International Cinema’s Greatest Tough Guys


If you like your bad guys with an accent, head to Film Forum’s new series Les Durs — a three-week, 32-film festival that kicked off this week, spotlighting the movies of three French tough guys. The cinema house celebrates the work of stars Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, and Jean-Paul Belmondo during the festival, featuring classics and rare imports. Les Durs runs through August 2. To accompany the festival, we’ve selected some more tough guys from international cinema who aren’t afraid to raise hell and live by their own rules.

Toshiro Mifune

Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune was a master of the fierce, but world-weary tough guy role, influencing dozens of Hollywood legends, including Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman. Mifune became a close collaborator of director Akira Kurosawa, playing a great warrior in classic films such as Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. These roles made him the most famous Japanese actor of his time. Kurosawa once remarked of Mifune’s talents when speaking of watching the star in an audition: “A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy. It was as frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed.” Oh, and about that time Mifune kicked Charles Bronson’s ass . . .

Franco Nero

A star of the European-directed western genre known as the “spaghetti western,” Italian tough guy Franco Nero made a name for himself as the drifter dragging a coffin behind him in Sergio Corbucci’s Django — a loose adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo that spawned hundreds of unofficial sequels. Nero’s reputation as a handsome, blue-eyed babe didn’t stop the actor from taking on dozens of complex, difficult characters who behaved above the law.

Takeshi Kitano

In case Takeshi Kitano’s piercing gaze and craggy face didn’t give him away as a natural-born bad guy, his many roles as a violent detective or yakuza enforcer seal the deal. Kitano’s cool menace and deadpan approach to acting and directing infuses his movies with an eerie calm and reflective stillness — that usually ends in bloodshed.

Lino Ventura

Italian-born actor Lino Ventura, sometimes described as the “French John Wayne,” is one of the stars featured in Film Forum’s series. From the cinema house:

Lino Ventura (1919-1987) dropped out of school at age eight and worked various jobs, before becoming a star wrestler. After an injury forced him into early retirement, Ventura’s first acting role came at 34 years old, when director Jacques Becker offered him a small, but stand-out role in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, starring Gabin. Ventura soon became one of the French cinema’s most popular tough guy stars, in movies like Claude Sautet’s Classes Tous Risques, Terence Young’s The Valachi Papers, and Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle and Army of Shadows.

Alain Delon

Both a sex symbol and a tough guy of French cinema, Delon’s elegant features often belied his big-screen characters’ cold, calculated intentions. Film critic David Thomson called the actor “a beautiful destructive angel of the dark street” in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le samouraï. The actor’s hitman getup, a trench coat and sharp-brimmed fedora, referenced the noir antiheroes of American cinema, but became a uniform all of its own thanks to Melville’s movie.

Tomas Milian

A major star of the poliziottesco films in Europe — an action-crime subgenre that was popular in Italy during the ‘60s and ‘70s — Cuban American-Italian actor Tomas Milian was the guy you went to for bone-breaking bad asses, bandits, and quirky villains. He worked with Italian genre cinema luminaries like Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi, and Bruno Corbucci.

Horst Buchholz

Germany’s answer to James Dean was Horst Buchholz, who established himself both in European and American cinema. After achieving fame abroad and in American movies like John Sturges’ classic The Magnificent Seven, Buchholz became the first choice for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and almost played a role in West Side Story, but his schedule forced him to decline both parts.

Sammo Hung

Hong Kong action cinema and martial arts icon Sammo Hung doesn’t always display the flashy moves of his fellow stars, like Jackie Chan, but his fight style maintains a realism, power, and technical ability that’s unmatched. The Pedicab Driver actor is a tough guy who is unafraid to lampoon cinema’s masculine ideals, often pointing the finger at his own larger size.