I was a pup when I first saw Bad News Bears; developed a heady childhood crush on Tatum O’ Neal, as a matter of fact. Be that as it may, what really got me was the anti-heroics of 14-year-old Jackie Earle Haley — as Kelly Leak— the smirk-y, cigarette-pack-in-sleeve badass whose manner bucked all kid-’70s suburban conventions, down to the motorcycle wheelies in the baseball diamond. His rock star features and swagger shaped wet dreams of a teen-girl nation; he was what ’70s cornflakes like Willie Aames or Leif Garrett or Scott Baio wished they were. I’d often wonder about Jackie Earle Haley and what happened to him, where he’d gone, how he survived. He sidestepped dire “Where are they now?”-type TV shows and by my imagination’s connect-the-dots, seeped into some self-medicated netherworld (I figured just below Cahuenga and Hollywood.) Shit, Haley could’ve been dead.

Then, from nowhere, came 2006’s Little Children, the spectacularly literate and engrossing Todd Field film adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel that peers scarily below contemporary suburban conventions. Field brilliantly cast Haley as the odd and oedipal child-molester who, in an act of self-sacrifice, lops off his own cock on a child’s swing in a park at night, a few feet away from Kate Winslet’s Sarah Pierce. Little Children was Haley’s first film in 13 years and he was a stunner. He got nominated for an Oscar. It was the comeback of the century.

Haley’s glorious return barely blipped public radar, though — no kisses from Sean Penn, no triumphant and hyperboliffic headlines — partially because child actors are mostly considered freaks and who remembers Bad News Bears or Breaking Away anyway? But his rise was bigger, better, and more profound than Mickey Rourke’s recent star-popping (re)turn in The Wrestler, where he essentially plays himself. Rourke, by the way, was just as spot-on as the meth dealer in 2002's Spun, the one who sodomizes Brittney Murphy. But you didn’t see Spun, did you? Remember, after 1976’s Bad News Bears and 1979’s Breaking Away, Haley all but vanished. He was done. His star fall was hard and mighty, like how talkies killed off John Gilbert and Pola Negri — in those down years Haley worked as a limo-driver and a pizza delivery guy, a descent any celeb kid with even a hardened psyche wouldn’t/couldn’t have endured.

Now, Haley’s the take-no-shit Rorschach in The Watchmen — he’s basically Kelly Leak from Bad News Bears, but all grown up. In a world of pretend, Rorschach’s who you’d expect young Leak to have evolved into, a crushing, noirish presence of ominous shadows and existential badassness. I held the freckly, smooth-skinned Haley in high esteem because his Bad News persona saw a kid who lived outside compromise, and he did it naturally. In The Watchmen, his Rorschach — with that Snake Pliskan-doing-Dirty Harry dialog delivery — lives life without compromise; Rorschach sports Leak’s weird aura of untouchability, but with harder, more sobering stares. (And Haley’s face is narrower now and his complexion’s coarse like Scott Glenn's, hard years etched in lines.) He’s more dimunitive than I'd thought too, but his presence is mighty tall. You can’t keep your eyes off him as he snaps limbs and torches SWAT guys.

See the feature on Haley running in the print edition of Metro Times that hits streets Wednesday.

Jackie Earle Haley: Existential badass

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