An essay I wrote in college, long before Sheensanity. Drink it in.
It is quite common in Hollywood for cinematic masterpieces to come in sets of three. The makers of the Matrix, Godfather, and Lord of the Rings movies have all proven that a successful formula for telling great stories is to present them as a trilogy. In the shadows of these monumental film franchises are three movies that were not packaged together and have only one common actor, but share enough coincidences, themes and plot lines for a scrupulous film connoisseur to piece together a story that belongs at the top of the lexicon of great trilogies. A moving saga about racism, self-reliance, and the ethic of war is hidden among the films Cadence (1990), Platoon (1986), and Men at Work (1990). At the center of it all is one of this generations most versatile and talented actors, Charlie Sheen.
Cadence begins the trilogy, and we are introduced to Sheen as Franklin Bean, a private in the army who is sent to a prison stockade in Germany for punching an MP while on a bender. Finding he is the only caucasian in the stockade, Bean must earn the trust of his African-American roommates. Initially, Bean and his fellow prisoners are distrustful of each other, which leads to fist-fighting and thievery. However, as the sergeant who is in charge of the prison becomes more and more mentally unstable, Bean and his roommates eventually put aside their cultural differences and bond against him. At the very end of the movie, Bean is heading off to Vietnam, with a new perspective on race and the capacity for corruption in the military. A final piece of advice to “stick with the brothers” is given to him by private Webb just before he leaves.
In perfect alignment with the end of Cadence, the opening shot of Platoon is of Charlie Sheen getting off a plane and arriving in Vietnam. Though his character’s name is changed to Chris Taylor, he must deal with the same issues prevalent in the previous movie, as there is obvious racial tension among the men in the platoon. Taylor, having learned to set aside prejudice in Cadence, is able interact amicably with the black soldiers almost immediately. It seems he has taken the advice of private Webb. In fact, his closest friend turns out to be “King,” played wonderfully by Keith David. Once again, Sheen’s character is faced with the misbehavior of his raking officers, as the murderous Sergeant Barnes is challenged by Sergeant Elias. This leads to chaos within the platoon. Taylor’s narrative throughout the movie details letters he writes to his grandmother, an act which he stops doing eventually as the mental agony inside him begins to reach a boiling point. When asked why he stops writing the letters, he confesses to King that he has no one waiting for him back home. Taylor has become isolated by the blur or right and wrong, and finds himself questioning his existence. Near the end of the film, he risks his life recklessly during an ambush, but is able to survive and return home.
In Men at Work, Sheen’s disturbed and complex character keeps the last name “Taylor,” but now goes by Carl. Without any pride or ambition left after witnessing the horrors of Vietnam, and with no family, Taylor takes a job as a garbage man and moves in with a co-worker. Taylor’s inner torment manifests itself through his behavior at work. He and his roommate/co-worker James show up late, destroy property, and generally behave as loose cannons while on their garbage route. Their boss is forced to place them under constant supervision. In an ironic twist, which may seem at first as a coincidence in casting, the Vietnam veteran designated to police James and Carl’s garbage route is played by none other than Keith David. David’s character, Louis, is a man with serious issues. He continues to wear his army uniform, and at times is unable to tell whether or not he is back in the jungle. Carl and Louis do not recognize each other as Chris Taylor and King, likely due to the unbearable trauma both suffered in the war. While it may be tempting to overlook the intricacies of their relationship, further scrutiny reveals numerous nuanced exchanges between the two, suggesting that somewhere, deep inside of them, there remains a powerful kinship birthed from the shared terrors of their Platoon experiences. Carl and Louis cultivate a friendship once again, and together are able to solve a murder. The movie ends with Taylor saving the day and getting the girl, perhaps with a new lease on life.
The unknown mastermind behind this incredible story intended to give us just enough details to fill in the gaps, even shooting the movies out of order to further conceal this gem from the perfunctory viewer. Sheen’s portrayal is so passionate and gripping that it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t play the roles as if they were linked. Fans of his, and of great stories in general, are sure to enjoy this triumphant trilogy.