Rickman rescues: 9 movies the actor elevated just by showing up

Published on June 15, 2021

Like everyone else in the world, The A.V. Club was devastated to learn of the recent death of English stage and screen star Alan Rickman. While he is getting many (deserved) memorial tributes for his iconic turns as Harry Potter’s conflicted Severus Snape, Galaxy Quest’s magnificent Alexander Dane, and even Sense And Sensibility’s shy suitor, on closer look, Rickman elevates every single movie he’s in, just because he’s in it. Even (especially) movies that would otherwise be unredeemable. So below is a list of fair-to-middling films that Rickman heroically managed to energize every time he showed up on screen.

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, “Marvin The Paranoid Android” (2005)

Garth Jennings’ 2005 adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy suffered many flaws—most of them stemming from a seemingly perverse desire to erase any lingering vision of the BBC’s beloved, gloriously clunky TV version from 1981. In particular, Jennings’ design for one of The Hitchhiker’s Guide’s best characters—Marvin The Paranoid Android—stomps all over the BBC’s design, substituting a gangly, awkward robot for a cutesy, streamlined Bobblehead of a droid. While the excellent-on-paper cast of the 2005 film was largely squandered, Alan Rickman’s voice portrayal of Marvin is one of the movie’s few saving graces: Profoundly glum and existentially exasperated, Rickman adds a sly twist of sardonic contempt to Adams’ iconic creation. [Jason Heller]

2. Dogma, “Metatron” (1999)

Kevin Smith’s Dogma is an unholy mess of a movie, as the writer-director grapples with Catholicism to the point of incomprehension. Only one actor could lead us through the convoluted plot that involves fallen angels Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck) discovering a loophole that will simultaneously get them back into heaven and negate all of existence: Alan Rickman. Smith wisely cast the Chasing Amy fan as Metatron, a seraphim who serves as the resolute voice of God (and what a voice!), while slyly dropping Karate Kid and Six Million Dollar Man references. In a stomach-churning movie filled with loathsome characters (Jay, Silent Bob, and Jason Lee as a mischievous demon), the audience is almost as relieved as Linda Fiorentino’s last scion when Rickman’s Metatron infrequently shows up, offering tequila, walking on water, or introducing God herself. [Gwen Ihnat]

3. Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, “Sheriff Of Nottingham” (1991)

Director Kevin Reynolds and star Kevin Costner clearly thought they were making a serious, important film with Hollywood’s umpteenth adaptation of the Robin Hood story. But with Costner’s American-accented English nobleman at the helm, it’s a pretty stupid movie, which is why the actor who comes off best is the only one who seems to realize that. Alan Rickman turned down the role of Sheriff Of Nottingham twice before the movie’s producers agreed to let him play the role any way he wanted. So while much of Costner’s screen time is leaden and self-important, Rickman’s sneering, scenery-chewing over-the-top villain is the only person having any fun on screen. When he finds out Robin has been stealing from him, the Sheriff turns to an underling and proclaims, “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.” He punctuates another scene by turning to a scared servant girl and demanding, “My room. 10:30 tonight,” then immediately moves on to the next girl with “10:45. And bring a friend.” Maybe Costner’s film still would have been a hit without Rickman (it was the No. 2 movie of the year, behind Terminator 2), but it would have been a heck of a lot less enjoyable. [Mike Vago]

4. Alice In Wonderland, “Absolem The Caterpillar” (2010)

The Tim Burton adaptation of Alice In Wonderland is one of the worst examples of late Tim Burton: assertively weird for weird’s sake, emphasizing odd visuals in favor of character or plot, and Johnny Depp relying on tics and twitches rather than acting. But while heavy on the CGI, it does have an impressive voice cast, and first among equals is Rickman as Absolem The Caterpillar, the hookah-smoking prophet of Wonderland who begrudgingly helps guide Alice on her way. Rickman makes the character as memorable as Richard Haydn did in the original 1951 animated film, taking the iconic “Who… are… you?” line and imbuing it with all the right levels of boredom and disdain. He reprised the role for the upcoming sequel Alice Through The Looking Glass, which will be his final screen appearance when it premieres in May. Here’s hoping for one last wry, jaded, smoky scene. [Les Chappell]

5. The January Man, “Ed” (1989)

Despite being reticent to start a film career, Rickman’s initial foray into cinema found him nearly stealing Die Hard away from Bruce Willis and cementing his status as a master of memorable bad guys, but he achieved two equally impressive feats the following year. The first was stealing scenes away from Kevin Kline while he was still riding high on the success of A Fish Called Wanda. The second was making The January Man almost worth seeing. As Ed, neighbor to—and erstwhile assistant of—eccentric police detective Nick Starkey (Kline), Rickman’s perpetually dry wit is on display throughout the film as he delivers lines like, “The world is either great or wretched, isn’t it?” Although the overall affair is so tonally inconsistent as to leave most viewers frustrated by the time the credits roll, it does at least successfully leave them wondering, “Hey, who was the guy that played Ed?” [Will Harris]

6. A Little Chaos, “Louis XIV” (2015)

It feels like cheating to include a movie that Rickman himself directed, but A Little Chaos would have been worse if Rickman didn’t decide to cast himself. A Little Chaos is Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a fictional landscaper employed by André Le Nôtre, mastermind behind Versailles’ gardens. Rickman plays Louis XIV, opening the movie with a sweet scene of the ruler adorably discussing how to rule to his children. The best scene in the movie, though, is when the Sun King retreats to a garden after losing his wife. He takes off his wig and his finery and is no longer a sovereign, but a man grieving the death of his wife. He and Winslet have one scene together, as she encounters him in the garden, and it’s lovely to watch the two master actors work in tandem. [Molly Eichel]

7. Rasputin: Dark Servant Of Destiny, “Rasputin” (1996)

HBO’s Rasputin: Dark Servant Of Destiny isn’t exactly some made-for-cable dreck that Alan Rickman singlehandedly rescued—and even if the material had been of questionable quality, he would have had ample help from the rest of the cast, which includes Sir Ian McKellen, Greta Scacchi, David Warner, John Wood, and James Frain. But Rickman’s powerhouse performance as the titular Russian mystic has been lost to the passage of time and Harry Potter movies, which is why we could all use a reminder of the late actor’s first foray into the (cinematic) dark arts. As the “mad monk” and advisor to Tsar Nicholas II (McKellen), Rickman is at once pitiable and formidable, beatific yet seductive. Rasputin’s motives and methods are questionable, and made all the more dubious by Rickman’s layered portrayal. The actor honed his grudging guardian chops as the peasant who’s been credited with bringing down a dynasty. [Danette Chavez]

8. An Awfully Big Adventure, “P.L. O’Hara” (1995)

Mid-’90s moviegoers hoping for a cheerful Four Weddings And A Funeral followup from director Mike Newell and star Hugh Grant were crushingly disappointed by An Awfully Big Adventure. Seen through the eyes of teenaged Stella (Georgina Cates), it’s an odd, plodding attempted romp through a local theater group, post World War II. Grant plays a calculating stage director dedicated to ruining his cast’s lives, while Stella and her male counterpart are blithely passed around for sexual favors throughout the theater. Thank God Rickman shows up to save the day about halfway through the movie, as a well-known stage actor who takes over as Hook in the group’s production of Peter Pan. Playing one of the only characters with any sense of morality, Rickman is swoon-worthy enough to steal the romantic thunder from Grant, who was the fledgling rom-com contender at the time. He even treats his inevitable affair with Stella with such tenderness, it almost negates the skeeviness of their age difference, at least until the movie’s bleak twist ending. [Gwen Ihnat]

9. CBGB, “Hilly Kristal” (2013)

It would be disingenuous to suggest that even Rickman is capable of salvaging CBGB, a complete mess of a movie that wants to pay tribute to the burgeoning New York punk scene of the 1970s yet manages to fail to do so at every turn. Still, there’s something fascinating about seeing Rickman—who was arguably never more miscast at any point in his career—playing Hilly Kristal, founder of the titular punk club, while sporting ’70s hair and fashions while playing, of all things, an American. Unfortunately, the script fails to provide Rickman with sufficient material to explain how Kristal managed to turn a hole in the wall in the Bowery into one of the most famous clubs in rock ’n’ roll history. But if it wasn’t for Rickman’s charisma as an actor (not to mention a certain amount of accrued good will from his past work), it’s unlikely that most people would’ve finished watching the film at all. [Will Harris]