Back in the Fight

At 52, Bruce Willis resurrects a die-hard character

You're not aware of the mythology or cosmology of the franchise during the time off, though, are you?

Not during the time off, no. I don't think about it that much. I had taken a break from action films because I felt like the genre needed to reinvent itself. The two templates that had been invented by John McTiernan and Dick Donner with Die Hard and Lethal Weapon had both kind of run their courses — the ordinary guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and the two buddy cops facing overwhelming odds. A lot of other films had been made from those films, and I just wanted to wait and see what was gonna happen with it and wait and see if someone could reinvent that, and I think Len Wiseman did that with Live Free or Die Hard.

In the mid-1980s, in a very quick period of time, you showed you had a pretty extraordinary range between Miami Vice, Moonlighting and Die Hard. You could do menacing, action and comedy. When you do the fourth one now, do you reflect upon how you got here in the first place?

Director Len Wiseman frames Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard.
Director Len Wiseman frames Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard.

I reflected upon what I didn't want to do, what I felt were directions I had gone in the second and third installments of the Die Hard films and the things I wanted to take from those films and didn't want to include from those films. John McClane loves his country and his family. He will not allow innocent people to be hurt or harmed if he can help it, and, apparently, you can't kill him. He won't die.

Did you watch the movies before you did this one?

Yeah, I looked at 'em all. It was a pretty simple exercise: That works, that works, that doesn't work, that doesn't work. It would be difficult for any of these films to compete with the first one because that was such a unique action movie, in that it was so claustrophobic and so contained in that one building, in Nakatomi Plaza. The good guy was in the building; the bad guys were in the building; the hostages were in the building, which was about to blow up. The second one was out in the world and kind of all over the place, and someone had the idea to set it in the wintertime, and that was the year it didn't snow. The third one had some interesting elements: It was set in New York City, and we were fortunate enough to have Sam Jackson and Jeremy Irons in it, which raised the stakes. And the idea that John McClane was at one of the lowest points in his life — beat up, drunk, kicked off the police force and dragged back into it.

Was that the mythology you talk about? The set pieces are fun moments, but for you, when you go back and watch them, do you have to piece together the smaller moments of his life and who he is? I mean, explosions are explosions.

The small moments are some of my favorite things in this film and all the films, actually. The scene with Bonnie Bedelia in the bathroom before it jumps off in the first film is one of my favorite moments. The small moments are just as important as the big moments, jumping off the building with a fire hose wrapped around myself or jumping onto the wing of a moving jet or jumping off a big ship and almost losing my life in real life. In this film, there are huge things — fighting a Harrier jet — but it's part of the mythology of Die Hard.

But the quiet moments are as important — and they carry over into the other movies you've done, like Unbreakable, which reinvented the comic-book genre as much as Die Hard reinvented the action genre. Do they get harder to find?

They're only as hard to find as the amount of help you get or don't get from the director. When I worked with Night Shyamalan on Unbreakable and Sixth Sense, I had a great deal of help. He knew what he wanted from the character. In Unbreakable, I showed up and said, "I'll do whatever you want me to do. I'll say whatever you want me to say. I'll play the character however you see it." And that's what's onscreen.

But are you aware of that gravitas contained within those moments? Because going back to that period in the mid-1980s, when did you realize you were good at them — because that's now how people pegged you early on.

I probably realized that just a couple of weeks ago. All these things only make sense in retrospect. It's hard to know what yore feeling or what's right when you're in the actual moment. Being able to look back at 20 years of work in film. I can see where my work was successful and where it was less than successful. I like the small moments in film, the quiet moment, the still moments. A steady diet of that would be just as boring as watching things exploding continually, but a mixture, I think, is an interesting thing to watch, and that's the job — to be entertaining, to tell an interesting story.

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