Charlie Sheen: Does his 1985 delinquents-on-the-rampage movie 'The Boys Next Door' foreshadow the wild man he's become?

BOYS-NEXT-DOORImage Credit: Everett CollectionBefore 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.

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  • TigerBlood Warlock

    Owen, I have to disagree on one thing. ‘Major League’ rules. Its one of my favorites. Great cast, great writing, yeah its quite 80’s, but it was the 80’s. so yeah. Oh and it was filmed here in Milwaukee. Otherwise great article as usual sir.

    • DTO

      MAJOR LEAGUE came out in the early ’90s, but it wasn’t really until around 1992/1993 that the ’90s actually started feeling like the ’90s anyway. MAJOR LEAGUE hasn’t aged well, IMO. As far as wacky sports ensembles go, BULL DURHAM was a better baseball movie and WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP was a better Wesley Snipes movie. Sheen brought the funny better in the HOT SHOTS movies.

      • smgpugfaw

        Major League came out in 1989

      • Pittner

        I love Major League. There are so many great baseball movie out there and I think this is one of them.

      • pickle t1ts

        DTO.. you’re a hard-on. 1st, as the the other jag noted, it came out in ’89… Bull Durham is garbage and is it really so hard to type “in my opinion”? Major League rules all and Wild Thing is bespectacled god.

    • chase

      Let me get this straight.. Sheen has stared in: Red Dawn, Lucas, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Platoon, Wall Street, Eight Men Out, Young Guns, Major League 1 & 2, Navy Seals, Hot Shot 1 & 2, and my favorite out of all them, “ Money Talks” and you’re saying that he was an A-lister for only 1yr. No actor knocks it out the park every time. Sheen has made some great movies. I think you may won’t to reread your article and make some changes. Don’t try to kick a man while he’s down…!!!

      • Mathieu

        No Man’s Land was pretty darn good as well, if I recall correctly. You’re right that Owen’s summation of Sheen’s career is a touch uncharitable. Wall Street and Platoon might have been the pinacle in terms of quality, but he had a pretty good run as a box office draw until the nineties, just with a younger audience than Owen was at the time…

      • L

        He was pretty much a walk-on role in Ferris Bueller, so I’m not sure I’d look at that as a “great” film role.

      • Jones

        He was in Dirty Dancing for less than 5 minutes. He didn’t actually star in it.

      • goober

        Charlie was an A-list movie star for MANY years, and then he was (is) an A-list TV star. Next he will probably be an A-list “new media” star.

        The man has been A-list for the last 25 years.

      • Tim

        He hardly starred in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He was in it for a small scene.

    • James

      agreed. Major League was awesome. And Major League Two was great two. I don’t really care that Sheen is a complete idiot, I really hope his career isn’t over

    • pickle t1ts

      Am I the only one who noticed nobody mentioned “The Wraith”? Pull yer heads out your assses.

  • Wha’ever

    For Christ’s sake, stop trying to find excuses to write about Charlie Sheen !! For real !!

    • erin


      And the new issue’s cover? Do you really think that’s doing him any favors?

    • TCC

      I think it is important for people to understand that Charlie Sheen was never really a good actor. His resume is, to put it frankly, pathetic.

      • goober

        Yes he was (is) a good actor. Wall St and Platoon are great movies, and he was great in them! Even his cameo in Wall St Money Never Sleeps was great.

        People might have issues with how Charlie has lived his life, but nobody can take away his professional accomplishments.

    • Ditto

      Pretty soon you’ll be digging into his elementary school records. Enough already.

  • Dexter Riley

    I thought Red Dawn was his first starring role. In any event, looking for “foreshadowing” in flicks 30 years removed from todays reality is kind of silly.

  • Johnification

    Thought I’d give you a minor correction before the “editor trolls” swoop in – Sheen’s character is Wild Thing in Major League. Like the song. Great article, I’m very curious about that movie now.

  • Ned

    Rorschach test? You are Jewish and given Sheen’s statements you are probably toeing the party line that he is somewhere between psychopathic and evil. You’re projecting your own feelings onto him and his character from The Boys Next Door hits home for you (… he had it in him ALL THE TIME. Next time we’ll be more vigilant!) Most Americans see him as unbalanced but harmless and funny… which is why you keep hearing the Ricky Vaughn comparison. It’s actually contrary to your article that you can see so much of Charlie in one character and other people can see so much of him in another character. He is a good actor, as much as you wish he wasn’t for your personal reasons. Don’t use your job to grind a personal axe.

    Come on Owen you are better than this.

    • Dex

      ‘Toeing the party line?’

      Wow, bigots really do see other groups as monolithic organizations whose members espouse precisely the same beliefs. This is, of course, unlike the bigot, who is a poor victim of those oppressive minorities.

      Non-jewish, native american atheist here. Have fun with that.

      • James

        just based on that guys comment you call him a bigot? I would say that is the kettle calling the pot black. I am not sure if Sheen is a bigot or not but I am sure that you can’t determine whether he is or not by the way he said his producers name. And you can’t make a determination about that person based on one comment he made defending sheen. and who cares if you are a native American and non Jewish?

      • Reading comprehension is important

        Okay my comment didn’t post, perhaps because I used a certain choice word a few times in referring to Ned. (Perhaps because EW boards are kind of unstable…my original comment may yet appear!) But to sum up what I said before: James, you’re completely missing Dex’s point. COMPLETELY.

    • Leroy

      Toeing. So funny. I won’t bother insulting you, you do it so well yourself.

      (picturing toe and string…)

  • Anna

    yeah the guy can be fascinating (whatever you are disgusted but his real life behaviour) but he has the magnetism to be awesome dangerous character you could see in a Scorcese, Tarantino or Coen movies..i am wondering how he did not become a more high level movie actor..maybe because of his real life behaviour…but Brando had also his demons..maybe he was better to hide it or it was also another era where all your personal drama was not all over the media or now social media..another “époque”..
    By the way he was awesome on “Hot Shots” cult really see his comedic genius in it and i don’t like his tv show who is so popular..

  • Bibi

    Enough already with Charlie Sheen.

    • Leroy

      Never enough. Stop being stupid.

      • Wha’ever

        Huh… your comment is more stupid than his… Bibi is right ; when 8 out of 10 articles are about a guy who doesn’t even do anything entertainment-related (at the moment), “enough already” is quite spot on.

  • Jon

    This is a truly forgotten film. I think it might actually be remembered more as being the first filmed screenplay by Glen Morgan and James Wong, who went on to great success with “The X-Files.”

  • orland

    What ? No Major League
    Party till you puke Chuck
    E mail me before the next election,
    I will need you.
    President Todd

  • Jack Lean II

    This is just another “aren’t we so pretty, why are we so disaffected” bad-boy movies that some matury-challenged director believes is a new twist, but ends being tedious blather that analysis only serves to make more tedious. Just like Sheen. Sad to see a young man with such promise in two great Stone movies slide into being a silly, drug-addled punk.

  • Charles
  • jury’s out

    Great movie, but it’s just a movie. Linking The Boys Next Door with his behavior now is silly.

  • Terry

    Actually I wonder why Caulfield didn’t have a bigger career. I just watched this last year and he was very good in this.

  • Jane

    I remember coming across “The Boys Next Door” as a late night movie back when I was a kid. I thought it was going to be a nice little morality play, like Emilio Estevez’ “Wisdom” which was also about a crime spree gone horribly wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Boys” was frightening because it was so dark and violent for back then. Sheen was terrifying, not just because he could commit those acts in the movie, but because he was also the conscience between the two boys.

  • brian

    To some extent I think the average Joe won’t turn their back on Sheen they love his Charlie Harper bad boy image on Two and a Half Men and for him that character is his real life. Sheen has to kinda separate himself from Charlie Harper and I think this is where this ego maniac behavior is coming from how does someone that portrays such a drunken louse on tv and then figure out how to “outshine” themselves in their personal life.

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