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20 Classic Movies With Intelligent Villains


What’s a good hero without an equally compelling villain? Of course, there are different types of villains the same way there are different types of heroes, whether it’s in terms of bulk or brains. A bulky villain is an intimidating presence in and of her or himself. For instance, Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. That can certainly be intimidating enough to carry a film.


But what about the villain whose mind is three steps ahead of the hero? When that’s done right, it makes for an all-timer. And while these villains usually end up in the exact same position as their brawnier counterparts, they just give the hero a better run for their money. The smartest villains are, outside of goofballs like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, the most memorable, and what follows are the best of the best in terms of classic movies with whip-smart villains.


20 Predator (1987)

Predator (Edit)

Release Date
June 12, 1987

Director
John McTiernan

Cast
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall, Elpidia Carrillo, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura

Rating
R

Main Genre
Action

The first of three action classics directed by John McTiernan, Predator stands as one of the most purely entertaining and quotable films of all time. The story follows a group of soldiers as they’re stranded out in the woods in search of another lost team. Soon, they learn exactly what happened, and it’s the last thing they’d expect.

Both physically formidable (and agile) as well as highly intelligent, the alien Yautja has exactly one goal. But, it will never go for an easy target, instead preferring a challenge. Call that one part bravery and one part rational confidence. Though, for this Yautja, he has the misfortune of going up against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch.

Stream it on Max, DirecTV, and Cinemax

19 Wall Street (1987)

Wall Street

Wall Street

Release Date
December 10, 1987

Director
Oliver Stone

Cast
Charlie Sheen, Tamara Tunie, Franklin Cover, Chuck Pfeiffer, John C. McGinley, Hal Holbrook

Rating
R

Main Genre
Crime

One of the best films set in New York, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is one of the ’80s’ most quotable films. The plot follows Bud Fox, a young stockbroker hopeful who is taken under the wing of the experienced Gordon Gekko. But Gekko is no friend to Fox, even if the latter doesn’t see it at first.

Gekko is the ultimate money-obsessed character. His morals have long since gone out the window, and that’s part of what makes him so good at what he does. In fact, he’s probably the best, just as he’s the best at playing people until everything they once had is his.

Stream it on fuboTV, Paramount+, and Showtime

18 Die Hard (1988)

die hard

Die Hard

Release Date
July 15, 1988

Director
John McTiernan

Cast
Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, William Atherton, Hart Bochner

Rating
R

Main Genre
Action

The second of three action classics from director John McTiernan, Die Hard somehow manages to top Predator in the excitement department, and has gone on by many to be considered the greatest action film of all time. The expertly-assembled rollercoaster ride follows an NYC cop out of his element in LA. And, unfortunately for him, it’s not just tension with his estranged wife he has to worry about, but terrorists as well.

Hans Gruber makes for a formidable adversary. Sure, his gun-toting goons are intimidating in and of themselves, but there’s never a doubt in the mind of the viewer or McClane that it’s Gruber who is pulling the strings. He’s a blatant mastermind.

Stream it on fuboTV, Hulu, MGM+, and Starz

17 Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger

Goldfinger

Release Date
September 20, 1964

Director
Guy Hamilton

Cast
Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Fröbe, Shirley Eaton, Tania Mallet, Harold Sakata

Rating
PG

Main Genre
Action

The definitive Bond film, Goldfinger follows the superspy as he seeks to foil the plans of bullion magnate Auric Goldfinger. What are those plans? Break into and raid Fort Knox.

Goldfinger works as a villain because he’s not only smart and driven, but ruthless as well. If he brings someone in on a plan and they rebuke his ideas, they meet their death. He allows no chances for defeat…not that it works out for him anyway.

Stream it on fuboTV, Paramount+, and MGM+

16 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

Release Date
April 2, 1968

Director
Stanley Kubrick

Cast
Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack

Rating
G

Main Genre
Adventure

Stanley Kubrick’s ingenious 2001: A Space Odyssey is, in a way, the story of life. The narrative visits several different time periods, but for the most part it focuses on the future, after the human race has discovered something mysterious buried within the Moon, and now they’re in search of its origins.

The HAL 9000 is the film’s central antagonist, an AI entity with desires of its own. Naturally, as AI is proving itself to be now, that’s a problem.

Stream it on Prime Video and Max

15 Superman II (1980)

Superman II

Superman II

Release Date
December 4, 1980

Director
Richard Lester, Richard Donner

Cast
Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Sarah Douglas, Margot Kidder

Rating
PG

Main Genre
Action

More or less a film by two directors (the Richard Donner Cut, released years later, is definitive), Superman II continues the story of the original film in a direct fashion. Specifically, that film introduced audiences to Zod and his two compatriots, but only briefly. The sequel gives them center stage, even arguably over Superman himself.

While General Zod is the main antagonist in the sequel, and the most intelligent one at that, his right-hand woman Ursa can easily hold her own on Jeopardy! night. That said, for two geniuses who can escape crystallized captivity, they still need a brute, and that’s Non.

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14 Blade Runner (1982)

blade runner

Blade Runner

Release Date
June 25, 1982

Director
Ridley Scott

Cast
Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah

Rating
R

Main Genre
Drama

Easily one of the best sci-fi movies of the ’80s, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is the compelling story of Rick Deckard, a cop tasked with taking out Replicants (realistic androids). But, after encountering Rachael, Deckard starts to question not only her humanity, but his own.

The main Replicant Deckard is hunting down, Roy Batty, is a combat model, but what he is moreso is a free thinker. He’s an android who wants to be flesh, not just possess the appearance of flesh. The fact that his mind could transcend programming is certainly telling of Batty’s smarts, but so too is his beautiful final speech.

Rent it on Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube

13 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

star trek ii: the wrath of khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Release Date
June 4, 1982

Director
Nicholas Meyer

Cast
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei

Rating
PG

Main Genre
Action

The best of the first string of Star Trek movies (possibly even beyond that, depending on who you ask), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the epic tale of the USS Enterprise‘s battle with genetically enhanced warlord Khan Noonien Singh.

The ultimate Star Trek villain, Khan’s genetic tampering makes him more deadly than he already was (an experienced leader). And, with 15 years to plan revenge on Kirk and his crew, Khan has devised an elaborate plot that actually manages to cause the Enterprise‘s moral some serious damage.

Stream it on Paramount+ and AMC+

12 Star Wars Episode VI − Return of the Jedi (1983)

return of the jedi

Return of the Jedi

Release Date
May 25, 1983

Director
Richard Marquand

Cast
Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew

Rating
PG

Main Genre
Action

Return of the Jedi, the weakest chapter of the original Star Wars trilogy is still magical entertainment. The plot concludes the Rebels fight against the dreaded Empire, just as it concludes Luke Skywalker’s complex relationship with his father.

The film’s Ewoks may be cute, but the true evil department is solely occupied by Emperor Palpatine, with Ian McDiarmid making his first appearance as the character (he was later added into Empire Strikes Back). When Luke takes on Vader for the final time, it’s not really Vader who is the true opponent. Because, like everyone else Palpatine has encountered, he’s been manipulated until he can’t recognize his own life anymore.

Stream it on Disney+

11 The Terminator (1984)

the terminator

The Terminator (1984)

Release Date
October 26, 1984

Director
James Cameron

Cast
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Bess Motta

Rating
R

Main Genre
Action

The Terminator, one of the most respected sci-fi films of all time, also functions as a horror and, of course, as an action film. The narrative follows Sarah Conner, a waitress with one heck of a future. But she’s not aware of that, and now a futuristic robot has arrived in the present to see that her future never comes to be.

James Cameron announced himself in a major way with The Terminator which, for all intents and purposes, was his first time behind the camera for a feature film (he’s mostly distanced himself from 1982’s Piranha II: The Spawning). So did Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gives the T-800 a massive level of physical intimidation, but there’s also the machine’s inner workings…and they’re far more advanced than a human’s simple brain. In other words, it’s the perfect killing machine.

Stream it on Max and DirecTV

10 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Silence of the Lambs

Silence of the Lambs

Release Date
February 1, 1991

Director
jonathan demme

Cast
Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Anthony Heald

Rating
R

Main Genre
Crime

Not just one of the best thriller or horror movies of all time, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most well-respected films of any genre. The audience is shown the life of FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who is sent on a complicated first mission. Specifically, she has to chat with a serial killer in the hopes of finding one of his kind.

While the main antagonist of the film is “Buffalo Bill,” it’s Hannibal Lecter who makes the greatest impression. And he does so with a silver tongue and a calm disposition.

Stream it on Max and DirecTV

9 Basic Instinct (1992)

basic instinct

Basic Instinct

Release Date
March 20, 1992

Director
Paul Verhoeven

Cast
Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt, Leilani Sarelle

Rating
NR

Main Genre
Mystery

Paul Verhoeven has directed some of the best sci-fi films of all time in Starship Troopers, RoboCop, and Total Recall, but he took a step back from that genre for Basic Instinct, a thriller that’s about as steamy as they get. The narrative centers around a police detective investigating a novelist for the murder of her ex. Too bad for the detective he’s no more immune to her charms than the deceased.

Catherine Tramell, the film’s investigated author, certainly knows how to use her sexuality to get what she wants. But she’s also cunning, to the point that neither Detective Curran or the viewer is ever fully sure whether she’s a murderer (though the last shot comes close to answering that question).

RELATED: Sharon Stone Says She Lost Custody of Son Over Basic Instinct Role

Stream it on fuboTV, Paramount+, and Showtime

8 Speed (1994)

speed

Speed

Release Date
June 9, 1994

Director
Jan de bont

Cast
Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, Joe Morton, Jeff Daniels, Alan Ruck

Rating
R

Main Genre
Action

Jan de Bont’s Speed has stood the test of time, never losing its title of being one of the best action films ever produced. The plot follows a cop as he tries to save the passengers of a bus from a bomber. The catch? The vehicle cannot go below 50 MPH.

The film’s bomber is Howard Payne (played brilliantly by Dennis Hopper), a retired bomb squad member who feels he was messed over by his department. Sure, Payne’s motive is simple vengeance, but the specificity of his bombing mechanism certainly denotes a certain level of intellect.

Stream it on Starz

7 Se7en (1995)

Se7en

Se7en

Release Date
September 22, 1995

Director
David Fincher

Cast
Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey, Daniel Zacapa, andrew kevin walker

Rating
R

Main Genre
Crime

David Fincher’s Se7en pulls audiences into the grim story of two detectives as they stay on the tail of an elusive serial killer. But this killer’s different; more brutal, sadistic, and obsessed with the Seven Deadly Sins.

Reinventing murder mysteries for modern audiences, Se7en pulls absolutely zero punches. And, while Kevin Spacey has become a problematic individual, there’s little doubt it’s his specific energy that gives the murderous John Doe his seeming cognitive advantage over all in his vicinity. He’s a step ahead, and it doesn’t matter how good the detecting duo is.

Stream it on Paramount+

6 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Release Date
December 12, 1969

Director
Peter R. Hunt

Cast
George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat, Angela Scoular

Rating
PG

Main Genre
Action

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has seen its reputation bolstered over time, with much respect given to its straying from the increasing silliness of the IP (even at such an early stage). The plot follows 007 (played by George Lazenby) as his path again intertwines with Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This time the latter intends to extort the world’s governments with a threat of annihilating all available food, both plant and livestock.

Whether it’s the complexity of his plan or Telly Savalas’ absolutely commanding performance, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Blofeld is the most intimidating of the bunch. And, again thanks to Savalas, he certainly comes across as the most razor-sharp of the bunch.

Stream it on Prime Video and Paramount+

5 The Usual Suspects (1995)

the usual suspects

The Usual Suspects

Release Date
July 19, 1995

Director
Bryan Singer

Cast
stephen baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri

Rating
R

Main Genre
Crime

Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects may very well stand as the disgraced director’s greatest accomplishment. The narrative centers around an interrogation, and the one being interrogated, Roger “Verbal” Kint, has quite a story to tell. It’s one of betrayal, death, violence on a ship, and the mysterious Keyser Söze.

Featuring one of the best Benicio del Toro performances (which is no small compliment), The Usual Suspects is nonetheless Kevin Spacey’s movie. He manages to not only fool the LAPD about the existence of Keyser Söze, he fools the audience. Why? Because Söze is no myth the same way he’s no superhuman killer. He’s just a man who’s very good at lying, and right now he’s in an interrogation room.

Stream it on AMC+

4 The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Release Date
December 25, 1999

Director
Anthony Minghella

Cast
Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Rating
R

Main Genre
Thriller

A movie deserving of a re-watch, The Talented Mr. Ripley is the story of the title character, Tom Ripley, an American traveling through Italy. But he’s no tourist, he’s searching for a wealthy man’s son in an effort to get him to come home. But, Ripley’s murderous impulses have a way of getting in the way of the mission.

Ripley is good at passing himself off as something he isn’t. He knows how to climb the social ladder, even if it’s entirely through facade. And, for a while there, he’s even good at committing murders without raising suspicion.

Stream it on MGM+ and Paramount+

3 Arlington Road (1999)

Arlington Road tells the story of Michael Faraday, a recently-widowed GW University professor who is using his newfound extra spare time to investigate his seemingly-normal neighbors, who he believes are involved with a terrorist organization. And, the thing is, what at first seems like paranoia is actually pretty grounded in reality.

The film’s twist ending is a doozy, and far more compelling than anything that came before. But it also signifies just how crafty Oliver and Cheryl Lang are. They win, and it’s on to the next scapegoat.

Stream it on Starz, Tubi, and DirecTV

2 Deep Blue Sea (1999)

deep blue sea

Deep Blue Sea

Release Date
July 28, 1999

Director
Renny Harlin

Cast
Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, LL Cool J, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson

Rating
R

Main Genre
Action

Action master Renny Harlin crafted one heck of a breakneck thriller with Deep Blue Sea, a monster film with an impact marred only by the intermittent usage of out-of-date CGI. The plot follows a group of scientists and personnel stationed out in the middle of the ocean, utilizing genetically-altered sharks to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Deep Blue Sea is a movie unafraid to throw a full punch, even if it’s directed at the film’s biggest cast member. But, the cast isn’t going up against regular sharks, they’re going up against ones with boosted brains, and they’re using them to navigate the remote station better than the human beings who work there.

RELATED: LL Cool J Remembers Almost Drowning While Filming Deep Blue Sea

Stream it on Hulu, DirecTV, and TNT

1 Cruel Intentions (1999)

cruel intentions

Cruel Intentions

Release Date
March 5, 1999

Director
Roger Kumble

Cast
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Louise Fletcher, Joshua Jackson

Rating
R

Main Genre
Drama

The star-studded Cruel Intentions (a modernized adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons) tells the story of step-siblings Kathryn and Sebastian, both of whom share an attraction to one another as well as a love for manipulating acquaintances. They’re rich, so in their minds…why not?

Kathryn is the film’s true mastermind, and Sarah Michelle Gellar does a terrific job of imbuing her with confidence and condescension. The audience believes that, for at least a time, she could get away with manipulating not only young people, but their parents as well. And what’s it all for? Because the new girl is going out with Kathryn’s ex.

Stream it on Tubi and Plex



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