Film

It's Casual: Chris Penn (1965-2006)

Nikki Tranter

Sure, Michael Madsen's dancing torture scene and Tim Roth's pool of blood are cool, but for me, Nice Guy Eddie brings everything together.

PopMatters Books Editor

I was totally submerged in the character. You have to believe you are the person, or the thing, or whatever the hell you're playing, and put the emotions and the feelings, or the lack of, into it... When I act, I don't even know there's a camera there, don't care. e to believe you are the person, or the thing, or whatever the hell you're playing, and put the emotions and the feelings, or the lack of, into it... When I act, I don't even know there's a camera there, don't care.
-- Chris Penn, "An Interview in the Back of a Truck with Chris Penn", Reservoir Dogs: Special Edition

Reservoir Dogs is all about Chris Penn. Sure, Michael Madsen's dancing torture scene and Tim Roth's pool of blood are cool, but for me, Nice Guy Eddie brings everything together. Near the end of the movie, angry at Mr. Blonde's betrayal, Nice Guy Eddie explodes: "He's just gonna decide out of the fuckin' blue to rip us off?" And now we know that the heist and the planning have all gone to shit. And Penn says it all, in a single question.

Penn, who died on 24 January, had that gift. In At Close Range (1986), he played Tommy Whitewood, who undergoes as much emotional battery as his brother, Brad Jr. (Sean Penn), with a third of the screen time. Tommy's the puppy-dog sibling, Chester to Brad's Spike. But as the film takes its tragic final turn, Chris Penn's role becomes something else. As in Dogs, the key moment occurs with Penn center stage: Tommy's carefree childishness gives way to confusion and bitterness, a devastating shift delivered in subtle strokes: Tommy barely utters a word.

And yet, as brilliant as these moments are, Penn's most memorable characters have a real hard time shutting up. He became known for playing manic types: watch him closely in just about any of his 50-odd films, and you'll notice just how much he moves. Head, feet, eyebrows, lips, tongue: all in motion. In Footloose (1984), when non-dancing bumpkin Willard is in the bar watching another man shake it with his girlfriend, Penn doesn't just appear annoyed. He runs a multitude of looks in this moment, conveying interest and disinterest, anger, annoyance, and embarrassment, all in about 15 seconds.

On the recent Collector's Edition DVD, casting director Marci Liroff said she didn't even need to see Penn act to know he was exactly what the movie needed. Even though he was nothing like Willard as written, she convinced director Herbert Ross to hire Penn, then convinced writer Dean Pitchford to rewrite the character entirely to suit the young actor. Pretty impressive for an 18-year-old newcomer who didn't even bother to look at his script until rehearsal day.

It's easy to see what Liroff saw when revisiting Penn's early performances. Willard and Tommy Whitewood are likeable characters, but Penn also endears himself to his audience when lunkheads and losers, like Tom Drake in The Wild Life (1984). Sort of a jock-Spicoli, Drake is a stoner wrestling champ who gets the chicks, picks on the nerds, and ruins his best friend's life without a second thought. And dammit if you don't love him to bits every single time he dismisses his abuses with the phrase that defines him: "It's casual".

Great as he was here and elsewhere, Penn never became a movie star. He spent much of the late 1980s and early 1990s as a supporting actor. Even in Dogs, his role is the film's least flashy. But Penn consistently stood out. He was the reason to watch Best of the Best (1989) (and its sequel); hell, his double-crossing Reina was the reason to watch Mobsters (1991) with a cast that included Anthony Quinn, Michael Gambon, and F. Murray Abraham. When Penn was given another shot at a lead role, in 1997's The Boys Club, he was superb as the mysterious and volatile Cooper. The performance did not go unnoticed. Penn was nominated for Canada's Genie Award for the part. The year before, his co-starring role (again with Christopher Walken) in The Funeral won his the Venice Film's Festival's Volpi Cup Award for Best Supporting Actor. Even though he remained well under Hollywood's big-star radar in small, independent films, he was impossible to ignore.

While Penn rarely stopped working, it's a damn shame he wasn't in the forefront more often. He deserved to be. Chris Penn was, like Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, a show-stealing character actor, bringing intensity, compassion, and conviction to every performance. Even motor-mouth Tarantino is forced to stop talking during his True Romance DVD commentary while Penn and Tom Sizemore do their thing. It's another frenetic Penn performance. "I'm just going to watch for a minute," Tarantino says. Well, you gotta.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image