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by tt stern-enzi

I spent the morning of Valentine’s Day in a less than crowded theater watching an early screening of A Good Day To Die Hard, a movie that “inspired” random thoughts about the career of Bruce Willis, a star whose onscreen presence I used to thoroughly enjoy. I still remember, quite fondly, watching him back in the day on Moonlighting where his cocky strut and comic timing set the stage for him to make the leap from television to the movies. Even then, I think I recognized that he wasn’t a classic “actor” who was ever going to disappear into a character and make me forget I was watching “Bruce Willis,” but that didn’t really matter because I liked watching Bruce Willis.

That’s what made the first Die Hard so much fun. John McClane was cast in the “Bruce Willis” mold. He was a tough, street smart guy, a bit of a wiseass, who wasn’t an inflexible mass of muscles or a pretty boy seemingly waiting for his stunt double to provide coverage when things got intense on set. Willis was a contemporary Bogart with a little extra humor that you just knew would get on the nerves of the bad guys. Sure, McClane killed some guys and a building was blown up, but that was collateral damage. The real dirty work took place in those walkie talkie exchanges between McClane and Hans (Alan Rickman). It was like Batman and the Joker had their identities switched (a comedic staple from that era) or tossed in a blender and re-poured back into their bodies where a little of one was now in the other.

Willis’s weapon of choice was his mouth, which he put to questionable use after the first Die Hard. He went the talking baby route in Look Who’s Talking (1989) and again, a year later in Look Who’s Talking Too. He also squeezed in a second helping of Die Hard, this time creating havoc in and around an airport to diminishing returns. To his credit though, Willis sought to resist the urge to settle into a comfortable type – hopping, a bit unsteadily into The Bonfire of the Vanities and mis-stepping with the disastrous Hudson Hawk before seeking to regain his footing with The Last Boy Scout and Striking Distance.

Clever career re-invention arrived with his pugnacious turn as Butch Coolidge in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Much is made of the film’s impact on the career of John Travolta, but re-established Willis as a tough guy who didn’t need a gun. Guns had become a crutch generally in movies and certainly in his action-oriented efforts overtaking language and character. And while Pulp Fiction has its share of gun violence, Tarantino’s love of dialogue made for a perfect marriage with Willis’s talents.

Obviously heartened by the success of Pulp Fiction, Willis was back again to mixing things up, although the results (without the powerhouse exchanges of a Tarantino or even one of his many clones that were popping out of the studio test tube incubators) were decidedly mixed. Color of Night and Nobody’s Fool (both from 1994) led to another Die Hard (With a Vengeance) a year later and a critical highlight with Twelve Monkeys, before a run that included Last Man StandingThe Fifth ElementThe JackalMercury RisingArmageddonThe Siege and Breakfast of Champions, a string that’s largely forgettable unless you happen to be watching cable on a Saturday afternoon – which, let’s be honest, thankfully no one has to do anymore.

Suddenly, a new streak kicks off in 1999, with The Sixth SenseThe Whole Nine Yards, a brief run on Friends, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (quite possibly the greatest superhero origin story EVER filmed), but then Willis is back in another funk. As is the case, what sets the hot list from the cold is a move away from guns and explosions. Roles that embrace his verbal charms – what makes him a charismatic performer and presence – fuel his rise, while the ballet of bullets lead to pedestrian results.

Willis hardly ever sits still for long, whether toiling away as a lead, providing voice work for animated movies or popping up for uncredited cameos, he’s never off the radar and it could be argued that, more often than not, he’s making the most noise with his blazing guns. Since 2000, he’s been all sound and fury signifying nothing special. The notable exceptions in terms of action fare might be 2005’s Sin City or 2010’s Red, but thankfully he appeared in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of my favorites from 2012. His Captain Sharp is another lawman, but this is Wes Anderson country, so he’s lacks both a twitchy trigger finger and the sharp tough talk we might expect from a prototypical “Bruce Willis” character. This is Willis as a fully adult figure, a man who has seen much more of life and realizes that there’s less of the “ha ha” funny to be found in the world. Maybe, he seems to believe, its time to hang up the guns and the quips and settle down.

There’s a lot more living to be done for this Bruce Willis and I want to believe that there’s a chance that the best is yet to come, but 2013 doesn’t exactly bode well. On the heels of yet another hardboiled action flick (Rian Johnson’s sci-fi Looper, which was a real trip), he’s peddling the lackluster A Good Day to Die Hard, standing in as the original Joe in GI Joe: Retaliation, leading the old spy brigade back out into the cold in Red 2, and sinning it up in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Is this a career or an advertisement for the NRA?

Bruce, I’m pleading with you. Lay down your arms.