I can’t really pinpoint the first time I saw Charlie Sheen in a movie in the same way I can’t really tell you about the first time I ate processed cheese, wore open-toed shoes, or read the word “sluice.”I must have first seen Sheen in Red Dawn.What’s that?You didn’t remember he was in Red Dawn?Neither did I.Not until I recently gave his film credits a fresh glance.I remembered Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, and even Harry Dean Stanton, but Sheen’s name in that roster led to a perusal of Red Dawn clips on Youtube to absolutely prove his presence.Because I still didn’t believe it.I’d seen that film over a dozen times.But, alas, it’s true.He’s a main character.
There was just something about Sheen’s chiseled looks coupled with his silent pinch-faced stoicism back then that had made him easy to shoehorn into one average-American-guy role after the next.Sheen was the blank slate onto which a director could transcribe whatever generic trait was required.It was his brother who had all of the personality back then.Emilio Estevez I remember well, from the wild-eyed jokester Two-Bit in The Outsiders onward.The difference between the brothers on film is the difference between Estevez’s Billy the Kid and Sheen’s Dick Brewer in Young Guns.Charisma versus stick-in-the-mud.
In fact, another more dynamic character or two carry each of Sheen’s most notable early films in much the same way.He might have been the central figure in Platoon, yet the rivalry between Elias and Barnes drives everything.He played the jock in the crosshairs of Maggie’s desire in Lucas, yet the relationship between Maggie and the titular character is the one we truly care about.And so on and so forth.
Having never seen an episode of “Two and a Half Men,” Sheen’s twitchy exaltations of tiger blood, fire-breathing fists, and torpedoes of truth have been for me like watching the once invisible every-boy being swallowed whole. When he says he’s tired of pretending he’s not special, it sheds new light on what I find to be his early unspecialness.He was just pretending, you see!All that time.Which quite possibly makes him a better actor than I’d ever given him credit for.
While we think we’re watching a train-wreck, Sheen thinks he’s reinventing his brand in a self-directed reality show that knows no single network, that answers to nobody, that unspools across all platforms instantaneously, reaching even people like me who weren’t paying attention to his television career, reaching us all whether we want to be sucked in or not.Perhaps this is what entertainment looks like now.For this reason, I can’t help but be a little fascinated by what happens next and its impact.I’m watching like I’d watch the Mayan calendar run out of dates.
But of course he’s not just someone spouting outlandish rants tailor-made for Twitter feeds or living the life of a rock star from outer space or commandeering the media at all hours of the day or night.He’s someone with a history of violence against women, someone who has temporarily lost custody of his children in light of yet more accusations. When Simon Smithson and I co-wrote a post about eighties action films and knowingly omitted Mel Gibson, there was much back and forth in the comments about whether or not we should have separated Gibson the now-detestable person from his body of work as an artist.This is where that straight-laced blankness of Sheen’s young self might have just saved all of his early films for me.
Mel was always Mel in his roles, the off-kilter, unpredictable whacko we used to admire as such when it was directed toward the criminals of Lethal Weapon or the imperialists of Braveheart.Now when I see these films I see the off-kilter, unpredictable whacko sans the admiration.It’s uncomfortable.It feels like complicity.Sheen, though, wasn’t always Sheen.He was anybody and everybody and nobody.He was virtually invisible. The very quality I’d dismissed him for decades ago has now become the saving grace of his best pre-tiger-blood features.
And thank goodness, because I really, really love Lucas.