If there’s one thing I loathe about screen villains it’s the tendency of screenwriters to simply portray them as evil incarnate — evil, rotten fuckface psychopaths who love dispensing pain and cruelty and almost cackle with glee when they can slug or plug someone…the sheer joy of ugliness for its own sake.

That kind of portrayal might be fun for third-rate actors, but in real life villainy has its reasons and rationales. When bad people look in the bathroom mirror they see a flawed but half-reasonable man/woman who’s just doing what he/she has to do to keep moving, keep earning and not get arrested.

In Quentin Tarantino‘s Jackie Brown, Samuel L. Jackson‘s Ordell Robbie — a smooth but ruthless gun dealer who lives in Hermosa Beach — is no one’s idea of a nice guy, but he has his reasons for doing what he feels he needs to do. He’s not a Satanic emissary with horns on his head, but a guy who’s simply trying to protect himself and stay alive and not get popped.

When Chris Tucker‘s Beaumont Livingston is arrested with a machine gun or two in his car (weapons that Robbie had smuggled or was about to sell or something in that realm), Robbie knows that Livingston will rat him out to escape a long prison sentence, and so Ordell has to kill him — it’s a straight case of his survival or Livingston’s. He’s not looking to kill Livingston because he loves committing murder — he’s dead certain (and he’s right) that if he wants to keep going as a gun dealer he has no choice in the matter.

Same deal with Robert DeNiro‘s Louis Gara, a none-too-bright criminal whom Ordell first met in prison, and a guy with a hair-trigger temper who’s impulsively and idiotically shot Bridget Fonda‘s Melanie in the Del Amo shopping plaza parking lot.

When Gara tells Robbie what happened and especially the part about the money gone missing and Gara not putting two and two together and realizing that Max Cherry’s presence near the department store dressing room meant something, Robbie knows that Gara is a loose-cannon dumbshit and untrustworthy and that one way or the other he’ll do something that will put Robbie in jeopardy. And so, Robbie quickly realizes, he has no choice but to kill Gara.

Again, it’s not that Robbie loves killing or that he dislikes Gara personally, but strategically Gara is an obvious liability and so he has to go. Robbie doesn’t pull the trigger out of venality but practicality — he’s just trying to save himself from ugly consequences around the bend.

I’m not saying Robbie is a sympathetic character, but at least you understand where he’s coming from. He’s cold and ruthless, but he has his reasons for doing what he feels he has to do. When he gets it in the end, you almost feel sorry for the guy. Not quite but almost.