This weekend, Bruce Willis is once again returning to his action roots in the remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson film Death Wish. In it, Willis plays Paul Kersey, a father who resorts to taking matters into his own hands after his wife and daughter are attacked. Sound familiar? Well, that’s because vengeance-seeking, throat-punching paterfamilias have long been a staple of action movies.
Willis’ Death Wish fell flat with critics, earning a paltry 12 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But the movie’s mere appearance got us thinking: Of the dozens of justice-seeking, skull-crushing, windpipe-chopping patriarchs in film history, which ones would earn themselves a spot in the Vigilante Dad Hall of Fame? While there is no exact science for ranking movie dads on how big of badass lawbreakers they are, there are three essential qualities that are shared by nearly every great vigilante action dad.
Special Skills: It goes without saying that every vigilante action dad knows how to kick serious ass but, to make this list, standard fighting skills won’t cut it. You have to go the extra mile to find new and inventive ways to kick ass and set the bar higher for future vigilante fathers.
Sob Story: The underlying tragedy is essential to the transformation of every great vigilante dad. More often than not, a truly great action hero is motivated by the kidnapping and/or death of their wife and/or child. The more horrifying your loss, the more driven you are to take matters into your own hands.
Outlaw Factor: This one is pretty simple. You can’t be a true vigilante dad if you aren’t willing to step outside the law in your desperate quest for justice. It’s important to examine how vigilante each dad was willing to get. Did he just break a couple rules or is he full-on running from the law? If he’s on this list, chances are he became a wanted man in order to avenge his family.
Using these criteria, here are the 10 most badass vigilante dads in movie history.
10. John McClane (Bruce Willis) in the Die Hard Franchise
Is John McClane the greatest action hero of all time? The case could certainly be made. For the purposes of this list, however, he leaves much to be desired. McClane is a true pioneer when it comes to dispensing bad guys in innovative ways, and he certainly has no problem bending the rules to save his wife and kids.The problem is that being a father does little-to-nothing to inform McClane’s character. He gets increasingly boring any time he has to embrace his role as a parent. His two kids are barely mentioned in the first few films; it’s not until Live Free or Die Hard that he hangs with his daughter. And we wait for the (honestly pretty terrible) A Good Day to Die Hard for him to reconnect with his adult son. The result of the latter? A movie so poorly-received that it nearly killed one of the marquee action franchises in film history. Sorry, John, but you’re better off as a rogue hero than a devoted dad.
9. Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in Death Wish
While the new Death Wish is being lambasted by critics, the original 1974 film is widely considered a classic in the action genre. That praise is mostly directed at Paul Kersey, the film’s complicated hero, a father who is forced to take justice into his own hands after his wife is killed and his daughter is sexually assaulted. As is usually the case in these movies, police do nothing to find out who is responsible, so Paul takes matters into his own hands. The former conscientious objector ends up representing both the positive and negative sides of vigilantism, as he arguably goes too far. By the end of his quest, he seems motivated more by bloodshed than the justice he initially sought.
8. Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) in Inception
Does anyone on this list have a more specialized set of skills than Dom, Christopher Nolan’s surrogate and the morose thief who breaks into dreams to infiltrate and manipulate people’s deepest thoughts and desires? Probably not. When he is called back for one final brain heist in exchange to see his children again, Cobb immediately becomes one of the more compelling vigilante dads in recent memory. He risks so much to see his children again (including the potential of eons spent listlessly wandering limbo) and must confront the dream-specter of his deceased wife in the process.
7. Mason Storm (Steven Seagal) in Hard to Kill
Mason Storm is a pretty paint-by-the-numbers vigilante action dad. He’s a member of the LAPD who stumbles upon some corruption and, as a result, his wife is killed. While his son manages to survive, Storm knows that his child is likely the next target. Storm must then take matters into his own hands (‘natch) and track down the mob and corrupt police officers. This all leads to a fun, entertaining action movie, but it doesn’t quite do enough in terms of innovation to earn a higher spot on the list.
6. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) in Ant-Man
Considering the prominence of the vigilante dad in action movies, it was only a matter of time before a law-breaking dad found his way into the world of blockbuster superhero movies. Thankfully, Marvel did the genre justice with Scott Lang, a caring father who keeps getting pulled back into his criminal ways in order to provide for his daughter, Cassidy. Scott is a great character and would be higher on the list but his story isn’t quite tragic enough (but, hey, that’s a positive) to put him above the iconic vigilante dads. Still, watching Scott do whatever he can for his daughter remains one of the more compelling storylines in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
5. Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) in Gladiator
All you need to know: His name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And he will have his vengeance, in this life or the next. Spoiler alert: he gets his vengeance in this life.
4. John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Commando
There is never a question that John Matrix will get his daughter back from Arias – a former South American dictator – and his hired mercenaries. That doesn’t make it any less fun to watch Matrix in action, as he goes on a justice-fueled murder rampage to rescue her. Matrix is perhaps the quintessential vigilante dad, as he takes his ass-kicking to an extreme level once he realizes his daughter’s life is at stake. Plus, he gets bonus points for delivering one of the greatest movie one-liners of all time: “Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied.”
3. Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) in Kick-Ass
Big Daddy — a brilliant (and uber-violent) homage to Adam West’s Batman — is a pretty run of the mill ass-kicking rogue crime fighter. Except for the fact that he brings his prepubescent daughter into the fray, turning her into an expert in martial arts, weaponry, and sick, foul-mouthed burns. Is it bad parenting to turn your daughter into a giggly, blade-wielding killing machine? Umm yeah. But, still, the two make one hell of a team. Still, Big Daddy’s heart is always in the right place. And even when he faces a gruesome, fiery death, he still shows his undying care and support for his daughter.
2. Max Rockatansky in the Mad Max franchise
A truly great vigilante dad doesn’t just have a great sob story; he is defined by whatever tragedy has befallen him. Nobody on this list was transformed by their tragedy more than Mad Max’s titular character, who was driven insane after the evil Toecutter and his gang mercilessly slaughtered his wife and infant son. After this unimaginable loss, Max is reborn as a shell of his former self, unable to connect with others or regain his humanity. The only real motivation he has is survival and revenge, and he spends the rest of the franchise as a ruthless vigilante who will stop at nothing to make his attackers pay for what they’ve done. He is the personification of vengeance.
1. Bryan Mills in the Taken franchise
Sometimes the obvious choice is the right one. When it comes to vigilante dads, nobody holds a broken baseball bat to Bryan Mills. Sob story? His daughter is kidnapped after she makes the rookie mistake of sharing a taxi with a charming stranger. Outlaw factor? This guy will do whatever it takes to save her daughter, including breaking countless international laws, shooting his old friend’s wife in the arm, and trachea-chopping, like, a dozen bad guys. Special skills? Please, the category was literally named after him. This is a guy who can kill a room full of people without breaking a sweat. Do the two sequels manage to capture the magic of the original? No. But Mills’ particular set of skills makes him the baddest vigilante dad of the bunch.