Alan Rickman, in the space of a few years, committed to screen two of the finest movie villain performances of modern blockbuster cinema. It would be fair to say that both acted as a template of sorts for the standard British foe that would permeate big Hollywood movies for the decade that followed, and Rickman steered clear of villainous roles thereafter.
But sandwiched in-between the release of Die Hard in 1988 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991 was an Australian western by the name of Quigley Down Under. First released in 1990, although not making it to the UK until 1991 (some three months before Robin Hood arrived on UK cinema screens), it’s a western set in Australia, directed by Simon Wincer. Wincer won an Emmy for helming the acclaimed TV series Lonesome Dove, and would go on to direct Free Willy, The Phantom (yes!), and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.
Quigley Down Under, however, is a small treat. Certainly Wincer takes his time absorbing the gorgeous Australian landscape. And then he fashions a film that tells the story of an American sharpshooter who travels to Australia at the request of a not-very-nice rancher by the name of Elliott Marston. Three guesses where Rickman fits in. The film at first feels like a vehicle for Tom Selleck, and he and his moustache are the lead characters here. When he arrives, I couldn’t help but think Selleck had nicked his wardrobe from Michael J. Fox’s look, back when Marty turns up in the Old West at the start of Back to the Future: Part III. But things soon settle down, and Selleck goes about playing Matthew Quigley, a man who’s basically American Sniper in Australia in Olden Times.
A sniper who also never seems to miss a shot.
Quigley has an experimental weapon (steady), which basically means he can shoot anything the camera is pointing at. And at first, this means he and Elliott Marston get on very well. Rickman plays Marston very much as an Englishman in the outback, and he’s also sporting a fine moustache (although not at Selleck standard). It doesn’t take long for Quigley and Marston to not see eye to eye, and it also doesn’t take too long for us to realize that Marston is a bastard. His plan basically involves genocide. What’s more, Rickman pitches Marston as slightly closer to the screen-gobbling Sheriff of Nottingham as opposed to Die Hard‘s Gruber. It’s interesting that of his three villain roles, the two that come across lighter are the ones involving a scene of attempted rape (Robin Hood) and attempted mass murder. His coolest, most collected antagonist remains Hans Gruber, and he was just after some bearer bonds.
But to be clear, his turn in Quigley Down Under is excellent, as you’d expect. The downside is that we don’t get an awful lot of screentime with him here. This is very much a Tom Selleck vehicle, and quite a good one, but it does mean that the requisite dose of Rickman is found near the start and at the end of the film (although he pops up from time to time, at one point talking to a man with a red pompom on his hat).
His role in fact is of such a size that some reviews at the time barely had room to register it. Variety was amongst those who did, saying that Rickman was “a perfectly cast hissable villain,” while Time Out called him “splendidly snide.” The New York Times pinned him correctly when it called Rickman “an effortless scene-stealer.”
The downside though is that Elliott Marston turns out to be a bit of an idiot, doing that thing where the villain has a chance to kill his nemesis, but steadfastly refuses to do so. Instead he opts to do something daft, which has consequences and not healthy ones. In fact, on two occasions he could kill Selleck’s character stone dead. Let’s just say Hans Gruber wouldn’t have missed either of the opportunities, and even he had his moments.
Still, it seems odd, even factoring the smaller role and the logic issue near the end, that Quigley Down Under seems to have been wiped from the Rickman Archive of Villainy. Perhaps it was always a long shot, being a 1990s western that wasn’t a Dances With Wolves-esque revival, nor a Back to the Future sequel. In fact, it’s far straighter down the line than either, and worth it alone for the photography. It’s not the easiest film to view, but Quigley Down Under is a rewarding one.
In a fight between Rickman’s assorted foes, though, Elliott Marston would still finish last. He’d lead from the front, then get to the point where he had Gruber and the Sheriff tied up in front of him. Then he’d give them both a weapon and a head start rather than finish either off….