This year was shaping up to be another busy one for Bruce Willis: three films released already, with another eight in post-production. Willis has become an astonishingly prolific actor, wisecracking his way through direct-to-video genre releases and joining that elite band of 1980s and 1990s multiplex superstars (Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone) whose box office capital had flatlined.
Willis’s recent reviews were uniformly negative. “Phoning it in” became a byword for his post-2012 career choices, after his last critically successful films, Looper and Moonrise Kingdom. Hard Kill (2020), Apex (2021) and A Day to Die (2022) will not live long in the cultural memory.
Willis’s recent decision to step away from acting after a diagnosis of aphasia – a language disorder caused by damage in the area of the brain controlling language expression and comprehension – brings his career to a cruel end.
In his day, Willis could still surprise and tantalise. Terry Gilliam, who, in 12 Monkeys (1995), directed Willis in one of his most complex performances as the time traveller tasked with saving the world from a deadly virus, once described him as “a guy who was vulnerable, a man who’s lost, not the man in charge of the whole thing”.
It is this paradox – helplessness and resilience – that has defined Willis’s screen persona for four decades.
Vulnerability beneath the bravado
In 1988, one of Hollywood’s most laser-focused high concept pitches – NYPD cop saves hostages in a skyscraper on Christmas Eve – gave Willis the chance to hit the stratosphere.
As John McClane in Die Hard he almost single-handedly defined the wise-cracking action hero in the late 1980s, bringing an everyman quality to his roles that made up for in quips and smirks what he lacked in the hardened muscularity of a Jean-Claude van Damme or an Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Willis would return to the Die Hard franchise every few years. The law of diminishing returns inevitably kicked in, but the original played up Willis’s vulnerability beneath the bravado.
For a time, Willis could always be relied upon when heroism was wanted. Need someone to climb to the roof of a church and save two kids in the middle of a lightning storm? Wes Anderson, in the delightfully off-beat Moonrise Kingdom (2012), knew just the man.
Need someone to lead a crack team of oil drillers into space and blow up an asteroid headed for Earth? Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998) – the high watermark of impending planetary disaster films – might not have worked as well were it not for Willis’s deadly seriousness at the centre of this madcap plot.
(And I wonder if it was his idea to have his character introduced by hitting golf balls off an oil-rig and using a Greenpeace protest boat as target practice? It certainly fits the devil-may-care persona Willis honed over his time in Hollywood.)
Willis’s most interesting performances
In Country (1989) is Exhibit A when listing Willis’s bona fides as an actor.
Light years away from John McClane, and a tantalising glimpse of what he was capable of when given a good script and a no-nonsense director, Willis plays a Kentucky Vietnam vet struggling with PTSD.
If this story has been told before, no matter: Willis reins in the mannerisms and the one-liners and fashions something far removed from anything he ever played subsequently: a sad, lonely survivor, withdrawn from the world, passively shuffling through life.
Willis’ role as Butch Coolidge, the ageing boxer in Quentin Tarantino’s epoch-defining neo-noir Pulp Fiction (1994) has perennially been overshadowed by the more showy turns by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. But go back and watch the film again: Willis is both crumpled and brutal, exposed and ruthless.
Tarantino cast him deliberately: “Bruce has the look of a 50s actor. I can’t think of any other star that has that look,” he said.
Willis’ scenes with Ving Rhames in the basement of the sleazy pawn shop sit at the heart of the film, while his interactions with Maria de Medeiros as his girlfriend Fabienne are gentle and blackly comic. It gave Willis’s career a shot of adrenaline, and showed others in Hollywood how star power (and a significant pay cut) could exist within American independent cinema.
We all know the twist to The Sixth Sense (1999) by now. But M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural thriller should perhaps be better remembered for Willis’s measured and understated performance as Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist whose patient can talk to the dead.
Malcolm’s assumptions are wrong in this film, just as ours are: one of the most memorable aspects of Willis’s performance is that, as an actor, he knows the twist from the start, but as the character he does not.
The film’s muted visual design and slow-burning pace is mirrored perfectly by the actor. Shyamalan’s camera zooms and tracks drop clues, but Willis never lets on. He would work again with Shyamalan in Unbreakable (2000), a clever twist on the superhero genre.
A career cut short
The aphasia diagnosis now allows us to reflect on his career choices differently. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times reported, his co-workers have been expressing concerns about his work for many years.
It is a shame we shall not see directors experiment with Willis’s persona and deconstruct it in interesting ways like Michael Mann did with Tom Cruise in Collateral (2004) or Darren Aronofsky with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008). It now seems likely Willis’s swansong will be the yet to be released Paradise City, a crime thriller set in Hawaii seeing him reunited with John Travolta nearly 30 years after Pulp Fiction. Let’s see if that self-aware, easy-going, cool vibe remains intact.