ADVENTURES IN STREAMING
EACH ISSUE, OUR INTREPID WRITER FOLLOWS NETFLIX’S COMPUTER-CALIBRATED RECOMMENDATIONS, GOING WHEREVER THE TRAIL LEADS
THIS MONTH, ON MARCH 19, a certain action veteran turns 61. Three cheers for Bruce Willis: “Yip! Yip!” “Ki-yay!” Actually, this birthday Bruce-a-thon is 100 per cent Die Hard-free: there aren’t any on Netflix. What is on offer is a mixed grill of classics, clunkers and curios. Any career spanning 70 films in 30 years is bound to have its quality wobbles, but draw a graph of Willis’ filmography and it looks like a saw or a mountain-range: a long, jagged wave of ups and downs. Bruce is unbreakable but he’s also unguessable. This is the man who followed up Die Hard 2 with Look Who’s Talking Too. Expect a bumpy ride.
What with all those knockdowns and comebacks, Willis’ career resembles that of a hardened prize-fighter. First up: Pulp Fiction , in which he plays, er, a hardened prize-fighter. Travolta’s Vincent owns the film’s iconography, but Bruce’s section, The Gold Watch, is the standout story. Tarantino has a peculiar knack for identifying an actor’s essence . In Willis, he saw the reincarnation of Aldo Ray, which is spot-on: Bruce is the closest modern Hollywood has to a ’50s tough guy. In The Gold Watch, Butch is like a piece of lard-lined Andrex — he doesn’t take shit from anyone. Or any gimp. Anybody else still wish he went for the chainsaw over the samurai sword?
From career high to howling low. Buried on DVD last year, Vice casts Bruce as all-seeing overlord of a hedonistic android resort. Think Club 18-30 meets Westworld with the fun-chip removed. When Ambyr Childers’ rogue-bot becomes self-aware and makes her escape, the film sinks into grumpy action bilge shot in a depressing, anti-bacterial blue. If it can solve a scene with a gratuitous, deadening shoot-out, it will. Over and over again. Squinting at his lines in a glassy IHQ, Willis barely moves a muscle. All the action’s left to Thomas Jane’s grizzled cop. In fact, Willis is so blank-eyed you could well be watching a Brucedroid. Maybe you are. Maybe the real Bruce was sitting at home, slippers on, planning his own Die Hard theme-park called Vestworld.
We’re back up. In Bandits , Willis joins Billy Bob Thornton as a modern-day Butch and Sundance, merrily robbing banks until they both fall in love with Cate Blanchett’s hostage. Cue wonky love triangle. Is it a thriller? A rom-com? A rob-com? I dunno. Neither does Barry Levinson — his direction’s all over the place, but his meandering style has a purpose. Bandits’ baggy charm lies in its character-driven comedy, and the interplay between a neurotic Thornton and Willis, gamely sending up his hardman image (Thornton even calls him “Mr. Action Figure Hero Guy”). Worth revisiting for Willis pulling a heist with a marker pen and showcasing an astonishing menagerie of dodgy hair-piece disguises. Bruce loves renovating his head with a wig. There’s enough here to open up a zoo.
Now down again. Or is it an up? I’ll probably get black-listed for this, but I saw Hudson Hawk on its opening weekend and still endure the shame of having had a really good time. Call it wrong-stalgia, but my opinion hasn’t changed: it’s still the drunkest blockbuster of the ’90s. Showtune heists, butler assassins, agents named after chocolate bars... They really did make it up as they went along. No wonder Willis’ side-smirk lasts the full 97: it’s like a colossally expensive private joke. Embrace its dollar-burning daftness, cartoony action and rowdy hamming, and you’ve got the best spy-spoof cat-burglar Da Vinci Code musical ever made. Probably.
Finally, The Siege — another flop worth reappraising. Released in 1998, Edward Zwick’s urgent thriller was originally dismissed as fantasy. Now it looks queasily prescient. If New York were attacked by Islamist suicide bombers, how would America respond? Denzel Washington’s the terrorist-hunting agent; Willis, the neo-fascist general inciting race-hate and martial law. From In Country to Hart’s War, Bruce’s CV is decorated with army heroes (Willis Sr. was a soldier) but he’s the enemy within here — less a character, more a cold symbol of hostile, hawkish patriotism, like a militarised Donald Trump without the electrocuted seagull hair. The politics are clumsy but here’s a rare, bold studio movie that dares to ask some ruthless, frightening questions. Would Hollywood make The Siege now? Would Bruce? You’ve got more chance of seeing Hudson Hawk 2. Or, come to think of it, Vestworld.