By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Something’s seemed different about No. 1 American-born action hero Bruce Willis lately. His action movie output in recent years has mostly been stunt casting in mediocre sequels (The Expendables 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), or supporting roles in little-seen B-movies (Setup, Catch .44, Fire with Fire), as if he’s in a who-can-co-star-with-50-Cent-the-most competition with Robert DeNiro. Few would disagree that this year’s A Good Day to Die Hard, Willis’s fifth outing as the iconic John McClane, is the least inspired of its series. To be fair, any perceived lack of enthusiasm in Willis’s performance is far eclipsed by that modern problem of I-have-no-clue-what-is-supposed-to-be-going-on-during-this-chaotic-action-scene. But it’s starting to look like Willis’s heart isn’t in it anymore.
In interviews promoting Red 2 in July, Willis seemed tired and uninterested, to put it charitably. In August, he dropped out of The Expendables 3 and was Twitter-shamed as “GREEDY AND LAZY” by his old friend Sylvester Stallone. According to a Hollywood Reporter source, Willis was offered $3 million for four days of work, but wanted to round it up to $4 million (to make the math easier for the accountants, is my guess). He made headlines again when Spanish magazine XLS (as translated by The Mirror) quoted him as saying, “Explosions are one of the most boring parts of my job. When you have seen a few fireballs, it’s not exciting anymore. I know part of my audience enjoys the explosions, but to be honest, I’m a bit bored of it now.”
Many fans, or at least entertainment journalists, interpreted this not as a specific anti-fireball sentiment but as a confession that Willis had tired of the action genre in general. “I am very clear with who I am,” Willis continues. “I work in all sorts of films, but the action movies are the ones that generate the most revenue. I like to earn lots of money from those, but I do all types: small productions, megaprojects, medium sized, even science fiction.”
[Side question: did we really just translate the word “megaproject” from English to Spanish and back to English?]
I would resent any implication that action movies are a lesser pursuit than those other types he listed. It’s my favorite genre, and I treasure Willis’s contributions to it. I consider Die Hard the greatest American action movie, and until this last one, I loved its increasingly ridiculous sequels, too. I enjoyed Willis in other action movies, such as the Shane Black-scripted The Last Boy Scout and . . . maybe Striking Distance? The truth is that those “all sorts of films” dominate his filmography. Bruce is an action icon, but is he really an action star, in the sense of the martial artists and ex-athletes who are happy to specialize? Those guys who would be wasting their talents if they quit choreographing fights and car chases and to do True West onstage? Willis is something different. And I’m here to say that it’s time to let Action Bruce go.
It’s easy to forget that Bruce was an odd choice for movies like this. He arrived on the big screen as that smartass guy from TV. In a July 15, 1988, New York Times review of Die Hard, Caryn James described McClane as “a hero who carries with him the smirks and wisecracks that helped make Moonlighting a television hit.” The same day in the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote that Willis “keeps a respectable grip on the wheel, his only acting requirements being to shift that Moonlighting glibspeak into R-rated high-drive and fire his Beretta 92 to heart’s content.” At the time, Willis was four seasons into playing David Addison, a motor-mouthed private eye sometimes more focused on throwing office limbo parties than solving cases, and prone to spontaneous renditions of Motown tunes. His only major movie roles had been in two Blake Edwards films, Sunset with James Garner and the underrated yuppie-era slapstick Blind Date.
In 2010’s The Expendables, Willis appeared alongside Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in what Entertainment Weekly called “the scene that finally brings together the holy trinity of ’80s tentpoles.” It seemed natural, yet the original Die Hard specifically presents McClane as unlike Sly or Arnold. In one scene, McClane warns Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) that the terrorists have “enough plastic explosives to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger,” as in even if I were Arnold Schwarzenegger this would be a lot to deal with, and clearly I am not Arnold Schwarznegger, I am just a guy. In another scene, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) asks McClane if he’s “just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?”
“I was always kind of partial to Roy Rogers, actually,” McClane responds. “I really liked those sequined shirts.” He’s being a smartass, but Willis really was closer to a singing cowboy than the Duke. The year before, he’d released The Return of Bruno, a Motown album and companion HBO mockumentary. A few years later, he infamously cashed in his Die Hard clout to make Hudson Hawk, a dream project based on a song by Robert Kraft, a pianist buddy he played harmonica with.
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