The sci-fi actioner The Chronicles of Riddick and its anti-hero, Riddick (Vin Diesel), always bring to my mind an interesting question: is it okay to root for a bad guy? And if so, when? Riddick is not a good guy, not in the “hero” sense nor in the “Whenever I’m broke he spots me for a beer” sense. He’s a criminal and villain. But Riddick goes beyond self-preservation and saves lives battling space bats in his first go-round (Pitch Black), so you can’t help but root for him. Thus is created a bit of a cinematic Stockholm syndrome, whereby the audience falls in love with its captor, the bad guy, which will now be called “Riddick syndrome” or “point break.” (Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi in Point Break is a far more compelling than Keanu Reeves’s Johnny Utah.)
Yeah, Riddick has big muscles and looks like a total badass in his blacked-out sunglasses, but the real reason we root for Riddick in Pitch Black is the Common-Foe Clause, whereby the protagonist and antagonist team up to battle a common foe: in the case of Riddick, space bats. The Common-Foe Clause also allows us to root for the bad guy in For a Few Dollars More. The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) teams up with his nefarious rival, the Man in Black (Lee Van Cleef), to defeat their nemesis, El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté). Lines and values are blurred, keeping audiences intrigued and forcing them to question their judgments. Throw in some cool gunfights and you get a classic Western motif (and my favorite Western, at that). The Common-Foe Clause is a frequent cause of Riddick syndrome, but it’s not the only time you’ll be rooting for the bad guy. There are some other recurring reasons to find yourself drifting to the dark side.
When Bad Battles Bad (A.K.A. The Lesser of Two Evils)
Here’s where Riddick’s sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, comes into play. Just because Riddick did a mitzvah in Pitch Black doesn’t mean he’s changed. He’s still a bad man. But faced with an all-encompassing evil — the Necromongers, who want to destroy everything — the time comes to choose between the lesser of two evils. There can only be one choice: Riddick, the evil who doesn’t want to, you know, swallow the universe. This is exactly what happens in every gangster movie. Enjoy the quest of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to destroy the traitorous Sollozzo (Al Lettieri)? Yeah, you do. Root for Léon (Jean Reno) — an assassin — in The Professional against corrupt Stansfield (Gary Oldman)? You’re suffering under the rule of When Bad Battles Bad.
‘You Need Me on That Wall!’
This category of Riddick syndrome is named in honor of an outburst by Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson) in A Few Good Men. And while many of us wouldn’t go so far as to order a code red, Jessup has a point. There are a lot of evil people out there, especially in the movies. And when stuff goes down, you want someone like Jessep on the metaphorical — or not so metaphorical — wall. You can excuse the excesses he takes while doing his job. Also falling into this category are the crime fighters of Watchmen, which includes the sadistic Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the bit-too-tough-on-crime Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). Neither is exactly a nice guy, but in a hellish crime-ridden world you’ll take guys like that on the streets. And don’t forget that classic seventies vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), of Death Wish. He’s killing people. Lots of them. You can’t have people doing that. But on the other hand, New York seems pretty bad, so maybe he’s just doing what he has to do.
Sometimes Bad Feels Good
We may feel badly that The Dark Knight‘s Joker (Heath Ledger) was tortured as a child, that The Silence of the Lamb‘s Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is truly a genius, and that Darth Vader (David Prowse) lost the women he loved at an early age. But the facts remain that one wants to see the world burn, one is a cannibalistic psychopath, and the other is referred to as the Dark Lord of the Sith (not the type of title a good guy has). They’re all very bad guys and, as far as I’m concerned, the most entertaining, captivating characters ever. These guys can tap into our dark sides like no others and make us think, if even for just a moment, that it might be fun to be bad. All that chaos and cleverness and choking of your enemies from a distance. Tell me that when you first saw Star Wars Darth Vader wasn’t the character you came away most enthralled by. Exactly.
We try to make it a black-and-white world (police-car colors, anyone?), but the fact remains that there’s a whole lot of gray out there. And sometimes we need bad guys to see that the greater good gets done. And sometimes we just want to rock out with our bad selves.
Nick Stevens, co-host of AMC’s Action Pack (Wednesdays, at 8PM | 7C), tries to make funny about movies, pop culture, and sports as often as possible. He lists John McClane, Batman, and Tom Brady as the people with whom he’d most like to have beers. For more of his grown-up nonsense, visit his Tumblr page or follow him on Twitter.