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By Brett Lancaster

APRIL 20, 1998:  I don't like today's male country music stars because they don't have the résumé of real-life drama that their predecessors had. Do you think Garth Brooks has ever spent time in Folsom Prison? No, but Johnny Cash has. Does Alan Jackson have a police record including burglary and grand theft auto like Merle Haggard? Nope. You have to have lived a life of sorrow and pain to sing the high lonesome.

The same can be said of today's best actors; they just don't have the machismo that the late Robert Mitchum and his generation had. Bruce Willis puts up a good front, but I get the feeling that he wouldn't last too long in a good old-fashioned bar brawl. One of our brightest hopes is Sean Penn. Sure, he only beats up scrawny photographers, but that counts for something doesn't it? Plus, he's one of the best actors in Hollywood today.

Two recent video releases showcase Penn's gritty realism. She's So Lovely (1997, R) is an unconventional romance directed by Nick Cassavetes, who adapted a screenplay that his dad John wrote but never brought to the screen. Penn won a Best Actor Award at Cannes for his portrayal of a schizophrenic grifter named Eddie Quinn who's love for his wife Maureen (wonderfully played by his real-life wife Robin Wright Penn) borders on the obsessive. After a pregnant Maureen gets roughed up by a drunken neighbor, Eddie goes nuts and winds up in a mental institution for 10 years. Having not heard one word from his wife during his incarceration, Eddie hits the streets to find that Maureen has divorced him and has three children with her new husband Joey (John Travolta). The ensuing pissing match between Penn and Travolta for Maureen's affection is one of the best things put on film in 1997.

Oliver Stone adapted John Ridley's novel Stray Dogs to make U-Turn (1997 R), not nearly as good a movie but yet another showcase for Penn. He's great as Bobby Cooper, an exasperated low-watt thug whose car breaks down in the desert as he runs from an outstanding debt. Cooper gets tangled up in a murder plot with Grace and Jake McKenna (Jennifer Lopez and Nick Nolte) and a town full of freaks including Billy Bob Thornton and John Voight. Stone's hallucinatory cinematography lends a sense of importance to the JFK conspiracy and the downfall of Richard Nixon, but doesn't work as well with a run-of-the-mill storyline.

As always, Penn's toughness seems deeper than the screen that you see him on.

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