Before he got to be the most highly paid television star in America, Charlie Sheen, for about 10 years, was a movie star. But he wasn’t an A-list movie star for very long. You could make the case that his A-list status lasted for exactly one year and consisted of two landmark films by the same director — Platoon (1986) and Wall Street (1987), both of which featured him as an innocent on the front lines (of war, then finance), torn between good and evil father figures. It’s telling that Sheen is probably more prized for the character of Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn in the Major League films than he is for having traipsed, moody and poker-faced, through two of Oliver Stone’s most high-voltage American psychodramas. The first Major League (1989) had its moments, but to me it was always a bush-league comedy, and by the time Sheen joined its ensemble cast, his days as a prestige screen actor were more or less over. He’d become a darting-eyed weasel of a comedian, which is probably what he was always meant to be.
I think one reason Sheen’s movie career never quite ignited after Platoon and Wall Street is that he didn’t really express himself in those films, didn’t really show who he was. I’m not saying, in any literal way, that actors are, or should be, the characters they play. But the great movie stars have a way of letting big, defining pieces of their personalities flow into their performances, and Sheen, even when he played a kid who becomes a Wall Street high roller, was cheerless and reined in. He kept his inner rascal on a tight leash. He was a good actor, as far as it went, but he never looked like he was having much fun in those movies. He may have revealed more of the real Charlie Sheen in a goof like Hot Shots! (1991) than he did portraying Oliver Stone’s pointedly naive alter ego. Within the sitcom conventions of Two and a Half Men, he’s playing some version of his rogue self, and that’s why people adore him on that show. Even if they knew nothing of “the real Charlie Sheen,” they felt his bad-boy conviction.
Before he was famous, though, Sheen costarred in a nifty little B movie called The Boys Next Door (it was his first starring role — he was part of the young-gun ensemble in Red Dawn the year before), and if you watch it now, there are a lot of moments that fast-forward you to the Charlie Sheen we’ve come to know and be mesmerized by on whatever tabloid news show he’s popping up on at any given moment. In The Boys Next Door, Sheen and Maxwell Caulfield play California teenagers who celebrate the end of high school by going on a road trip that turns into a rampage. The film was shot in the fall of 1984, when Sheen had just turned 19, and it’s exactly the sort of smart, revealing B movie that offers its actors the freedom to strut and improvise and exhibit a lot of who they are on screen, because that’s part of the stripped-down, shot-on-the-cheap aesthetic of how a movie like this one gets made. The director was Penelope Spheeris, transitioning into dramatic features after the 1981 Los Angeles hardcore punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, and Spheeris gives her two stars room to roam. The Charlie Sheen you see in this movie isn’t just a tense and hungry actor. He’s high on…Charlie Sheen! And that’s the fascination of watching it now.
If John Hughes had ever made a dead-serious comedy about a heartless pair of sociopaths, that movie might have looked something like The Boys Next Door. It’s like a Hughes film crossed with In Cold Blood. Sheen, fresh-faced and scowling, with thatchy black hair and knitted eyebrows, looks in his white T-shirt like an Archie-comics version of Sid Vicious, but his character, Bo, is meant to be the pair’s quarter-of-the-way normal sidekick. It’s Caulfield, the muscle-beach blond who costarred opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in Grease 2 (1982), who plays the duo’s homicidal ringleader, Roy, a guy who’s “got stuff inside me,” including the suggestion of homoerotic impulses that he literally feels like he needs to snuff. At a graduation party, there are dweebs, jocks, dweebettes, babes…and then there are these two, who everyone is scared of because they don’t care about anything, including themselves. In 1985, that was still a novel attitude.
The two climb into their souped-up Plymouth Road Runner covered in gray primer and head for Los Angeles, where their mischief accelerates from mockery to vandalism to murder. Sheen brings the movie his show-off horniness, his autodidact’s fetish for big words (after a 1980s fist knock, he barks out a stern “Let’s motivate”), even his now-famous insomnia. He’s the one who articulates the pair’s philosophy, which doesn’t sound all that far from Charlie’s own: “Wouldn’t it be great if the government declared, like, an official Caveman Day? I mean, you could just knock girls over the head, drag ‘em back to your house, and completely drill their socks off. I mean, you could do anything: You could throw rocks at people, run around naked, take a dump in the middle of the street — just be totally prehistoric!”
With no cash and no education, these two have shut themselves out of everything that’s starting to happen in the ’80s: the fashion-consumer culture, the computer culture. They’re supposed to start work in a factory on Monday (a weirdly dated touch — so Springsteen!), but that’s okay, they’ve got other ideas. Sheen does a remarkable piece of acting at the climax of the movie’s first murder, when Caulfield hands him a gun and says, “Go ahead, man, shoot it!” Sheen stares at the weapon and his eyes widen ever so slightly, with a mixture of temptation and fear, as if he’s thinking: “Do I want to take it to this level?” And his look tells you: “Maybe I do.” (But it’s Roy who pulls the trigger.)
The fascination of The Boys Next Door is that Sheen, as Bo, is obsessed with sex and mouthing off and reckless bad behavior, and he flirts with killing people, but it’s all about his craving for a kind of power. He’s torn, profoundly, about violence; he wants to go further and further, and he’s tempted, but he holds himself back from crossing that line. And that’s the real drama of the Charlie Sheen scandal, isn’t it? As long as he was just bingeing on drugs and alcohol and having orgies with porn stars, it wasn’t that big a deal, but his benders, as well as his relationships — or so it is alleged — have crossed the line into abusive behavior. (Sheen denies the allegations.) In The Boys Next Door, he plays out the drama of temptation and repulsion toward violence. It’s a movie that exerts a special curiosity now, but it can also stand on its own, as a lively cautionary tale. I recommend it to anyone. Including Charlie Sheen.