Masterminds without Muscle: The Man from UNCLE and Soft Antagonists


I saw The Man From U.N.C.L.E. last week, and I’m still thinking about it, mainly because it was such an amazing misfire. There are so many good things in it, but the flaws wreck it. This is true of a lot of modern movies, I find: there will always be enjoyable bits, but the real question is whether they add up to a good movie or not.

TMfU had quite a few problems, especially a director who didn’t understand how a con artist-flashback works, who undercut any power the movie could have gotten from the final conflict with the main antagonist. However, the problem I want to talk about here is the lack of a Top Muscle-type character (what TV Tropes calls, unfortunately, a dragon).

If you have a mastermind-type villain who’s in charge of a large organization, the Top Muscle is their number one fighter. They’re the meanest badass on hand, usually tougher than the protagonist(s) themselves. Often, they are only beaten by the protag and his friends teaming up, or by trickery.

Top Muscle appears in Bond movies all the time; Oddjob and Jaws are probably the most famous of them. Wez from The Road Warrior fits, as does Ramrowan from The Man From Nowhere and two different characters named Mad Dog from Hardboiled and The Raid: Redemption. That TV Tropes page above features a picture of Darth Vader. Sometimes the Top Muscle ends up turning against the Mastermind boss. Sometimes they’re just looking for a worthy opponent to test themselves against. In every case, they represent a huge physical challenge to the protagonist(s).

TMfU could have had a Top Muscle character. The villain’s husband had almost nothing to do except smirk at the sole female protagonist and drive a car. He might have been recast as an expert marksman and Olympic boxing champion, or an SS Commando military trainer, or anything. But nope. He was just an ineffectual romantic rival.

But Harry, you’re wondering, why does it matter? Two reasons: When properly implemented, a Top Muscle character brings competence to the antagonists and focus to the story.

Competence: A mastermind-type villain usually has three things going for them: resources, cool clothes, a scheme of some sort. All of these things are provided by the plot (as in: the villain is rich enough to hire mooks and arm them well, and they’ve gotten their hands on a macguffin and have a plan for WORLD DOMINATION). However, much of that is established by plot fiat, and it doesn’t necessarily establish the villain as a particularly scary guy.

However, having an underling who is a kick ass fighter lends an air of competence to all the antagonists. Instead of being a psychopath with a bunch of hirelings that the protagonist outwits/outguns/outfights with ease, they become a psychopath with a world-class killer as a subordinate. When the Top Muscle fights the protagonist to a stand still (or even beats the hell out of them) that extraordinary competence is transferred to the boss above.

Focus: Most spy/adventure movies have a lot of physical trials. There are fights, maybe some macguffins to steal, maybe someone to rescue. Are the protagonists facing off against a bunch of faceless stormtroopers, who only present a real danger in their numbers, or are they facing a single threat that could undo everything?

Extended scenes where the protagonists mows down mooks, then has to face the Top Muscle, can be incredibly effective. TMfU, with its aimless fight against a young Italian count and his two buddies, not to mention that endless boat sequence, needed that focus.