To put it in perspective, if Will Smith was the star of this same movie, the posters would be on every street corner in every city. It almost seems as though the studio don’t think Willis is bankable enough to warrant a big marketing budget. But Bruce Willis IS a superstar, and i’ll see you on the other side to give you 6 reasons why.
Although he was internationally recognised for Moonlighting, the gulf between tv and movies was much greater in the 80’s than it is now. Making the jump between the two was hard for any actor. But after just a couple of tries, including the awful Blind Date, Willis struck gold in…
Pulp Fiction 1994
The story about Pulp Fiction is always how it resurrected John Travolta’s career, but people forget that it was equally important to Willis too. Directed by Quentin Tarantino, his follow-up to the brilliant Reservoir Dogs, Fiction became a cultural phenomenon. It’s distinctive mix of non-linear story-telling and pop culture dialogue made this story of small-time criminals one of the most copied films of the nineties, much like Die Hard was in the eighties. Willis role, as Butch, the boxer who defies Marsellus Wallace’ order to take a dive, was a smaller role than Travolta’s and Samuel L Jackson’s, but it was enough to elevate his career. Unusually, the scene that is the focal point of Butch’s story, the boxing match, isn’t actually shown. We just find out the details in the taxi that Butch escapes the arena in. The scene where Butch picks up increasingly deadly weapons, looking for the right tool to save Wallace from a fate worse than death, is iconic. Fiction is one of four films that Willis and Jackson have both featured in, the other’s being Loaded Weapon, Die Hard With A Vengeance, and Unbreakable. Willis struck up a friendship with Quentin Tarantino, and would later cameo in his section of the experimental Four Rooms. Everyone involved with Pulp Fiction came out of it far better off than they’d gone into it. Pulp Fiction won the Palm D’or, was Tarantino’s highest grossing film until a couple of weeks ago, and is in the top ten of IMDB’s 250 greatest films list. With one film, Willis had raised his profile and increased his bankability.
The Sixth Sense 1999
M Night Shyamalan had only made a handful of films, with limited success. But he hit the jackpot when The Sixth Sense was bought for two million dollars, and he was also allowed to direct it. Bruce Willis also hit the jackpot when he was cast as the adult lead. And Haley Joel Osment had maybe the best of it, by putting in one of the greatest performances by a child actor, and gaining an academy award nomination as a result. The supernatural tale of a small boy with a big secret was a critical and commercial success. It was a sleeper hit, the big twist at the end resulting in word of mouth spreading like wildfire. Sense is very much an intelligent horror movie, cerebral rather than visceral. It is slow paced, but that suits the subject perfectly,and is part of what makes the film so great. It really is a shining example for filmmakers of how to build tension and suspense. Willis puts in his most mature performance as the child psychiatrist trying to help Osment’s Cole. Willis plays it low key, and it’s only with the big reveal at the end that you realise just how good he is. It’s very difficult to play a role when you know something the audience doesn’t. To keep the right balance, with just enough foreshadowing, is a great skill.Sin City 2005
Whether you like the movie or not, Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City is certainly a slick picture with a distinctive style. Based on Frank Miller’s cult graphic novel, the comic book visuals of the film were at the time unique. The whole thing was shot with the action in front of green screen, with backgrounds edited in later in post-production. The movie was also shot with high definition cameras, making it an entirely digital movie. Willis’ hardboiled Hartigan is a real throwback to pulp detective stories, and his thread in the film is done the way that the videogame adaptation of Max Payne should have been done. The film-noir style narration by Willis seems like an easy thing to do, but listen to Clive Owen’s attempt in his thread, and you can hear the difference in quality. Willis role as Hartigan does two things. It gently pokes fun at Willis’ action movie persona, and as the cop with the bum ticker in the twilight of his career, it’s his way of holding his hands up and accepting that age has caught him up. Willis now (mostly) takes on roles as the grizzled veteran, the old-school policeman in his retirement year. Sin City can also be credited for the beginning of Micky Rourke’s triumphant return to Hollywood. His role as Marv is as perfect a portrayal of the graphic novel’s character as you could hope for, with extensive prosthetics used to achieve the perfect look. Sin City was a surprise success, grossing nearly seventy-five million dollars (nearly double it’s production cost).
Die Hard 1988
Still recognised today as one of the greatest action movies of all time, Die Hard was huge. Inspiring legions of imitators, it enabled Hollywood Executives to limit movie pitches to one sentence. ‘It’s Die Hard, on a boat’, ‘It’s Die Hard, on a plane’. The concept, based on the novel ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, is simplicity itself. Terrorists take over a building, John Maclaine on the upper floors is the only man who can stop them. Taking the terrorists out one at a time, Maclaine takes a pounding, but still manages to keep his sense of humour about him. Far from being a super-cop, Maclaine is slightly out of shape, with relationship problems. Die Hard gave us new ideas that now seem like old hat. A hero who gets hurt. Very hurt. A relationship built between hero and villain.(The banter between Maclaine and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is one of the best things about the film). Incidentally, the part of Hans Gruber was Rickman’s first feature film. His brilliant performance led on to a fantastic career, littered with roles as juicy villains. Whilst there are stunts in Die Hard, they aren’t ridiculously over the top, something that would stay a tradition in the franchise until the ill-advised Live Free, Die Hard. Die Hard has spawned three sequels, and John Maclaine is one of the most iconic screen action heroes of all time. Willis, best known for comedy, was a revelation as the action hero with the wry smile and boyish charm. Along with Lethal Weapon, released one year earlier, Die Hard set the bar high, and changed the face of action movies forever.
From the end of the eighties through the beginning of the nineties, Willis was trapped in a cycle of Die Hard wannabes and obscure comedy-dramas. With the occasional Die Hard film thrown in, he managed to keep his profile up, but he was in danger of disappearing into mediocrity. It was only his on-screen charisma and ability to take on any role that kept his career afloat. Bruce Willis had lost his relevance. Then along came…
Willis was thought of as one of the great action heroes of the eighties, and had stood out from the likes of Arnie by displaying an ability to act very well. But questions remained over whether he could carry a serious film with a good dramatic performance. Terry Gilliam would change that, and change the course of Bruce Willis’ career, when he cast Willis in…
Twelve Monkeys 1995
Twelve Monkeys is brilliant, intense, and batshit crazy. The tale of a future decimated by a virus, and a man sent back in time to find out why, Twelve Monkeys is inspired by a short film named La Jetee. Gilliam injected it with his trademark quirkiness, and it turned out to be a work of genius, criminally underrated and overlooked. Willis is excellent as Cole, a man stumbling through time, not knowing what is reality and what is psychotic fantasy. He displays a full range of acting emotions, and it was an eye opening career performance. Brad Pitt, another actor with question marks over his acting ability at the time, went one better with an Academy Award nomination. Love it or hate it, it’s undeniable that the complex story and ambiguous ending are a subject of great debate amongst movie-goers. The final scene is especially contentious, and for the record Gilliam has stated that the scene wasn’t necessary at all. You get the sense that he prefers his audience to form their own conclusions to his movies. Twelve Monkeys did not do so well at the box office however, and the majority of the movie-going public was still not aware of the revelationary turn by Willis.
The people that mattered, however, did notice. Hollywood producers. Willis started to get offered roles of the quality and diversity he deserved. And then came the serious, dramatic role that Willis had been waiting for, the one that would show the world the kind of performance he was capable of…
When Shyamalan came calling to Willis for his follow up to the Sixth Sense, he wouldn’t have had to ask twice. But with a script equal in quality, Willis had an easy decision when he accepted the role in…
Nowhere near as big a success critically or financially, Unbreakable is nevertheless arguably the better film. It is certainly the directors favourite. It is a very intelligent film again, and the plot is far more realistic. Willis this time plays David Dunn, the only survivor of a train crash. Dunn is an ordinary man who slowly discovers he has an extra-ordinary secret. Dealing as it does with comic book mythology, but still keeping the dramatic tone of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable should have appealed to all fans of Willis. It was released little more than a year after Sense, so should have been perfectly poised to capitalise on the previous film’s success. Quite why it didn’t achieve a fraction of the success is a mystery, though it’s certainly possible many people wrote Shyamalan off as a one trick pony when they heard there was another twist ending. The twist is a great one, but probably not as integral to the plot; Unbreakable would probably have been just as good a movie without it. The movie poses some interesting questions about congenital defects, and the nature of human physiology. Are some people really just born stronger than others? Sadly, though, it will always be thought of as The Sixth Sense’s lesser brother.
After these two great performances, Willis was high in demand. But his insistence on taking on projects he is interested in over big movies with high salary offers meant that again he appeared in a lot of movies that were either not well received critically, or failed at the box office. Probably his biggest recent part was in the dynamic…
The role of Hartigan matched up perfectly with the action man persona Willis has portrayed most of his career, the everyman who takes a licking and (just) keeps on ticking. It’ll be interesting to see if Surrogates follows the same pattern. Certainly based on the trailer, it looks like there’ll be plenty of blood sweat and tears once again for our man Bruce.
Surrogates is released in theatres this Friday 25th September.