Something’s seemed different about No. 1 American action hero Bruce Willis lately. His action movie output in recent years has mostly been stunt casting in mediocre sequels (The Expendables 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), or supporting roles in little-seen B-movies (Setup, Catch .44, Fire with Fire), as if he’s in a who-can-co-star-with-50-Cent-the-most competition with Robert DeNiro. Few would disagree that this year’s A Good Day to Die Hard, Willis’s fifth outing as the iconic John McClane, is the least inspired of its series. To be fair, any perceived lack of enthusiasm in Willis’s performance is far eclipsed by that modern problem of I-have-no-clue-what-is-supposed-to-be-going-on-during-this-chaotic-action-scene. But it’s starting to look like Willis’s heart isn’t in it anymore.
In interviews promoting Red 2 in July, Willis seemed tired and uninterested, to put it charitably. In August, he dropped out of The Expendables 3 and was Twitter-shamed as “GREEDY AND LAZY” by his old friend Sylvester Stallone. According to a Hollywood Reporter source, Willis was offered $3 million for four days of work, but wanted to round it up to $4 million (to make the math easier for the accountants, is my guess). He made headlines again when Spanish magazine XLS (as translated by The Mirror) quoted him as saying, “Explosions are one of the most boring parts of my job. When you have seen a few fireballs, it’s not exciting anymore. I know part of my audience enjoys the explosions, but to be honest, I’m a bit bored of it now.”
Many fans, or at least entertainment journalists, interpreted this not as a specific anti-fireball sentiment but as a confession that Willis had tired of the action genre in general. “I am very clear with who I am,” Willis continues. “I work in all sorts of films, but the action movies are the ones that generate the most revenue. I like to earn lots of money from those, but I do all types: small productions, megaprojects, medium sized, even science fiction.”
[Side question: did we really just translate the word “megaproject” from English to Spanish and back to English?]
I would resent any implication that action movies are a lesser pursuit than those other types he listed. It’s my favorite genre, and I treasure Willis’s contributions to it. I consider Die Hard the greatest American action movie, and until this last one, I loved its increasingly ridiculous sequels, too. I enjoyed Willis in other action movies, such as the Shane Black-scripted The Last Boy Scout and . . . maybe Striking Distance? The truth is that those “all sorts of films” dominate his filmography. Bruce is an action icon, but is he really an action star, in the sense of the martial artists and ex-athletes who are happy to specialize? Those guys who would be wasting their talents if they quit choreographing fights and car chases and to do True West onstage? Willis is something different. And I’m here to say that it’s time to let Action Bruce go.
It’s easy to forget that Bruce was an odd choice for movies like this. He arrived on the big screen as that smartass guy from TV. In a July 15, 1988, New York Times review of Die Hard, Caryn James described McClane as “a hero who carries with him the smirks and wisecracks that helped make Moonlighting a television hit.” The same day in the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote that Willis “keeps a respectable grip on the wheel, his only acting requirements being to shift that Moonlighting glibspeak into R-rated high-drive and fire his Beretta 92 to heart’s content.” At the time, Willis was four seasons into playing David Addison, a motor-mouthed private eye sometimes more focused on throwing office limbo parties than solving cases, and prone to spontaneous renditions of Motown tunes. His only major movie roles had been in two Blake Edwards films, Sunset with James Garner and the underrated yuppie-era slapstick Blind Date.
In 2010’s The Expendables, Willis appeared alongside Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in what Entertainment Weekly called “the scene that finally brings together the holy trinity of ’80s tentpoles.” It seemed natural, yet the original Die Hard specifically presents McClane as unlike Sly or Arnold. In one scene, McClane warns Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) that the terrorists have “enough plastic explosives to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger,” as in even if I were Arnold Schwarzenegger this would be a lot to deal with, and clearly I am not Arnold Schwarznegger, I am just a guy. In another scene, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) asks McClane if he’s “just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?”
“I was always kind of partial to Roy Rogers, actually,” McClane responds. “I really liked those sequined shirts.” He’s being a smartass, but Willis really was closer to a singing cowboy than the Duke. The year before, he’d released The Return of Bruno, a Motown album and companion HBO mockumentary. A few years later, he infamously cashed in his Die Hard clout to make Hudson Hawk, a dream project based on a song by Robert Kraft, a pianist buddy he played harmonica with.
McClane’s not Rambo. When the bullets start firing, the first thing he does is grab his gun, but the second is to look to the exit. Gruber and crew first notice him because they hear him gasping and scurrying away in fear after he witnesses them killing someone. He spends many of the early scenes swearing and talking to himself in a panic.
Twenty-five years later, with McClane enshrined in rap lyrics and video games, the Die Hard series has left McClane’s vulnerability behind on the Gruber-stained sidewalk outside Nakatomi Plaza. Today it’s easy to think of Willis as just a smaller, balder Schwarzenegger. But in Predator, also directed by Die Hard‘s John McTiernan, Predator sets an alien spaceship to self-destruct, then runs through the jungle, deftly leaping just before it explodes. In Die Hard, McClane dumps a load of C4 down an elevator shaft, then stares down at it like a dummy until a rising fireball causes him to bug his eyes out, yell “Oh shit!”, and jump away about two seconds too late.
Sometime in the mid-’90s, Willis transformed into the less outwardly panicked Quiet Bruce. As a boxer on the run in Pulp Fiction, a reluctant time-traveler in Twelve Monkeys, a haunted child psychologist in The Sixth Sense, burned-out cops in Hostage, Sin City, 16 Blocks, and Surrogates, and in many other roles, Willis does more brooding and grimacing than “smirks and wisecracks” or “Moonlighting glibspeak.” He acts less with his mouth and more with his eyes. Instead of insulting somebody with words, he burns through them with a cold stare.
By the time of A Good Day to Die Hard, McClane is closer to this modern Quiet Bruce than the Roy Rogers we first met. At one point his son, John Jr. (Jai Courtney), insults him by asking if he needs a hug. “We’re not a hugging family,” McClane says. That might come as a surprise to Die Hard‘s Sergeant Powell, who got a big hug from McClane when they first met face-to-face . They even shared an emotional conversation, with McClane asking Powell to tell McClane’s wife she was “the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me” and that “John said that he was sorry.”
Back then, McClane was learning to be a better husband; now, he’s proud of being Mr. Macho. I suppose this is the toll of having to rescue his wife from two hostages crises, New York from a bombing spree, the country from a hacker attack, and his son from whatever it was in Russia. That sort of life can cause a man to lose his sense of humor and willingness to show affection. So we look at him now and we forget that McClane is not the guy you send in to kill the alien attacker or rescue the P.O.W.s. He’s the guy who “got invited to the Christmas party by mistake.” He was outside his jurisdiction, only moonlighting. Maybe because Die Hard is so good and so timeless, we forgot that Willis was, too.
Is it so shocking, then, that standing next to Rambo and Arnold for the third time is something he’d only do for a ridiculous amount of money? After all, it’s not as if Willis is a Schwarzenegger or a Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose powers are usually diminished when acting outside of a punching-and-shooting context. Last year, between mediocre sequels and supporting roles in DTV thrillers, Willis squeezed in fine performances in Looper and Moonrise Kingdom, two critically acclaimed movies from smart, soft-spoken directors who you can imagine being hazed on and chased off an Expendables set. If that’s the Christmas party Bruce wants an invitation to, then I say we give him one that says at the bottom, “P.S. Bring your harmonica.” Maybe if he lives a fireball-free lifestyle for a while he’ll start to smile and joke again, and when he’s sarcastic in an interview he’ll come off as a charming rascal instead of just a dick. Maybe he’ll become a hugger again.