It's late. You're bushed. Maybe you had a little in the recreational beverage department. Or maybe you had a lot. (We're not condoning this kind of behavior, of course, but, folks, it does happen!) You're alone because she/the kids/he/it/the dog/whatever has gone upstairs/died/left/been abducted by aliens. You turn on the tube. You surf through inane nothingness, just looking for some white noise to chill you toward sleep. Nothing, however, is white enough or noisy enough. Finally, pay dirt! "Die Hard," the white-noisiest movie ever made!

So there you sit. Yadda-yadda-yadda, blah blah and blah, all receptors closed, all data interpretation systems cooled out and darkened, synapses in the non-firing mode, just awaiting the arrival of a late-night energy rally so that you can hit the sack and . . .

Someone steps out of that movie so big he smacks you in the mouth.

It's never the star. The star is uninteresting and always will be uninteresting, especially the Bruce-star. But someone is interesting.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Alan Rickman.

Has he ever been in a movie he hasn't a) been better than? and b) stolen handily? Well, okay, there was "Michael Collins." And it's true, in most of his "regular" movies he's a cast member, a part of the team.

But at a certain pitch, a certain level of shrieking comic intensity, he stands for a secret movie ecstasy, which is the character actor who seems at cross purposes to the general thrust of the piece but who manages to commandeer the film anyhow. When it has disappeared from mind, he remains. Yet at the same time you wonder if he could ever carry a film; he's much better when you're not expecting him, where your attention is elsewhere.

I think of others: James Woods was the great American exemplar, always better than the movies he was in, always the most interesting thing in them. Then he became a star and couldn't hold our attention; his ripply mannerisms and constant chatter seemed out of place and antiheroic at the center of a movie.

Of course Rickman's niche is slightly different: His lineage is British, not American, and he connects with another line in character artistry, namely the key of superciliousness. He seems to hark back to the greatest cad of them all, George Sanders.

Now there was a big nasty! Sanders, who left the best suicide note ever ("Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored"), played languid English snots for years, with dead eyes and skin so cold and white it appeared to be a cod's belly. He stood for English superiority as pure languid pose: He was Jeeves with a mace and chain ("I chose this day the mace and chain," he says in "Ivanhoe" where he loses the battle to Robert "I Am Wood" Taylor but carries the movie). He was a big bag of English rectitude served cold as suet pie, the snob as force of nature.

But where Sanders was frosty and distant, Rickman's irritation is of a slightly different declension. He is more voluble. Sanders dispatched with a rapier; Rickman is more of a shotgun man. He's a ranter, an emotionalist, almost sociopathic in his intensity. He seems to spit when he talks. A somewhat fleshy, meaty, thick-throated fellow, with the acerbic Brit stage superiority, a nose long and sniffy, eyes narrowed in perpetual snickery contempt, lots of hair, a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art plumminess in his rich voice, an accent so arch it could be James Bond's tailor addressing James Bond's fish delivery boy. He's always a joy to watch. There's something about his mouth, chin and throat; they seem fishy, somehow, and overactive. He also has the English thing of a slight suggestion of effeminacy under his big gestures, a man too comfortable crossing his legs thigh to thigh or holding his cigarette between the tips of his fingers.

I thought of this as I grooved on Rickman's exquisite turn as terrorist turned armed robber Hans Gruber in "Die Hard"--what a toot! Gruber is the worst kind of terrorist, one who's in it for the money and the bespoke suits. His suavity and self-possession and ironic contempt for the pathetic mortals who oppose him truly hijacks the movie from the stewardship of Bruce Willis, who thunders through it with the unidimensionality of an airline pilot on the vector to Toledo, Ohio. If he didn't have a Beretta and a South Jersey accent, you wouldn't notice him. In nominal plot terms, Willis's "good" may trump Rickman's "bad," but in movie universe terms, Rickman wiped out Willis.

He did the same to poor Kevin Costner in "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves," though one must acknowledge a sense of regret for Kevin, who was in way over his head. Talk about overmatched: He was flanked on the left by Rickman and on the right by his own ostensible sidekick, Morgan Freeman, who stole what little of the movie Rickman hadn't already purloined. Where's the rest of me, he must have wondered when he finally saw it.

As for Rickman, it was another great, showy turn: blazing spittle and perfect dithery outrage. Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham was grand opera to Costner's amateur theater. It was like man and boy. Of course Rickman did the same to the still more awkward Tom Selleck in "Quigley Down Under." And it seemed that his career could have been a cash cow to end all cash cows: making millions playing extravagant stage-English villains to wooden American stars. (Imagine . . . Rickman in a Schwarzenegger film!)

But the actor seems to have resisted that temptation. He is a socialist (ARGGGHHHHH!!!!! . . . oh, sorry, folks, it just slipped out) who lives with his longtime lover in a London apartment; she is a social activist and college professor of some sort (!). So Rickman has for the past half-dozen years fought the temptation to do the big commercial thing. He's appeared in art films and as a team player if at all. (He also directed an art film, the bleak "Winter Guest," and brother, do I hope he's got that out of his system!) He's resisted the big Tinseltown bucks. He has integrity. (I hate that in a man! Memo to Alan Rickman: Sell out.)

Well, here's the good news. It looks as though he has. He's playing, at long last, the kind of role that made him almost famous. He's a kind of mock-Spock in "Galaxy Quest," a delightful spoof of the tackiness of the "Star Trek" phenomenon that then morphs into its own delightful sci-fi movie. Rickman is fabulous in a role conceived to play off the long-suspected Nimoy-Shatner tension that formed an undercurrent--delicious to nonbelievers--in the "Star Trek" phenomenon.

As "Galaxy Quest" has it, Rickman's Alexander Dane is a failed Shakespearean ("I played Hamlet at 23") who became reluctantly famous as a wise alien on a cheesy TV series called, of course, "Galaxy Quest." To make his humiliation even more loathsome, his character, Dr. Lazarus, must wear a crown of makeup about his head, a kind of rubbery, neo-reptilian brain mutation that turns him ridiculous. Worse, as the story progresses, the prosthesis grows tattier and tattier until it is all but disintegrating. It looks like a woman's bathing cap with a bad case of gangrene.

How wonderful! There is Rickman in the full blossom of self-love, his Royal Academy dignity at highest, snootiest pitch, and all about his head is a rotting crown of rubbery plastic that is slipping and cracking and peeling all at once. His big, fluid, saggy face is animated with self-loathing and contempt for American film culture. His signal line, "Never give up!," makes him ill. He hates the sad little strip malls of the Valley, the "Galaxy Quest" conventions where people without lives line up and pay a buck for an autograph. To think that this is what an heir to Laughton, Gielgud, Richardson and Olivier could have come to! But he's also a trouper who loves the theater and will keep on slogging no matter what crushing blows it delivers him. His hatred of what his life has become has turned him bitter and dark (and excruciatingly funny). This darkness is further enraged by the shallow narcissism of Tim Allen in the role of the Shatner clone Jason Nesmith.

I wish the film had freed Rickman to really do his big Rickman thing. I am a hopeless addict. I don't want story, I don't want pretty, I don't want love--I want attitude. I want Rickman fulminating at full blister at the clowns and retards that peep about his feet. Is that so much to ask?

Alan, the only thing you have to lose is your soul.