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When did Bruce Willis stop caring?

An impassioned plea for an acting great to return to form

When did Bruce Willis stop caring?
03 April 2017

Bruce Willis. Posterboy for the follicly challenged; slayer of Gruber; and, in a multiplex not all that long ago, one of the most dependable box office names around.
Eighteen years since The Sixth Sense, however, the actor truly has given up the ghost, barley twitching a facial muscle as the secondary credits roll in, allowing new heroes emerge while he sits back to work on his tan (see all of his 20 minutes alongside Henry Cavill in The Cold Light of Day). Balls deep in straight-to-DVD action films, Bruce has been sleepwalking though cinema for the better part of a decade now.
In fact, it was only after laying eyes on Precious Cargo, a crime drama with the double billing of Willis and Mark-Paul Gosselaar that I realised how badly the former’s star had fallen. Gosselaar, you may remember, played Zack on Saved by the Bell around the time the Die Hard franchise was still entertaining. Sure, Mario Lopez you could understand (looks great in a vest himself), and though it’s not quite ‘starring in a porn film opposite Dustin Diamond’ territory, deep down we all know Bruce is better than this.

Doesn’t he just know it, too? ‘Think of the money’, screams his expression on the artwork, presumably right after realising where he places Gosselaar’s face from. Sadly, it’s far from a one-off. In the past six years alone, Bruce has churned out cheap action thrillers by the half dozen: Precious Cargo, The Prince, Marauders, Catch .44, The Set Up, Extraction – sounding less like a body of acting work and more a list of multiplayer missions on Call of Duty.

Michael Caine once quipped of his work on Jaws 4: The Revenge that he didn't see the finished film but he did see the house that it built. Apply that same logic to Willis and such is the ratio of salary size to shits given of late, he's likely overseen the construction of two Beverly Hills mansions, a pool house and four garages in the last decade.
To help shed some light on how his recent career has fared, here’s a graph of Bruce’s work since Pulp Fiction through to today, plotted using IMDB reviews from his early ’90s heyday to the clusterfuck he finds himself in today.

First up, if we’re looking for some sort of pattern, note how during the bulk of his career, Willis had developed something of a knack for quickly recovering from flops (case in point: 1999's Breakfast of Champions, one of his biggest failures, followed up by The Sixth Sense, one of his biggest hits), rarely getting stuck on a barren run for a prolonged amount of time. After 2008, however, his luck ran out. Barring a strong 2012 – including Moonrise Kingdom, where Bruce’s deadpan humour was deployed spectacularly by Wes Anderson, and stonking sci-fi classic of the same year Looper, certainly Willis’s last great performance – he hasn’t played a substantial role since.

With the critical and financial success of Looper, it’s obvious that Willis is still a box office draw given the right budget and scripts, making you wonder why so few major roles have fallen his way in recent years. Putting it bluntly, I wonder if it might well be due to his reputation for being tough to work with.

In an interview for ShortList four years ago, Kevin Smith told me of his hellish experience of directing Willis in 2003’s comedy Cop Out, describing the moment the erstwhile action hero reduced almost turned proceedings physical.
“Bruce wasn’t happy and asked me to clear the set. When everyone was gone he asked me to hit him. I knew if I did, he’d hit back. Instead, I reluctantly said we could reshoot, then I went into my trailer, angrily punched the air and cried like Cuba Gooding Jr in Boyz ‘N The Hood.”

Smith would also tell an audience exactly why the actor didn’t like to be directed: “[He] made it clear he was the author of his own performance. ‘I’ve been Bruce Willis for 25 years, please don’t put your loser stink on me’.”
In 2013, Bruce's professional image took another hammering when he was fired from The Expendables 3, after being offered $3m for four days of work in Bulgaria only to threaten to leave the project if he wasn’t given $4m. Canned and replaced by an arguably bigger name, Sylvester Stallone tweeted of the re-casting: “WILLIS OUT . . . HARRISON FORD IN!!!! GREAT NEWS!!!!! Been waiting years for this!!!!”
If that weren’t galling enough, Rocky then went for the knockout, posting: ‘GREEDY AND LAZY . . . A SURE FORMULA FOR CAREER FAILURE’, before a studio insider (who possibly moonlights as a speechwriter for Donald Trump) claimed Ford was “a better actor, a much nicer person and a more interesting direction for the film”.
Another Nakatomi Plaza-sized indicator that Willis might not be the easiest person to get along with is the man’s general disdain for junket interviews, which these days seem to involve little more than the actor wryly mumbling about a role he doesn’t give a shit about while a man who once presented Blue Peter grimaces at him from the other side of a loud sofa. To be fair, you can’t blame him there.

And we know he won't be retiring anytime soon. Contractually obliged to appear in the next ten Die Hards, Ben Stiller's ‘90s sketch, Die Hard 12: Die Hungrynow depressingly prophetic, Bruce is rumoured to be digging out the vest again for Year One. Can the same shit happen to the same guy 50 times? Ostensibly, it can.
There are many great actors who’ve slipped into obscurity, their features and bank balances ravaged by time, only to return with a sleeper hit and ride the wave to Comeback Town (see: Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler, Nick Nolte: Warrior). Which begs the question: could Bruce be on the cusp of a comeback himself?
It’s possible. Following a surprise cameo in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, he’ll likely be reprising his role as Unbreakable’s David Dunn (the superhero who cannot be injured, not the former midfielder who was constantly injured); there’s a potentially perfect leading role in Eli Roth's upcoming remake of Death Wish on the cards; and lastly Once Upon a Time in Venice, a screwball LA-set comedy drama about a detective going after the gang that stole his dog. God, please let it be good, if only to help cease the glut of crime thrillers he’s been churning out. Bruce was on Friends. He's funny, (if you’ve never seen him in 1987’s Blind Date, seek it out). I'm not asking for him to reinvent himself as an indie icon, I just want him to care again, to put in performances that matter. 

Which looks unlikely to change with Bruce’s next big screen outing. Funded by the state-operated China Film Group, The Bombing – which, let’s be honest, could just as easily been the title of his last five films – is a Chinese-language film retelling the tale of a major WW2 event. The lure of the Chinese dollar may even be understandable to some. He’s not the only big name veteran actor snapped up by the Asian market. And who knows, perhaps Bruce has always wanted the easy paydays and now he’s getting them.

Or – and here’s my other theory – what if Bruce actually did die in The Sixth Sense? Only for real, and all this time we’ve been watching a spectral vision of the man who played John McClane, floating on camera with minimal dialogue, the permanent expression of a man starting at the sun, and simply emitting one giant ectoplasm of lethargy disguised as a Hollywood great.
Now that’s one hell of a twist. Fair play, Shyamalan.