a massive building to stop Professor Snape: American levels of not caring. In the film is compared to John Wayne and Rambo, and is partial to Roy Rogers: American heroes, all. Duct tape revolver holster: this is AMERICAN. The catchphrase “Yippee Ki-yay, Motherfucker”: should be on our currency, in the Declaration of Independence and could substitute for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Actor: Frances McDormand
Badass Moment: The arrest at the end of the movie is great, but it’s the scene where Gunderson so cooly, confidently and sarcastically breaks down Lundegaard (“I’m cooperating here!”) that is just so beautiful and hilarious to watch.
Calling Card: Being seven months pregnant; Midwestern accent
Andrew Connor, Associate Staff Writer: Hollywood loves to portray the all-American badass as a loose-cannon, a traumatized dude with nothing to lose. He’s at the edge of his rope, but boy, can he handle business. Whatever. A real badass simply has their shit together, wants to get the job done right, and does so without making a whole thing out of their personal issues. Marge Gunderson (Francis McDormand) of Fargo fits that bill. She finds clues her fellow cops can’t, sees through Jerry Lundegaard’s (William H. Macy) scheme and finds, shoots then arrests a murderous thug (Peter Stormare) in the Minnesota winter, all while seven months pregnant and without a fuss.
The Man With No Name
Films: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More
Actor: Clint Eastwood
Years: 1964, 1965, 1966
Badass Moment: He lets his pistol do most of the real talking.
Calling Card: Cigarillos, poncho, quickest draw in the West
Bryan Campbell, Associate Staff Editor: Cold, steely-eyed, calm and collected. All The Man With No Name has to do is just stand there, in the doorway or the middle of the street, pass his cigarillo from one side of his mouth to the other, then light it, and just from that it’s immediately understood he’s a badass. No biblical speeches for the sake of intimidation or a wallet stamped “Badass Motherfucker” like some pompous business card proclaiming his supposed badassness. Like staring down a lion on the Serengeti, you know what’s staring back is above you on the food chain of life.
When he does open his mouth, the words pour out as calmly and as smoothly as sand through an hourglass. That said, he doesn’t say much, but he doesn’t have to. His actions speak louder than his words and most of the time they come in one flavor: led, six servings at a time. That’s another mark of a true badass; he’s the one who dishes out the fatal shots. For instance, if you say Jimmy Darmody is the most badass person in the room, and then is shot in the face by Nucky Thomson, by the process of elimination, that doesn’t make Darmody a badass, that makes him dead. The Man With No Name doesn’t answer to a boss or play to anyone’s politics, he isn’t a washed-up has-been and he certainly doesn’t run from his past. He lives through the dog-eat-dog world of the Wild West, six-guns-a-blazin’, and then rides off into the sunset — he is the original cast-iron mold for the all-American badass.
Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez
Film: The Sandlot
Actor: Mike Vitar
Badass Moment: “Just stand out there and stick your glove out in the air. I’ll take care of it.”
Calling Card: L.A. Dodgers hat, mean batting stance
Henry Phillips, Manager of Photography: In sports there’s always “The Guy” who manages to not only be better than everyone else, but who has all those tough-to-grasp but incredibly admirable traits of a badass. Jordan was The Guy, Marshawn Lynch is The Guy and Benny Rodriguez was most certainly The Guy. This sandlot shortstop not only managed to run faster and hit farther than everyone else, but he made a point to do the right thing, even when it meant risking life, limb and PF Flyers for a ball that wasn’t his. Of course, like any true Guy, Benny made it to the big leagues eventually and it seems like it doesn’t really matter whether he was successful or not, because to the eight other guys on the sandlot (and millions of little leaguers worldwide) he was the biggest badass to ever play the game.
Film: Pulp Fiction
Actor: Samuel L. Jackson
Badass Moment: “Vincent! Be cool! Yolanda, it’s cool baby, it’s cool! We still just talking. C’mon baby, point the gun at me. Point the gun at me!”
Calling Card: “Bad Mother Fucker” wallet; Ezekiel 25:17
Chris Wright, Associate Editor: If Pulp Fiction is a movie about flipping stereotypes (and it is), then Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is its star. Right off the bat, Jules, along with his partner Vincent Vega, transitions from debating questions of intimacy to blowing away college-aged shysters and then wades right back into an eloquent repartee about the existence of miracles. That’s some absurdist-level philospher-warrior shit, made possible by Quentin Tarantino’s bizarre genius with dialogue.
But forget about dialogue and think about mindset (the true litmus test of badassery, in my opinion). Of the two suited gangsters, Jules is far more interesting, and far scarier. Because, while most people will point to his bad motherfucker brashness (“Does Marsellus Wallace look like a bitch? … then why you trying to fuck him like a bitch?”) and fire-and-brimstone execution speech (“Ezekiel 25:17. The righteous man is beset on all sides…”) as proof of his not-to-be-messed-with-ness, that’s just the setup. (As a quick aside: eating a man’s cheeseburger while pointing a gun in his face is pretty damn American.)
Tarantino puts it right in your face: the moment he pulls out his wallet to pay Ringo for his own life, Jules is the Bad Motherfucker. A far less scary man would’ve lost his cool and blown the two blowhard thieves away. Jules is so cool, so confident, so focused on getting out of that diner not just alive but on track to live out the rest of his earth-walking life in the right way, that he decides to work his way through the situation. He’s not some meathead with a gun and an attitude. He’s a smart, calm killer who admits he used to recite a Bible verse because he thought it was “some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in their ass.” And self-awareness, especially in regards to gunplay, is very, very badass indeed.