Thought experiment: The Purge is real. Some night next week, all crime will be legal and civilization will lose its collective mind. Murder, arson, robbery, and all manner of other violent crime will become imminent threats to you personally. For some reason– and this takes a large logical leap but so just go with it– you are able to hire one fictional film character to protect you during the chaos. Who do you choose?
That’s essentially what this list tries to determine. Action films have a long, storied tradition of the “one man army.” A person so dangerous and efficient that they are able to dispatch insane numbers of bad guys and inevitably emerge victorious. One of those guys returned this week, with Matt Damon reprising his role as Jason Bourne, the eponymous hero of the new film. Keep reading to find out where he ranks all time.
As for the rankings, there were three distinct attributes to consider. First is efficacy, and it was weighted heavier than the other two. Basically, we are considering how many enemies each character dispatches, and how easy it is to for them to do so. There is also a dash of degree-of-difficulty built into efficacy– a small ring of baddies in a small town handled with ease is impressive, but not as impressive as an army, even with some difficulty. Second is “aloneness” – characters who are truly “one man” (or woman) armies are also rewarded. Co-dependency is a negative. Third is a less tangible but equally important quality: cool. It’s subjective, but we can use lasting cultural impact as a sort of signifier for a character’s charisma. You are looking for a protector who is not only deadly and independent, but a character with some panache. So, once again, who do you choose?
You can’t have superheroes – that includes Batman and The Punisher, who would probably dispatch everyone on this list with ease. They just exist in a different universe. Bear in mind that each person on this list should be able to best those below them, based on the three considerations above (imagine it like everyone on the list is put into a Hunger Games scenario together). The final caveat: the characters on the list have essentially the same means as they do in their films. If a character in a film is primarily a hand-to-hand combatant, that is what you will get from them as a hypothetical protector. Conversely, if their signature style involves heavy weaponry, they bring that weaponry to the hypothetical fight.
These are film’s 25 Most Dangerous One Man Armies, Ranked.
25. Harry, Kingsman: The Secret Service
Harry is Colin Firth’s character in Kingsman: The Secret Service, a movie about a member of a clandestine agency (a member who is incidentally not Harry), who must foil Samuel Jackson’s plot to eliminate the majority of earth’s population. The movie capably spoofs the spy genre, but is still an impressive action film in its own right.
Harry (and all the Kingsmen for that matter) is a James Bond type, a British gentleman who also happens to be an efficient killer. He has the distinction of having maybe the single most destructive scene of any character on this list, when he fights his way through a church full of bloodthirsty maniacs (you should probably see the movie), until he is the last man standing. Unfortunately for Harry – spoiler alert! – he is killed by Sam Jackson seconds later, and this is only about just over half way through the film.
From what we see of Harry, he is a capable and seasoned fighter. He loses points for effectiveness since, you know, he dies. He also loses points because he is not in any way alone. He’s part of a collective and is very reliant on that group for both support and supplies. He is pretty cool though.
Video Resume: The aforementioned church fight scene.
24. Xander Cage, XXX
For laughs, here’s the premise of xXx, a problematically named film that feels like it could only have been made in 2002 (apparently not): Xander Cage is an extreme-sports thrill-seeker and stuntman, who hosts also hosts an underground web talk show. It’s like an early day video podcast. Xander decides to steal a politician’s car and drive it off a bridge, while broadcasting, because he is mad about something. To get a feel for this film, you should know that as he does this, Drowning Pool’s Bodies is playing.
Now Xander is a criminal, which would be bad, except the NSA is at that very moment looking for disreputable types with no government ties to infiltrate a Russian terror cell. After a few trials, Xander is chosen for the gig, in exchange for a clean slate. It’s like if Dominic Toretto was in the Suicide Squad.
Xander doesn’t rate very highly on the efficacy chart – he blows his cover early and is bailed out of certain doom by a special forces assist. What he lacks in skill, though, he makes up for in willingness. Not many of these characters would snowboard through an avalanche or do some sweet motocrossing during a drug raid. It’s a unique skill set, sure. But it sets Xander apart, and gives him a high level of (distinctly early 2000’s) cool.
Video Resume: Know-it-all Xander at the diner.
23. Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men
Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s strangely coiffed hitman from No Country for Old Men, is the only pure antagonist on this list. Framed as a remorseless force of nature in the film, Chigurh employees a number of gimmicks that satisfy the “cool” requirement. His coin flip routine, which decides the life or death of prospective victims, heightens the perception of Chigurh as a natural agent of chaos. His primary weapon, a captive bolt pistol mostly used to incapacitate livestock, is among the most unique on the list.
Here’s the thing though. Most of Anton Chigurh’s schtick doesn’t translate well to an open combat environment. Sure, he can terrorize a sleepy, law abiding town, simply through a capacity for violence. But Purge environments aren’t ideal for slow-walking hitmen who flip coins and kill people with methodically placed unconventional weapons. Podunk gas station attendants are one thing – cold, psychotic killers are something else entirely.
Video Resume: Anton’s introduction.
22. Chris Vaughn, Walking Tall (2004)
Chris Vaughn follows in the footsteps of a great one-man-army archetype (including the protagonist of the original Walking Tall from 1973): the guy cleaning up the town. Vaughn, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the early days of his film stardom, is a returning special forces soldier who finds his hometown substantially worse than when he left. His high school frenemy has launched a clandestine crystal meth operation, and is ruling the town like a despot. Vaughn does what any good action hero does, and cleans all that right up. He becomes the town’s sheriff and starts beating bad guys into submission with a few different shapes of wood.
This brings us to why Vaughn is so low on this list. First of all, Walking Tall is PG-13. This might not seem like a knock on the character, but Vaughn doesn’t kill folks as much as he bonks them over the head until they can no longer fight. Secondly, Vaughn’s choice of weapon is problematic – it’s a big stick. Teddy Roosevelt would be proud, but for our protector we are going to need a little bit more. The lumber that Vaughn wields is impressive, and it makes The Rock look comically powerful. But it would be sadly ineffective against superior firepower.
Video Resume: Destroying the casino.
21. Alejandro Gillick, Sicario
It’s possible that if we knew more about or saw more of Benicio Del Toro’s character in Sicario, he would rank substantially higher on this list. What we do know that is that Gillick was a lawyer working in Juarez – his wife and daughter were brutally murdered by Fausto Alarcon, the fictional head of the fictional cartel depicted in the film. Subsequently, Gillick became a hitman for hire, ready and willing to kill anyone associated with that cartel. The CIA takes full advantage of this position, and has Gillick eliminate specific targets, with the aim of consolidating cartel control in Mexico.
Gillick is motivated purely by vengeance. He is cool, calculated, and collected. He grimly doles out what he considers justice with precision. Sicario is plainly a polemic about the effect of the drug war on border towns like Juarez and El Paso; it’s a gritty film, that tries to resist romanticizing any one perspective. That goal is made harder to achieve by the fact that Gillick is so impossibly cool. He moves like a video game character on a stealth mission, controlled by a ridiculously good player. He gets to say things like, “This is the land of wolves now, and you are not a wolf.” His efficacy is high, his aloneness is low, but he makes up for it in style.
Video Resume: Guess who’s coming to dinner?
20. Casey Ryback, Under Seige
A huge component of the one man army trope is that the character is often not what they seem, and underestimated by their antagonist. They are almost always ex-special forces, or at least military, but trying to find a peaceful existence until they must reluctantly use their deadly skill set to combat a new threat. You’ll see this over and over again on this list. Casey Ryback, Steven Seagal’s character in Under Seige, is crafted in that model.
In the film, Ryback is an unassuming cook on the U.S.S. Missouri, a battleship set to be decommissioned, when it is hijacked by a terror cell looking to steal missiles. Because of some convoluted plotting, Ryback remains hidden during the hostile takeover. It is later discovered that he is really an ex-Navy SEAL, at which point he begins killing hijackers and saving the ship.
Casey dispatches bad guys in unusual ways – he stabs one in the armpit multiple times and pushes another into a table saw, for instance. He is resourceful, and – more importantly – a tactician, alternately employing stealth and brute force dependent on the situation. The primary knock on Ryback is that the scope of his heroism is narrow – it’s one ship, which is his turf, and a finite number of henchmen.
Video Resume: In the galley.
19. Leon, Leon: The Professional
What we love most about Leon is his motivation: his eventual care for protégé and daughter figure Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who slowly wears down Leon’s uncaring exterior and – in his words – gives him a “taste for life.” Leon is a small-time mafia hitman who becomes embroiled in a war with a crooked DEA agent after reluctantly taking Mathilda in during a related massacre.
Here’s what works against Leon – he dies in the film. This severely limits a character’s effectiveness, since the whole hypothetical is dependent upon staying alive. For all of his firepower and skill, Leon is bested by Gary Oldman’s DEA agent. No, it’s no consolation that Leon brings Oldman down with him. Staying alive is the goal here.
What works for Leon is that his natural instinct to protect Mathilda fits with the general construct of this idea – if you were going to choose a person to do a job for you, you would generally want the person to care about whether that job gets done. If the job was to protect you or fight for you, it would be comforting to know that the person genuinely cares. Leon should be commended for sacrificing his life for Mathilda’s. He just can’t be that high on the list because he did.
Lastly, for what it’s worth, Gary Oldman steals that film. Which can’t help Leon’s cool rating whatsoever.
Video Resume: The kill count.
18. Ethan Hunt, Mission: Impossible Series
To try to quell any angry comments right now, let’s get this out of the way – the primary knock on Ethan Hunt is that he is not truly a one man army. In fact, at the conception of the character he was not an army at all. Mission: Impossible was basically an intimate espionage thriller. It’s more of a slow burn. The four sequels are increasingly broad in scale, turning that slow burn into big fireworks, but that hardly changes the essence of Hunt’s character. He is not a rabid lone wolf, coming for vengeance at any cost. He is a highly qualified team leader, dependent on professional support and insane gadgetry. This simply has to count against him in our hypothetical.
As for what Hunt brings to the table, his skill set is without a doubt impressive. He’s trained in all manner of weaponry and modern tech, and can be a phantom when necessary. Watch the prison escape scene in Ghost Protocol though. Hunt is a surprisingly uncontrolled fighter, more of a brawler than anything. He is also completely reliant on support in that scene, whereas other characters on this list would ostensibly walk right out of that prison with a wake of bodies behind them. Hunt is an icon, and as Alec Baldwin’s character in Rogue Nation states, he might just be “the living manifestation of destiny.” But walking on the side of the Burj Khalifa, while impressive as a feat, is pretty impractical in a survival situation.
Video Resume: Prison break.
17. Ellen Ripley, Alien
Ellen Ripley’s inclusion on this list is predicated on you agreeing that one (or more) Xenomorph in an enclosed space is probably more terrifying and dangerous than numerous killers in a combat situation. Ripley is a warrant officer, which lets audiences know that she can at least handle herself in physical situations. It’s her heroism in the Alien series that ends up garnering her a spot on the list of the most dangerous one man armies in film history.
Ripley emerges as a natural leader. She is not dependent on those around her as much as they are dependent on her. In the first Alien, she not only bests the titular monster, she uncovers corruption among her own and addresses it with force. She is shown not only as a physical force capable of disarming and overcoming attackers, but a crafty technician who can avoid disadvantageous confrontation by outsmarting her foe. Ripley went on to up her efficacy quotient in later Alien films, becoming a certified badass and a film icon.
Video Resume: “Get away from her, you B****!”
16. Bob Lee Swagger, Shooter
Shooter was undoubtedly released twenty years past its time. Instead of being viewed as a classic relic from a time when action movies were at the very forefront of film culture, it is most likely viewed as an eminently watchable homage to ’80s heroes, and a pretty good Mark Wahlberg film. Shooter is an example of the wrongfully-accused trope, another hallmark of the one man army genre.
Bob Lee Swagger (Wahlberg), is ex-military and living in anonymity in the mountains somewhere, where he and his dog hang around not bothering anybody. He is a legend in military circles for his marksmanship, and is hired to consult before being framed as an assassin, in a conspiracy that reaches all the way to the United States Congress.
Two things work against Swagger here – firstly, he is not alone for most of the film. In fact, what starts as a bat-out-of-hell revenge flick turns into a buddy action movie pretty quickly. Secondly, Shooter has a limited cultural footprint, despite the fact that Walhberg is actually cartoonishly cool in the movie. His last name is almost too fitting. If it weren’t for those two knocks, his character would be much higher. He’s supernaturally gifted with long distance shooting, hyper-intelligent, and an expert in combat tactics. But remember – you can only choose one character. That means you can’t also bring Michael Pena from the film.
Video Resume: Savior with a sniper rifle.
15. El Mariachi, Mexico Trilogy
El Mariachi is the lead character from Robert Rodriguez’ Mexico Trilogy – El Mariachi, Desperado, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The character has become irrevocably associated with Antonio Banderas, who portrayed him in the second two films; Carlos Gallardo took the role in the first.
El Mariachi is tough to place on this list. His strength is firepower and daring, pure and simple. This man is heavily armed, and he fights like he is dancing. Within the universe of the film, his style is insanely cool. Dancing across a bar, twirling and firing shots behind is back, jabbing his hand forward like he’s throwing bullets out of his gun; this is the definition of panache. Here’s the problem – El Mariachi is cartoonish enough to be unbelievable. Now to be clear, we do not at all want to get into a dissection of realism. Each of these characters exists in their respective texts and that must be taken at face value. But that doesn’t preclude the following from being true.
There are times in Desperado when El Mariachi is literally being sprayed point-blank with assault weapons, with no cover, and simply dances out of the way. If the Wachowskis directed Desperado, you’d see these scenes in bullet time. If we take the internal logic of the film at face value, we can also assume that if the fight in the film were to happen 10 more times, the result would be quite different more often than not. El Mariachi has style and is pretty much a lone wolf. His efficacy seems to be grounded in luck, though, which makes him less than ideal. Also, Danny Trejo’s character almost kills him with nothing but throwing knives.
Video Resume: Is that going on right now?
14. James Dalton, Road House
There is a scene in Road House where Dalton (Shirtless Patrick Swayze) chases down a motorcycle, tackles the rider to the ground, overtakes him in a fist fight, and rips the man’s throat out with his bare hands. It was, and still is, extremely awesome. Dalton epitomizes ’80s awesome – the awful hairstyle, the pure masculinity, the roundhouse kicks. The whole premise is that he is a famous bouncer. There is of course no such thing, but Dalton is famous nationwide simply for being a tough guy. He is effective, alone, and very cool.
So why isn’t he higher? Well, consider the scene above. If that motorcyclist had simply stopped, taken out a gun, and killed Dalton, he presumably would have ridden away with his throat intact and the movie would have ended. It’s the inverse of Indiana Jones’ whip versus gun scene. A gun is the ultimate equalizer. For some reason Dalton doesn’t use them, even though all his enemies do. It is suggested that he lives by some vaguely Eastern, pacifist code, and shies from weaponry and killing (save for the occasional throat ripping). We can’t be sure about that, but it’s true that he doesn’t touch firearms. There is a prolific amount of tremendous roundhouse kicks in this film, to be sure; but he places himself at a strategic advantage against anyone willing to pick up a gun.
Video Resume: Throat-ripping fun.
13. Creasy, Man on Fire
In Man on Fire, Creasy (Denzel Washington) launches a war against the biggest crime syndicate in Mexico to save the life of a kidnapped child that he was paid to protect. Creasy is another forgotten man, a force of a nature waiting to be awakened by some injustice or another. He is an ex-marine and ex-CIA operative living out his days in a cushy gig as a private bodyguard to a rich Mexican family. As is the way of most of these films, he is sorely underestimated by those who wrong him. In the words his friend in the film, played by Christopher Walken, “Creasy’s art is death.” That’s a bad man.
After Creasy’s charge is kidnapped, he goes on a rampage, climbing his way to the top of the organization by tracking and killing or torturing everyone on the ladder on the way up. He cuts off one man’s fingers and cauterizes the wounds with a car’s cigarette lighter. He questions another man after tying him to a car hood and putting a bomb in a very uncomfortable place. He many different types of firearms, all with deadly efficiency, but also finds imaginative ways (see above) to dispatch his enemies.
As far as panache – this is Denzel Washington we are talking about. Creasy might be the coolest guy on this entire list. He isn’t higher because, at this point, we are in rarified air. He lacks some of the melee skills of other characters, and there’s always that final caveat – he dies. He does achieve his goal, and based on his character it is highly probable that he died at peace having found redemption. Still though, he dies. The best of the best do not.
Video Resume: I wish you had more time.
12. Snake Plissken, Escape from New York (and LA)
Snake’s accomplishments are heavily weighted by degree of difficulty. Escape from New York takes place in a dystopian America, ravaged by crime and completely unrecognizable. New York (and later L.A.) is a prison, cordoned off and filled with every foul type of scum there is, most of them violent and sadistic. Early in the film, the President of the United States ends up crash landing in New York. Snake, an ex-soldier turned criminal is enlisted to rescue the president in return for a clean record.
This is as close to a Purge scenario as you’ll see on this list. Snake is in a giant city that is all one prison, it’s a lawless cesspool run by the baddest of the bad. He does a pretty decent job, helping the president escape and killing The Duke, the big bad in charge of New York. If we are judging these characters at least in part based on how safe they could keep you. however, Snake misses the mark a bit. Two of his allies (so, he’s also not totally alone) in New York end up dead. Snake himself may have suffered a similar fate if not for violent intervention by The President at the last minute.
Video Resume: A loving fan video.
11. Smith, Shoot ‘Em Up
Predictably, Shoot ‘Em Up fetishizes gun violence. It’s a movie that consciously pokes some fun at the action genre, but it does so without ever crossing totally into parody territory. It remains a ridiculously entertaining entry for action junkies, and there are some truly imaginative scenes in the film. For our purposes, Shoot ‘Em Up asks a question – how valuable is a person who can basically only do one thing, even if they are absurdly talented at that one thing?
Smith’s one thing is killing people with bullets. Most of the time, these bullets come from a gun and end up in a bad guy’s body. One time, he puts bullets between his fingers and holds them in front of a fire until they explode and fire from his hands, essentially turning him into a gun. Another time he shoots the back of a drawer in a file cabinet, causing the drawer to launch out and hit a bad guy in the head. He’s a very imaginative technician.
Smith does run and jump and all that action parkour – he can move, and even mix it up a little with hands. But on balance, he is one-dimensional. And one-dimensional people can consistently have that dimension negated by a more varied, clever opponent. Fortunately for Smith, the bad guys in his universe all just basically live and die by guns as well. If this entire list were to face off however, that wouldn’t be the case.
Video Resume: Warehouse shootout.
10. James Bond
James Bond is so iconic we didn’t even have to list a movie next to his name. It feels redundant to even point out how iconic he is in the first place. He is a transcendent character, a “spectre” looming over this entire power ranking.
But this is the highest we could actually rank him.
Bond’s resume works against him. He has a ridiculous fifty-year resume of successful endeavors, but each of those outings is sloppy. Bond is hardly ever depicted in a way that makes his enemies quake. No one says about Bond: “Better bring enough body bags.” He just sorts of lucks his way out of danger, danger he finds himself in on every single mission. This is because he isn’t a force of nature. He is a ridiculously smooth, well-trained, and well-armed operative with a preternatural ability to elude imminent death. But the fact that he constantly finds himself facing imminent death highlights the mistakes and misjudgments he makes in every single film. Bond wins every time, but many of those times strain audience credulity. In short, his victories are not decisive enough.
All that said, he is still number ten on the list. A rogue agent who has saved the world twenty-six times. It seems almost like trolling to have him down this low, based on how his accomplishments read on paper, but we don’t just interact with Bond on paper. We’ve seen all his victories, and we’ve seen all his failings. He wins because he is supposed to win, which is markedly different than the characters who win because their composition dictates that losing would be an unbelievably unrealistic outcome.
We will say one thing about Bond though. He defines one type of cool, all the way. It’s not the brawling, burly cool of a Jason Statham or Patrick Swayze. It’s the unattainable cool derived from insane refinement – the gentleman’s cool, if you will.
Video Resume: Impossible to choose, how about Daniel Craig’s best moments?
9. Rama, The Raid: Redemption & The Raid 2
Not to belabor the Bond point, but this is a fine opportunity to do exactly that. If Bond and Rama were on an island together, in a fight to the death, there is simply no way that Bond leaves that island. If you are reading this and disagree, it is most likely (not to speak for you) on the grounds that Bond is an iconic one man army, while only a small segment of the population has ever seen The Raid films. But this is not a ranking of cultural import, it’s a ranking of potency. Rama comes out on top there.
The sheer number of enemies that Rama dispatches in these two films is ridiculous. He does this with guns, knives, his hands, his feet, explosives, and door jambs. He does it in waves, in some scenes handling dozens of henchmen at a time. His fighting is more impressive than any other character’s on this list, which brings us to an important point about Rama. Not only does he amass video game numbers of casualties, he rises to the occasion in one-on-one combat against truly vicious fighters.
There are only two reasons Rama isn’t higher – first, In The Raid one he is not a one man army. He is actually part of a SWAT-type squadron, although he is one of the last standing. Second, in The Raid 2, Rama’s style becomes more reliant on hand-to-hand combat, which means he could ostensibly be bested by a stealthy marksman. We’ve seen him do it all, we just haven’t yet seen him do it all at once.
Video Resume: Warehouse fight.
8. John McClane, Die Hard and Sequels
John McClane (Bruce Willis) is another character who needs minimal introduction. He is titan within the one man army tradition. McClane typifies the everyman hero – he’s nothing but a regular NYPD cop. Or, as Die Hard antagonist Hans Gruber eloquently puts it, “Just another American… who thinks he’s John Wayne.” If heroes like James Bond are captivating precisely because of their unattainable attributes, John McClane is captivating because he is all of us. Just a guy with a gun.
That sounds like a marginalization of McClane, which points toward a paradox in all the Die Hard films. He is just a guy with a gun, just a regular old cop. This is the derivation point for all his sardonic one-liners, quips, and jokes. McClane is a Joe Schmo you would want to have a beer with. At the same time, though, he consistently acts as a superhero, foiling complex plots either all by alone or with the help of one accomplice.
McClane is the grit hero. Bond and Ethan Hunt would probably rig something to carry them over a floor covered of broken glass. McClane walks right over it, barefoot and all. If you are looking for a hero, take the guy who will walk through the glass. The only knock on John McClane is that his long story, spread out over five films, eventually ramped back his “aloneness,” as he was paired with different allies.
Video Resume: Top 5 Die Hard moments
7. Frank Martin, The Transporter
Frank Martin is a driver. That’s what he does, and he is apparently the best in the world at what he does. His entire deal is transporting. Give him a package, just tell him where it goes, and you can be 100% sure that your package will get there.
This kind of highly specialized skill set – the safekeeping of valuables at any cost – is exactly what our hypothetical calls for. Martin is adept with firearms, hand-to-hand combat, driving, flying, running, acrobatics, and parkour. He is designed for only one function – violently besting those who oppose him – and for three films, that’s all he does.
Equally important is the variety of arena and dynamic in which Martin successfully beats opponents. He can be a stealthy invader, picking off bad guys one-on-one. He is just as capable of fighting his way out when surrounded and heavily outnumbered. Martin is modeled similarly to The Raid’s Rama, only Martin is more independent. He smartly uses any environment to his benefit, making him a force that’s nearly impossible to equalize.
Video Resume: Oil tank fight.
6. Bryan Mills, Taken
We are in the top six now, which means it’s getting easier to imagine ways in which any of these elite characters could best the others. If you could run a Hunger Games-esque computer simulation numerous times, each would probably win at least once (of course, some would win more than others, which is why we are here, after all).
Bryan Mills is, like most of his list-mates, an ex-something. In this case, the ex comes before “CIA operative,” making him one very dangerous man. For all his failings as a father and husband, Mills proves he is a force to be reckoned with, in all three Taken films. The first time we meet Mills, he is racing to rescue his daughter, who has been abducted abroad and is in the process of being sold into sexual slavery. Mills hunts and kills his way up the criminal conspiracy, until everyone is dead and his daughter is safe.
Mills kills with a variety of tools, and finds unique and sadistic ways to pry information from tight-lipped bad guys. From the moment he gives his “unique skills” speech (arguably the most iconic monologue from the last ten years of popular film), there is never a doubt that Mills will emerge victorious. The only question is how many stupid criminals will try to stand in his way.
Video Resume: Taking out goons.
5. John Wick
John Wick is the type of character that causes antagonists to speak in hushed tones, as though saying his name might suddenly cause him to appear. Wick’s nickname in the crime community in the film is “The Boogeyman”, which is telling.
Wick, played by Keanu Reeves in the ridiculously enjoyable eponymous film, is a retired hitman. The audience learns that he bought his way out of his employment by killing all of his client’s enemies in one night. He is portrayed as part-legend, part-ghost, and a consummate professional (check out all those double-taps).
Wick is the audience surrogate one man army, the one who was just minding his business until he was provoked. He dispatches legions of enemies, with seeming ease, “only” because his car was stolen and his dog was murdered. There are two points in the film when he is almost defeated – one when he is surprised in his own home, and another when he suffers wounds in a fight that he later tends to. The entire premise of the film is watching gleefully as Wick destroys a ton of people who shouldn’t have messed with him in the first place.
Video Resume: In the club
4. John Matrix, Commando
John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a one man army. Not a joke, or a tongue-in-cheek observation. That is his character. He’s a person that, if wronged, will don tactical military gear, paint his face, and assault compounds shooting massive guns from his hip that a normal person couldn’t even lift.
This was peak Arnold, and a one example of many in his career when actor leaked into character. John Matrix couldn’t be Tom Cruise. He couldn’t be Jason Statham. John Matrix’s ethos only works if it is coupled with a hulking, demigod physicality. Matrix is like if The Mountain from Game of Thrones was a special forces operative.
In Commando, Matrix is extorted into assassinating a politician in South America after his daughter is kidnapped. He proceeds to carry out his mission, and as a plus kill the people who put him in that position in the first place. One intrepid YouTube videographer estimates that Matrix kills 87 people in Commando. He kills mostly with giant machine guns, but also uses knives, his fists, machetes, and a steel pipe when it suits him.
Characters that rank this highly instill fear. They don’t overcome odds; they make opponents quake. They make enemies regret ever inviting this force into their lives. Matrix has that intangible quality– most people would probably just take one look at him and decide they’d be better off just walking away.
Matrix would rank even higher, except he’s a victim of his time to a certain extent. Slow, beastly hulks carrying bulky weaponry were in vogue in the ’80s, but combat has changed. The heroes coming off the line now are faster, more skilled in hand-to-hand combat, and stealthier. A smaller, but clever hero could knock off Matrix with speed and precision.
Video Resume: All the kills.
3. Jason Bourne
There isn’t any character on this list with a more varied skill set than Jason Bourne, probably because he was created in a laboratory (not literally, but you get the point). Bourne was programmed. He’s a living, breathing terminator. An android monster who isn’t an android. When cowardly government higher-ups see his face flash across a surveillance screen, they know. Their expiration date just moved exponentially closer.
Jason Bourne operates with different scope than many one man armies. He doesn’t try to find his daughter, or avenge his dog. Those are narrow goals that serve one person. Bourne topples government agencies, while those very agencies hunt him like a dog and limit his resources. He’s surgical with firearms, tactically masterful in the field, and deadly in close combat. If you compiled the 100 best fight scenes from all twenty-five characters on this list, Bourne would be involved in an inordinate amount of them. That doesn’t even include car chases.
What makes Jason Bourne uniquely dangerous, though, is his resourcefulness. This is a man who woke up with total amnesia, ascertained his identity, and began unraveling conspiracies. Attack him with a knife and he’ll come close to killing you with a ballpoint pen.
Video Resume: Pen vs. knife
2. The Bride, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2
The story of The Bride (Uma Therman) is a saga, and impossible to recount in total here. She was, at one point, a member of a deadly assassination squad, before she was betrayed and left for dead. After four years in a coma, she launches a rampage of vengeance, eventually killing everyone on her list.
Rampage is an understatement, in this case. The Bride – Black Mamba, Beatrix Kiddo, whichever name you prefer – kills an innumerable number of people on her way to Bill, the architect of her suffering. At times, this happens en masse. At others, it is in one-on-one combat.
That doesn’t necessarily set The Bride apart, though. So here’s what does: tenacity. When Kiddo awakes from her coma, she can’t use her muscles. She begins at that low point and eventually completes her quest, completely alone the entire time. Along the way she dispatches masses of low-level henchmen, and a handful of truly boss-level bad guys.
It would be easy to dismiss The Bride using the same criteria as characters like Dalton and Rama – a gun could kill her. Except, they don’t. She is definitely reliant on martial arts and ninja stealth, but her skills in those areas are completely unmatched on this list. As impressive as John Matrix is, if The Bride got close enough to him she would kill him where he stood, with a five finger death punch – a flick of the wrist. She is patient, stealthy, driven, and deadly enough to best just about any threat.
Video Resume: The Bride vs. The Crazy 88’s
1. John Rambo, First Blood & Sequels
It was never going to be anyone other than John Rambo. He is the living (on-screen) embodiment of “one man army.” When he was up against a crooked police force of over 200 men, Rambo’s mentor and commanding officer flies in to save the day. Except, as he explains, he is here to save the police. Rambo is the only character on the list who could provoke this exchange:
Bad Cop: “Are you telling me that 200 of our men against your boy is a no-win situation for us?”
Rambo’s Mentor: “You send that many, don’t forget one thing.”
Bad Cop: “What?”
Rambo’s Mentor: “A good supply of body bags.”
Trautman, Rambo’s old officer, is not being sardonic. He’s being factual. Rambo’s character is literally framed as the best of the world at waging guerilla warfare. The fact that he is somewhat unhinged after his time in Vietnam only makes him more dangerous. He blends into his environment, turning it into a weapon that only he can wield. He is smarter, tougher, and has a higher capacity for swift violence than his enemies. John Rambo is the most dangerous and potent one man army in film history.
Video Resume: The forest hunt.