Great Acting Performances In Otherwise Underwhelming Movies

13 minute read

By Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)

While it’s incredibly easy to hate on bad movies, even the worst cinematic travesties aren’t without some merit. Quality acting doesn’t necessarily need a decent movie surrounding it in order to shine through (though it certainly helps) and there are a number of cases where we’ve seen great performances hidden away in bad movies. Taking in a disappointing movie is not a pleasant experience, but it can be mitigated somewhat if there’s a standout performance that elevates the material. Although the following 12 performances don’t necessarily justify a viewing on their own, the fact that they exist in the face of bad scripts, weak direction, or any other combination of factors that could derail a production are really small miracles.

15. Michael Sheen – The Twilight Saga

Michael Sheen seems to find himself in this position quite a bit. Although the Welsh actor has starred in a number of critically-acclaimed movies and television series (including, but not limited to Frost/NixonThe Queen, and Masters of Sex), he also has a knack for winding up in lowbrow fantasy fare, especially ones involving vampires. Sheen had already cut his teeth on the mediocre, but popular Underworld franchise by the time he was cast in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, so evidently he knew what he was getting himself into.

And boy, does he not disappoint.

As Aro, one of three leaders of the vampire coven known as the Volturi, Sheen is at his campy best, acting circles around his morose co-stars. While you can tell by their mopey, disaffected performances that Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson would rather be doing anything else, Sheen injects every one of his lines with life (ironic considering he’s supposed to be playing the undead). The final film in the series, Breaking Dawn – Part 2, contains arguably Sheen’s best and most over-the-top work, all exuberant energy and unhinged line readings (I’m fairly certain no other actor has ever produced this sound on-screen before or since). It’s a pity this franchise didn’t give Sheen more screen time but then again, he was too good for it anyway.

Source: Screenshot via Summit Entertainment

14. Martin Freeman – The Hobbit Trilogy

With each passing year, it’s getting a little easier to forget that Peter Jackson spent hundreds of millions of dollars adapting a short, children’s fantasy novel into three (3!) overblown blockbuster films. Although Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is still regarded as one of the greatest literary adaptations in film history, The Hobbit trilogy has next to no cultural currency at this point, but that doesn’t mean that the latter is without merit. Underneath all the ugly CGI and superfluous subplots lie some standout performances from a stellar cast. While Richard Armitage and Lee Pace deserve credit for their roles as the proud and determined dwarf Thorin and petulant drama queen Thranduil, respectively, it’s Martin Freeman who carries the weight of this creaky trilogy on his small, but capable hobbit shoulders.

Freeman applies his impeccable comedic timing and general likability to the role of Bilbo Baggins, delivering a performance that both feels like a worthy precursor to Ian Holm’s portrayal of an older Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings and an original creation. Freeman helps anchor An Unexpected JourneyThe Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies and though the trilogy gets progressively worse with each film, a lot of that has to do with Bilbo being sidelined in favor of massive, overlong battle sequences and other ancillary material. The Hobbit films are at their best when the focus is on Bilbo and his fish out of water adventure, and that part wouldn’t be half as entertaining if it wasn’t for Martin Freeman’s top-notch performance. Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

13. Stanley Tucci – Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

In general, the human performances are eclipsed by the robots’ in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies (let’s just overlook the fact that said robots are all voiced by human actors, okay?). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, as no one goes to see a Transformers movie for the human actors, but it does say something about how forgettable most of the characters not named Optimus Prime or Megatron have been throughout this excruciating franchise. However, there have been a few bright spots, with the best performance arguably belonging to Stanley Tucci in Transformers: Age of Extinction (arguably the worst entry in the franchise).

Tucci plays a Silicon Valley type obsessed with building his own Transformers. On its own, this wouldn’t make for an interesting character but Tucci elevates the whole thing simply by, well, channeling his immense talents as an actor. Sitting through Age of Extinction may be a mentally draining affair, but it’s almost worth it just to see Tucci throw a hissy fit when his Transformer looks more like Megatron than Optimus. Fortunately for all of us, Tucci even came back for the sequel, The Last Knight (2017).

Source: Screenshot via Paramount Pictures

12. Dustin Hoffman – Hook (1991)

Look, I have a soft spot for Hook, but I’ll readily admit that it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s lesser works. The filmmaker’s postmodern Peter Pan movie is overlong and filled with far too much clumsy exposition, but it’s anchored by its two lead performances. Robin Williams is in fine form as a middle-aged Peter Pan who has forgotten his childhood adventures in Neverland, but as the title implies, this is Dustin Hoffman’s movie … at least when he actually gets the chance to be on screen. As the titular pirate captain, Hoffman unfortunately gets sidelined for much of Hook’s bloated runtime in favor of Peter and the Lost Boys but when he does get on screen, he absolutely owns the movie.

Hoffman’s Captain Hook is darkly morose (he’s introduced contemplating suicide, having nothing to live for after decades without his arch-nemesis around), but also wildly exuberant. Hoffman seems to channel the decadent British villains of yesteryear, reveling in his villainy and chewing the scenery as he struts around on his pirate ship. It’s a showy performance, to be sure, but one that ultimately works, especially when contrasted with the many parts of Hook that don’t necessarily get the job done.

Source: Screenshot via TriStar Pictures

11. William Fichtner – Drive Angry (2011)

When it comes to cinematic guilty pleasures, you could do much worse than this 2011 action exploitation flick starring Nicolas Cage as an unnamed driver who escapes from hell to save his daughter from being murdered by a Satanic cult. That being said, Drive Angry is the kind of film that’s dialed up to 11 at all times and one in desperate need of some nuance to break up the monotony. While it never quite gets there, the one redeeming quality about Drive Angry is William Fichtner’s “The Accountant,” a sharply-dressed demon sent by the Devil to retrieve Cage’s character and bring him back to hell.

Fichtner somehow finds a way to steal the film right out from under Cage, whose manic overacting doesn’t quite hit its usual high watermark here, finding shades to a character who would have been one-note in a lesser performer’s hands. Fichtner’s Accountant is fastidious in his duties, yet manages to get in some of the film’s best deadpan jokes. It shouldn’t come as much surprise, as Fichtner has built a career filled with off-kilter supporting roles and his performance in Drive Angry is no exception.

Source: Screenshot via Summit Entertainment

10. Michael Fassbender – Prometheus (2012)/Alien: Covenant (2017)

It would be doing both Prometheus and its sequel Alien: Covenant a disservice to call either “terrible” movies, but Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels are certainly disappointments in their own way. Prometheus is dragged down by poor script decisions, while Alien: Covenant repeats too many sci-fi tropes and though both films have proven divisive, one thing that there seems to be little debate over is how excellent Michael Fassbender’s performances are in both.

Fassbender’s android David is both fascinating and unsettling, a synthetic being wholly aware of his unnaturalness who is somehow sympathetic even when he’s committing despicable acts in the name of biological progress. Fassbender especially shines in Covenant, as he plays double duty as David and another android named Walter; in fact, the best scene in either movie features just Fassbender playing off himself as both characters. Assuming Scott gets to make a third Alien prequel, I’m on board just to see more of Fassbender’s outstanding performance alone.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

9. George Clooney – Batman & Robin (1997)

There is little in the way of redeeming qualities in either of Joel Schumacher’s cinematic travesties masquerading as Batman movies — heck, there’s still debate to this day over which one is actually worse! Of course, Schumacher’s second and final installment, Batman & Robin, has become a guilty pleasure for some thanks to its outrageous campiness, especially when it comes to the film’s central villain, Mr. Freeze, and his delightfully awful puns. In truth, Arnold Schwarzenegger could just as easily have made this list, as he tackles the atrocious dialogue he’s given with admirable aplomb and not an ounce of shame but in truth, it’s George Clooney who deserves recognition for having his name attached to such a film.

While the general consensus is that Clooney was miscast in Batman & Robin, that’s really only true for about half of his role. Charismatic and a natural leading man, Clooney was one of the biggest actors on the planet when he was cast in the role of Batman, but he’s unable to do much when hidden underneath such terrible costuming. No, Clooney’s strengths make him a natural Bruce Wayne and whenever he’s not in the Batman outfit, it feels like you’re watching a different movie.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

8. Josh Brolin – Jonah Hex (2010)

Jonah Hex is such a bad movie that its only real redeeming quality is its mercifully short 81-minute run time. Josh Brolin plays the title character, a badly-scarred bounty hunter type in the Old West who ends up doing battle with a disgruntled Confederate colonel (John Malkovich). Brolin has enjoyed enormous success in the superhero movie game recently with back-to-back appearances in Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2, but his talents are put to waste here in a movie that doesn’t deserve the level of commitment he brings to the role. Brolin does what he can to try and elevate the material, but it proves to be an impossible task in a film that introduces subplots seemingly at whim and then drops them almost as quickly (the acid-spitting snake man is a particular highlight).

Unsurprisingly, Jonah Hex was plagued with behind-the-scenes production problems and it’s really a small miracle that it even made it to the screen. That being said, Warner Bros. probably regrets ever unleashing it upon the world, as the film’s box office receipts came in more than $36 million under budget-making Jonah Hex one of the biggest comic book movie flops ever made.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures

7. Michael Parks – Tusk (2014)

Kevin Smith’s post-millennium filmmaking career has certainly been a mixed bag. By his own admission, the Clerks director became more interested in passion projects following the disappointing critical reception to 2010’s Cop Out and this was an admirable creative choice, it’s one that’s produced almost exclusively duds. That includes the 2014 horror-comedy Tusk, which revolves around Justin Long being turned into a walrus by a Canadian recluse played by the late Michael Parks. It’s an insane, though admittedly original premise that ends up being squandered by meandering pacing and some truly awful performances from Long and Johnny Depp, who turns up as a buffoonish French-Canadian detective.

However, Tusk has one saving grace in the form of Parks, who is simply extraordinary as retired seaman Howard Howe. Somehow, Parks takes a ridiculous character – whose biggest motivation is returning to the happiest moment of his life when he was shipwrecked on a rock with a walrus – and turns him into a man emanating humanity and sadness. It’s truly a performance to behold and one that is way too good for a movie such as Tusk. Sadly, it was also one of Park’s final performances before he passed away in 2017 at the age of 77.

Source: Screenshot via A24

6. Thomas Haden Church – Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Spider-Man 3 arguably gets more hate than it deserves, but it’s still easily the low point of Sam Raimi’s trilogy and would be the worst Spider-Man movie if the Amazing reboots didn’t exist. The film’s problems are well documented at this point, with Topher Grace’s Venom typically receiving the brunt of the criticism. What tends to get lost when talking about Spider-Man 3 however is that even though it had too many villains, one of them was actually very good. I’m talking, of course, about Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman, whom Raimi had planned to build the film around before the studio mandated that he shoehorn Venom in. The effect of this is that Sandman’s arc gets kind of lost in the shuffle, but what’s there is quite moving and it’s thanks to Church’s performance.

Church’s Flint Marko is a tragically sympathetic figure even before he’s transformed into a monster made of sand, having taken to a life of crime in order to support his daughter’s medical expenses. Church imbues the character with a sense of pathos, as the viewer can tell he’s not comfortable with what he’s become but sees no other option for himself. Spider-Man 3 may not have been the trilogy-ending triumph many would have liked, but at least Raimi went three for three when it came to great villains: Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman.

Source: Screenshot via Sony Pictures Releasing

5. Eva Green – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Eva Green had an interesting year in 2014, in that she starred in two inferior sequels to popular genre films from the mid-2000s: 300: Rise of An Empire and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. The French actress is arguably the best thing about both films, but it’s Sin City in particular that most benefits from her presence. Much like its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is beautifully shot and hyper-stylized, but it’s a soulless venture filled with rampant sexism, excessive narration, and pulpy nonsense. While the film is overflowing with talented actors deserving of much better material, Green embraces the sheer ludicrousness of it all to such a degree as to elevate it to the level of true artistry.

Though co-directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez do their best to reduce her to being eye candy like the rest of Sin City’s female performers by having her appear almost exclusively unclothed, Green rises above being just a sexual object by weaponizing her femme fatale character. Green’s Ava Lord is a force of nature, making quick work of any man who dares cross her path and you can tell that the actress is having a great time simply making the best of the bad material she was handed. Much like the title implies, the second Sin City is worth watching for Eva Green and little else.

Source: Screenshot via The Weinstein Company

4. Tim Curry – Stephen King’s It (1990)

Now that we’ve gotten a proper cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s classic horror novel It, it’s much easier to notice how poorly the 1990 TV movie/miniseries has aged. Restricted by a TV network content restrictions and budget, as well as the Herculean task of trying to cram a 1,100-page book into a four-hour miniseries, It suffers from a terribly disjointed structure and some atrocious special effects.

Of course, what everyone remembers from It is being terrified by a clown who eats children and Tim Curry’s central performance as Pennywise still holds up wonderfully. Curry really gets to show off his chops, as his version of Pennywise plays to the actor’s two biggest strengths: playing villainous roles and comedic timing. Curry’s killer clown jumps back and forth between wisecracks and ferocious evil, often within the same scene. While It is a total mess of an adaptation, Curry’s performance is unquestionably great.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros. Television

3. Ewan McGregor – Star Wars Prequels

Way too much has been written about how the Star Wars prequels are cinematic travesties, so I’m not going to belabor the point here. Rather, let’s direct the focus to one aspect of George Lucas’s trilogy that has considerable merit: Ewan McGregor’s performance as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Though McGregor was a fortune in having Liam Neeson help him to carry Episode 1, the Scottish actor was given the unenviable task of having to be paired with the totally miscast Hayden Christensen for much of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

McGregor knowingly channeled the late Alec Guinness in his interpretation of Obi-Wan but he also makes the character his own, giving the Jedi Master a warmth and humanity shared by few other characters in these lifeless movies. Of course, much of the blame for the lackluster performances in this trilogy can be placed squarely on the poor dialogue the actors had to work with, as seen with Natalie Portman – an actress with sizable talents who looks completely lost in her role as Padmé. Fortunately, McGregor somehow rises above all of it to give memorable performances across all three prequels and proved so capable in the role that there has been a demand to see him return as Obi-Wan ever since.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

2. Paul Freeman – Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)

Not to be confused with Oscar Isaac’s title villain from X-Men: Apocalypse, Paul Freeman’s theatrical turn as the disgusting Ivan Ooze is about the only thing from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers:  The Movie that holds up. The Power Rangers TV series had built a stable of campy villains by the time the movie was released in 1995, but Freeman is operating on a whole other level as a purple-hued shapeshifter hellbent on taking over the world after being imprisoned for thousands of years.

A British stage actor who was perhaps best known at the time for playing Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s clear from his performance that Freeman was keenly aware of what kind of movie he was in and fully embraced it. Freeman’s Ooze strikes the perfect balance between funny and terrifying, cracking jokes left and right while also posing a serious threat to the film’s teenage heroes. With its atrocious mid-90s CGI and cringe-inducing dialogue, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is nigh unwatchable if you’re over the age of six, but the 95-minute film is almost worth enduring for Freeman’s performance alone.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

1. Raul Julia – Street Fighter (1994)

It goes without saying at this point that video game movies are, with few exceptions, terrible. Such is the case with the first Street Fighter movie, an adaptation in the loosest of terms that is mostly just a forgettable mid-90s Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle. However, there is one bright spot in this cinematic mess and it’s the late Raul Julia, who gave his final performance in Street Fighter as the film’s dastardly villain M. Bison. Julia, who was battling cancer throughout production, only took the role because his children were big fans of the fighting game and even though it’s disappointing to see such a gifted actor give his last performance in a movie undeserving of his talents, there’s no denying that Julia gives the role his all.

A consummate professional, Julia elevates Street Fighter into something watchable thanks to his tongue-in-cheek performance, playing Bison as a self-aware megalomaniac who steals every scene he’s in (His “for me, it was Tuesday,” line is pretty much legendary at this point). No one would ever confuse Street Fighter with a good movie, but Julia’s performance is a gift that keeps on giving.

Source: Screenshot via Universal Pictures

Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)