Tom Sizemore owned the ‘90s with his penchant for playing menacing tough guys. Much of the fun of his work is that you can never tell how far his characters are going to go. Whether he’s a cop or criminal, soldier or bank robber, there’s a persistent danger to his work that is immensely appealing. By this point, Sizemore may be equally well known for his troubles with substance abuse. For a while there, it looked like his demons were going to get the better of him. Thankfully, he’s still going, and while his work now may not be as strong as it was then, there is never a bad time to go back and revisit his best roles.
True Romance (1993)
As an ambitious cop in True Romance, Sizemore has a blast blurring the line between good cop and bad, officer and thug, logical and lunatic. From his first scene in the film – in which he and his partner (Chris Penn) play bad cop/bad cop on a shifty actor – Sizemore demonstrates that he’s fully adept at Tarantino-speak. He nails the rapid pace, the obscure pop culture references, and the balance of humor and fury. It’s a small role, but, like most of the performances in True Romance, Sizemore’s Nicholson is proof that length of screen time doesn’t necessarily take away from strength of performance.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
I chose to cover Tom Sizemore because I was reminded of his frenzied performance in Natural Born Killers while writing about Juliette Lewis a few weeks back. Jack Scagnetti is a guy with quite a few problems, to put it lightly. But his obsession with Mickey and Mallory Knox is his biggest vice. Mallory, in particular, is the person who most dominates Scagnetti’s affection. Sizemore’s scenes with Lewis in this film represent some of the best acting they’ve ever done. There’s a danger to their chemistry, a profoundly odd eroticism that is as menacing as it is captivating. When I heard Sizemore on Bret Easton Ellis’ podcast a few months ago, Sizemore admitted that in order to “Get there” as Scagnetti, he did copious amounts of cocaine between takes. Because we now know what utter hell that drug caused for Sizemore, that anecdote is a hard one to hear. But one that’s not very hard to believe. Whatever his methodology, Sizemore is at the peak of his animal prime in Natural Born Killers. Like Lewis, he is unhinged here in all the best ways.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
There’s a moment in Devil in a Blue Dress where Tom Sizemore holds a very large knife up to Denzel Washington’s eye. Sizemore wants information, and if Washington doesn’t give it up, out his eye will go. Now, of course Denzel Washington isn’t going to get his eye plucked out. Devil in a Blue Dress is, after all, a Denzel Washington movie, and this scene only takes place midway through the film. But for a second, you actually think Sizemore is going to do it. Why? Because he’s Tom fucking Sizemore. He’s able to conjure up so much fear that, for a moment, we’re convinced he’s going to permanently disfigure one of the most famous movie stars of all time. That’s power.
You see that look captured in the screenshot above? Yeah, it’s all about that look. That look is not only who Michael Cheritto is, it’s who you have to be as a criminal. You have to be hard, unshakable, brooding. Sizemore gives that look in Heat while he and his criminal partners (including Robert De Niro) are roughing up a guy in a diner. They get loud, which causes a man from another table to start staring. Noticing the man, Sizemore sticks his head out and gives that look. That look that says everything – “Mind your own fucking business, or else” – perhaps most significantly. In Michael Mann’s commentary for the film, he mentions this scene and talks proudly of how well Sizemore nailed the tone of his character. And he did it with just one goddamn stare.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
The in-battle fearlessness, the lasting intensity, the inherent respect from his men; there’s a lot of Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore from Apocalypse Now in Sizemore’s Col. McKnight, but it always plays as genuine homage rather than blatant rip off. Black Hawk Down boasts an impressive ensemble, and the fact that Sizemore is able to stick out speaks to the strength of his acting. In the film, McKnight is the commander who, upon receiving routinely poor instructions from his superior officers, is forced to circle Mogadishu in a Humvee as his men get picked off one by one. Black Hawk Down is a war film that captures the clusterfuck insanity of war. No clear direction, no escape plan – sheer chaos. What Sizemore accomplishes so well is the frustration of such chaos. It’s a commanding performance of a truly enraged yet helpless man.
The Best of the Best
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Choosing Sizemore’s best work came down to two very different characters: the maniacal Jack Scagnetti, and the loyal Mike Horvath. It could change on any given day, but today, I suppose I’m most drawn to Sizemore’s restrained and earnest performance in Saving Private Ryan. Sgt. Horvath is a soldier’s soldier – a guy unafraid to be first to the fight, a man unshaken by anarchy. This makes him a great counterpoint to Tom Hanks’ more sensitive and reserved Captain Miller. In fact, many of Saving Private Ryan’s best non-battle moments are of Hanks and Sizemore simply talking. They may be fondly reminiscing about men they’ve lost, arguing over the worthiness of a potential battle, or silently reflecting over the hell of war; whatever their topic of conversation, the two actors complement each other’s respective talents very well.
Two things I want to mention about Mike Horvath. One is that in this film, Tom Sizemore has the difficult task of saying the title of the movie, in a monologue, no less. This isn’t an easy thing to pull off. If done poorly (as it often is), it plays as self-reflexive or, worse, cute. But Sizemore knows just how long to hold his delivery, and I’ve always been moved by it. Second is Horvath’s confrontation with Reiben (Edward Burns). Their hellacious argument ends with Horvath pulling a gun on Reiben and, similar to that scene I mentioned in Devil in a Blue Dress, for a second you really think Tom Sizemore is going to kill one of his own guys. And that’s just the thing: Tom Sizemore is at his best when he’s completely unpredictable. I love not knowing where he’s going to go.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Guilty by Suspicion (1991)
Point Break (1991)
Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (1991)
Passenger 57 (1992)
Striking Distance (1993)
Hearts and Souls (1993)
Wyatt Earp (1994)
Strange Days (1995)
The Relic (1997)
Enemy of the State (1998)
Play It to the Bone (1999)
Bringing out the Dead (1999)
Witness Protection (1999)
Red Planet (2000)
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003)
Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003)
American Son (2008)
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2010)
Hawaii Five-O (2011-2012)