I was watching the movie Leon: The Professional. The protagonist, Leon, is a hitman — not somebody we traditionally sympathize with. The antagonist is a crooked DEA agent, pretty despicable himself.

Near the end, Leon is gunning down dozens of DEA agents who've been ordered by the antagonist to kill him. As the viewers, we're supposed to support Leon as he kills cops who have done nothing wrong themselves — they're just following (presumably reasonable, and since Leon is actually a hitman, perhaps actually reasonable) orders. Just because the person giving the order is the villain, they end up dead, merely doing their usually noble job (and honest cops generally have the viewers' sympathy).

I'm asking specifically about the DEA agents here: Is there a word or a phrase for this situation or literary device — where I'm made to feel that somebody is evil because of their association, where they've done nothing wrong, and they could even be considered the heroes from a different viewpoint? (Say, Leon were the villain and the cops had finally cornered him — I'd feel bad for these cops as they were gunned down). I checked the movie's entry on TVTropes.org and I don't see anything that seems to describe this situation accurately.

3 Answers 3


Characters such as Léon are anti-heroes:

a central character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes:
with the age of the anti-hero, baddies and goodies became less distinguishable from one another

TVTropes' entry for antihero reads:

An Archetypal Character who is almost as common in modern fiction as the Ideal Hero, an antihero is a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. (S)he may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely apathetic. More often an antihero is just an amoral misfit. While heroes are typically conventional, anti-heroes, depending on the circumstances, may be preconventional (in a "good" society), postconventional (if the government is "evil") or even unconventional. Not to be confused with Big Bad, who is the opponent of Heroes (or Anti-Heroes, in that matter).

A related term often used synonymously is Byronic hero (Wikipedia):

The Byronic Hero is a type of character (an Anti-Hero, an Anti-Villain, or Just a Villain) popularized by the works of Lord Byron, whose protagonists often embodied this archetype, though they existed before him*. Byronic Heroes are charismatic characters with strong passions and ideals, but who are nonetheless deeply flawed individuals who may act in ways which are socially reprehensible, and whose internal conflicts are heavily romanticized.

Léon is one of the characters mentioned on Wikipedia's list of fictional antiheroes.

The crooked DEA agent would perhaps then be an anti-villain. Both of them are flawed characters (just like Lance Armstrong).

  • Is there a word for the DEA agents - anti-heroes? Stansfield is for sure not a hero (or anti-hero), but the honest agents who are just doing their job are in a much more gray position.
    – SqlRyan
    Jan 26, 2013 at 4:48
  • 1
    If we're accepting TVTropes as a source, you might be looking for the Punch Clock Villain or the Minion with an F in Evil.
    – rsegal
    Jan 26, 2013 at 4:54
  • @SqlRyan Stansfield would probably then become an anti-villain. The other DEA agents are simply the mindless misled minions. Jan 26, 2013 at 5:07
  • 1
    @coleopterist Hmm - I like the term "mindless mislead minions" for the DEA agents more than any other term I've seen :) As opposed to the mooks continually dispatched by James Bond, who presumably know they're working for an organization (or super-villain) bent on world domination through nefarious means, the DEA agents in Leon are just cops, who signed up to clean up the streets and generally do good, and are being leveraged without their knowledge to advance the villain's agenda.
    – SqlRyan
    Jan 26, 2013 at 5:29
  • An anti-hero can be opposed by a villain rather than anti-villain, as the antagonist can be clearly evil or corrupt. Anti-villains are good people put into the antagonist position by circumstance such as in "R.E.D." or "The Fugitive" where we have sympathy for them as well as the hero or anti-hero. They can also be fully good if the anti-hero is fully bad, for the anti-hero need not be justified to gain our sympathies - it's just much harder for a writer to do that.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 26, 2013 at 13:04

I would suggest the DEA agents are pawns - placed in their situation by a higher power to the ends of that higher power, and deemed expendable. Their personal ethics are irrelevant, and their welfare of no concern, in terms of their designated function. Only their strategic usefulness is of value.

In the case of Leon, they are merely an attack by his opponent, Stansfield, that need defending against with counter-attack.


Davoid mentioned pawns, I would also suggest dupe (a person who unquestioningly or unwittingly serves a cause or another person), or patsy (a person who is easily manipulated or victimized). Definitions courtesy of Dictionary.com and Webster.

Dupe seems like the better fit, since Leon doesn't necessarily blame the DEA agents for trying to kill him, he simply sees killing them as an obligation.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.