The Dark World of the Anti-hero.
By John Walker.
Recently, a reader emailed me and told me how much she enjoyed reading my books.
She also pointed out that the “heroes” of my Dark Retribution Quartet are flawed and
complicated and asked me the reason I had written them that way and why they were so
dark. Her question didn’t come as any surprise. I’ve been asked similar questions before, and it’s no accident that my central characters are the way they are. She referred to them as heroes, but that isn’t accurate. In truth, my characters Jack Parrish, who opens and closes the quartet in Wrath and Remembrance and God’s Soldiers, and Jake Callan, from Comparing Scars and God’s Soldiers, are both anti-heroes.
The traditional, safe, and simple (in a PG rated kind of way) hero of many Hollywood
movies is altruistic and selfless, a white knight living in an ideal world, bringing wrongdoers to justice and keeping the peace at all costs––no matter what the price to themselves, always available and willing to give their all for the benefit of others. They are portrayed with a nobility and courage that is unshakable.
In my books, Jack Parrish is a loner for most of his life, an outsider, to the point where he can be classed as a misanthropist, with a dark, volatile side to his nature. He makes mistakes as he moves through life and comes to regret so much of what he experienced and the decisions he’s made along the way. In many ways his qualities and flaws are by equal measure light and dark, good and bad; he can be kind to those he loves, but he’s intense and has anger-management and impulse-control problems. His heart is in the right place and he has a profound sense of justice, of right and wrong, and he will die to protect those he loves. His personal reflections, range of emotions, faults and flaws, only serve to make him more human and, hence, more realistic. That, to me, is an anti-hero. None of us are perfect and we all do things we regret. I don’t think the white hat wearing, flawless hero would ever truly exist in real life, as they are in escapist fiction, but anti-heroes do.
I write about anti-heroes because, to me, they are more pragmatic and more interesting. They are just as courageous, but are more affected by their circumstances and environments. They can be unconventional in their methods and driven to their “cause” by something that has affected them, usually a violent trauma, resulting in a tragic loss. Sometimes they feel at odds with the world and society in general, threatened by forces outside of their control. They are the “every man” whose motivations and actions are sometimes questionable, even criminal.
To get the job done, they will resort to actions that hurt others, cost lives in some cases, actions many would find unacceptable. Whereas a hero will bring the villains to justice, the anti-hero will take the law into his own hands because of doubt and contempt of the system, turning his quest into a personal vendetta. He’ll use offensive tactics and hunt down those who have done him wrong, with the aim of stamping them out of existence by any means.
Heroes are popular and likeable, applauded for their good deeds.
Anti-heroes are estranged and rejected, so they work in the shadows, their deeds performed behind closed doors and in dark alleys, slipping away into the night so they can remain unnoticed, satisfied that they have done what they needed to do, with no need or want for recognition from anyone else, or society in general.
I also write about anti-heroes because I can relate to them. Out of all my characters, Jack Parrish remains my favorite. In Wrath and Remembrance, he is raised and learns through the hardest knocks life can throw at him. He matures into adulthood conflicted and haunted. The volatile side of his nature is mirrored through his first-person narrative throughout. However, he’s not alone with his anti-hero outlook and penchant for street justice. His best friend, Tony Morrow, has much the same personality. When they meet as teenagers, their friendship is not forged in the school yard, or at a local youth club, but as opponents in a boxing ring during an amateur bout:
We would bond under the most unlikely of circumstances, because the day we met was also the day that I broke his nose and beat him senseless.
– Wrath and Remembrance, Chapter 5
Jack embraces the sport of boxing. It becomes a necessary, but short-lived outlet for his frustration and anger. It also serves to introduce him to another life-long friend: Jake Callan. But Jack leaves the boxing club when he realizes that he’ll never really go far in the sport. Boxing is then replaced by creative writing, where the uncompromising, seething ferocity of his nature is reflected in the narrative and themes of his short-stories, particularly in Burning Rage, a story that recounts the life and death of a psychotic fire-starter:
I wondered how many of them I would take with me, along the burning road to righteousness …
– Wrath and Remembrance, Chapter 34
And again in Dicing With Death, when two criminals finally settle their dispute by dueling with guns:
We both spun on each other blazing!
– Wrath and Remembrance, Chapter 42
While still young, Jack makes the local library his chosen haven from the world and oppressive atmosphere of his god-parents’ home. He reads and memorizes world events that occurred during the years amnesia has temporarily blocked from him:
Knowledge replaced memories and experience, but it was an inadequate filling for a nine-year-gap. It left me feeling cold … so cold!
– Wrath and Remembrance, Chapter 4
In Chapter 39 of Wrath and Remembrance, Jack foils an attempted robbery at a convenience store. The grateful sons of the owners take the thief hostage long enough to beat some sense of social conscience into him before they hand him over to the police.
Jack grows into a strong and independent man, but recurring and terrifying nightmares add to his paranoia and sense that someone had been stalking him:
I glanced around at the windows of the other houses I could see. There were no lights on behind any of them, but I hurried back inside my own house anyway, shook up with the feeling that someone somewhere was watching every move I made.
– Wrath and Remembrance, Chapter 35
When his worst fears become stark reality, Jack chooses not to cooperate with the police, or put his faith in the justice system:
They had urged me to think about it, but I had already made up my mind: I didn’t want Newham just caught and locked away. I didn’t want him to sit in a cell and have three meals a day handed to him. I wanted him dead!
– Wrath and Remembrance, Chapter 48
When Jack overcomes his intended nemesis and holds him at gun point, he is faced with a choice: he can allow him to live and hand him over to the police to face jail for his crimes, or shoot him dead. Jack doesn’t waver or hesitate. When the killer asks him for forgiveness, Jack’s decision is immediate:
I let the gun answer for me.
– Wrath and Remembrance, Chapter 53
With that, Jack executes the killer. When he’s arrested and is faced with the prospect of being blamed for all the murders the killer has committed, Jack doesn’t hang around to plead his case. Instead, he grabs his opportunity when the chance arises for him to escape. Another aspect of Jack’s character is that he’s fatalistic and not one to stop and consider the consequences of his actions. Any plan, no matter how well thought out, can go wrong through an unseen or chance event:
I closed my eyes as the car picked up speed and listened to the voices of the dead. They taught me hard lessons that, as always, I have learned too late.
– Wrath and Remembrance, Chapter 54
In God’s Soldiers, Jack shoots, bludgeons, and burns his way through the story like a rage-driven force of nature in order to rescue those important to him. Like me, he’s a born survivor and he dances to his own tune. He is engaging to readers because I put detail into his background, investing him with life memories - a past - that gives him cause for reflection. This adds depth to the character instead of just presenting the reader with a catalogue of his actions. In real life, we have memories and life experiences that we reflect on. They shape us, make us who we are, and can influence our reactions and decisions in the present. For the same reasons, I feel it’s vital that central characters in stories also have memories and, to a certain extent, a life history. That way the reader comes away from the story feeling that they have got to know the character on a deeper level. It makes the story more engrossing when the reader feels they can empathize with the character.
The concept of the anti-hero in fiction is nothing new. John Wayne made his career out of playing strong and noble leading men who could be viewed as heroes. But, for me, his best role was in The Searchers, in which he played Ethan Edwards, a Confederate soldier and veteran of the Civil War. He dedicates years of his life in an unrelenting quest to find a young girl taken by a Comanche tribe. The girl is an adolescent by the time he finally discovers her and has been totally indoctrinated into the tribe. Ethan’s hatred and disgust is evident in his demeanor and there is a moment, after he chases and catches her, when neither the girl, nor the audience, can anticipate what Ethan will do.
I say we do it my way. That’s an order!
Yessir. But if you’re wrong don’t ever give me another.
Other examples of anti-heroes in literature and film are:
Parker, in Richard Stark’s series of novels (named Walker in the 1967 movie, Point Blank, and brilliantly played by Lee Marvin, and Porter in the 1998 movie, Payback,
played by Mel Gibson) is a career criminal who commits high pay-off heists, mainly hitting safes and payroll trucks. After every heist, he lives the high-life in resort hotels and spends part of his leisure time planning his next job for when his bankroll starts to diminish. He’s ruthless, the classic example of an existentialist, and has no conscience about pulling the trigger on someone who stands in his way or is fool enough to pursue him. However, it’s important to note that his character is in no way psychotic. He won’t kill arbitrarily; every decision and action he takes is calculated as necessary to get the job done. Though the only death he causes in the movie, Point Blank, is unintentional when Mal, the former partner and friend who betrayed him, falls to his death. Parker’s violent nature exudes in his screen presence. It’s evident whether he is standing next to someone, listening intently, gazing fixedly at some point in the distance, or striding alone down an airport terminal corridor. His determination is evident simply by the power of his presence and in the no-nonsense manner he states his intentions to those he’s dealing with: “I want my money!… If you don’t, I’ll kill you.”
From Point Blank (1967):
Let me tell you about Reese.
Reese is dead. They’re scraping his body up off the sidewalk in front of the Huntley.
Then his debt died with him, I’m afraid.
Wrong. It passed on to you.
No business corporation in the world would acknowledge a debt of that kind.
If you don’t, I’ll kill you.
You must be stark, staring mad. You do know who you’re dealing with, don’t you?
Listen to me. I want my money in twelve hours. I’ll tell you where to make the drop. If you don’t, you are dead.
Clyde Shelton, in Law Abiding Citizen, is a loving husband and father who turns vigilante after criminals stab him during a home invasion, murder his wife and daughter, and leave him for dead. Initially, Clyde follows the lawful channels, but is enraged when the judicial system lets him down and it appears that his lawyer has made a deal with the killer. Clyde is a soldier, and his speciality is problem-solving. One character points out that the only way to stop him is to go into his cell and put a bullet in his brain. Clyde is patient, exacting, and relentless. He waits a decade, planning and preparing everything he needs far in advance, before executing his own brand of lethal justice, not only on the criminals who butchered his family, but on the entire judicial system he holds as corrupt and inept.
I’m gonna pull the whole thing down. I’m gonna bring the whole fuckin’ diseased, corrupt temple down on your head. It’s gonna be biblical.
In my experience, Nick, lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten.
Lloyd Hopkins, in James Ellroy’s books, played by James Woods in the movie adaptation, Cop. Those who know me have often remarked that I graduated from the same school of intensity that James Woods did, but no one portrays intense better than he does in his portrayal of borderline burn-out cop, Lloyd Hopkins. He lives for his job but doesn’t know how to detach at the end of the day. He cheats on his wife with witnesses and he’s not above using Russian Roulette to extract information. He’s cynical and sees innocence as the ultimate killer, particularly of women. He wants to protect his daughter to falling prey of innocence and so prepares her for the harsh realities of the world by conveying to her just how bad it is on the streets. To Lloyd, there are no white knights or happy endings, so his idea of a bedtime story for his young daughter is a retelling of a previous case he worked and a criminal he busted, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife who finally takes their daughter and leaves him. His wife sees things differently: she is saving their daughter from Lloyd’s jaded and pessimistic view of the world. Rules and departmental protocol mean nothing to Lloyd and he breaks every point of procedure in order to get the job done. Lloyd, after he has lost his family and is suspended from his job, is at his most dangerous: he’s a man with a mission with nothing to lose. In that position, he’s capable of anything.
Well, there’s some good and there’s some bad news. The good news is you’re right. I’m a cop and I’ve gotta take you in. The bad news is I’ve been suspended and I don’t give a fuck.
Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Despite being followed up with the sequels, Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact, and The Dead Pool, the original movie, Dirty Harry, remains by far the superior and most memorable story. Not unlike the Man With No Name character he played in the spaghetti westerns, Harry Callahan is a man of few words who believes in direct action. He hates bureaucracy and finds his superiors and the politics simply get in the way of direct police procedure. After he lost his wife when she was killed by a drunk driver, he exists as a loner both in his personal life and within the department. His partners end up either hospitalized or dead, so he’s reluctant to take on a new partner, especially a rookie, and only complies when his lieutenant pulls rank on him. The partnership quickly proves to be a baptism of fire for the rookie. Dirty Harry sees Harry take charge of a manhunt to track down a ruthless and psychotic sniper named Scorpio, who holds the city of San Francisco to ransom. In his haste to rescue a kidnapped teenage girl that Scorpio has assured has been buried alive with a limited supply of oxygen, Harry chases him to a football ground where Scorpio works and lives. When Scorpio finally stops on the playing field, puts up his hands and surrenders, Harry shoots him in the leg anyway and proceeds to stand on the wound, torturing Scorpio and ignoring his pleas for a lawyer until he gives Harry the location of the girl. In the circumstances, Harry was justified to use whatever means available to rescue the girl, but his actions only lead him further into trouble with his superiors.
Undeterred, Harry takes matters into his own hands, even if it costs him his badge.
In later years, Clint Eastwood portrayed other memorable anti-heroes, among them Will Munny in Unforgiven and Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, but many will remember him best for when he first drew the .44 Magnum from his shoulder holster and brought harsh justice to the criminals in Dirty Harry.
I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots, or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful hand-gun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?
Bruce Wayne, a vigilante who creates a powerful persona and legend in Batman, a dark alter-ego that is terrifying to the criminal underworld. As a young kid, I couldn’t get enough of the comic books. The TV series, starring Adam West, although comically entertaining, was just too dumbed-down to suit me. Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, Batman, was closer to the original atmosphere of the story, but was still too comedic in places and I was let down with the pastel-colored costumes and comic page look. The sequels that followed went from bad to disastrous. Finally, in 2005, Chris Nolan went back to basics and got everything right with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. This story encapsulated everything great about Batman: the tragic loss of his parents and finding his true vocation in life. Many tag Batman as a superhero, especially as he originated as a comic book character, but to call him a super-hero is not accurate. What differentiates him from the superheroes is simply that he has no super-human powers. He’s as human as the rest of us, but driven to dedicate his life to the fight against evil and injustice. He has hardened his body along with his will, become an expert in martial arts, and uses custom-made body armor and gadgets to give him that sharper edge and advantage. His main defining principle is that he will not kill. However, he’s not opposed to beating the crap out of a criminal before handing them over to the police. A strong force for good at home in the shadows.
No, no, no. A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.
A legend, Mr. Wayne.
It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.
Paul Kersey, in Brian Garfield’s Death Wish, played by Charles Bronson in the movie.
Death Wish is arguably the epitome of the anti-hero and vigilante genre. It is also one of the original and best examples in fiction. This story conveys the pain of loss and fear architect Kersey feels at having his home invaded, his wife murdered, and his daughter raped and left psychologically traumatized. The police don’t have a lot to go on and Kersey is at first stunned by the realization that his plight has become “just another statistic.”
Any chance of catching these men?
There’s a chance, sure.
Just a chance?
I’d be less than honest if I gave you more hope, Mr. Kersey. In the city, that’s the way it is.
He sees how far society has fallen, how the majority of people would just run and hide. When he walks the streets at night, he sees men prowling in the shadows, and the question reverberates in the back of his mind: Was it you? Were you one of the muggers who destroyed my family? A conscientious objector during the war, Kersey is sent on work assignment to another state, an act of kindness by his boss to give him a break from the city. While away on his job, he is befriended by a client, Ames Jainchill, played by Stuart Margolin, who takes him to a gun club. Kersey’s objection to guns relates back to a hunting accident that resulted in the accidental death of his father. However, Kersey changes his way of thinking and the focus of his life becomes a mission to clean up the streets, as he goes out armed with a gun, setting himself up as bait for potential muggers and shooting dead any who dare try.
Which war was yours? Korea?
See much action?
Yeah, a little... I was a C.O. in the medical unit.
Commanding officer, huh?
Ames Jainchill (laughs):
Christ! What a guest to bring to a gun club! You’re probably one of them knee-jerk liberals thinks us gun boys shoot our guns because it’s an extension of our penises.
Never thought about it that way, but it could be true.
Maybe it is, but this is gun country. Can’t even own a handgun in New York City. Out here, I hardly know a man who doesn’t own one. And I’ll tell you something, unlike your city, we can walk our streets and through our parks at night and feel safe. Muggers operating out here, they just plain get their asses blown off.
Major Charles Rane, played by William Devane, in Rolling Thunder. Having survived years in a POW camp in Vietnam, Charles Rane returns home to the U.S. with his friend and fellow prisoner, John, played by Tommy Lee Jones. After enduring years of systematic torture, they feel no pain.
Major Charles Rane:
You learn to love the rope. That’s how you beat ‘em. That’s how you beat people who torture you. You learn to love ‘em. Then they don’t know you’re beatin’ ‘em.
In fact, they feel little for anything at all. The experience has left them burned out and they are unable to make the transition back to civilian life. During a public ceremony, Rane is awarded a car and a substantial amount of money to compensate for the time he was imprisoned. When a gang of men steal the money at his home, murder his wife and son and leave Rane for dead, he similarly puts no faith in the police and sets out as a lone executioner, recruiting his army buddy when he knows he has all the rats in one trap:
Major Charles Rane:
I found them.
Major Charles Rane:
The men who killed my son.
I’ll just get my gear.
Major Charles Rane:
They’re in a whorehouse over in Juarez right now. There’s the four that came into my home, and there’s eight or ten others.
Let’s go clean em’ up.
Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, in Taxi Driver. Paul Schrader, who also wrote Rolling Thunder, created an ambiguous and repellent anti-hero with Travis Bickle. A Vietnam war veteran, he lives alone in an apparent state of depression, seemingly on a downward spiral towards self-destruction. Suffering from insomnia, his attempts to fill his life by simply exhausting himself through long hours of work only add to his alienation and hatred as he views all that he hates about society from behind the wheel of his cab. His only leisure activity is to frequent sordid porn theatres. After a short and disastrous attempt at a date, Travis buys several guns from an illegal dealer. It’s then only a matter of time before the violence building in Travis is unleashed. Even after saving a young teenager, Iris, played by Jodie Foster, from her life of prostitution, Travis is still not settled. The violence in him is not completely purged, evident in the double-take Travis does at the end, when he seems to catch a glimpse of something in his cab rear-view mirror. Is it something on the street, or maybe even something in the reflection of his eyes, that will start him on another journey toward a destructive act? Whatever it is, both Travis and the world he lives in have the same problems, and both seem set on a fresh collision course.
I think someone should just take this city and just... just flush it down the fuckin’ toilet.
Harry Brown, played by Michael Caine, in the movie Harry Brown. Accurately described as Death Wish for the retirement crowd, Harry Brown finds himself facing a lonely end to his life in a world that has gone to hell around him. He’s bereaved after the death of his terminally ill wife. Gangs of feral youths rule the streets, run drugs, guns, and teenage prostitutes, and the law doesn’t seem to be able to do a thing about it. Enraged when his best friend is brutally killed in a public underpass used by the youths as a hang-out, he decides to take matters into his own hands. An ex-marine, he justifies his actions as a war between the decent citizens and the criminal gangs on the streets. During the climactic riot, inter-cut with the violent bar scene, Detective Inspector Alice Frampton, played by Emily Mortimer, doubts his motives:
D.I. Alice Frampton:
It’s not Northern Ireland, Harry.
No, it’s not. Those people were fighting for something. For a cause. To them out there, this is just entertainment.
Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, played by Gene Hackman, in The French Connection (1971), and based on real-life Detective Eddie Egan, who worked for the New York City Police Department. Eddie Egan died from cancer in 1995, at the age of 65. In the movie, he plays Doyle’s police chief, Walt Simonson. Egan’s real-life partner, Sonny Grosso, is portrayed as Detective Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, and played by actor Roy Scheider. Sonny Grosso also appears in the movie as Bill Klein. The movie, directed by William Friedkin, depicting the investigation leading to one of the largest international drug smuggling busts in history, is at the top of my list of favorite cop thrillers and based on the factual book of the same title, by Robin Moore. The seat-of-your-pants chase sequence, as Popeye pursues a speeding elevated train and cuts through traffic junctions to keep up remains one of the best chase sequences ever filmed and was achieved by actor and stunt driver Bill Hickman, who also acted in The French Connection as Mulderig. Popeye Doyle is as tough and uncompromising as they come. The dark and light antihero quality of Doyle’s character is evident in his infringement of rules and orders, contempt for his superiors, and the intimidation and violence he’s prepared to use with suspects. He’s also a heavy drinking bigot who trusts no one, other than his partner. However, he’s a natural cop who’ll stop at nothing to get the bad guy. Doyle is never off the job and it’s during an end-of-evening-“Popeye down to the bar for a drink”-session with his partner that he surveys the crowd and spots a group of people sitting around a table. The group just doesn’t look right and Doyle’s cop instinct alerts him. The investigation starts from there as Popeye and Cloudy tail the group and set up wire-taps and round-the-clock surveillance. Popeye and Cloudy know how to play the good cop/bad cop routine, evident in an early scene when they chase a drug suspect through the streets of New York and use the technique to break the suspect down psychologically. While Cloudy questions him about his street connection, Popeye confounds him with an unrelated line of questioning by asking him when was the last time he picked his feet, if he’d ever been in Poughkeepsie, hounding him into admitting that he’d sat on the edge of the bed, took off his shoes and socks, put his fingers between his toes and picked his feet, relating to a rape case in which the perpetrator picked his feet in the same fashion after assaulting the woman.
Popeye Doyle (to suspect):
All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means, goddamnit? All winter long I got to listen to him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.
In a later scene, after Popeye and Cloudy have convinced Simonson to grant them the
court order for the surveillance, Egan as Simonson, in a brilliant moment of self-parody, throws a question to Popeye, his fictional counter-part, as he’s about to leave his office:
Popeye. You still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?
Henry Oak, played by Ray Liotta, in Narc (2002), written and directed by Joe Carnahan. This is a cop partnership story with an edge and is as gritty and realistic as they come. Undercover narcotics Detective Nick Tellis, played by Jason Patric, has been suspended for over a year after a drug bust that went horribly wrong. He’s given the chance to work again and is assigned to partner another narc detective, Henry Oak. Internal Affairs are watching both officers closely as they continue an investigation that’s gone cold, involving the murder of Oak’s previous partner, Mike, during a drug buy. Haunted by the death of his wife and repulsed by the criminals his job brings him into contact with, Oak attacks his cases and suspects like a man possessed, beating one criminal in the police station with an 8-ball in a sock. The case takes a dark and twisting path as Tellis looks over the clues and evidence and sees how protective and close Oak is to Mike’s widow and how far he will go to protect the dignity and reputation of the slain officer.
The only thing you need to know about me is that I’m gonna bag the motherfuckers who killed Mike. If that means breaking every point of procedure, then they’re broke.
The Driver, played by Ryan O’Neal, in Walter Hill’s stripped to the bare bone, nihilistic thriller, The Driver (1978). None of the characters in this movie have names; they are known only by either their job description or distinguishing features. It is also notable that almost all the characters are shady and ambiguous to a lesser or great degree. Walter Hill has made some of the best action thriller movies. His 1978 crime caper, The Driver, is by far one of the original and best in the genre, and a movie I never tire of watching. The style of the movie is low key, minimalist, and lean on characterization. Writer and director Walter Hill proves that using a lot less can result in a whole lot more. The main character of the title is a highly skilled getaway driver for hire with a talent for eluding justice. He is a loner and existentialist, a man who, like Walker, in Point Blank (1967), hangs in the shadows and speaks and moves only when necessary, but his every word and action are delivered with deliberate purpose. His only form of relaxation and escape seems to be when he listens to Don Williams’ music on his small cassette player. In the end, when the game has played out, there are no winners, but is it merely financial gain or the thrill of the chase that ultimately drives The Driver?
Planning on looking for work soon?
My line of work is kinda hard to come by.
It depends on where you look.
It depends on who you are.
I don’t know. Some of the criminal types these days, they, ah, think that they’re real cowboys. Think they can just, ah, drive around… do whatever they wanna do … whenever they wanna do it. Ha! I respect a man who’s good at what he does. I’ll tell you something else: I’m very good at what I do. Now, last night … oh, I forgot, ha, his memory’s not too good about last night.
I remember everything.
Alone in your room?
You can do better than that.
I don’t have to!
(The Detective deliberately spills hot coffee over The Driver’s hands.
The Driver draws his fist back defensively. The Detective offers his jaw and taunts The Driver.)
Go ahead, throw it. It’ll cost you two years. Go on. You wanna throw it? Go on. Go on. Go on! And you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught. Cowboy desperado!
(The Driver lowers his fist and refuses to take the bait.)
Now get outta here!
David Callan, created by author James Mitchell and played by Edward Woodward, in the TV series Callan that ran from 1967–1972, with a movie also called Callan in 1974, which was a remake of the original Armchair Theatre drama, and a one-off reunion special episode entitled Wet Job in 1981. Callan is a spy and assassin who works for a covert branch of the British security service known as The Section. His boss is called Hunter, a code name to protect his real identity, even from his troops. Callan is middle-aged, lives alone, and paranoid that if foreign agents don’t kill him, then his superiors will eventually sanction his execution because he knows too much. He’s complex, insubordinate, anti-authoritarian, difficult, and argumentative, constantly having run-ins with his superiors and fellow agents. His only friend is a low-life criminal contact on the street called Lonely, an ex-con and petty thief who has a personal problem that fuels his alienation from society: when he gets nerves he smells—and he smells bad! Callan tolerates Lonely because he’s able to assist him with certain jobs. Callan also has a conscience about those he’s assigned to murder which adds to problems with his superiors. While this weakness makes him more sympathetic, what turns him into an anti-hero is his volatile and violent nature. He’s the best agent in The Section and he’s quick to use violence on whoever stands in his way, including Lonely if he annoys him. Callan was the first character I encountered as a child who is an anti-hero, and I quickly became a life-time fan of the series, which gets a special mention in my book Comparing Scars. This series showed the world of espionage as it really was, not the unrealistically glossy and gadget-strewn adventures depicted in James Bond, but the dark, murky world of ordinary-looking men who move in shadows and commit murder behind closed doors. It’s a world also effectively portrayed in the movies: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).
You want me back.
You’ve always been a problem to us, Callan. What is my section for?
Getting rid of people.
Exactly: getting rid of people. Bribery, blackmail, frame-ups.
Occassionally. When there was no other way. In the past six years I’ve had fifteen people killed. You did five of them. They had to die and you know it, otherwise they would have killed a great many innocent people. That’s what security is for — to protect the innocent.
Lisbeth Salander, originally created by Stieg Larsson in his Millennium series trilogy of novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Lisbeth Salander is a freelance surveillance agent and researcher specializing in investigating people on behalf of Milton Security, portrayed by Noomi Rapace in the 2009 movie and Rooney Mara in the 2011 remake. To those coming to the story fresh, the character Mikael Blomkvist, a magazine publisher, appears to be the hero when hired to solve an old murder, but it soon comes clear that Lisbeth Salander, diminutive and skinny, withdrawn, emotionally traumatized, abrasive, and goth in her appearance is the stronger of the two when he hires her to help him find a serial killer who has been murdering women. Using stealth and technology to her advantage, which enables her to outsmart those in her sights, Lisbeth Salander is a lot like many books we find and know nothing about: you can’t judge them by their cover alone.
If you touch me I’ll more than alarm you.
These characters I’ve outlined are all anti-heroes, even though they were written as average-Joe’s-turned-vigilantes, outlaws, policemen, soldiers, etc, and there are many other examples in literature, movies, and TV shows. Tragedy, a profound loss and sense of injustice, are often the common factors they all share. Anti-heroes are more interesting because of their ambiguity, unpredictability, dark natures, and potential for violence. They may be the good guy at heart, but they are often complex, tragic, and possess enough of the bad guy in their nature to make weaker people wary of them.
Is the anti-hero bad, or simply misunderstood?
The anti-hero, particularly the vigilante, raises valid questions about the problems of our society and the weaknesses and failings of those who govern and hold the reins on law, order, and justice. If and when society fails us, are we justified to take the law into our own hands, particularly if it comes down to our own survival?
The thing about the anti-hero is that he really doesn’t care what people think of him. He only cares about achieving his objective.
In times of trouble, who would you rather have by your side: a hero… or anti-hero?