Bruce Willis has appeared in twenty-two feature films since 2018, and the vast majority are disposable by design. Cheaply produced, straight to streaming, and featuring performers who are mostly well below Willis’s star calibre—or pay grade—they bear titles that suggest a game of action-flick Mad Libs, or maybe an accidental wingnut haiku: “American Siege,” “ Cosmic Sin,” “Survive the Night,” “Deadlock,” “Fortress,” “Breach.” Until recently, many Willis fans took a cynical, hard-bitten view of this prodigious output. Like his spiritual predecessor Charles Bronson, Willis, who is sixty-seven, had presumably made a conscious decision to simply switch his quality-control filter to the Off position in his golden years, raking in cash that he couldn’t possibly need. He was an icon cruising on autopilot, and, after watching him save the world several times over, who could blame him? As John McClane, the human one-liner dispenser that Willis played in the “Die Hard” franchise, might have told skeptics, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!” Then, last week, Willis’s family announced that he is suffering from aphasia, a cognitive disorder affecting the ability to produce and understand speech, and that he was “stepping away” from acting as a result. A subsequent report in the Los Angeles Times revealed that Willis’s decline had been apparent on set for years, and that his handlers had been maintaining his productivity by drastically cutting down his parts and even feeding him lines through an earpiece.
The news suddenly recontextualized Willis’s churn of disposable action movies, as well as the strangely blank affect that has defined his late-career screen presence. Reviewing “Hard Kill,” a 2020 movie starring Willis as a tech CEO whose daughter gets kidnapped, a critic for the Guardian described him as occupying “that gray area between zero fuss and not much effort.” This and other similarly disparaging assessments now exist in their own gray area, where public opinion of an actor’s craft meets public knowledge of his extenuating circumstances. Last Thursday, in an uncharacteristically tasteful gesture, the organizers of the Golden Raspberry Awards, which highlight the worst movie performances of the year, rescinded their prize for Willis’s 2021 film “Cosmic Sin,” saying, in a statement, that if an actor’s performance is affected by a medical condition it is “not appropriate to give them a Razzie.” But the truth is that Willis has been accused of embodying the wrong kind of “effortlessness” since long before his medical disclosures, because, like Toshiro Mifune and Clint Eastwood—both of whom he was aptly compared to, in a 1996 article in RollingStone—his stardom has been predicted almost since the beginning on a strategic minimalism. The bald, bullet-headed look that he cultivated over time gave the impression of an actor carved from granite, a sleek solidity fissured only by one of Hollywood’s great hairline smirks. In his best roles, Willis chips meticulously away at his charisma until he reaches something rough-edged and elemental underneath.
It’s easy to forget that Willis began his career as a smoldering neo-screwball type, like a blue-collar Elliott Gould, or Mickey Rourke by way of “Saturday Night Live.” Playing a rumpled but suave private detective on ABC’s network meta-comedy “Moonlighting,” which aired from 1985 to 1989, Willis rapped his knuckles against the fourth wall and parried Cybill Shepherd’s banter so nimbly that both seemed swept off their feet. His unlikely crossover into big-screen stardom rested on the irony of watching a slouchy, sitcom-style charmer stranded suddenly in the wrong genre. The first “Die Hard” film, as superbly engineered by the director John McTiernan, exults in its own bruising incongruity, with Willis’s character gamely straddling the line between competence and confusion. Scuttling barefoot over broken glass or dangling from a hose by his less-than-Schwarzeneggerian biceps, Willis doesn’t so much star in “Die Hard” as endures it in a fugue state of exertion punctuated by heavy sighs and snarky asides. In an era famed for his relentless, hard-bodied action heroes, Willis was more like a sarcastic punching bag—an endearing new action-movie archetype that he spent the next two decades repeating, revising, or satirizing as needed.
An inevitable string of other action roles followed, in the early nineties, while, at the same time, Willis attempted to leave his output with appearances in satirical comedies (strained in “The Bonfire of the Vanities”; inspired in “Death Becomes Her” ). He took a few genuine risks, in debacles such as the jazzy cat-burglar comedy “Hudson Hawk” and the sexually explicit thriller “Color of Night,” and jabbed at his own increasing predictability in Robert Altman’s Hollywood sendup “The Player,” depicting a version of himself who’s brought in to adorn a blockbuster production opposite Julia Roberts. But, for a leading man trying to transcend his own typecasting, his first great counterpunch came with a supporting role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” as an aging palooka named Butch, whose refusal to throw a fight for money is presented as the dim stirring of some long-suppressed principle. As in “Die Hard,” Willis is an everyman who finds himself under siege and is forced to fight back, but this time the transformation is played for wry, metatextual humor. At a climactic moment, surveying a literal murderers’ row of potential weapons, he opts for a samurai sword with a winning mix of bloodlust and bewilderment, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s about to do.
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This air of wry perplexity turned out to be a defining Willis trait, and was central to his remarkable run of performances in the mid-to-late nineties. In Terry Gilliam’s dystopian thriller “12 Monkeys,” a spiritual remake of Chris Marker’s indelible “La Jetée,” he plays a post-apocalyptic time traveler driven by a foggy memory of violence. The 1996 making-of documentary, “The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys,” shows a terse, contrarian Willis fighting—and ultimately losing—a battle with Gilliam over their differing interpretations of the material. But the end result is an aptly hollowed-out performance. As James Cole, one of the few survivors of a virus that wipes out most of the world, Willis eliminates all traces of his residual action-hero charisma. Stumbling on buckling knees through the film’s surrealist clutter, he seems like he could be in a trance, or suffering existential shell shock. He’s like a ghost haunting himself, and by the end of the circular, tail-swallowing narrative his strange performance augmented a blindsiding poignance.