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The Best Performances In an Otherwise Terrible Movie

By Rebecca Pahle | Lists | September 22, 2017 |

By Rebecca Pahle | Lists | September 22, 2017 |

We’ve written about good performances in bad movies before, but thankfully (or less-than-thankfully), it’s a well that doesn’t really run dry.

Stanley Tucci in Transformers: Age of Extinction

Every once in a while, the planets align and I am slightly shocked to remember that Stanley Tucci was amazing in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Not in-comparison-to-Mark-Wahlberg amazing, or amazing-for-a-Transformers-movie amazing. Genuinely really good, even saddled with a bullshit character (buffoonish Steve Jobs type who wants to build his own Transformers) and bullshit lines like “it’s picking up metal and dropping it!” My perpetual shock is less an indictment of Tucci—who is, after all, magic—than of Bay, whom I am so used to not having even halfway decent performances in all his non-Pain and Gain movies.

Lee Pace in The Hobbit trilogy

Oh, the wasted potential of the Hobbit movies. We wanted Peter Jackson’s triumphant return to Middle-Earth; instead, we get a one-book story inexplicably ($$$) stretched across three movies, with Jackson’s desperate attempts to wring some more story out of this, someone, somehow, please resulting in Thorin tripping balls in a large gold jacuzzi and way more screentime for Unibrow Grima Wormtongue than anyone ever wanted or needed. But there is one indisputably brilliant thing about the Hobbit trilogy, and it is Lee Pace as Thranduil, King of the Mirkwood Elves and Middle-Earth’s number one drama queen. Him riding up on a giant elk in Thorin’s hour of greatest need, only to abandon the dwarves with a majestic “fuck you, I’m too good for this” head turn at the last moment, would be the highlight of any trilogy, not just this one. (Looking at you, Godfather.)

Michael Sheen in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

Watching Breaking Dawn - Part 2 for the first time in preparation for this post, I was prepared for it to be bad, but I wasn’t prepared to it to be as soul-crushingly awful as it was. It’s a deeply stupid movie, but one that—unlike some other deeply stupid movies—isn’t able to achieve a consistent level of camp entertainment. Breaking Dawn - Part 2, a movie where Kristen Stewart fights a mountain lion, is boring. Nothing happens in it. Here’s a summary:

*Bella and Edward find out that the Evil Vampires are coming for their Uncanny Valley Satan Baby
*The good vampire clan maxes out their frequent flyer miles to bring a whole bunch of bloodsuckers out to Washington.
*A fight happens
*Except it doesn’t, really
*The end

I’d be slightly impressed at the sheer balls Lionsgate must have had to make a movie with no plot if I weren’t busy being bewildered by the whole thing. (Let’s not get into the fact that it made over $800 million.) Practically this movie’s sole saving grace—and I say practically, because YOU NICKNAMED MY DAUGHTER AFTER THE LOCH NESS MONSTER?!?!?!?—is Michael Sheen as Aro, the leader of the no, fuck it, you don’t care. Sheen infuses every second of his far-too-brief screentime with an energy that can best be described as “unhinged.” You’ve all seen the laugh, above. In a movie filled with otherwise talented actors sleepwalking through their performances, Sheen is the only person who knows what the fuck movie he’s in, or at least should be in. (Rami Malek and Lee Pace are also mildly entertaining, though I would have enjoyed them more if I weren’t busy cringing and averting my eyes every time Noel Fisher was on-screen.) And why wouldn’t Sheen be the standout? He served his time in the Underworld franchise. He knows that nobody’s watching a movie where vampires fight werewolves for the nuanced performances. If you’re not bringing balls to the wall insanity, you’re doing it wrong. Even when he’s in the background, he’s pulling faces like this:

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(I tried to find a shot where Robert Pattinson’s eyes weren’t half-closed, but there wasn’t one.)

Alan Rickman, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Alan Rickman famously turned down the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham twice, finally accepting the part on the condition that director Kevin Reynolds would let him interpret the character however he wanted. The result is a core of pure scenery-chewing brilliance at the center of what is otherwise a completely bland film. The key to many good performances in bad movies, and something that Rickman fully embraced in Prince of Thieves, is to not pretend the movie is something better or different than it is. Rickman has admitted that the Prince of Thieves script was “terrible,” and that as a result he enlisted some friends to give him some good lines. (Example: The “You. My room. 10:30 tonight. You. 10:45… Bring a friend” bit.) No wonder he was nominated for a BAFTA.

Eva Green in 300: Rise of an Empire

A good chunk of Eva Green’s career is built on the somewhat dubious foundation of being the best part of bad movies. (Oh halloo, Dark Shadows). Never is that more true than in the ill-begotten 300: Rise of an Empire, in which Green is the only actor who—never mind good—is even able to make an impression. Yes, I include co-star Lena Headey in that assessment. Lena Headey never made out with a decapitated head. You ham it the fuck up, Eva.

Billy Zane, Titanic

Over in the bizarro world, my goatee-sporting doppelganger is writing a version of this post called “What Are the Worst Performances In the Best Movies?,” and somehow Billy Zane in Titanic is still on it. You can make a case for both. It all depends on your opinion of Titanic: a sweeping romantic epic that soars against a historical background, or a sweeping historical epic with a bullshit, cliched romance plotline as the iceberg that drags the whole thing down.

As you may guess, the clean-shaven Rebecca is in the latter camp. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are both incredibly talented, charismatic actors, and they’re not bad here, but nor are their fairly by-the-book performances able to distract from the fact that Jack and Rose don’t even go here. The only fictional character I didn’t want to yank offscreen with one of those vaudeville hooks so I could focus on the real-life events of the Titanic’s sinking was Billy Zane as Rose’s snobby, vain fiancé Cal. James Cameron doesn’t really give a shit about working with actors (“I made Titanic because I wanted to dive to a shipwreck, not because I particularly wanted to make the movie“… yeah, we know), and Zane took advantage of the lack of supervision to go full cartoon villain. Too bad the rest of his career hasn’t really worked out.

Tilda Swinton, Constantine

There’s a lot that’s wrong with the 2005 comic book adaptation Constantine, but its biggest problems you can lay at the feet of one man: Keanu Reeves. Bless Reeves’ tiny cotton socks, but there are things he’s good at, and things he’s not, and the role of dry-witted, misanthropic demon hunter John Constantine swallowed him whole. He spends the entire movie looking like he’s half asleep.

That only makes the comparison between him and the movie’s best actor—Tilda Swinton, playing the angel Gabriel—all the more stark. Swinton spends every second of their shared screentime stomping all over her beleaguered co-star, and despite only being in three scenes, she’s the movie’s biggest takeaway by far. Tilda Swinton as an androgynous angel who turns out to be insane? Yes, please. The end of the movie leaves Gabriel in a pretty terrible place—their plans to bring about the Apocalypse foiled, their wings burned off, condemned by God to live a human life. Gabriel’s response, at this point, to their inability to goad Constantine into taking revenge honestly counts among the top ten line readings in all of cinema history, ever. Skip to 1:10. “You could have shot me, John!”