We’ve already taken a look at what can happen when a bad character or actor torpedoes a movie, but what about the flipside? Occasionally, an actor will rise above the dreck of a bad movie and will turn in a performance so inspired or so charismatic that it somehow manages to save the whole movie – or at least parts of it anyway. The following are nine such performances. Some of these are iconic, once in a lifetime type performances which helped elevate their movie to the ranks of the all-time classics while others are simply outrageous scene stealing performances that helped to cover up that without them, the movie was a festering pile of rancid turds. With that said, here are nine actors who saved bad movies.
Photo credit: YouTube/Warner Bros.
9 Al Pacino – ‘The Devil’s Advocate’
The Devil’s Advocate is a ridiculous movie. It’s campy as hell, it features an absurdly terrible Keanu Reeves butchering what is supposed to be a Southern accent, and it is also tremendously entertaining. This is all because of Al Pacino’s over the top turn as John Milton aka the (spoiler alert!) Devil. And when I say over the top, I mean way, way over the top, like outer space over the top. Pacino is at his crazy best here. You actually believe that he’s the Devil. The only way this movie could work at all is if Pacino went absolutely nuts. He did and the result is a terrible movie that is incredibly re-watchable.
Photo credit: YouTube/Warner Bros.
8 Clint Eastwood – ‘Gran Torino’
This might be a controversial choice since Gran Torino was actually a pretty decent flick. But that’s because there was only one man alive who could pull off the central character of Walt Kowalski and that was Clint Eastwood. Think about it. No one else could have played that role. No one else could have pulled off the combination of gruff world weariness, old school toughness, quiet pride and basic decency which made the character –- and the movie -– so compelling. Walt Kowalski is Clint Eastwood. Without him playing that part, the movie had the potential to be an amateurish schlockfest, full of maudlin life lessons and bad melodrama. But it wasn’t and that’s because Clint Eastwood held that movie together with every part of his being and in the process created a character and a movie that serve as the last statement of a generation in its twilight years.
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7 John Travolta – ‘From Paris With Love’
From Paris With Love is not a good movie. Not even close. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is terrible in the lead role and the whole thing feels like a barely warmed over Luc Besson movie. Which it is. But if there is one thing that John Travolta does well, it’s playing completely over the top ultra-charismatic degenerates. He did it in Face-Off and Broken Arrow and he does it here too as super-spy/psychopath Charlie Wax. His presence is a giant adrenaline needle in the heart of a movie that otherwise would have flat-lined within minutes of its inception. I’m not really sure why Travolta is so good at playing these types of characters. Maybe at heart he is a degenerate psychopath. Who knows? All I know is it’s just about the only time I can stand him and on those rare occasions when he allows himself to let it all out and embraces his “evil twin”, he –- and his movies -– manage to be a lot of fun. Thankfully for From Paris With Love, this was one of those times.
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6 Val Kilmer – ‘Tombstone’
Tombstone is not a bad movie. It’s a lot of fun and it’s very re-watchable, but that’s largely because of Kilmer’s incredibly charismatic performance as Doc Holliday, which completely kicks the ass of Kurt Russell’s mildly annoying Wyatt Earp, who honestly comes off as kind of an asshole. Without Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Tombstone would probably have been quickly forgotten, written off as a thoroughly average movie centered around a tepid love story between Russell’s Earp and Dana Delany’s Josephine Marcus, who may be the most pointless love interest in movie history. But it isn’t. Instead, it’s actually kind of a beloved movie and that’s all because of Kilmer. His “I’m your huckleberry…” line is iconic and his equally iconic portrayal of the tubercular Doc Holliday has made it impossible for anyone to ever play the character again without being unfavorably compared to Kilmer. He absolutely killed it and in the process he managed to elevate Tombstone from just another Western to legitimately awesome movie.
Photo credit: YouTube/Buena Vista Pictures
5 Christian Slater – ‘Pump Up the Volume’
Pump Up the Volume is a beloved cult classic, damn near worshiped by dudes of a certain age, and any criticism of it is likely to be met with fan boy bitching and moaning. But here’s the thing: without Christian Slater that movie suuuuuuucks. It’s incredibly preachy and the whole thing comes off like a bad after school special. The performances are almost all hilariously bad and there are entire scenes which are unintentionally hilarious because they are so awkward and ridiculous. But the thing is, is that I love Pump Up the Volume just as much as everyone else. Hell, I own the movie. And that’s all because of Christian Slater, whose performance as Mark Hunter and his alter ego, Hard Harry, is so charismatic and so brilliant that it covers up all of the flaws of the rest of the film. Hell, the character is damn near the prototype for every fool gibbering on the internet. Slater captured something real and electric and that’s what everybody responds to. And it’s because of this –- and only this -– that Pump Up the Volume is still so fondly thought of today.
Photo credit: YouTube/New Line Cinema
4 Al Pacino – ‘Scent of a Woman’
Al Pacino appears for the second time on this list and deservedly so. He has made a career of showing up in kinda crappy movies and delivering wild, colorful performances that everybody remembers and his performance in Scent of a Woman as blind Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade is probably number one on that long and ridiculous list. I mean, the dude won a damn Oscar for it. Which is kind of remarkable when you consider that the movie itself is pretty crappy. Scent of a Woman is a cliché-filled coming of age story complete with a hackneyed “young man finds a mentor” storyline that we have seen a million other times. The characters are boring, and… oh sorry, I just nodded off thinking about the movie. But Al Pacino is so good, so charismatic and so, well, Al freakin’ Pacino that he manages to drag the movie up to his crazy level. It’s a legendary performance in a not so legendary film and, well, that’s what this list is all about.
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3 Johnny Depp – ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are horrible, noisy Disney abominations which would be almost completely unwatchable if it wasn’t for Johnny Depp channeling Keith Richards for his bizarre and ultra-charismatic performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. To say that Depp stole the film would be a woeful understatement. He completely owned the film. Without him, the movie is just a crappy and tepid love story starring Orlando Bloom which would make any dude want to hang himself in the back of the theater just to get out of watching the craptastic nonsense on the big screen. But Depp was king-sized. He swept all the other garbage off the screen and ended up creating a wildly entertaining character which managed to salvage the film. I mean, the dude was nominated for an Oscar for playing a character based on a ride at Disneyworld. That’s astounding and it’s a testament to just how much Depp means to the entire Pirates of a Caribbean franchise.
Photo credit: YouTube/Walt Disney Pictures
2 Harrison Ford – ‘Star Wars’
I am going to catch hell for this one, but search your feelings, you know it to be true. Without Ford’s iconic performance as Han Solo, Star Wars is just the hokey story of a whining farm boy who catches the eye of a weird old wizard and then flies around space accompanied by a pair of gay robots and an overgrown dog man. Or, to put it another way, if you take Harrison Ford as Han Solo out of Star Wars and its sequels, you know what you get? The Phantom Menace. That’s right. Ford managed to drag the original Star Wars films over the line that separates cheesy from awesome with his ultra-charismatic and cool performance as Han Solo. It wasn’t George Lucas who did it. Hell no. Let’s not forget that Lucas scripted Han to boringly respond “I love you too” after Leia told him she loved him just before he was frozen in carbonite and it was Ford who ad-libbed the line “I know.” That is the scene which sums up Han’s whole character and it was because of Harrison Ford, not George Lucas. He made Star Wars what it is today. You can have all the special effects you want and you can spend a billion dollars creating a whole universe that looks amazing, but if you don’t have the right attitude and you don’t have something that makes it all feel genuine and real, then you don’t have anything. Thankfully for George Lucas, he had Harrison Ford and he should get on his hands and knees and thank the maker every day that he did, because in the end, Harrison Ford is what made Star Wars go.
Photo credit: YouTube/20th Century Fox
1 Marlon Brando – ‘The Wild One’
The Wild One is an iconic film which damn near defined the last half century’s definition of rebel cool, which is remarkable when you consider that the film itself is basically just a half-assed exploitation flick meant to cash in on the rising notoriety of motorcycle gangs in the 1950’s. But it survives as a cultural landmark because of Brando’s awesome performance as motorcycle gang leader Johnny Strabler. Brando makes Strabler a real character in a sea of clichés. It’s an intense, gripping performance that is so raw and so charismatic that it became the personification of an idea which helped to transform the entirety of western civilization in the 1960’s. That is an absurd statement to make, hyperbolic and ridiculous, but it’s kind of true. Brando in The Wild One planted a seed which blossomed into a counter-culture revolution and while it has become kind of a cliché — the whole Fonzie cool -– we can’t forget that once upon a time, it was actually dangerous and meaningful and outright radical, a middle finger at the established norm. It helped open the door for people to dare to be different, to openly question authority and to take it upon themselves to transform the culture of their generation. That is absolutely crazy to think about when you consider that The Wild One is a simple exploitation flick. But it’s so much more than that, and that’s all thanks to Brando’s iconic performance as Johnny Strabler. And that’s enough to make him number one on this list.
Photo credit: YouTube/Columbia Pictures
(Previously published on March 11, 2011.)