Sean Bean has spent his career making other actors into heroes, cowards and afterthoughts. It’s a good thing, then, that all the best roles in Bean’s new TV show are played by Sean Bean.
Harrison Ford felt tougher after staring him down in “Patriot Games.” Watching Bean’s Boromir die in “The Fellowship of the Ring” made Viggo Mortenson braver.
Even James Bond looked weak next to Sean Bean. Squaring off against Bean’s scarred, surly Agent 006 in “Goldeneye” ensured that Pierce Brosnan’s 007 never shed his Remington Steele pretty-boy baggage.
Three years and three “Game of Thrones” seasons after his character’s departure, Bean’s confident performance as honorable warrior Ned Stark still grounds the sprawling HBO epic. (The show’s creators had declared before casting began that they’d make the show with Sean Bean as Ned Stark or not at all.) Evil Prince Joffrey, conniving Queen Cersei, shifty pimp Littlefinger — they all came into focus while face to face with Stark in that first season.
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Expect a similar, Bean-based approach in “Legends,” which kicks off Wednesday on TNT. A spy thriller developed by Howard Gordon, one of the brains behind “24” and “Homeland,” “Legends” is another character-driven, action-packed love letter to America’s intelligence community, set in that comforting version of reality where everyone’s good-looking and motives are more or less pure.
Like Jack Bauer and Nicholas Brody, Martin Odum tap dances along the line between rule-breaking hero and self-serving vigilante. But it goes deeper with Martin, who’s so good at disappearing into his undercover personas that he forgets himself. And that might be just as well, because Odum might not be Sean Bean’s real self, either. Think Jason Bourne, with more stubble.
Martin works for the the FBI’s Deep Cover Operations unit, a team led by Agent Crystal McGuire (Ali Larter of “Heroes”). Like every TV cop’s boss ever, she worries that her star player is a loose cannon, and for good reason.
“The last time I looped you in, one of your people blew my cover,” he shrugs when she tries to dress him down. “So forgive me if I didn’t send you a memo.”
Before you can give the show credit for giving Martin a tough female supervisor, Agent McGuire goes undercover as a stripper to warn Martin that his cover’s been blown.
After getting that high-level lap dance out of the way, the show introduces an ambitious string of international bad guys for Martin and McGuire to take down. There’s also the nagging question of that stranger who told Martin that his life — the parts he thinks are real — is all just another lie.
The show begins as Martin has made himself into a malcontent named Lincoln Dittman to burrow deep inside a bomb-happy outfit called the Citizens Army of Virginia. He’s backed up by a team at FBI headquarters that constructs an online history detailing Dittman’s pathetic fall into domestic terrorism.
It’s a pleasure to watch Bean fall into his “legends,” or fake identities, even as the show pushes the boundaries of what TV audiences might accept when it comes to instantaneous computer heroics. Watching actors type furiously — even likable actors like Tina Majorino — is no substitute for watching Bean slam a bad guy’s head into a wall, even if he is given some slightly hokey dialogue to work with.
“If you were going to do it,” he hisses at a bad guy holding a detonator, “you would have done it already. Go ahead.”
“Legends” is another small-screen reminder that Bean is one of those increasingly rare actors, like Daniel Craig, whom you don’t have to feel silly for liking, an anti-James Franco who brings masculinity to roles without throwing public tantrums.
Clint Eastwood is talking to chairs. Johnny Depp is a Disney cartoon. Harrison Ford is on a macrobiotic diet. Now, more than ever, the world needs Sean Bean, even if he is lost deep inside the mind of an unemployed construction worker, then a playboy arms dealer, then a corrupt Chicago cop, then a cowboy poet …
To reach Sara Smith, send email to email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC
WHERE TO WATCH
“Legends” premieres Wednesday night at 8 on TNT.
SEAN BEAN AT HIS TOUGHEST
Sean Miller | “Patriot Games” (1992)
This terrorist’s ultraviolent crew was already too scary for the IRA. Then Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) killed his little brother and made him even scarier. After a trial, escape and a trip to North Africa, Miller hunted down Ryan’s wife and daughter in Maryland and shot at them with an AK-47. When that didn’t get the job done, he couldn’t resist giving him a call to gloat about the damage he’d caused.
“How’s the family, Ryan? Nearly lost ’em, didn’t you? It’s easy to get at them. You should look after your family better, you know?”
Alec Trevelyan | “Goldeneye” (1995)
The former Agent 006 was once believed dead, then showed up to lead a crime syndicate with some scary Soviets who want to zap London with a giant laser. He had a beef with the British government because of his Cossack ancestry, but he really had a problem with James Bond.
“I might as well ask you if all those vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed.”
Boromir | “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)
When Boromir, one of the few actual humans in the “Lord of the Rings” stories, joined the Fellowship, he and his people had been fighting the evil known as Sauron for ages. Then no one would let him hold the ring. They wouldn’t even listen to his ideas about what to do with it. Finally, he scares them into taking his advice about a few things.
“One does not simply walk into Mordor.”
Boromir stuck with the group as their brawny chaperone until he finally dares to fondle the ring in a moment of weakness. Boromir redeemed himself by slaying orc after orc to save the lives of hobbit hangers-on Merry and Pippin, one of the few sob-worthy scenes in the trilogy.
Eddard Stark | “Game of Thrones” (2011)
After helping win a war where the other side had dragons as weapons, the upstanding Ned Stark had been raising his family in peace. But he couldn’t say no to his king, and after being called upon to help his old buddy rule the continent, Stark figured out that the queen had been having another man’s children. Before he could spill her secret, though, he got thrown in jail, where he refused to lie to save his life.
“You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honor for a few more years … of what?”
Sean Bean | Himself (1959-present)
That scar over Bean’s left eye is courtesy of Harrison Ford, who nicked him with a boat hook during filming on “Patriot Games.” Sure, he needed eight stitches, but the scar came in handy for other roles.
Earlier this summer, Sean Bean was smoking outside a London pub — with a model, of course — when he had to chase off some jerk for catcalling his lady friend. The next time he went out for a smoke, the dude reappeared, punched him in the face and stabbed him in the arm with a dirty shard of glass. Bean chased the guy off again, then went back inside and ordered another drink with a first aid kit on the side.
Stories like this are why British women refer to Bean as “a bit of rough.”
So many ways to die
Sean Bean’s characters almost always get killed, and not in boring ways, either. Here’s just a sampling of the gruesome ways his characters have gone out, not counting the multiple shootings at the hands of kidnapping victims, co-conspirators and Nazis:
Shot through hand, then bayonetted
Drowned in a mire
Shot for reading Yeats
Stabbed with rapier in duel
Impaled on boat anchor, followed by explosion
Crushed by giant antenna after falling onto giant satellite dish
Buried alive by excavation machine
Suspended from chains for days in public
Shot through the neck and hoisted aloft by grappling hook
Freezing naked in harsh tundra
Shot, then fed into car compactor
Drawn and quartered (while already suffering from bubonic plague)
Filled with arrows by orcs
Falling from a cliff after being trampled by a herd of cows