I’m talking about the Irish, of course. Patriot Games, The Devil’s Own, The Crying Game, Blown Away, The Informant, The Jackal — it seemed like the only reason to have an Irish character in a movie released in the 1990s was so he could blow something, or someone, up, or at least try to. (Then there were the terrorist-as-hero films, like Michael Collins, or the reformed-terrorist-as-hero films, like The Boxer.)
The Irish have had to endure a variety of onscreen stereotypes, as this neat little feature from Empire demonstrates. (Although why “the priest” and “the fisherman” are among the “worst” stereotypes is not immediately clear — until you consider the writer’s reasoning.)
Thank goodness Italians have been spared being reduced to cultural stereotypes.
Now the all-purpose bad guy is … Russian.
You can depict Russians as the most remorseless gangsters, terrorists, human traffickers, religious hypocrites, anything — now that they’re no longer officially communist, of course. In the Reagan era, to depict Russians as villains was to promote hate and Cold War paranoia. But now, under Putin, with the Orthodox Church reinvigorated and militant, you can spit on Russians all you like (and portray Orthodoxy as little more than a caesaro-papist front organization for a very this-worldly authoritarian and expansionist regime).
Even the New York Times noticed, in this essay from last year:
THE movie “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” which opens in theaters this weekend, revolves around an American C.I.A. analyst first introduced in Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel “The Hunt for Red October.” The source material isn’t the only thing that’s a little creaky. Ryan’s destination is Moscow, his target a Russian businessman plotting to crash the American economy through a terrorist attack. In portraying the diabolical oligarch Viktor Cherevin, Kenneth Branagh delivers his lines in the thick, menacingly slow accent that defines Eastern European baddies on screen: “You think this is game, Jack?”
Nearly 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell and marked the end of the Cold War, Hollywood’s go-to villains remain Russians. The last few years alone have seen a sadistic ex-K.G.B. agent (“The Avengers”), crooked Russian officials (“A Good Day to Die Hard”), Russian hit men (“The Tourist”), a Russian spy (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), a Russian-American loan shark (“Limitless”) and so many Russian gangsters they have displaced Italians as film’s favored thugs (“Jack Reacher,” “Safe,” “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” among others).
And what about Bad Boys II?
As for TV, well, start with The Blacklist and work your way to Netflix’s Daredevil.
(And let’s not forget The Americans, but those Russian commies are strictly retro, and so harmless, and so fair game.)
Now compare this to the number of films that have depicted Arabs or Muslims of whatever ethnicity as terrorists since 9/11. Before 2001 you had Delta Force and The Siege (which went out of its way to provide balanced portrayals of Arabs), I guess the goofy Libyans in Back to the Future, and True Lies. Since then there’s been Syriana (but who really are the bad guys in that film?) and the early seasons of 24.
So, I guess Irish, Italians, and Arabs/Muslims should be thanking our Russian friends for being so … terrible? And terribly complacent?