You know who’s hilarious? Michael Pena. The Mexican-American actor steals every scene he’s in, and he’ll have you crying with laughter. But here’s the thing about Michael Peña. He’s also a damn good dramatic actor, too, and he might just have you crying because he pulled off a serious performance. In fact, the first character who came to my mind when I thought of Michael Peña movies was the rambling raconteur Luis from Ant-Man. But then, when I actually went through his many roles for this article, I said, damn. This dude can act.
Because out of all the various projects that I’ve seen him in, I would actually say that I don’t even purely consider Michael Peña to be a comedic actor, even though he’s made me laugh on several occasions. That’s just how amazing he is. The same guy who had me choking on my popcorn in Observe and Report also had me crying in my popcorn with End of Watch. So, here are the 10 best performances by Michael Peña in movies and television. And if you don’t like my picks, I can handle it. I’m a professional. Oh, and minor spoilers up ahead.
10. Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (Cole Marquez)
You can be forgiven for never having seen Michael Peña’s brief performance in Dora and the Lost City of Gold. But since I have kids, I had to see it, and while I was watching it, I kept wondering when it was all going to be over.
But I also wondered when Michael Peña’s character, Cole Marquez, who is Dora’s father, was going to return. Remember how I mentioned earlier that Michael Peña steals every scene he’s in? Well, Cole Marquez, who is only really in the beginning and the end of the movie, is the best part of the entire film. He’s trying to get Dora to open up to be around other people, and every line he has is golden. He’s genuine, he’s ebullient, and he’s just as out of step with reality as Dora, with the best part being that he doesn’t even realize it. And that’s why he’s wonderful!
9. The Shield (Detective Armando Renta)
Detective Armando “Army” Renta was only in Season 4 of the Michael Chiklis show, The Shield, but he made all ten of his episodes count. This is one of those dramatic roles that I never really thought about until I took another glance at Michael Peña’s resume, and thought, oh, yeah! He was so good on The Shield!
Getting framed for the murder of a little girl by the drug kingpin, Antwon Mitchell (played by Anthony Anderson) Peña plays a character who wants to work with the good guys. But he has trust issues, like when he refused to take the lie detector test that would have easily gotten him and his partner, Shane, off the hook. You feel for the guy, even though you’re probably also yelling at the screen for him to just take the damn test.
8. Battle: Los Angeles (Jon Rincon)
Battle: Los Angeles, which also stars Aaron Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez is a really frustrating movie because I so much want it to be good, but it’s not. It’s about an alien invasion, and it has marines fighting in the streets of America, which is right up my alley. But it’s all just really blah. Except for Michael Peña, of course. He plays a father named Jon Rincon who rises up to the call of heroism in a battle raging in the streets.
Playing an ordinary man who gets caught in an extraordinary situation, Jon picks up a gun in the middle of a firefight and starts shooting to save others. Unfortunately, he takes a bullet for the soldiers. And would you believe that this is the only emotional moment in the entire movie for me. I’ve only seen Battle: Los Angeles twice, but with both times I got a little teary-eyed when Michael Peña’s character took one for the team.
7. Eastbound And Down (Sebastian Cisneros)
Now, while I kind of forgot that Michael Peña was on The Shield because of his subdued (but potent!) performance, I’ll never forget him as the rich boy, Sebastian Cisneros, on the second season of the HBO show, Eastbound and Down.
Sebastian is one of those hilarious characters who fits right into the crazy orbit of Kenny Powers. He tries to help Kenny get back into the game, but finds out that Kenny is a bad investment. My favorite scene is when Sebastian is swinging around a samurai sword by his bed while Kenny threatens to stick Sebastian’s laptop up his ass. “My spreadsheets!”
6. Fury (Corporal Trini "Gordo" Garcia)
David Ayer directed this gritty war drama which also stars Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf as they pilot a tank through Nazi Germany. Fury is, at its heart, an ensemble film. But Michael Peña, who plays the tank driver, is definitely one of the most essential character in the entire movie.
And of course Peña pulls it off. He occasionally pops his head out to banter with the others, and Peña is so good, that you just kind of buy that he’s a soldier who’s seen some stuff and is unfazed enough to still crack jokes. Because if we’ve learned anything in this article, it’s that Peña can switch from drama to comedy at the drop of a helmet.
5. Observe And Report (Dennis Chavante)
Besides Peña’s work on Eastbound and Down, we rarely get to see him play a scummy character, which is a shame, since he does such a good job at it! In Observe and Report, which is actually a super dark comedy, Peña plays a fellow mall cop with Seth Rogan’s character, Ronnie Barnhardt.
Like most of Peña’s roles, Dennis is a minor character who steals the movie. He gets Ronnie to do a number of drugs, and their scenes wasting the day together are probably the funniest in the entire film. But as scummy as he is, he’s also the kind of character who can also show respect where respect is due. That is, of course, after he knocks them unconscious and runs.
4. Crash (Daniel Ruiz)
Crash has unfortunately been derided as one of the worst movies to ever win Best Picture. And while, yes, Crash, isn’t the greatest movie in the world, the standout in this ensemble movie is undoubtedly (you guessed it) Michael Peña. He plays a locksmith named Daniel Ruiz who has a brush with death, but manages to come out okay.
The scene he’s in is probably the most famous moment in the entire movie. It’s when a man who runs a convenience store that was recently robbed gets so mad that he goes to shoot Daniel for not putting a lock on his door. But Daniel’s daughter runs out to protect her father, and Peña gives one of the most blood-curdling screams when his daughter leaps into his arms. It gives me chills. Crash may not have deserved the Oscar, but Peña certainly did.
3. Cesar Chavez (Cesar Chavez)
This is almost criminal, but out of all the films on this list, Cesar Chavez is the only one that Michael Peña is actually the main star. Directed by Diego Luna and also starring America Ferrera, this biographical film concerns the real American hero, Cesar Chavez, as he organized farm workers to protest and fight back against racism and unfair treatment.
To be honest, the movie is just okay. But Michael Peña’s commitment to the performance is what makes this movie resonate. When he stands his ground against racist jerks who are trying to threaten the farm workers with force, you just want to pump your fist and go, yeah! Do it, Chavez! This performance makes me proud to be an American.
2. End Of Watch (Officer Zavala)
End of Watch is the kind of movie that makes grown men cry. It’s the story of two police officers played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, and their friendship as they ride together and keep the neighborhood safe.
But here’s the thing. David Ayer, who also directed Training Day, is a master at making you like his cops. And you really like Michael Peña’s Officer Zavala in this movie. He’s a family man who also has his partner’s back as if he’s family, too. Gyllenhaal is the main protagonist here, but it’s Peña’s character who makes the biggest sacrifice of all. And what ultimately happens to him at the end genuinely made me cry ugly tears. I just loved his character so much and I hated to see what happened to him! Hated it! Michael Peña freaking made me cry! Now that’s talent.
1. Ant-Man (Luis)
Last but not least is a seemingly minor role in a big Marvel tentpole film, but doggonit, if Luis isn’t the most endearing, memorable character in the entire film, I don’t know who is.
I want you to think back to both Ant-Man movies. While there are a number of cool action set pieces in both of them, the one thing I vividly remember is Luis’s long-winded stories. And its just that Luis has so much energy and wonder, and it’s like he’s just as shocked as we are at the events that are unfolding in front of him. Honestly, I want a whole movie devoted to Luis, and that’s saying something when a character who is not even the main hero makes you want a whole lot more of him.
Michael Peña is one of those rare actors who can craft magic out of any performance. No matter what he’s in, I’ll watch it. Wouldn’t you? But what are your favorite Michael Peña performances? Leave your thoughts in the poll or the comments section down below.
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.