Bruce Wil­lis

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.

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