You’ve seen and heard it happen. Maybe you’ve even been part of it yourself. It’s that moment at the end of the trailer for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, when we get the big reveal of Bruce F’n Willis, and the whole audience goes absolutely ape-shit. And why not? It’s really freaking cool to see Bruce Willis, right? And in a G.I. Joe movie? This is awesome!
Except, today it finally occurred to me – is it really? For that matter, why are we still excited about Bruce Willis at all anymore?
I know, I’m treading on dangerous ground here, daring to speak ill of Willis on a nerd-based website. Willis has long been one of those untouchable nerd icons, thanks almost entirely on his iconic role as John McClane in the greatest action movie ever made, Die Hard. And hey, I’m not taking that away from him. Willis will always be McClane, and will always have some serious cool cred because of it.
But what has Willis done for us lately?
For instance, did you even see the last two Willis films?
No, of course you didn’t. Nobody did. But what’s really weird is that nobody seems to be talking about the sad truth behind these two films – that Willis, once one of our biggest action stars, has suddenly and unexpectedly slipped into that depressing area known as “straight-to-video-ville” (though to be fair, Catch 44 did have a theatrical release in Croatia according to IMDB). That’s right, the terrain dominated by guys like Dolph Lundgren and Steven Seagal has a new challenger…and it’s John McClane?!?
How did this happen? Well, when you actually stop and think about it, you realize it was perhaps inevitable. You see, I’m gonna take an educated guess and say Willis just stopped caring some time ago. And, because we all love Willis, most of us didn’t even notice. But go take a look at the man’s IMDB page, and ask yourself – when was the last time he did care? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
I mean, sure, he was sort of fun in his brief role in Planet Terror, and I’m enough of a Die Hard apologist that I’m admittedly overly-forgiving of Live Free or Die Hard. But, still, if you ask me, you have to go all the way back to Unbreakable for the last truly great performance from a motivated Bruce Willis. And that’s twelve years ago!!
Now I know many will point to the insanely popular RED as an argument against what I’m saying here, but take a moment and really ask yourself – did that movie do well because of our still existing good-will toward Willis, or because he was actually really good in it? Don’t get me wrong, I think RED is a fairly entertaining film, but that has more to do with the overall concept, John Malkovich’s performance, and the thrill of seeing Helen Mirren wield a machine gun than it does Willis’ work in the film, which isn’t much different than the sort of performance he has given in every movie for the last decade or so. You know the performance I’m talking about – squint, grin and barely emote.
Seriously, go do a quick image search of Willis and count how many pictures don’t have that same expression. Don’t worry, you’ll only need the fingers on one hand. Has there ever been another actor with such limited facial range? Well, I guess Paris Hilton, but then again, I did say “actor.”
Now, I know, this is all part of Willis’ cool, steely demeanor, and it’s a large part of what makes him such a badass. That’s true – but it’s also part of what can make him very boring. You see, it would be one thing if Willis was making a string of shitty movies and at least overacting in them. It’s the “Nicolas Cage factor.” Cage makes pretty much nothing but shitty movies at this point, but 9 times out of 10 he is still entertaining in them, because he’s just so damn nuts. Willis, on the other hand, approaches every role with the same sort of “I don’t really give a damn that I’m here and therefore I’m not really gonna try” attitude, which in turn makes stinkers like Surrogates, Perfect Stranger or Cop Out a real slog to sit through (though, for the record, I still take Willis’ side in the whole Willis vs Kevin Smith Cop Out ordeal – because, well, he’s still Bruce Willis and Kevin Smith is still Kevin Smith).
There was a time when Willis seemed to care. Compare his recent work to films like The Sixth Sense, Twelve Monkeys or Pulp Fiction. Check out the comic intensity he showed in movies like Blind Date or Death Becomes Her. Heck, even dumb action movies like Last Boy Scout and The Fifth Element showcase a more involved, motivated and charismatic Willis. The one word I would use to describe the majority of his recent work is “bored.” Willis looks bored with the films he is in, perhaps even bored with the whole “acting” thing in general. We’ve let it slide for a while because, like I said, he’s Bruce F’N Willis. But when it’s gotten so bad that he is now appearing in straight-to-video dreck that even the most die-hard Willis fan (see what I did there?) can hardly be bothered to check it out, you have to ask – how long until we finally admit that we might have lost Bruce Willis?
There is still hope. Rian Johnson’s upcoming time-travel film Looper, in which Willis will play an older Joseph Gordon-Levitt, trying to dodge assassination from his younger self, sounds crazy enough that it’s hard to believe Willis won’t be at least a little more motivated than usual. And, of course, there’s A Good Day to Die Hard - if nothing else, Willis always seems to love playing John McClane, which is great because I always love watching John McClane. But let’s hope these aren’t just a couple random examples lost amidst a sea of increasingly stupider and non-challenging projects (I’m tempted to say that maybe another collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan would be a good move, but that’s a real “tempting of the fates” sort of statement these days).
I’m still rooting for the man. “Straight-To-Video-Ville” doesn’t deserve Bruce Willis…at least not the Bruce Willis of ten years ago. If, however, he continues to barely try and just pick whatever script is tossed his way for a quick paycheck – well, it hurts me to say, but if that’s the case, I guess “Straight-To-Video-Ville” can have him.