23 fantastic performances hidden in terrible movies

Louis Chilton picks a handful of great roles that deserved better than the films they appeared in

Friday 31 May 2024 10:32
Margot Robbie, Matthew Lillard and Ewan McGregor all make the cut
Margot Robbie, Matthew Lillard and Ewan McGregor all make the cut (Warner Bros/LucasFilm)

There is, it’s fair to say, nothing more important to the movies than actors.

The right performance can tip a film into the realm of greatness; a bad one can doom an otherwise promising project to mediocrity or ridicule.

What would There Will Be Blood be without Daniel Day-Lewis at its centre? Would The Godfather still sparkle without Al Pacino and Marlon Brando?

These are not questions anyone is keen to know the answer to. The best performances are irreplaceable; they are key to the very essence of cinema.

But what happens when one good performance isn’t enough to save a film? When a terrific performance is wasted on a substandard story?

From Anthony Hopkins to Leonardo DiCaprio, many of the finest actors working today have lent their talents to inferior projects. Sometimes they simply phone it in, but other times, they manage to shine despite the material.

Here’s The Independent’s list of 23 secretly brilliant performances in bad films...

Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Along Came Polly (2004)

The late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman was that rarest of things; an actor who brought depth to even the flimsiest of roles, from The Hunger Games’ Plutarch Heavensby to Mission: Impossible III’s villainous Owen Davian. The critically lambasted romcom Along Came Polly may be the best example of this, however, as Hoffman delivering a coruscating comic turn that stole not just a scene but the whole film from under Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston’s noses.

Margot Robbie – Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad - Trailer

One of the worst blockbusters in living memory, David Ayer’s supervillain dirge Suicide Squad was met with unanimous damnation from the critical community. Reviews were also unanimous, however, in their praise for Margot Robbie’s performance, with the Australian star later reprising the role in two subsequent movies.

Tom Hanks – The Ladykillers (2004)

The Ladykillers is rightfully considered the nadir of the Coen brothers’ otherwise pretty miraculously consistent filmography. But that’s not at all down to Tom Hanks, who compellingly reinvented a role so brilliantly inhabited by Alec Guinness in the classic Ealing original. Unctuous, erudite and deeply sinister, the felonious band leader is a far cry from any other character Hanks has tackled; he devours the Coens’ typically sardonic dialogue with a grin.

A not-so-serious man: Tom Hanks as ‘Professor’ Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr in ‘The Ladykillers'
A not-so-serious man: Tom Hanks as ‘Professor’ Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr in ‘The Ladykillers' (Buena Vista Pictures)

James McAvoy – Split (2016)

M Night Shyamalan’s pulpy multiple-personality horror Split had plenty of issues, but James McAvoy’s showstopper performance wasn’t one of them. Playing, essentially, eight characters in one is a tough task to pull off, but McAvoy manages it with theatrical aplomb.

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Kristen Stewart – American Ultra (2015)

Though Kristen Stewart has been in a few of the best films of the last 10 years, she’s still had her fair share of misfires. The 2015 stoner-thriller American Ultra was inarguably a misfire, as she played the girlfriend and handler of Jesse Eisenberg’s amnesiac government sleeper agent. It’s a bad film that never lives up to its larger-than-life premise, but Stewart turns in some remarkably good work here.

Peter Dinklage – Pixels (2015)

There’s almost nothing good to say about this insipid Adam Sandler video game comedy from 2015. But what little there is exclusively concerns Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, who turns in an incongruously funny performance as obnoxious video game champion Eddie "The Fireblaster" Plant.

Peter Dinklage in the insipid 2015 gamer comedy ‘Pixels'
Peter Dinklage in the insipid 2015 gamer comedy ‘Pixels' (Sony)

Thomas Hayden Church – Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Probably the worst Spider-Man film to ever grace cinemas, Sam Raimi’s trilogy capper was a torrid mess of plotlines, too many villains and bad haircuts. The film’s only sincere pathos comes from Thomas Hayden Church, who manages to somehow survive the carnage with his head held high, playing the tragically fated Flint Marko, AKA Sandman.

John C Reilly – Kong: Skull Island (2017)

On paper, Kong: Skull Island should have been a blast. It had a solid cast (including Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, and John Goodman), an intriguing premise (King Kong during the Vietnam War) and the 104ft ape we all know and love. But the film was a major disappointment. The only saving grace was John C Reilly, whose brief appearance as a WWII pilot stranded on Skull Island after his plane was shot down felt like it was from another film entirely.

Uma Thurman – Batman & Robin (1997)

Uma Thurman knew how to pitch her performance better than anyone else in this despised 1997 superhero flick. In the role of fern fatale Poison Ivy, Thurman gives a performance of enjoyable camp extremity. To quote Janet Maslin in her contemporaneous review for the New York Times: “As played by Uma Thurman, Poison Ivy is perfect, flaunting great looks, a mocking attitude and madly flamboyant disguises. Like Mae West, she mixes true femininity with the winking womanliness of a drag queen.”

Uma Thurman as Dr Pamela Isley, AKA Poison Ivy, in ‘Batman & Robin'
Uma Thurman as Dr Pamela Isley, AKA Poison Ivy, in ‘Batman & Robin' (Warner Bros)

Michelle Pfieffer – Grease 2 (1982)

The original Grease has not endured the ravages of time with a whole lot of grace, and its reviled 1982 sequel has fared even worse. Nevertheless, Grease 2  had one living, breathing redeeming quality: its 23-year-old newcomer star Michelle Pfieffer, whose charisma and talents survived the stink of the whole schlocky affair.

Alan Rickman – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Kevin Costner may have failed to set Sherwood Forest alight with his role in the ropey Robin Hood adaptation Prince of Thieves, but the same can’t be said for his co-star Alan Rickman. The Die Hard star gave an outstanding performance as the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham. Was Rickman playing to type? Well, yes, but there was pretty much no one better at doing what he does here.

Martin Freeman – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Forged in the afterglow of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit prequels were doomed to live in the shadow of their predecessors. But not many people were ready for quite how bad they were. Look past the dodgy CGI and over-egged plotting, however, and Martin Freeman was an inspired choice as a young Bilbo Baggins: no-one plays a genial, put-upon everyman (or should that be everyhobbit?) quite like him.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' (New Line Cinema)

Max von Sydow – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

This skin-crawling 9/11 drama was criticised upon its release for being “exploitative” and trying to milk sentiment from real-life tragedy. Max Von Sydow’s performance was spared the knives, however, with the legendary Swedish actor giving a moving – and wordless – turn as an elderly renter. His efforts didn’t go unacknowledged, and von Sydow was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Phil Hartman – Jingle All the Way (1996)

Barring a few notable exceptions (such as The Simpsons and NewsRadio), the late Phil Hartman pretty much made a career out of radically outshining his co-stars. During his eight-year stint on Saturday Night Live, a low period for the show’s reputation, Hartman was known as the “glue”. He didn’t manage to hold all the cracks in the wretched holiday comedy Jingle All the Way together, but he was nonetheless an enjoyable, consistently funny presence, playing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s smarmy neighbour.

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Great Gatsby (2013)

Baz Luhrmann was always an odd choice to adapt F Scott Fitzgerald’s literary classic; his brand of cinema is one of bombast and flash. While Tobey Maguire was a pretty drab Nick Carraway, and the usually brilliant Carey Mulligan underwhelming as Daisy Buchannan, DiCaprio was perfectly cast as Gatsby, striking the right balance of insecurity, bluster and poignancy.

Boats against the current: DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in ‘The Great Gatsby'
Boats against the current: DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in ‘The Great Gatsby' (Warner Bros)

Anthony Hopkins – Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

For an actor of the highest calibre, Anthony Hopkins has still been known to phone it in from time to time; when he receives a script, he reportedly marks certain pages with the letters “NAR” (“No Acting Required”). He’d have been forgiven for just dialling it in for this dismal Transformers sequel, but instead, he’s unnecessarily compelling, playing a sagacious astronomer who’s studied the history of Transformers.

Oscar Isaac – Sucker Punch (2011)

Even by director Zack Snyder’s own standards, Sucker Punch was something of a spiky, unpleasant misstep. The film, a fantasy about a woman who tries to escape a mental institution through a series of fantasy worlds, was savaged by critics. Oscar Isaac, not yet a name movie star, acquitted himself shockingly well, however, playing a despicable orderly at the facility.

Adam Driver – Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

There’s much to detest about the final film in the so-called “Skywalker Saga”, from the dialogue and the lazy fan pandering, to the way in which it all but abandoned story arcs previously given to characters like Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Though his masked villain, Kylo Ren, is rushed through a slipshod redemption-by-numbers story, Adam Driver doesn’t stop turning in good work, however. The force was certainly weak with this one, but Driver emerged from the wreckage with his reputation utterly unscathed.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in ‘The Rise of Skywalker'
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in ‘The Rise of Skywalker' (LucasFilm)

Ewan McGregor – Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Driver wasn’t the only actor who valiantly struggled to provide a good performance in a thoroughly bad Star Wars film. Ewan McGregor’s work as Obi-Wan Kenobi came under scrutiny throughout the first two of George Lucas’s maligned prequels, but by the third, he had well and truly found his footing.

Michael K Williams – Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Even by the metric of video game adaptations, Assassin’s Creed was capital-b Bad. Usually bankable actors like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard were histrionic and laughable here; the plot and characterisation almost defy belief. But in the midst of this is The Wire’s Michael K Williams, delivering a typically classy turn as a Haitian Assassin called Moussa.

Florence Pugh – Black Widow (2021)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has lured a number of elite actors to its shores, from veterans like Robert Redford and Michael Keaton to younger stars like Michael B Jordan and Zendaya. In terms of up-and-comers, there are few better than Florence Pugh, who appeared as Yelena in the otherwise dreary 2021 blockbuster Black Widow. Pugh makes the film’s lead, Scarlett Johansson, pale in comparison, but the material’s simply not up to snuff.

Matthew Lillard – Scooby Doo (2002)

Say what you will about the puerile 2002 movie adaptation of the classic kids’ cartoon Scooby-Doo, but you can’t really fault the casting. Linda Cardellini, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr are all well-suited to the roles of Velma, Daphne and Fred respectively, but they’re not a patch on Matthew Lillard (Scream; Twin Peaks: The Return), whose big, swing-for-the-fences performance as the feckless slacker Shaggy Rogers is a masterclass in understanding the assignment.

Matthew Lillard as Shaggy Rogers in ‘Scooby-Doo: The Movie'
Matthew Lillard as Shaggy Rogers in ‘Scooby-Doo: The Movie' (Warner Bros)

Raul Juliá – Street Fighter (1994)

The Addams Family’s incomparable Raul Juliá died tragically in 1994 at the age of 54, having suffered a stroke. While it may seem like a shame for his final major film to be as shoddy an effort as Street Fighter, Raul Juliá’s performance in it is nothing short of a cult sensation. Playing the villainous M Bison, Julia is laugh-out-loud funny, a wonderful foil for a set of unworthy adversaries.

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