It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when Woody Harrelson first became an on-screen punch line, a persona instead of a performer, the guy whose mere presence in a movie signals that you probably shouldn’t have wasted your nine bucks.

Perhaps it was with 2003’s Anger Management, a dreadful Adam Sandler comedy that featured Harrelson in a small role as a transvestite security guard named Galaxia. At the time, it was the Midland-born actor’s first major film in nearly four years: This was his idea of a comeback? Or maybe it was the charmless performances that followed: the hapless FBI agent in the soporific jewel caper After the Sunset (2004), a labor lawyer in Niki Caro’s maudlin sexual harassment melodrama North Country (2005). But for the better part of the past decade, Harrelson—with his yoga seminars in Amsterdam and his speeches at hemp festivals in Seattle—seemed a little too comfortable with his image as a zonked-out, easy-does-it stoner. Those of us who spent the nineties steadily wowed by his physical confidence (Natural Born Killers), his gift for dark comedy (Kingpin), and his ability to humanize the ugliest of souls (The People vs. Larry Flynt, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for best actor) could only scratch our heads: Why did someone once so boundlessly ambitious suddenly evince so little respect for his craft?

Turns out Harrelson is enjoying the last laugh. In 2009 the actor finally staged a proper return, one just like his best performances, so sly and stealthy that you might not have registered its impact. First came Zombieland, a horror-comedy in which he plays a survivor in a postapocalyptic wasteland. Harrelson invests the proceedings with a hilarious mix of swagger and outrage (his character, Tallahassee, is genuinely insulted every time an undead monster attempts to take a bite out of him); it’s the kind of exuberant performance that wins few awards but ends up being quoted by fans for decades. One month later, the actor co-starred in The Messenger, Oren Moverman’s drama about Army soldiers who must break the news to survivors that their loved ones have died in combat (the film arrives on DVD this month). A portrait of a man trying like hell to prove to the world that he hasn’t lost his mojo, the performance earned Harrelson an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Sandwiched between these movies was a daffy cameo in Roland Emmerich’s 2012, in which he played a new-age paranoid who embraces the end of the world with open arms. Taken together, these roles didn’t just suggest an actor of remarkable range. They reminded us that, despite a few fallow years, he had clearly never lost focus on the larger prize.

Blond, blue-eyed, and with a voice that’s one part Southern twang, one part flat upper Midwestern (he grew up mostly in Lebanon, Ohio), Harrelson has always come across in interviews as sweet-natured and unthreatening—every bit the lovable dunce that he first found stardom playing on Cheers. Yet what has long set him apart from, say, his Texas himbo-in-arms Matthew McConaughey is a certain hustler spirit: He knows how to take advantage of an audience’s underestimation of him. (His first major film role, in fact, was playing a basketball hustler in Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump.) Surely no one would have expected that such a lanky, likable guy could transform himself into a leering serial killer in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). But with his eyes bulging, his head shaved, and his biceps pumped, Harrelson brought a feral energy and purpose to Stone’s sometimes one-dimensional conceit; when the actor casts his glare on co-star Juliette Lewis, you don’t know whether to feel turned on, creeped out, or personally violated. He was even better in the two films that followed, the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin (1996) and Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996). In the former, he plays an amputee bowler pining for vengeance against a former mentor (Bill Murray), and his freewheeling depravity—watch the scene where he vomits after sex with his wrinkly old landlady—pushes an already edgy comedy into shockingly dark corners. In Larry Flynt, he’s similarly fearless, charting the (d)evolution of a white-trash stud who becomes an impotent, wheelchair-bound pornographer. Harrelson had learned how to use his natural charm to soften his characters’ jagged edges; even at his most scabrous, he never alienated the audience.

What went awry in the decade or so that followed? A couple of poor choices (you’ve likely never even heard of the inert 1998 thrillers Palmetto and The Hi-Lo Country); a couple of unlucky breaks (1999’s boxing comedy-drama Play It to the Bone never found the audience it deserved); a self-imposed exile during which most people assumed he wasn’t doing much of anything (Harrelson actually spent the early 2000’s acting and directing for the stage). There was also his tendency to embrace his own stereotype, even narrating a documentary called Grass (1999), about the history of marijuana. That’s one of the reasons the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) was such a turning point: The actor finally realized he was going to have to reckon head-on with all of our goofball associations with him. When he first appears in the film, as a man hired to clean up a drug deal gone bad, his crooked grin and pothead patois seem at odds with the severity of the material. But as Harrelson’s character finds himself squaring off against the deadly Anton Chiguhr (Javier Bardem), we see his face wither in dismay; this is what it looks like when a guy realizes his number is up. The joke, once again, is on the audience: Let down your guard, even for a moment, and this stoner dude will upend all of your expectations.

Since No Country for Old Men, Harrelson has been on a tear, appearing in a dozen movies (see “Cheers, Woody!”) and presumably trying to make up for lost time. A few of these roles, in the Will Ferrell comedy Semi-Pro and the Will Smith weepie Seven Pounds, have been duds. But take a closer look at the most powerful scene in The Messenger and it’s obvious that there’s a redoubled fire in him; here is the role he was building toward. He stands in a general store, his body clenched in tension, watching as his younger partner (Ben Foster) embraces a couple whose son has been killed. He nods his head anxiously, at once enraged at this break in protocol (the men are not allowed to physically comfort the survivors) and yet deeply conscious of the futility of protocol—indeed, the futility of his very existence—in the face of such tragedy. Harrelson might not have won that Oscar (no one was going to beat Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz), but this tough-minded, anguished little film gave him something even better: a second act to a career that might eventually turn out to be legendary.

Cheers, Woody! Where everybody should also know his name.

Just before Harrelson hit pay dirt in 2009, he turned up in a wide range of movies, few of which found much of an audience (see—or better yet, don’t—the lifeless Jennifer Aniston rom-com Management and the grating poker tournament comedy The Grand). Still, two titles are worth tracking down on DVD: In Paul Schrader’s The Walker (2007), Harrelson plays a fortysomething gay man who serves as a formal escort to wealthy Washington, D.C., women; the movie is a mess, but Harrelson is superb as the title character, a perpetually cheerful smoothy nonetheless consumed by self-hatred. In Transsiberian, he stars as a man whose wife (Emily Mortimer) gets embroiled with a drug smuggler (Eduardo Noriega) aboard a train from China to Russia. Harrelson mostly plays straight man to his much flashier co-stars Mortimer and Ben Kingsley, but the film itself, directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist), is a tightly wound, neo-Hitchcockian treat.