Where did this begin? When did Hollywood wake up and realize that one person, armed with nothing but their steely determination and cast-iron balls, could not only hold off an army of attackers, but also any temptation to walk out of a theater? The template was in place: that much is certain. Stories about wildly out-numbered contingents bravely staving off an overwhelming foe go back to the days of Alexander and the Greeks. Yet even the ancient scribes could not have conjured up a scenario as glorious as that which began to form in earnest during the late-twentieth century. Perhaps it was the failure of a unified American military presence in Vietnam, a war fought and lost by a country that had always prided itself on having the best “team” (military) a country could field. Perhaps it was the Watergate scandal and the revelation that the President, our team captain, had betrayed his country’s trust: yes, maybe this is what encouraged audiences to look inward for hope and security. Whatever the cause, by the 1970s, movies were reacting and evolving to satisfy this growing hunger for tales that celebrated the individual. This is the kind of movie today’s ranking is concerned with, thus to get some consideration for a slot below, the film had to provide a central character that took on a host of baddies single-handedly. While I did allow for a little leeway in some cases (an assistant could be utilized in small doses), the breaking point was that character’s ability to take out their targets without any assistance.
In sum, your author was looking for the best examples of one person confronting a massive cluster of enemy combatants, so the less help they had, the better. The more alone the protagonist was in this effort, the higher the slot earned, and the more people they slaughtered en route to victory (which was a requirement for consideration) the better the ranking. All comic book heroes were eliminated from consideration, as they’re all pretty much in the same one-man-army boat, and would have tipped this list into a different realm. Aside from this, movies that provided some very close-calls included Machete (as Trejo’s character had too much help), Shoot ‘Em Up, Quigley Down Under, Evil Dead, The Professional, Black Dynamite, and Shaft. Terminator almost made the cut, but this was a one-MAN army list, not one-machine army. Anyway, enough fooling about – let’s start with…
The accidental harbinger of an action-genre that came to define an entire decade, Taxi Driver laid the emotional foundation for a noble hero that would eventually find its rougher edges buffed out. As the 1990s gave way to a new millennium, this macho archetype regressed somewhat so as to give back some of the humanity the ultra-violent hero had lost since De Niro set the standard. Still, in Taxi Driver, De Niro’s “Travis Bickle” was a simple-minded victim of a society and city that consumed good intentions and honest souls wholesale; one could hardly call this level of character development a cinematic expression in mindless brutality. Travis’ attempts to integrate himself into normal society all ended catastrophically, and as a result, his drive to develop a purpose and meaning led him to very dark places. Unable to practically demonstrate his value to a woman, or to achieve any sense of fulfillment through his job as a cabbie, Travis turned to the one thing in his life that made sense.
Violence represented an uncomplicated answer to any number of problems that Travis associated with his lost existence. After shifting his attention from the political realm to one closer to home, Travis unleashed his terrible wrath on the pimps and Johns that Bickle blamed for society’s ills. Armed to the teeth (and I mean fucking strapped), Travis went after a prostitution cell and didn’t stop pulling triggers until he was out of ammo. Something of a weekend-warrior in possession of only half the tact and skill as some of the men to follow, respect should be given to the source. Though cinema’s one-man army ethic certainly existed prior to Scorcese and De Niro’s timeless 1976 collaboration (#9, below, came out a few years before Taxi Driver), the post-Vietnam man-as-an-island transition in the American psyche propelled this cinematic convention into Hollywood’s speed-dial.
Granted, this movie was shot in the early seventies, before Charlton Heston’s brain short-circuited and began puking up filth with each breath, yet in retrospect, this role should have clued us all in. Omega Man started out with Heston’s character roaming the apocalyptic ruins of Los Angeles. A former U.S. Army doctor, Heston’s “Col. Neville” had vaccinated himself with an experimental serum right before a biological dispute erupted between the Chinese and the Soviets. This international tiff brought on a desperate plague that turned nearly all of humanity into a race of albino mutants, Neville one of the few exceptions due to his vaccination.
Resolved to take the global apocalypse by the horns, Neville fortified himself into a secure location atop an apartment complex and armed himself to the teeth. Making excursions out of his compound only to kill the infected ‘Family’ clan that roamed the streets, Neville was a ruthless hunter. Armed with a cache of toys that included a night-scoped B.A.R., S&W M76, and pocket bombs, Neville made it fucking rain in downtown L.A., and took the fight to those Godless half-zombie fucks. Though he did get some assistance after his capture in the way of “Lisa” and “Dutch,” up to that point, Neville was a one-man wrecking-crew. For his admirable work in this regard, the film and the warrior earned a slot.
Only in an internet universe as twisted as the one we currently enjoy could Passenger 57 ever rank above (or even in the same company) as Taxi Driver, yet here we are. In the film, Wesley Snipes starred as “John Cutter,” the recently-christened security operative for an international airline conglomerate. On the way to his first job, Cutter was privy to an airplane hijacking (imagine that!) that saw the release of a psychopathic terrorist into America’s friendly skies. Luckily for Cutter, our hero was in the shitter when the terrorists took over the plane, a stroke of good fortune that allowed the former cop and martial arts master to fly under the radar and fuck up the party. Using good sense and a little kung fu, Cutter was able to get the plane on the ground via a sneaky fuel dump, then fought his way off the jet only to get cuffed and run by the local smokies.
True to his one-man army ethic, Cutter busted himself loose, tracked the terrorists down, and got back into the fight. Wily and slippery bastard that he was, the lead terrorist and psychopath-escapee (Bruce Payne’s “Rane”) wormed his way out of an amusement park ambush, and actually re-hijacked the same plane he’d stolen earlier in the film. Say what you will about this picture (and many have said much), I can’t think of another movie that featured a double (repeat) hijacking. In any event, glorious bad-ass that he was, Cutter wasn’t about to let Rane go, and after jumping back on the plane during mid-take-off, Snipes’ character killed three more men with his bare hands before getting the jet safely on the ground again. For a more gratifying ending, one with similar results but just a tad more heart, we ought to look to…
Something of a sleeper pick, your author felt compelled to rank this one based on the film’s whole-hearted embrace of brutal and unnecessary violence to make points that might just as easily have been made without torture, mutilation, and homicide. A vocal supporter of Liam Neeson’s work from the days before this particular journalist was allowed to see a majority of his films, the actor seems to finally have begun landing roles that trust the man’s instincts and abilities (for more on this, and an expanded 10rant discussion on Taken, see here). In Taken, he played “Bryan Mills,” a former C.I.A. field officer with a lengthy bad-man resume. In the picture, his character’s daughter was abducted by a sex-slave ring that operated out of Paris; given just a handful of hours, Mills began pulling up the planks of a seedy underworld that used pimps, thieves, and old-fashioned scoundrels to lure and ambush innocent young girls into sex slavery. Once Mills learned that his daughter was in trouble, the man got a little intel. and in less than a day he’d made it from L.A. to France.
Tracking down the location where his daughter had been scooped up, Mills immediately went to work, and tracked down the front-man who’d charmed his daughter and betrayed her. This led Mills to his next lead, a brothel staffed with smacked-up sex-slaves, a visit that quickly descended into a full-fledged gun-battle that left a gaggle of baddies without a pulse. A man on a mission, the added attention these murders brought from the local Parisian authorities didn’t slow Mills down all that much. No, the mad-dad proceeded to torture the shit out of the swine that actually sold his daughter, infiltrated the auction where she was being sold, and killed the hell out of a bunch of assholes in attendance. At the end of the ordeal, Mills got out with his daughter and his own ass intact, and was able to enjoy the added bonus of having personally hammered the life out of those responsible. Not a bad day, really.
This was a close-call that just barely made the list based on the criteria involved and the unavoidable necessity of ranking this craptastic nightmare amongst its peers. While the 10rant recognized that a curious resurgence of Norris-related nostalgia has gripped the world these last few years, one shouldn’t let this happy enthusiasm shroud the facts. Missing In Action was the most shameless breed of rip-off conceivable, for it took the treatment James Cameron had written for a Rambo sequel, hijacked all the important plot elements, then substituted its characters into the mess. The result was Missing In Action, a film came out just weeks before Rambo II, and was the dramatic equivalent of a Chuck Norris-piloted plane crashing into a mountain. You know that your movie is bad when people universally praise Rambo: First Blood, part II in response to your festering sore of a picture. Seriously, Missing In Action was so badly acted, directed, shot, and edited that Stallone’s stock actually went up a few points just out of his similar movie’s proximity to this disaster.
Long story short, Norris’ character, “Col. James Braddock,” accepted a mission to head back to the ‘Nam to see if he could locate any American P.O.W.’s still rotting in prison camps a good decade after the close of the war. Going 100% rogue, Braddock got himself strapped, interrogated the shit out of a dude before killing him, then went on a mission to win the war his country had lost. There’s more that could be said about this movie if it didn’t suck so very, very badly. And this is saying something, for your humble author will watch and talk about pretty much anything that provides a blistering series of R-rated action scenes. That this movie was so offensively terrible in every regard, from its inception to its execution, left little room for praise, and allowed for little more than the tacit recognition that it did indeed meet all the necessary requirements for the classic one-man army tradition so lovingly embraced by Hollywood (and today’s list).
One gets the sense that there were a lot of people who grew up with this one at sleepovers, at least those of us who were lucky enough to be in their pre-teens right around the time this one came out on VHS. Under Siege had everything a thirteen year old boy could ask for: it gave to its audience so much, and asked so very, very little in return. This movie sported a rock-hard Steven Segal in his bone-breaking prime, a topless Playboy Playmate, Gary Busey at his wild-eyed 90s best, and an oft-overlooked Tommy Lee Jones in an uncharacteristic bad-man turn. It followed the hell-raising activities of one “Chief Ryback,” a battleship cook who just so happened to be a former Navy S.E.A.L. In the time-honored tradition of terrorists invading an isolated space while maintaining complete control over MOST of their hostages, Under Siege laid the foundation for what would become Segal’s cinematic opus.
The man cut through terrorists, plugged eye-sockets, and broke bones like he was making a fucking cake, and killed somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty or so men. Sure, sure: Ryback had some help. But really, that’s bullshit. Sure, this guy had Miss July 1989 at his hip for most of the siege, and found a pocket of unmotivated sailors looking to chip in about halfway through the ordeal, but for the most part, our man Ryback was on his own. Was anybody else killing fools when the former-S.E.A.L. went akimbo with a pair of uzi’s, and slaughtered a hallway full of goons? Was anybody else out in the water when Ryback was swimming around to plant charges on stolen submarines? Hell no! Segal was out there getting shit done on his own, and certainly didn’t get any assistance when he got into a knife-fight to the death during the rousing climax. A classic example of a one-man army in the very best tradition of the genre, this sailor’s outstanding work definitely deserved a nod.
Your author was initially a bit hesitant to rank this one, for this was a twenty-first century picture with younger, more refined sensibilities than what its predecessors sported. “Jason Bourne” (Matt Damon) wasn’t invincible, immovable, or mythically reared in some pool of lightning and fire, but he was undeniably unstoppable. Unlike the steely-eyed action heroes of the 1980s and early-90s, Bourne seemed to feel pain, know fear, and suffered moments of doubt; yet the man was a solo-act of ferocious and terrible vengeance nonetheless, and showed little mercy on his enemies. In three successive installments, Bourne proved that he was a resourceful and efficient field agent, and could more than handle his shit if cut loose. Again, while your author did hesitate briefly when considering Bourne, and the “no help” disclaimer for today’s list, it was ultimately decided that what little support he got from “Marie” (Franka Potente) in the first and second installments represented more of a burden than an asset. She acted as a traceable asset that the C.I.A. gleefully used to track and locate Bourne, and nearly got the spy-hero murdered on a few different occasions. When on his own and unburdened by the necessities of keeping some screaming emotional wreck breathing, Bourne proved himself a most formidable foe.
Hand-to-hand, the man was damn-near unstoppable, and could tie enemies into knots after something as benign as a pat on the back. Practically speaking, it’s hard to argue against Bourne’s ability to keep a low profile, and hunt those looking to make him the prey. Possessed of a deep library of knowledge as it concerned surveillance (and counter-surveillance), along with a seemingly innate ability to evade capture through any number of means (seriously, just try and catch this guy once he’s made up his mind to flee), Bourne was a handful. The C.I.A.’s best minds and blackest hearts all put forth their best efforts to neutralize the renegade agent, and not only did they fail, they had to go on the defensive when Bourne got pissed and decided to take the fight to them. Give this guy a pen, map, and a full tank of gas, and Bourne would have been able to conquer Russia in the winter. While Bourne’s kill-count might not have been as high as some of the other characters on today’s list, one must take into account the heightened reality levels involved with this franchise, and the fact that it would not have served Bourne well to bust into C.I.A. headquarters in Langley with a pair of uzi’s, Under Siege-style, to exact his revenge. For this kind of a character, we’d need to turn to…
This one might have notched a higher slot in the ranking had John J. been up against a more formidable or inherently evil foe. With the possible exception of “Art Galt” (Jack Starrett) and “Sheriff Teasle” (Brian Dennehy), the people that Rambo faced in the first installment weren’t especially wicked, and certainly didn’t pose much of a threat to the hardened Vietnam veteran. One also has to take into account that Art Galt’s fall from the helicopter, while indirectly related to Rambo’s actions, was the only on-screen death in the movie, which made it a difficult sell to rank this picture over Mr. Segal’s work in the aforementioned Under Siege, where the Navy S.E.A.L. butchered at least three dozen men. Kindly recall, however, that Rambo made it clear both through words and actions that he could have killed handfuls of deputies and weekend-warrior National Guardsmen, and only refrained out of a curious sense of human decency that somehow survived the living hell of a N.V.A. P.O.W. camp. Though Rambo warned Teasle to back off lest the sheriff instigate “a war you won’t believe,” the cocky flat-foot pushed the issue and went after Rambo lock, stock, and barrel. Naturally, the response from Rambo was forthcoming. Having stoked his revenge-lust during a savage journey through an abandoned mine-shaft, Rambo emerged from the man-made hell as a warrior with a purpose.
After he hijacked an M135 deuce-and-a-half ammo truck, Rambo plowed through a roadblock, torched a gas station so as to close off the roads, then declared war on middle-America. Completely on his own (unless you count his trusty, belt-fed M-60 machine gun), the Vietnam vet. unleashed his seemingly-Biblical fury on the town that harbored his enemy. Sheriff Teasle had called down the thunder and Rambo was there to assure that all deliveries from above were delivered on time. Dodging curious eyes and frantically deployed deputies, Rambo darted throughout Teasle’s once-idyllic little paradise and began dismantling it piece-by-piece. Rambo shot up the town, cut the power, terrified the citizens, set an ammo dump on fire, then finished off his evening by storming the local police station and shooting the sheriff up all to hell. This Rambo did all by himself, and he might have done a hell of a lot more had Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) not shown up at the very end to talk the wild-eyed Special Forces commando down. Granted, Rambo didn’t kill anywhere near as many men in this installment as some of the other people on today’s list, but subsequent sequels and the fact that our hero might just as easily have butchered those hillbillies like pigs lends a lot to Mr. Rambo’s argument, thus the cozy #3 slot.
The beauty of this movie rests in its simplicity. Boy meets girl; boy knocks up girl; girl conveniently disappears and leaves boy to raise baby; boy abandons a successful Special Forces career to raise baby; boy’s enemies come back one day to kidnap baby (now teenager) and bribe boy into an assassination plot. In Commando, boy = Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his character, “John Matrix,” wasn’t especially tickled by the blackmailing. Rather than seeing the plans of his enemies through, Matrix went on a mission to find his daughter, rescue her, and kill the shit out of everybody involved in the scheme. Though he did have a little help in the form of Tommy Chong’s daughter (“Cindy”), once Matrix was on his enemy’s island (Dan Hedaya’s “Arius”), he single-handedly used machine guns, rocket launchers, pistols, knives, explosives, and gardening implements to dispatch the army (literally, an entire small army) sent to neutralize him. About a quarter of this film’s entire running time was devoted to this climactic battle vignette, where Matrix shrugged off the efforts of what appeared to be about six dozen heavily-armed men. Admittedly, there was something missing, however.
Sure, Matrix single-handedly dispatched roughly seventy men during his final assault on Aruis’ villa, yet there was never a moment when it seemed as if Schwarzenegger’s character would falter or fail in his quest. Shit, a grenade went off just eight feet from this guy, and all he had to show for the trial was a few cuts and some sore ribs. Using a machine gun like some kind of scalpel, Matrix seemed to score a kill with every single bullet he fired and even demonstrated a frightening proficiency with circular saw blades! While one of the most magnificent demonstrations of manly brawn in film history, and a landmark finale for an era that specialized in outrageous action set-pieces, there was a human touch that was missing. Few people over the age of twelve who have watched Commando would make a claim that they could perform or even attempt to execute some of the actions that Schwarzenegger pulled off in this flick. Indeed, what made this genre of films so popular was their ability to transport their audiences into the role of the one-man-army-hero, to sell the fantasy of solitary conquest. Coincidentally, when the studio discussed a sequel for Commando, a script popped up that would eventually be turned down by Schwarzenegger, yet was good enough to get a second life as an all new film unassociated with Matrix or the events in Commando. This re-imagined sequel would eventually get produced in 1988 under the title of…
There were one-man army movies before this one, and there have been an ass-load since, yet none have come anywhere near the hyper-violent masterpiece that came wrapped as a Christmas package back in the sleepy summer of 1988. The renegade “fly in the ointment” twist added a new layer to the existing one-man-army scenario, for Bruce Willis’ “McClane” character didn’t represent a potent and unstoppable offensive threat as was the case in Commando or First Blood, nor did he constitute a fortified problem that necessitated some kind of a siege (i.e., Omega Man). An unassuming anti-hero, McClane was the vulnerable, terrified, and mortal hero the 1980s seemed reluctant to produce. Far from the muscled creatures that seemed more machine than man, Willis wasn’t a Stallone or Schwarzenegger, he was just some dude trying to survive the night whilst saving his wife. Die Hard offered its audiences a more palatable scenario and somewhat believable characters than what had become the norm by ’88. The film almost seemed to delight in its punishment of McClaine, who (just in this first installment) was shot, cut, blown up, and launched off the side of a very tall building. Sure, when German terrorists stormed his wife’s corporate party to take the yuppies hostage, all McClane had was his pistol, a little ammo, and the clothes on his back (if not his feet), yet the man knew what he had to do. Taking to the stairwell to get a better idea of what was going on, Willis’ character quickly summed up the situation, and realized that he was in some pretty deep shit.
Though he began his journey reluctantly and with no thought of actually resolving the matter himself (like any good hero), after killing a terrorist with feet like his sister’s, McClane was in for penny and pound. Initially unsuccessful in getting the attention of the authorities, McClane took to the ventilation ducts and slowly whittled away at the baddies that crashed his wife’s Christmas party. Resourceful and wise enough to gather ammo and intel. from the bodies of his fallen foes, our hero wormed his way through a labyrinth of high-rise passageways to emerge triumphant with his woman at the elbow and his enemies smote and ruined. Starting with his semi-automatic handgun and a little old fashioned American moxie, McClane at first evaded and responded, but eventually adopted an offensive posture so he might take the fight to his enemy. Given only moral support by “Sgt. Al Powell” down below, John McClane taught those dirty Krauts a lesson that their grand-pappies should’a learned when they tangled with the good ol’ U.S. of A some decades before! Because of the blistering magnificence of this picture, any number of Die Hard clones sprung up in the subsequent years, spawning the oft-mentioned movie pitch, “you know, it’s Die Hard, but on a…” plane, boat, bus, jungle-gym: they all went for the same juice this movie squeezed. While this wasn’t the first film to present a one-man army dynamic, and any number of posers have tried it again since, perfection speaks for itself.