Forty years ago, John Carpenter hit the character name gold mine when he bestowed the hero of "Escape from New York" with the handle "Snake Plissken". Carpenter's always been an ace at names (e.g. Michael Myers, R.J. MacCready, and Jack Burton), but this is unquestionably his moniker "Mona Lisa". Snake stands tall in the pantheon of great action hero names, though he has some stiff competition. Here are twenty-five of the roughest, toughest, and most unusual. To qualify, the character must have been created for the screen. So no John T. Chance, John McClane, or John Rambo. There is one John though. Have a look!
There was an actual Snake Plissken, and, of course, he hailed from Cleveland. According to writer-director John Carpenter, Snake was a high school classmate of a friend. He was a tough guy with a tough-looking snake tattoo on his arm that would slither when he flexed. He did not, however, have an eye patch, nor has he (to the best of anyone’s knowledge) ever robbed the Federal Reserve. As for how he stacks up against his fictional counterpart, well, there he’s bound to lose because there’s only one Kurt Russell.
When the commercial space vessel Nostromo found itself under attack by a nasty, acid-blooded xenomorph, 1979 viewers instinctively looked to ship’s rugged male crewmembers, with tough-guy names like Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto), as the guys who’d eventually blast this nasty bug deep into the void. Just about no one had Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) on their list of potential survivors. Decades later, Ripley is one of the most beloved big-screen heroes of all time - a feminist action icon, and the only person in the galaxy who knows how to handle these nasty creatures. The name itself might evoke thoughts of cartoonist and curiosity collector Robert Ripley, but only abstractly. When most people hear Ripley today, they think, “Get away from her, you BIŢCH!”
Pulp literature is strewn with heroic adventurers bearing geographic names (e.g. The Cisco Kid, Nevada Smith, Northwest Smith), so “Raiders of the Lost Ark” co-creator George Lucas bestowed upon two-fisted archaeologist Henry Smith , Jr. the Midwestern handle of “Indiana”. Director Steven Spielberg found “Smith” lacking, so the filmmakers settled on “Jones”. One thing is for certain, they really did name the character after the dog (Lucas’s Alaskan Malamute, which also inspired Chewbacca). Another plus, without Indiana Jones, we wouldn’t have Tennessee Buck!
“You could’ve brought me some flowers.” “I got some beer.” Los Angeles skip-tracer Truck Turner (Isaac Hayes) knows just how to treat a lady fresh out of jail. Throw some KFC into the mix, and it’s going to be an extra-crispy night indeed. Turner (an ex-pro-football player) might be a bruiser on the streets when he’s chasing down a bounty, but he’s got an earnest (and then some) charm when the job is done. A blaxploitation classic, it’s baffling they couldn’t make a series out of this. The title alone merits a ticket purchase. Alas, we’ve got to make do with this one ruggedly perfect movie.
There aren’t many Philos out there, and not a whole lot of Beddoes either, so, if nothing else, Clint Eastwood had himself an original character name for the truck-driver/bare-knuckle-boxer hero of his redneck duology. It’s a name that sticks in memory, partially due to its oddness, but also on account of hearing Ruth Gordon and Geoffrey Lewis bellow it incessantly. Only a fella named Philo would be best friends with an orangutan named Clyde. One guesses. We’re short on Philos down here.
Some names are just stone-cold cool the first time you hear them: Joe Louis, Mickey Mantle, Engelbert Humperdink. Harrison Ford comes on full of bluster as Han Solo (rattling off galactic accomplishments just a little too eagerly), but the man’s got a booth seat in a rough joint; when Han’s confronted by one of Jabba the Hutt’s debt collectors, he blasts the green bȧstard before he can get a shot off. Han has different meanings depending on the language. As a given Dutch name, it means “God is gracious.” As a Korean surname, it means “King”. God, king… again, some names are just badȧss from the jump.
With a name like that and Pam Grier in the title role, you may start printing money. This is an iconic blaxploitation work that comes loaded with the genre’s many shortcomings (as a piece of pulp, it traffics in pulp stereotypes), but Grier repeatedly uses her fetching physical attributes to mask her nimble mind. It’s a basic revenge fantasy, yes, but it excited an audience that wanted to see their brothers and sisters kick ȧss like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Angie Dickinson. Foxy Brown is a provocation. It’s a name that lures in the creeps, and knocks them out the second they get fresh.
Writer-director Walter Hill specializes in loner characters with sketchy pasts (if they’ve got one at all), and he hit the taciturn jackpot with Tom Cody (Michael Paré) in “Streets of Fire”. An ex-soldier turned drifter, all we know about Cody is that he’s a romantic fatalist who’d rather roam the world stewing about heartbreak (Diane Lane’ll do that to ya) than settle down someplace nice and make a go of it. He can handle himself. He can save the day. But once the dust settles, he’d just as soon be on his way. Tom Cody. He’ll take it wherever he can get it.
You’d expect a cop named Harry Callahan to be a heavy-drinking Irishman more concerned with his pension than making collars, but Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry’s only concern is busting scumbags. Everyone’s a scumbag to Callahan, perhaps because he lost his wife to a drunk driver and has nothing to left but a concept of complete and total justice by any means necessary. You hear “Harry Callahan” nowadays, and you think of a man and a hand cannon and a distaste for due process. Whatever was interesting about the character the first two times around has been lost to caricature.
In answer to your obvious question: “Marion” is Sylvester Stallone’s homage to John Wayne’s birth name. As for “Cobretti”... it gets a bit murky here. Stallone’s crime fighter (who shoots first and interrogates never) drives a 1950 Mercury instead of a Shelby Cobra. He doesn’t own a cobra. He does have a vicious-looking cobra etched into the pearl handle of his custom Colt pistol. So he’s only half-assing the Cobra shtick. On the plus side, he subsists on cold pizza sliced with scissors, which means he spent at least one year in a frat house.
Max Rockatansky is a helluva name, but “Furiosa” screams out through the scorched terrain of the “Mad Max” universe and stakes a claim for the rebuilding of civilization through a matriarchy. George Miller’s “Mad Max” movies are always loaded with colorful names (“Lord Humungus”, “Auntie Entity”, “Master Blaster”), but there’s nothing cutesy about “Furiosa”. She’s the tip of the spear of the reckoning. It’s her name that shall mark the change, should the change occur. Max was mad about what was lost; Furiosa rages for the future she’s been denied.
If you absolutely, positively have to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in two days, your man’s name is Kowalski (Barry Newman), and never mind if it gets smashed into bulldozers en route. You were doing business with Kowalski. That’s an honor any way you slice it. Hire a house painter named Kowalski, and you’ll be bragging to your friends for days. They’ll probably swing by to have a beer with Kowalski, the house painter. Kowalski’s are cool, man.
Danger’s name is never Roger O. Thornhill, which is what makes Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” a one-of-a-kind cliffhanger. Hitch has done the mistaken identity thriller before, but never with this much with and elan, provided by screenwriter Ernst Lehmann and an all-cylinders Cary Grant. Grant’s Roger is a boozy ad exec who frets over his mother and barely manages to stay ahead of hired killers who believe he is a U.S. agent named George Kaplan. Though Thornhill is a New Yorker, his name reeks of whitebread suburbia; no one’s ever quaked at the mention of a man called Thornhill.
Prefabricated cult films almost never work (e.g. "The Dark Backward", but this blissfully overcooked lark from director W.D. Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Raush plunges the viewer into an alternate present where a Japanese-American polymath named Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is at once a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock star. If you’re going to shoot that shot, you’d better set your phasers for maximum quirk. Inexplicably, Buckaroo Banzai hits the sweet spot of cool and unabashedly dorky.
Few blockbusters evolved more in development than “Beverly Hills Cop”. Conceived as a straight-up action movie set in Pittsburgh with a protagonist named “Elly Axel”, the character and concept gradually shifted from Stallone star vehicle as “Axel Elly” to laugh-filled Eddie Murphy showcase as “Axel Foley”. Granted, Murphy would’ve killed had his name been Bob Wilson, but that Axel Foley moniker had a charge to it (and also served as a hilarious linguistic hurdle for Bronson Pichot’s museum manager, Serge).
Chances are you didn’t grow up down the street from the Matrix family because that is not a real last name. This is one of many delights peppered throughout Mark L. Lester’s “Commando”, a classic ‘80s studio actioner starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as retired Special Forces Colonel John Matrix. “Matrix” didn’t mean anything particularly mindblowing or cool before the Wachowskis, but if “John Matrix” moved to your high school and didn’t make all-league linebacker, you would’ve felt cheated. Fortunately, Ah-nult’s John Matrix impales Vernon Wells with a steam pipe at the end, so no letdowns here. If John Matrix moves to your high school in 2021, he better be able to fly.
It’s a punchline, but the reveal of The Bride’s name in the second volume of “Kill Bill” provides a degree of levity as we’re heading into the darkest reaches of Tarantino’s tale. It also lets us view The Bride as a child for once, a young woman who wasn’t yanked from innocence to become a mass murderer. We think about “Beatrix Kiddo” in the closing moments of “Kill Bill”, as The Bride heaves for air inside the air of her South American hotel, knowing, for the first time in her adult life, that her tormentors and cohorts are dead. It’s like watching an addict go cold turkey. Beatrix Kiddo won’t come back all at once, but that being hasn’t been buried.
Based on the exploits of NYPD Detective Eddie Egan, Ernest Tidyman’s screenplay used the officer’s street handle, “Popeye”, to give Gene Hackman a little more fictional space with which to play around, and boy did it catch on! Despite the character’s propensity for racially insensitive utterances, restaurateur Al Copeland was taken enough with the style of the character to name his fried chicken franchise after him. Next time you’re in the Louisiana Kitchen, be sure to ask for the off-the-menu “Charnier sauce”.
“Pretty Woman” screenwriter J.F. Lawton gets the glory for concocting one of the most enjoyable hero names to blurt out regardless of the situation. Played with steely somnambulance by Steven Seagal in the equally enjoyable “Under Siege” and “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory”, Ryback is a former Navy SEAL (best-of-the-best timber) who’s most deliciously lethal in the kitchen. The best parts of both movies are the scenes where the top military brass discover that this one-man killing machine is inexplicably present on a large vehicle loaded with an ordinance that could kill millions of people, leading to a moment when Andy Romano blurts out, “Casey Ryback is on that [vessel/train/airplane/trolly/dirigible]!” And we all cheer. No one’s ever been sad to hear the name Casey Ryback.
Shane Black’s ultraviolent superspy fantasy stars Geena Davis as a seemingly normal homemaker who, via accidental head trauma, discovers she used to be one of the most lethal women on the planet. She’s a bad woman with a superbad handle: Charly Baltimore. Black surely took a few victory laps around the mansion after he tapped that name out. She more than lives up to it. ‘Tis a pity this wasn’t a blockbuster because Davis was just getting comfortable in the role.
The only downside to Chow Yun-fat’s portrayal of hard-charging Inspector “Tequila” Yuen Ho-yan is his preference for a Tequila Slammer - a messy concoction that mixes up the aforementioned liquor with Sprite and maybe a splash of grenadine. A terrific way to make the bar sticky, and not in any way a tough-guy drink. When it comes to policing, however, Tequila is straight, no chaser. Just be careful not to slip on one of the several hundred spent shells scattered across the floor.
Vietnam did a number on Travis Bickle, but he went to war with that name, and it’s the kind of moniker that’ll make you raise an eyebrow. A name should be nothing, but there can be something in the lettering and the pronunciation that catches you. So maybe you dread taking Travis Bickle into your company, and stare in horror as he finds purpose in war. And then you send him home. “Travis Bickle”. That’s a name you won’t forget, no matter how much you try.
Let’s see… it’s Burt Reynolds, he runs moonshine, he sweats a lot… what more really needs to be said? This is the Burt Reynolds who posed in Cosmopolitan and broke circulation records. Reynold’s first go-round as Gator was in “White Lightning”, a splendid Southern revenge tale in which our hero goes against a crooked sheriff played by Ned Beatty (who also sweats a lot, and, hey, maybe that’s your thing). The sequel, “Gator”, has a bunch of boats and car chases, but is mostly about Reynolds not wearing a shirt. Look, you’re watching movies about a man named Gator McClusky. You’re getting your money’s worth. Tenfold.
Rudy Ray Moore didn’t create the character of Dolemite, but it is difficult to imagine this urban legend becoming a cult hero without his performative brilliance. The idea of Dolemite was an African-American superman equipped with superhuman strength and a superhuman sexual appetite. The physically unremarkable Moore portrayed him as a world-class ȧss-kicker and lover, which made the films all the more endearing. And now every kid who learns about dolomite in science class has to stifle a giggle.
“What kind of a name is Chance?” “Well, my mama took one.” Mr. Chance Boudreaux is the last merchant marine you want to mess with. He’s homeless. He’s hungry. And his dues are in arrears. So if you’re organizing a “Most Dangerous Game” style hunt of human prey in New Orleans, this is one Chance you don’t want to take. He’s also got an Uncle Douvee. You don’t screw around with Douvees, especially when they’re uncles.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.