Unlikely criminals
Photo: Mandalay Vision

Unlikely Criminals: A List of 9 Movies +1 Show

Unlikely criminals are actually everywhere. In fact, it seems most people have done something illegal, perhaps even without knowing it. Nevertheless, movies and TV shows often abide by stereotypes when it comes to depicting criminal/violent behavior. Still, sometimes a story comes along that blows all these stereotypes out of the water. Here are 9 movies and one TV show which do just that, offering up characters who — either due to their looks, age, reputation or mannerisms — many wouldn’t suspect as being criminals.

Unlikely Criminals Case #1: Harold and Maude (1971)

Hal Ashby’s “Harold & Maude” presents us with some very quirky characters. We get to know Harold (Bud Cort) for his morbid fascination with death. Oddly, though, it’s Maude’s (Ruth Gordon) fascination with life which puts them on the proverbial wrong side of the law. Though plot summaries of this movie downplay or ignore her criminality, let’s face it: She could have gotten in some serious trouble for being such a free spirit.

Both characters represent some variety of chaos, as well as contrasts working together. Plus, it’s kind of funny seeing all of Harold’s fake suicides. “Harold and Maude” is in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, by the way. It also prominently features the music of Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam, as he is known now).

Unlikely Criminals Case #2: Raising Arizona (1987)

H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter) are not your average couple. He’s a former convict and she’s a former police officer, which may be a big conflict. In fact, when their lives hit a speedbump, they end up kidnapping a baby from a millionaire, Nathan Arizona, Sr. (Trey Wilson). Long story short, they get into a heap of trouble.

While police do break laws far too often, they don’t always do it Coen-brothers style. “Raising Arizona” also stars John Goodman, William Forsythe, and Randall “Tex” Cobb as Leonard Smalls, the apocalyptic biker and bounty hunter. While some critics were groan-inducingly lame in their critiques of this film, it has become a cult classic due partly to its cartoon-like style.

Unlikely Criminals Case #3: Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

Unlikely criminals
Photo: Orion Pictures

Danny DeVito’s “Throw Momma from the Train” sort of bends the rules for this list. Larry Donner (Billy Crystal) and Owen Lift (Danny DeVito) technically spend much of the film only flirting with criminality. In fact, if they ever do cross the line into genuine criminality, it’s just barely so. Nevertheless, Owen asking Larry to kill his overbearing mother (Anne Ramsey) seems pretty serious, especially in hindsight.

Also, Larry’s obsessive hatred of his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) nearly puts him over the boiling point! In fact, it definitely comes close to making him an unsympathetic character, although many will still understand his frustrations and hatred. With all this being said, it’s almost easy to forget this is a zany comedy (and one that actually works). The film’s ultimate lesson: Don’t treat Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” like it’s an instruction manual. Don’t try this at home!

Unlikely Criminals Case #4: Needful Things (1993)

Criminally underrated and needless panned by critics, Fraser C. Heston’s “Needful Things” offers a unique villain. On the surface, Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) seems like a kindly old shopkeeper. However, when he moves into Castle Rock, bad things start to happen. In fact, Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris) ends up suspecting him of setting the town’s citizens against each other, and even of being non-human. Well, it’s based on a Stephen King story, so you can sort of know where this could be going. It is kind of fun to watch Gaunt use people’s “needful things” — their most desired items — to convince townspeople to prank each other to the point of criminality.

How far can he take it? How far will they go? They definitely venture into the territory of genuine horror, taking the town of Castle Rock down a darkened path, all while Gaunt gleefully watches from his little shop. It’s sad that this film is underrated, as it is possibly one of Max von Sydow’s best performances (and R.I.P. to him, by the way). “Needful Things” also stars Bonnie Bedelia as Polly Chalmers, Amanda Plummer as the lovable yet damaged Nettie Cobb, J. T. Walsh as the gloriously unhinged Danforth “Buster” Keeton III, and Valri Bromfield as Netty’s undeserved nemesis, Wilma Jerzyck.

Unlikely Criminals Case #5: Office Space (1999)

Mike Judge’s “Office Space” is certainly one of the best office satires ever made. Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), Michael Bolton (David Herman), Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu), and Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) are all “Everyman” characters navigating the vapid, corporate cultural wasteland. When the three guys decide to commit longterm micro-theft with a computer virus, their scheme is immediately put in jeopardy. While the three seem like unlikely criminals, so does another worker named Milton Waddams (Stephen Root).

Milton seems to reach the breaking point when the insidious boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), takes away his cherished stapler.  “Office Space” has many memorable moments to explain their hatred of work. These include pesky reports, an annoying printer, highly annoying co-workers. and Joanna’s pieces of flair (during which Mike Judge brilliantly plays Stan, the cringe-inducing “Chotchkie’s Manager”). While not the greatest story ever told, everyone should occasionally get out their Jump to Conclusions Mat and watch “Office Space.”

Unlikely Criminals Case #6: Misery (1990)

Unlikely criminals
Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment

Rob Reiner’s “Misery” remains an iconic film, and Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for Best Actress for that year. Bates depicted Annie Wilkes as a complex character, capable of being kind, but ultimately extremely dark and controlling. At first, she seems like just a regular, good-natured, small-town woman, but she ultimately becomes a villain worthy of horror’s pantheon. Granted, she’s not an unstoppable killing machine like Jason, Freddy, or Michael Myers, but that’s just what makes her such a plausible menace to poor Paul Sheldon (James Caan).

In many ways, the Annie Wilkes character is different from the book, where she is at times more blatantly evil. There’s a sense that Annie could have been normal, but something obviously went awry in her brain. That hint of occasional gentleness makes us more sympathetic to her, which gives “Misery” the movie a deeper-cutting psychological edge than the book. Yes, this is one of the few films that remain arguably better than the novel, as bizarre as that sounds.

Unlikely Criminals Case #7: Breaking Bad (2008–2013)

Arguably, no one fits better on this list than Walter White (Bryan Cranston). It’s not enough to say White was a mild-mannered science teacher. The man was a straight-up dork! However, when he ends up perfecting a recipe for meth to help fund his treatments for terminal cancer, he ends up straying into legitimate gangster territory. In fact, he ultimately becomes a force to be reckoned with. Though he has humble roots, cooking up his first batches with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), he ends up having a God-like view of himself, capable of taking on other drug lords, like Gus (Giancarlo Esposito).

While a nerdy, high school science teacher seems awkward as a meth cook, some things belong together, like an extra large pizza and the top of a roof (“Breaking Bad” fans will know exactly what that means). “Breaking Bad” also stars Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, and Jonathan Banks.  This is a show that earned its acclaim, even if always risked being overhyped.

Unlikely Criminals Case #8: 30 Minutes or Less (2011)

Unikely criminals
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Like many decent movies, “30 Minutes or Less” isn’t exactly a hit with most critics. Its humor occasionally strays into “Beavis & Butthead” territory and Jesse Eisenberg isn’t for everybody. Still, this is an interesting movie, and all the more fascinating because it’s based on a true story. In it, a pizza delivery driver named Nick (Eisenberg) ends up being kidnapped by two losers — Dwayne Mikowlski (Danny McBride) and Travis Cord (Nick Swardson) — who strap a bomb to his chest and make him rob a bank. Weird, right? Well, it’s based on the similar case of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes. They apparently put an explosive collar around the neck of pizza delivery driver Brian Wells, prompting him to rob a local bank!

The case has elements of a scavenger hunt as well. Also, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong basically qualifies as a likely (albeit unusual) burgeoning serial killer, if you read up on the case. So the question is: Would someone under such duress actually be a criminal or not? To dodge controversy, Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group said the filmmakers were not aware of the Wells case.
“30 Minutes or Less” also stars Aziz Ansari, Michael Peña, and Fred Ward.

Unlikely Criminals Case #9: Bernie (2011)

Featuring one of Jack Black’s best performances as Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede, Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” presents a real challenge to viewers. Was Bernie a malicious killer or are his supporters right? Just because Bernie was a beloved personality and gentle soul in the town of Carthage, Texas, does it mean he should have a reduced sentence (or any other special consideration)? That aside, Jack Black is perfect in this film, and even his harshest critics may want to give this one a try.

It truly seems like a role he was born to play, and he plays it well. Shirley MacLaine is also pretty darn good as Marjorie “Margie” Nugent, his odd-couple love interest, who is almost unanimously hated by the entire town…in stark contrast to Bernie. All seriousness aside, this movie is also pretty funny at times. Check it out sometime! Oh yeah, and it also stars Matthew McConaughey as Prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson.

Unlikely Criminals Case #10: Horrible Bosses (2011)

Seth Gordon’s “Horrible Bosses” is about three pals (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis) who, during a night out drinking, decide they want to kill their horrible bosses (Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey). An ex-con (Jamie Foxx) overhears them and agrees to guide them on their prospective murder journey, which is full of hilarity. Similar to “Throw Momma from the Train,” these people might not have the spine for the crime. For the record, “Horrible Bosses II” is actually a pretty strong followup to this movie, so check that one out, too. They are black comedies, to be sure, but the comedy elements pretty heavily outweigh the darker themes.

Did we miss any unlikely criminals? Let us know in the comments!

Wade Wainio
Author: Wade Wainio

About Wade Wainio

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