I've been a fan of Chris Cooper since Matewan. His role in Bourne Identity as Conklin is much smaller than the roles of the CIA members in Supremacy. However, he stands alone as a strong behind-the-scenes protagonist to Bourne.
The scene I like best, though, is when Bourne confronts Conklin in Paris. I like it because Conklin isn't afraid of Bourne. Here is this agent who can kill him a thousand different ways with just his hands, and Conklin faces him down. He ends up dead, but he faces Bourne down. He is fearless.
This is the first quality of a good bad guy: fearlessness. A bad guy who begs for mercy may be pitiable or realistic or, even, funny, but it doesn't make for watchable entertainment. Besides, fearlessness in and of itself is frightening since it isn't completely normal or understandable.
This is why the Joker makes a good bad guy. I happen to dislike the Joker intensely (as a character), and I tend to avoid movies, cartoon episodes, and comics which use the Joker. I prefer my bad guys to have invested interests (see below). The point of the Joker is that he doesn't; he is random, amoral, anarchical.
But he makes a good bad guy--even if I can't watch him. Heath Ledger was correctly (posthumously) awarded an Oscar for that role in Dark Knight (even if I will probably never watch the movie again).
The second quality of a good bad guy is wittiness--and for what are probably sub-sub-subconscious reasons buried in the American psyche, it helps if the bad guy has a British accent. (In fact, whenever I see books or articles about how unfairly Hollywood has treated a particular race/nationality, I always think, "Yeah, and what about all those poor British men?")
One of my favorite examples is Shere Khan in the Disney animated version of Jungle Book: here's this tiger strolling through the jungle, uttering lines in this bored, drawling BBC accent. And let's not forget the unforgettable (and very sexy) Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves brings us to the next quality: quirkiness.
I mentioned that I dislike watching the Joker: insane villains don't interest me. Quirkiness isn't insane, just unexpected. For example, for reasons best understood by folklorists, the Sheriff of Nottingham is often displayed as just a tad off-kilter. Here are some examples:
Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of ThievesQuirkiness is one reason I like over-the-top villains: Lex Luthor (John Shea) in Lois and Clark and (again) Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) in Smallville are good examples. And, naturally, Bruce Campbell in, oh, just about anything where he plays a villain. And I mustn't leave out the mayor (Buffy: Season 3)!
Q in "Qpid" (Star Trek: TNG)
Keith Allen in the recent Robin Hood television series
Roger Rees (very amusingly) in Robin Hood: Men in Tights
The Lex Luthors also, usually, have very narrow motives; the fourth quality of a good bad guy is an invested interest in something real. Yes, there's a place on the villain's pantheon for the Joker, but usually (99.9% of the time), the villain needs to care about something definite.
This is one reason Stargate is so successful a television series: both the Goa'uld and the Wraith are intense villains with narrow, understandable (if deplorable) interests: survival of the species in terms of procreation and food. King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) in Prince Caspian (the movie) makes a good villain because he has a narrow definable (and from the viewpoint of European history) defendable position (he makes a good villain in the book too).
This is also why the villain of Bones: Season 3 (Gormogon) was a dead loss. There was no "there" there--no real purpose behind his actions or, for that matter, Zach's. 99.9% of conspiracies are a dead-loss in terms of long-term interest. House, for example, almost always produces GREAT villains, mostly because the villains (or antagonists) are so darn human and specific in their desires.
On the other hand, I do prefer the no-nonsense villain to the villain who suddenly, pesto chango, becomes a terrific human being--give me early Vadar versus later Vadar any day. Still, it helps if the no-nonsense villain has a focus (Princess Leia or, for bad Angel, Buffy), and it also helps if the no-nonsense villain has a less villainous, more quirky sidekick like Spike.
Last but not least, the good bad guy needs to have charisma. Now, this quality is problematic because the bad guy's charisma needs to balance the good guy's charisma: the good guy needs a worthwhile antagonist but shouldn't be overshadowed by said antagonist (the snake should not get all the lines). This is terrifically hard to do.
I think charisma is balanced in these instances:
- Ari (against Gibbs and the team) in NCIS: charismatic but completely untrustworthy; besides, he kills the wonderful Kate.
- Q in Star Trek: TNG. Patrick Stewart can hold his own against John de Lancie--barely. (Q ends up being more ambiguous than bad in any case.)
- The bad prince (against our intrepid heroes) in Princess Bride: he's just so icky smarmy: icky smarmy helps to undercut expansive charisma.
- Liam Neeson as the bad mentor guy in Batman Begins (although I think his character misses on all other points except for witty with a British accent: one of my favorite villain lines comes from him: "You took my advice about theatricality a bit literally.").
- Hugo Weaving (all by himself really) in the Matrix.
And the winner villain (today) is . . .
Nicole Wallace (Olivia D'Abo) from Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
I happen to think Law & Order: Criminal Intent falls to pieces after Season 2. Nicole Wallace is a terrific villain though. AND she meets all the criteria.
1. She is fearless. Goren cannot overwhelm or outmaneuver Nicole as he does so many of the other villains on Law & Order: CI.
2. She has that British accent!
3. She is quirky. She's just as messed up as Goren which makes her a good mirror for him.
4. She has an invested interest: namely, Nicole Wallace. Her interests are very narrow and very self-serving--even when she's bent on revenge.
5. She is charismatic. She's also a Star Trek alumni!