Full credit for this concept belongs to Mark Kermode…
Given the law of averages, it’s fairly common that as film fans we’re far more likely to run into a stinker than we are a new classic, or worse still a underwhelming slice of anti-climax that promised so much more. Quite often that leaves us deciphering a mess and hanging on to small morsels of consolation from an ultimately wasted couple of hours.
The end result of this is that you, on occasion, may stumble across a disproportionately good turn from the only actor in the movie who seemed to be taking their work seriously. You could make a legitimate claim that this is far more worthy than excellent acting in Oscar bait, but such feats are so often ignored and dismissed along with its mediocre surround.
Here is a run down of ten such performances, a rare moment of acknowledgement for the thespians who really did suffer for their art.
Sigourney Weaver in Alien: Resurrection
Appropriately kicking us off is an actress playing a part only made possible by ridiculous plotting. After three strong central performances (or two and a half, for those of a pedantic nature) in the Alien franchise, Weaver returns as the now cloned Ripley. In a rare example of future science not being conveniently perfect, the reborn Ripley comes back with a smattering of Queen Alien DNA in her system, resulting in some disturbing new facets to her personality.
While Resurrection is an unsophisticated gore fest of relative entertainment value, Weaver, almost unnoticed, gives a curious and enjoyable performance as the altered Ripley, with old parts of the classic heroine showing up in glimpses between dark and predatory tangents. As a drifting and homeless figure, not quite fully human, she is surprisingly compelling and, dare I say it, almost convincing amongst the B movie ham. Sterling work in spite of the numerous obstacles, including almost all of her dialogue.
Ethan Hawke/Richard Gere in Brooklyn’s Finest
A double bill here, as Antoine Fuqua’s interesting but disposable multi-arc thriller contains two excellent against type performances that lift it a notch, of which I cannot pick a favorite. Ethan Hawke adopts a thick Italian-American accent and a restless façade as a overworked, financially stretched family man detective, while Richard Gere shows his best form to portray a weary, lonely beat cop in the final stages of his bitterly fruitless career.
While these very character arcs are ultimate clichés on paper, they are given life by two confident, assured performances that conceal the star power the respective actors enjoy, and act as diametric opposites on the spectrum. While Hawke provides desperate nervous energy and cardiac arrest inducing risk taking, Gere’s mournful and underplayed hopelessness displays a very different version of the same despair. Fascinating to watch, the duo makes the film more than simply watchable.
Karel Roden in 15 Minutes
A bizarrely unfocussed and supposedly satirical thriller, 15 Minutes’ greatest gift is not in the phoned-in work of Robert De Niro or dime a dozen action heroics of Edward Burns, but in the intimidating and ferocious work of then unknown Czech actor Karel Roden as one part of the villainous double act.
Showing a blistering and intense rage, Roden compels and scares as murderer Emil Slovik, who along with his partner in crime (played by Oleg Taktarov) goes on a killing spree across New York City with a video camera in hand. This outstanding breakthrough has resulted in a career spent being a ‘Rent a Russian/Eastern European’ in numerous Hollywood films, many of which he steals.
Kurt Russell in Dark Blue
That 2002’s police thriller Dark Blue could ever be described as ‘underrated owes everything to the powerhouse performance at its head by the unlikely figure of Kurt Russell, who manages to inject some class into an otherwise disposable story set during the LA Riots.
Russell, in an anti-villain protagonist role, plays corrupt detective Eldon Perry with panache, drawing interest into a formulaic story before utterly stealing the show during a brilliant, offensive and soul bearing speech at a medal award ceremony. Always tiptoeing between ruthless and evil, Russell gives potentially his best ever performance.
Samuel L. Jackson in A Time To Kill
While A Time To Kill may be one of the most heavy handed court room dramas ever put on film, complete with utterly black and white (no pun intended) morality and clumsily unsubtle characterizations, it does boast another behemoth performance by one Sam the Man Jackson.
His most famous moment will obviously be his witness stand tirade, but between times Jackson brings real pathos to the part in his display of fractured dignity, privation induced animalism and a rounded and caring picture of a broken, decent man driven to monstrous acts. The corny writing and sensationalized direction of Joel Schumacher may make him fully sympathetic by default, but Jackson makes sure the accused is no cardboard cut out hero.
Meryl Streep in The River Wild
It is a measure of Meryl Streep’s considerable acting chops – hardly in doubt after three Oscar wins – that she is able to light up a traditional action adventure with stupidity in its veins and ultimately not bow in to the scenery chewing going on around her.
Showing that quiet drama is not her only domain, Streep here gives a carefully and honestly structured turn as the mother of a struggling family put into dire danger by Kevin Bacon’s escaped bank robber while on a perilous kayaking journey. Going beyond the material, she manages to somehow produce a character study that wasn’t present in the script, making the film’s predictable duration all the more interesting.
Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher
Though it has affectionate status among movie buffs, there’s no doubting that 80’s horror fodder The Hitcher is an unapologetically stupid and over to the top outing completely in-keeping with the era, and that its one real draw comes from a chilling and memorable performance by the ultimate cult hero, Rutger Hauer.
Fresh off the back of Blade Runner, Hauer squeezes every iota of menace and insanity he can muster into the titular villain, John Ryder, as he terrorizes young C. Thomas Howell during the road trip from Hell. While Ryder proves to be a near supernatural force, Hauer avoids the ham and narm one would expect and instead cranks the creepy up to eleven in a wonderfully evil turn.
Dustin Hoffman in Confidence
Another film that falls into the category of enjoyable time waster is James Foley’s Confidence, an intricate and twist laden caper movie of variable degrees of quality. While it boasts an impressive cast, particularly in support, the real revelation is a rare villainous outing for Dustin Hoffman.
In a role that Al Pacino was born to play, Hoffman loves every second of playing the ADHD suffering mob boss at the centre of the saga, and it shows. His eccentric, energetic and at times hugely intimidating turn is an absolute joy to watch, the highlight of the film, and shows a very different side to an actor whose versatile talents are frequently forgotten.
Gary Oldman in half of his filmography
And now, the King of this category.
For every critically acclaimed performance that Gary Oldman delivers in a mainstream, well received film, he produces half a dozen unseen roles in inferior dross, making Christopher Walken’s career look consistent in quality. He may have wowed with his subtlety in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and JFK, and dazzled with his aggressive flair in Leon: The Professional and True Romance, but there are more than his fair share of turds along the way.
But the one constant throughout is Oldman himself, who always finds ways to brighten the gloom provided by The Scarlet Letter (which he steals while being very, very drunk), Immortal Beloved and Lost in Space. Being the highlight of Hannibal while unrecognizable as a deformed villain is nothing compared to making parts of The Book of Eli fun, or in ensuring that Sin isn’t totally without reason to watch. Also read Dead Fish, The Unborn, Rain Fall…et cetera.
By contrast, Oldman will appear prominently in The Dark Knight Rises at the end of the month. How could anyone doubt the abilities of a man who can make A-grade blockbusters and Oscar winners one minute, then pick up paychecks the next by dropping his standards several miles, and yet never lose his sparkling touch?
For your ability to shine surrounded by shit, we salute you, Sir.
– Scott Patterson