Anyone Seen Cybill Shepard Lately?
Subject: Walter Bruce Willis, 54-year-old American actor
Date of Assessment: February 26, 2010
Positive Buzzwords: Sly, witty, world-weary
Negative Buzzwords: Rollercoaster, Bruno
The Case: Not too long ago, I took an exhaustive inventory of my DVD collection, and one of my unexpected findings was that, as far as actors are concerned, Bruce Willis appeared most often and a variety of genres. In retrospect, this shouldn’t be too terribly surprising, for — from action to drama to comedy — Bruce really can do it all. I suppose what threw me off a bit was that, despite total box office grosses (U.S. $3,083,895,515; Worldwide $6,551,191,938) that place him as the #11 All-Time Box Office Star, Bruce Willis doesn’t look or act like the typical movie star. He doesn’t have a million-watt smile or a full head of hair like Tom Cruise. He’s not chiseled like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He doesn’t have the snarl of Sylvester Stallone or the martial arts skills of Jackie Chan. Instead, Bruce Willis is the proud owner of a steadily receding hairline and “everyman hero” qualities that enable an audience to identify with his characters and root for them. Even better, Willis can do those one-liner action-hero roles (John McClane of the Die Hard franchise) as well as those that involve, well, actual acting (The Sixth Sense, 12 Monkeys, and Unbreakable). Also, quite impressively, Bruce easily managed to coast through (after a few speed bumps) the usually awkward transition from television to movies. While “Moonlighting” really put him on the map of global interest, it took Die Hard (1988) to establish him as a box-office force. As John McClaine, Willis bolstered the action-movie paradigm shift that Lethal Weapon started; it was a switch to flawed heroes with an attainable sort of machismo and charm, and Willis easily personified both qualities. And, as Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Mel Gibson, and Chuck Norris have all steadily lost their action swagger, only Bruce Willis remains a viable action star.
Yet, for all his longevity, Bruce Willis’ career has exhibited a lot of ebbing and flowing, both in quality and box-office draw, but, let’s be honest here and admit that box-office is really the only thing that Hollywood cares about. Otherwise, the nauseating Look Who’s Talking and its progeny wouldn’t be considered successes alongside the Die Hard franchise. After this streak of success, however, Bruce saw a series of critical and commercial misses and entered his first career slump, which lasted until Quentin Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction (1994). As boxer Butch Coolidge, Bruce portrayed the conflicted intensity of his character while also letting loose with an Uzi and a samurai sword. Afterwards, even though Bruce flipped his persona around in Fifth Element and gave a bloody amazing acting performance in 12 Monkeys, a second career slump soon followed. This next time, it took Michael fucking Bay to pull Bruce out of box-office hell with Armageddon, which earned Bruce a Razzie Award for Worst Actor that year but put him back on solid commercial footing. Fortunately, The Sixth Sense soon arrived and paired a great script with Bruce’s restrained performance as a renowned child psychologist looking for redemption but also achieved unanticipated box-office numbers. Since then, Bruce has been bopping along and alternating between big-budget moneymakers and smaller flicks that often fail to even register with audiences.
Now, my very favorite Bruce Willis characters are fairly recent ones, that is, the neo-noir types of Sin City, as a hard-boiled, old-school cop with a fading ticker and sense of decency even against unspeakable evil, and Lucky Number Slevin as the arbiter of justice between warring gang bosses and facilitator of revenge for the film’s underdog protagonist. Even when Bruce plays characters who are too old to formally “kick ass,” he still manages to provide heroes that we can believe in and could even resurrect John McClaine for one last frantic run in Live Free or Die Hard, which didn’t carry the same momentum as its predecessors (mainly the first and third installments) but provided an authentic version of the world-weary iconic action hero, who knows that his best days are past but still gives it everything he’s got. Out of the entire school of aforementioned action-heroes, Bruce is still the only one who can pull off dramatic roles as well as action, and, arguably, he’s much more of a Last Action Hero than Schwarzenegger could ever manage. Yippie-ki-yay, now let’s see some real acting again, Bruce Willis.
The Prognosis: Perfect Stranger? Surrogates? Cop Out? Die Hard 5? C’mon, Bruce… I know you still have some life left in you. It’s time to avoid a third career slump. And fast.