Well, They Tried: Great Performances in Really Bad Movies

Transformers: The Last Knight Mark Wahlberg

Sometimes even the best performances can’t save bad films. An actor can give a role their everything and still not manage to save a bad script and substandard story.

A skilled performance from a talented actor won't make a terrible movie excellent but will make it more enjoyable to watch. Perhaps the actor didn't realize how bad the resulting film. Maybe they understood the assignment and gave an exaggerated performance that made a boring movie more engaging.

Find here some great performances in really bad movies.

Michael Sheen in the Twilight Saga

Micheal Sheen in Breaking Dawn
Image Credit: Summit Entertainment.

Michael Sheen delivers a deliciously camp performance as Aro, one of the three leaders of the vampire coven known as the Volturi. The Welsh actor, who often appears in critically acclaimed movies like Frost/Nixon and The Queen, cut his teeth on the mediocre vampire action flick Underworld, so he knew what this franchise required of him.

First appearing in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, his performance shines against his sullen and motionless co-stars. Sheen’s performances become bigger as the films evolve until he gives audiences masterful over-the-top line readings in Breaking Dawn – Part 2. It’s disappointing the franchise didn’t give him more screen time, as he is by far the best thing about the uneven YA vamp flicks.

Jennifer Connelly in Dark Water (2005)

Dark Water Jennifer Connelly 1
Images Credit: Focus Features

 Jennifer Connelly’s performance elevates Dark Water beyond an otherwise forgettable movie. While this horror film endures criticism for being a vapid remake, Connelly does tremendous work. She plays a mother haunted by bad memories who struggles to protect her daughter from the ghost who lives upstairs.

One of the lesser American remakes of Japanese horror,  Dark Water does feature a great cast including Tim Roth and John C. Reilly. Sadness oozes from Connelly, giving the script an emotional beat that this really bad movie lacks on paper.

 Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy (2012)

Nicole Kidman in the Paperboy
Image Credit: Lionsgate.

Nicole Kidman’s high-camp performance saves Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy from its trashy self. Earning Golden Globe and SAG nominations as a woman in love with a convicted murderer, the film provides an uncomfortable slice of Southern gothic, yet the Australian actress is a revelation.

The Paperboy invited boos at its Cannes premiere, but Kidman gives the role her all. Kidman squatting over Zac Efron before urinating over his torso has become an iconic moment among really bad movies in the 21st century. Even critics couldn't deny that the actress commits to the madness.

Tom Hanks in The Ladykillers (2004)

Tom Hanks Ladykillers
Image Credit: Touchstone Pictures.

The Ladykillers marks a rare dud in the Coen brothers’ otherwise consistent filmography. This, despite Tom Hank’s compelling performance as the sinister criminal mastermind. Hanks plays against his America’s Dad type as the erudite Professor G.H. Dorr, who plans to rob a riverboat casino by tunneling through the home of the churchgoing Marva Munson.

While the remake of the 1955 Ealing comedy feels unnecessary, Hanks reinvents a role originally inhabited by Alex Guinness. It’s a shame this is the only time the actor has tackled the Coen Brother’s biting dialogue, as he does it with a sardonic ease.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly (2004)

Along Came Polly Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Along Came Polly didn't seem like a natural fit for the talents of Phillip Seymour Hoffman on paper, yet the actor seems to have a great time. As former child star Sandy Lyle, Hoffman becomes one of the few highlights in this uncomfortably silly Ben Stiller/ Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy.

The late Hoffman doesn't hesitate to steal Ben Stiller’s thunder in the supporting role and overshadow the forgettable lead. Despite becoming famous for his serious roles, Hoffman physically throws himself into the role of the ultimate theatre kid, bringing depth to a flimsy character in a forgettable movie.

Thomas Hayden Church in Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Spiderman 3 Thomas Haden Church
Images Credit: Sony.

Even among really bad movies, Spider-Man 3 invites near-universal dislike, aside from Thomas Haden Church’s heartbreaking turn as Flint Marko, AKA Sandman. Church sells the small, emotional moments of the Sandman’s human arc, battling poor CGI, strange directorial choices and an unwieldy plot. Sandman manages to survive the tonal mess to deliver a sincere pathos.

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

Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tries to use the tragedy of 9/11 to make a point, hitting every single sentimental trope possible. Despite criticism upon its release for exploiting and mining real-life tragedy, Max Van Sydow’s wordless performance stands out as the only worthwhile element of this uncomfortable drama.

Earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination, Sydow plays a character simply known as The Renter, who solely communicates via a notepad and hands with the words yes or no etched into them. Despite his minimal screen time, his wordless scenes are a career highlight for the late actor.

Kristen Stewart in American Ultra (2015)

American Ultra
Image Credit: Lionsgate.

Stoner comedy American Ultra was tolerable but forgettable 2015 film. Kristen Stewart's supporting role, however, deserves praise. She adds emotional depth to the role of the supportive girlfriend of an amnesiac government sleeper agent.

Starring alongside Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra offered the first glimpse of the actress' true ability. Remember, she endured slings and arrows for dreadful work in a series of really bad movies, the Twilight saga. While the movie fails to deliver on the premise, Stewart proves herself as an actress worthy of more than the sullen love interest.

Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant (2017)

alien covenent
Image Credit: Fox.

Fassbender’s performance elevates an otherwise messy Alien sequel. Fassbender’s android character, David (and later models called Walter) dreams of being a real boy but can't hide his contempt for humankind.

Beginning in Prometheus and continuing into Covenant, David's obsession with Lawrence of Arabia encourages him to mimic Peter O’Toole’s mannerisms and accent in the film. Fassbender perfectly plays the stiff android trying to replicate O’Toole’s performance, a remarkable feat for the Irish actor. Fassbender effortlessly conveys his character's conflict throughout the franchise, giving layers to the lackluster sequel.

Ewan McGregor – Star Wars Prequels

Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith
Image Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd.

The quality of the Star Wars prequels will forever invite debate, but nearly everyone agrees on the quality of Ewan McGregor’s performance. The Scottish actor plays the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, with nods to Alec Guinness’ performance while making the role his own.

Unlike many of his co-stars, McGregor handles the stilted dialogue with ease. McGregor loved the sci-fi franchise before taking on the role, so his enthusiasm for the prequels went far beyond a good paycheck. Without him, the trilogy may have earned even more criticism from fans.

Florence Pugh in Don't Worry Darling (2022)

Florence Pugh
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Don’t Worry Darling has more of a reputation for behind-the-scenes drama (a phenomenon long associated with really bad movies) than the quality of the film. Despite the exciting interpersonal relationships of the cast, the thrills failed to make it on the big screen. While Harry Styles gives a rigid performance and the script comes off more than a little self-indulgent, the uber-talented Florence Pugh remains standing in a film that suffers from style over substance.

The Black Mirror-inspired story of a housewife living in a suspiciously perfect neighborhood fails to land once the dystopian thrills come. Pugh takes an underbaked script and gives a skilled performance as a woman seeing the cracks in her idyllic life.

Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

David Ayer’s Suicide Squad won universal critical derision, perhaps due to studio meddling in the editing room. In a cast of uneven performances and underdeveloped characters, Margot Robbie shines. No wonder Warner Bros. brought Robbie back twice more as Harley Quinn.

Despite the cringe-worthy dialogue and raunchy costume, the Australian actress rises head and shoulders above her co-stars (which include Will Smith and Viola Davis). Her unhinged anti-hero became an iconic film character overnight thanks to Robbie's perfect blend of melancholy and playfulness. Robbie understands the balance between a fun performance and a ridiculous one, even in really bad movies.

James McAvoy in Split (2016)

Split Movie
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

M. Night Shyamalan’s multiple-personality horror Split has issues with its portrayal of mental health, but that can't distract from James McAvoy’s showstopping performance. The Scottish actor plays multiple characters in one, dipping in and out of personalities in a matter of seconds with no costume change required.

Playing a serial killer with dissociative identity disorder, McAvoy embodies the personality of eight distinct people, including a nine-year-old boy, a protective woman called Patricia, and the animalistic The Beast. The film may have ended up as a disappointing supervillain origin story and joined the growing list of Shyamalan's really bad movies, but McAvoy unarguable delivers an acting tour de force that commands the big screen.

Raul Julia in Street Fighter (1994)

Street Fighter Raul Julia Close Up Major Bison
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

1994’s Street Fighter became Raul Julia’s last role before his untimely death, aged just 54. Considered one of the worst video game adaptions, the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle has one bright spot in an overall messy film. Raul Julia has fun as the dastardly villain, M. Bison, enhancing the character's megalomania and self-awareness.

Filmed while the actor battled cancer, Julia only took on the role because his children loved the video game. While Street Fighter holds a near-legendary status among really bad movies, Julia steals every scene and gives a memorable performance.

Anthony Hopkins in Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

really bad movies
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight proved the franchise of really bad movies had run out of energy cubes. Anthony Hopkins joins the cast of the emotionally void fifth installment as Sir Edmund Burton, a historian and expert in Autobots and Decepticons. The Oscar-winning actor knows when to add gravitas to the performance and when to ham it up.

Hopkins understands what the role requires from him, which gives the legendary actor an excuse to go wild. Rumors circulate that when the Welsh actor receives a specific type of script, he reportedly marks certain pages with the letters “NAR” (“No Acting Required”). While Burton is nowhere near Hopkins' career-best work, he makes a compelling addition to a cynically poor sequel.