Tuesday, July 18, 2006
109. Travels with Bruce
As long as I'm confessing ironclad attractions to certain actors, let's get Bruce Willis out of the way--and I want that to be taken in the best possible light. I didn't like him in Moonlighting--his performance struck me as too close to Bill Murray's working-class cool-jerk--but I was suckered in with Die Hard in 1988--and how odd that in the same year he was in Sunset, playing Tom Mix; I only mention it in comparison to John McClane's identification with Roy Rogers. Since then, I've enjoyed about every third Willis performance; in the cleansing spirit of confession, I will indulge in a list:
Mortal Thoughts (1991)
The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Billy Bathgate (1991)
Death Becomes Her (1992)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Last Man Standing (1996)
The Fifth Element (1998)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Sin City (2005)
I'll admit some of these pleasures are guiltier than others, but even in the misfires--The Last Boy Scout, Unbreakable, and Hostage come to mind--Willis allows his other performances to lap onto these rockier shores, reminding us of the power of those weary eyes and mocking smile. And even the conspicuous absence of Armageddon is simply the result of its overbearing cynicism as it measures audience response in cold teaspoons--but I would argue that even its calculation to kill Willis' character is overriden by how well he dies.
Well, now you've been duly warned: My Bruce Willis appreciation is an awkwardly assembled thing, held together more by hope than structural integrity. But I just saw 16 Blocks (2006), and Jack Mosley's character is to Willis' career what The Straight Story for me is to David Lynch's. I think Lynch was always making that movie--or that his other movies were in The Straight Story's cosmos. It's just that the others were depictions of the loss of The Straight Story's heaven amid the pains of Eraserhead's hell. Conversely, Mosely is the damned soul lurking beneath the swagger and bounce of so many Willis characters. He's shown pieces of himself here and there, often in the movies I've noted above. It's just that Jack Mosely has to be in an action picture against his will, a final tilt and shove that lays Die Hard's vertical chase on its side and spills it across those 16 blocks like black oil.
I knew I was in for The Last Bruce Willis Movie when I saw Mosely: paunchy, wrinkled, with a mustache that I think has not made an appearance since Dr. Ernest Menville, the sap from Death Becomes Her. Now, Willis can play the fall guy, but we usually like him for it. After all, how bad off can one be if one is being suckered by Milla Jovovich? In 16 Blocks, he is so reluctant, so hard to read, that at last we are allowed to wonder how much we can trust a Bruce Willis hero. Add to that Mos Def's completely surprising--and also difficult to get a handle on--Eddie Bunker as the prisoner who needs transporting across the all-too-soon-bullet-ridden blocks, and Willis gets to simultaneously surprise us as well as show us what he's been up to all along. Allow me to quote the final paragraph of Roger Ebert's review:
"The bedrock of the plot is the dogged determination of the Bruce Willis character. Jack may be middle-aged, he may be tired, he may be balding, he may be a drunk, but if he's played by Bruce Willis you don't want to bet against him. He gets that look in his eye that says: It's going to be a pain in the ass for me to do this, but I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. I always I believe that more easily than the look that merely says: I will prevail because this is an action picture and I play the hero."
Because in the end, of course we can trust Bruce Willis. This is why I put the godawful Last Boy Scout on my list: for that Philip Marlowe wearniess that drags him to his feet once more. (On a related note, watch the famous scene in which Nicholson's Jake Gittes finally gets to put on his pajamas and crawl into bed--only to have the insistent telephone draw him back to Chinatown: the hero as insomniac.) Again, I will admit the reluctant hero is my favorite kind, one whose code makes him put one foot in front of the other. OK, so it is a simple morality: not what I want, but what I should, not my will, but etc. Still, what good is an action picture without a moral center (again, I direct your attention to Armageddon)? And what good is an action hero unless the hero earns heroism? Watching 16 Blocks, I was as (self-)satisfied as could be; here at last is the shuffling, dogged heart of goodness, willing to accept authority--both in and outside of the self--just to be able to say it is accomplished. I will not go too far here; let me simply say I'm happy that Bruce "gets that look," and gives me the vicarious pleasure that comes with doing something about it.
Posted by Paul J. Marasa at 9:00 AM
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