Willis, Bruce (1955—)

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Willis, Bruce (1955—)

Bruce Willis first came to prominence as David Addison in the mid-1980s television show Moonlighting. With its appealingly eccentric mix of throwaway detective plots and screwball romantic comedy, the show was an ideal showcase for Willis's often bemused and often in control, wise-cracking action man. It seemed with his first two films, Blind Date (1987) and Sunset (1988), both directed by Blake Edwards, that Willis was going to follow the comedy route, but after Die Hard (1988) Willis became instead one of the leading action stars of the 1990s. Early attempts to break free of the John McClane character and action man image met with failure and it is only since Pulp Fiction (1994), perhaps, that Willis has been able to extend his range, now alternating action with the occasional touch of character. It is, however, easy to see why the Die Hard films succeeded, and how Willis's image was established through them.

Expertly directed by John McTiernan, the first Die Hard gave a new boost to action films, the rough and ready American hero fighting international terrorists in a disaster movie scenario leading to two sequels, numerous imitations, and bringing stylish action and violence to the genre. And for his part, Willis seemed to embody a new sort of action hero; in contrast to Rambo and the Terminator, John McClane was a vulnerable family man. Up against high-tech criminals with nothing but his wits and a gun, he is brutally beaten and his spirit is wearing thin. Of course, McClane wins the day, dispatching the terrorist mastermind with his cowboy catchphrase, "Yippy kay yay, mother fucker," but he still has a few problems to face. The skyscraper dynamics that recalled the film Towering Inferno were followed up by the brutal airport action of Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990). Another dose of realism is added to Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) in which McClane is divorced, alcoholic, and out of shape.

An attempt in the early 1990s to extend his range in such films as the Vietnam elegy, In Country (1989), did not altogether meet with favorable reviews—in particular, playing the "English journalist" in Brian De Palma's misguided adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), then starring in his own expensive boxoffice flop, Hudson Hawk (1991). Tony Scott's The Last Boy Scout (1991) only returned Willis to a more violent cop role; Robert Zemeckis's Death Becomes Her (1992) was an unfunny special effects comedy; and Striking Distance (1993) was a minor action film. In order to focus more attention on his acting rather than his movie star status, Willis took on some quite interesting cameo roles: as Dustin Hoffman's gangster rival in Billy Bathgate (1991); alongside his wife Demi Moore in Mortal Thoughts (1991); admirably sending up his action man image in Robert Altman's The Player (1992); starring alongside Paul Newman in Nobody's Fool (1994); and acting as a comedy bunny in Rob Reiner's otherwise uninteresting family film, North (1994).

By all accounts, the so-called erotic thriller, Color of Night (1994), is Willis's worst film, but in the same year he was to launch a more mature phase in his career as the boxer, Butch, in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Taking his place amongst an ensemble cast and latching onto Tarantino's hip dialogue, Willis pared down his usual smirks and steely stares, resulting in a notably different performance that was all internal rage and insecurity. Terry Gilliam managed to get an even more vulnerable performance out of Willis as the confused time traveller in 12 Monkeys (1995); Walter Hill's Last Man Standing (1996) showcased Willis's pared-down brutality, and for their part The Fifth Element (1996) and Armageddon (1998) ranged from glossy Die Hard action in the former to Willis saving the world from pre-millennial excess in the latter. In between his big action projects, however, Willis still managed to choose roles in such small and unsatisfactory action films as The Jackal (1997) and Mercury Rising (1998). Of the three owners of the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain, however, Willis has clearly managed to become the most accessible action hero of the 1990s, taking over from the previous might of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and cultivating an altogether more easygoing screen appeal.

—Stephen Keane

Further Reading:

Parker, John. Bruce Willis: An Unauthorised Biography. London, Virgin, 1997.

Quinlan, David. Quinlan's Illustrated Directory of Film Stars. London, Batsford, 1996.