I watched Last Action Hero the other day on Netflix. While that film isn’t really pertinent to this list (as Jack Slater has help from his diminutive partner Danny Madigan, not to mention his daughter Whitney at sporadic intervals throughout the film), one can’t help wonder if Jack Slater would have been a classic One Man Army had Danny not been thrust down the rabbit hole into Slater’s cinematic world. Generally, a solo rampage is inspired by either survival or revenge and, before it was rudely forced to become a buddy-cop comedy, Jack Slater IV’s central drama was set to be caused by a scheming mafioso hitman who killed his favourite second cousin. Big mistake!
In the absence of magical cinema tickets, here are ten One Man – and Woman – Armies that you wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) – John Wick
They stole his car, killed his dog, beat him senseless and rather foolishly didn’t finish the job. But mostly it was the death of poor wee dog which got on John’s wick (hoho). The look on the face of John Leguizamo’s dodgy car mechanic when they try to flog the car to him speaks volumes, such is John’s fearsome reputation in the criminal underworld. For a large portion of the film (pretty much all of it), we’re never in any doubt that John is absolutely not in any danger. He’s like a puppy deprived Terminator – he just doesn’t stop until he has found his quarry – and woe betide anyone who tries to stop him. Over two films John Wick kills more than 200 bad guys and their friends. That’s quite a lot – although still not enough to equal Topper Harley’s kill count in Hot Shots! Part Deux.
Brian Mills (Liam Neeson) – Taken
Often the One Man Army is a retired military type who just wants a quiet life in which they go out for a coffee without having to murder anyone. However, that kind of training leaves one with a particular set of skills, skills which make people like Brian Mills a nightmare to the kind of person who might kidnap his daughter. True to his word, when they refused to release her, he looked for them, he found them and he did kill them. He might have been retired for a while but turns out hunting down human traffickers is just like riding a bike – a bike which karate chops people in the windpipe.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – Aliens
Ripley’s rise to One Woman Army is particularly impressive when you remember that she spends a large portion of Alien as a secondary character and a potential xenomorph dinner. However, as we all know, her return to the dreaded LV-426 unleashes her maternal instinct which gives her the edge needed to outlive an entire platoon of hardened space marines. Having learned how to operate various pieces of weaponry during a bonding moment with Kyle Reese out of The Terminator, she later takes to gaffer-taping the things together to create a cool looking mega-gun, like a deadly version of the double-necked-guitar playing chap out of Cheap Trick. I once taped all my numerous remotes together, hoping for a similar look, but the result was just a monstrosity. Even when said weapons are spent and discarded she effortlessly makes a piece of equipment which, let’s be honest here, is pretty much designed for stacking shelves, seem threatening and dangerous.
John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) – Commando
The spectacularly named John Matrix is another of those retired military types I mentioned before. All he wants to do with his retirement is risk Lyme Disease by hand-feeding wild deer, carry logs around in a sexy manner and raise Samantha from Who’s The Boss. When his psychopathic former colleague Bennett wants to put the band back together for one last job and John refuses, poor Jenny Matrix (can you imagine going to school with that name?) becomes the bargaining chip needed to persuade John. Now I’m no soldier, but I’m fairly certain that one of the essential elements of soldiering is being able to trust your team. Clearly, Bennett didn’t think that one through because John’s response was not to agree to all demands and get on with the job of shooting people. No, to avoid shooting people, he hides about his person what people with too much time on their hands have worked out should have been more ammo than your average man could pull in a medium sized trailer and proceeds to shoot people. And drop them off cliffs. And break their necks. And so on.
John McClane (Bruce Willis) – Die Hard
And so we come to the next kind of One Man Army – the survivor. All John McClane wanted to do was walk barefoot on the rug and make fists with his toes. Instead, he was forced to walk over broken glass, suffer beatings, bullet holes and perhaps most painful of all, tearing a strip of tape from the back of his neck, pulling all the little hairs out. John has no beef with Hans and his band of merry outlaws apart from the fact that they are stopping him take his wife home for a nice Christmas Eve reconciliation. Thanks to a steely determination to hear those reindeer hooves on the roof, coupled with an annoying brand of wisecrackery which would even get on Gandhi’s nerves, he somehow stays alive through the night. Unlike John Matrix or Brian Mills, McClane does not have a special set of skills or half a metric tonne of ammunition hidden about his person. No. He escapes most of the scrapes he gets into through sheer dumb luck. I’m no explosives expert, so who knew that pushing an old 1980s CRT monitor down a lift shaft with some C4 strapped to it would take out a bunch of goons? Our spotter said he got two with that blast.
James Bond (Timothy Dalton) – Licence To Kill
James Bond has been representing the One Man Army pretty much since his literary inception but it’s in Licence To Kill, the first Bond film not to be explicitly based on any of Fleming’s novels, in which he really inhabits the role of OMA, employing all the special skills and gadgetry he could muster to pay back Agent Johnson The Elder from Die Hard for persuading a shark to eat his friend’s legs. Back in 1989 critics didn’t really take to Dalton’s 007, complaining about his spartan sense of humour, barely concealed anger simmering just beneath the surface, world-weary grittiness and penchant to drop everything to go on an unauthorised adventure on the British tax payer’s dollar because This Time It’s Personal. Thank goodness Bond films don’t do that nowadays…
John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) – First Blood
He told them not to push him. They pushed him. Big mistake! John Rambo (you may have noticed that there are a lot of One Man Armies called John) just wanted somewhere get some dinner but the milk of human kindness doesn’t flow freely in the ironically named Hope, Washington and, proving that civilisation really is only a good meal or two away from anarchy, Sheriff Teasle picks the wrong man to bully. What’s fascinating about Rambo is that he pretty much personifies the One Man Army but in First Blood he doesn’t actually kill a single person (only one person dies in the entire film and that was an accident which Rambo quite unfairly got blamed for). He does, however, fulfil all the criteria for an OMA: former military type with enhanced skills in combat, survival, weaponry, camouflage, field medicine, booby traps, evading capture, infiltration – Rambo has the lot and uses them quite effectively in a variety of non-lethal ways. What a shame that further films in the series turned such a complex, flawed yet sympathetic character into a parody-worthy muscle-headed killing machine (see the aforementioned Hot Shots! Part Deux).
Charlene Baltimore (Geena Davis) – The Long Kiss Goodnight
“Ah!” I hear you say. “But Charly The Spy is part of a double act, so she doesn’t count”. But is she? Yes, it’s true, she allows Samuel L. Jackson’s sleazy detective to tag along on her journey of self-discovery as she strives to remember a past beyond eight years ago, but what does he actually do? I’ll tell you what. He gets kidnapped, shot at, tied up, stripped to his boxers, beaten senseless, kidnapped again, actually shot, thrown fifty feet in the air and ultimately saved multiple times by Charly. Mitch Hennessy is, to all intents and purposes, the damsel in distress to Geena Davis’s white knight long before Ghostbusters and Oceans 11 were gender-swapping. As Charly’s memories slowly trickle back throughout the film (and all the requisite special skills that come with them) she quickly proves why she belongs on this list. Not only does she save Mitch and her daughter from various states of capture, she literally saves Christmas for an entire city.
Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) – The Equalizer
Unlike Charly above, Robert McCall would rather that his past stayed buried. We never find out quite what it was he used to do in his past life but it must have been something pretty hardcore. When he faced off against those Russian pimps near the beginning I thought he was going to get his behind handed to him, creating the narrative drive for him to become the fabled Equalizer. But it turns out that he was already that guy. When negotiations go south, he tells the mob boss that he’s going to kill all five of them in sixteen seconds and is disappointed in himself when it actually takes forty! Like John Wick, once it gets going The Equalizer is an unusual film in that you’re never really concerned for the safety of the hero as he is harder than nails. What makes it a fascinating watch is waiting to see, with great anticipation, the increasingly creative ways he can use goods found in a DIY store to pick off hired thugs one-by-one. I don’t ever remember Edward Woodward doing that!
Mason Storm (Steven Seagal) – Hard To Kill
Mason Storm (what a gloriously bonkers name that is) not only survives being gunned down in a hail of shotgun pellets that would have (and indeed did, in the case of poor Mrs Storm) finished off normal mortals. He then goes on to defy the corrupt coppers who thought they had got rid of him by waking from his seven-year coma on the day that they find out where he has been hidden away, regaining his martial arts skills much more quickly than a recovering coma patient has any right doing and taking them down one-by-one. The title of the film doesn’t lie when it says he is Hard To Kill, and you can take that to the bank!