When was it, precisely, that Charlie Sheen began his transformation from promising second-generation leading man to a curiosity of bathos? For me, it was a moment in 1987’s Wall Street, the second film Sheen made for director Oliver Stone (their first project together, Platoon, was the one that earned Sheen the ”promising” tag). Sheen’s character, a kid from decent working-class stock, has been making hand-over-fist cash through insider trading, and some lifestyle changes ensue. A montage shows he’s started listening to opera, he’s become fond of homemade pasta, and he’s making whoopee with a tres chic charmer. After an evening of yuppie indulgence, he stands on his balcony and whispers, ”Who am I?”
Audiences worldwide broke into titters. Then, a series of real-life detours (a liaison with former porn star Ginger Lynn Allen, a reported encounter with U2 that made him quit partying) combined with a decline in the quality of his movie vehicles (Men at Work and Navy SEALS) made him a slightly sour Hollywood joke. Fortunately, Sheen has the ability to laugh at himself, and his parodies of movie machismo in the two Hot Shots films won him back some credibility of an ironic kind. In the meantime, Stone, the guy who put the words ”Who am I” into Sheen’s mouth, gets to pitch Macintoshes. What a world.
What Sheen specializes in of late is a smirky amiability. His perpetually cocked eyebrow doesn’t connote smugness so much as bemused resignation, as in ”I’ve figured out who I am, and as it turns out, I’m a lightweight.” Which may be why his most recent flicks, The Chase and Major League II go down so smoothly on home video-especially now in the judgment-impairing dog days of summer.
The Chase, which Sheen also coexecutive-produced, is a brisk exercise in B-movie what-you-see-is-what-you-get minimalism. Which is to say, it’s a chase. Sheen plays an on-the-lam nobody (he was unjustly convicted of armed robbery) who has the misfortune of taking a very spoiled rich girl (Kristy Swanson) hostage. At first she’s insufferable, but as it turns out, she’s just misunderstood. And so they fall in love, with half of California’s police force just 100 feet behind them. Swanson and Sheen make a cute couple; their interplay is natural enough that when she straddles him at the climax of their ordeal — while he’s still driving — you don’t just buy it, you kind of dig it.
Amusing turns by a motely crew of characters keep things diverting. Alternative-rock advice counselor Henry Rollins, for example, is surprisingly chucklesome as a bullethead cop who’s got a reality-based TV crew taping the action from his backseat; when the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis and Flea pull onto the freeway doing a Cheech and Chong update, the movie briefly becomes a Lollapalooza convoy. Writer-director Adam Rifkin’s penchant for gross-out humor only surfaces sporadically and early; after the heavy-handed corpses-spilling-out-of-the-truck bit, he keeps things breezy.
Major League II is more of an ensemble piece, and while it’s not as winning as the first chronicle of come-from-way-behind ball playing, director David S. Ward continues to mix absurdist humor with well-observed sandlot verities to create a decent-tasting brew that’s not at all filling. The premise is as old as the game itself: Having taken a division championship the previous season, the eccentric players in the (fictional) Cleveland Indians have gone soft. Former voodoo practitioner Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) is suddenly into New Age, and Rick ”Wild Thing” Vaughn (Sheen), once-reprobate fastball demon, has suddenly developed a taste for fancy suits and classy career women. Sheen plays the character with droll understatement, and although any viewer can see the movie’s bottom-of-the-ninth, two-men-out payoff coming before the opening credits have rolled, it doesn’t matter, because, well, the only thing really at stake in movies like this is the amount of time it takes to watch them. And truth to tell, Major League II delivers the minimum quota of laughs to justify the temporal expenditure. As for the empty aftertaste? Go ask Charlie: Sometimes his cocked brow seems to be a wink, doesn’t it? Major League II: B-