May 1998
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by Brian Thomas

Whatchoo talkin' 'bout Willis?

Summer! Action! Movies! Well, maybe it's not quite summer yet, but basically Hollywood has two main blockbuster seasons: Summer starts in late April/early May, peaks on July 4th weekend, then peters out about the time school goes back into session. The holiday season starts around Halloween with hopes for a hit chiller, peaks on Christmas day, then hopefully stretches into the new year long enough for mediocre dramas to pick up Oscar nominations.

People generally look at action pictures like the loose girl in town - nobody gives them any respect, but everybody goes out with them anyway ("Everybody wants to take out the trash."). I not only unconditionally love, but have a deeply ingrained respect for tramps - and also for big, flashy action movies. When they work, they are a wonder to experience, as subtly sophisticated in their design as any great drama or comedy. Like your favorite power chord, the big explosion goes off at just the right moment. Producers of decent action pictures know how to fulfill the desires of an audience. It's not fair to tease - if they show you a chainsaw or a bazooka, they know you want to see it put to use.

You won't find many critics with Die Hard on their list of all-time favorite films, but I find it fascinating. Every detail of technology, every nuance of character, every shotgun blast is woven and interwoven into the film's cloth. A wide variety of characters in different locations around a modern office building all react and interact. Every action is a reaction to another action, which was spawned by another event before it. There are few, if any, cheap shots in the picture - no baby buggies rolling down staircases as an excuse for a stunt.

Aside from the tight, well written webwork script and outstanding stunts, the main asset that made Die Hard a success is the presence of Bruce Willis. On television, Willis had already established a certain kind of charisma at this point, but the only starring role he'd had in a feature was in the Blake Edwards romantic comedy Blind Date. Hiring him to star in such an expensive action feature was thought of as quite a gamble - while he's in decent shape, Willis has never been in the athletic class of a Stallone or Schwarzenegger. This factor was cleverly turned into an asset. Willis gained great sympathy through his character's vulnerability, guts, and sense of humor. He's a guy that women and men alike want to hang out with.

Since then, Willis has firmly established his screen persona while molding it to fit a wide variety of projects. Typically, he plays warriors, weary with years of experience, morals blurred by years of abuse but still honorable at the core, with a talent for a well-placed wisecrack. This persona has served him well, whether playing cowboys, detectives, boxers, or plastic surgeons. Even in the rare role as an outright villain, as in last year's The Jackal - in which he easily bested Val Kilmer's The Saint in portraying an international master of disguise - Willis still projects the same depth. Willis would be perfect as a hard-boiled detective ala Mike Hammer.

His latest project finds Willis in familiar territory. In Mercury Rising he plays a FBI agent specializing in undercover assignments who is at odds with his superiors because he "cares too much". In an all-too-typical confrontation, he punches out a superior for causing the deaths of several innocents that Willis was about to save. Yep, it's the old Tough Guy w/a Heart routine, but Willis effortlessly makes you buy the character. Later, his compassion draws him into the case of an autistic little boy named Simon whose parents have been murdered.

For those of you with no experience with autistic people, my impression of the condition is that it's sort of like being on a first date with the entire world. You're nervous, confused, conflicted and frightened - not knowing what to do, say or how you should feel. This is why autistic folks blanket themselves in familiar, comfortable routine, and why it feels like such a triumph when you spot a little smile creeping over an autistic face.

The film does a pretty good job portraying the autistic kid, but despite this I couldn't help thinking it might have been fun to have cast Dustin Hoffman in the role.

Simon's parents were offed by government spooks working for Alec Baldwin because he broke a top-secret new military code. We can tell when he's breaking the code because he makes computer-y sound effects when he does it. Now the assassins are after Simon and they frame Willis because he's getting in the way. The bad guys can do just about anything except kill the little kid. Witness the scene where one of them (Peter Stormare) pops up out of nowhere on a Blue Line El train right after Willis and Simon hop aboard. Later, Willis picks out a random stranger in a coffee store to help him out and gets her involved in the rest of the story just so there's a woman in the movie besides the murdered mom and the computer geek's girlfriend. The whole thing boils down to a ridiculous gun battle and fistfight on top of a Chicago skyscraper.

These are examples of a movie trying desperately to shoot itself in the foot. These things didn't bother me because Willis made me believe in his character (even though I knew it was just Bruce Willis playing a part) and his dilemma (even though I knew it was just a concept taken from a novel and turned into an action movie script).

Willis will be back again before too long in the giant science fiction epic Armegeddon, one among many movies about big rocks threatening to collide with Earth that are on the way this year. For this one he plays the leader of a demolition crew that gets a crash course in astronaut training so they can blast off into space and take apart the meteor before it lands on top of us. True to form, I won't be a bit surprised when Willis makes me believe that story, too.


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